Thursday, September 11, 2014

Understanding Swedish Society and "Lagom"

downtown Sweden, I mean Stockholm ... same thing really
The sign reads "Private property" and is all that stands between us and a lush garden decorated with sweet smelling rose bushes and a small apple tree.
"No Richard, you musn't!" yells out a concerned Annie as I step onto the grass. I pick a ripe apple off the tree, look back at her slightly bewildered and urge her to join me in the splendid surroundings. She hesitates, held back by years of conditioning, but at last, like a child dipping their feet into freezing water, she takes a tentative step onto the lawn. I've infected her with my rebellious Americanism.

Lock and Step
Swedes are expected to walk in lock step with each other. Behaving differently or standing out being the quickest avenue to social pariahism. Swedes follow the rules, the well being of their trusting, interwoven society dependent on it.
Apartment buildings have a shared laundry room included in the rent, but if you don't have a pre-existing reservation, even if available, better not use.
A prepaid public transport card allows you to borrow a bike from the station and return it closer to your ultimate destination. In other countries this service would quickly disappear, as someone would undoubtedly augment their income from the sale of public bicycles.
You'll see many bicycles, not only in Sweden, but throughout
I'm in the Espresso House, Scandinavia's ultra-fancy version of Starbucks selling beverages and food at copious prices. Sitting at a table with my $6 coffee,  I pull out some bread, smoked salmon, and lettuce and make a cheap sandwich. I feel the icy, taken aback stares from the tables around me. Walk in tune or prepare to pay the price.
check out one the numerous Espresso Houses in Central Stockholm

Social Classes
Me and Aleksandra- my Polish amiga
While a very tiny upper class exists, along with a distinct upper middle-class (entrepreneurs in industries like IT, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment) the vast majority of Swedish society is comprised of the working and middle-classes, with a tiny underclass at the very bottom- people who have somehow slipped through the finely woven welfare net, almost all of whom are alcoholics or junkies.
Greatly helping blur class distinctions, powerful labor unions have successfully fought for very high working-class wages (bus drivers, waiters, construction workers, etc.) which sometimes eclipse those of their middle class counterparts who generally have a higher level of education (doctors, professors, academics.)
A male construction worker married to a female journalist will often bring home more than his wife.
A department store cashier I got to know, brought home, after taxes, in excess of $4,000 dollars a month. A department store cashier! A comparable American job would pay out a third of that total.

A system of escalating income taxes, a VAT of 25% on most items, and high prices to begin with make it exceedingly difficult to accumulate wealth. Couple this with a welfare system that keeps almost everyone afloat, uniformly strong public education and health care, and the high-wages paid to the working class, and you'll find a tremendous amount of perceived parity between Swedes.
This equality is an integral part of the Swedish social fabric as there is less jealousy than in countries with greater wealth disparity.
It helps create a much more harmoniously functioning society, where no one starves and few turn to crime.

"Lagom" is Swedish word meaning "just enough." The temperature of that water is "lagom"- not too hot, not too cold. I have "lagom" food on my plate- nothing excessive (in fact, this a large contribution to Swedes as a population having low obesity.) It's a word that extends to social behavior, penalizing those who behave out of sync, too boisterously, or brag about themselves.
Indeed, an even quicker way to draw indignation to oneself than making your own sandwich in the Espresso House is to state you're better than someone else. The anvil will fall swiftly, and hard.
And it plays out in personal relationships too. Right now Annie is yelling that one step onto the forbidden lawn is "lagom" and she wants to go, while I insist that she join me by the roses. It's an exchange of cultural values, and having learned much about Sweden, at this point I'm insistent she take a bite of the American apple.
Go home Americano- you are not "lagom"

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