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Entries in #sweden (7)


Psychological, Not Sociological

Thanks to Audible's Cyber Monday sale (which would be the only one I actually got it together to take advantage of), I'm now listening to Methland, by Nick Reding.

He quotes Douglas Constance, a rural sociologist at Sam Houston State University, as saying that the US is a psychological, and not a sociological, nation. That is, when there are problems in our country, state, or city, we'll look to the individual as the source of the solution, and the nexus of blame, and not the larger society.

This rings more true to me than just about anything I've ever heard said about this country. A quick glance back through older posts will reveal that I'm not exactly a fan of our penchant for seeking individual solutions to societal problems, which would be exactly where this viewpoint breaks down in its ability to lead to real, substantial change.

However, I'm well aware that problems on the other side exist. A year or so in Sweden, a sociological nation if ever there were one, will do that. Why address problems on the individual level at all if the state will step in? And while I know there are many, many cultural factors at play, it's hard for me to not see this impacting the way people deal with each other in public spaces, when I'm the only person in a crowd who helps a woman pick up her groceries, or my husband is the only one in Ikea who helps two struggling shoppers lift a giant box.

Fascinating. Douglas Constance, if I'm spelling your name correctly, I'll have to check out some more of your work.


The Position of the Sun

February 1st, Stockholm

I learned recently that the technical definition of the tropics is whether the sun is positioned directly overhead. I was trying to explain to a ten year old Swedish boy how you know you’re in a tropical place, and I was leaning on the weather, the humidity, the wetness, even the creeping, unrelenting vines and trees that creep into windows and break up walls. And then we went to the simple English Wikipedia page and looked it up, and as it turns out, none of those other things matter. It’s all about the sun.

I can’t conceive of the sun being like that, positioned directly overhead, bearing down on the tops of people’s heads with the force of a hammer. I cringe for the delicate skin at the part of my hair that already gets more sun than it should. I imagine that I would need to hide, tuck myself away until the perfectly apportioned 12-hour night was upon us again, and I could safely emerge. The furthest south I've been is Hong Kong, technically tropical, but just barely, and I spent a lot of time in the shade cast by the vertical city.

The sun is low here. It’s one of the things that reminds me, in the midst of normal, daily life, just how far north we really are. The satellite dishes do that, too. They don’t point up at the nice, 45-degree angle here, not like they do in California. No, they point straight out here in Stockholm, facing you head on if you’re looking at them from a rooftop, and when we ventured north of the Arctic Circle, the dishes at the Abisko train station pointed ever-so-slightly down, tracing the curvature of the earth. In December and January, when I went out for a walk at two thirty or three, to catch the last of the daylight, the sun hovered, barely cresting the horizon, bright still, but so weak that I could look right at it, even with my blue eyes. I didn’t have to crane my neck, the way I did as a child, testing out whether adults were right or not about what would happen if I looked into the sun. No, the sun and I were equals, each with our own moderate light, each with our own perfectly appropriate warmth, regarding each other across a field of snow.

You lose things, living like this. You lose the guarantee of warmth, that strangely perceptible movement of molecules, coming from outside of yourself. You are your own powerstation, creating the heat that you need, preserving the heat that you have, taking none of it for granted. There is never quite enough, or there is just enough—I’m never certain which it is.  But the grandiose sun god has no power, not like he does further south. People here don’t have to bow or stoop. The sun sinks below the horizon almost as quickly as it emerged, demanding no homage, slipping away as easily as the sacred in the face of hypothermia. Life continues regardless.


China vs. Sweden, Part II

I've noticed recently that there are several things these places have in common, beyond a fondness for Ikea as a place to pass time. Today, three come to mind in particular:

  1. A fondness for hotdogs
  2. A love of systems
  3. A love of ways to get around the systems in place

Going to keep my eyes peeled for more.


My two homes-away-from-home encounter each other

Over at The Believer, former Jehovah's Witness Amber Scorah writes about her time proselytizing (illegally) in Shanghai. The article is worth your time for a number of reasons, but the part that I read over and over was about how Scorah was introduced to Ikea by a Shanghainese friend, Jean:

We finished eating, and Jean refused to let me help her clear the plates. “Sit, sit,” she kept ordering me, physically restraining me with one arm. When she finished stacking the dishes in the sink, she mentioned there was a surprise. Dessert and coffee, she said, beaming. Both already seemed like a rarity to me in China.

“At IKEA.” Her eyes shone. “Do you know, you can keep taking as much coffee as you want, for free? For Chinese people, we don’t understand this, we think they are very crazy.”


The cafeteria offered some Chinese food items, but was identical in every other way to any IKEA, cheap and bright. I could have been in Vancouver if not for the chaotic queue-jumping and diners installed at tables with rice brought from home. Many of the patrons were residents who lived in the ramshackle alleys behind the giant yellow building. The locals made the best of it, enjoying the free air conditioning, making IKEA the living room they had never had.

I chose a mini cheesecake with gooseberry preserves; Jean took a chocolate pudding. I paid, in spite of her violent protestations, and we proceeded to the coffee station with our mugs. People were stockpiling the powdered creamers and the packets of sugar. An older lady chastised me for not participating in the looting. “It’s free,” she said, urging me on.

I've talked to a number of Swedish people recently about my time in China, and their reactions are almost uniformely a mix of awe and bafflement at a place so different from their own home. And it's true--China and Sweden are extremely different, especially if you stick to surface-level observations, like the number of people, the noise level, the government, how privacy is defined, and the general aggressiveness of old ladies. (When my mom visited me in Ningbo, she nearly had heart failure watching me defend my place at the postal counter against old ladies with their elbows out. "Do you want to be here all day?" was my response.)

That said, I'm not convinced that there aren't similarities. This isn't a post wherein I identify and dissect such things; just one to say that I'm giving some thought to how similar the preservation of face and the dislike of open conflict might be, when you really get down to it.


An Unusual Graveyard

This, however, is a typical sight in Swedish cemeteries

So a couple of days ago I took my cross country skis and went just down the street to this giant field that leads to a giant park with paths through the forest and beautiful views of the Baltic Sea. (Why yes, I am bragging just a little bit. When you only get 7 hours of sunlight a day, you gotta take what you can get.) I'm very new at this, but fortunately, it's not that complicated, and since many, many Swedes had been there before me, there were nice trails already cut through the snow. So I followed them.

This is the same place where, in other seasons, I go running, and yet it looks so different under a foot of snow--etherial, otherworldly, gorgeous, you name it. And yet, after about forty minutes, I found myself in a place I'd never seen before.

It appeared gradually, as I climbed up a hill with my skis pointed to the side, leaning on my poles so that I didn't slip backwards. There, in the middle of the forest, were these small lanterns, and as I got closer, I could see snow-covered headstones. It was a cemetery, and I held my breath just a bit as I awkwardly approached, feeling as though I were walking into a poem. Probably one by Robert Frost.

When I got close enough to brush the snow from the headstones and take a closer look, however, things began to seem a I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I found one that said (loosely translated), "To Penny. She gave me the best years of her life."

Penny, by the dates I saw, was only 16 when she died.

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