Menu Close

Category: Language


Trygg is the Swedish word for “safe.” This is at the top of a beautiful old insurance company building in Stockholm.

The catchphrase hashtag that’s sweeping the kingdom!

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying things like “Oh behave!”, “¡Ay carumba!”, “Don’t have a cow, man!”, “Sit on it!”, “Git R Done”, or “Up your nose with a rubber hose” – then sit up and listen, because I’ve got just the thing for you!

It’s not every day that you get to launch a new catchphrase, but I have now fully dedicated myself (in the past five minutes) to making that quest one of the new missions of this website.

Remember this day: The first day you heard the phrase “Grattis på fredag!

It basically means “Congratulations because it’s Friday.” This is my own personal variation of the common phrase “grattis på födelsedagen” which is the Swedish equivalent of “Happy birthday.”

Somehow everyone I work with began saying “gratis på… everything” but the Friday greeting was far and away the most popular.

Although I’m posting this on a Wednesday, there is another Friday coming up. I think it’s the day after tomorrow. Let’s get ready for this.

Here’s the to-do list for right now:

1. Go to this link and click the black “rösta” button.

Rösta means “vote.” By clicking it you are voting for my entry in the Favorite Quotes contest on the website of Vecko Revyn, Sweden’s biggest magazine for teen and twentysomething girls.

2. Tag your weekend-related or Friday-related posts on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #grattispåfredag.

3. Suggest other ways of spreading this virus in the comments below, on my Twitter @scottritcher, or just go do it!

Soon, maybe the screenshot below, showing absolutely zero instances of the #grattispåfredag hashtag, will become ancient history.

Have fun. And grattis på fredag!

Joe Biden’s middle name is Robinette

What did you do on Thursday? Oh, because I told the New York Times they were wrong and they admitted it.

Every j-hole knows Joe Biden’s middle name.

Here’s the story in pictures.

American magazine seeking people to interview in Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden, and Louisville, USA, May 17, 2011

K Composite is a magazine of engaging, colorful interviews with regular people.

Funny, smart and beautiful individuals who are unknown to the masses, are interviewed, photographed, and presented in vivid layouts.

K Composite is now being developed for the iPad. New issues will be distributed worldwide, free of charge, through Apple’s App Store.


Publisher Scott Ritcher says the most important part of making each new issue is finding the right people to interview.

That’s why Ritcher, who has lived in Stockholm since 2009, is inviting Stockholmers to get involved. “Designing each edition begins with faces and personalities,” he says. “That’s why I like to cast a wide net. It’s like having more colors to choose from.”

Ordinary people who want to be featured in the magazine can show their interest at The call is open to everyone, though the interviews and magazine are in English.


K Composite launched it as a fanzine in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1991. It has expanded to color printing and wide distribution in the US.

Ira Glass of public radio’s This American Life – no stranger to interviewing regular people – beamed, “I love K Composite.” Rolling Stone declared that being interviewed in K Composite was “the ultimate status symbol.” And Harper’s showed their affection by simply reprinting an excerpt of the magazine.

K Composite will debut on the iPad in August.

K Composite Magazine:



The Word on the Street (and why it isn’t “sorry”)

The Korean language has seven different levels of familiarity that can be used when a speaker is addressing someone. These “honorifics” indicate the distinct relationship the two people have with each other. In particular, the way someone would address a senior citizen is different than the way one would speak to a student, peer or salesperson.

These levels of familiarity can differ even within a single conversation. In any language, the phrases a police officer uses when addressing a citizen are dramatically different than the words that civilian choses in response.

Koreans take the idea of honorifics to extensive measures in their language, and this is a drastically more complex version of what we are accustomed to in the western world.

The German language, for example, essentially has two basic levels of respect, the polite (“Sie“) and the familiar (“du“). Similarly, Swedish has just two forms (“ni” and “du“). However, in everyday Swedish language, the polite “ni” is being used increasingly more rarely.

While its obituary has not yet been completely readied for publication, the slow death of “ni” has been underway for some time. I first learned of its decreasing usage on a Swedish language instructional program that was produced more than fifteen years ago. The program was on a cassette tape, if that gives you any idea of how long “ni” has been on its way out the door. As far as I can tell, “ni” is still around and I’ve heard people use it, but it exists now largely as a term of respect used for and by elders.

My impression is that English is one of the world’s most casual languages, based on its widespread usage, its relentless reinvention through the production of popular slang, and because it has already reached the point of having just one level of honorific address (“you”).

In English, the familiar “you” can be softened and customized with extra words of respect to create the feel of something more polite. For instance “you’re next, sir” or “here you go, ma’am” are a lot more reverent than simply using “you.” In isolated instances, such as addressing a judge or member of royalty, other additional (but rare) English terms may be used, like “Your Honor” or “Your Highness.”

Despite the prevalence of casual language in the United States, it’s still pretty hard to imagine someone reasonably trying to get an American police officer’s attention as informally as “Hey, you!” More likely, an “Excuse me, officer” would be an appropriate start, with the familiarity of “you” being acceptable only after a friendly conversation is underway. But this may have more to do with the public’s relationship to law enforcement than with any overarching social norms that would be acceptable outside of that dynamic. I’ve noticed that the relationship between the police and the citizenry in Sweden is much less stressed or adversarial than in the US, if adversarial at all.

Some may see the decreasing use of polite forms of address , whether in Sweden or the United States, as an increase in casual attitudes toward life and society. When someone is more familiar with their surroundings, they are more apt to be forward. It’s true that a lot of boundaries have been brought down and a more level field of commonality has become customary since the formality that definitively separated classes, races and genders as recently as the 1700’s.

Still, simple politeness can go a long way.

In August of last year, I was walking around, exploring the Kulturfestival in Stockholm. The center-city streets were lined with booths selling regional foods and stages featuring musical performances by every genre imaginable.

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg, August 2009

As I turned a corner to walk through what is usually a busy intersection at Gustav Adolfs Torg, I was shocked to find the entire plaza filled with thousands of people. It was mind-blowing to suddenly see so many people because, from around the corner, I hadn’t heard any of the noises you’d typically expect to find a crowd of people making. Thousands of Swedes were standing in complete, respectful silence, attentively facing a huge stage upon which the Royal Swedish Opera was performing with a full orchestra.

No one was shouting, hooting, hollering or even talking loudly. Nary a “whooohooo!” was heard. Only once was an unreasonably audible motor vehicle noticed. Coming from Kentucky, where outdoor festivals tend to be rowdy free-for-alls, I couldn’t help but feel, as I made my way into the center of the crowd, that the eerie silence among thousands of people was truly surreal. This was the largest public display of politeness I had ever witnessed.

Stockholm Midnight Marathon on Götgatan, August 2009

Later that night, the populace let its hair down while cheering on runners in Stockholm’s Midnight Marathon. The race snaked through the rainy city on blocked-off streets. The entire route was lined with clapping, shouting Stockholmers – even cheerleaders and DJ tables – reveling and encouraging a mass of athletes from every level.

Despite all the courtesy that comes in the form of hushed reverence for occasions like a free outdoor performance of the opera, one big difference that many Americans notice about Swedes when they visit Stockholm is that every single person seems to believe they own the entire sidewalk.

On any given day, if a Stockholm sidewalk is full of people and an American is heading directly toward a Swede, it is easy to determine which one is American: the one who gets out of the way to allow the other to pass. If nobody backs down and a horrible collision occurs, you still have a second chance to determine which character is from the United States: the one who apologizes for bumping into the other.

Perhaps Americans apologize too much – not just for simple infractions like walking in front of someone who is looking at items on a grocery store shelf, accidentally bumping into someone, or building a heartless military empire of capitalism on the shoulders of the world’s impoverished – or maybe Swedes just don’t feel it’s necessary to apologize for the minor casualties that everyday life in a big city can produce. These bumps are inevitable. Somewhere in the middle is perhaps a reasonable balance.

After about a year Sweden and other parts of Western Europe, since I’ve been back in Louisville, the politeness and hospitality in Kentucky have been overwhelming. If you’ve gotten used to expecting everyone to be quiet and respectful in a different way, all the outward graciousness can seem absurd if not excessive.

Aside from the pervasive politeness, bump apologies, door-holding and you-can-go-first mentality, complete strangers in Louisville will make eye contact with a nod or even a verbal “Hey, how ya doin’?” when passing on the street. It’s Annika Norlin’s worst nightmare of Stockholm insecurity.

In a 2006 column in the Stockholm City paper, columnist Sakine Madon described being antisocial as one of Stockholm’s “strict norms.” In the column, which was quoted on The Local‘s blog back then, she wrote, “Start a conversation on the tube or bus? Never! I’ll leave that to nutcases or country bumpkins or foreigners who haven’t blended in with the capital’s strict norms.”

In places like Kentucky, a lot of legend has been based around ideas like Southern Hospitality. In reality, my hometown of Louisville is geographically closer to Canada than it is to Memphis (583 km to Windsor,Ontario, versus 619 km to Memphis, Tennessee, see map). But regardless of its geographical proximity to the Great White North, Kentucky is often considered part of the American South.

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg

I’ve been fascinated with the Culture of Apology for some time now. My website chronicles these apologies in realtime as they appear on news sites around the world (see “Apology Central” under the headlines on the front page).

Whether it’s a shamed politician confessing to a room full of reporters with his shamed wife standing off to the side, or a major corporation issuing a statement over how their racy new commercial was not intended to demean any particular or obscure ceremonial rituals of the Navajo tribe nor any persecuted minority of Americans with Fat Ass Syndrome, these apologies are endlessly entertaining.

As a boy raised in Kentucky, here’s how polite I am: I was recently at my


parents’ house, and even though no one else was home, when I went to the bathroom, I closed the door behind me and locked it.

I’m sure there are plenty of people (“gentlemen”) reading this who feel like it’s perfectly okay to pee with the door wide open if nobody else is in the building. Well, that’s not how I was raised, sir. I always take this precaution just to be polite in case someone comes home.

Okay, well, maybe part of it is politeness and part of it is a morbid is fear being caught with my pants down.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The last couple images are in 3D and can be viewed with red-blue anaglyph glasses. You can get a pair free if you order my 2001 album Nashville Geographic. Amazon has used copies as low as 86 cents.

Grocery Store Items

I’ve received a few requests from readers in America to show some images of simple, regular, everyday stuff in Sweden that looks different. So here’s the first of a few installments: Grocery store items!

If you’re interested in groceries, you can see more in a couple previous stories Inside the Secret Society of Swedish Grocery Store Owners and Grocery Carts, Food and Pants Sizes.

Adzuki beans and white beans. Adzukis are popular in Japanese foods.

Granola, obviously.

Potato chips shelved like books.

Natural potato chips.

Coffee cream in the jar on the left and organic milk in the cartons on the right. Ekologisk means “organic” and it’s everywhere in Sweden.

Regular heavy cream and whipped cream.

Low-fat milk.

Green tea sweetened with honey on the left. To the right is filmjölk, a strange, thick, sour, Swedish fermented milk product. This variety is flavored with bananas and lime. I can almost taste the barf as I’m typing this. Well, just wait…

It’s exactly what you think it is. Blood pudding. This product is made from boiling blood together with pureed meat, barley, oatmeal, or some other stuff until it coagulates into a solid.

Blood pudding slices, served warm. Bulgh!

Super-salty licorice candies shaped like skulls.

Wash down all that blood pudding and salty licorice with some organic potatoes.

Have some alphabet cookies for dessert. They’re spelling out, “I love you.”

A couple scenes of the open market at Hötorget. Most of the bright yellow, brown and orange you see are wild, funnel-shaped kantarell mushrooms.

Anyone walking through this marketplace is berated with countless shouts from merchants, “Half price! Special offers! Half price!” I’m not sure if the hard-sell actually works with fruits and vegetables, or if these guys just like hearing themselves shout.

Secret Code: Are Swedes trying to keep Swedish to themselves?

As I’ve mentioned many times, most Swedish people speak perfect English and they love doing it.

It’s the opposite of French people. The French can speak English with you but they don’t want to. The Swedes only want to speak English with you.

As soon as you say “hej” (hello) or “jag heter…” (my name is…) with the slightest bit of an accent, they get this surprised look on their faces and switch to English. “Oh, hello! Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”

It’s as if they’re saying to you, “Please don’t bother butchering our beloved Swedish any further. I can handle this.”

On the off chance that one could actually use any of the Swedish they know, the Swedes are exceptionally particular about pronunciation and intonation. I know this not only from my own experiences, but also from other international people here who I have heard discussing the same experiences.

“It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it.” That’s as true as it gets here.

Every language has its own accented attributes that one must learn along with syllable stressing and sentence structures. Even when someone’s pronunciation is perfect, these subtleties are the things that reveal a non-native speaker.

Doing karaoke to a song you’ve never heard

Swedish is not as easy as German where every letter makes a sound and you can be understood even if your emphasis or pronunciation is a little off. With Swedish, there’s an overriding, flowing rhythm of accentuation to the language. It’s like there’s a song that everything you say should be sung to.

In Swedish, everyday conversation is a gorgeous, dynamic production.

I’m not the first person to equate the Swedish language with singing. Even the stereotypical Swedes known by Americans in popular culture sing when they talk. The Swedish Chef character on The Muppet Show never stops singing and even has music playing when he’s talking.

In the movie Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis hilariously disguises herself as a “Swede” and sings her lines, including the unforgettable “I am Inga from Sweden.”

Until you know the song of the language and can really sing it, it’s almost pointless to embarrass yourself by trying.

It’s like doing karaoke to a song you don’t really know with Simon Cowell sitting right in front of you.

There might be some connection here that would explain why Swedes deliver the goods during actual karaoke and why the country can claim a disproportionately high number of musicians with gold records hanging in their studios. Singing might be in their blood as well as in their language.

A British bloke I know here named Simon (not Simon Cowell) put it this way, “This is what I hate about Swedish people: They’re so bloody good at everything!” …and they’re modest and insecure about all of it.

They speak perfect English but apologize for it not being good. They are beautiful but afraid to look at you. They’re educated and funny but apprehensive about talking out of turn. They sing drunk karaoke in a bar and it sounds exactly like the CD. How embarrassing.

The Reveal

The complications arise when someone who wasn’t born speaking Swedish tries to join in with the language. Swedish people act like they have no idea what you’re talking about if you’re just barely off on the intonation.

It would be like if someone said “LOO-see-ana” or “Loo-WEE-zee-anna” instead of Loo-WEE-see-ana” – of course an English-speaking person would still know they’re talking about Louisiana. Or if, instead of the hard, short way of saying “can’t” someone said it long and soft, as a British person might, “I caahn’t.”

English-speaking people understand when a Canadian pronounces “out” more like “oat” or when someone from India says “very” in a way that excuses the R sound. Some people say “Nevada” so it rhymes with “sad”, but for others it rhymes with “sod.” Nobody misses a beat because of it. We just go with the flow.

Swedes aren’t so permissive with Swedish. For some reason, Swedes are truly lost when a non-native speaker’s speech includes variations like these. I know they know what us feeble foreigners are trying to say, but I think they have some sort of secret national game going on. They’re laughing at us as soon as they’re alone.

Of course, I can’t really show you in print, but suffice it to say that what follows is not a situation isolated only to me or a handful of instances. The foreign person is in italics.

I finally tried some knäckebröd yesterday.
– You tried what?
– I’m sorry…?
Knäkebröd… That really thin, hard, Swedish bread.
– Hmmm… I don’t think I know what that is.
Knäckebröd? Of course you know what knäckebröd is.
– Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying.
Knäckebröd? Knäääckebröd? KNĄCK-e-BR֖D. Kuh-näck-e-BR֖D? Thin, crispy bread. Knäckebröd!
– Oh! You mean Knäckebröd! Oh yeah. I’ve worked in the Wasa Knäckebröd factory for six years.

Notice in this conversation how the Swedish person makes knäckebröd for a living, but the non-native speaker had to repeat the name of it one million times before it was recognized, even resorting to all variations of stress and intonation.

After conversations like this happened to me a few dozen times, with all manner of words, I began to believe I was losing my mind. “Are these people serious? I can’t hear the difference.”

I cannot express the level of relief I felt upon hearing it happen to other people. I don’t wish anyone else to feel insane, but I also don’t want to be alone. What I also cannot express is how fascinating it is to see it happening to someone else. It goes like this:

The British person (or Canadian or German or Italian) is talking to the Swede about something. During the conversation, the name of a Swedish place or thing comes up. Everyone around who is not Swedish knows exactly what the person is talking about, but the Swede has absolutely no clue, and needs to have the word repeated. This goes on for a minute before every other foreigner standing around joins in, repeating the word. The Swede finally gets it and says “Oh, you mean Kungsholmen!” saying it exactly the same way as everyone else did.

The Game Theory

While this phenomenon could easily be explained by saying that Swedes are more intimately familiar with their language and they can hear tiny nuances that non-native speakers are unaware of, personally, I’m totally convinced that’s not the case. I’m convinced that it is all a game the Swedes are playing to weed out the people who aren’t going to put in the serious time to learn Swedish.

I truly believe Swedes understand us the first time – or maybe the second – but they’re just trying to wear us down.

Well, it’s not gonna work on me, Sweden. I’m in this for the long haul.

Two Other Possibilities

Regardless of whether that theory is true, I’m starting to believe that one or two other things might be true.

1. The Swedish language is not as beloved by the younger generations as it is by the elders. The incidents of Swenglish – a hybrid of Swedish and English – are inescapable, as are the occurrences of English words in otherwise Swedish conversations. These moments are especially common among young people.

I’m fascinated by the English terms I always overhear in Swedish conversations – “whatever,” “Oh my God,” “fuck it,” “who cares?” Do these ideas of exasperation and dismissiveness not exist in Swedish?

I think it’s very possible that within a handful of generations, Swedish could become a minority language in Sweden. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this happen in Stockholm during many of our lifetimes. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but just barely.

Periodically, I go to an international meet-up group for ex-patriates living in Stockholm. I understand much more Swedish than some of the characters I’ve met who have been in the country two years or more.

I guess the more amazing part of this phenomenon is not that some people have lived in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish, it’s that people can live in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish.

In order to do business, make friends, purchase goods and services, or order food in restaurants, especially in Stockholm, knowing how to speak Swedish largely isn’t necessary. Nonetheless, I am determined to continue doing it.

There are many notable efforts afoot to celebrate, explore and preserve the Swedish language. I’ve heard a funny and entertaing radio series called Språket (“The Language”) that answers listeners’ questions about Swedish, and there is a very cool and beautifully laid-out magazine called Språk (“Language”) that addresses similar topics in equally entertaining depth.

I recently caught a television show with my roommate Erik where the well-known Swedish comedian/writer/actor Fredrik Lindström travels the country, learning about dialects and regional colloquialisms. His program Svenska Dialektmysterier (“Swedish Dialect Mysteries”) is an 8-episode series from 2006. It followed on the heels of his previous series about the Swedish language called Värsta Språket (“The Worst Language”) which ran for two full seasons in 2002 and 2003.

This enthusiasm about preserving the language and the efforts to do so in such expensive ways (magazines, radio broadcasts and television documentaries) lead me to believe that there is a need to do such a thing. However, it’s also interesting to me that all of these explorations and celebrations of the Swedish language are done in a way that is either sarcastic, comical or tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike most elephants in the room, the Swedish language is one that everyone is talking about.

That idea and my everyday experiences, however, bring me to a second possible conclusion:

2. The Swedes might be language protectionists. They want to learn perfect English so they can communicate with the world and export their musicians, actors, culture, cars, furniture, clothes, et al, but they also want to keep Swedish alive. The Swedish language is like a secret club and they want to keep the ability to speak Swedish all to themselves.

At some point in the mid-20th Century it must have become very clear that a nation of fewer people than New York City would ultimately be isolated if those people spoke a language only they understood. The opprtunities these people would have would be limited and therefore so would the economic potential of the country as a whole.

The Bilingual Nation

English was introduced as the primary foreign language in Sweden’s national school system in 1941.

In 1974, G.M. Anderman wrote in Oxford’s English Language Teaching Journal “in recent years, Sweden has embarked on an ambitious programme of educational reform, the ultimate aim of which is to create a nation bilingual in English and Swedish.”

For many decades, Swedish kids have started learning English in their first year of school, and even earlier than that if they watch television or listen to music at home.

Anderman would be delighted to know, 35 years after he wrote about the program, that the results are in and it worked brilliantly.

It’s the Neurons, Stupid

The earliest years of human life are when languages are best learned. Even though I went to private schools in America, my first experience with learning a foreign language didn’t come until I was 14. That’s just too late to start if you want a new language to be absorbed without a fight.

Back in the 80’s, we were only given three options: Spanish, German and French. I remember that all the girls took French, all the jocks took Spanish, and all the outcasts and alternative kids took German. I was in the latter group. German proved to be a good foundation for eventually learning Swedish, but not much help in communicating with America’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

The language offerings have been greatly expanded since then, especially in private schools. Just a few years after I graduated from high school, kids at the same school I attended were beginning to learn Chinese, Russian and Japanese.

Similar to my undertaking of learning Swedish as an adult (yes, I finally admit it, I’m an adult now) my Swedish friend Jenny (who I mentioned before speaks perfect “American”) has recently begun learning French. She is facing some of the same challenges.

Steve Martin said on one of his classic comedy albums, “In French, oeuf means egg. Cheese is fromage. It’s like these French have a different word for everything.” It’s true. They really do. Swenglish is probably a lot bigger than Frenglish.

Jenny grew up in a household where English was always around. She told me she felt like she never had to make an effort to learn English. It just developed in her mind with essentially the same ease as Swedish.

That’s the way to learn. When your brain is learning for the first time what things are called and how sentences are formed. After all those neurons have naturally been connected in your head, it’s an uphill battle to assemble an alternative set up there.

A Different Word for Everything 

I can’t say for sure if the Swedes wish to keep the Swedish language all to themselves or if they are the only ones genetically disposed to use it properly, but I can say that I’m pretty sure French is not a real language. I mean, it doesn’t even sound like talking to me.

It’s perfectly fine with me if the Swedes want to protect the Secret Code. It’s their right as its owners. I just wish they’d let me know. Otherwise, I’ll just be disappointed in myself if I’m still speaking English with them after a couple years.

Halloween in Sweden

Grab a warm sweater or safe blanket and sit thee down fore thine flickering computer screens, dear friends, for I am about to weave a bone-chilling tale, the likes of which may well travel like a demon through your dial-up Internet service and petrify you in your very home.

While it is not my intention to sow seeds that may haunt you until you drag your last dying breath, I’m afraid this bewitching yarn may run the risk of such a catastrophic result.

This account shall take you to a horrifying land where forbidding shrieks of terror can be heard from every direction. Where dead souls roam the earth, dragging trails of blood, unaware of the howls produced beyond shallow graves by nearby corpses. Where a pungent stench is the aroma of the embalmed being reanimated to breathe new life. Where decomposed, undead phantoms and waist-high ghouls walk hand in hand with Strawberry Shortcake and Batman.

If any brave soul out there has such gigantic cojones that they are daring to continue reading this, I can only presume that even those lionhearted mortals have long since shit their pants in quaking fearfulness. Yeah, I’m a real good writer. Don’t worry about it.

The foreboding landscape I speak of is a dreadful, barren wasteland known not as Transylvania in the 1600’s, but rather shockingly as suburban Middletown, Kentucky. The date of this ghastly nightmare is 1970-something. I don’t remember exactly. Seems like it happened about once a year around this time.

When I was a kid, Halloween was the shit.

It fell on the scale somewhere between a major event and a neighborhood production. The night was filled with things to see, hear and eat. Some people would elaborately decorate their houses with spiderwebs on the handrails and grave stones in the front yard. Others would put stereo speakers in the windows and play records of scary sound effects like wolves howling, creaking doors, demonic laughter and swirling winds.

Once the knocks on the front door started just after dinner time, the flow of kids never stopped. (“Was that the doorbell? Well, I’ll be! It ain’t even dark out yet.”)

Our neighborhood was packed with kids in crazy costumes every Halloween night. Going from house to house, each opening door was greeted with the familiar refrain in a chorus of little kid voices: “Trick or treat!” Ninety-nine percent of the time it was a treat in the form of candy.

On rare occasions it was both a trick and a treat. An adult dressed as a zombie or the Frankenstein monster would be hiding in the bushes, waiting until some unsuspecting and defenseless children dressed as Rainbow Brite and GI Joe were just inches away. At just the precise moment, all it took was a spontaneously shouted “Boo!” to scare the living shit outta all them little bastards.

My friend Chris and I in 2004,
as Tony Clifton or something.

For American adults who dress up for Halloween in modern times, it’s all about the ironic homemade costume. Something timely will do. This year, presumably “Dead Michael Jackson” will be popular.

In recent years, I’ve seen a bloodied Sigfried & Roy with an attached stuffed tiger, a human-sized iPod, and a blood-covered Dexter. Margot Tenenbaum and Osama Bin Laden are often around. Vampires, zombies, hillbillies and dead Kennedys are timeless get-ups. Maybe the scariest costume last year was Sarah Palin.

Among the adults, you can always expect to see Britney Spears in her schoolgirl outfit and a few sexy nurses. Enough can’t be said for the opportunity Halloween presents for girls to dress like sluts. A lot of “ladies” take advantage of this night to let out their inner exhibitionism.

The weeks following Halloween are high-season for social networking sites. I don’t have any statistics on this, but my guess is that the number uploaded photos and page views probably goes through the roof. “Holy shit! Did you see Brad’s girlfriend in that Daisy Duke costume? I tagged it, bro.”

Back in the 70’s, more often than not, we dressed up in ready-made costumes bought at a local store like Ayr-Way or TG&Y. You can see a prime example of some of these top-quality disguises in this considerably-less-than-high-definition image from Halloween 1973.

Posing in our Middletown living room in front of the Sears & Roebuck console phonograph are my brother (a call center management consultant) as Satan; my sister (a violin luthier and repair specialist) as Raggedy Ann; and me (an amateur Swedish picnic planner) on the right as like a cat or something. Our names are written on the huge, plastic treat bags. Plastic bags are always great to keep around your kids.

Behind my brother on the left is a JVC 8-track deck and behind my sister on the right is a hand-painted family heirloom vase that we lived in constant fear of knocking off the stereo when horseplay and roughhousing commenced.

Those costumes were exactly as Jerry Seinfeld described them in his stand-up act: ill-fitting, pajama-style outfits accompanied by plastic masks with tiny air holes. These masks are held on one’s head by the world’s thinnest rubberband that is stapled to the mask. It never fit right and that rubberband/staple combo had an average lifespan of 8 minutes.

Inevitably, it was cold on Halloween night so you had to wear a coat over your costume. Reflectors started getting popular as urban legends and local news programs convinced parents to live in fear of everything, not just mummies. I can think of nothing more frightening than The Hulk wearing a winter coat. Count Dracula with reflective tape on his sneakers… why, I can hardly type this right now due to the fact that my hands are trembling in fear.

This second photo is Halloween Night in 1978. I’m the little American Indian in the front, sporting a genuine homemade costume that my mom crafted. (Note the reflective tape on the plastic pumpkin.)

Speaking of Indians, like a lot of cool things in America, Halloween was also “borrowed” from someone else’s culture. Maybe the scariest thing about Halloween is that it is originally Irish. (sh-sh-shud-d-der) All those red-haired ghosts on their way to… never mind… The Irish heritage certainly would account for the carved pumpkin heads being called jack o’lanterns.

Those other turkeys in the picture are kids from our neighborhood. I don’t want to brag or name drop, but Echo Bridge Drive had a pretty menacing, kick-ass posse going around every October 31st. In your face, Brookgreen!

2005: Carla dressed as Chris with Chris’
girlfriend Lindsay as a marching band leader.

The candy ruled. Well, most of the candy ruled. I remember there were always some cheap asses (“old people”) who would hand out these lumps of some kind of bullshit candy that were individually wrapped in black or orange wax paper. They were like butter candy or something. I don’t know anybody who liked them. They made Werther’s Originals seem like Pop Rocks and tequila.

Some assholes would hand out apples or “healthy snacks.” Whatever, squares. Go back to Russia. Occasionally, a house would gave out money. Spare change! I’m not making this up. (“Um, despite how cheap my costume is, I’m not homeless. My dad has a good job and he’s standing right over there with the flashlight.”)

On a holiday like Christmas, the kids were always comparing what everybody got, and somebody always got outdone. It wasn’t like that for Halloween. We all went to the same houses and we all came home with pretty much the same giant bag of candy. Strangely, I haven’t seen any conservatives opposing Halloween because of this communist equality streak.

Halloween 1971: mom (age 33), me (2)
and my brother (4) on the front porch.

When you got back to the house with all your loot, the trading would begin. Reese’s and all the Hershey’s candies were always popular. I really liked the Krackel bars and Hershey’s Special Dark, but I wasn’t really into Mr. Goodbar, so there would be some bartering in the house to get the best assortment. Homemade cookies made it into the mix, too, but still, nobody ever wanted those black and orange wax paper things. They were the Halloween equivalent of giving someone a fruitcake at Christmas.

Over the past week, I polled of six of my Swedish friends about Halloween. All six of these Swedes are young adults in their twenties or thirties.

The poll consisted of one simple question: How many times have you dressed up for Halloween in your life?

If I had asked this of my American friends of similar ages, the answers would probably range from “15 times” to “every year.” For some people, like my brother and his wife (that’s him as Colonel Sanders), I may even get a number higher than the respondent’s age.

Two of the six Swedes I polled answered “never” and the other four answered “once.” That’s a total of four times during the entire lifetimes of six adults. So, combined, it’s four times in about 175 years.

For all the ways the popular cultures in America and Sweden are the same – television, movies, music, comedy and a number of common holidays – Halloween has sadly been left out of the mix in Sweden.

Isn’t it odd that a country which suffers through months of cold darkness – a foggy and mysterious land, where the sun has shone through the clouds nary a few minutes in as many weeks, and whose streets are crawling with vampires – hasn’t embraced this night of terror?

Perhaps Swedish people feel that if you’re already a vampire there’s no need to put on a costume and act scary. Then again, I guess you don’t see a lot of American kids dressing up as little witches and old men for Easter.

Halloween is beginning to be celebrated in Sweden, according to several people I’ve talked with, but it has really only begun to seriously take root within the past ten years.

On Drottninggatan (“Queen Street”) in central Stockholm, there is a giant inflated ghost hanging above the street with a banner that reads, “Have a fun Halloween.” That’s a step in the right direction. And I got excited Friday night when I was out in Stockholm and I saw some teens and twenty-somethings dressed up. Get this: some of them were dressed as vampires. Shocking.

One girl had the most amazing fangs I have ever seen and she was wearing some of those hypnotic Marilyn Manson contacts. She even hissed at me when I walked by. It’s kind of fuzzy after that. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the train, feeling very weak and I got a text message that Erika was eliminated from Swedish Idol. (Didn’t much care for her anyway. We live in a Tove and Eddie house.) God, my neck hurts.

2005: Me dressed as my friend Matt.

In America, it seems that Halloween has been making a bit of a resurgence. That makes me happy because Halloween is responsible for some of my most awesome childhood memories. Part of why it was cool was because it wasn’t actually a holiday. Nobody is off school or work for it, so if it fell during the week, you were allowed to go out in the neighborhood when it was dark outside. Also if it was on a school day, there was a chance that there would be a Halloween party at school and everyone would wear their costumes to school. It was all just extra fun.

I’m pretty sure it happened everywhere in the United States, but I know for sure that in my neighborhood Halloween came to a screeching halt in 1982. That year, the whole spectacle was essentially non-existent.

In late September and early October of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died because the Tylenol pain reliever pills they took had been tampered with and poisoned with cyanide.

Halloween has always been the source of endless urban legends – everything from people putting razor blades inside apples (bad enough that you get an apple) to kidnapping children – but almost none of it was ever true. These seven deaths from product tampering, occurring just a few weeks before Halloween, sent a shockwave across America and shattered a lot of whatever innocence was still left after the 60’s.

On the night of Halloween 1982, many houses in our neighborhood were dark and very few kids were out trick-or-treating. There were really only a handful knocks on the door. Halloween was never the same.

1974: My brother as a cowboy, neighbor as a skeleton, me as the Demon of Hell. Note the Cincinnati Reds helmet on the jack o’lantern.

There is an unforgettable Halloween scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, in which the alien is being hidden, disguised as a ghost under a sheet. E.T. is as bewildered by the bizarre world he sees through the two eye holes, as any newcomer would be if unfamiliar with Halloween.

Coincidentally, that film was released in December 1982. The Halloween sequence had already been filmed by the time the Tylenol murders occurred and muted the festivities down to something decidedly less eye-catching than what’s in the movie. I’ve often wondered if the film would have been any different had it been filmed a little later.

Subsequent years have seemed to gradually improve the level of participation in Halloween, but I think a whole generation or two of Americans missed out on how thrilling it was when I was a kid. That’s why it makes me happy that it seems to be picking up steam again. I especially think a bunch of holiday-loving, creative people like the Swedes will be able to do some extraordinary things with it.

The Chicago tampering crime, incidentally, remains unsolved today (they “believe” they know who did it), so we may never know the name of the A-hole who ruined Halloween. Maybe I’m being too hard on this person. I mean, whoever did it, they didn’t intentionally spoil Halloween for millions of children. They only wanted to secretly murder innocent people who had headaches. I guess there’s no harm in that, right?

Hervé Villechaize Language School

I heard a story a long time ago about Hervé Villechaize. He was the actor who played the character Tattoo on the television series Fantasy Island and was famous for his line, “The plane! The plane!” in the opening sequence. He also appeared in a number of films including The Man With the Golden Gun, seen here.

Even though this particular story about him found me fifteen years ago or more, it has been stuck in my mind ever since. Remembering his story became part of the inspiration for me in selling or giving away everything I owned to look for something else in Sweden. His story was certainly a big part of me believing that I could learn to read, write and speak Swedish on my own.

His journey

Hervé Villechaize was French, born in Paris, and studied to be a fine art painter. As an adult, he grew restless and unsatisfied. He ultimately left everything behind and moved to America in search of new adventures.

Not knowing any English, Villechaize taught himself the language entirely by watching television in New York City.

This may not be the most efficient way to learn a language and it may take many years to do so in this way, but it never left my mind that something like this was possible. A person could, in fact, leave everything behind and not only assimilate into a new language and culture, but do it from scratch, and go on to accomplish great things. In his case, he worked from nothing to become a television and movie star in a country where it is every other kid’s impossible dream to do the same.

As a result of knowing this, I began intensively watching and listening to as much Swedish language programming as I could get my hands on more than a year before deciding to go vagabond. I truly believed that I could do with Swedish what Villechaize did with English. He also simultaneously trained to be an actor, which is something I don’t feel the need to attempt.

The French in New York

I certainly don’t want to discount the hardships or adversities Hervé Villechaize faced, or suggest that he and I are confronted with the same challenges. This is just to recognize that his story was an inspiration for me.

At least as far as the language goes, there are a few differences (some of which we’ve talked about before) that could make this approach more difficult for someone wishing to learn Swedish. It was almost immediately clear to me upon arriving in Sweden that attending an actual language school and studying more seriously would be necessary. This is clear to most people through something called “common sense.”

In New York, practically nobody speaks French, so in order to survive, Villechaize was essentially forced to learn English and use it. That’s not the case with my native language in Stockholm. Truly only a handful of times have I been in a situation where Swedish was absolutely essential.

Also in the 1960’s in New York, every television channel would have been in English. This would have made it incredibly easy for him to sit and watch an endless stream of programming in the language he wanted to learn. Even though I probably have five times the number of channels Villechaize had, I would safely estimate that less than 25% of the programming here is actually in Swedish. I published this fake chart with an earlier story, but I felt it was appropriate to show again due to the topic at hand.

Things in New York are a lot different now than in the sixties, not least because I think they probably have put some safeguards in place to prevent French people from moving there.


I’ve tried many times to plop down in front of the tube in Sweden and immerse myself in Swedish for a few hours. This is an ambitious thing to do because outside of news programs, that much continuous Swedish simply isn’t available on television. It’s almost entirely American programming with Swedish subtitles. If you want to watch CSI, Two and a Half Men or Friends, this is the place. DVDs of Swedish movies and television shows are the best way to go.

Of course, English-language entertainment is a huge contributing factor to the level of high-quality English that is spoken here.

Keeping American and other films and programming in their original language, then adding Swedish subtitles, is preferable to the approach that occurs in many other countries. For decades, what has been happening in Germany and France, for example, is that they replace the audio with actors speaking voices in the local language. There is a German actor who is always the voice of Harrison Ford, one who is always Julia Roberts, et cetera.

Not only does the Swedish subtitling method preserve the original aesthetics and rhythm of the film or telecast, it also teaches the audience a new language in a way Hervé Villechaize would fully endorse.

How it ended for Hervé

Villechaize admirably conquered America and the English language despite facing types of opposition I am fortunate enough to not have in front of me. Aside from being only 3′ 11″ tall (119 cm) and constantly struggling with health problems, he also had tough battles with alcoholism and debilitating depression.

Lucky for me, I’m only losing my hair and never satisfied with the quality of the work I do. And lucky for you, as a reader of this chronicle, my depression is generally more amusing than debilitating.

Sadly, one could say that fame and fortune in America were not enough to save Hervé Villechaize from his own demons and afflictions. At age 50, he took his own life at his home in Hollywood, and moved on to the next world. This made it all the more important that he learned to speak English, since Jesus is American.

Hookers and blow

I’ve lived a pretty clean life, you know, no penchant for hookers, drugs, guns, gambling or anything awesome like that. I mean, none that you know about. I’ve pursued comparatively tame stuff like spicy food and the occasional bourbon bender or roller coaster – though I would not recommend mixing any of the three within the same span of hours. Despite all that and being vegetarian forever, for some reason, I never thought I’d live this long. I’m not sure why I always had that feeling. But the days just keep coming and I guess I have to keep filling them up with something.

Therefore, I must apologize if you are growing tired of hearing about Sweden, America, Jerry Lee Lewis, fonts, Louisville history, space shit and whatever actress or artist I may be into at the moment, because I regret to inform you that my incessant analysis of all these things now appears that it will go on forever.

A small side note

On a more personal note, you don’t know how difficult it was for me to write this story in a way that was respectful of Mr. Villechaize, considering how he is usually portrayed and how easy it seems to be for people to mock him.

I wanted to do this politely and graciously and give him proper credit for the influence he has had on my life. It would have been simple to make this story a lot funnier by taking some cheap shots, but I didn’t want to do that.

Too many people who went before me have probably already said every hurtful thing anyone possibly could. I didn’t think that doing the same thing would be fair or courteous to that dirty, drunk little midget. Let’s show some respect for his wee little grave.

Swedish pants

I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll just come right out and say it: Swedish girls think that tights are pants.

If this were happening in America, where much of the citizenry is Super-Sized, it would be torturous to the eyes. However, in Sweden, where 99% of the population is in fairly good shape, well, it looks really nice.

It’s a style you might expect to see Ann-Margret sporting in Viva Las Vegas or some other famous person in some other imaginary context, but not on ordinary people in their regular lives on their way to school or work. Seeing it hundreds of times every day on the street takes some getting used to. For an old, lonely guy like myself, seeing all these broads parading around without pants on is a mix of amazing, aesthetically appealing and a whole different kind of torturous.

The rampant epidemic of girls not wearing proper pants is quite widespread, and while it would be easy to classify this fashion as a type of standard-issue Swedish Woman Uniform, they’re all doing it with a variety of different levels of grace and audacity.

Some will wear a long shirt or sweater to cover their bottoms, whereas others will just literally act like their opaque tights are indeed pants. Some keep it cute and tasteful while others force the style into the realm of ridiculous. There are all types from knit to shiny, nylon to cotton, thick to thin, ankle-length to full-length. Occasionally you’ll see some colors or patterns, but inevitably they are almost always solid black, presumably because black goes with everything (especially more black).

For those who actually do wear some type of additional covering with the tights, it often takes the form of a micro-skirt. It is not uncommon to see a girl walking on the sidewalk, constantly pulling down her “skirt” to ensure it is covering her butt completely. Please note that the word “skirt” is being used in the most generous way possible. If I saw some of these “skirts” on store racks, I might mistake them for belts or scarves.

Pushing the acceptable boundaries of the style is so pervasive that earlier in the summer I spotted this half-mannequin wearing shorts with a message reading, “Missing something?” As if to say, “We have pants for sale over here if you’re not wearing any.”

I’ve wanted to write about this phenomenon since sometime around the first day I was on the ground in Sweden. The problem has been that I’d like to include some pictures with the story and it just doesn’t seem appropriate to go around town taking pictures of girls’ legs. Let’s try to avoid lurking and/or looking like a tourist.

The pictures you see here were taken from a news program on one of the state-run SVT channels and the woman not wearing pants – or should I say, the woman wearing “Swedish pants” – is the reporter. Not only is her outfit quintessentially Swedish – blonde hair, black legs, smart glasses and a Fjäll Räven jacket – so is her name: Emma Eriksson. Seeing it all in one place was like hitting the jackpot in terms of my need for pictures to go with this story.

A story in yesterday’s Aftonbladet newspaper featured a security camera image of some girls dressed similarly, beating the crap out of somebody. (What? Violent crime came to Sweden before pants did?)

It seems these young, 20-something revolutionaries were beating up a spokesperson for the Swedish Democratic Party and his girlfriend. I won’t get into the politics, but let’s just say they wanted to show how intolerant they are of people who are intolerant of others. In Sweden you don’t get beat up for being a foreigner, you get beat up for not liking foreigners. (Of course I’m oversimplifying all of this, but that’s basically what it comes down to.) Back to the pants…

Americans are typically bigger people than Swedes – we’re talking circumference – and even those who aren’t usually still wear bigger clothes. Something that strikes a lot of Americans who visit Sweden is that it seems everyone here makes much more of an effort to present themselves nicely. I have observed it many times and several other Americans I’ve met here have confirmed that I’m not just imagining it.

I’m sure many factors contribute to the better-dressed nature of the Swedish populace. Everything from the higher standard of living to the pervasive culture of design and aesthetics could play a part in it.

The smarter, healthier society as a whole, resulting from generations of people growing up with universal healthcare and public higher education give people the awareness they need to know what looks nice, the necessary money to buy new clothes, the body types that can accept clothes in sizes not starting with the letter X, and the cleaner surroundings in which to do all of the above.

If your surroundings are appealing, chances are that you’ll assimilate to look proper in that context, deliberately or not. If you live in a sewer, you’ll probably dress appropriately so as not to get sewage on anything nice. I’m not calling America a sewer (What?! You’re callin’ America a sewer? Get him, boys!) I’m just saying that we are all products of our environments and people dress according to where they’re going, what they expect and how they feel.

The extensive 1980’s crime-reduction program in the New York City Subway system famously focused on sanitation and the swift removal of graffiti as priorities placed high above an increased police presence.

People who aren’t working so hard and still struggling to stay afloat can take the time to fix up and look sharp on their way out the door. If you’re tired all the time and your life sucks, well shit, ya might as well wear sweatpants and a Looney Tunes jacket to the Winn-Dixie. Fuck it. Ain’t nobody to impress there anyhow. O’Reilly comes on in an hour anyway and I gotta pick up them little fuckers from football practice. Why me why me why why oh God oh God please let me die take me away just leave me be all I do is work and this is the thanks I get God dammit God dammit God dammit.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Swedish girls think that tights are pants. (Good story today, Ritcher.) Yep. Still got it!

But I just learned the old one

You may remember a story from back in June when I had just attended the music festival in Stockholm called Where the Action Is. A portion of that yarn included some gushing over the singer/songwriter of the band Hello Saferide.

I was introduced to the music of Annika Norlin last year by my friend Emma. She played a CD for me of one of Norlin’s bands called Säkert.

I quickly became hooked on the Säkert album, and because it is sung entirely in Swedish, it became a barometer of my comprehension of the language.

While listening to these songs over and over, each time understanding a tiny bit more, the stories they tell have unfolded gradually in front of me. Norlin has also been a journalist in the past and many of her songs aren’t just feelings or pictures, they have a narrative. Even after more than a year of listening, the songs are continuing to unravel before my eyes.

Just yesterday while I was walking, a Säkert song came on in my endless shuffling of music. Even though I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and it’s one of my favorites, a few bits of it were suddenly clear to me today. It was a bam moment and I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I never understood that part before. It seems so clear and simple.” It’s like when a familiar tree in your neighborhood is suddenly trimmed and you can see so much more of the sky. “Was that always like that?”

Becoming hooked on new music is no small event in my life so when I do find something I like, it’s very enthralling for me. Most of my friends are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stand or don’t “get” almost all the new music I hear.

This is a rare, painful condition I have been afflicted with for decades, constantly made worse the fact that I am surrounded by people who love new stuff all the time. My condition has sometimes been misdiagnosed as “Hater Syndrome” or “Crotchety Old Man Disorder” but both of those are erroneous conclusions.

It’s not that I’m one of those people who is just old and only likes the music that came out when he was younger. I’ve been like this for a long time. Even in the 1990’s when I was running a record label and throughout my whole life making my own music (link!, link!), I have never shared the enthusiasm that most people I know have for new music or even a wide variety of music. Further, my condition is also not a punk rock affliction where I have to be into stuff nobody else has ever heard of. A few of the artists I love happen to be some of the most successful artists of all time.

It seems the new stuff I end up liking is inevitably music that is made by people I know personally or have some connection to. Perhaps it’s the ultimate way of saying that I can only get into it if I can relate to it. If I don’t know the people who are making it, then it is so much easier to dismiss it as insincere or expendable. More often, I feel it’s just not for me. There are plenty of artists I listen to that I know for sure I would not like if I didn’t know the people involved.

When my friend Maggie from Louisville was visiting Stockholm last month, she showed me some stuff from a new band she loves. I don’t remember the band’s name, but I do remember my reaction to it. I didn’t think, “Oh, that’s not really what I’m into,” or, “It’s okay but it’s not for me.” No, what she played for me blew my mind in a bad way. My first thought was, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is really something that people like?”

Hopefully I chose my words more politely, but I think Maggie knows to expect such cranky reactions from me by now. It happens almost every time I hear something new, especially if is becoming popular. I don’t hate things because they’re becoming popular, but I may have a knack for hating the same things that will become popular.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a mall record store called Mother’s Records. I was in charge of ordering the 45 rpm singles (which should give you a hint to how long ago it was). I would talk to representatives from the five major labels each week on the phone (another clue to how long ago: there were five major corporations in the music business!) and they would send samples of new stuff they were pushing or stuff that was catching on in places that were hipper than Louisville at the time. (I know! Hipper than a city in Kentucky? Where is this magic land?)

One summer, I heard three different songs for which my first reaction to each of them was, “This is the worst fucking song I have ever heard in my life.” As a result, the first orders I placed for each of these records was small because I foolishly believed other people would hate this shit.

Wouldn’t you know it, during that summer, I watched in amazement as, one after another, each of those three God-awful songs climbed the chart and successively became the Number One song in America.

This hellish phenomenon is still happening to me. It’s a special gift I have. It’s like that show where the guy has premonitions about horrible things in the future but he can’t do anything to stop them from happening.

The vomit in my mouth when I hear something I can’t stand might as well be the taste of gold and platinum records.

I’ve watched in disbelief as things that repulsed me at first listen have shot to popularity – everyone from Pearl Jam to No Doubt to Candlebox to Black Eyed Peas to M.I.A. to Everclear to Nickelback.

If I suspect your music isn’t truly genuine or sincere, you’ll probably do okay. If your band makes my skin crawl, chances are you’re destined for greatness. This could be bad news for Annika Norlin.

Hello Saferide and Säkert’s songs are certainly catchy and stylistically diverse, the latter of which is an approach I don’t think enough bands explore. However, I think what makes them different for me and what all this gushing most likely comes down to is Annika Norlin’s ability to be unflinchingly honest in her lyrics.

Some people can write a song about anything and sing “baby baby baby baby ooo wee ooo” over top of it. I could never do that. If I’m going to write I song, I want it to be meaningful and real. My songs are about things that really happened, actual people and emotions I really feel, even if I obscure what I’m singing about a bit. I have never seen the point in wasting anyone’s time with something irrelevant or made-up.

Why make records that have been made before? If you don’t really have something to say, why are you making noise? Sure, some bands are just around for fun and others for money. I have very much enjoyed being in a band, but it has to be about more than just fun, at least for me, and that’s what I seek also in what I listen to.

I like to think of myself as truthful in my songwriting, but I would be a fool to think I’m doing anything more than lightly scratching the surface of what’s in there. Norlin goes places with her lyrics that I would never dare – places most people don’t dare – and that is what has me all worked up on the topic, even after more than a year of listening.

It is spellbinding to hear someone sing – engagingly, vulnerably, shamelessly – about subject matter most people would only consider in their minds. Where most people wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of even saying something aloud, she’s singing it. If such thoughts ever were to come out of you, some of it is like shit you should maybe write in your diary and not tell anyone. (Dancing next to an intriguing stranger all night and never talking to them; obsessively walking through an ex’s neighborhood over and over; the graphic depiction of losing one’s virginity – and all with amazing titles, “If I Don’t Write This Song Someone I Love Will Die”; “Parenting Never Ends”; “Loneliness Is Better When You’re Not Alone”)

I hate record reviews even more than music itself, so forgive me if this is starting to sound as such a thing. I’ll bring the topic back to me and Sweden soon, I promise. (Oh finally! Can’t wait to hear you talk about yourself some more. I liked this better when you were making funny charts and taking pictures of stairs.)

Even more entertaining is that on top of all her heaviness she seems to know that you can’t be so intense all the time. Some of her material seems designed to be a parody of her deathly serious songs.

You can see some of that sentiment in the video for “Anna” where, even though her secret fantasies are laid out unashamed in the text, the video has her boyfriend looking her over like she’s out of her mind, not least for making a photo album of their non-existent daughter’s life. My favorite line is, of course, “She could have married a Kennedy,” but incredible also is that Anna would have been a sweetheart with punk rock manners who played hockey and guitar.

This story has unexpectedly gotten pretty long. I really just wanted to set this up and briefly tell you who Annika Norlin is so I could explain this newspaper clipping. That seems to have morphed into something else entirely.

Let’s put it this way: Two weeks ago, one of the local free newspapers Stockholm City debuted a new column written by none other than Annika Norlin. Well, after you’ve spent all afternoon at work reading my 2000-word infomercial about why I love her writing, you can imagine why I might be enthused about her having a regular column in the free paper.

If you’re a columnist, your audience can get their fix every week or month. If you’re a musician, people have to wait for a new album or concert. That could take years! If you’re both it’s better.

Not only will I be able to get a regular dose of her insight, but this gives me something else written in Swedish that I can really get into. I mean, it’s something different that’s not a text book or a regular news article. It’s something with some context, from a writer I enjoy and in a format that’s not too lengthy.

Whenever I read anything in Swedish it takes forever. If I really want to get it, I’m constantly looking up words. But half-a-page from a newspaper? I can handle that. I go into the city almost every day and there are about twenty minutes between where I live and the center of Stockholm by train. At least an hour of my day is spent on this commute – or waiting for trains, or walking to or from them. That’s plenty of time.

In her inaugural column, Norlin introduced the idea that there should be a new word for “love” because the old word has become too abused and over-used. For instance, a few paragraphs ago when I said “I love her writing,” that doesn’t mean the same as when you are with someone you truly, profoundly love.

The casual “I love you” is a serious, common offense it seems. She writes, “I want to earn my I love yous. I want to struggle to get them. I want to receive them maybe ten times in my life.”

There should be a new word that means “deep, heavy love” which can’t be tossed around in Facebook comments or in other such trivial usage. She closes by committing herself to the cause of finding this new word. When she discovers it, she will remember it, and she will never tell a soul that she has it.

After episode one, the printed words appear no less solicitous than the sung.

The column is tagged at the bottom with the typical newspaper byline “What do you think”?” I, confronted with the combination of such a fantastic idea to find a meaningful new word for “love” and the prospect that more new Swedish words are being invented even as I am struggling to learn the language, I scribbled out a four-sentence note to the City paper and sent it off. Apparently it wasn’t short enough. Upon publishing it the editors chopped it up a bit.

The headline they added is simple: tack means “thank you” and the note says: “I can barely speak Swedish, but Annika Norlin’s column means there is another reason for me to learn better Swedish. She wants to invent a new word for love? I agree that it’s necessary, but I just learned the old one.”

Iida told me that my letter sounded retarded. I presumed she meant that there were errors in my Swedish which made it incorrect, but she was nice enough to clarify that. “No, you sound retarded because nobody in Sweden is this excited about anything.” I’ll say.

On that thought, I’ll leave you with this video for the song “Arjeplog.” In this one Norlin talks about the insecurity complex the people here have and sings the line, “Don’t you get scared of the people who look you in the eye and smile at you?” Oh, the Swedes. I’ve been told not to make eye contact or smile at people because “they’ll think you’re crazy or drunk or American … or some combination of those.” I’m usually at least one. (Shit, Ritcher, it’s Friday. Go for three!)

This is absolutely one of those songs that creates its own visual narrative, so the video is almost unnecessary, but I like how simply it’s done, with a handheld camera in one continuous take. It’s not quite the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, which was filmed in complete, uncut 12-minute segments, but it does the trick.


The three horrible songs I heard in the summer of 1988 that became Number One hits were: “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, both from the jävla Cocktail movie soundtrack, and “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood. Other Number Ones I also instantly hated include: “We Built This City” by Starship and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” by Billy Ocean.

For the ‘mericans readin’ this, I should say that the name of the Säkert video above is “We Will Die at the Same Time” or “We Will Die Simultaneously.” Everything sounds cooler in Swedish. Oh, and the name of the band means “sure,” “certainly,” “safe,” “undoubtedly” or “reliable.” It’s another one of those words.

For the Swedes in the audience, I thought it was strange that they corrected my Swedish in the paper, wouldn’t it be more amusing for the readers if they didn’t? Maybe that’s not how things work here. I have a whole other story coming up about my theories on the relationship between the Swedes and their language. Stay tuned! Here’s what I actually wrote to Stockholm City:


Nu är mitt livet bara tyst och tråkig mellan torsdagar med Annika Norlins artiklar.

Jag kan knappt talar svenska därför ska det ta några timmar att läser varje krönikar men den här finns ju en andra motiv att lära mig bättre svenska.

Nu kommer hon att uppfinna ett nytt ord för kärlek… Jag håller med att det är nödvändigt men har jag precis lärt mig det gammalt.

Wait! It’s not what you think!

A word of warning to our more impressionable readers: Today’s story may include some risqué language, namely English.

No coverage of Swedish culture would be complete without an article about the abundance of common words in the Swedish language that look like dirty English words.

Perhaps nothing could illustrate it better than this advertisement in a recent newspaper with the headline “Slutspurt!

English-speaking people who see this headline might expect it to be the title of an incredibly shocking pornographic film – one featuring lots of sluts and lots of… well, I’ll let you use your imagination.

Below the headline, there’s a vacuum cleaner, a wine rack and a washing machine. Oh shit! This movie’s gonna be sick!

Don’t warm up your BitTorrent just yet. This is actually an ad for a clearance sale of home appliances. Slutspurt is Swedish for “final sprint” and basically means that the sale is almost over.

Slut (pronounced “sloot”) means finished, closed, ending, and about a dozen other similar things. Slut is just one of many Swedish words that look suspicious. In fact, the word for “look” is another one: titta. Yes, the English word for something you’re not supposed to look at is almost exactly the word for “look” in Swedish.

The Swedish word for “vacuum cleaner” is dammsuga, but as I’ve just learned, if you leave out one of the M’s it becomes damsuga which means “lady sucker” instead of “dust sucker.” Maybe it can stay in the dirty movie.

Fartkontroll is not a new medicine for people who eat a lot of beans, it’s a radar speed trap. Fart means “speed” or a way to drive. For example, a garage entrance may have the sign infart. Sounds painful, right?

Suppose you see a picture of a group of men in the newspaper with the caption, Sex killar. Settle down, they’re not in any danger of being arrested. Sex means six. Killar means guys. These “six guys” may be quite the opposite of what you first suspected.

And, of course, bra means good. All you hippies hear that? Bra equals “good!”

In the not-so-dirty but equally confusing category, eleven means “the student” and stapla is to “stack” not “staple” and krimpa is to “staple” not “crimp.”

Gift means “married.” A bit suggestive about what you’re supposed to bring to the party?

If someone shouts “Lycka till!” at you, they’re not telling you to put your tongue on a garden implement, they’re wishing you “good luck.”

One of the words that confused me the most when I first visited is klar which sometimes means “clear” or “ready” but on a computer or ATM it means “finish” or “confirm.”

Kram is not a way to shove something together, well, not exactly. It means “hug.”

Surprisingly, it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone’s puss on your face in public. Puss means “kiss.”

However, kissa is not something you want someone to do on your face. Kissa means to “pee.”

I could go on, I mean, the collection of these words is virtually limitless, but I know you are probably at work right now and I don’t want your boss to walk in and see you reading a web page that has puss, sex and slut all over it. You can thank me later.

Excuse me, do you speak American?

One of the challenging things about learning to speak Swedish – and there are a few – is the process of becoming familiar with the sequence that words should appear in sentences.

Many years ago, someone told me, “Swedish is just German words with English grammar.” Ehh, well, guess what. It turns out that’s not really true. If it were, I would be zipping through the language with greater ease and Germans would be a lot less funny to Swedes and Americans.

What is true is that the sequence of words makes a big difference in, I presume, most any language.

The clip you see here is from an article I was reading in yesterday’s New York Times. It is from a serious article about addiction, but I couldn’t help but to laugh when I read this sentence that, because of the order of words, seems to imply that people who have recently gotten married are in need of a twelve-step rehabilitation program. That’s also not entirely true, though it’s possibly more true in some cases than the statement that Swedish is German words with English grammar.

In other language news, I’m happy to report something which has been inevitable for decades has finally happened.

The language I grew up speaking is now finally called American. Screw you, King George!

I saw the proof this week in a Stockholm book store. Right there on the shelf between the French and German pocket word books, in all its glory, “American.”

Of course, this renaming of the language is not news to most people in middle America who have been calling it American since they dropped out of high school to get married. Nonetheless, it’s about damn time.

Closer inspection of the book reveals it is actually “American English in terms of spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary.” It includes some hilarious genuinely American terms such as “y’all” and a section that instructs you how to tell an American about Sweden. I would think the first thing you should tell them is that Sweden and Switzerland are two different places. Maybe next you might mention something about the Muppets.

Later during the week, I had a discussion about the name of the English language – sorry, the American language – with a guy from England. You can guess how he felt about calling the language American. He compared it to how people from South America feel about people from the United States being called “Americans.”

He was upset because an ATM he visited had an American flag instead of the Union Jack as one of the language options.

I told this old chap that Americans had contributed more to widespread use of the language through our films, television, music, and schizophrenic foreign policy than the British had. I mean, the British had their days of conquest, but America’s empire (however crumbling) is still around. Really, more people speak English in India than in England. Even though that’s because of England’s overseas adventures, it still helps the case that regardless of the language’s origin, it has grown up and moved on. English is so over England.

I shared something else with this bloke that I heard years ago, “Only two good things ever came out of England: The Beatles and America.” To which he replied, “Well, I don’t know about one of those.” What, really? I thought everybody liked the Beatles.

In your face, you bloody lads! Fancy a biscuit then? USA! USA! USA!

City on Water (with a dirty mouth)

Saturday afternoon I went for a long walk and relaxed in the park to recover from Midsommar festivities. During my sunshiny day, I enjoyed some Reese’s peanut butter cups my parents recently sent from America. Mmmmm….

A couple people were also taking advantage of the gorgeous weather to row a boat out into the water between the city’s islands. I caught this view from LÃ¥ngholmen (um… “Long Island”). The tall building with the green and gold top is the City Hall – Stadshuset.

Here’s something I’ve never seen on the Long Island in America, but I’m sorry to report that I have no idea what the story behind it is. Perhaps the Beatles left it here because it wasn’t in their color.

I’ve mentioned before that there are no truly unacceptable words in the Swedish language. Every word in the the language can be used on television. The same goes for English in Sweden. It is not only the ubiquitous second language, but it is also totally uncensored. This shop window demonstrates that. “Summer Sale – but we also have some expensive shit.” This store recently had another sign up that said “Stor Jävla Rea!” (“Big Fucking Sale”) Hilarious.

Another example of the acceptance of all vocabulary is that when the cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen” airs here, nothing Gordon Ramsay says is bleeped out. I can’t tell you how much more enjoyable that show is when you can actually hear what he’s saying. That man really has a filthy mouth and it’s what makes him so entertaining. I’m not sure why you would want to broadcast the show any other way. I think the FCC must have some very good reasons for treating Americans like children who can’t be allowed to hear anything scandalous.

Here is a nice building I can’t afford to live in, but I bet they have amazing views and lovely dinners. I’m happy for them and I hope whoever lives here will invite me over some time. Please click the contact link. Thanks.

The American Dream – På Svenska

Back in March, my friend Johanna interviewed me about my move. She is a student at Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (The Swedish Royal Institute of Technolgy) where she is studying, well, it seems she is studying just about everything.

I’ve heard her talk about the Media Technology program she’s in and it includes everything from graphic page design to voice synthesis. One of the projects she showed me was a software application she made that can announce the time of day in her voice. Awesome, creepy, scary – I don’t really want any machines talking in the house, especially not in my voice. My sarcastic inner monologue and constant attempts to translate everything are plenty.

Another project of the program she’s in involves the periodical publication of a magazine. The program is supported by companies in the printing, paper, and graphics businesses, so the end result of their work – called Uttryck – is quite beautiful. It’s a full-color, perfect-bound magazine on matte paper, assembled by Swedish design students. Let’s just say it’s not your typical college newspaper. The colors are rich, the printing is sharp, and it smells of fresh ink. Mmmmm ink.

The name Uttryck is another one of those Swedish words like tjänst that means about billion different things: expression, display, statement, utterance, phrase, manifest, et cetera. Ut means “out” and tryck means “print” – so there’s probably some connection or play on those parts. I don’t know. I’m having one of those I’m-never-going-to-be-able-to-speak-Swedish days. You’d think it would be easy to learn a language that only has 37 words.

Although the magazine is all in Swedish, I was interviewed in English. This was just a few weeks after I arrived and my Swedish was even worse then than it is now. You can read some of what I said in my March 27th post. That post also includes some charts I made that weren’t used in the published article and the English version of my lists about Sweden and the United States.

The story covers all the bases including why I decided to move to Sweden, what I miss about America, and what I don’t exactly love about both places. We also talked about the process of learning Swedish, food, my then-locked iPhone, and my band, Metroschifter.

If you want to use this as an opportunity to start learning Swedish, thereby doing it faster than me and making me feel even dimmer, here is a link to the article on the Uttryck website. The title means “The American Dream – in Swedish.”

On the flip side of the coin, I was also interviewed last week for Velocity Weekly, an entertainment newspaper in Louisville. The subject matter was similar, though it was more focused on the new Metroschifter album which is coming out June 30th. Joseph Lord did that interview, which also touched on Kentucky politics and my Senate campaign last year. I’ll provide an update and a link when that comes out… I know you must be desperately hungry to read even more of my chatter.

Allt om mig

Enough about Sweden already. Let’s talk about me.

Today’s story has been in the works for more than a few weeks. It has a lot of personal information about my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, so if you’re more interested in the Swedish culture stuff, pictures of stairs, and fake charts, this monologue might not be for you.

Hard to believe, but true, sometimes I think about myself instead of what coins look like, what spännande means, or what the King is having for breakfast.

Honestly, this story might not be for anyone but me, but since I’m sharing my thoughts on everything else, why break the streak now?

One of the main attractions for me in moving to Sweden was that I thought it would give me the opportunity to “turn off” for a while.

I don’t know nearly as many people here, so combine that with Sweden’s more reasonable speed of life; not having as many expenses; therefore not having to work so much, et cetera. All these elements would theoretically come together and allow me to explore some larger, longterm projects that I ordinarily wouldn’t have the ability to. More rest, more quiet, less pushing myself to do new things, less need to try to change things.

I’ve had several conversations lately about whether it’s okay to live without goals. I know there are millions of people who just go to work, eat, sleep, and maybe hang out with their family or friends. That’s all they do. There’s no larger plan for their career or anything else. For them, day-to-day life is the plan. It goes on for decades and there’s nothing wrong with it. For a lot of people, especially in places like America in a tough economy, that’s all that they can afford to do. Others aren’t even that lucky. For some, just doing something is all they need to be happy.

There are those people in the world who know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they’re twelve years old. Doctor, lawyer, photographer, fireman, news reporter, forest ranger, computer programmer, teacher, president. Whatever it is, some people know instinctively what they want to do. I just wasn’t one of those people. Sometimes I envy them. Okay, most of the time. It seems like it would be so much easier to just know.

Instead, I have needed to invent big projects for myself to keep me busy. I’ve always felt like I was supposed to be doing something special, but since I haven’t known what that special thing was, I have tried just about everything that interested me. These undertakings entertain me and occasionally pay my bills. Usually they overlapped and I ended up doing a dozen things at once.

I haven’t needed luxuries like a fancy car, a DVD collection, concert tickets, nice furniture, a big wardrobe, home ownership, fancy dinners, et cetera. It’s always nice visiting people who do have those things, but over the past decade – even before moving across the ocean – I have gradually been downsizing the volume of my belongings.

When I moved to Rhode Island in 2001, I rented a moving truck. Less than two years later, when moving to California, I committed myself to keeping only what I could fit in my Volvo wagon. That was liberating.

The lack of owning so many things has permitted me to live with a little more freedom. Not having monthly payments for a mortgage, car, whatever, has made it possible for me to explore larger projects that require dedicated time and resources. Whether the project has been publishing a magazine with interviews of my friends, writing songs, putting out records, building a social networking site, running for office, or whatever, these projects have added a lot to my life and hopefully have engaged or entertained others.

A lot of the projects I took on had the theme of being unique: either no one had done something like it before, or it needed to be done and it seemed no one else was going to do it.

I don’t know if other people don’t have the same kinds of ideas I have, or if other people just don’t pursue them. People are always saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” but if I have an idea like that, I try to do something about it instead of letting it remain in a conversation. That started a long time ago and has built progressively with each project. I suppose the ability to do such things comes in small degrees.

I think in moving away, I wanted to put all that on hold for a while. My efforts to expand my own boundaries weren’t necessarily starting to take too much away from me, but something was happening.

Specifically, running for state senate was a dream I had for a quite a while. It was a big goal which unfortunately turned out so unlike my expectations. Rather than being something positive and influential, a lot of the time and energy in my campaign was spent fighting just for the right to participate. It was just exhausting at times when it should have been exhilirating. Of course I’m glad I did it, and just participating in the process was an achievement I’m proud of. I don’t regret it and I would do it all over again. Maybe one day I will. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.)

I met hundreds of people during the campaign and I received priceless support toward the effort from just as many. Because of that support, I felt a constant drive to do everything I could to not let anyone down. Once someone gives you their hard-earned money and asks you to see if you can make a difference with it, it’s nearly impossible to not keep fighting, even when all the odds and money are gone. I can’t say too much about any of it yet, really, because here I am on the other side of the world and I can feel myself starting to get all worked up about it. The lawsuit that disqualified me and its plaintiff – my opponent who was re-elected as the district’s senator – are not my favorite topics… Yet I’m still being very careful to be kind with my words. (Using the term “re-elected” is one way of being very kind.)

The day after the election was bittersweet. I was so relieved that Barack Obama had been elected. I still kind of can’t believe it. (Every time I check the American news, I am impressed and ecstatic at each new overdue misconduct he is trying to take on. It’s almost too good to be true.) The day after the election there was also a sense of relief that the public aspect of my campaign was over. That might be the day I decided for sure that I was moving to Sweden.

I remember saying to a friend, “I could stay in Kentucky and continue fighting for the rest of my life, or I could just go where everything is already fixed.” That’s an oversimplification of things and I think it’s unnecessarily harsh and childish, but maybe it captures the feeling of the time. I don’t like fighting. I don’t want to spend my life being angry over things that I may never be able to affect. I would rather create things or just throttle down a bit. Unwind, reset, breathe. What would it be like to relax, or have the time to read, or go on a date, or do anything else most people do that have somehow eluded me?

I thought that moving to Sweden would be a great way to turn off my need to continually generate new materials and ideas, to not have a project, and to be somewhat anonymous.

The anonymity aspect has turned out to be much as I expected. Sometimes it’s too much. Everyone knows the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Maybe some of the lonliest people in the world are those who are living in big cities, surrounded by other people who are talking, laughing, holding hands, chatting on the phone, and otherwise carrying on.

Even in a year-round Casual Friday community like Louisville, where people are always saying things to people they don’t know, it’s still possible – if not very easy – to go an entire day without speaking to anyone. That’s even easier in the iPod Age where everyone has headphones and you’re in a country where those who don’t are speaking a language you don’t understand.

The several-month project of selling and giving away virtually everything I own was obviously an overwhelming endeavor. As you can imagine, it was at once painful and liberating. My move to Sweden made moving in a Volvo look positively posh. I arrived here with only a rolling suitcase and a guitar case. With the exception of a few boxes in my parents’ basement, if I move back to Louisville at any point, there’s not any material “stuff” there to go back to. My car, apartment, furniture, books, music, dishes, everything – it’s all gone.

I expected that once the process of shedding my earthly belongings, saying farewells to friends and family, and getting on the plane was finished, that would be the moment I crossed the line and I would really be able to turn off for a while. From several previous, extended visits, I already knew the basics of finding my way around Stockholm, the public transit, and stuff like that. I could unpack my few things here and just let go.

I’m not sure how it could have escaped me that moving to a different country with a different language is, in itself, a huge project.

I’m sure it is self-evident to anyone reading this, that learning a new word for everything and an entirely new way of talking is a really big project. It’s like if I started att skriva this helt på svenska du… I mean, if I started writing this totally in Swedish, you wouldn’t be able to understand any of it.

The good news is that even though it just occurred to me last month that this language thing is a gigantic project, I am way beyond the point of all the words looking and sounding crazy. I had a couple years of a head start in dabbling with the Swedish language in Louisville, which has proven to be helpful, but only a little bit.

At the very least, I understand the topic of most conversations. Depending on who’s talking or what’s being discussed, I understand a little more or a little less. Sometimes I don’t believe that the sounds my roommate Iida is making are actually talking. It’s so fast and I may only catch a word or two during a few minutes of listening to her and Erik chatting. On the other hand, sometimes when I’m reading, I have moments when I feel like I get it. Headlines and advertising are getting easier faster. If I’m watching Swedish television and the closed caption text in Swedish is on the screen, my comprehension skyrockets.

Even if I’m still less than 20% able to comprehend or carry on a real conversation comfortably in Swedish, I’m on my way toward it. It would be coming so much faster if Sweden wasn’t such a bilingual country. Here, it’s not like how some people in America speak Spanish and some speak English. Seriously, everyone in Sweden under 50 speaks both Swedish and English – and both languages well. A blessing and a curse. As soon as I begin speaking, even if I’m just ordering a coffee, the other person will inevitably start speaking English to me.

You might ask, if everyone speaks English, why bother learning Swedish? Honestly, I feel rude not knowing the language. If I like the place enough to live here, I owe it to everyone else to speak their language. If I’m in a group of people and they’re all speaking English because of me, well, it makes me feel silly. More often, I’d rather the conversation continue in Swedish, even if it means I’m not involved, just so I can hear more of the language in context.

Also on the plus side, I love the way Swedish sounds. It is beautiful and cool and like a song. There are special ways to pronounce things and a lot of it has a nod-nod-wink-wink quality to it. (Skiva is pronounced “whuooeevah” but skriva is “skreevah.” Ljug is pronounced “yoeg” and själv is “whhelf.” Sig is prounounced “say” and de is “doam.” This shit’s crazy! And those are short words! Not only that, but seeing it in print isn’t even a hint as to the inflection. Jävla betoning!)

The world around you looks different depending on the sounds that come with it. That’s something else I’ve been thinking a lot about. For example, if you’re walking around the city listening to Slayer on your iPod all day, your perspective will be different than if you’re looking at the same things while listening to Mexican mariachi music. (Most people I know have tons of mariachi music on their iPods.) I think the same is true of the sounds in the language you speak and hear. Whether it’s a harsh language like Russian or a mushy language like French, constant exposure to these sounds must have an effect on the people who speak the language.

The singing, fun, and active dynamics in the Swedish language must be somewhat responsible for the attitudes and personality the Swedish people have. In the same respect, the artistic and caring nature of the people must also influence the way the language continues to develop. When I first came to Sweden in the nineties, I fell in love with the entire package: the landscape, the people, the design aesthetics, the sound of the language. I’m still seeing everything I saw then, but now it is part of my everyday life.

I listen to several hours of language every day on my iPhone, whether it’s news or instruction or comedy. I push myself to hear more, even when I would rather listen to something in English. Even then, if I’m thinking about other things, not exactly tuned in to what’s playing, or sleeping, it’s still there and I believe I am subconsciously absorbing something from it.

Trying to figure out what everyone is saying all the time is no small task. My brain is getting a serious work-over every day. I think an hour of trying to keep up with a Swedish conversation probably equates to four hours’ worth of English brain work. It’s like flipping through a turbo dictionary upstairs every time somebody talks. I’m pretty used to getting really tired really fast.

For several weeks, I was intentionally starving myself of American entertainment in order to submerge myself deeper into Swedish. That just ended up making me crazy. I’m starting to seek a balance now so I can build my Swedish while keeping my English sharp.

I’m on the case and I’m getting it. I’m just not sure how I missed the idea that this whole move is probably one of the biggest projects I’ve ever taken on. How could I have thought all this wasn’t a project at all?

Still, more new English words!

In an earlier story, I mentioned that the Swedish-English dictionary I got for my iPhone has a penchant for displaying English words I have never seen before. Well, the phenomenon has continued!

Here is the latest installment of new English words I have recently seen. I have been making notes as I see them and then looking them up in the Oxford American Dictionary. Again, I’m very suspicious that the makers of this application have invented a bunch of words to beef-up the size of the dictionary.

insouciant: having a casual lack of concern
ailered: (no entry)
acceptera: (no entry)
jaceranda: (no entry)
jacinth: a reddish-orange gem variety of zircon
elevenses: a short break for light refreshments
jumbuck: (no entry)
emed: (no entry)
blain: an inflamed or swelling sore on the skin (Mmmm!)
bleb: a small blister on the skin (Double mmmm!)
jounce: jolt or bounce
roseate: optimistic or rose-colored
lumpen: uninterested in revolutionary advancement
lucubrition: (no entry)
lupin: (no entry)
jodhpurs: full-length trousers, worn for horseback riding
jodine: (no entry)

För Svankvinna i tiden

As I mentioned before, most of Sweden’s coins carry a picture of King Carl XVI Gustaf, a man who is still alive and just 62 years old.

Every time he buys something, he pays with money that has his own picture on it. I’m sure he’s used to it now, but when he became king at age 27, it must have been weird at some point, like the first time he saw the coin. Perhaps it’s not strange at all since the previous coins had a picture of his dad (correction: his grandfather). Then again, he’s the king, so it’s possible that he never actually buys anything for himself, rather, he has people doing all that kind of stuff for him.

His profile image is updated periodically, so if you get an older coin he looks much younger. In every photograph I’ve ever seen of the King, he is wearing glasses, yet on the coins he is mysteriously unbespectacled. Yes, I think I just made up that word. It means “not wearing glasses.” Does he have contacts in or is it just not respectable to be bespectacled?

In America, there has been a debate going on for years about whether or not to stop making pennies. For quite some time it has cost more than one cent to produce the one-cent coins. Sweden is going to cease minting of its smallest coin next year. Interestingly, the 50 öre piece is worth about six cents in US currency.

If I was the king – which I had high hopes of becoming until that rascal Daniel Westling got engaged to Crown Princess Victoria about two weeks after I moved here – I’d probably carry around a little loose change. Jingle it in my pockets. Show people my picture. No big deal.

Daniel and Victoria aren’t getting married until next year, so anything can happen. I’d hate to split up the happy couple, as they are the darlings of the Swedish media, besides, I’ve really always had my eye on the younger sister, Princess Madeleine.

That’s Madeleine smiling there on the right. Victoria is behind her, not as happy because she has the weight of the throne on her shoulders for the rest of her life. Princess Victoria can look forward to being the first female to have her picture on a Swedish coin since 1720. Daniel Westling will be able to say, “Wanna see a picture of my wife?” each time he pulls a coin out.

Each time Sweden gets a new monarch, that person selects a new slogan or motto. Some of the previous ones have been “Sveriges väl” (Sweden’s welfare), “Folkets kärlek min belöning” (The people’s love is my reward), and “Plikten framför allt” (Duty above all). Currently, the obverse side of Sweden’s coins are christened with “För Sverige i tiden” (For Sweden, with the times). King Carl XVI Gustaf picked that out when he took the reins in 1973.

In addition to choosing a more modest and contemporary royal motto, he also made addressing the king less ostentatious. Since the 16th Century, the king of Sweden has been referred to with an elegant title that roughly translates to “By the Grace of God the King of Sweden.” Carl XVI Gustaf ended that tradition by humbling it simply to “Sveriges Konung” (Sweden’s King). So maybe he isn’t so crazy about having his picture on the money. From what I’ve gathered, he seems like a very private and quiet guy. I hope that will make it easier for me to talk to him at family events when he’s my father-in-law.

I’m kidding, of course. I’m sure that if I end up with a Swedish girlfriend she’ll probably be someone like the Svankvinna. This lady is Sweden’s answer to the woman who had 130 cats. The Svankvinna (“swan woman”) is a 68-year-old lady who got busted with eleven swans living in her tiny, 85-square-foot apartment in central Stockholm. Her neighbors and the police thought there was a corpse in the building until they looked through her mail slot and saw a bunch of little swan feet walking around. What I wouldn’t give to see that view! “Chief, you better take a look for yourself.”

Iida told me about the Svankvinna last night when we overheard some guys in town using her name when saying that someone was crazy. Apparently if someone thinks you’re nuts, they can call you Svankvinna. This guy called her the Svantant (“swan old lady”), so I guess he has his own nickname for her. He’s an independent thinker and not about to follow the rules by using the media’s common name for her.

Anyway, the Svankvinna was “rescuing” all these giant birds and keeping them in her apartment to “help” them. She gave them baths in the tub every two or three days and carried them around in big, plastic Ikea bags! Awesome. She “fixed” one of their broken legs with a popsicle stick and tape. I love her!

This article about her is in svenska, but there are some priceless photos of the cops cleaning out her apartment. Even though the police in Sweden seem downright friendly compared to their American counterparts, it must be so hard to look authoritative when loading a trailer full of swans.

She told the newspaper that she usually doesn’t keep so many swans there and the apartment is usually cleaner, but they came on a bad day. Oh, I’m sure they did. As many as 150 swans had gone through her place over a period of seven years. Nice.

Unfortunately, my sweet Svankvinna was convicted of animal abuse and of being bat-ass crazy, and a few of the swans died.

Well, it’s Friday night, so I’m off to see if I can get a date with the Svankvinna. If she’s half as pretty as her blurred-out face in the newspaper… Well, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Daily Show visits Sweden

Life in this socialist hellhole is just awful. Finally, the American news media has sent an investigative journalist to uncover the real story of what the radical leftist Obama regime is trying to do to our beloved United States.

“Wyatt Cenac travels to Sweden to wake them up from their socialist nightmare.” The videos are full of familiar scenes and locations in Stockholm.

If the embedded videos below don’t work, try these links to Part One and Part Two.

Part One:

Part Two:

What the…

Language, temperature, currency, distances, weight, geography. I thought my list of things I have to re-learn was complete. Then it came time to do the laundry. This control panel greeted me:

Needless to say, I had to look up some words, Google some symbols, and convert some temperatures. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on based on the symbols and colors, but you can never be too safe when it comes to laundry. After all, clothes are the bulk of all my worldly possessions at the moment. I wouldn’t want to end up with an entire load of pink clothes, like I did in Germany once upon a time.

While I was looking up that stuff, out of curiosity, I did an image search to find a photo of the controls on the washing machine I was accustomed to using in Louisville. Here it is below: two knobs!

Some things are so American that I think they are comical and endearing at the same time. This control panel is certainly one of those things. When I saw it again, I laughed heartily, but I also had a warm feeling similar to when you see a little kid with chocolate all over their face. Awww, there, there, little buddy…

I especially love that one of the load sizes is “Super!” …and whoever took this picture had the knob in that position. Yes, in America you can even super-size your housework. Laundry sucks. Put that fucker on Super. I’m washin’ everything at once!

It’s true, though, American appliances are monsters in comparison. Monstrous perhaps even compared to some of the cars here. For example, this tiny delivery truck I saw today.

On the topic of knobs, controls, appliances, and consumer products, there is a new documentary about industrial design out now in America called Objectified. It is directed by Gary Hustwit who made one of my favorite movies, Helvetica, a documentary about the typeface of the same name.

Based on the trailer, I expect Objectified to go into some psychological detail about our reactions to devices and products. Though it will probably be a long while until I can see it, I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to hearing the ideas the designers and experts interviewed in the film have on human emotional responses to everyday products. My friend John recenty sent me a link to this gigantic page of cassette tapes. It brought back so many memories, I couldn’t finish looking at it.

Helvetica is now on DVD. Nothing short of fascinating. Below is Helvetica itself in use at Älvsjö, one of Stockholm’s Pendeltåg stations. Älvsjö was formerly the word I was having the most trouble pronouncing. I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to type it out phonetically. Maybe “el-fuh-whehh” is my best shot at that. Swedish is almost as much about inflection as pronunciation. The entire language is like a song. I think I’ve got this one word down. Now I’m stuck on dygn.

Swedish language trivia, Part 1

Because only about 10 million people speak Swedish, the language has considerably fewer words than English, a language that there are easily over a billion people using.

English is a primary language in Great Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and has tens of millions of speakers in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, and all over Europe. The British Council estimates about 750 million people speak English as a foreign language. That provides a lot of opportunity for new terms, expressions, and words to be born.


Despite the less widespread prevalence of the Swedish language, it does have quite a few unique and efficient words that have no English equivalents, perhaps a reflection of the creativity of the Swedish people.

We’ve discussed lagom, the prevailing Swedish concept of “just enough” that is seen in everything from work ethics to furniture design. And we’ve touched on fika, the relaxing afternoon coffee and snack break. I have discovered a few more!

For example, when talking about family relationships, there are quite a few useful words. If you’re talking about your grandmother on your father’s side of the family, there’s a special word for that: farmor (literally “father’s mother”). If you’re talking about your niece who is your brother’s kid, that person is your brorsdotter (“brother’s daughter”). These words are quite economical as there is no ambiguity requiring further explanation, like English-speaking people have with the words grandmother, grandfather, nephew, or niece.

Boyfriend-girlfriend couples who live together for an extended period of time, I suppose what we might refer to as “common law marriage” or “living in sin,” are called sambos. Hon är min sambo (“She is my girlfriend who I’m living with”).

There is a nice word, dygn, which means “all-day-all-night” or “24-hours-a-day.” There are lots of ways to say this in English, but dygn pretty much covers it. All the time.

In Swedish, there’s no difference between “there is” and “there are.” Both are det finns.


While those efficient words make things easy, the flipside is also true. Some of the simplicity or lack of words makes understanding a bit more difficult. A few words that I have trouble with are ones that have multiple meanings. I’ve illustrated one of my favorites, tjänst, in a chart below.

Like many languages, in Swedish every noun has a gender. English makes this easy because people and animals are obviously masculine or feminine while all objects are neuter. A few exceptions are countries and vehicles which are referred to as “she.” It’s not so easy in Swedish where everything is masculine, feminine, or “common.” There are no solid rules and genders are applied arbitrarily. When you learn the word for something, you should pretty much learn the gender at the same time.

Back to School with Old Timey Tower

This morning I attended the first of ten 2.5-hour Swedish language classes at Stockholm’s Medborgarskolan. I’m not a fan of school, but I have dedicated myself to becoming proficient in using and understanding the Swedish language, so taking classes is obviously the most efficient way to speed up that process.

Prior to registering for the class, I took a placement test to evaluate which level I should start in. I know a lot of Swedish words and I can put basic sentences together, but more often than not, I’m using the wrong case, verb form, or gender, or just pronouncing everything so poorly that what I’m saying is indecipherable. If I’m just listening to people talk, I think I’m truly taking in maybe 10% of what’s being said.

I knew I shouldn’t be in a class with people who haven’t started learning Swedish yet, but my test score placed me farther along in the courses than I expect to be. I’m at the point where I can follow conversation topics and answer simple questions, but I know I am a long way from being able to confidently say, “I speak Swedish.”

The first few minutes of the class I felt like I was in way over my head. The group of students – all adults – has apparently been studying together before this particular course began. They all know each other and the teacher. He is a cool, older guy who is typically Swedish: white hair, glasses, sweater, super friendly. After a half hour or so, I was more comfortable with being in this level. I noticed that although the other students knew things I didn’t, I also knew things they didn’t.

The class is small with only six students. Four are from Germany and one is from Malta. It was awesome to hear them speaking German before the class started and when explaining things to each other. Maybe I can say that I speak very basic German. I’m not able to have a discussion about economics in German, but I certainly can have a friendly conversation about everyday things. More than a few times, I have had to use German in situations in other countries when it was the only option and I’ve been impressed with myself.

Since I started learning Swedish, I’ve felt the ease of thinking and composing sentences in German slipping away. I’ve been afraid of that. When I try to start writing something in German, as I did with an email to my friend Cornelia yesterday, it quickly slips into Swedish. Regrettably, I ended up keeping the message short and typing it in English.

This morning when I heard my fellow students speaking German, I realized that I’m probably not really losing my ability in German. I understood a lot of what they were saying. The German language is still in my head somewhere and it can come back when it needs to. Hearing it again was like seeing an old friend. I would say that it’s similar the feeling I get if I hear someone speaking English on the sidewalk or in a restaurant, but that happens so much it’s not particularly unusual.

My German is still much better than my Swedish. It comes to me more naturally once it gets going. Of course, that’s because first real class in German was over twenty years ago and I’ve had lots of informal training and practice during those decades, whereas all of my training in Swedish has been informal and self-administered before this morning.

While I may not be losing my German, something I most definitely have lost is knowing anything about substantive case, objects, adverbs, and all that stuff. Jesus, I don’t even know that stuff in English, which I suppose I have to relearn if I expect to understand it in Swedish. Ouch, my poor head.

The class meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, for five weeks. I think it’s going to be incredibly beneficial. There are more advanced classes that follow, if I can afford them when that time comes. If I eventually get a proper job with a Swedish company, language classes are free and provided by the government. That could be nice, though I’ve heard those classes are sometimes not as focused as Medborgarskolan. Those classes are populated with the general immigrant public and I can see where that might not allow for the small class size and direct attention it seems like I’ll be enjoying. My first impression is that Old Timey Tower’s return to school will be a really good investment.

Påsk Afton and Nynäshamn

This weekend, Iida, Erik, and I spent some quality time with Erik’s parents. We visited their house on Saturday for a delicious Easter feast which I would compare to Thanksgiving in America. There was more amazing food than you could eat, plenty of candy, drinks, and football (er, soccer) on television.

Also on hand was a plentiful supply of Påskmust, a traditional Easter cola. This stuff has been around for a hundred years or more. There is also a Christmas version, Julmust, which I tasted back in 1999 when Metroschifter played in Stockholm at Kafe 44. These drinks are so popular that there are several brands and they cause Coca-Cola’s sales to drop when they come out each year. Coke has tried to make their own Påskmust in the past, but they received a lukewarm reaction. I’m not sure how to describe the taste of Påskmust. It’s cola-esque, but maybe with a hint of mint or something. They’re tasty, but I can’t say for sure what they’re like.

I had hoped to see some little kids dressed as Päskkärring (Easter witches) over the weekend, but we didn’t happen upon any. Two little girls from the neighborhood did knock on the door, deliver some homemade cards, and sing a song for us. They collected some candy and applause in exchange for their performance.

Erik’s parents are great. His dad drives a Volvo wagon, much nicer than the one I used to have. Sunday he drove us all down to the ocean at Nynäshamn. His mother is a huge fan of Elvis, which almost excuses her preference of Floyd Patterson over Louisville’s hometown hero Muhammad Ali.

His dad was kind enough to print out a 17-page Swedish test for me since I don’t have a printer yet. It was a placement test to evaluate which class I should start in. The Swedish language is coming to me more and more every day, but I really need to intensify my learning and usage. While most Swedes seem to really enjoy speaking English, I feel like it’s rude for me to not speak the language here.

I took the test this morning in the construction zone where I’m living and scored about 37%. That should probably place me in the second level, but I’m waiting to hear back from the school to find out for sure. As expected, the main things I don’t know are verbs, forms of verbs, and forms of adjectives. It was a written test, so it doesn’t take into account how much my pronunciation sucks.

Sunday morning, we also walked to a nearby lake in Haninge. The last of the winter ice can be seen floating in this photo of me traversing the dock. A couple weeks ago people were walking on the frozen water, now they’re fishing in the sunshine. The hours of daylight in the mornings and evenings are getting noticeably longer each day.

Påsk ägg party

Here are some scenes from Friday night’s Påsk ägg (Easter egg) party in Haninge. What would the chickens think if they saw us painting their eggs?

Camilla and Cookie.

A nice collection of Påsk äggen (Easter eggs) art.

Cookie’s egg is hatching a demon squirrel.

Iida’s shark egg.

Axel (whose name means “shoulder”) and myself.

Iida and Erik.

More new English words!

Here is a screenshot from the English/Svenska dictionary application on my iPhone. It allows you to search for a word in English or Svenska, or to scroll through the alphabetical list.

As I mentioned a few days ago, sometimes when I look up a Swedish word, the English translation is a word I have never seen before in my life. I took this screenshot when I happened upon an entire screen of English words I had never seen before. Yes, these are English words!

Just now, I was going to say that “bacciferous” seems vaguely familiar, but as I was typing it, my Mac underlined it – meaning that “bacciferous” is not in the spell-checker dictionary on my computer. I also ran it through the proper dictionary on the Mac, which is based on the Oxford American Dictionary, and it also wasn’t in there. Where is SlovoEd getting these words?

As an experiment, I looked up all the “English” words from this screenshot:

bacchanalia: drunken revelry, from the Roman festival of Bacchus
bacchanalian: characterized by drunken revelry, riotously drunken
bacchante: a female priestess or follower of Bacchus
bacchic: another name for the Greek mythological character Dionysus
bacciferous: (no entry)
bacciform: (no entry)
baccivorous: (no entry)
baccy: British informal term for tobacco (Really? That sounds made-up.)

So it looks like I happened upon the section of the dictionary that would be super useful if you run into a Swede who is really into talking about Roman festivals and Greek mythology. That’s reassuring that I’m not completely crazy or forgetting my English vocabulary. The Oxford American Dictionary hasn’t heard of three of these words either.

FYI: If you have an iPhone and want to take a screenshot, just press both buttons at once. Your screen will flash and it will save the image in your photo album.

Påsk and Aprilskämt

I recently noticed that the Tunnelbana trains have names. A nice touch, I think, although I don’t care for the font. Here are Ted and Maria. You would expect a transit system to give them catchier names like TF0142581 and XG532014.

While riding inside the T-bana (I almost wrote “when riding inside Ted” but that didn’t sound appropriate), I saw this hilarious ad for Teknik Magasinet, one of several popular novelty gadget stores here. This is advertising a game where you can try to shoot your friends and if you hit them it shocks them. Sounds like loads of fun, right? This store has all kinds of ridiculous stuff like that. You can also see the electric nose hair trimmers in the ad. Today, Erik picked up their catalog which is called Prylbibeln (“Gadget Bible”). He was telling me about how every time the publish a catalog they include a fake item and it’s a bit of challenge for everyone to figure out which one of the thousands of absurd items isn’t real.

Speaking of pranks, yesterday was April Fools Day and several newspapers ran fake stories as their Aprilskämt. One was about the introduction of a new exclusive section on the subway. If you bought a VIP card you would be treated to reserved seating, cookies, and coffee during your daily commute. Another paper ran a story announcing that it was now illegal to stand on the walking side of the escalator. The fake stories were the talk of the town.

Surprisingly, the electric-shock ad is for “cool Easter gifts.” For Americans, Easter in Sweden would seem like a mash-up of the customs we know from Christmas, Halloween, and Easter. The little girls dress as the Easter Witch, in a traditional costume with a long skirt, broom, head scarf, bright red cheeks, and freckles. A black cat sometimes follows her in drawings.

The kids in costumes go door-to-door for candy, which is usually egg-shaped, or comes in egg-shaped containers. Hiding the eggs and the egg hunt are relatively new things, imported from America. Instead, the kids leave little cards behind, some make their own. I’ll try to get some photos of little Easter Witches next weekend, but if you click this Google Image search for “påskkärring” you can see an assortment of what it’s all about.

Billy Mitchell is a winner

This is a photo of the television playing the amazing movie “King of Kong” which is a documentary from 2007 about the fight for the world record Donkey Kong score. As you can see, it is subtitled in Swedish. All the programming shown here is run in its original language with subtitles. This is part of why Swedes speak perfect English. An interesting fact I learned about the Swedish language is it contains no words which are considered inappropriate for broadcasting. Every word in the language can be said on television.


A mail train passing through Stockholm Central Station – quite pretty compared to US freight trains.