Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Grocery hell

What is it with people? If you get your timing wrong, an innocent visit to the local ICA supermarket can be a nightmare – not because you can't find what you want (actually, Swedish stores are far better stocked now than when I first moved here), and not because the service is bad (at my local store, the staff are friendly and quick to open extra cash registers when the queue builds up) – but because of ones fellow shoppers.

It's probably just my grumpy paranoia, but sometimes, it seems to me as though other customers are conspiring to get in my way, barge past me and jump the queue. From the moment I approach the sliding doors, there's someone dithering needlessly in the way (often nattering distractedly on their mobile), yet before I've passed the swing-gate, I have someone else shuffling and puffing loudly behind my shoulder trying to get past. Needless to say, no-one can ever open their mouth to politely say "ursäkta" (I can't, for the life of me, understand why that word even exists in the Swedish language – it doesn't get much mileage).

Apparently, as with everything else in Sweden, you are expected to have planned your visit to the supermarket well in advance. Neither store design, nor the behaviour of other customers is conducive to browsing. Stop for but a moment to ponder whether you'd prefer red pesto or green, and a hand will reach aggressively past, mere millimetres from your nose to demonstratively snatch another product from the shelf. It is not uncommon for actual shoving to take place – and, again, there is no "ursäkta".

The general impression I get from Stockholmers' shopping behaviour is that, from the moment they enter the store, they are in a race to get to the checkout before anyone else. In fact, the race doesn't even stop there – I have often perceived a sense of achievement in a shopper who has succeeded in bagging his/her groceries before whoever was ahead of them in line. To what avail?

In America, by contrast, a visit to the supermarket is a delight. It may be a three mile walk to find all the items you want (no wonder American's always park as close as they can to the entrance), but at least the long, straight, wide aisles with yards of space for each product mean that shoppers can browse in peace and at their own pace.

What I can't understand is why local Swedish supermarkets are so small and crowded. Is it a matter of Social Democrat-conditioned planning. Even if per-capita grocery consumption here were half of what it is in the US (which I doubt), demographics would suggest that there should be at least two large (US size) supermarkets in my sizeable, inner suburb of Stockholm. Yet there is only one ICA and one Konsum (both very small) left (until recently, there were three Konsum stores). Is everyone heading to the out-of-town hypermarkets? I hardly think so, given that car ownership is (thankfully) low compared to, e.g. the US.

At the end of the day, it seems, in egalitarian Sweden, we need our local ICA/Konsum to fulfil our human urge to test and ascertain our social status. The hunter-gatherer able to trample over most rivals in bringing home the bacon wins. Social nicety is cast to the wind – this is about survival and filling stomachs.

Let's broaden our minds!

It has now been confirmed – there are fewer nutters per capita in London than there are in Stockholm. Alternatively, they are hidden away somewhere, out of site and out of mind. Where they are not is on the Tube and the trains. This is, of course, a great relief during busy periods when passengers are packed into those funny little arched trains like sardines. When it's hot and crowded and everyone's already looking around anxiously for suspicious looking rucksacks or abandoned parcels, the last thing you need is some colourful character twitching next to you and muttering loudly that we are all sinners damned to hell.

In fact, despite being complicated, antiquated and under-dimensioned, the London Underground offers certain benefits compared to Stockholm's Tunnelbana. For me, foremost among these is the fact that, apart from on a few above-ground sections, mobile phones don't work. Naturally, some people use their time on the train to write text messages that are transmitted as soon as their phones are back on-line, but at least their fellow passengers are spared their personal, generally needless and often boastful conversations.

(As a parenthesis, I note that a favourite topics of conversation among Stockholmers when using their mobiles on public transport include: foreign travel, career advancement and extortionate housing. If we are to believe only half of what we overhear of such conversations, all Stockholmers would live in multi-million kronor inner-city apartments, although there would be no one around because everyone would always be in New York, Hong Kong or Sydney on very important business trips.)

Given that many stations in London were not built to cope with current traffic levels, space does not allow stands for free newspapers or bins for their collection. As a result, during my visit to London last week, I saw perhaps two people reading Metro. What did impress me was the number of people broadening their minds studying text books or reading novels. You do see people reading books on the Tunnelbana – but look carefully, and you'll see that quite a few of them are Anglophiles or bona-fide Anglo-Saxons reading in English.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Spreading the word

To spread the word ( and hopefully generate some comments), I have registered this blog at: Stockholm på

World Cup depression

Well, Sweden is out of the World Cup and the hysteria has faded almost completely. For the few who can still muster any interest, loyalties are now divided. Should you back England – an easy choice, since its team is, after all, managed by a Swede? But there's some resentment that while England went through to the next round, Sweden, with whom it achieved merely a draw, is out. Nah, it's easier to back a distant soccer superpower that stands a real chance of winning – like Argentina.

As with the hype surrounding Sweden's participation in the tournament, its departure has also bred its own media language. The best example, in my opinion, was "Sluta VM deppa – nu kommer batter väder" (Stop getting depressed about the World Cup – better weather on the way). It's good to see that the Swedish tradition of inventing new forms of depression is still thriving. Perhaps even more encouraging is the tendency to produce "useful" compound verbs like "VM deppa" – giving the impression that this is an established and perhaps even medically recognised condition.

Another interesting tendency I have witnessed in Sweden's tabloid press (when serious news is in short supply) is to play on national hypochondria. Headlines such as "Magont kan vara dold sjukdom" (Stomach pain may be hidden disease) surely do nothing to combat the fact that, despite having one of the world's most highly developed healthcare systems, Sweden has the world's highest rate of sick leave. Naturally, it is taboo to suggest that this has anything to do with the fact that the country also has among the world's most generous compensation for sick leave.

I'm just waiting for the headline "VM depression kan vara dold sjukdom" (World Cup depression may be hidden disease) and the ensuing spate of sick leave (during the expected good weather). And, as for the better weather we were promised? – right now it's drizzling miserably and showing no signs of letting up.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Stockholm Grumpy guide to Tunnelbana "nutters"

I mentioned before that public transport in Stockholm is a constant source of conversation for local residents. Most of our comments are negative – who doesn't love to have a good moan with colleagues after a particularly miserable commute on a slushy, dark Monday morning in winter? What does surprise me though is that very little is said of Stockholm's many and colourful "nutters", most of whom seem to have made the subway system, or "tunnelbana", their home.

In Sweden, the tunnelbana is often referred to as the world's longest art exhibition. The expression would more accurately describe the Moscow subway whose stations are neoclassical Stalinist palaces of kitsch grandeur. In Stockholm, the name probably refers to the ingeniously decorated rock-cut stations on the blue line and the Mörby Centrum branch of the red line, since other parts of the system appear largely unembellished.

However, what the central part of the system lacks in visual art, it more than makes up for in impromptu performance art –and what's more, tourists, commuters and taxpayers needn't pay a single öre for this extra service. The best entertainment is provided on the green line between T-Centralen and Gullmarsplan. To be guaranteed the best seats, visitors to Stockholm should join the train one or two stops before these stations and make several journeys in both directions during the evening rush hour (starting at about 4.30 p.m. or 12.00 noon on Fridays in summer (sic!)).

The true enthusiast should try to capture new specimens on camera and submit photos digitally to Stockholmgrumpy at gmail dot com for future compilation in a "Stockholm Nutter-Spotting Guide". This should be done discretely to avoid becoming the direct target of undesired nutty behaviour.

There are various categories of nutters to spot. Although certain nutters belong clearly to a single category, others are hybrids.

Costumed nutters
Middle-aged man in toga, draped with blue and white flag (not Greek) and wearing a laurel wreath. Has been spotted at T-Centralen, riding the green line and, on occasion, the blue line. Easily misconstrued as a stag-party participant, the give-away being repeated sightings and lack of entourage. Possible philosophical ranter, although no public declamations have yet been witnessed.
Young man with stuffed white cotton glove sewn to the top of his baseball cap. One of his real hands bears a similar white glove. Will ride the tunnelbana with both white-gloved hads pressed to the window, creating a whimsical effect. Wears plastic-encapsulated cards on chest and back with reference to personal website. To date, Stockholm Grumpy has been unable to jot this down in order to be able to access the website from home.

Religious nutters
Late middle-aged woman bearing yellow plastic crown and large yellow and blue discs (worn sandwich-board style) adorned with concentric circles of Hebrew text - hybrid costumed nutter.
Middle-aged woman, dressed head to toe in various shades of lilac who marches down the central aisle of trains loudly and angrily announcing that all sinners are dammed and that we should be joyous and love one another – borderline hybrid costumed nutter.

Chemical nutters
This category is highly over-represented and comprises all nutters whose nuttiness derives from the use of chemical substances (including excessive quantities of alcohol). The fact that they are so numerous is truly astounding given Sweden's highly restrictive stance on alcohol and drugs. Even more astounding is the fact that paying passengers so frequently have to endure the loud, abusive and sometimes violent outbursts of these individuals with little more than tolerant embarrassment.
On occasion though, these nutters can be mildly entertaining. Spot the chap who plays badly recorded excerpts of golden oldies at high volume on a tinny old radio-cassette recorder, happily singing along – entirely out of tune, of course, and getting most of the lyrics wrong.

Sundry eccentrics
Sweden's coddled and tolerant society means that there are those who live relatively normal lives but whose eccentricity occasionally gains the upper hand (often on the rare hot summer days). Over-tanning, interesting clothing combinations (Swedes are not accustomed to wearing shorts) and even interesting cosmetic surgery solutions (lip enhancement being a favourite) provide interesting "side shows".

Thursday, June 15, 2006

What a way to start the day!

Don't get me started on the subject of Stockholm's subway – you'll get me going on for hours. Well, OK then – get me started!

I have to keep reminding myself that Stockholm's infrastructure, particularly local transport, is marvellous. Take any city of comparable size almost anywhere else and it almost certainly won't compare. Greater Stockholm has less than two million inhabitants, yet it has three well-developed subway lines, commuter-rail services, four light-rail systems and more bus routes than you could shake a stick at. The trains and buses are – generally clean and well-maintained.

Compare this with, for example, Los Angeles, which, with its environs, must be ten times the size of Stockholm. If I've understood correctly, there is one proper subway line connecting the San Fernando Valley with Downtown LA. The few other metro lines are surface light rail lines that run down the middle of immense freeways. Even at peak hours, the trains comprise two-car sets that do not fill up because everyone would rather be sitting still in their own air-conditioned gas-guzzlers in the 12-lane parking lot alongside.

So really, Stockholm commuters should be delighted at the convenience of their transport network. You certainly don't need a car here. Generally, driving is far less convenient – parking is a problem, the city's beautiful location on a group of islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic means inevitable bottlenecks for road traffic and the recent introduction of congestion charging makes driving more expensive than ever.

But I suppose human nature dictates that residents of Stockholm, myself included, complain more about public transport here than almost anything else in their daily lives. Maybe it's not so surprising. After all we're not at our best when we use public transport the most – getting to work in the morning.

Commuting really does bring out the very worst in people. Even in cultures where overcrowding makes politeness a necessity to avoid absolute mayhem, nerves can get very frayed during the morning rush hour. In Sweden, the delights of the morning commute are a relatively modern phenomenon, as indeed is urban life in general. The reserved (or, some would say, reticent) demeanour of the people is not suited to crowded places and urban stress and the general policy seems to be to simply shut it all out.

You don't personally know those around you in the crowd and hence there is little need to communicate, be polite or even recognize their existence. Averting your gaze by 30 degrees allows you to pretend you are unaware of those coming in the opposite direction. By turning your back on others, you needn't be "aware" of them as you back into them with your rucksack when the train fills up. A well positioned newspaper acts as an efficient barrier, keeping others out and liberating you from the need to show the slightest courtesy. Actually, the newspaper trick was invented in Victorian Britain – but the egalitarian Swedes have made the option available to all, with their free newspapers – conveniently distributed at stations all over Stockholm. (This has proven so successful, it is now been exported internationally).

All of these methods for alienating those around you pale, of course, in comparison with the ultimate device for saying "I'm more important than the rest of you and needn't even notice you as I barge my way past." I speak, of course, of the mobile phone. A subject which, dear readers, requires a blog-entry all of its own.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Grumpy Bear

Not unlike me on a weekday morning on my way to work!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Soccer hysteria

Well the World Cup in soccer is finally here with more hype than ever. And more than ever, it's all about money. The true fan must put his money where his mouth is and cough up for pay-per-view if he/she wants unadulterated coverage – the opportunity to spend hours and hours glued to the set. The alternatives are limited and costly. Tickets to the matches in neighbouring Germany are selling at a premium on the black market – and then you've got to get there and find accommodation, surely nigh on impossible at this point. Perhaps then, it is not so surprising that people are willing to swarm with thousands of others in Stockholm parks to see the matches for free on screens that are apparently too small for many to actually be able to follow the action.

At least this is about supporting your country's team – I get that (at least to a certain extent). Most supporters (it seems) back their own country's team – a team comprised of citizens of that country and that could, by association, be thought to represent the skill and physical prowess of the nation (it's a long stretch of the imagination but a logical one). Perhaps joining in a shared display of support serves to provide ego-boosting confirmation of that association (as long as your team wins). The couch potato can join in the euphoria of victory without the necessity of years of hard physical training and with little more effort than a raised arm and a hoarsely barked "yeah." (As witnessed recently in a bar/restaurant or living room near you!) This "participation-by-proxy" has another great advantage – WE win, but THEY lose.

I have attended one soccer match in my life – with my father when I was four. It was a match between two local Dorset teams and the crowd cannot have been very large. What I do remember is that is was cold and wet, that the action on the pitch was incomprehensible to me and that I had no urge to go back. The only thing that was fun was singing along with the fans, roaring as one when a goal was scored.

Is that part of it? Sometimes on my way home from work, I have coincided with the hordes leaving Söderstadion following a Hammarby match. Fortunately, the boisterousness on these occasions has been good-natured and there is something oddly stirring in the spontaneous choral song and the sea of green and white clothing along the platform. Is there something primal within us that gets a buzz from being part of a crowd – do we get high on "us"?

There are parallels in history. Roman citizens attended events at the Colloseum free of charge. Surely it is not merely the victory-by-proxy over the opponent or some unfortunate Christians that provides the kick. The roar of the crowd, the hugeness of it all, being part of something BIG – surely that's what releases a flow of endorphins. If they aren't released, frustration builds and testosterone takes over. The step from good-natured rollicking to violence never seems long.

The scale of stadium sports makes this possible. You simply can't cram enough people round a chess board to generate the same effect – and when did you ever see a headline along the lines of "Well-behaved soccer fans attacked by rampaging chess hooligans"?