Inside the secret society of Swedish grocery store owners

Every Monday morning in my Swedish language class, the teacher asks everyone what they did over the weekend. Since all the students have a variety of native languages – German, Spanish, English – this discussion of the weekend’s events, like most of the class, is all in Swedish. It makes for a nice way to get everyone to exercise their basic Swedish language skills before we dive into things like past participles and vocabulary.

This week, I may have had the most unexpected tale of what I had done over the weekend. Saturday night I went to the Stockholms Livsmedelshandlareförening Årsmöte. Yes, that 26-character string of letters is a real word, and it’s not the longest one I saw during the event.

The Livsmedelshandlareförening is the food retailers’ association. These are people who own grocery stores in Stockholm and this was their annual meeting, conference, and dinner. Sure, I love food, but this trait alone is not enough to be invited to party with the grocery store owners. Nor is a love of food sufficient to gain access to the world premiere of their spellbinding annual budget PowerPoint show.

No, I was a substitute date for my friend Iida whose boyfriend Erik is on tour with his band Tiger Lou and could not attend. Your loss, dude!

Iida, who has worked in an ICA grocery store for several years, was one of about thirty grocery employees from all around Stockholm who was being honored with a stipendium, a sort of scholarship to study the business. The award is worth thousands of dollars and is no small honor.

Working in a grocery store in Sweden, I should mention, is not exactly the same experience one would have doing so in the United States. Even after taxes are taken out, she is earning more per year than I was before taxes as a designer at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville or as a photo editor at Hasbro Toys in Providence.

Not only that, but she gets free health care, five weeks of annual paid vacation, and money for college. Does she get all this because ICA is an awesome company? No, she gets it because every Swedish worker gets it.

If she got married and had a kid, she and her husband or partner are entitled to a combined total of 480 days off of work, the vast majority of which are paid days at 80% of your regular daily wage. Each partner gets 60 dedicated days, but if the man wants to work while the woman stays home (or vice versa) he can give the mother his 180 remaining days.

It’s embarrassing to compare these universal rights with the idea of trying to raise a child while working at a Kroger or Wal-Mart. I know that there plenty of Americans who are doing that and making it work, but it cannot be pleasant, easy, or beneficial for the child or parents. Life does not have to be such a struggle.

Call it socialism if you want to, but I think there’s a lot to be said for pooling resources in order to ease everyone’s burden. It takes so much of the worry out of people’s lives. Even though the United States has some of the lowest taxes in the industrialized world, Americans always want them lower. Well, you get what you pay for. But back to Saturday’s grocery owners’ meeting…

The occasion was a very fancy, dress-up affair at Operakällaren, an opulent expanse of dining and dance halls that dates back to the 1700’s. One part of the complex includes the legendary Café Opera where every imaginable rock star, fashion designer, model, actor, or millionaire has partied over the years. We weren’t in that part of the building, but where we were was no less ornate. The height and decoration of the walls and ceilings is rivaled by gigantic windows, offering striking views of the harbor, the Royal Palace, and Swedish Parliament.

Operakällaren is located on Kungsträdgården, the quarter-mile-long public plaza with rows of cherry blossom trees that we saw in Sunday’s story.

Before going inside, we met Iida’s boss and his wife outside the building. Iida’s boss owns the ICA store she works in, so he is really her boss’ boss. He’s the Big Man and the one who suggested she should apply for the award. I had to be on my best behavior. This, combined with my first shirt-and-tie experience in the country and my limited knowledge of the evening’s language, I felt, well, let’s say apprehensive. I’m here for new experiences, though, and the Stockholm grocery store owners’ association’s annual meeting certainly promised to be such a thing.

The function lasted more than six hours and was a succession of several events.

Act One was a seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation of the association’s budget. This was held in a long, drop-ceiling side room with a podium, projector, and many rows of attractive (yet borderline-uncomfortable) seats. Upon entering the room, we discovered that the evening’s honorees were seated in a special section near the front of the room. That put me and my pre-kindergarten mastery of the Swedish language next to the boss and his wife. I’m an adult. I can do this.

This presentation lasted forever. Each PowerPoint slide consisted of lists of numbers and super-long words in black Helvetica on a white background. No graphs, no pie charts, not even any generic clip art that came with the computer. I quickly determined that this was the organization’s annual budget. They were detailing where all the money comes from and how they are spending it.

As each slide came up on the screen, the guy would read what it said. These fantastically long Swedish words are essentially compound words on steroids. If you know the smaller parts you can figure out the whole word. The English equivalent of the name of the association, for example, Livsmedelshandlareförening, would be Grocerymerchantassociation. Decoding long words is how I spent most of my time during the presentation. A few times I wanted to yell, “Wait! Go back!” as I was putting a word together when the slide changed.

During this part of the meeting, they were also adopting new plans and the appointment of board members with oral votes. The presenter would ask a question and most everyone in the room would just say “ja” all at once. Naturally, I abstained from voting because, as you know, I do not own a grocery store in Stockholm.

After a short break, the awards were given out. This was your typical hold-your-applause-until-the-end presentation with some older fellows shaking hands with the recipients and giving them framed certificates. The applause rule was broken when one of the young ladies who received a scholarship gave the presenter a big, warm hug instead of shaking his hand. Nice.

It seemed that probably all 200 or so people in the room were exhausted from the two-hour marathon of numbers and awards. This caused a few people to get visually uneasy when a stereotypically nerdy-looking man from the IT department took the stage for yet another PowerPoint lecture. Dressed in a plaid jacket with a wide necktie, thick glasses, pocket protector, and an ID badge, this guy had awkward written all over him.

My first impression was that someone would only be dressed this way in Sweden if it was a joke or a costume. I was right. His talk was supposed to be about the organization’s marketing plans for the future, but he was actually a hired comedian with a fake presentation. I think it took some of the people in the room a little longer to catch on that it wasn’t for real. The things he was saying got progressively more outlandish and people slowly began laughing. By the time it was over the entire room was in hysterics.

His tempo was pretty insane. Charts and graphs flew by quickly and he hardly took a breath. Some of his PowerPoint slides were absolutely hilarious. Words and logos would appear on screen and burst into flames. A graph would appear, another part would be added to it, and another, and another, et cetera, until the screen was an indecipherable mess or text and arrows. One of the new strategies he unveiled involved getting grocery store employees to move into the homes of customers to have children with them, thereby creating more customers. A chart illustrated the different steps in the process.

Having this comic relief at the end of the serious meeting was a nice way of making the transition to the more social aspect of the evening.

Act Two of the evening involved a standing meet-and-greet for all the attendees. This took place in one of the large, glass-enclosed rooms. There was plenty of free wine and formal attendants in white coats making sure your glass was never half-empty. Whenever people are speaking Swedish, I try to listen and keep up with the conversation topics as much as possible, even if I can’t really participate yet. But while Iida was chatting with her boss and his wife, I kind of drifted out of it while looking out the windows. I had one of those moments where I started looking around and wondering how I got here. It occurred to me that most of the magnificent buildings I was looking at were older than Louisville.

This daydream didn’t last long as I was hurled headlong into a Swedish conversation about exactly that. I was asked about why I came to Sweden and about my progress in learning the language. My language skills were put to the test and although everything I said probably had all the finesse of the dubbing on a karate movie, I suffered only a couple stalls when I felt everyone was waiting for me to come up with the next word.

A couple nights later, Iida told me her boss mentioned that I didn’t sound American when I was speaking Swedish and he was impressed with my sväng – the rhythm or swing of the language. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a really tall mountain in Swedish, so hearing that comment made me feel like I’m actually making some progress. It also occurred to me later that none of what I said or heard from the couple was in English. They are the first people I’ve met who know me only in Swedish.

The third and final act of the evening was a multi-course dinner in yet another glass-walled ballroom. Large, round, 12-person tables were adorned with white table cloths, candlelight, and punctuated with place settings that included collections of special utensils and glasses.

I became aware that my American-style treatment of table utensils was laughable and stereotypical within a couple weeks of arriving in Sweden. By “American-style” I mean using the side of the fork as a knife and using the spoon as a shovel. Even in casual situations, Swedes respect the proper use of their utensils. The meal we were treated to made appropriate use of every tool on the table.

Needless to say, if you’re hosting a banquet for people who sell food for a living, the dinner should be fantastic. It was nothing short of that. Even the vegetarian option we were offered was painfully delicious. The same aforementioned army of white-jacketed severs kept the wine and successive courses of food coming throughout the night. By the time the warm chocolate souffle with raspberries was delivered for dessert, I was feeling positively guilty if not humbled for being treated to all of it.

What we weren’t quite expecting with our dinner was the live band. Before the appetizer was served, everyone in this elaborate dining hall was instantly made embarrassed by being thrust into an eighties tribute act called Flashback. I have never seen so many ill-at-ease people trying to be polite in my life. Flashback took the stage, introduced themselves, and played one song – “You’re the Inspiration.” The band consisted of bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, and four lead singers/dancers. Periodically, between the courses of the dinner, they returned in new, matching stage costumes, to play 10-minute medleys of the eighties songs we’d all like to forget ever happened. This photo is Iida watching them. Yes, our table was right up front, perhaps the most discomforting location in the room.

One of the evening’s highlights came late in the dinner. An elderly gentleman took the stage to make a short speech. More than a century years ago, sort of by accident, his great-grandfather had started the fund that had allowed the scholarships to be awarded. In his last will and testament he left a small amount of money behind with the instructions that it be used for this purpose. The fund had grown over the years and now millions of kronors are given away for training every year. Not a bad legacy.

There was allegedly going to be some dancing involved after dinner, but we successfully ducked out of the place in time to avoid finding out if that was true. Having met up for the event around 4:00 that afternoon, it was now nearly 11:30. We were quite full – Swedish full and English full and… that would be sufficiently wined and dined.

Those grocery store owners really know how to run a meeting. I think the version I told here is probably a little more detailes than the one my Swedish class got. That class is only two and a half hours long.