Sweden is beautiful. Very beautiful. Gorgeous. Lots of forest and water and colorful wooden houses. Like in Bullerby.
Nevertheless, there will be relatively few stories from here. Because my stories thrive on encounters with people. And there aren’t any. Well, there are people, ten million of them. But they don’t talk to you. That’s not because of xenophobia (which is forbidden here). Swedes don’t talk to each other either.
I have a tried and true method for getting to know people: I sit down in the park, read a book or the newspaper, write, smoke a cigar, all of which signals that I am relaxed and communicative, that I have all the time in the world and (because of the book or the newspaper) that I am interesting and intelligent. This works everywhere in the world: Sooner or later someone asks what I am reading, what I am writing or if I have a lighter. Then I move on the bench to make room for the newcomer, people start talking, and soon we are discussing the new James Bond movie, Max Weber’s misinterpretation of Protestant ethics and whether there should be raisins in Kaiserschmarrn or not. Older people talk about the war, the younger ones about problems at home or at work.
In Sweden, though, that doesn’t work. Nobody speaks to me. As soon as they catch sight of me from a distance, people panic and pull an electrical device out of their pocket, playing around with it or speaking urgently and importantly into it. You have to imagine that: People here are such sociophobes that they carry a small TV or whatever it is around with them all the time, just to have an excuse not to talk to anyone.
All right, then I’ll go for a walk instead. After all, it’s green and beautiful. I have already mentioned that, I believe.
Swedes also like to go for walks. When they’re walking, people are relaxed, have time on their hands and look forward to a bit of diversion. It’s easy to strike up a conversation. You ask where you left, where you’re heading, and share your snacks.
That’s what I thought.
But it doesn’t work like that.
Nature in Sweden is apparently not for strolling, but for purposeful running, jogging, mountain biking and rolling around on cross-country skis. Sometimes, people in colorful outfits run across fields as if chased by a mad duck. That’s an orienteering race where participants have to check off certain points and snap off a piece of paper.
People who are not training for the Olympics have dogs. Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes eight. The latter are professional dog sitters. In Sweden it is forbidden by law to leave a dog alone at home for more than 6 hours. If you can’t take your dog to work (e.g. train drivers or sailors on submarines) or if you want to go on vacation without your dog, you have to put your dog in a dog hotel or hire a dog sitter. I came to Sweden for similar reasons, but I take care of a cat. And of a sourdough that I have to mix and stir every week. By the way, Sweden does not only have dog hotels, but also sourdough hotels, where you can deposit the dough, which is often in its third generation of family ownership, while you’re on vacation. Seriously. (Because you’re not allowed to divide the sourdough, Sweden still has the fideicommissum, an arcane institute of Roman inheritance law.)
But I’m already digressing again, like in the last great orgy of digression that brought me to Sweden in the first place. So back to the dogs. People with dogs find people without dogs, walking through the woods without an apparent purpose, suspect. Because people in Sweden read a lot of books about crime, murder and manslaughter, they think I’m about to bury a body. Because I have recognizably no corpse with me, they probably fear that they are meant to fill that position, which is why they move on quickly and without uttering a greeting.
Speaking of greetings, I am of course always friendly, smile and say “hej”. That’s Swedish for “hello”. Sometimes another walker also says “hej”, and older people even look friendly. But then they are already gone again.
When Swedish couples go for a walk, they don’t talk to each other either. In fact, no one talks to anyone in the whole country (except to their electrical appliances). Honestly, here you can sit next to someone on a bus or a train for hours and they don’t say a peep. After a bus ride in Bolivia, you know the entire family history of all fellow passengers. After a train ride through Canada, you understand the country much better. On hikes in the Balkans, you are invited everywhere until you can no longer walk in a straight line. In Sweden, you can share a prison cell with someone for two years without learning more than their name.
The ultimate emotion so far was when someone said “hej hej”. “Hello hello”, oh, someone is really talkative, I thought to myself. But he was already gone again. At home, I discovered in the dictionary that “hej” means not only “hello”, but also “bye”.
As I said, Sweden is a beautiful country. Very beautiful. But after my stay here, I need to go somewhere where people are open and warm. Siberia or Minnesota or something.
- More reports from Sweden.