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December 7, 2001

Reflections on Swedish Culture: Respect the Cheese Form!

By the time I was 35, I had to go to Sweden, just to calm down. These are not the people who drill holes in cheese and yodel. They are not a fondue people. Their trains are often late, their mountains are unimpressive, and their chocolate is adequate at best. No, these are the people who brought you Social Democracy, the Nobel Prize, the Volvo, the smorgasbord, free day care, suicide and full-frontal nudity. These are the blondes.

One day I was using the osthuvel (special cheese slicker) on a hunk of greve, and Helena and Lene started yelling at me. The source of their ire: the cheese looked like a ski slope. Apparently, it is of great importance that every slice attempt to "even out" the cheese level. I call this disturbing episode, "RESPECT THE CHEESE FORM!"

Some other Observations:

Sweden has an extremely active "yogurt culture" -- almost fanatic. Yogurt is available in "Japanese style," "Russian style," "farmer style," "normal style" and "liquid style," -- each in a stupefying array of flavors, including "cloudberry." You can buy no fat, low fat, medium-low fat, medium fat, medium high and very high fat versions of all these dairy delights -- as well as "long filmjölk," whatever that is.

Swedish people travel with sheets and towels. They cannot be stopped. You can try saying, "You don't need to bring sheets and towels. I have everything here," but they will bring them all the same.

You can buy herring in any gas station.

Most Swedish women are named Lena, and all Swedish men are named Jan.

Swedes squeeze food out of tubes. Among many other choices, liver paté, mushroom/cheese spread, crab paste and the infamous "Kalle's Kaviar" (lumpfish roe) are devoured on knäckebröd (crispbread). My favorite is black pepper/cognac. There are special gizmos in refrigerators to hold the tubes.

Whatever their sex life may include, Swedish people sleep in single beds. I think they find double beds "decadent."

Christmas means one thing -- festive ... PIGS!

Eye drops are illegal. Crazy glue is illegal. Why? Why?

Fascinating new English words I've learned in Sweden: "recensation," "lampettes," and "crackulated."

When I first came here, I wondered, "Where's all the stuff?" There are 18 brands of shampoo, not 18,000. Everyone has the same stainless steel sink, the same pot scrubber, and uses "YES" brand dish liquid. There's something called the "Swedish Standard," and it's pretty high.

Prices on wine and beer are low, and the selection is excellent, but there's a huge sin tax on hard liquor. Stores close by 6 p.m., and are closed on Saturday and Sunday. The most "Swedish" thing one can do is to go to Systemet on Friday at 5 p.m. You will take a "nummerlapp" (a number from the Turn-o-Matic) and wait patiently for your turn to ensure a rowdy weekend. Old drunks outside the shop might sell you a low number for a few kronor. Otherwise, bring literature.

The shoe repairman, the waitress, the handyman, the cashier, the mechanic, the cleaning lady and you are all equals. Not only is the customer not always right, they're fortunate to receive service of any kind, and have no right to expect special attention.

The city of Gothenburg was built on highly absorbent clay. That, incidentally, is why they have trams instead of subways. Legend has it that this clay makes one sink in and stay. There might be something to that. I am still here.

--Laurie Rosenwald


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