When I found out that I was going to take a trip to Sweden, I
quickly took stock of all of the things that I knew about the country.
My list was disturbingly short:
The Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show
Red candy in the shape of fish
As far as American pop culture would have me believe, Sweden is a country that loves disco, bite sized meat and efficient design. Furthermore, I'd have to be extremely careful around anyone wearing a chef's hat, lest I be bludgeoned to death with a rolling pin.
On my last trip to Norway, I was given a stern warning that, should I ever visit Sweden, it was vitally important that I did not impersonate the Swedish Chef as the Swedes don't find this character particularly endearing. This advice was given to me by the wife of a man who, upon arriving in Sweden, began to do his best Swedish Chef impersonation. I took this advice to heart and kept any "hordy-bordy, bork bork bork" comments strictly to myself.
Upon arriving in Sweden, I was surprised to find that disco wasn't blaring in the public squares, I didn't have to run from anyone with a rolling pin and the bed at my hotel was already fully assembled. What I did find was a country full of friendly people and wonderful traditions. My two and a half day visit was far too short, but I enjoyed it immensely despite its brevity.
The group that I visited was quick to teach me their favorite Swedish tradition: Fika. Fika is similar to a coffee break in the United States, only it's more riged in that it is scheduled. At 10am and 3pm each day, most people take a social coffee break, which regularly includes some sort of cookie and casual conversation.
It is my understanding that the scheduling of Fika is unflinchingly riged with only one exception: If you find that you need to avoid someone, it is perfectly acceptable to take Fika that is slightly
later than normal. I never found out what happens if the people who are trying to avoid one another both take a later Fika. I imagine that there may be some sort of complicated communal Fika schedule, but no one ever showed it to me. Even though I never unwrapped all of the mysteries of Fika, I did enjoy the tradition a great deal, and I hope that it catches on throughout the world.
As is my normal routine when visiting a new country, I took the first opportunity I found to visit a grocery store (see: Why I Love Grocery Stores). Just before entering the store, I saw a large crowed of people gathered around a portable PA system to which were attached three pink balloons. Normally this alone wouldn't be something that would draw a crowd, so I started looking for the more interesting something that had garnered so much attention.
An older man was yelling something in Swedish while a younger man was restraining him by hugging him from behind. Had it not been for the yelling, I could have believed that this was a young lover and his sugar daddy, but the yelling gave it away. The older man struggled, broke free and began to beat the man who had been restraining him. At this point a larger man, who appeared to be a motorcycle enthusiast (leather jacket, long hair and plenty of muscles), stepped forward and restrained the older man.
As far as I could tell, the older man had a serious dislike for pink balloons as this is apparently a very serious problem in Sweden. As an outsider who is indifferent to the presence of pink balloons, it was of no concern of mine so I went into the grocery store to see what I could learn about Swedish culture.
Based solely on my observations in the Swedish grocery store, I've come to the conclusion that the Swedes have a great and deep love for storing food in tubes. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this.
Toothpaste is easy, but what about everything else that could be contained and stored within tubes? Ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise seem natural enough along with chocolate fudge for ice cream. I can even understand the chocolate sprinkles (AKA: Jimmies) as they can be conveniently stored next to the chocolate fudge, but the Swedes have gone much further than this.
What really surprised me were the tubes in the deli section that contained a wide variety of meat spreads. Having lived all of my life chewing my meat or tearing it off sticks with my teeth like a fool, I was blissfully unaware of this highly advanced society that had developed the technology to process meat and put it in easy to carry tubes. At this moment I felt inadequate as a human being, which is a very strange feeling to have while standing next to a cold case in a grocery store.
As far as variety goes, the field is pretty wide open: lobster, prawn, bacon and various types of ham that I was unable to identify are easily available. I even saw tubes of something called Kaviar, which I assume is as much like caviar as krab is like crab.
I was able to summon all of my will power to resist purchasing a tube of bacon, which is just as well since it would have probably been confiscated in customs. I did load up on salted licorice before I left, but I resisted the irony of purchasing Swedish fish in Sweden. Oddly enough, the Swedish fish were sold loose and were assorted colors; not just red.
Upon exiting the grocery store, I found that the crowd had greatly thinned, and the major players in the confrontation that I had witnessed were no longer there. A pair of police officers were questioning some witnesses, and the pink balloons no longer adorned the portable
PA system. As I walked toward my bus stop, I couldn't help but think about what happened to those pink balloons.
Looking back on my time in Sweden, I find myself wishing that I was able to spend more time there, and I look forward to the next time my travels take me to Sweden.
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