Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Spring is in the air, Come Visit Sweden!

Well its the video for which my blog is name: A wonderful and inspiring tribute to Scandinavia the people and culture, the city and natural surroundings living in harmony. Most everything you can expect to physically see is in this video however its lacking in one major component, that is to say there is no one talking and you do not really get to learn about the people you see in these videos. That is something I would suggest you come here to see for yourself...its definitely worth your while and while your here, look me up, im just around the corner.

But for now, all I can say is that time flies by so quickly here...from one event to another, from one week to the next...I for one can not believe that I have gone through three seasons here already...arriving in late summer, I experienced the fall and winter here in the Capital of Scandinavia....

Winter this year was especially mild which is quite nice, as I neglected to pack any winter clothing! In previous years the channels that line the Skärgård (archipelago) freeze over and one is able to skate to the nearby islands. The result of global warming it seems is that this will be happening much and much less frequently in this part of the world. However with the mild winter comes other advantages including an early spring....this last weekend in February I saw my first signs that spring was around the corner with the blooming of Swedish flowers in several of the gardens throughout the city. The air is crisp and the sun is finally making an appearance, it seems that this will be a Summer to remember here in Sverige.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

SNUS, all the benefits of Smoking without the Smoke!

There you have it...SNUS...What is SNUS?!?....a revolutionary way to reap all the benefits of nicotine, and all those other wonderful chemicals but without the smoke that is so common with normal tobacco products. Being raised in Western Canada i am no stranger to a similar product referred to as ¨Chewing Tobacco¨ . There are many varieties, tastes, strenghts etc...but this product is basically just raw tobacco stuffed into a small round plastic container. You insert it into your gums directly and the saliva produced while its there is normally spit out...to me it conjures up images of cowboys in the wild west and spittoons.
I know of several people back home that do use this as a fix to their addictions but the Swedes, in typical Swedish style have taken some of the ewweee out of the entire thing by creating something similar to ¨chew¨but each dosage is pre-sized and bagged in a sort of tea bag that allows the flavor and nicotine to penetrate through -Yummy! Removal is quick, clean, and easy as none of the tobacco leaves the convenient pouch.

Having spoken with users (that include both men and women) its clear that this stuff is incredibly addictive and socially accepted here in Sweden unlike in the rest of the EU who banned the sale of it back in 1992 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snus). Sweden is supposed to also come on board in removing this product from the shelves it maybe something that will neigh happen over night with over 1.1 million people using the product here.

One chilling side effect of the product from ¨lifetime¨users is the recession of the tandkött or gums up the teeth over time until users when placing the product in their mouth no longer do so below their lip but higher up to a point just beside their nose.

This product is incredibly addictive and many who have used it have a hard time kicking the habit and will frequently switch to smoking during especially weak periods of self control.

I have had the chance to put some in my mouth however a good friend whom i met here convinced me to remove it from my mouth before its effects could be felt, so I cannot really comment on how it feels or the effects. Perhaps this is something your going to have to come here to try out for yourself!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll...Swedish Nightlife

Just as people in many other parts of the world, Swedes have no lack of traditions, cultural heritage, and sacred traditions, this post is on something quite a bit different then that:
The Weekend Party

No matter how cool or damp the weather is on a given stockholm evening, you can always count on a hot and steamy party to be going on at one of the many bars, lounges, clubs, discos, etc that are located in and around downtown Stockholm.

This weekend ritual is not as transparent as it seems to many of us that live in other parts of the world. There are some very important differences not the least of which is the creation of the förfest or pre-party. Drinking in Stockholm, or even in Sweden for that matter is quite an expensive affair especially when you take into account Sweden's strict regulations on alcohol sales and consumption, only legally allowed by the System Bolaget. The short story here is that alcohol is expensive, very expensive, in fact it is on average 2x as expensive as prices in Canada where the prices are already inflated. The country has had its problems with alcohol abuse although from my experience here, these strict rules do not do much to curb them.

So I believe the förfest was developed in order to a) save people money, b) meet up in one central place before going out, and c) getting into the party spirit. There is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained when drinking at a pre-party, and I have seen many "half decomposed examples" of people with an inability to perfect this on the t-bana on our way out to the clubs. There is also the problem that if you appear to be too psyched in the lineup the asshole bouncers can and do quite easily prevent you from getting inside.

Once you are inside the club, the Fest can begin, or does it? If in student cities outside Stockholm the number of bars can and do prevent a majority from entering so was created the Mellanfest a time where after you get your stamp guaranteeing you re-entry, you go back home to party and continue drinking gratis. When finally you do get inside, depending on the depth of your pockets (t.ex whether your a student) the drinking inside may slow down a considerable amount. Hence the goal for some is to maintain this tipsy balance without overdoing it to ensure a proper fest.

The night life here is definitely vibrant and with the variety of choices you have the option of upscale or down home with advantages and disadvantages to each local. Entry into the more posh and expensive clubs in Stureplan is normally easiest around 10pm with it getting harder and harder the longer you wait if you happen to pee standing up. If you happen to want to get in after midnight and are a group of only guys and don't happen to know the bouncer or owner, it might be worth your while to check out the night life in Södermalm.

n Södermalm you will find that the rules of entry are quite a bit more relaxed as are the drink and entrance prices. Not only are the rules of entry more relaxed but from my experience the people seem more down to earth and easier to talk to as well.

Many clubs are open late here in Stockholm with several closing at 3 and others that close at 5am. The T-bana shuts down from the center at about 3:30am and for many this is their last time to get out of the center to the suburbs without having to worry about the night bus. The T-bana can be quite unreliable at this time with drunk people trying to get on and off and who knows what else happening at stations besides the one you are at.

Once you do get home some of the die hard party animals might continue their partying with what is known here as Aftonfest. This is where you migrate back home and continue the party which typically ends in people passing out around the flat after a bite to eat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Swedish Education System

So you might wonder why it is that I am here in the first place: Education!
The Social System here covers a lot of things, Education from K through 12 is just a part of it, in fact many universities and colleges are also without fees or costs for the education itself...the only fee that one might pay here is a mandatory fees to the Students union which amounts to no more than $25 or thereabouts. There are also course materials but most of the time the materials are provided the students electronically so you can do with them what you will.

The most amazing thing is the introduction that Swedish children get to the education system. As early as 1 they go to government subsidized day cares where they are introduced to the learning environment. You learn for your entire life but most of your early formative years children in Canada are cared for at home by only their parent or guardian. What a frightful thing it would be for any student to leave this secure environment and go at the age of 5 to spend their entire day with strangers. Here is another example of why Sweden has it right.

But!...lets start from the beginning. K through 12. Its typical in western societies that a certain minimum education level is maintained so that the population is somewhat educated. Canada is no different, there we have some of the best education in the world...I will probably ruffle a few feathers if i was to say that our education system is better then the great US of A but i firmly believe this from my experiences traveling and the general perception that you gather watching countless hours of American programming. US education aside...in Canada our Education system is great, I went through it, I excelled as did many friends and colleges. In fact my opionion was that the education system was somewhat easy which is why I chose to accellerate my learning by taking International baccalaureate (www.ibo.org) courses in science in my final 3 years of study.

In Sweden, not only do they have the same level of high school education but they go a step farther here...for instance, all the way through to the 12th grade students are provided lunch! And we are not talking about a burger and fries, speaking with people here the food choices are healthy and nutritional. In the event that the school is too small to have its own cafeteria, the students are provide THE SCHOOL to go to any establishment of their choice for lunch. You might think: "Great, lunch so what?"....but let me tell you when i was going through school being raised by a single parent who had to work to keep food on the table (im talking dinner food here) there was never time for her to help us with lunch....we didn't have the money growing up for me to eat out every day and pretty much for 6 years through junior and high school i would go without lunch. How does this
effect a student? well for one they are probably hungry in the afternoon...reduces concentration, weight gain, im sure dozens of other effects.
The lunches end at grade 12 however the support from the government does not. Students are encouraged to go onto higher education be it University (Universitet) or Technical School (Högskolan) where the government provides student with a strip end to make ends meet while going, noting however that the school costs nothing. The entire system here is setup to promote higher education of the general population.
What is the result of all this higher education? The results from are pretty clear from my viewpoint. For a country of 9 million they have more popular and worlds known brands then I can count.

These are just a few of the companies I could come up with off the top of my head. Its obvious that the Swedes are doing something right here.

Along with the great education system the provide their own citizens they provide the same to countless international students every year as well. Its a win-win situation: The students that come here are typically from part of the world where the education system is still lagging behind the rest of the world and by helping these students they are helping their entire country by helping to advance knowledge there; Schools here are funded based on the number of students that pass the courses, the smarter the kids and the better the education the more funding the school gets to do more of the same.

When i finished my degree I was looking down the barrel of a huge student loan that was accumulating interest daily and this is even worse in the states where their education system can cost almost 10x what one in Canada currently costs. Not exactly helpful.

Swedish Honesty

Having been here several months now, I have had the opportunity to get to know many people in Sweden as well as those things that you can only learn and experience by being here. These are things you wont really find written down anywhere and quite honestly they are hard to describe.

One thing that has really struck me is how honesty and morality has penetrated this society to such a degree. There are many facets of this society that I just cant see working back home.

For example:
  • At a typical Swedish Smörgåsbord you are given a main course as well as access to the Salad buffet. At one of the local eateries they have this setup that the Salad buffet is completely separate from the food counter and the rest of the staff. Now the honest thing to do is to purchase a main course and then take from the salad buffet and thats how I have always done it. After speaking with a few international students that are here temporarily I was surprised to learn that a few just come to the cafeteria with their own main course from home and take from the buffet gratis without a second thought. This is the kind of problem I believe you would experience back in Canada as well.
  • When driving to a supermarket or mall and parking in their lot, its up to the person parking there to display the time they arrived on their car so that if inspected, the inspector can confirm they have not overstayed their limit.
  • The subway system or t-bana is not policed and one can easily jump over the turn style and ride for free. Its expected that everyone riding the system will pay for the system therefore ensuring that costs are paid for.
  • While riding the t-bana a few weeks ago, someone had lost a single glove on one of the carriages, this was brought up to the conductor who then announced the disappearance of this glove at all of the next stations at least until I got off and possibly longer.
  • I forgot my digital camera on the bus on a recent trip. Not even realizing it was missing i was not concerned about it at all, however, someone has brought the camera to the driver and she was actually -frantically- looking for its owner. My camera and I were re-united.
There are also other things that are hard to describe however in general things are not policed here, its expected that people will do the right thing and if something is offered at a charge, the charge will be paid. I have to say I really like the Swedish system and it inspires me to try to live up to their high standards. Just like when you were a kid and told not to do something, you would try your best to do the opposite, is just the way that I believe giving people freedom to choose to do the right thing works here in Sweden. I think that of course there will always be those people that take advantage of this freedom but so far it seems to be working here.

Now a really good song that was part of the Svensk Melodifestivalen a couple of years ago by a well known Swedish artist Lena Philipsson - Det Gör Ont..which losely translates to something like - It Hurts.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's _issing _n Stock_lm City?.....

There are a lot of great things about Stockholm. You have a moderate climate regulated by ocean currents so that its never very cold here. The weather has been especially mild this Winter with it rarely getting very cold, in fact its a good think, along with everything i packed when coming here, my goose down filled winter coat didn't fit anywhere so I ended up leaving it in Canada.

Im currently staying in an area referred to as Östermalm which if you look it up on Google maps is quite centrally located to the downtown. you can easily get to anywhere you need to by T-Bana, bus or even walking. The majority of the clubs, bars and downtown nightlife is within walking distance of the central station referred to as T-Centralen in Segels Torg. The nightlife here is especially different to what I am used to back home in that some of the more popular clubs don't get started until after midnight and several of them are open until 5 am (This is in contrast to clubs that close at 2am!) There are two main districts where the majority are located: Stureplan and Södermalm. I have had great times in both districts but I prefer Söder. The Stureplan clubs are very posh, pushy, the bouncers decide entry on looks rather then your spot in the queue, drinks are expensive -even for Swedish prices- and much of it seems somewhat fake. In contrast, Söder is down to earth, people are out to have a good time, drink prices are more reasonable and the bouncers are more friendly. If you are interested in going out in the Stureplan area, my recommendation to you would be to get there early, say around 10pm where the line ups will be non existent and the selection process to get in is less strict.

Swedish Meeting place:
Svampa or Mushroom in English....A huge concrete statue that looks the part located in the heart of Stureplan.

The heart of Stockholm is full of beautifully designed buildings and is architecturally stunning. Its clear there is a lot of history here and one of the first things that struck me when I finally got settled in my first night was the way that the city is designed for people to walk and bike from one location to another. In contrast to typically North American design where the cities are designed for vehicles with pedestrians as an afterthought. I love just walking around the city here and around every new corner you discover something you have never seen. One thing thats taken a bit of getting used to is the naming of the streets instead of the numbered grid system that I'm used to. I guess this it how its done in a lot of the world, but I will never figure it out....

What about the Swedes you ask?

Well glad you asked. There is a lot to say about Swedish people. They are famous for their English skills which i can tell you first hand is the case. Swedish is not an international language being spoken by about 20 million world wide and from the time children are in grade 4 they are taught English. Most television programming comes from the USA and is all in English (subtitled in Swedish). Swedes also normally also speak a third language, something that is taught to them starting around grade 7, they have the choice of learning a variety of languages the most popular of which are Spanish, French, or German. I have been amazed on more then one occasion where I am at a party full of international students and Swede is able to jump from conversation to conversation each time changing their language of choice to the dominant one of the person they are talking to. This is truly a life skill and one I wish i had been exposed to growing up.

Before coming here I did research on Sweden and Swedes in general and everywhere i read that they are hard to get to know but once you do get to know them they are very warm and outgoing. I have to say that for the most part this criticism is a little exaggerated. In my time here I have found that Swedes are very friendly and outgoing and while some may be a bit reserved, it takes only a hello to open up dialog. Swedes are quite interested in learning about other countries and also practicing their English skills. Going out you meet lots of people especially on the weekends, i guess a few beers helps too. One of my favorite resources on Sweden were videos by a Swedish Comedian named Henrik Schyffert. He has a series of videos where he goes out on the town and addresses various Swedish stereotypes and issues in Swinglish. I have included a few in this blog but finding the rest is as easy as search for them on youtube.
These videos are good examples of how extroverted swedes can be. This comedian is randomly selecting people walking by and interviewing them. Im especially impressed with their dancing skills...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

First Experiences in Sweden

It was just a few short months ago that I arrived in Sweden. The day I arrived is still as clear in my mind as if it was yesterday. I got off the plane after missing my first flight to the Capital of Scandinavia (more on that later) and was greeted by border control which politely took my passport which was embossed with a Swedish permit to stay in the country for study.

Whats the first thing I did when I arrived in Sweden? - well to be honest, nature called so as callus and unexciting as it seems, I "discovered" the facilities. After freshening up in what seemed like my own private hotel (again, more on that later) I departed towards customs inspection.

Of course no world traveler would be worth his salt without having done some research on their intended destination and I for one had been studying Sweden and the entire Scandinavian experience for several months before I got on that British Airways flight.

What I read about was how the Swedes had created what some might call a Utopia of sorts. Everything about the society maintained a balance that I personally envy. People in Sweden have the opinion that you WORK TO LIVE and not the other way around. A testimate of this fact is that Swedes work the least amount of hours in all the European Union. In fact a typical Canadian working year is based on a 2080 work hour year whereas in comparasion, a Swedish work year is approximately 1519 hours!
In actual fact, when I was working in Canada, my work hours typically consisted of getting to work at 6:30 and leaving at 6pm! I would even come in on the weekends during times where we were busy. It seems that they have figured out that delicate balance between work and personal time. This can be seen in all facets of society here:
  • There are no 24 hour grocery stores and most typically close at 8 or 9 pm
  • The liquor store is open till 5pm most days, 7 on fridays and closes at 3 on saturdays! (dont even think about Sunday, thats the day of rest)
  • Many institutions close for lunch between 12 and 1
  • My current accommodation has office hours between 8 and 9 am daily, and at no other times.
  • The underground runs until 12:30 am during the week (at least in Stockholm!)
  • Even 7-11 stores, which are very popular here, close at 11!

Kidding aside, I have to admit there is a certain understandability about the hours that Swedes keep. Family and friends are important, these things take nurturing to develop and ultimately all of this takes time. How many times have you heard of a story where one member of a household is working long hours and it ends up causing problems in the nuclear family unit. Closing shops early means that more time is spent with loved ones and ultimately these loved ones develop into well integrated members of society. The Cycle of life as it were.