At Your Leisure...?

Here’s a secret for Americans engaging in Swedish social situations: simply replace the word “work” with “vacation”. “What do you for work?” becomes, “Where do you go for vacation?” and, “How long have you been with that company?” turns into “How long will you stay in [Turkey/Greece/Spain]?” That’s not even getting into the unquestioned state of being comfortably at home and simply, “on vacation” or regular escapes to mountain cabins for skiing (fjäll: ph-YELL, a specific word for mountains that are above the tree line.)

 Little 8" x 8" warm up, about an hour and a half between 8:30 and 10 pm.  This abandoned "Spook House" is part of the 4H sheep pen scenery.(And I thought 4H was just a rural Midwest thing.)

Little 8" x 8" warm up, about an hour and a half between 8:30 and 10 pm.  This abandoned "Spook House" is part of the 4H sheep pen scenery.(And I thought 4H was just a rural Midwest thing.)

This may have something to do with the universal 5 weeks of paid time off; “Six weeks if you’re a good—no, even just a decent—negotiator,” a friend elaborated. (Is there a Swedish equivalent for the phrase, "salt in the wound?") Similarly, over wine after a Saturday night Swedish football victory, a fellow party guest informed me, “Weekend pay is doubled due to uncomfortable working hours”. The smile that accompanied talk of her “unfortunate” shift the following morning implied that it was, in fact, decent compensation. Of course, no Swedish vacation discussion is complete without mentioning the 16 months of it (paid, of course) given to new parents, with 2 months exclusively reserved for fathers. The definition of “new parents” here, is “until your child is 8.” 

It’s worth noting that my exposure to Sweden has been almost exclusively between Midsommar (the biggest party of the year) and July (the most popular vacation month) but even so, I think it’s safe to say leisure time is serious business. 

Truth be told, this confuses me. I grew up in a country defined by its work-aholism with two business owners as parents. I’m still not grasping by this “your profession is not your identity” idea. Have I been brainwashed by my capitalistic, economy-driven upbringing and surroundings?

Whatever the case, the reality is that I become a nervous wreck if I am either A) in a situation that I do not see as being productive or B) somehow stuck in a whirlpool of obligations that prevent me from throwing myself into some conjured up plan for (I hope) maximum positive impact on my fellow humans. I am a constant schemer; leisure for the sake of leisure is not high on the priority list.

 A quick little sketch of the Old Hotel in the city center of Umeå. 

A quick little sketch of the Old Hotel in the city center of Umeå. 

Case and point, I once had someone ask, “Do you see yourself as a happy person?” It seemed like an irrelevant question. “Happy? I suppose, sometimes, yes. Should I be? I’m just not sure how that factors into the bigger picture…” My favored state of being is something like, “the satisfaction found in progressing toward a goal,” rather than the final state of having something attained.

Some people would call this neurotic. I prefer, “goal-oriented.”

In Sweden the provision of necessities is practically guaranteed, rather than acquired. Be it fair wages, healthcare, education, childcare, eldercare, and a number of “cares” there aren't even english words for, Sweden’s got you covered. 

On one hand, this sounds amazing. Basic life necessities are often exactly the things that prevent me from pursuing my grand plans! Would my Swedish acquaintances, with their fulfilled basic needs, be shining examples of lives of self-actualization? Or does the construction of a care-taker government crack the shell of the proverbial chick? (Who will supposedly die if it does not do its own shell-cracking.)

There have certainly been interesting events for consideration during my... ehem... "research" (?) in Umeå:

 Of course I was painting while I was in Sweden! ... now in acrylics. We started with signs to surprise Niklas...then a very creative group mural. 

Of course I was painting while I was in Sweden! ... now in acrylics. We started with signs to surprise Niklas...then a very creative group mural. 

 My Swedish popstar! <3

My Swedish popstar! <3

  • Niklas destroyed the competition in Umeå’s annual song contest with “Magic” (available on Spotify! JAHR, Magic) complete with a massive mob of fans in pink with painted signs. If he keeps it up, I may just be hosting a Eurovision party when I get back to the states!;) 

Proof of Swedish self-actualization.

IMG_2675.jpg
  • På Spåret: A brilliant re-creation of the popular TV game show, featuring a train and geography trivia. Initially skeptical, I was surprisingly invested by the time we got to the finals. Something about that train video... 
  • Niklas’ little sister Wilma won her horseback riding competition! The current struggle is finding room for all the ribbons. #thestruggleisreal 
  • An unending weekend of celebrating a "Magic"-al victory... 
 In line for "The Boat" (Pirate ship bar?&nbsp;Modern Valhalla? All of the above?) Typical midnight in Umeå.&nbsp;

In line for "The Boat" (Pirate ship bar? Modern Valhalla? All of the above?) Typical midnight in Umeå. 

 View from the Boat with dirt speck.&nbsp;Painted after closing between :2:30 and 4 am.

View from the Boat with dirt speck. Painted after closing between :2:30 and 4 am.

  • Sweden actually made it to the quarter semi-finals of the World Cup! I don’t usually care about sports, but this is an interesting brand of intoxication, and it’s not entirely unpleasant. (I’m going to pretend that Sweden didn’t lose to England before I posted this. They were very "lagom" about the whole thing.)
  • My personal favorite... endless daylight for late-night-early-morning painting!!:)
 Thanks for letting borrow your hat and two sweatshirts NIklas. Can't believe forgot to bring my summertime winter clothes.&nbsp;

Thanks for letting borrow your hat and two sweatshirts NIklas. Can't believe forgot to bring my summertime winter clothes. 

 I'm pretty sure it's mandated that all country roads be bordered with wildflowers. All those flower crowns have to come from somewhere...

I'm pretty sure it's mandated that all country roads be bordered with wildflowers. All those flower crowns have to come from somewhere...

 I was going to just bike home, but after the 5th time pulling over because it was so pretty, I gave in.

I was going to just bike home, but after the 5th time pulling over because it was so pretty, I gave in.

 Not QUITE so late as the painting from the boat... 12:30 to 2:00 or so.

Not QUITE so late as the painting from the boat... 12:30 to 2:00 or so.

All of this was fun and enjoyable, but I still hadn't worked up the guts to ask questions that would dig a bit deeper than, “fun.” That undergirding-Swedish-soul-fiber was yet to be found. 

Amazon recommendations saved me the embarrassment of asking too many questions with a book entitled,The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. In his book, Michael Booth (a Brit who married a Dane and has since been a resident of Denmark for over 10 years) asks precisely the questions I could neither formulate nor work up the courage to ask.

In the final pages, Booth asks of Sweden, “Is the country‘s great modern, urban experiment not destabilizing the very foundations on which that modernity was constructed?” One answer came in Booth’s interview with Andrew Brown, another Brit who lived in Sweden during the 70s, “’Whether prosperity can survive without the memories and disciplines of poverty is a question I don’t know the answer to.’”

This reminded me of something I recently read by Winston Churchill:

“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. When one generation no longer passes on the things that are dear to it—its heroes and their stories, its religious faith—it is in effect saying that the past is null and void. It is of no value. That leaves young people feeling a lack of direction and a lack of purpose...” 

I turned to my sunshine yellow “visitumeå” pamphlet for additional insight: “For those of us who live here, it came as no surprise when Umeå was voted Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2014. There is a vibrant cultural life here with art, theatre, dance and a music scene...creativity, quality, and diversity are huge in the cultural hub of Northern Sweden.” If I was to find the undergirding fiber of the Swedish soul, surely it would be in Europe’s (former) Capital of Culture!

Definitely not in Umeå…

Winston's idea of culture with an emphasis on stories and meaning doesn’t seem to quite line up with the visitumeå pamphlet that states, "creativity, quality, and diversity" as the things that define culture. One seems steeped in the past and the other focused on moving into the future. How do we hold that tension? Is Churchill's warning about an un-tethered lack of direction reflected in Swedish society, as seen in this affinity for what appeared to be leisure? Was there ample homage being paid to the "memories and disciplines of poverty" that modern Swedish society was built on? 

This relatively peaceful, modern society is often seen as a beacon of promise for other countries. What went into making modern Sweden the envy of its local neighbors and those across the pond, and what sort of affect is that having on its current direction? 

Two weeks is barely enough time to scratch the surface of those sorts of questions. I came to Sweden to paint, process, and better understand the culture with which I share some sort of inherited past. While a love of vacation time has been at the forefront of my Swedish exposure so far, I’ve now landed in a little place that seems to offer an alternate lens. 

Smells gloriously like goats and hay:)

A Swedish Refresher: Safely in the Middle

On a recent evening, I was almost concerned after hearing shouting outside my host's apartment--quite common back in Spanish Harlem. Bar fight? Domestic spat? Nope. Turned out "they were just trying to convince an old man to take a taxi instead of his bike because he’s drunk.” 

 Celebrating Midsummer with new friends and a fresh "midsommarkrans" made with a bit of help from the professionals;) Thanks to Linda and Lotta!

Celebrating Midsummer with new friends and a fresh "midsommarkrans" made with a bit of help from the professionals;) Thanks to Linda and Lotta!

His bike. Welcome to Sweden.

I arrived in Umeå, the largest city of the north, about a week ago. This is the beginning of an exploration I’ve wanted to take on since I was 12 or 13, maybe earlier.  The specifics have morphed since then, but the basic premise has stayed the same: can I figure out what bizarre melding of influences I’ve inherited, and use those findings to drive my particular brand of human just a little bit better? (This is a huge part of what drove me to pursue painting, but more on that later.) 

A few days after settling in, I paid a visit to the Umeå Center for Tourism. Confession: I love translated tourism brochures in all their awkward, cheery glory. They’re like free, rose-colored glasses.

Not that you really need rose-colored glasses here.

“Do you love all the things a city has to offer? Preferably combined with a unique experience? Then you are in the right place! …Here you will find inspirational shopping, high-class restaurants, comfortable hotels, a lot of culture and interesting architecture. …Easily accessible trails for hiking, cycling or skiing, rugged dog sled tours, white water rafting that makes the adrenaline pump or looking out for the northern lights that calm the soul.” 

Sign me up for inspirational shopping! For visual reference, just imagine IKEA exploded and crash-landed in Northern Minnesota, raining down in perfect order and cleanliness. 

 View of the Umeälven. I know. You thought it was Minnesota.

View of the Umeälven. I know. You thought it was Minnesota.

 Bike ride down the Umeälven with Niklas (host and Swedish brother)&nbsp;and Linnea:)&nbsp;

Bike ride down the Umeälven with Niklas (host and Swedish brother) and Linnea:) 

Lots of things are like I remember from my first visit 5 years ago—the sunset melds with the moonrise for perpetual twilight. Biking is the primary form of transportation. People actually use shoehorns (!) I’m an exciting excuse for cashiers to use their perfect English. Cheese is always sliced with an incredibly specific utensil called an “osthyvel” (literally, cheese razor). We celebrated Midsommar (summer solstice) with licorice-flavored shots called “snaps”, games like hitting a nail into a log, and this year I made my very own flower crown. I think that officially makes me Swedish;)

 Impromptu photo shoot with new friends, Alex and Regina:)

Impromptu photo shoot with new friends, Alex and Regina:)

 Umeå Train Station--summer midnight

Umeå Train Station--summer midnight

 Shout-out to Alex and his amazing photography skills--on Insta @alexandereklof&nbsp;

Shout-out to Alex and his amazing photography skills--on Insta @alexandereklof 

 Not pictured: florescent traffic cone.&nbsp;

Not pictured: florescent traffic cone. 

I’ve learned a few new things. Not even my reading up on Norse mythology or Swedish language lessons prepared me for the fact that (get ready) ...it’s mandatory in Sweden to have a traffic safety cone in the trunk of your car. I discovered this when we broke down on the side of the road. We placed our safety cone precisely 100 meters behind our stalled vehicle, and managed to avoid a ticket in spite of not wearing safety vests—also mandatory. As the child of someone who thinks freeway medians are for U-turns and sees winter storm driving as a full-contact sport, this all seemed oh-so… safe.

 Umeå city square JUST before Swedish "football" victory over Mexico!! It was a very "lagom" amount of enthusiasm;)

Umeå city square JUST before Swedish "football" victory over Mexico!! It was a very "lagom" amount of enthusiasm;)

This goes hand-in-hand with a concept that’s been explained to me multiple times: “lagom” (lah-GOME). It means something like, “not too much and not too little”. The Swede’s find solace in that “middle” option—it is the country of mellanmjölk (middle milk) and mellanbrygg (middle brew coffee). A nation of the Goldilocks approach. Even geographically, Sweden is sandwiched right in between its Scandinavian siblings, Norway and Finland. The internet tells me “lagom” traces back to the way the Vikings would pass around the communal “mjöd” (mead) taking only their fair share so there was plenty to go around. To the rest of Europe, they may have been a terror, but amongst themselves they were quite egalitarian. Mycket lagom! 

This national approach to finding balance is commendable, but as someone drawn to edge cases and extremes, it makes me strangely uncomfortable. I feel well cared for ...too well cared formaybe? My suspicious side can't help thinking there must be hidden cost somewhere.

We'll see. Whether or not that's the case, I'm excited to explore, ask questions in awkward Swedish, and make some paintings along the way:)