Tuesday, April 28, 2009

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.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cherry blossoms at Kungsträdgården

Here are a few scenes of cherry blossoms in bloom at Kungsträdgården (the King's Tree Garden), a long open plaza lined with trees in central Stockholm.

The garden dates back to the 1400's and although it has been modified for private purposes over the centuries, it is now a public space about a quarter-mile in length. It hosts ice skating in the winter, concerts in the summer, and is dotted with fountains, restaurants, and outdoor cafés.

Here's a satellite view of it so you can get an idea of how far the rows of trees stretch through the city.

This reeeeal old timey image is how it looked in 1716. Seems like just yesterday. There is now a TGIFriday's at the north end, where all those people are standing in the front of the picture. That's just America's way of giving the place a little class. You're welcome, Sweden.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More Stairs and Coffee

Public stairs in Sweden almost always have accompanying ramps or elevators. The ramps are used for wheelchairs, bicycles, rolling suitcases, baby carriages, you name it. Here is a small sampling of some around Stockholm.

Rådmansgatan Tunnelbana Station

Pendeltåg (commuter train) platform at Handen.

Also in Handen near the Pendeltåg station.

Adjacent to Medborgarplatsen (Citizens Plaza).

The coffee shop you can see in the last image is in the base of Söder Torn, the tall, octagonal building I described in an earlier discussion of stairs and architecture.

A lot of the coffee shops in Stockholm are named in English with monikers that seem designed to sound American. The Swedish word for "coffee" is kaffe, but around town you'll see places named Coffee By George, Wayne's Coffee, Espresso House, Robert's Coffee, The Coffee Spot, just to name a few.

Although Starbucks has about 14,000 stores in 40 countries, there's not a single one in Sweden. The closest one to Stockholm is in the Copenhagen airport, about six hours away in Denmark.

I always enjoy going to different places to get coffee to see how they do things differently. Really, if you open your own coffee shop, there are any number of ways to make it look. Especially in a design-conscious place like Sweden, there are a variety of gorgeous and creative examples of what can be done. It doesn't have to have the uniformed, corporate look, and the same assortment of beverages.

But it's no secret that some of the coffee chains here – like Wayne's Coffee and Espresso House – are filling in the Starbucks void with derivative designs and products. That's fine. I'm not a coffee snob and I'm not saying it's good or bad, I'm just reporting the news here, people. I've been to a Wayne's and an Espresso House within the past week.

Friday, April 24, 2009

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.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's beginning!

Long days where the sun never goes down are the type of thing that you just don't believe until you see them. It's something that people from Kentucky read about in books or see in movies. This summer will be my first experience with such extended sunlight and it is already beginning.

Wednesday night, I was up pretty late working on some stuff. When I was shutting everything down to go to sleep at about 3:40 AM, something outside caught my eye. The photo here is the sunrise over Haninge at about quarter 'til four in the morning.

Today is the warmest day since I arrived in February, a sunny, gorgeous 15° (59°F). Read it and weep, cold darkness!

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:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sweden: not so far away after all

A great deal of the writing I've done here has been observing the subtle differences between the people and cultures of Sweden and the United States.

This morning, I saw this article on the CNN site. It's about Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell's address to the National Press Club in Washington this week. He discussed his belief that life from elsewhere has been to Earth. "There really is no doubt we are being visited," he said.

Mitchell isn't the only astronaut or NASA insider to have said things like this publicly, but hearing it from him is perhaps more unique because of his personal history.

Edgar Mitchell was born in Roswell, New Mexico, where an unidentified craft was said to have crashed in 1947. He was 17 at the time and was undoubtedly intrigued by the newspaper stories and rumors that the US military had recovered an alien ship with bodies inside.

Twenty-four years later, on the Apollo mission to the Moon, Mitchell became one of the twelve men to have ever left the Earth and landed somewhere else.

It's remarkable but true. As I wrote about James Irwin a few years ago in K Composite Magazine, only twelve people have ever walked the Moon - or anywhere else that isn't Earth. They were all white American men. Just like Jesus.

I kind of think of Edgar Mitchell as Earth's exchange student. Foreigners came to his small town when he was in high school, then years later, he traveled farther away from his hometown than anyone else ever had.

When you look at it from that perspective, Stockholm isn't really that far away from Louisville. In the perspective of other "people" visiting Earth from farther out in the universe, things like language, public transit, architecture, stairs, currency, measurements, weather, sunlight, et al; they're really not so different. I mean, it's not like I'm living in Japan or China. I'm pretty sure those places really are on another planet.

As you can see in the detailed, scientifically-accurate map of the solar system I posted here, Louisville and Stockholm are practically in the same neighborhood. Man, but, after you get past Mars, it's a long way to the next toilet. (Special note to our friends from Jupiter: I'm just kidding. We don't really think your planet is a toilet.)

In the 1971 photo above, you can see Edgar Mitchell on the left, Alan Shepard in the middle, and Stuart Roosa on the right. Stuart Roosa? Who the hell is that? I ain't never heard of him! Me neither. That's because he was the command module pilot.

On every Apollo mission there was one guy who went on the trip but didn't get to walk on the Moon. He just had to stay in the module that was orbiting the Moon and pick up the other dudes when they were finished making history. Sucks, man. That was Roosa's job on 14. And he has red hair, too? Shit. Some people just can't catch any breaks.

Somebody needs to write a book about post-mission command module pilot depression, or PMCMPD. Maybe I just made this up, but even if there are only six or seven dudes who have the condition, it's gotta suck to go all the way to Moon and have to wait in the car. Nobody wants to hear that story... especially if Alan Shepard is at the party. Fuck, what's Roosa doing here? Who invited him?

Shown here is a 3D image of Edgar Mitchell walking on the Moon. How many people do you know who have vacation photos like that? You need red-blue anaglyph glasses to see it in 3D, but if you happen to have my Nashville Geographic album, the glasses that came with that CD will work. Looks like you can get it used on Amazonfor 63 cents.

See, even though this was all about our place in the universe, I brought it back around and found a way to make it about me and one of my old CDs. Still got it!

Here is another photo Alan Shepard took of Mitchell on the Moon. This one is in regular, boring 2D. It seems like Shepard is sneaking up behind Mitchell. I think that would pretty much scare the shit out of anybody, if you're on the Moon and somebody grabs you unexpectedly. Ultimate vacation prank! Not funny, dude, I just used up half my oxygen.

While all this hootenanny is going on, I imagine poor Stuart Roosa orbiting in the command module taking pictures of himself and updating his MySpace page. Mood: lonely.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Windows and stairs

Since my first visit to Stockholm in the 1990s, this tall, octagonal building on Södermalm has always caught my attention. Perhaps because it seems so imposing and monolithic, I had always assumed it was from the 1940s or '50s. In fact, it was essentially brand new the first time I saw it.

Söder Torn ("South Tower") was completed in 1997. It has twenty-four floors of apartments, a swimming pool in the basement, retail and a coffee shop on the ground level, and an extended-height, glass-enclosed party room on top, with 360° views of the city.

There never seems to be any shortage of windows in Swedish buildings. Swedes have a bit of a love affair with the sun. I guess all people do, really, but when you don't get to see much sunlight for a few months a year, I suppose any opportunity must be exploited. The downside of wanting to have so many windows is that for half of each year it is insanely cold outside. Drafty windows can get costly. The compromise between having lots of windows and keeping warm is making the windows thick.

This is a typical triple-pane window that I was able to get a picture of in some degree of disassembly as the roommate is still in the process of cleaning and painting everything.

Sometimes important details are so obvious that they go unnoticed. One of the most unpleasant parts of living in an apartment building is being able to hear your neighbors through the walls, floors, and ceilings. Swedes are generally much quieter people than Americans. There isn't constantly music playing everywhere, people yelling "whooohoooo" all the time, and it's unusual to hear a loud vehicle outside.

You would think some types of noise are parts of the natural world and would be outside of much control, like the sound of people walking up and down the stairs in a building. Amazingly, there seems to be a solution for that as well. I've noticed in a lot of buildings - even older ones - that the stairs are fixed to a center column and not attached to the walls. This keeps the vibration and booming sounds of heavy feet isolated away from the apartment walls.

This is such a great idea that it blows my mind. It is so widespread here and yet I have never noticed it in any American buildings. As you can see in the images here, the stairs are narrower here, so my guess is that US fire codes and gigantic people are part of the reason that American stairs all seem to have a similar wide, rectangular, back-and-forth, bookshelf quality.

I wouldn't have any clue as to how to begin researching something as obscure as the origin or reasons for the popularity of certain architectural features in different cultures. (Maybe here?)

I do know that these types of stairs are not new. I've seen them in many older buildings, even in half-century-old apartment houses from the Marshall Plan era, which are relatively prevalent. The building I'm living in in Hagsätra seems to be at least forty or fifty years old and has the round stairs you see here with orange walls.

I guess there could be a few inconveniences about stairs like these. For instance, if you drop your keys near the rail, you may need to walk down eight floors to find them. Also, if two of the aforementioned gigantic people were walking in opposite directions on the stairs, one would probably need to wait on the landing for the other to pass. Moving furniture on tiny stairs is also a real treat. At least it's only a pain in the ass for you and not disruptive for your neighbors.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

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.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Swedish microbrew and other oxymorons

More than one of my friends has asked about the availability of unique beers and the world of microbrewing in Sweden. I'm sorry to report that the laws here make it pretty difficult to open a brewery. There are fewer than forty micros operating in the entire country. In fact, the Wikipedia page for Mikrobryggeri (micro breweries) lists only twelve. In a list of great oxymorons, perhaps "Swedish brewery" could join the all-time greats like "jumbo shrimp," "peacekeeping force," and "Microsoft Works."

If we think the prevalence of Miller and Anheuser-Busch are overwhelming in America, they really don't hold a candle to the market share that a select few mega-brews enjoy in Sweden. There are several ubiquitous and less-than-awesome beers here like Falcon and Pripps Blå that are among a tiny handful of brands - almost exclusively lagers - that most places have on tap. Those two are both part of the Carlsberg Group from Denmark, the number-one producer of beer in Sweden, who enjoys nearly 40% of the market.

In an earlier story, I described how all alcohol and beer over 3.5% ABV is sold by a single retailer, the state-owned Systembolaget. They have limited hours and a hit-or-miss selection. You can special-order considerably more varieties from their hefty catalog if you are dedicated enough to purchase an entire case. Because "Systemet" is buying in such huge volumes - warehousing for an entire country of nine million people - some of their prices are reasonable. However, since the taxes are based on the alcohol content, some of the prices are, ehhh, not so good. It really depends on what you're buying. That said, I'm searching for good beers as much as I can.

I'm a big fan of super dark porters and stouts. My favorites to enjoy in America were Founders Breakfast Stout and Kentucky Breakfast, Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter, BBC Heine Brothers Stout and Knob Creek Russian Imperial Porter (from Louisville!), Dogfish Palo Santo Marron, and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. You know, stuff like that. Beers that look like tar, pour like molasses, and should be consumed sitting down when you're not planning on going anywhere for a while.

I also quite enjoyed McEwan's Scotch Ale and Harviestoun Old Engine Oil, but after making a list of favorites that includes things like Kentucky Breakfast and Palo Santo, I think of McEwan's and Old Engine Oil as gateway drugs.

Naturally, I don't want to poo-poo any of the fantastic Belgian beers, pilseners, Kölsches, or anything else I also enjoy, but the dark and heavy shit is where it's really at for me.

There is an awesome bar in Stockholm called Akkurat which is world famous for their extensive selection. They have over 600 different beers from around the world. The place ain't cheap, so I've only gone once, but it's a haven and heaven for beer enthusiasts who find themselves trapped in Sweden. All other things considered, it's one of the best places in the world to be trapped. It's nice to know Akkurat is there if I need it or if I have visitors from America. Amazingly, a place like Akkurat would have been impossible just 15 years ago because, believe it or not, beer over 5.6% has only been legal in Sweden since 1995.

Akkurat where I discovered the Smuttynose Robust Porter from New Hampshire. The bottle was 75 kronors (about 9 bucks), but damn it was good! I'm not sure how it escaped me, but it's always fun to discover something new, even if it means traveling to the other side of the world to find new things from America. I have to mention, though, the packaging on this beer looks so stupid it could have been a deal-breaker if it wasn't such a mouthful of taste. "Robust" is absolutely right.

Despite the limited variety of local brews, I have actually found a few good Swedish beers I like. I enjoyed the Carnegie Porter before I moved here, so it's a treat now that I can get it for less than half the price I was paying in Louisville. Carnegie is also now part of Carlsberg. A few weeks ago I discovered Oppigårds Starkporter, which is now my favorite Swedish beer. I may have to visit my local Systembolaget today for a Friday indulgence. The dollar has been going up the past few days so I can also use that as an excuse.

Although this article from The Local is a few years old, I think it paints a good, general picture of the beer scene in Sweden. I recently learned of the Stockholm Beer Festival that is coming up in September. That's something to look forward to.

Ah, festivals... something Kentucky does well. I certainly haven't forgotten that tomorrow is my favorite day of the year in Louisville. I'm missing it. When I lived in Rhode Island and Los Angeles, I was able to make the trip back for Thunder Over Louisville. This time, I'm a little farther away. I hope someone, somewhere - on a rooftop, back yard, or in a crowd of 600,000 people whose cellphones don't work - will have a little drink for me as they watch a million dollars explode in the sky over the city.

Just in time for Earth Day, Thunder is the largest annual fireworks display in North America and usually lasts more than a half hour. Here's the last few minutes from a previous year, complete with cheesy soundtrack...

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