• Sweden edition
 

The Swede Life

(mis)adventures abroad in Sweden

En fråga om “varför?”

January 18th, 2012 by benmack

A mystery is afoot. No, I didn’t lose my keys (again), get lost in the woods and find myself halfway to Alvesta (it’s happened before), or require a recipe for ermine stew (if you’re reading this, Furry Weasel Who Must Not Be Named, let this be a warning).

This mystery also has nothing to do with mathematics (took one math class my first year at university, got a C-, and am damn proud of it), unsolved murders (sorry, but I’m no Mikael Blomkvist), or the meaning of life (I’m not Monty Python, either).

The mystery is this: why do you read this column?

Seriously, why do you? 110% Lagom has better pictures. Julie’s Nordic Island is more insightful. Snuggling with the Enemy is more entertaining. And Julie’s Melodifestivalen blog is written by, well, an actual Swede.

So why do you read this? Don’t you have better things to do? Like, I don’t know – go fishing, spend time with your family, or buy something online that you really don’t need and costs way more than it’s worth?

This column isn’t funny. It isn’t insightful. Heck, it’s not even well-written. In the pantheon of great writing, it’s the equivalent of the guy who couldn’t even get hired as the night janitor at the nearby Burger King.

But you’re still reading it. I mean, do you actually enjoy hearing about the misadventures of some poor chap with about as much common sense as an ostrich and who frequently finds himself more out of his element than Steve Buscemi in “The Big Lebowski?”

Hey, buddy: you’re still reading this. Haven’t I made myself clear? This column is about nothing, nothing, and more nothing – with some more nothing added in for good measure.

It’s pointless. It’s rude. It’s downright crass. But if you’ve gotten this far, you’re downright hooked.

Sure, you’ll comment on how terrible this is, how I’m a disgrace to the journalistic profession, and how it should be illegal for me ever to type anything ever again. But just remember this: you chose to read this. Since I doubt the CIA, FSB, or the AIK front line forced you to look at this as part of some elaborate and unquestionably bizarre torture method, you have only yourself to blame, bucko.

Not my fault you’ve lost 90 seconds of your life you’ll never get back.

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Snowed out

January 11th, 2012 by benmack

Where has all the snow gone?

Think about it. Sweden. Snow. It’s a package deal, right? You don’t buy a cheeseburger without cheese, do you?

Same with snow here. After all, if a significant portion of your country is north of the Arctic Circle and the occasional moose can be seen running amok in the streets (even worse, they’re usually drunk from fermented apples. Take shelter!), there should be more of the stuff than rednecks at a gun show.

But just like the Vӓxjӧ Lakers’ chances at a decent season (that one went by the wayside after their first match, causing me to contemplate the meaning of life at a nearby pub), it seems to have vanished faster than Jackson Rathbone’s career (Jackson who? Exactly).

Remember last winter? A ferry became stranded in Stockholm harbor because there was too much ice. This year? It was four degrees the other day. Four degrees! Now on sale at H&M: shorts and tank tops!

And guess what Thursday’s high is supposed to be in Vӓxjӧ? Six degrees. Welcome to Death Valley North.

A couple years ago, my host family told me, there was so much ice that people would actually drive their cars across some of the lakes in town. Today you’d need a hovercraft, or whatever Tim Tebow has.

And I’ve even found my much-beloved winter skinny dipping to be harder. Last year, it required cutting a hole in ice that was 40 centimeters thick, then jumping in right away before it froze over again. This year? Maybe half that. It’s so warm, I’m waiting to jump in as I write this.

Maybe the whole snow thing is a bad stereotype, like blondes and a certain furniture store that starts with IKEA. After all, it did reach 25 degrees a couple of days this past summer (considering my flat didn’t have air conditioning, the only word to describe such conditions is “apocalyptic”), and there were Allsvenskan (and Superettan, and every other level of football) matches in October as there are every year.

So maybe it’s not the end of the world as we know it (though it is 2012 for those that believe such things). But it sure is warm out there… relatively speaking (current forecast for Thursday’s high temperature in Miami: 26 degrees).

And the Swedes do have a saying: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Guess who’s going to the store now?

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On the sunnier side of dragon tattoos

December 22nd, 2011 by benmack

Rough past few weeks for Sweden. Just brutal.

First, Saab’s automobile division declared complete and total bankruptcy. Goodbye. Sayonara. Enjoy the fishing season in Kobe.

Then, 23 women and one man were convicted in Falu District Court of participating in a child pornography ring that resulted in 1,181 explicit images and 40 films being found on the man’s computer.

Also, the Swedish government continues to refuse to acknowledge that alleged secret CIA flights have been taking place over the country, despite the fact that some of the flights are thought to have transported suspects who were later tortured, and the Swedish head of the world’s “first international sex school” in Austria admitted the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Great. There goes both those ideas for impressing my girlfriend.

To boot, Ibrahimovic & Co. (AKA the Swedish National Football team) lost against England for the first time in – get this – 43 years.

Oh, and H&M – which I always assumed could do no wrong – has kicked up a hornet’s nest of controversy with its new Dragon Tattoo Collection, a line of clothes based on David Fincher’s remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” that some have claimed glamorizes rape. Ouch.

On a more personal lever, the V?xj? Lakers continue to struggle in their first season in Elitserien, and at second-to-last place one has to wonder if they’ll be relegated next year. Back in the States, my beloved Boise State Broncos lost at home for the first time in 10 years, and now instead of playing for the National Championship are paired up against a 6-6 Arizona State Sun Devils team that just fired their coach.

To top it all off, my great nemesis – an ermine that lives near my flat whom I’ve nicknamed “El Diablo” – has returned: I saw him dart into the bushes while I was taking a walk yesterday afternoon. I’m sure he’ll strike when I’m most vulnerable – probably while I’m taking a shower.

All of it’s enough to make any man, woman, or child want to plunge themselves headfirst into a frozen river (without getting back into the sauna afterwards) or eat a blowfish at a disreputable restaurant after a few BASE jumps.

Maybe it’s a case of seeing the glass as have empty rather than half full. There’s bound to be some good news, right?

Well, the Danish investment firm Saxo Bank predicted that in the coming year the Swedish krona will replace the Swiss franc as a safe haven in a debt-riddled Europe, thereby strengthening the Swedish economy. O.K., so apparently Sweden’s the place to go if you don’t want to be stuck eating lima beans out of a can.

 There’s also the news that Sweden has one of the most democratic Twitter accounts out there. An intrepid reporter at The Local named Rebecca Martin – who unlike myself actually organizes her thoughts into a cohesive argument when writing – discovered that by handing its official Twitter account over to regular citizens – including a priest, a teacher and a “coffee-drinking bull-dyke” – Sweden is defending its reputation as one of the world’s most democratic nations. Alright, the whole “free and open society” thing is covered.

But there can’t be any more good news, can there? I mean, really, what could be better than Sweden serving as the real “star” of the new “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” film with a score composed by none other than Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor?

The shortest day of the year is over. And Jul (otherwise known as Christmas, otherwise known as… well, you can’t get any bigger than Jul) is upon us.

So yeah, maybe things are better than I sometimes make them out to be. I guess sometimes I get a little carried away.

But what made me come to this revelation, you ask?

It was five degrees in V?xj? yesterday. Enough said.

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Credit where credit is (not) due

December 1st, 2011 by benmack

You up for a challenge?

Try leaving an Elitserien ice hockey match with your sanity intact.

It doesn’t matter where you are – be it Stockholm, Jӧnkӧping, or the outdoor icebox known as Luleå – I bet 500 kronor you can’t do it.

But I did not do it.

I never allow my personal feelings to affect what I write. That’s why, even though I study in Vӓxjӧ, home of the Vӓxjӧ Lakers, I’d never speak unfairly about motherless Djugårdens IF.

When it comes to class, integrity and fair play, goon-laced Djugårdens IF ranks with any team in Rugby Union Elitserien.

It’s true that at times in the past all of the some Djugården players have exhibited some criminal aggressive behavior against the Lakers, but what else would you expect out of freaking animals one of the most elite hockey leagues in the world?

Just because referee-paying Djugården won 4-3 after a penalty shootout at the brand spankin’ new Vida Arena in Vӓxjӧ after the worst officiating I’d ever seen a great game, I don’t necessarily think the players for Djugården are anything less than hitmen gentlemen.

There is nobody Vӓxjӧ fans detest respect more than Djugården’s fine left wing, Elmer Fudd Christian Eklund. True, Eklund got lucky made a terrific shot that made everyone want to get medieval silenced the crowd, but this was only because Eklund is from hell such a skilled player.

There are also a few isolated fans in Vӓxjӧ who don’t like Djugården wussy-boy star Kristofer Ottosson. I, for one, think his cringe-inducing team-leading 18 points is nothing short of a travesty a true testament to how he cheats good of a player he is.

Also, unlike some in Småland, I think Stockholm is a wonderful place to whack meet somebody and, in fact, bring charges up a family. The citizens should be under house arrest proud. I once got lost in Stockholm, and a local citizen was more than happy to help. He said, “Go right at the second burning car and left at the corpse, and park. You can try and buy your car back later.”

Some folks in Vӓxjӧ poke fun at the fact that Stockholm calls itself a hockey town, but butt-lucky Djugården has won 16 fluke championships, whereas the Lakers are only in their first year in the Elitserien and will win the championship this year. But what people don’t realize is that Djugården fans eat, drink and sleep in cardboard boxes hockey.

All in all, the Lakers-Djugården rivalry is about mutual loathing respect. I can honestly say that if Djugården were to play in, say, Iraq, I’d be there holding up a picture of Saddam Hussein supporting them. To me, Djugården represents everything that is fully prosecutable good in hockey.

In summary, even though the puppy-kicking, handicap-space-parking, Rebecca Black-listening Djugården is ahead of the Lakers in the standings by one point, all of us in Vӓxjӧ hope they lose from here on out have a great season. And are relegated to HockeyAllsvenskan.

See, told you I am very biased could do it.

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The Swedes are all right

November 14th, 2011 by benmack

Back in the states, a debate about corporal punishment – basically, physically punishing children by doing things such as spanking them or hitting them with a belt – has been raging for years.

No countries in North America ban physical punishment of children, but there’s a perennial discussion in the U.S. about the fine line between discipline and abuse. It flared again last week after millions worldwide saw a seven-minute YouTube video from 2004 that showed a Texas judge cursing at his teenage daughter and beating her with a belt.

Shocking as the video may be, the public outcry was not as severe as some would think. Not punishing children physically raises weak children, some argue. If you never spank a child, they say, the child will grow up with a spoiled sense of entitlement and be lazy, unproductive members of society that leech off the government.

Apparently they’ve never been to Sweden.

With an average annual per capita income higher than the U.S. according to some reports, the Swedes must be doing something right. The Human Development Index (HDI) of Sweden is higher than the U.S., and Swedes on average live 2.7 years longer than their American counterparts (81.07 years compared to 78.37 years, according to the CIA World Factbook). If the Swedes were so lazy and unproductive, they would not be making so much money or living so long.

And guess what? Corporal punishment of children in Sweden is illegal.

It’s an idea that’s been gaining a lot of attention lately. On Nov. 9, CNN ran a story lauding the Swedish system, praising it for recognizing the importance of children’s rights.

The praise is well-deserved.

In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to ban physical punishment of children. Since then, 30 other countries have passed similar bans on corporal punishment at home and in schools, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.

The idea of children’s rights is nothing new in Sweden. In the CNN article, it was stated that about half of Swedish children were smacked in the 1970s – before the ban on corporal punishment – Save the Children Sweden reported. In the 2000s, the number fell to “just a few per cent.”

The 1979 was the result of several decades of progressively stricter legislation. The first description of children’s human rights in Sweden appeared in the 1920s, and a ban on smacking in schools was passed in 1958. Public attitudes continued to shift in the 1970s and finally, in 1977, the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) created a committee to examine children’s rights. Before the new law was passed, the ban was explained in pamphlets and in printed information on milk cartons throughout Sweden.

The result of the Riksdag’s work was Chapter 6, Section 1 of the Swedish Children and Parents Code: “Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.”

Although the law technically carries no penalties, adults who hit a child can expect a swift response from Swedish social services.

“The police are not going to say, ‘This parent should be charged,’” Joan Durrant, a family social sciences professor at Canada’s University of Manitoba who has studied the effects of Sweden’s ban for decades, was quoted as saying in the CNN article. “The police will say, ‘What you did is not OK, I understand why it happened, but you need to know that’s against the law, and here are the supports available to you.’”

Those supports might include things such as access to parenting support groups, child development information, or nurses that can help offer advice to parents on alternatives to corporal punishment. In other words, if parents are hitting their children, it might mean they’ve lost control, and could benefit from learning about other options that are available to them that don’t involve physical punishment.

There could be a link between the Texas video and some Americans’ attitudes towards punishing their children. The CNN article pointed out that the U.S. and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that recognizes the human rights of people younger than 18. Sweden was one of the first countries to ratify it.

Regardless of cultural predicators, what happened in Texas was shocking, to be sure. But in Sweden, such a horror would be unspeakable.

Sure, the Swedes don’t usually spank their kids. And sure, corporal punishment of children is illegal. But guess what? Given the prosperity and openness of Sweden, they’ve turned out all right.

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Despite unknowns, Arab Spring will impact Sweden

November 3rd, 2011 by benmack

While Sweden may be thousands of kilometers away from the Middle East and North Africa, the Nordic country and its southern counterparts depend on one another.

The evidence is as plain as an open-faced sandwich: in 2010, Sweden consumed 351,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the C.I.A. World Factbook, up almost 4.5 percent from 2009.

In other words, the nations in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are important business partners for the world’s 33rd-largest economy, and the 22nd-largest oil importer. Changes in MENA governments may change Swedish trade relations, which in turn may dramatically change the lives of everyday Swedes.

But what, exactly, is taking place that may change Swedes’ lives? To understand how the Arab Spring may be life-altering, one must look at the potential results of the uprisings taking place.

Though not a Swede, Christopher Hill knows a thing or two about adversity.

“If you ever want to spend a good time with good people, don’t spend it with the North Koreans (in negotiations about ending the nation’s alleged nuclear weapons program),” said Hill, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Poland and Macedonia.

So when Hill speaks about the potential challenges a nation faces after overthrowing an unpopular and repressive dictator, people tend to listen.

Hill delivered the keynote address to a half-full Simplot Ballroom at Boise State University’s 28th annual Frank Church Conference Thursday, Oct. 27 in the U.S. state of Idaho. Panel discussions, presentations, and speeches throughout the day covered a dearth of topics related to the current uprisings spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa that began in Tunisia in December 2010.

“What happens [as a result of the Arab Spring] awaits the judgment of history,” said Hill.

Hill cited what happened in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion as a warning as to how tensions can escalate under a fractured government – the kind that, thus far, many of the uprisings in the Arab Spring are producing – and impact trade.

“[The Arab Spring] is one of the most inspiring things that’s probably happened in recent years,” said Hill. But, “not everything in the Arab Spring has been peaches and roses, either.”

Though Hill believes progress has been made in Iraq, he acknowledged the U.S. and much of the world was not prepared for the large-scale Sunni insurgency and Sunni-Shiite bloodshed that resulted following Saddam’s removal. Neither, he believed, were the Iraqi people.

“It’s important to understand these circumstances,” said Hill, who stated that a failure to understand what happened in Iraq could spell disaster for the Libyan rebels who in October deposed Col. Muammar Gadhafi, who had ruled the country since 1969.

Though Hill claimed the war in Iraq was not a “war for oil” as some have claimed, Hill did state he believed the Iraqi insurgency resulted due to poor post-combat planning by the United States, and a failure to understand the complexities surrounding the power structures and demographics of Iraq before Saddam rose to power in 1979.

Yet, Hill cited increased Iraqi oil production – from less than one million barrels per day in 2008 to almost 2.5 million per day in 2010 – as a sign of “progress” that benefits both Iraq and the nations that buy its oil, creating an interdependence that facilitates peaceful relations.

Hill was one of many speakers throughout the day that speculated as to the potential results of the Arab Spring. During an invitation-only luncheon address, American Society for Muslim Advancement Executive Director Daisy Khan spoke of the need for understanding between groups in order to avoid bloodshed.

“All human being are ambassadors of divinity on this earth,” said Khan, who created the charities Same Difference and Cordoba Bread Fest in the aftermath of 9/11. “Extremists don’t know what an Islamic state is. The Qur’an does not require the establishment of a state.”

Khan emphasized that the Islamic tradition in countries such as the U.S. and parts of Western Europe could serve as an example of how multiple groups can peacefully co-exist, an especially important example for some MENA nations, and that extremist groups such as al-Qaeda or Hamas should have no place in democracies.

“Islamic values and American values are the same,” said the Kashmir-born, New York resident Khan. “The global Muslim community is here in the United States. It’s in Europe.”

Others agreed that the Arab Spring is an important social movement that could impact people’s way of life in many countries.

“This (the Arab Spring) is important and affects everybody’s life at one level or another,” said George Moses, former president of the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA, which merged with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 2002).

In addition to Hill and Khan, other speakers throughout the day included Ambassador Hesham El Nakib of the Consul General of Egypt in Los Angeles, U.S. State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Regional Affairs Strategic Analyst Dr. Peter Howard, and University of Denver Assistant Professor Dr. Nader Hashemi.

The Frank Church Conference is an annual event named in honor of Frank Church, a U.S. Senator from Idaho who served from 1957 to 1981 and was best known for heading the Church Committee, which investigated abuses in U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Arab Spring is a wave of uprisings occurring in the Middle East and North Africa that so far has resulted in the overthrow of the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The uprisings have cost more than 300 billion kronor and thousands of lives have been lost, according to Al Arabiyah.

Perhaps only history will be the ultimate judge as to the outcome of the Arab Spring and its impact on Sweden. But, with thousands of Swedes of Middle Eastern origin and Sweden’s oil consumption continuing to increase despite the program proposed in a 2005 Swedish government report entitled “Making Sweden an Oil-Free Society” (Swedish: På väg mot ett oljefritt Sverige), one can be sure there will be an impact.

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Photo of the day: Växjö city center

October 27th, 2011 by benmack

One of the wonders of living or studying abroad is the opportunity to take photos and create lifelong memories. Every instant, every inhalation of frozen air can be digitally captured (or on film, if you nostalgically long for a simpler time) as easily as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores a goal. Can you say “smile?”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting photos of some of the sights (can’t quite get sound in pictures yet) of Sweden, taking you on a tour of the land of ABBA, IKEA, and meatballs. While you won’t even have to go outside, just have some coffee ready to go if I drop in.

__________

Växjö is the seat of Kronoberg County in the region known as Småland. With a population of about 64,200 and home to Linnaeus University, it was granted city charter status in 1342 by Magnus Eriksson. The city’s name is believed to be constructed from the words “väg” (road) and “sjö” (lake).

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Secrets of Swenglish

October 6th, 2011 by benmack

Before I go any further, let me apologize for not posting anything in a while. You see, I was in Vegas, and made the mistake of entering Cheetah’s at three in the afternoon. Let me tell you, those steak specials tend to keep you in there. To quote Jesus, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Speaking of Cheetah’s, you hear a lot of strange stuff there. Guys telling their life stories to women they just met. Women discussing comparative psychology while dancing around a pole.

Personally, it all sounded a lot like gibberish. I think it was English, but it definitely wasn’t Swedish.

‘Cause if it was, I swear I’ll eat crow.

When it comes to my native tongue, English is my first language. My father’s mother tongue is English, and my father’s father… well, he speaks German, but that’s an entirely different story.

The point is, I grew up speaking English. It’s the language I use to relate to the rest of the world, and defines what many things are to me.

Chances are, whatever your native language might be – whether it’s Russian, Chinese, Tagalog, Dutch, Cherokee, or any other – it’s what you use to relate to the rest of the world, too.

Let me clear something up: yes, almost everyone in Sweden speaks Swedish as their first language.

But pretty much everyone also speaks English.

It’s that last statement that surprised me the most when I first arrived. See, I was expecting the entire populace to be speaking a Germanic language that sounded like its speaker could break out into song at any given moment. Instead, not only did they speak the language I knew best (my Spanish, while serviceable for me to survive in South America, is still far from perfect), but with an accent easier to understand than anyone I’d ever met from, well, England (ditto the Australians, New Yorkers, 95 percent of Southerners, and Texans).

Seriously, after being in Sweden for a year I’m yet to meet someone under the age of sixty who doesn’t speak English. While the reasons for this are numerous (TV shows only subtitled in Swedish rather than dubbed, English classes beginning in primary school), what it means is that you never have to worry if people don’t understand your Swedish as well as your girlfriend/boyfriend does your text messages.

However, that DOES NOT mean you shouldn’t learn Swedish. Think about it: if you were in Japan, would you want to learn a little Japanese? Of course you would.

Fortunately, there’s more options for learning Swedish than there are varieties of sausages. From classes when you’re at university, to lessons at a language institute, there’s something for everyone.

You’ll also hear a lot of Swenglish while in Sweden, a bizarre mix of Swedish and English that has many glass half empty-types convinced Swedish will one day become a dead language. It’s especially common among young people, particularly when they’re excited and/or have had too much to drink at a student pub. While it may sound confusing at first, it’s a great way to start picking up on some Swedish.

And here’s a secret: if you start speaking Swenglish, people might just think you’re a Swede. I should know: it’s happened to me on several occasions, though people tend to think I’m Swedish anyway when I ask “I speak but a little Swedish. Do you speak English?” (“Jag talar men en liten Svenska. Talar du Engelska?”) – in Swedish.

So despite the “safety net” of English – and the desire of many young Swedes to practice their English – swallow your pride and try your hand at Swedish. After all, you want to impress that blue-eyed, blonde-haired bombshell don’t you?

That’s what I thought.

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The strange case of the missing Swedes

August 12th, 2011 by benmack

Ever lose something? You know, like something really important? A prized possession? A pet? Your keys? Your sanity?

I’ve lost all of the above – and then some. But even I don’t lose things as much as Sweden does. Every summer the entire country goes missing.

It’s true. I think the police should put out missing persons posters all over town so people can find out where all the Swedes have gone. But wait, there’s a problem: all the police seem to be missing too.

So where the heck has everyone gone? That’s a good question.

I know a grand total of only one person who’s traveled exclusively in Sweden this summer: Vӓxjӧ student Gertrúd Larsson.

“I’ve only been to Stockholm this summer,” she says, “because many times it means I have to leave my cat with someone else.” But, she quickly points out, “I still like holidays, especially when I can leave Scandinavia.”

Her and apparently everyone else.

It makes no sense: this time of the year is when Sweden is by far the prettiest. Seriously, up in Norrland it’s about the only time parka-wearing isn’t necessary for your survival. And summer is the “high season” for Swedish tourism: you know, when everyone, their brother, and their goldfish decide to visit Stockholm or Gothenburg or some other city whose name they completely butcher.

Compare Sweden to where I usually study in Boise, Idaho: with highs around 20 degrees Celsius, Sweden is the perfect blend of not-too-hot-not-too-coldness that many folks dream about. It’s sunny for about 18 hours a day (even more up north), and water remains plentiful. Back in Boise, it’s usually over 35 degrees every day this time of year, and water becomes so scarce there’s sometimes government-imposed limits on how much you can use. Oh, and did I mention that Idaho typically leads the U.S. in the amount of land burned by fires every year? Gives the term “heat wave” a whole new meaning.

But back to the Case of the Missing Swedes. Someone should call a private eye. Or the FBI. Or Interpol. Or at least someone who can track them down. Because frankly, they’re all over the place.

Name the exotic locale, and you’re likely to find Swedes vacationing there. Thailand, Malta, Bali, Miami, Ibiza, Africa, the Canary Islands – all receive healthy amounts of Swedish visitors. My friend Julie just spent the last week in Cyprus. My buddy Martin decided to go to France twice – with a stop in Monaco along the way. And my friend Fanny visits Phuket, Thailand every year with her family.

I think you’re more likely to find a Swede who doesn’t travel this time of year. If such a person exists, I’m yet to meet them.

Maybe they have their reasons for traveling. There must be a reason there’s a travel agency every hundred meters throughout the country.

When your employer gives you several weeks of vacation per year, I’m sure that’s a plus. And when warmer climes are practically a hop, skip, and a jump away (O.K. so maybe it’s a three-hour plane ride, but it’s sure a lot closer than having to travel several hundred kilometers just to get to the next state over) I guess that helps too.

But wait! Let me explain! Sweden’s still a great place this time of year. It’s just that, well…

Hold that thought. I think I have a sunburn.

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We are all Norwegians

August 1st, 2011 by benmack

Until July 22, any mention of the Norwegian capital of Oslo evoked images not of terror, but of peace – the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (a fact my Swedish friends never let me forget), the hosting of diplomatic talks, the use of soldiers for only peacekeeping purposes. But now this bloodied city has joined the depressingly long list of others – New York, Madrid, London, Beirut, Mumbai, Jakarta, and many more – struck by terror.

In a matter of hours, eight people were killed in an explosion that tore through several government buildings, and at least 69 teenagers were gunned down at a youth camp on the nearby island of Utoya. The attacks amount to the deadliest day of terror in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the deadliest day in Scandinavia since World War II. In fact, the shooting, allegedly carried out by 32-year-old ethnic Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, is among the deadliest rampages in history.

While it will take Norway a long time to move on, many around the world seem to have already done so. More specifically, some didn’t even seem to care in the first place. And still others used the tragedy as an opportunity for derision.

Take Portland, Ore.-based radio talk show host Victoria Taft. In discussing the massacre on her syndicated program, Taft stated that Norway “had it coming.” She went further by explaining “this is what happens when you have a see no evil, let’s just be nice to everyone policy.”

In ultra-tolerant Scandinavia, Taft’s comments would ring hollow. And while her comments may be disgusting, sadly she’s not alone.

Even my parents seem to have reacted to the tragedy with shrugged shoulders. While discussing with my father what Norway’s response might be – and whether something will be done about the right-wing extremist movement that it appears Breivik was a product of – he simply said “Who cares? That’s Norway’s problem.”

What if the shoe were on the other foot? It may sound cliché, but think about it: almost every American remembers the pain, anguish, fear, and anger they felt on September 11, 2001. How would they feel if someone came up to them and said that America “had it coming?” Right now, many Norwegians are experiencing the same feelings.

Simply because this tragedy happened somewhere other than Your Town, Anywhere does not make it unimportant. Rather, with Sweden neighboring Norway, it becomes even more important. Nordic solidarity is needed — regardless of where one originally came from.

And unfortunately, by Saturday much of the coverage of the massacre was overshadowed by the death of Amy Winehouse, a 27-year-old pop diva who died of a drug overdose that many said they saw coming. In the minds of some, this was bigger news than the murder of 77 innocent people.

To fully grasp just how tragic the Oslo and Utoya events are, one must put it in perspective. Compare it with the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre, a U.S. college campus shooting that left more than 30 people dead, including the shooter. The bombing and shootings in Norway claimed almost three times as many victims.

Still others remarked “that’s sad,” or “I feel bad for the Norwegians,” without truly understanding the scope of the horror. While Oslo will undoubtedly rebuild and campers may return one day to Utoya, the scars will remain. Many will require years of expensive therapy to get past the trauma, and Muslims will have to deal with the sting of being blamed yet again for an event they had nothing to do with (in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, attention turned to Al-Qaeda and an obscure Kurdish militant group called Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami that falsely claimed responsibility for the attack).

I can be honest and say that my connection to the Oslo bombing and the massacre on Utoya is closer than most. Having spent a year studying and living in neighboring Sweden, I had the opportunity to visit Oslo with some friends in November 2010. While the temperatures were nothing short of bone-chilling, I was amazed at how warm, open, and friendly the people were, and how incredibly safe the city felt. On more than one occasion I saw babies left alone in strollers tied to light poles while mothers and fathers went indoors to grab a coffee or bun. To see images of the city I considered the safest on earth thrown into chaos has shaken my very core.

The world has poured its heart out for grieving nations before. It happened after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 claimed over 125,000 lives, and again when devastating earthquakes struck Japan and Haiti. People were concerned when several Madrid commuter trains were bombed in 2004, and also when London’s public transportation system was targeted by Al-Qaeda in 2005. And people worldwide even expressed alarm when a suicide blew himself up in central Stockholm last December.

So why not now, when Norway needs support more than ever?

While Oslo will undoubtedly rebuild and campers may return one day to Utoya, the scars will remain. Many will require years of therapy to get past the trauma, and some may never recover. Muslims will have to deal with the sting of being blamed yet again for an event they had nothing to do with (in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, attention turned to Al-Qaeda and an obscure Kurdish militant group called Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami that falsely claimed responsibility for the attack).

A tragedy is a tragedy, no matter where it happens. What Norway needs right now is solidarity.

Perhaps Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said it best. As quoted in the The Local, “Today, we are all Norwegians.”

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