Monday, 3 September 2007

Stockholm

I'm here in Stockholm, just got back from my first day of interviews for the story I'm working on. Luckily all the appointments were relatively close to one another (it's a very centralized city, nice change of pace from London!) so it was relatively painless. Although they all started to get rather repetitive and by my last interview of the day I was definitly ready to be done.

So I'm back in my hotel room to write a quick blog before I meet my friend for dinner. My hotel is laughably horrible. I was trying to prove a point, or something, by booking the cheapest hotel I could find.



So I booked a room with no windows in this really shady hotel just because it's in central Stockholm (all the others ones that were central were at least three times as much, and I had to pay for the room Saturday night so I went with the cheapest). What I didn't realize was no window also means no ventilation. It's really hot in here! I am so incredibly cheap, even with other people's money. I won't even take a cab while I'm travelling for work! That would just be too extravagent. What can I do? Frugality is just part of who I am.

I got into an interesting discussion with someone when I was hanging out with my friend Bjorn here Saturday night. One of Bjorn's friends, Anders (who was for some reason in period costume - I can't remember why) and I started talking about the Swedish welfare state. It was rather amusing because he was complaining about it and I was defending it, kind of ironic considering where we both come from. Still, he was being really negative about the Swedish social system and I just couldn't understand why, considering Sweden has one of the most successful economies in Europe and has the highest standard of living in the world (it's top-ranked for a lot of things actually). Toward the end of the argument Anders revealed he's moving to Dubai, which cracked me up. Of all the places for an angsty Swedish capitalist to go, I'd say Dubai would be it!

We also veered into this discussion about the Swedish royal family, which I dismissed as unimportant and he apparently really took offense to. He's some kind of Swedish duke or count or something and seemed genuinely upset. The next day on Sunday I toured the state apartments in the Royal Palace and learned a bit about the royal family, particularly the Crown Princess Victoria who apparently has some kind of cult of personality built up around her. There were, no exaggeration, 4 rooms dedicated to her, with just about ten million photos and exhibits talking about how amazing she is. She's very pretty and seems like a nice girl, but come on, give it a rest! But while I was there I felt bad about belittling the Swedish monarchy to Anders, it's obviously very important to him and that was a bit culturally insensitive of me. So I hope I see him again before I leave so I can apologize.

There were some videos of Princess Victoria as part of the exhibit and I was struck that she has a dead on American accent when she speaks English. Really, most people here do. A few people speak with a British accent but most people speak with an American accent, which I find odd because they learn British English and British pronunciation at school. But I guess because they watch so much American television they adopt an American accent more readily. Similar to what I experienced on my last visit to Denmark and Sweden, I still can't get over how perfect everyone's English pronunciation is here, I mean their English is better than most Americans I think. Literally everyone speaks English, right down to the clerk at the deli. And they speak it perfectly! Even when I'm in a city like Zurich, where most people speak English, I'm used to having to speak slowly and deliberately when dealing with store clerks, who usually speak little to no English. So I get really surprised when I'm here and I go to McDonalds and slowly give them my order, and they answer me sounding like they're from Ohio. I mean literally if I didn't know they were Swedish it wouldn't occur to me that they weren't American.

My friend in Copenhagen has this theory that this is because European countries with a not widely-spoken language watch all their television in English with subtitles, so you grow up hearing English constantly. This is in contrast to countries which speak large languages like French, German, Spanish or Italian, where television is dubbed into the native language. It wouldn't be cost-effective to do that for Swedish because not many people speak it. This explains why Dutch people tend to speak and pronounce English better than Germans, for example. And I would posit that, in my experience, Czechs tend to speak better English than French people, on the whole. After all, speaking Czech as your only language just isn't really an option unless you're a farmer or something.

And then of course there's the fact that everyone here in Sweden looks like a supermodel, even the janitors and construction workers. It's less noticeable here than it was when I was on the West coast in Gothenburg and Malmo, but it's still inescapable. And it's not that everyone is blonde and blue eyed, they're just generally very attractive. Actually it's interesting, there's obviously a higher proportion of blonde people here but you don't really notice it with the women because in the US and UK so many women dye their hair blonde. But you definitely notice it with the men, because you're not used to seeing so many blonde men, as men don't generally dye their hair. I mean think about it, how many blonde men do you know? It's about one out of every three here. Take a gander at this photo below. This is what McDonalds workers look like in Sweden! It's bizarro world.

One thing I knew about Sweden before but had forgotten is that it's kind of a dry country. The liquor laws here are really strict. The only stores that can sell liquor here are state-owned outlets that are open just about as long as banks. I actually haven't even seen one since I've been here. As far as I can tell, beer and wine is not sold at cornershops and grocery stores here. And drinks at bars are very expensive. You definitely don't see yobs carousing down the street drinking cans of Heineken here. Apparently it's illegal to drive with any alcohol whatsoever in your bloodstream here. I'm watching the news now and from what I could gather they're about to implement breathalizers in cars to make them start. But I could be wrong, my Swedish is a bit rusty!

Alright I'm off to meet my friend for dinner. I'm going to Helsinki tomorrow, should be interesting. I'm pretty booked with interviews (same story) so I won't have much time for sight-seeing though. Ah well, I think I've done enough in Stockholm to make up for it.

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