Day 237 — Not so fast, Springtime

Reports of the death of winter have been premature as evidenced by this afternoons snowfall. Mariette documented if for posterity.

Because it only hovered around zero it did not stick long so this may be winter’s last gasp. We shall see.

In other local news, I began teaching a conversational English course today at the local adult education school in town. The students are managers from a firm in a nearby town and we had a ball exploring some of the crazier quirks of English. It occurred to me that the letters -ough can be pronounced in any number of ways which can be confusing as hell to a non-English speaker. Think of: though, through, rough, bough, thought and there is another that escapes me at the moment. Anyway, this will be fun.

We got another window on the Swedish mind today on the national news. Like the U.S., Sweden has its prisons for people who have committed horrendous crimes but who have been judged insane (as if there is any criminal who isn’t!). Anyway, the inmates in these prisons for the criminally insane are given cell phones and computers. Well, it turns out that some of these folks are using these devices from their cells to threaten and attempt to intimidate people in the real world. One nut was saying how he was going to kill someone when he got out. Real rational stuff.

But here is the interesting point of all this: there are people here actually advocating for the rights of these lunatics to have cell phones and computers. One can sort of understand the thinking behind such advocacy: these people got the way they are by being cut off from social relationships in the first place. But, hey, Sweden, how about monitoring the calls or putting filters on the computers?

Some of the things I hear about truly amaze me and this was one of them.


Day 236 — Clouds in the water

Last night’s post was all significance. Today, to switch it up, it is all pictures. The ice was breaking up and sitting in the deep blue of the sea they looked like clouds almost.

Actually, looking at these again, they don’t see like clouds at all, just chunks of ice in the water. I think Mariette brainwashed me. But the water was a brilliant blue as was the sky. That made it a good day.

Day 235 — Train wreck narrowly averted

I learned a bit more about the Melodifestivalen song contest and why the songs are generally so bad. This is what I was referring to in last night’s post about the morality of watching a train wreck. The Melodifestivalen is Sweden’s national song contest. But it is a pop song contest, meaning bubble gum songs or schmaltzy ballads. The contest is huge in Sweden with nearly half the country watching the final night each year. Each year more than 3,000 songs are entered and of those 32 are selected and performed over 4 consecutive weeks in February, 8 per week. If the 32 songs are the best of the 3,000 I cannot imagine how bad most of the other entries are.

My reason for mentioning a train wreck is because the third week’s show (last Saturday) was just that, a complete train wreck. Horrible songs performed by horrible performers. We watched it only because it was so bad. A similar fate was narrowly avoided this week but we were watching to see if lightning would strike twice. It didn’t, but just barely. Knowing that these are pop songs made things clear as to why the contest is so bad. Swedish pop music is truly unlistenable. One journalist described the genre as an irritating repetitive melody with lyrics that signify little or nothing.

The winner of the Melodifestivalen goes onto the Eurovision song contest held in April. The only two winners of the Eurovision contest I have ever heard of are ABBA and Celine Dion, so I guess winning all the marbles is not a guaranteed ticket to stardom like winning American Idol is or used to be.

I was glad to find out, though, that it is a pop song contest today, though in the 60s the winning songs were often jazz. I was beginning to think there weren’t other kinds of music in Sweden except pop or old timey Swedish folk songs.

Enough of that. The other big contest in Sweden at this time of year started today, the Vasaloppet ski race. The origin of the race dates back to the 1500s when Scandinavia was ruled by Denmark. A nobleman named Gustav Vasa was fleeing the evil Danish king who had just butchered most of the Swedish elites after inviting them to dinner to patch things up between him and them. He patched them up real good that night. Anyway, Vasa’s parents were murdered in the blood bath and he hightailed it out of there. In the middle of the country he skied his way out of trouble, and the route he took is commemorated today with the ski race bearing his name. He wound up heading the rebellion that freed Sweden from Danish rule in 1523 and Sweden has been independent ever since.

The race is a marathon of 10 Swedish miles which is 90 km or 54 miles. A Swedish mile is 10 km or 6 miles. It is the longest ski marathon in the world and nowadays it is a week long event with several different classes of races, women’s races, kids races, you name it, it is part of Vasaloppet. There was woman’s race today that had 8,000 contestants. 8,000 people on skis going at it for 35 km. The big race itself is next Sunday. The fastest time ever was by some guy in 1998 at 3 hours and 38 minutes. That is almost 25 km (15 miles) per hour. On skis. Most of the race must have been downhill that year. The fastest marathoners only go about 13 mph for 2 hours. This 15 mph for over 3 hours. Imagine the cardiovascular strength.

No train wrecks here. (No pictures today either.)

Day 234 — More sides of Sweden

Some interesting things occurring lately that shed light on this fascinating country.

This is called a Princess Cake and Swedes have been devouring it by the cubic kilometer since yesterday when Princess Victoria had her little girl (now named Estelle, Something, Something, Mary). Mariette has bought into the trend to the degree that she exposed me to it tonight for dessert with strawberries and ice cream, after a fabulous meal of smoked salmon. The story of announcing the baby’s name was the lead on the news tonight, compete with a 42 gun salute in Gothenberg. But this being Sweden, the story inevitably segued into whether there should be an end to the monarchy. Some people say yes, others say no. Obviously, if the royal family were doing things that made them indispensable to the country this conversation would not be happening. They would do well to analyze what they can do to help the country before they find themselves voted out on the street.

Tulips are popular at this time of year and Mariette bought some for the house to brighten it up.

I don’t mean for these sunny pictures to give the impression that spring is coming to the whole country. Sweden is a long narrow land that stretches well beyond the Arctic Circle. These next photos were sent by Mariette’s best friend who lives in the middle of the country and where there is still mucho snow.

This is Mariette’s good friend (and mine), Ackie. She and her two sisters are musicians and competed in Sweden’s Melodifestivalen in the 1980s and came in 3rd place in the competition. Later they were in an all girl cover band and some of their stuff was really, really good. Ackie gave me a tape of several TV shows they did and I got them loaded up onto YouTube. If anyone is interested in watching the Swedish equivalent of the Johnny Carson Show in 1980s Sweden search for Stig Malms Septet on YouTube. A couple of the segments contain some pretty wild stuff other than the band’s performances. As I said, this post is about some other sides of Sweden.

Speaking of which, here is an item that one can use to compare to the political sensibilities here versus America and how much more seriously they take their politics here. At the beginning of the year, the government lowered the sales tax on restaurant food from 25% to 12% with the idea that cutting the tax would lower prices and create more jobs. Well, McDonalds and the local hamburger franchise, Max, were very pleased with the decision. Max was so pleased in fact that they sent a little thank you gift in the form of a coupon to all the legislators that awarded them a free hamburger (and maybe fries and a drink–total value around $15, I think). If the U.S. Congress received such a perk they would likely be insulted at how chintzy the gesture was. But here, it caused an uproar because legislators are not permitted to receive gifts or money of any amount. It’s against the rules here. The left wing party was most upset but no legislator cashed in their coupon. The head of Max was shocked at the uproar and the District Attorney said that no charges would be filed. It created quite a stir.

Imagine the US Congress getting its knickers in a twist over free hamburgers. Imagine any one of them turning down a free anything because it is against the rules. It is inconceivable.

Mariette is often critical about how serious Swedes seem to  take things. She frequently complains about how involved people get in seemingly inconsequential issues and how seriously they take matters. For me, it is interesting to see lawmakers actually take something about their jobs besides fundraising or PR seriously. Politics here seems to be all about issues. Elections in Sweden are publicly financed so the lawmakers don’t have to put attention of fundraising. In other words, they can do their jobs. Very different from the typical US Congressperson whose first thought in the morning is fundraising. No PACs, Super PACs, and endless campaign seasons here. I think the national election campaigns run for about 6 weeks and 85% of the eligible voters voted in the last election. That is more than 20% higher than voted in the 2008 US presidential election which was touted as the most important in recent memory. Holding the election on a weekend I am sure ensures a higher turnout.

There is tons I don’t know about the way politics works here but I am just relaying a couple items that came to my attention today. All this and a baby’s name was the day’s top story.

Tomorrow I am going to discuss the morality of watching a train wreck if you are almost certain one is going to happen. Should one watch or not?


Days 231, 232, 233 — Signs of Spring

After my last post talking trash to Old Man Winter, we got a combination of snow and rain and woke the next morning to a fresh white blanket. Things were pretty slippery. Then yesterday we got an inch and a quarter of rain (30 mm, according to our neighbor) which melted most everything and today was a cloudless day.

Spring was definitely in the air and flags were flying. Not because of the weather but because of another of the anomalies that are Sweden. You see, the crown princess Victoria delivered a baby girl this morning and Swedes, the most progressive, egalitarian country on earth (fully 50% of the elected officials are women), are making a big deal out of an institution that was rapidly becoming passé in the 1700s. I thought that maybe the neighbors were a day late celebrating Fat Tuesday, which is also a big deal here and on which day the nation consumes massive amounts of artery clogging semlor buns, which are hamburger bun sized buns stuffed with whipped cream and other goodies. But no, it was the birth of Victoria’s first barn (child). According to Mariette, about half the country gets behind it and the other half thinks it is stupid and the monarchy does nothing but cost money that could be better spend elsewhere. It was the top story on the news tonight.

But, back to the spring like weather.

If not for lack of the leaves on the birch trees, this could be a summer photo. Our lawn stayed green all winter and I will probably have to start mowing it again in a few weeks.

One sign of spring that you cannot see in this pictures but which I heard this morning was one of the kinds of birds (a dove, I think) making their very familiar call that reminds me of a Bo Diddley rhythm. It goes: one, two . . . three, four. One, two . . . three, four. One, two . . . three, four, FIVE. And then repeats.

Ice is all but gone.

Now for a few of my fuzzy, phone camera shots. Ice breaking up this morning. (Mariette’s shots were from this afternoon.)

And finally, while walking around during break in class this afternoon, I saw this:

A birch tree growing straight up through the asphalt and thriving. Life is hard to keep down.

Day 230–Hey, Old Man Winter, that’s all you got?!

Last winter it began snowing here in Halmstad in November and they had 3 feet by the time it was done. Winter lasted for more than 4 months and people we have talked to were pretty sick of it. February is the month when Swedes usually go crazy and bop down to Thailand or Spain just to get the hell out of here.

This winter has been very different. It snowed once in January and once in February for a total of maybe 4 inches. Rain came over the weekend and started melting the snow and has turned everything into an ice rink. It is really slippery around here these last few days. Being in the very south of the country and comparing it to California (both around the same size and relatively long and narrow; Sweden is about 10,000 km larger in area), Halmstad would be somewhere south of LA. The lowest it got here was around 5 F. Up north there were many days of 20 below F, which is -30 C.

Anyway, in the post before last on All Heart’s Day we posted some nice snow shots. Six days later here is what it looks like:

A lot of the ice in the sea has melted as well.

But just so no one gets the impression that it is all sunshine and spring buds here, I found a dead hawk this morning.

The poor guy must have just flopped out of the sky and plopped right on the path running along the coast.

Our neighbor says that spring will be here in 2 or 3 weeks and the folks around here are loving the prospect.

Days 225 to 229–The last honest preschools

Mariette writing something today. Lately, there has been much commotion in Sweden regarding privatization of schools and eldercare. When I left Sweden in 1983 those things were never privatized but financed by taxpayer money, run by the government and free. Some time while I was gone the right wing party here (Moderaterna) started to push that one was to have a choice in terms of schooling and elder care. So there are now also private schools and private elder care homes in addition to those run by the government.  Only, these private schools are still free and taxpayer money are still used. So, if a private school is approved by the government, taxpayer money is used  to finance everything, even if it is privately owned and run. Sounds good, eh?

Well, the flap is that some of these institutions have been making large profits that are going right in the pockets of the owners, while neglecting children or, in the case of elder care, the elderly. There have been examples such as elderly being made to lay in wet diapers for hours to “save money” and other gross stuff. I happened to work as a substitute teacher at a privately owned and run preschool. It’s a sort of posh looking school with flashy promotion and tons of students. On the outside it looks modern and hip. On the inside, though, it is despicable. The teacher-child ratio in the preschool is about 1-7, sometimes 1-10. They accept children who can not even walk. The result: little babies who sit and cry in a stroller all day long and no one who has time to console them. Yes, I mean all day long. Preschool teachers who are dashing back and forth, trying to prevent accidents. The kids don´t get to go out much. They mostly hang out at an ugly playground built of steel. The babies take naps in their strollers, even in minus degrees. In other words “yuk”. I almost lost my marbles working there for a while.

However, I have now worked at a Montessori school for 1.5 months and I can say that the difference is remarkable. I work in the department for small children (2-3 years old). The way they manage to run a harmonic, peaceful school is: 1) They do not accept children under the age of 2, 2) One teacher never has more than 3 small children at a time, 3) The group is small enough that everyone knows each other (23 kids total), 4) It is situated right at the forest and beach so the kids get to explore nature. 5) And, of course, it uses Montessori philosophy which makes children certain of themselves and eager to explore. The difference is incredible. The children are thriving. I am happily going to work each morning, looking forward to seeing kids and staff. Oh, and they pay their teachers well.

I know that there are a couple of other schools similar to it, but I see a change coming where the large communal schools and profit-driven schools grow strong. It is sad. Do the parents who have their children there not see the state of affairs? I have vowed to do all in my power to maintain these small, safe, last honest preschools survive. They mean everything to the society.

(Note from Dan: not really knowing the language fluently can blind me to some of the situations here. Just like my walk out onto the ice a week ago, ignorance is bliss. Of course, ignorance can’t last forever.)