Days 324, 325 and 326 — Following the money

We had an interesting visitor today in Swedish class. A woman from the tax agency came and talked to us about the tax system in the country, how it works, explained the Swedish equivalent of the Social Security Number, called a personnummer and a bunch of other things. One thing I had not fully realized is the great variation in the sales tax, or moms, as it is called here. Clothes, shoes, flowers, furniture and most services are taxed at 25%. Food, restaurants, camp sites and hotels are taxed at 12% and books, newspapers and transportation is taxed at 6%. Not sure why. Other items have additional taxes such as tobacco, gasoline, lottery tickets, alcohol and, for some reason, advertising. Actually, I know why–advertising in Sweden is generally as grating and obnoxious as in the U.S. and Swedes have figured out that there is, like tobacco, a price that society pays for being infected with ads everywhere you turn.

At any rate, the woman showed us a slide during her presentation of the Swedish national budget and how much goes to different areas of government expenditure. The slide she showed gave the national budget at 1,500 billion kronor, or about 214 billion USD. The U.S. budget is about 3.6 trillion USD or about 16 times the size of Sweden’s budget.

More than one-third of the Swedish budget goes to healthcare, elder care and pensions. This, shockingly, is less than the U.S. expenditures for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which amounts to 43% of the U.S. budget. The U.S. also pays 6% interest on the national debt, which amounts to more than the entirety of the Swedish budget–227 billion USD.  Sweden, meanwhile, is running a surplus of late but I don’t know what their interest payments on total national debt are.

One figure jumped out at me, though: Sweden’s defense budget is under 3% of the total national budget, whereas the U.S. spends 19% of its budget on “defense,” a figure that is in reality probably larger, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were never part of the budget during the Bush years. That 16% percent must have a LOT to do with why there are so many more social services provided by the Swedish government than in the U.S. such as subsidies for children, living quarters and education.

She went over the process of filing a tax declaration, which as I pointed out earlier, takes about 5 minutes a year.

It was a fairly interesting presentation, especially the part at the end where she brought up tax cheating. Seeing as we are all immigrants, the likelihood that some people are working in the black market where work and thus money may be easier to come by for those without the necessary language or other skills to get a legitimate job is something the agency wanted to bring up. In a nice and somewhat deferential way, of course.






Day 323 — The first flip out of the season

Swedes tend to get really, really happy when the weather turns nice. Several events signal the summer season and today was the first one: the Swedish equivalent of the Senior Prom. Students completing their “high school” years had their prom today which started this afternoon around 4:00. This is another of those Swedish events that Mariette said I could not miss. So, around 3:30 we began biking to the hotel at Tylösand. We got to the road leading there and saw cars lined up with people in formal wear and this was almost a mile from our house so I got this idea this was going to be big.

We got to the hotel and a sizable crowd was already there.

Note the red carpet leading to the hotel.

One by one the cars–and there were many spectacular cars–driven by proud parents, drove up, attendants opened the doors and out came the soon-to-be-graduates. I don’t know where these cars have been for the past 10 1/2 months because I have seen very few around town, though I helped two sisters last week start their father’s very nice ’65 Mustang that had stalled. These cars are probably sitting in garages all over Halmstad awaiting just such a special occasion and they were out in force today, that’s for sure.

One by one the cars stopped at the red carpet, unloaded passengers and slowly made its way through the crowd. Some pulled into a nearby parking lot to come back and watch the rest of the parade.

Students posed on the red carpet for photos. Some in the crowd applauded. This is high school here? There are definitely some pretty affluent areas in Halmstad (which reminds me I should do a post about our neighbors sometime) as one can tell from the autos that pappa and mamma are chauffeuring the kids around in.

The kids walked down the carpet into the hotel. Meanwhile the cars kept coming.

The UK and US were very well represented in the auto parade.

As you might expect, this procession was leisurely and took some time. And young people being what they are, staying inside the hotel on such a beautiful afternoon soon seemed pointless and the side door right next to the hotel entrance soon had students coming out to pose for pictures for parents and talk on their cell phones. Maybe they were talking to their friends stuck in the line half a mile yet from the red carpet.

It looked like this was going to go on for some time and there was a salmon dinner waiting at home so we began walking our bikes back along the cars still lined up. There were so many damn nice cars though, that we had to take more shots.

Maybe these three didn’t make the grade. Didn’t seem to bother them, though.

There is North Korean socialism and there is Swedish socialism. Ironically, as I did this post I was rereading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. 

At any rate, the kids looked like they were having a ball and lord knows what took place later in the evening. But the crowd was large and admiring, the weather continues to be wonderful and life is good for the 18 year olds in Halmstad. Their exams are over and in a week or two and if you think today was something, check back on June 8th or so.

Day 322 — Another day in paradise

When I use that line, I usually mean it sarcastically, but not today. Another stunningly gorgeous day and even had a rain shower in the afternoon that freshened the air. Temps in the 70s. We went to Mariette’s parent’s house for Pentecost Eve (Pingstafton) and helped them celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary with a wonderful meal topped off with my favorite pie in the world, rhubarb. Mariette’s mother’s view of a celebration is when you come to her house and she cooks the meal and spoils Bianca with pork chops and raisin buns. Her parents have really, really enjoyed having us around more than just in summer and say it has been one of the happiest times of their lives. Ours, too.

Following dinner, which Swedes often eat at noon, it was time to hit the beach for some work on the tan/Vitamin D levels, followed by fika outside on the lawn, more chatting (I can actually follow some of what they are talking about now, which is an enormous change from my first two visits to Sweden when I could not distinguish any individual words, only long strings of syllables.

This evening Mariette and I biked to Tylösand for a view of the early evening and an ice cream.

We happened upon the end of some sort of party/event for a chain of fitness centers here in Sweden. That’s what all these fit young women are about in the next photos.

The water is getting considerably warmer from the long sunny days as even Mariette will attest.

We got home about 9 just in time for the start of an event that I found really fascinating for a number of reasons, the Eurovision Song Contest. Watching this opened these American eyes to the tremendous diversity that exists in Europe when it comes to popular music not to mention the country where the contest was held this year, Azerbaijan.

The country lies east of Turkey and borders the Caspian Sea on the east and lies just north of Iran. It is a Muslim country with a lot of natural gas and oil and, from the program last night, a big PR department. Human rights organizations classify Azerbaijan as “not free” but one would not know that from last night’s show.

The way the song contest works is that each of the 42 nations holds something similar to the Melodiefestival here in Sweden that I posted about in March. The winners then all gather in the host country for a week of semi finals and then the grand finale. A panel of judges in each of the 42 countries votes for their top 10 songs with points awarded accordingly. Viewers in each country can vote by phone or text message and their votes count 50% of that country’s overall votes. 10th place gets 1 point, 9th place gets 2 points, etc., with third, second and first places receiving 8, 10 and 12 points respectively. After each country votes, a winner is determined. Fairly straightforward but it was amazing to see how it all rolled forward without a single hitch over 3 1/2 hours across several time zones.

This year’s show came from Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku at their crystal palace which held about 20,000 people. They built the place in 7 months and it is a very impressive building. The lighting effects inside and out were extremely impressive. Before each country’s entrant came on there was an outside shot of the palace that was lit to include the colors of each country’s flag. Before Sweden came on the palace was blue and yellow, before Greece, blue and white and so on.

Two of the three hosts. The third was a guy who was part of a duo that sang last year’s winning song, which is why Azerbaijan was the host country this year. That does not bode well for next year’s host country because they will be pressed to match the job that Azerbaijan did this year. More on that later.

Each song is limited to around 3 minutes. One performer comes on, does their song and a couple minutes later, the next group comes on and so it goes through all 26 of the contest’s songs for the year, bang, bang, bang. At the end of the performances everybody watching starts voting, which period is fairly short, like maybe half an hour and the program carried on with other performers from the host nation and other clips to show Azerbaijan in its best light. Then, the voting results are announced, country by country via live hookup. The points go up a tote board and they roll from one country to the next with a judge in each country announcing that country’s votes. Each country is now allowed to vote for its own entrant, otherwise the most populous countries would win nearly every year. The Big 5, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK automatically get an entry into  the finals anyway.

Let’s get down to business then.

After an opening number and greetings and introductions from the hosts–the default language was English, thankfully, though there was a lot of sprinkling of French, German and Azerbaijani throughout–it was on with the first country’s entrant.

And right here at the outset I got a strong whiff that maybe parts of Europe are not so into this Eurovision Song Contest. The country that opened the show was the United Kingdom, the land that reinvented popular music in the 60s. The land that gave us the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, Jethro Tull, Traffic and other great bands too numerous to mention. I think the UK is too cool for school when it comes to song contests because their entry into Eurovision 2012 was none other than the legendary Englebert Humperdink. Legendary mostly because of his name and immediately forgotten after the last note of his weak, poorly sung ballad. My God, twenty-five more like this and I will be on suicide watch at the local mental hospital. Fortunately that disaster was wiped away with a little one minute or so promo showing the highlights of the Azerbaijan, “Land of Beauty,” or “Land of Culture” or “Baku, City of Lights” (wonder how Paris felt about that one), or “Land of Energy” or “City of Cuisine” and on and on. The people producing the show on stage need some time to set up for the next act and they must work like lightning in between acts because some of the performances were extremely elaborate and they rattled off one after the other. It went: song, cut to shot of next group, cut away to a gorgeously filmed and produced (really high quality) aspect of Azerbaijan, the landscape, the history, the spectacular architecture of Baku, you name it, the Azerbaijan Board of Tourism covered it, next song, and repeat. Midway there were a couple of short breaks where the hosts went to the green room where contestants sat after their performance. (The green room seemed to be about the size of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, just to give an idea of the scope of the production.) I have to be honest, the production of this show made the Oscars look like a high school play. I’m not kidding. Except the hosts at the Oscars will go on and on about what a fabulous job the production crew is doing, Here, the show was moving too damn fast for any gratuitous blah, blah.

A shot from one of the clips promoting Azerbaijan’s rich cultural heritage. The country lies right on the Silk Road, so their is no denying its historical and, today, strategic, importance especially lying as it does just north of ground zero for America’s next incursion into the Middle East if Pakistan doesn’t beat Iran to the punch.

Another performance only slightly less forgettable than the Hump’s was this fellow singing, you guessed it, “Love is Blind.” I forget which country he represented but it gives an idea of the diversity of popular music across Europe. Not as much, however, as this next group.

This, dear reader, is the entry from Mother Russia. Actually, it should read Grandmother Russia because this is a group of Russian grandmothers, ranging in ages up to 85, singing a song that contained a bit of business of taking some biscuits out of an oven and holding them up for the audience. Talk about diversity in European pop music. I loved these old grannies and so did the rest of Europe. They finished, believe it or not, second in the entire contest. I was halfway hoping they would win the whole thing. Unbelievable.

Many of the performances were elaborate with dancers, lighting effects, flames shooting all over the place, even fireworks, and within 90 seconds of one song ending another was beginning. The lighting and pyrotechnicians were more impressive than most of the songs and everything came off without a hitch. Frankly, it was unbelievable how they did it.

These two guys from Ireland ended their song by standing in a fountain that drenched them and destroyed their goofy hairdos. As I say, many of the productions numbers were elaborate.

This bombshell from Italy was one of Mariette’s favorites. Good voice, sang a kind of jazzy pop song.

These guys from Malta I thought had a chance to win. Pretty good song and good performance. But what do I know about Europe’s musical tastes.

This was the entrant from Sweden, named Loreen. In contrast to some of the overblown productions she was barefoot alone, dramatically lit and did a song that was my favorite performance of the evening.

Beautiful girl, good voice, catchy tune, unique performance, what’s not to like. The rest of Europe agreed because she was a runaway winner of the whole contest. She was even the favorite of the home crowd because when each nation voted, the first seven votes given to any country were put up on the screen and if Sweden did not appear in the list a roar went up from the crowd, meaning that Sweden would likely be receiving 8, 10 or 12 points as one of the top three vote getters in that country.

When the voting began, they cut away to one of the panel judges in each country who announced that country’s votes. This process went off lickety-split through 42 countries without a single hitch. If you have ever watched the news on CNN when they are going overseas to a correspondent somewhere you always notice annoying several second lag between the time one person’s question in the home studio is received and answered by the reporter overseas. They could learn something from the guys here because there was no lag whatsoever.

After the 12 point recipient was announced they cut away to that winner for a shot of them blowing kisses (usually) to the camera, but Sweden won so many 12 pointers that she was mostly appearing breathless.

This is the third host taking the votes from Finland. The guy reporting is from a group called Lordi, a black metal band that dressed in monster makeup and won the contest a few years ago.

As you can see here, Sweden had a 72 point lead on the Russian grannies and ended up winning the contest by 100 points, which was considerable. Equally startling is that the UK got any points at all and finished higher even than Norway.

Israel was the last country voting and they awarded their 12 points to Sweden, meaning this is the moment that Loreen was announced as the winner, which happened to coincide with the moment my camera batteries ran out. Perfect timing.

Way earlier I alluded to the fact of Loreen winning may not bode well for Sweden next year. Because of her win, Sweden will host the contest next year and I am wondering how they will manage to match the superb technical job that Azerbaijan did in producing this  year’s show. Shortly after the broadcast from Baku ended, Swedish television had a technical glitch that delayed them getting to interview the winner. Ooops. Then there was the news broadcast a couple weeks ago when the reporter’s teleprompter went dead and he was literally facing the camera with nothing to say. It was sort of a “hammena, hammena, hammena” moment reminiscent of Ralph Kramden on the Honeymooners when he was flummoxed. Well, they have a year to get their act together but it will be a tough one to follow. Azerbaijan did a really great job and I am sure garnered a lot of good PR for their country.

The fact that Loreen is a feminist and activist and raised the government’s hackles this week by drawing attention to the darker side of the country I am sure makes her victory a little bitter for the government here, but what the audience saw was sparkling buildings, pristine landscapes and happy people.

If anyone is interested in seeing the winning song, click here:

Tomorrow, we will cover something a little closer to home.




Day 321 — The season’s first “earthmen”

This noisy, over-pixalated little guy is a “jordgubbe.” “Jord” means “earth” and a “gubbe” is a little old man. In the U.S., we know them as strawberries, though the size and shape (and taste) makes them only distant cousins to the humongous, flat and tasteless American corporate farmed version.

Swedish strawberries are round, entirely red (no white crown extending a quarter of the way down the berry) and sweet. This one was about the size of the top of my thumb from the nail up.

Biking into town for class today I saw a girl on the side of the road with a card table full of one liter boxes of strawberries. I thought of buying a box on my way back home this afternoon but then realized Mariette would see the same table and take care of it. Sure enough, we had strawberries and ice cream for dessert after a “kvällsmat” (evening meal) of salami and cheese sandwiches picnic style down at the handicap beach. The weather remains perfect, about 75, cloudless with a slight breeze. Mariette says she never experienced a May like this when she was growing up. Usually it would be in the 50s or 60s in May and the warmer months were July and August.

People are already beginning to cut loose for the summer: girls walking around in the summer clothes which doesn’t harm the scenery one bit, people working on their tans, and groups of people giddily walking along the coast. If this is May, this could really be a special summer. Climate change resulted in every state in the U.S. having the hottest July on record last year. That could be the same here but instead of uncomfortable heat it will mean absolutely lovely weather all summer.

Our class when to the library today and outside there were summer activities everywhere. Musicians were preparing for a concert and I was about to enjoy it when I noticed a flat tire on my bike so off I went to have it repaired. Here is what I would have seen:

So much for the sunshine and flowers. Last night I did a post about the Swedish economic model and I thought it sounded pretty good. Today, I read about a report someone has just released that says Sweden is moving away from their vaunted Swedish model and that some insurance benefits are now lower in Sweden than in many other developed countries. According to the report, the Swedish unemployment insurance system was the second most generous in the world (probably second to Switzerland, the home of money) as of 2005. According to the system, a person receives 80% of his or her salary for the first 200 days they are unemployed and 70% thereafter. Sounds pretty good except there is a cap of around $2600, so only 12% of unemployed Swedes receive these amounts of insurance payments.

There are other cracks, big ones, showing in the system as well. For the first time in 60 years Sweden’s sickness insurance benefits (52 weeks) are below the average of developed countries.

These reductions are coincident with the election of the Moderates to power since 2006. Should be an interesting election next time around (either 2013 or 2014, I think). A solution, of course, would be for the government to simply create the credit and spend it into the economy, as banks simply create debt and loan it into the economy.

Finally, tomorrow is Pingstafton, or the day before the Pentacost, another religious holiday celebrated in non-religious Sweden. This is the most popular day for weddings in Sweden and like many other Swedes, Mariette’s parents are celebrating their anniversary tomorrow–55 years and still going strong.

Tomorrow also coincides with the Eurovision Song Contest. You will remember the Melodiefestival from March as duly reported here. Well, every country in Europe held similar contests and each country’s winning performers are gathered in Azerbaijan this week for the Eurovision contest that crowns this year’s winner for the entire continent. The show is half contest and half promotion for Azerbaijan’s tourist board and chamber of commerce from what we saw of the qualifying rounds. This past Tuesday and Thursday nights there 18 performances each night and 10 contestants moved on to the finals tomorrow night. We thought many of the songs and performances in the Swedish contest were bad but some of the winners from other countries were truly awful. Wow, I cannot imagine what the non-winners from those places were like. We couldn’t watch more than a few, they were that bad. Anyway the Swedish entrant is ruffling feathers in true Swedish fashion by speaking to activist groups while there which is raising protests from the less-than-forthcoming government of Azerbaijan about her politicizing the event. She is being somewhat of an embarrassment to the host country since they are trying their hardest to project a spiffy, super clean image of their country during this international showcase. I have to admit that the little promo bits between the acts give a very positive image of the country. Then comes along this Swedish chick, who is one the favorites to win the whole thing, raising issues of what is really going on behind the facade of spotless buildings, clean streets and world class culture and sportsmen. Would be interesting to see what happens if she wins. Stay tuned.

Days 317, 318, 319 and 320 — Halmstad, Home of the 17 hour day

The sun rose at 4:35 this morning and set at 9:36. That is 17 hours and one minute of daylight. It has been in the high 80s – low 90s of late, which is too hot for nearly every Swede I talked to. Above 28 C., which is 82 F., they start keeling over. Basically things could not be better here weather wise. Of course, if we don’t get some rain like at least once a week, things will begin to dry out and that’s not good. People here don’t really have sprinkler systems or even sprinklers but the lawns are green so there must be the occasional rain. Seventeen hours of sun on the water heats it up and today when I went swimming for the first time this year the water seemed considerably warmer than last week even. Of course further north the days are even much longer. In Kiruna, for example, the sun rose at 1:24 a.m. and set at 11:50 pm. Hope the folks there have good dark shades in the bedrooms.

The balance between the long summer days and the long winter nights must affect the politics here in Sweden. Tonight on the news there was a guy from the Moderate Party, which is the Swedish equivalents of the Republican Party in the U.S. (though the most moderate Moderate is still so far left of Obama that he would need a drone to even find them). The news reporter asked this Moderate his opinion about the new leader of the Social Democrats, which the Swedish equivalent of the Democratic Party in the U.S. In answer to the question, the Moderate did not take a shot at the Social Democrat, challenge his birth certificate, question his views on gay marriage or other sound bite material. Instead he said he thought he was doing the right thing by focusing on job creation. These are the two largest parties in Sweden and in the next election (which campaigns last only 6 weeks) they will be competing for control of the government and thus Sweden’s political future, and the guy is praising the opposition. Maybe he would’¨t have been so complimentary in the dead of winter when a storm has stopped the trains from running, but  his response was in keeping with the weather.

Which brings me to something I have been meaning to get to: Sweden’s economy. Like most countries, Sweden’s economy is a mix between free market and state control. Most industry is private, unlike other European nations such as Austria, Finland and Italy.

Sweden was neutral in both world wars so was not a pile of rubble after 1945, which left it in great shape compared to the rest to Europe. Things rolled along rosily until a real estate bubble burst in 1991 which caused a serious recession. Everyone suffered, except of course the people who created the problem–bankers and financial institutions. Yes, Sweden is afflicted by the same parasites as the U.S. though they haven’t caught casino fever like the guys on  Wall Street. Swedish banks are much more conservative and there was a flap on the news tonight that criticized banks for making most of their income from mortgages and not other services and this has the citizenry upset.

A big difference between Sweden and the U.S. is that unionism is very, very strong here. 70% of all workers are unionized and there has to be strong cooperation between government, unions and corporations. In the U.S. the cooperation is between the government and corporations only and that is causing big problems for workers. White collar workers in Sweden are as unionized as blue collar workers and the strength of unions guarantees that the social welfare programs are not going anywhere, even in a globalized economy.

What all this proves, I don’t know, except maybe that I have a touch of sunstroke.


Day 316 — Ka-blooom! Summer has arrived

Sixteen hour days and 80 F. Now we are talking. Summer weather has arrived and true to form, if it reaches 80, Swedes begin flaking out. Mariette was complaining about how hot it was (though her back in a knot from overdoing it in the garden yesterday had much to do with it) in true Swedish fashion. But, man, it was nice today.

People were out catching their first rays of the season.

This an abandoned quarry used as a swimming hole. I yelled for those two guys to jump but they said it is now closed for diving. A couple years ago some guy jumped in, apparently hit a rock and was killed, so they have closed the place for everybody. That ledge just above the N in a circle is 18 meters high, which is about 58 feet. Pretty damn high. The kommun (county) should have investigated and found out exactly what happened before closing the place for everybody. He might have been drunk, hit a rock. Mariette pointed out that things get over regulated because one person does something stupid and the authorities restrict an activity for everybody. It’s completely illogical.

Little cafe at the Grötvik marina. Not enough shade for guests on a warm day, though.

New benches at the handicap bathing area. I went for a dip and has gone from “cold” to “fresh” over the last 2-3 weeks since I last took the plunge.

We pinched ourselves again today that we are living in a place where we used to vacation. Today was total vacation weather. Mariette went out and photographed the wild flowers in the neighborhood. None of these are in people’s yards, simply what is growing wild here.

Enough for today.

Day 315 — Big happenings

A new car dealership opened up here today, BilMånsson Ford. There is an area a few km from town where all the big American style stores are located and that’s where this new dealership is located. There was a sizable crowd when I arrived which must have been close to 1,000 people all of whom were there to see a concert by one of the top groups in this year’s Melodifestival, Timotej.

Ford’s new entries into the electric car field:

Right after I snapped those those shots the girls’ “concert” started.

One plays accordion, one plays flute, one guitar and one fiddle. The instruments are just props and all their music is prerecorded and only their voices are live. The concert consisted of 3 songs, a “tack så mycket” and boom, gone. Good looks takes them a long way because it certainly is not musicianship if the instruments are fake. Anyway, they did hang around to sign autographs for their adoring fans.

After the show the crowd headed for the exits en masse. The dealership people did not do too good a job at getting people into their Fords. They could at least have handed each person a brochure or something. They did arrange to have some other beauties on display, however, that were the real thing:

Does any car manufacturer even offer a red interior anymore?

Or an engine you can work on yourself?

The day’s entertainment over, I went to do my errands. Mariette, meanwhile, was out in the yard. She has a thing about dandelions in the yard and is determined to get rid of them all. Biking home I realized this is a losing battle.

This field is maybe half a mile from our house and with the wind carrying the seeds hither and yon, there is every chance we will have them popping up forever. Mariette has an American attitude towards them: war. Mine is more like Sweden: neutral.