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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!