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You Knew I Was A Swede When You Picked Me Up

LUND—“So what do you think of Swedish music club?” asked Lena’s friend Gabriella.
I looked around at the casually hip crowd and didn’t see one person who would look particularly out-of-place at a Cleveland concert. It was an all-ages show at the Lund Cultural Center, a sort of hang-out spot, nightclub and center-for-the-arts wrapped into one. There was a triple bill including Sweden’s biggest up-and-coming hip hop star (I am fully aware how odd that may sound) Jason Diakite, and several other currently popular musicians including Lena’s childhood friend Mårton Dahl on bass.
I pondered Gabriella’s question for a while, trying to put into words both the odd familiarity of the place and the subliminal undercurrent of foreigness. “It really looks pretty much like a club in the US,” I replied, “only, uh, well, whiter…”
Earlier I had been trying to explain to Olivia Svenson, a celebrity gossip columnist for the magazine Click, how I found Sweden almost disturbingly unforeign. I hadn’t done too well there either — the problem with these conversations being that they tend to fall into sweeping generalizations. Nonetheless I plowed forward, generally sweeping anything and anyone that came into my path.
“Well I haven’t been to Europe in almost 15 years,” I began, “But when I changed planes in Amsterdam I was immediately reminded of how, well, European everyone looked. The Swedes don’t generally look or act like that…”
Olivia seemed puzzled, “What is it we’re lacking then?”
“Not lacking,” I replied, “Not lacking at all unless you mean lacking sunken chests, funny clothes, bad attitudes and some nasty vices concealed as virtues…”
I realized I wasn’t exhibiting much wisdom or erudition. In fact my rather banal observations were making me insecure and tempting me to praise Sweden by blurting out some horrible nonsense like, “Well heck, pretty lady, far as I can see ya’ll are practically Americans!”
I was saved by a guy who interrupted to say he had lived for some time in Knoxville, Tennessee. Indeed, he spoke English with a sort of twang added to the usual melodic Swedish accent. At least, then, the conversation was switched to safer topics like US/Middle East relations… The Swedish Southerner did express being mystified by the current US President, then proved himself almost definitely not American by knowing the names of all the key cabinet members then surprised me again by saying, “We are alike, America and Europe. We stand for the same things, have the same ideals. You are, without a doubt, the most powerful country in the world and we need to work with you. America is descended from Europe so we are responsible for you; and you for us if the world is to be a free and better place…. But I’m glad they fired Rumsfeld…” I almost choked on my drink.
I went downstairs to the lavatory. There was a pack of Swedish teenage boys, shaggy haired and trying out the poses of what they imagined was adult confidence. One did his best imitation of a swagger, pointed at my camera and said something that I couldn’t understand. I was cornered in an underground bathroom in a strange country. I subtly shifted my weight to the balls of my feet, turned slightly sideways and wondered what the next move would be, got ready.
“Speak English,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied politely, “Where are you from?”
“Ohio.”
He looked delighted, “Do you know the Drew Carey Show? Have you been to Cleveland!? Anyway, I want to be a photographer and I wanted to know what you think of the Nikon D2x…”
I felt foolish having thought I was about to be mugged. We talked cameras for a while and I shot a few photos of them while they pretended to hang tough, flashing gang sign they’d seen in American movies. I went back upstairs and showed the pictures to Lena, “Aren’t they cute,” she laughed.
The band I was there to photograph came on. I took a deep breath and descended into the packed mosh pit. The music was good, high energy rock and rap. The kids cheered, waved their arms, pushed towards the stage and when they saw my camera, got out of the way to give me better angles. I’ve never felt so unmolested in a mosh pit in my life.
Over the next days I kept thinking about the question, kept trying to figure out why Sweden seems so familiar. Lena said that the man who’d lived in Knoxville didn’t have typical opinions of America so I decided to ask some people the question directly, to ask both about the character of their own country and their perceptions of America and Americans. Present at this admittedly uncomprehensive survey were Lena Philipson, Frederik Larrson, Olivia Svenson, Anna Palmehag and Martin and Hennie Ekelund. For the record, all but Martin’s wife Hennie are trained and working journalists.
“Sweden,” said Martin, “is a doing culture rather than a being culture. Swedes participate in a lot of organizations, volunteer for many things. Many people devote all their free time to organizational life and socialize through the organization.”
“We can’t just sit around and hang out,” added Frederik, “We need to do something. We believe we are the most modern country in the world. We had these peer study groups in which the workers educate themselves. We also have a lot of faith in our government. We trust them…”
“We actually do!” said Lena.
“It goes back to at least the 15th century. The farmers always had a lot of say as to what the kings did. The state was never the enemy of the people like in, say, Italy or France.”
“We do what the government says,” commented Olivia, “When I was a kid the government said it was good to drink milk. If you’re a kid you have to drink milk. I hate milk and had to take a note from my mother to school saying I didn’t like milk.”
“You don’t mean you’re allergic to milk?” I asked, “You actually mean you had to have a note from home just to say you didn’t like it?”
“They made me drink the milk,” added Frederik.
I had a feeling I was onto something, what I wasn’t sure, but it had to do with a basically homogeneous (or homogenized) culture. They never could make me drink the milk. But then the conversation shifted to America and Americans.
“They talk a lot but there isn’t much content,” said Olivia the gossip columnist, “I’ve heard they talk, talk, talk and you don’t get to know them anyway…And they’re cocky of course.”
“You don’t really meet that many Americans,” mused Frederik, “Actually the ones I’ve met are always very generous and open minded. But the ones I’ve met have been in Europe so maybe they’re more open to other cultures. Then again I’ve never been to America…”
“The American culture is so adopted in Sweden,” said Martin, “We take so much from them that sometimes we feel we need to push back from all this American culture. We adopt everything from you but then try to keep our distance.”
“Because it’s kind of embarrassing,” added Olivia, “Americanization, Americanized, are bad words, like we get fat, lay around watching TV and drinking Coke. But we loved your President Clinton here.”
“The Swedish people love Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Americans mocking Americans,” said Lena.
Hennie chimed in, saying, “I guess my impression is that Americans know most about themselves and not the world around them and that America has the idea it always knows what’s best for everyone. But in other ways you are all quite open and accept new people and ideas quite easily. Americans are friendly and easy to talk to but maybe not so easy to really know. They seem quite different, liberal in many senses but very Christian and fundamentalist.”
“Sweden is such a secular country,” Olivia explained, “We see on your television always the actor or singer or politician thanking God.”
“I actually find that very humble,” said Frederik.
“I guess it isn’t weird that Americans believe in something…” said Olivia as an afterthought.
“But it would be political suicide for a politician to thank God publically,” stated Lena.
“Oh yes,”said Anna.
“Absolutely,” said Hennie.
“Even for the Christian Democrats,” added Lena.
There was silence for a time while everyone seemed to digest the fact that commenting on entire cultures and countries is an interesting but perhaps essentially futile exercise — that sweeping Swedes and Americans and anyone else into neat little piles was, perhaps, one step away from sweeping all of them into a dustpan.
“Everyone has an opinion about American society,” said Frederik, “but we get these opinions from the media and the media always generalizes. I haven’t got the complete picture of your society so I’m generalizing a lot. If you asked me about Norweigian society I might very well say, I don’t know, but about Americans we all have opinions.”
It was getting late and everyone had to work in the morning. We left Café Finn, said our goodbyes, exchanged plans for New Years’ Eve. Olivia hugged Lena, then me and said, “We like you very much.”

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