By The Book
If you asked me right now amidst the flurry of today’s happenings, I’d say I’m starting to get tired of Sweden. Let me get philosophical for a second to explain why. I believe that we experience life through metaphysical lenses; sometimes lenses we chose to wear, but primarily lenses our social environment selects for us. I’d like to think I’m a fair and open-minded individual, able to give an even-handed assessment of a foreign place such as Sweden. At the same time, it’s challenging to constantly remove my privileged white American spectacles. I personally gravitate towards environments to which I’m accustomed, as is natural (especially if you’re a private school kid), and Sweden sports some unaccustomed characteristics that irk me.
Compared to the United States, Sweden feels like a more closed and rule-oriented society, but with peculiar eccentricities. For example, a provision is written into their governing constitution that broadly encourages “sharing.” This has provided the (local) ethical justification for illegal file-sharing and other forms of internet piracy that continue here yet are severely regulated in the U.S. (Apparently they recently passed legislation to limit such piracy, but suffice it to say the law hasn’t yet caught on). On the other hand, they are very adamant about following protocol and sticking to the script.
The episode about a month back when I had to beg the manager for the train company to change my ticket is indicative of that. Today at the airport I begged for three customer service agents on separate occasions to put me on an earlier flight. I even offered to sing one of them a song. She implied that she would get fired for a few mindless clicks of the mouse. What a cruel world we live in. I fly frequently and have no illusions that U.S. carriers are good, but my request would have been a done deal on Delta, United, even American. If you’ve bought a later flight but that carrier has open seats on an earlier flight, they should accommodate you. It’s called good customer service.
Service lags behind here. I think the minimum wage is around 100SEK/hr ( ~$14 at today’s exchange rate). Wage laborers (like restaurant staff) are theoretically better off here than in America, except that there is no tipping in Europe. So they lose the opportunity to make extra cash. More importantly, service suffers. This trip has truly made me value a good waiter/waitress – I don’t know if they exist in Europe. I don’t blame Swedish waiters one bit, as there is no incentive for them to make the extra effort.
Thus, in those situations where certain rules are expected but surprisingly absent, Sweden renders itself fairly open. In regards to the rules they do maintain, however, there is less of a willingness to bend them. Again there are complications. Take the question of presenting identification. At the airport, you don’t need to show any ID to clear security, just your boarding pass. But you need a Lund University student ID to attend an on-campus frat party and a passport/national ID to buy alcohol. Huh? The alcohol thing is another issue altogether. If you go out to a bar or club, you’ll rarely be asked for ID since the age limit is 18. But to buy alcohol at the state-owned liquor store Systembolaget – the ONLY place you can buy alcohol – you must be 20 years of age.
My roommate Erik related to me yesterday a situation his law school class has been grappling with this week, shedding further light on Swedish adherence to rules. I may bungle some of the particulars, but what follows is the general idea. During WWII, a British corporation requested that one of its ship be granted harbor at Stockholm. Sweden, a neutral observer throughout the war, was inclined to accommodate until Germany issued an ultimatum stating that they commanded the Baltic, and any attempt to harbor British ships would be an act of hostility prompting grave consequences. Sweden’s prime ministers could have timely resolved the matter, acting under the best interests of the country, but instead followed the constitutional rules and put the issue in Parliament’s hands. Even during a world war with national security on the line, the Swedish government refused to bend rules.
I’m also trying to reconcile the cultural impetus to march in step with the fact that Sweden consistently produces talented and creative artists, a few of whom I’ve discussed previously on the blog. From my friend Ross’s thoughts on the youth jazz festival, originality is praised and encouraged here. There are a few outspoken individuals who exercise their freedom of expression to the utmost. But such behavior is rare. (Here comes the cynic saying, it’s rare everywhere. Relax). Swedes are encouraged to be original but also not to rock the boat. What’s with all the mixed messages?
Perhaps this is all my own discriminating perception. Perhaps I’m expecting things a certain way, in accordance with some skewed (American) sense of entitlement. Perhaps the fact that I am experiencing the country as a budget traveler rather than an upper middle class citizen says it all. Perhaps. To be fair, much of my discomfort is financially related. Everything is expensive here. My ticket to Piteå (think SFO-LAX) was already $300. I’m not about to pay another $150 to change it. I just paid $20 for a side Caesar salad and a Sprite. Granted, it is the airport, but that’s nuts. I can’t even drown my sorrows in a beer, unless I want to spend another $10.