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Monday, August 25, 2014

Welcome to Sweden: Episodes 6 & 7

This week was a double doozy with back to back episodes. I must say, these were the most outrageous in terms of jabbing at both the American and Swedish culture. I thought they did a clever job of taking up some important social differences while maintaining a decent sense of humor.
First Episode 6:
I'll start with Bruce's parents, all together too typified as the ugly American who lacks any cultural sensitivity at all. Of course, there are stereotypes: I want to see Vikings! All Swedes are not blonde! No one works! Everyone lives off the government! Complaining that there are so many foreigners in this town while they themselves are the actual foreigners. It points to a pre-conceived notion that some people have when traveling. They express an interest in the Swedish culture (or whatever culture they are visiting) based on their prior assumptions, which are often caricatures based on media influence and then being disappointed when their "fantasy" of life in Sweden wasn't based on any actual reality! The perception that Sweden is an ice covered land in all seasons was pretty hilarious to me.
In 16 years I can confess that I've never seen a Viking walking down the street. And no one wears the hats with braids and horns, except for fun.
Yes, we've been know to dress the part of the stereo-typical Viking/Swede. This is a long time ago however before we were married. Perhaps a foreshadowing of the life that awaited us!
You are much more likely to see this at a Minnesota Vikings football game than anywhere in Stockholm.
On the Swedish side: I have to say that I really love Lena Olin in this role. She is so darn funny playing Emma's Swedish mama! If you know Swedish it's even funnier. A few of the nuances in cultural differences include the perceived insincerity of Americans by Swedes in the way we say things like How are you? Or You should come visit! without really meaning it. The fact that the brother took them up on their offer to visit highlighted this lack of sincerity. Of course, Americans just call it small talk and being nice. Swedes find it superficial and disingenuous. Of course, we often find Swedes rude for not offering up these simple, well-intended if not entirely sincere phrases! Thus the culture clash that sometimes ensues.
It was quite impressive to see how Episode 6 took up differences in the way Americans and Swedes perceive marriage and children, religion, and gay vs. just European all in one fell swoop! Marriage is differently valued here and this Sambo is akin common law marriage but is an actual binding category for couples and very socially acceptable. Having children before marriage isn't so unusual and we know couples who have been sambo for 40 years but have never married...both inside and outside of the church. It's a very different perception that I've never fully understood, especially among church folks. The conversation around religion was fascinating as Swedes readily admit to their atheism. The vast majority of the population would not lay claim to any religious belief and you can sometimes feel actual contempt from those who do believe in God. In some ways they wear their lack of religious belief like a badge of honor. It's one interesting result of the church and state being fused for so many years. This arrangement does not lead to a deeper piety. Quite the opposite. There were several Swedish plays on words that I'm sure were missed by non-Swedish speakers. Even with the translation the subtlety of the humor was likely lost in translation. One of my favorites was when Birger (best pronounced beer not burger!) is telling Wayne that he worked for the kommun meaning municipality. Wayne mistakenly interprets as communist and Birger, not really understanding English all that well heartily agrees! Also when he says Var Så Goda before the meal and then translates it be so goda...made laugh. We'd really translate it by saying you are most welcome but the literal translation does cause a chuckle because it sounds so ridiculous! I must admit to having said "be so goda" several times in the past week to Doug and the dog!
Wayne's initial observation that there are so many male, gay nannies in Stockholm opened up an entire can of worms. Bruce responds, "No dad, they are just fathers taking their 6 months of paternity leave who dress in a classically Swedish/European way." Hence, the comment that no one works and everyone lives off the government! You do actually have to work in order to receive the family leave benefit, but having said that, Sweden does have the most generous paid parental leave in the world.
The whole conversation around determining if someone is gay or European is actually pretty funny. I have gay friends who say that their "gaydar" doesn't really work here because in many ways lots of Swedish men are rather androgynous. The fact that Wayne tries to make the distinction and then ends up in a gay bar enjoying the company, no worse the wiser, was pretty funny. It's true...most Swedish men like to wear tight clothing that almost looks one size too small, tie sweaters around their necks, and flaunt scarves in all types of weather. I suppose the term metrosexual might describe the male scene here in Stockholm but it is admittedly hard to judge a book by its cover here. We have one friend who is skinny and good looking and he has been mistaken for a gay man on more than one occasion. Always gives us a chuckle when he has yet another story to share!
The last thing from Episode 6 that was a little off were the views of the city. Beautiful as they were, they were not in the area where the cruise ships park. A small detail that only one who lives here would notice. Even so, I still liked the gorgeous shots of Stockholm that they showed!
Episode 7 explored the delicate balance between being yourself and trying to fit into your new culture. I resonated with this sense that Swedes say to be yourself but what they really mean is to be yourself as long as it reflects the Swedish culture! But we Americans do this too. I had to laugh at the ways Bruce was trying to fit in...getting walking sticks, eating caviar on crisp bread for breakfast while rejecting donuts as fat and sugary disgusting food. One cool thing is that when Bruce and Emma are walking through the park, (with Bruce using his walking sticks) the park shown is close to our house and we walk through it often! I really had to laugh as they made fun of the Swedish way of being as being equivalent to being depressed! Poor Bruce. Everyone thought he was depressed and he was just trying to act more Swedish! I will say this: Swedes value sameness. My experience has been that they like things to be quite even...not too up, not too down...lagom as they say, which is the hardest word in the world to translate. It can mean, everyone the same, all the same measure, middle of the road, or mediocre. Hard to grasp if lagom is a good thing or a bad thing. Probably somewhere in between, which would be perfect for Sweden!
When Aubrey lands in Stockholm to stalk Bruce and ultimately talk him into coming back to New York, they tour the city a bit, ending up at the new ABBA museum. We've walked by but haven't been in yet.
We have lip synced Abba songs however. Check out my platform shoes.
And Doug...Oj, oj, oj...looking the most like Benny Anderson in the 70's!
Not sure the entire American audience would know that the man Bruce runs into at the museum and later encounters as his first celebrity client is Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame.
The fact that he is dressed as he did when the band was at its height in the 70's was very funny.
Emma's negotiation with her own boss for a salary raise was another indication of how different the US is from Sweden when it comes to employment issues. She was trying to play hard ball per Bruce's advice and in the end, that just doesn't fly here because in my experience there seem to be strict frameworks around which salaries are designated. Raises are not often given for merit and are usually dictated by the union, of which most everyone is a part. This notion of everyone being equal, of no one being more important than another definitely plays itself out in the work place.
I had to chuckle a bit at the end when Emma finds out that Bruce can make a lot of money in New York and reacts in such a way that the door opens for Bruce to think about moving back. As much as he has spent the first 7 episodes trying to be really excited about being in Stockholm, we have begun to see that the cultural realities are tough and the fatigue that comes from seeking to acculturate has begun to take its toll. He positively jumps for joy at the mere mention of the possibility of moving back to the US! While there are many wonderful things about experiencing a new culture, in some ways, we never lose that default position of our home country being where we really do feel most at home. We'll see how it goes as they begin to make their plans to head back to New York and perhaps encounter some surprises along the way that they had not counted on!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Grief & Memories & Sadness & Joy

Like many, the death of Robin Williams has had a profound affect upon me. I asked a colleague why we feel so deeply stunned by this and she said what many of us think: He was such a memorable character in so many different ways, you just felt like you knew him. Sadly, Robin himself did not feel fully known and thus lived in the isolated and lonely world of depression and self-doubt. We feel this loss acutely because we wonder how someone so brilliant, so funny, so talented could feel so bereft of value and meaning. Depression is an ugly beast that rears its head in strange and unexpected places. I've struggled with depression in my life for no apparent reason. And when there is no apparent reason to be depressed, then you just feel that much worse because you feel like such a loser for feeling so crappy. I am so sad that Robin was so sad and could never find the light that he brought to so many others. I believe with all my heart that God holds a special place for his beloved who cannot escape this earthly darkness and feel that death would be a better option. My brother lived a fairly tortured existence due to mental illness that was tough to get a handle on. He was erratic and attempted suicide on more than one occasion. He died at 48, of a heart attack that I'm sure was brought on by a mixture of prescription drugs and and unhealthy living. I believe these tortured souls find rest and peace in the arms of a loving God whose compassions, they fail not. Remember...Great is thy Faithfulness, Lord unto me.
But I suppose another reason that this very public passing of a very beloved person is more profound for me as I walk through the continued grief of losing my parents so close together. I'm still in a state of shock that my father actually died in April. I often say to Doug, "I just can't believe he's really gone." And I re-live those painful final days, those awful decisions, the sad reality that he was not going to return to the vibrant, brilliant, very funny man he was. I miss him in profound ways as I long to speak with share with him how GREAT the PGA golf tournament was, how sad I am that Robin Williams has died. He would've been devastated by this as well as he so respected and loved his humor and talent.
Of course, like many, Doug and I are recalling the memories we share around his films. I had forgotten that Mork began on Happy Days but I do remember faithfully watching Mork and Mindy week after week when I was a freshman in college! But it's the movies that have burned quotes, moments, profundities into our psyches. For me, I recalled immediately Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. But then Mrs. Doubtfire comes into view, followed by Patch Adams. (If you have missed this one, see it soon. It is based on a true story and is amazing). And who could ever forget the genie from Aladdin?! On and on and on....So one of the responses to all we were feeling yesterday was to watch Good Will Hunting last night. It was a good choice. We had not seen it in a long time so the details were sketchy. It was also the film in which Williams won his Oscar. He wasn't as funny in this film but offered incredible insight into the human condition. Of course, when Williams utters the line, "Real loss is only possible when you love someone more than you love yourself" I knew I was done in. The depth of emotional loss and expression and healing that unfolds between Matt Damon and Williams is just so palpable. I was actually wondering the depth of pain that Damon was feeling upon hearing this news and that made me weep a little more!
It's a toss up between Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society as far as favorite Williams' films but since Dead Poets is in my top 5, I would have to give it top billing.
When Dead Poets Society first came out, it was 1989. I was just back from living in Colombia, South America for two years and had landed a teaching job at the very same school where my father was the head football coach. We had this one very special year together, teaching at the same high school, a lower income, 50% hispanic school where there were lots of underdog kids that we both cared deeply about.
The year we taught together at Anaheim High School, I dressed up like him on Halloween!
You've heard a lot about my dad's incredible influence over young men through his coaching years and I was seeking to aspire to be even a fracture of that influential in my own life. I had made the decision to move to Chicago to go to seminary and my folks were leaving Orange County to move to Palm Springs. So on Father's Day of 1989, I took my dad to the movies to see Dead Poets Society together. There is no other person on earth with whom I wish would've seen this film for the first time. We were enthralled by the story. I was taken up with the language used in the film. We were enchanted by the way Professor Keating gained a hearing with these young men and sought to deeply transform them into thoughtful, thinking men. And then, the ending unfolds with the controlling parents and the pressure on the kids to conform to their parents dreams and wishes and the kid kills himself and the professor is fired and we were an absolute mess. Both of us were sobbing as the film ended. We could barely walk out of the theater and I'm really not sure how we drove home. We were still pretty weepy when we got home and when we walked into the house and my mom saw us, she just laughed out loud and said, "You Two!" Clearly, my father was the more sentimental of those two!
I went back to see the film again and again, taking notes in the dark theater, writing down all of my favorite lines...suck the marrow out of life...using the film in talks and sermons and allowing it to continue to influence me over the years in that Carpe Diem sort of way.
So now, of course, I am dying to watch the film again, but my grief is causing hesitation. I know if I get into it I will SOB and I'm not sure when that SOBBING will stop. And it's not that I mind SOBBING but I'm just not sure about how deeply I want to feel the loss of my father right now. And yet, feeling that loss as deeply as I do reminds me of how we lived our lives in a Carpe Diem sort of way...He allowed me to pursue the things in life that I loved with no pressure to conform to any preconceived notion of how his daughter should be. He was demonstrably proud of me and equally as loving. I think I've made it clear how much respect and admiration and love I had for him as well. I know that there are a host of men in this world for whom Coach Moon Mullen is indeed captain, their captain...for this legacy I am grateful. But I'm also deeply grateful that for me, I got to know him as dad.
Dad and I with mom's tree when we scattered her ashes. Some of his will be scattered there next.
Grief...many of us are feeling it these days. Some over public less personal matters. Others over a deep sense of loss that leaves a dull ache where the love shared has been severed from earthly expression. I hope that Robin and Dad find a way to sit down and share a good laugh together. They would appreciate one another on so many different levels. Rest in peace you wonderful men...who made me laugh, made me cry and helped me understand life just a little better.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Welcome to Sweden: Episode 5

This week's episode cut a little deeper than the past episodes as it explored the perilous road of trying to fit into a new culture and social environment. While it was filled with funny things, the underlying reality for those of us who have sought to acculturate to a new place is that it is hard and at times very lonely and painful. One of the most difficult ways to fit in is through humor!
That's me, being funny. Get it?!
Humor is a very nuanced form of cultural expression and is often missed by those of another ilk. Plays on words, expressions and colloquialisms are the last things a second language speaker begins to understand and yet, they are so often what make up the fabric of an interesting social conversation. Given that both Doug and I like humor and often use it, this has been a very tough road for us. At one point, I actually asked a Swedish staff person who I knew well and enjoyed to laugh at my comments during our all church staff meetings just in case no one else thought they were funny! It got to be a pretty good joke between us. Sadly, he no longer works at Immanuel! But here's a good example of something we thought would be hilarious but fell totally flat.
At Christmas, we always receive a lovely gift from the board. One year, the staff received plush, luxurious bathrobes. It was a nice gift but also a little personal given that it was an employee gift! None the less, we've enjoyed them through the years! But since we all got the same thing, Doug and I thought it would be hilarious to wear them to the first staff meeting of the new year! We even convinced a Swedish colleague to join us but she even warned us that this would not be funny. We prevailed because we are just THAT funny! We walked into a room of about 40 people to incredulous stares and silence. Finally, one Swede broke the silence by asking, "Are you cold?" with a completely straight face. Oj. We realized then that our very sophisticated and subtle humor was completely lost on them. Oh heck, even our obvious baseline humor is lost on them! Which is really sad when you like being funny!
But I digress. Here are some thoughts from this episode! I laughed when Bruce gets the spa bill and it's for like $700.00! And then he tries to talk the clerk out of charging him for certain things! Sweden is expensive and you can be caught off guard by a bill if you don't know going in what things are going to cost. I did have to laugh when he kicked the masseuse when he touched his feet! Doug is so ticklish that he could never go in for a foot massage! One subtle thing that Americans surely missed was when the mom ends up paying and says in Swedish keep the rest for dricks. It translates as tip but Bruce thought she said drinks and said we didn't even have drinks!
I did feel actual pain as Bruce was mulling around that dinner party, trying to listen to the Swedish, desperately wanting to fit in. And then when he reads from google translate in order to get them to invited to the next party. Oh, that Swedish accent is tough! Then he keeps his shoes on and high fives everyone! One cultural misstep after another! The shoe thing is perhaps one of the highest cultural expectations going. I have learned to carry an extra little bag with my "indoor shoes" because I really hate being at a party in my socks or bare feet. But if I don't feel like bringing my shoes, then I double check that my socks are clean without holes in them! I will admit, this practice does keep your house cleaner but in our home, unless the weather is dodgy, you can keep your shoes on.
The whole scene of Swedish burn-out is pretty weird for us. Swedes overuse the term burn-out  and get burn out rather quickly, in my humble opinion. One thing that I find amusing is that when speaking of their passions, they say, "What do you burn for"? Guess you should't burn too brightly or you will get burn-out.
So, at the end of the day, Bruce's default relationship is Hassan, who he has little in common with but shares this core experience of being a foreigner. Too bad he dumps Bruce too! But the truth of the matter for us is that our closest friends are other foreigners. The close Swedish friends we have are married to a foreigner. It's just hard to break into people's social circles and while Swedes do speak English, often they aren't that comfortable doing so so would also rather be in a social setting where they can speak Swedish and not worry about it. And for us, we don't want to put Swedes in an awkward position of having to speak English so you just keep a little distance socially. And at the end of the day, you do have to try to find this fine line between fitting in and being yourself...which are sometimes opposing goals because your personality is very different than the culture that surrounds you. Swedes would not walk into a party and high five everyone! They will however, in a very rigid manner walk around to every person present, look them in the eye, shake their hand, and say their name. Then move on and perhaps never speak to you again for the rest of the evening! But at least they do formally introduce themselves upon arrival. Of course, this happens after they have taken their shoes off!
I understand that a special report interrupted the end of the show in some parts of the US. Bruce's parents call, at a ridiculous time of day in Sweden because Americans do often forget about the time change. We've had 2.00 a.m. calls from someone who just wanted to say hello. When we sound a little groggy, they yell into the phone, "Oh, what time it is there?!" For the record, we're 9 hours ahead of the west coast, 6 hours ahead of the east coast. Everyone else in between, do the math!
But the big news from Bruce's parents is that they are coming to visit! They've booked a cruise and will be in Sweden next week! Stay tuned for more shenanigans when Bruce's parents land in Stockholm.
On another note...I did think the long shots of our fair city this week were just spectacular. Stockholm remains one of the most beautiful cities on earth.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Great Week of Summer Fun

It has been a good week in the Fondell household. We've had good friends in town visiting from the US and we've enjoyed being together with their adorable 7 year old daughter. We've continued to have great weather so we've been able to get out on our boat and enjoy some picnics with many different sets of friends. I even got back on the tube!So did Jim, Cathy, and Kajsa!
 The boat provides a great way to spend time with people which is one of the things I love about summer...a more relaxed pace allows for the space to actually spend time with people. So in the past week, in addition to the three boat picnics, I shared a long conversation with a dear woman from church around a pint of Ben and Jerry's Karamel Sutra and enjoyed a fun, relaxed evening at home around a table filled with grilled sausages, corn on the cob and a wonderful salad with our friends from the US and another good US friend who lives here. Their daughter's name is Kajsa, a distinctly Swedish name but you can imagine that she doesn't find it written on things very often in the US but here in Sweden, it's pretty popular so we found this Coke Bottle for her! Her dad also discovered that it was her name's day here in Sweden so an added bonus! The day of our picnic was only the second day they'd been here. Fresh air, swimming and jet lag took their toll on the way back in! 
In addition to our standard spot south of Stockholm, we added two new spots to stop and enjoy. One was in the Djurgården canal, which is in the heart of the city! Fun to drop anchor, pull in, swim, grill, and enjoy nature from the center of Stockholm!

The other is an island we've been to before but had not been to for awhile. The perfect place for evening sun, eating, swimming.
In addition to the company, the weather continues to dazzle even as the days are waning. This is about 8.30 p.m. now.It is now dark by about 10.00 pm and we need to be pulling into the marina around 9.00 pm to get things buttoned up before dusk sets in. But that means that the sunsets coming in are just spectacular. And the air remains warm and humid so no need for even a sweater! An added bonus is the position of the sun and moon right now. Sunset on one side. Moon rising on the other. 
Just breathtaking.

Last night I stepped on a hot coal from the bbq which did not feel good so for much of the way in I sat on the front of the boat and dangled my feet in the water. The cool water felt good on the seared area and it was so relaxing to listen to the boat cutting through the water. 
(Foot is fine this morning).
These are the times I treasure...time well spent with dear friends in a spectacular setting.
(Thanks for Cathy for some of these great photos.)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Welcome to Sweden: Episode 4

This episode opens in a café where Bruce is putting his "American" on by chatting up the clerk. You would think he would know by now that Sweden is not the Cheer's Bar: Everybody does not know your name nor do they care! But to be fair to the lovely pub across the street from our house: The Man in the Moon, the wait staff does know us and it is pleasant to chat a bit when we stop by, which we don't much anymore because a pint of beer there is $10.00. And even though they know us, we do not run up a tab. But clearly, the most egregious part of this whole scene is the fact that he is buying a semla in the summer. WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE. Semla is a cardamom bun cut in half, with almond paste on the bun and then filled with cream.  Semla is a treat for Lent, only. An indulgence that traditionally was eaten on Mardi Gras as a way to prepare for the disciplines of Lent, admittedly, bakeries are now putting them on the shelves shortly after the new year, but once Easter arrives, you won't see them again until the following winter.  Also, it is impossible to eat one with your hands.
OK, now that I have that off my chest we can move on to the rest of the content. This episode mainly focused on Bruce trying to find a job. He visits Arbetsförmedlingen: The Swedish Public Employment agency. Sweden does work hard at helping people find work but it's not like you just walk in and they hand out jobs! We have some folks at church who work there and it's hard and taxing work because of the expectation that people have that you can simply pull a job out of your magic hat and make people happy! And it is also true that many of the jobs on offer are the low-level cleaning or taxi jobs that so many immigrants end up with. And while many people in Sweden do speak English, most work places function in Swedish. The fact that Bruce does not speak the language nor wants to work in his area of expertise makes finding the perfect job a little tough! It's also totally silly. Again, would never happen in real life. Jobs are really hard to come by for foreigners and as Bruce noted, "It's really expensive not to work." He would likely be interested in anything that could put some kroner into his pocket.
Probably the most frustrating hinder for me here in Sweden are the strict and parochial laws regarding obtaining a driver's license. Sweden is not the most open place for reciprocal agreements. They want you to be trained in their system under their rules for just about everything so usually, even in one's profession, you have to get some kind of training here in order to practice your craft. With the driver's license, even though you may have been driving for say 35+ years, you still have to return to Driver's Education, both written and practical. And it's true. It's incredibly expensive. What really grates on my nerves regarding this practice is that people from Great Britain are exempt from this because if you have a license within the European Union you don't have to get a Swedish license. Great Britain has far less in common with the Swedish driving situation than the US does...They drive on the left for goodness sakes. But they are exempt. Grrrr. This topic gets my ire up.
And ya know what else gets my ire up? People who come to Europe expecting to drive a rental car but do not know how to drive a stick shift. Listen people: Learn to drive a stick before you come to Europe. The vast majority of cars here are stick shift. Don't get angry about this. Learn that this is the custom. And while I am at it, if you plan to go on the Amazing Race, learn to drive a stick. You will have to do so. DUH.
True to form, when Bruce encounters the Farthinder sign, he giggles. All Americans, no matter their age, turn into 12 year boys when they see the "fart" signs around town. Fart hinder is speed bump and one of my favorite words.

Infart is entrance with a vehicle. Utfart is exit with a vehicle. Full Fart is high speed. You get the picture. Farting is all over this society.
I must admit that the no turn on red rule still gets me sometimes. When I'm back in the US, it takes me awhile to remember that I can do so. After enough cars have honked at me, my memory is usually jolted back into place. And then when we return to Sweden, I have to be very disciplined to remember to stay put until the light turns green. Luckily I don't drive very much here.
My last impression this week was when Emma and Bruce were in the bar having a drink and they encounter Gene Simmons. Most remarkable to me about that scene was that Bruce orders a Gin and Tonic. Probably cost him $20.00. Drinking out costs a lot of money. Getting a driver's license costs a lot of money. Being unemployed costs a lot of money. If Bruce wants to keep up this lifestyle, he better find a job and soon! Full Fart Framåt Bruce! (Full Speed Ahead Bruce!)