Friday, February 18, 2011

Six Months Later

I honestly can’t believe I’ve already lived here half a year. Some days, when the culture shock is still intense, it feels like I landed last week.

You try to mentally prepare yourself for the culture shock in the weeks before the move. Amanda’s agency had their au pairs read multiple articles about it when she moved to California a few years ago, and I consulted a few sources myself this week in an attempt to ascertain which “phase” I’m in.

The adjustment phase, long after the honeymoon phase and anxiety-filled negotiation phase, usually begins sometime between six months and a year. In many ways, I’m already there. In the adjustment phase, per Wikipedia:

One grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more "normal". One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture, and begins to accept the culture ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.

I couldn’t write a more accurate paragraph to describe my feelings right now.

I’m starting to embrace routines I used to scoff at.

Like fika, a coffee break that is so much more than grabbing a cup of caffeine. Workplaces literally grind to a screeching halt for 30 minutes in the morning and again in the afternoon for this experience, which usually includes sweet baked goods.

Like taking a number at every bank, pharmacy and jeweler instead of standing in an organized line.

Like taking your shoes off every time you enter a residence, not to mention the absence of carpeted rooms in said homes. Hardwood floors are the norm.

Like visiting Systembolaget for alcohol on Friday evenings. Even watching “Let’s Dance” (Sweden’s version of “Dancing with the Stars”) on Friday nights with the rest of the TV-glued country.

I have a more positive attitude about other cultural difference I’ve had to adapt to and lifestyle changes I’ve made in the last few months, too.

My wardrobe is full of tighter-fitting clothes than I ever wore in the States.

I don’t get all worked up about shitty service in restaurants and stores because I recognize those employees have no incentive to help me, since they receive no gratuities or commission.

I smile when I see a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on “sale” for the “special” price of $7.80.

Gas isn’t going to get any cheaper if I curse about paying the equivalent of $8 per gallon, you know?

I’ve also learned to stop trying to say hello to people in passing, and to not let that bother me anymore. A vacationer might call Swedes cold for this, but I’ve learned better. They’re just reserved, and offering a friendly greeting to a stranger on the street is plain weird here.

It’s little things like those and I’m still getting used to new things all the time.

There’s still a lot of frustration about the language. I was set to start my fifth week of a government-funded Swedish program for immigrants when I got the offer to work these last two months in Stockholm, which ultimately derailed my language studies.

My comprehension has improved so much that Amanda often speaks Swedish to me at home, but I answer in English. I still can’t roll an ‘R’ to save my life, one of the reasons I gave up on Spanish in my sixth year of classes and a continuing problem here. There may be a lot of similarities between Swedish and English, but there are plenty of differences, too.

As I continue to freelance articles from home, I’m going to try the self-study method and see how quickly my Swedish improves. I have several resources, including texts from the Government-funded course and a local library.

While I no longer feel like a fish out of water every day, I still have moments. Sweden is an easy place to get comfortable, and I’ve come a long way in six months. I have a long way to go, and I’m so thankful for the family and friends we have here to help me through each challenge. It’s the best support system an expatriate could ask for.

I fly back to California next week for the first time since I moved. I probably haven’t lived away from the Golden State long enough to experience much reverse culture shock, but who knows what will surprise me when I go back?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Swedes and Sweets

There’s one thing Sweden does better than any other country, and it has nothing to do with contemporary furniture design.

Swedes consume the most candy in the world. It’s no exaggeration. I thought Americans were pretty good at eating sweets, but no, Sweden trumps us.

I’ve read statistics that claim an annual average of as many as 18 kilograms of candy consumption per person. That’s roughly 40 pounds of candy each year, which I find disgusting. Considering that people like Amanda and me are bringing that average way down, I shudder to think of Swedes at the other end of the spectrum consuming a pound of candy or more every week.

Similar statistic sources say the average Swede guzzles 90 liters of soft drinks annually. NINETY. With epidemics like these, I understand why some are pushing so hard for Sweden to take a page from its Scandinavian neighbors’ books and institute a sugar tax. But I digress.

Swedish sweets (“svenskt godis”) are most commonly sold by the kilo as “losvikt godis.”

You scoop a medley of flavors into your bag and pay by weight. There’s a better chance someone has a bag of godis in their cabinet than a liter of milk in their refrigerator.

There are more fruit varieties than you could count:

There’s an equally impressive number of chocolate choices:

There are more licorice options than you could imagine:

I don’t even know how to describe some of the other flavors:

You can find godis in every store that rents movies, every gas station, every Pressbyrån (a chain of convenience stores that emulate 7-Eleven) and, perhaps most unfortunately, every grocery store. There, you don’t find the godis. The godis find you.

At our favorite supermarket in town, you actually can’t get to the cash register to pay for your groceries without passing through what I call the “Valley of Godis.” Believe me, it’s quite a gauntlet to run, especially on a chilly weekend night.

Whenever I ask why candy consumption is so excessive here, people invariably point to two things: holidays and weather.

It’s part of the culture. Candy is a key element of every holiday, and Swedes are very good at celebrating holidays.

Perhaps even more responsible is the weather. Long winters mean dark days and cold nights, which encourage “myskväll.” There’s no direct translation, but it basically means a night in, watching TV or movies. It’s all many Swedes do from November through March, and sweets are a natural component.

While obesity isn’t as obvious here as it is in the United States, it’s a growing problem, particularly among kids. This extreme consumption of candy and soda must be mainly to blame.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Random Musings from Stockholm

  • There may only be a million people in Stockholm’s urban area, but it seems like 70 percent of them smoke cigarettes. It’s incredible, even for a “big city” where smoking will obviously always be more prevalent than a small town.
  • Stockholm is a beautiful place full of gorgeous people, but again, I guess that’s to be expected for any country’s largest city.
  • MAX sucks. I hadn’t tried Sweden’s largest burger chain despite living here almost six months and I probably never will again. MAX tries to compete with McDonald’s and Burger King, which are both very popular here. MAX claims to serve “Sveriges godaste hamburgar,” but I respectfully disagree. The fries were good and so were the bun and toppings, but I’m a firm believer that the meat makes the burger and I’ll take Burger King beef over the crap I forced down at MAX any day of the week.
  • On a related note, “American Dressing” really isn’t so bad. I’ve never seen it in America, but Swedes love it and MAX, McDonald’s and Burger King all slop it on every burger they serve. It’s like a cross between Thousand Island dressing and the special sauce McDonald’s puts on Big Macs, and I used to absolutely hate it, so much that I simply wouldn’t eat the burger if I asked for it with no dressing and they put the sauce on anyway. One afternoon at Stockholm Central, while waiting for a train back to Falköping, Burger King put the dressing on my Big King XXL and I was so hungry that I ate it anyway. Turns out I might actually kinda like it. Chalk it up to becoming more Swedish with each passing day, I guess…
  • Public transportation in Stockholm, particularly the subway system, is underrated outside Sweden due to the small size of Stockholm in relation to other European capitals. It’s extremely efficient and, at around $100 USD monthly for unlimited bus and subway trips, it’s also a bargain.
  • There’s a certain type of adolescent male who rides around Stockholm on the subway all day long blasting metal music from his iPod at a volume so loud he’ll be deaf by age 30.
  • Public transportation can be an awkward experience, though, especially if your eyes tend to wander. You’ll get anything from an awkward look to a mean glare if you make eye contact with anyone. Tunnel vision is a must on the tunnelbana and other trains in Sweden.
  • Even if it’s less than a buck and I’ve been to enough major European cities that I’m used to paying to use a public restroom, I still hate doing it. When I do, I always try to “take full advantage,” if you catch my drift.
  • I’ve rekindled a childhood love for blueberry muffins.
  • There are a lot of English-speaking expatriates from countries not called the United States, and to borrow a fellow American expat’s trademarked expression, nearly all of us are “love refugees.” I learned the most about cultural differences from non-American expats this winter.
  • I have an easier time paying 70 SEK for a beer than 70 SEK for a fast food value meal, when it should probably be the other way around.
  • I didn’t fully grasp the importance of a large, hot meal at lunchtime in Sweden until working this 9-to-5 job in Stockholm and going out to eat with coworkers every day. While dinners may be as light as cheese and crackers, Swedes enjoy a hearty, multi-course meal at midday. For anywhere from $10 to $15 USD, you typically get your choice of meat, potatoes in multiple styles, a salad bar, bread and a drink, and if you’re still hungry after all that, dessert and coffee are also included. Dagens lunch is a great concept.
  • Skyview at Ericsson Globe is a cool experience. My brother and I visited the attraction one evening and got some great views of Stockholm from the top of the world’s largest hemispherical building.
  • It’s easy to take for granted seeing your significant other every day. I started learning this over a year ago, but the last two months in Stockholm definitely reiterated it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Back in Falköping

I’ve been back in Falköping about a week since wrapping up my two-month contract at JG Communication in Stockholm.

It was an absolute whirlwind eight weeks.

My parents visited for the holidays.

A week later, my brother got his first taste of Sweden (and several other European countries).

Juggling their visits and maintaining a longish-distance relationship while learning about the complex field of telecommunications on the fly was a challenge, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I’m very lucky to be continuing my work with JG on a freelance basis.

It’s really nice to be home again after 8,000 SEK ($1,250 USD) of train travel between Falköping and Stockholm, at least every weekend and some weeks even more frequently.

The trip can be as short as 2 hours, 20 minutes or as long as 3 hours, 42 minutes, depending on the speed/type of train.

There are exactly 341 kilometers of rail between Falköping and Stockholm, which is about 212 miles. To put my commute in perspective for a Californian, the following drives are each between 210 and 220 miles: Reno to San Francisco on I-80, Eureka to Santa Rosa on US-101 and Sacramento to Visalia (45 minutes southeast of Fresno) and Fresno to Los Angeles, both on CA-99.

The cycle quickly became quite routine, though.

It’s not feasible to travel that distance daily, but I was fortunate enough to be able to spend weeknights in Stockholm, one of the toughest places to find rental living in the entire world, while spending the other three in Falköping.

I rented a room from Amanda’s aunt during the weeks and I owe Annika and Amanda’s awesome cousins Tind and William a huge thanks for putting up with me. I couldn’t have accepted my first job in Sweden without them, and although the flexibility of freelancing from home for a while will be nice, I’m looking forward to what the future holds for me here on the employment front.