Coming to Sweden was one Elaine Bianchi.
I met her at the Umea train station. Her squeezing dark eyes gleamed and her strong powdery cheekbones bubbled as she smiled. Brown strands and thin braids fell back reaching her delicate body. A thick hemp necklace from Costa Rica tightly collared her neck. She's so beautiful.
We'd last kissed in our hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We now had a week to enjoy Umeå. "Sweden's so beautiful," says Elaine. We peddled the quiet bike trail up and down the slow, black Ume River. The river's green shore is populated only with quiet forest, hay fields, and soft white dogs who brave the cold water to swim.
We also explored the forest which watches like a guardian over all of Sweden to within a ten-minute-walk of downtown Umea. We stepped over dark-green clovers, sour red berries, and colorful mushrooms. Elaine plans on studying forestry and says going to the forest brings a person great energy.
Around Sweden, Elaine pointed out to me how there was so little diversity of people in Sweden. She also taste-tested snus, the tobacco pouch people wear under their upper lips. Elaine became dizzy after two minutes, called snus the grossest thing ever, and took it out.
Meanwhile, I'm just now going to take out my all-new-latest version of that popular craze that makes the girls go wild and the guys dance on their heads: the MODERN ODDYSEUS' TOP 5!!! I've been carrying this one under my upper lip.
The Top 5 Worst Things About Sweden! will begin and make us all dizzy with delight:
1. SCARED PEOPLE -
In a land as safe as Sweden, it's a shame that strangers aren't friendlier to strangers. People living in the same building don't greet each other.
One satirical Swedish movie had a scene where immigrants got taught to be Swedish. The immigrants were taught to look through their peep-holes into the apartment hallway before going out; if any other neighbors already stood in the hall, the immigrants were taught to wait as Swedes in order to avoid any unnecessary human contact. Swedes seem to fear everyone, even though they're all practically the same.
Few Swedes pick up hitchhikers. Those who have rooms in their homes for rent rarely advertise these vacancies and will only rent to people they know. Swedes are overly cautious to keep their doors locked. If someone is renting an apartment, it's illegal for him to make a copy of the apartment key. If one key gets lost, the renter has to pay to have the locks changed so that the next renter will feel safe.
2. THE "GLASS BOX" -
Even though they're all very equal, Swedes don't seem like members of a community. Instead, each one acts like a privileged, precious gem that must be kept away.
It's like people put a glass box around themselves. In the box is allowed one's family, one's longterm friends, a job, a car, a decorated home with modern amenities, and IKEA furniture. If you're new in town - even if you get along really well with a local - it's difficult to be let in someone's glass box.
3. SELFISH -
My impression of thirty- and forty-something Swedes is that they watch their tv's, read their shallow magazines, shop in their suburban supermarket chain stores, and don't really think too much about anything but making their lives as comfortable as possible.
Boy-girl relationships center around sex. There isn't much romance. I imagine Swedish people going home with one another and thinking only about getting to the orgasm.
Traveling Swedes often take two-week package deals to Bulgaria or Turkey or Thailand or some other cheap country where they can get drunk and be lazy and hang out with other Swedes.
4. RULES AND TAXES -
There are so many traffic rules and other rules in Sweden, I don't know how people don't just one day go crazy and say, "I don't want to follow them!"
The taxes in Sweden seem to be mostly good, because they keep people from becoming too rich. But, even I would be upset if I paid taxes on my income, then had to pay taxes again on the money I saved from that for my pension, then had to pay an additional tax just for being old. Car-owning Swedes pay a yearly tax on their cars, plus they're obliged to pay for yearly check-ups on their cars and to pay to fix anything on the cars they're told they have to.
Sweden has a hefty tax places on owners of SUV's, which I think is good.
5. CRAPPY MUSIC -
Radio stations and nightclubs play talentless Swedish pop-music or talentless American pop-music.
HONORABLE MENTION points go, aptly, to SNUS.
Man, I'm a critical s.o.b. Oh, well, you gotta take the bad with the good. Unless, of course, you only take the good. Here come The Top 5 Best Things About Sweden!:
1. GENTLE AND SAFE -
Most Swedes would never want to fight or hurt anyone. Most don't get road rage or swear angrily at others. It's such a safe country I could hardly imagine anything bad ever happening.
2. BICYCLES -
Most people live in apartments or houses with puny yards, so the cities are compact enough for most people to get around by bike. Sailing and angling through city streets like a windblown kid is a hundred times more satisfying than driving in a car, if you ask me.
4. PEOPLE LOOK LIKE CANDY -
Swedes have green eyes misted with hay, light-yellow blue eyes, glowing-subterranean-pool navy eyes, even dark almost-purple eyes. Many are blond, some have dark hair, guys have blond-brown hair frosted with gray, and girls dye their blond hair whiter to the point where some have hair like angel clothes. People muss their hair up attractively with a holding foam. Dread-locks, too, come in every color.
Fashion can also be bright. One liquid-eyed punk girl wore a colorful-blue and black skirt outfit with her blond hair painted down against her head. Another night, her outfit was bright-vibrant-red striped with black, and her hair was up in thick, footlong spikes making a blond mohawk. Punk guys wear tight, black jeans and t-shirts and leather jackets. Other guys wear soft, black coats over trendy striped collared shirts. Girls wear similar soft coats beneath dangly earrings which make them look like they come from the movies.
5. "ALLAMANSRATTAR" -
The law says everyone has the right to camp on any land, anywhere, for at least one night.
To cap off this wondrous list, HM goes to: EVERYONE IS TAKEN CARE OF; HANDICAPPED PEOPLE LIVE WELL (they easily tour the streets and visit cafes, even nightclubs); and GREAT PERSONALITIES.
Swedes have great personalities when you get to know them. They stay young for a long time, I think. Elaine and I hung out with and said good-bye to some of my Umeå friends:
Anna worked with me at the boat-cafe/restaurant; she's a tall, cute, short-haired light-blond who's sarcastic and witty over the phone and fun too. Shorter Clara worked with me too; she has a freckly face which looks like a lynx kitten's, and her coolly-alive blue eyes sang out from her face as it was possible for her to get totally engulfed in a fun game and not stop smiling for an hour.
Hostel-owner Anders had a timid-guy great wit that could suprise you; his spiky-haired girlfriend, Viktoria, was ever-ready to talk about life and share stories. And frosty-haired Nina, the "Queen of the Crazy Girls," was just plain "trevlig" (pleasant). Little Nina was popular and always got invited to the parties, because she was an animated bundle of happy energy who enjoyed everything.
However, the toughest good-bye I had to say may have been to my roommate Oumar from Senegal. Oumar was as outgoing with his African laughter as the Swedish people were not, and I could see that his friendliness often intimidated reserved Swedes.
Oumar and I had enjoyed playing twenty competative games of Swedish "Scrabble" together. He always called me "Bush" with a big laugh - or, "Baby Bush," because I made so much noise with my silverware when I ate breakfast and he was trying to sleep. He called Elaine "Mrs. Bush," and Elaine always joked an insult back at him.
Oumar's and my favorite Swedish phrase was "Hej da" (Good-bye). We called this out every time someone left the apartment, "Hej då!" at least three times. Sometimes, we would merely go from one room to another, and one of us would chase the other with a serious look on his face, only to say, "you forgot to say, 'hej da."
Oumar gave me a thin black-and-white bead necklace from Senegal which will hopefully be around my neck for years. We hugged and said we'd see each other again, maybe in Senegal.
Going from Umea was one Justin Breen. It was a little sad. "Hej da!"
"Hej da, Oumar!"
"Hej da!" - Modern Oddyseus
Much belated thanks to Anders & Viktoria; and much thanks to Oumar and Anna for the places to stay in Umea!