Urban Pilgrim is moving to a new website!

Urban Pilgrim has had a good run at wordpress.com since July 2008. I’ve been able to share all of my stories from living in Thailand, traveling in Asia and moving to Sweden. On Sunday, it will be moving to a new website. The new Urban Pilgrim has a more visual and modern design that will enable you to quickly find posts that interest you, view more photos, and will hopefully encourage a more interactive and lively discussion with you.

The new Urban Pilgrim will also introduce a new feature I hope you will like. Throughout my travels, I have met many friends who have since moved to different parts of the world. After the new launch I will start sharing their stories and observations about the quirky, interesting and beautiful aspects of the countries they live in and have visited. There will also be a section where you can send me your travel stories to share on the blog. I hope that Urban Pilgrim can become a forum for all of us to share our first-person travel accounts of peculiar local behavior (in your opinion anyway), beautiful sights and incredible people in the places you visit or live.

If you come this site on Sunday, you will automatically be redirected to the new site. I will also post the new link to Urban Pilgrim’s new fan page on Facebook, which I encourage you to join to get all the new posts, Twitter musings and photos.

I am so excited to show you the new Urban Pilgrim and to continue sharing stories from Sweden and beyond. See you on Sunday!

Playing golf in Sweden? You have to get certified

I am astounded. Utterly baffled. I am a supporter of Sweden’s social welfare state but this is government intervention gone one step too far.

You have to get certified to play golf. To play golf. You have to pay a couple of thousand kronor ($150-500) to take a special course, which requires you to attend classes, learn the theory and practicalities of the game, and then take a written examination and play a round of golf in order to pass. Only after you have successfully passed the course and obtained your green card (grönt kort) will you be allowed to play on courses in Sweden and abroad.

I only discovered this after watching an old travel show hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, whom you will probably hear me talk about again because I absolutely love his BBC show Top Gear. The show was mocking Germany’s many rules and its citizens inability to do anything without direction. His bit on the requirement for golf certification in Germany had me shaking my head and looking to my boyfriend to validate my incredulity.

He didn’t.

He just told me that Sweden has the same rule. And then couldn’t fathom why America did not have it.

Ohhh Sweden…

Swedish Election Results: Anti-immigration party in

The preliminary election results are in: the center-right alliance led by the Moderates and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt are still the ruling party but did not win enough votes to have a majority in parliament. Now they will be on razor wire for each vote, wondering if the new party in parliament _ which has been the real story of this election _ will vote for their alliance or the opposition led by the Social Democrats.

Swedish election posters

Newspapers the world over are paying cursory attention to the two main parties in the election. The majority of attention _ and public rancor _ is targeted at the Swedish Democrats (SD), an anti-immigrant party with skinhead roots, which got more than four percent of the votes required to secure seats in parliament (5.7) _ the first time in the party’s history.

Both the ruling and the opposition alliances have flatly refused to work with SD. They were not invited to participate in debates before the election. And 6,000 people gathered in central Stockholm today to protest their election to parliament.

The hatred for the nationalist SD lies in their anti-immigrant stance that has targeted Muslims in particular. They have called Islam the biggest foreign threat to Sweden since World War II, an opinion that does not sit well with the majority in this traditionally tolerant country. But with immigrants making up 14 percent of the population, the party has obviously touched a nerve in their voting block, which is made up of mostly young, unemployed, uneducated men in the rural south of Sweden.

I sat here last night with a group of educated, young Swedes and watched their faces fall and their spirits tumble as they watched the election results roll in. Their disappointment that the Moderate alliance lost the majority in parliament did not compare with their spitting contempt for SD’s election haul. The dissatisfaction was mostly aimed at voters; they felt that those who voted for SD were ignorant and it was irresponsible to vote for a party that will jeopardize the democratic process (they say that SD are likely to vote on anti-immigration policy but for every other vote for which their policies aren’t clear, the party will vote in the way that will give them the most publicity).

Last night was a crash course for me in Swedish politics. It is a system that is so unlike ours in the U.S. in that it is actually democratic. That is only meant to be a light dig at my homeland; the truth is that Swedish politicians aren’t power hungry and often put the best interests of the party and the country ahead of their own ambitions. I also saw an integrity in the political system that would shock me if it were done in America; both major alliances flatly refused to work with SD despite the fact that SD’s support would give either group a majority in parliament, which neither holds now.

I tend to wax lyrical about Sweden in a lot of ways; it is a refreshing example of a successful welfare state that is an excellent model to other countries, and has secured comfortable and happy lives for its citizens. But the election of a party so threatened by immigration and so abhorrent in its rhetoric about Muslims is an indication of a subtle yet powerful and growing movement in Sweden. It is one that has the potential to divide this country and tear down some of its most proud traits: tolerance and acceptance.

Podcast: Swedish national elections

Swedes will go to the polls on Sunday to vote in their national election. This year could see the election of Sweden’s first female prime minister, Mona Sahlin, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats. Or it could see current Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his Moderate alliance win another four years in power.

The politics in this Scandinavian powerhouse are complicated and multifaceted. So Urban Pilgrim talked Communists and breast pumps with young Swedish voter Dennis Hedenskog, who works for the Korea Business Center and holds a Master of Science in Business and Economics.

Listen to the podcast here:

Swedish National Elections: Four days away

Gay pride, and lots of it, in Stockholm

What one event could bring together 35,000 people representing the church, the police, the army, doctors, the city’s transportation authority and almost every political party in Sweden, including the country’s finance minister?

Stockholm’s Gay Pride parade.

The shock of seeing boobs, butts and an assortment of body parts that should be reserved for private time was nothing compared to the sight of the army and the church marching in open in support of homosexuality and an assortment of other lifestyles that even bent my liberal morality barometer. When the pony-tailed finance minister Anders Borg walked by, proudly marching with his party, I moved from a feeling of ease and merriment to a deep welling of pride. This is a country that affords its people all of the rights they are fair to expect. Gay people can marry, adopt children and can openly serve in the military. Most importantly they are openly supported and accepted, with very few people taking aim at their lifestyle.

The parade, held at the end of July, is a reminder of how far countries like the U.S. have to come to make good on their promise of “freedom.” The Stockholm Gay Pride parade is an event that celebrates their right to live as they please. And celebrate they do. It was simply the most fun I’ve had since I came here. It gave me this blooming warmth in my belly to see these wonderful people so proud of their lifestyle and their community. And I just could not stop giggling at the trannies in garish platform heels and makeup reminiscent of Tammy Faye Bakker as they hammed it up for the camera.

(WARNING: There are really boobs and butts in these photos. As well as an unfortunate looking man in a Borat mankini. You’ve been warned.)

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It is a day that makes me proud to live in Sweden and be among the open minded and kind who believe that your life is yours. It is also a day that makes me look at those in the United States too small-minded and closeted (ironically) to embrace a different lifestyle and tell them to, well frankly, “mind their own fucking business.”

It’s unfortunate that these sorts of parades in the U.S. are at its heart a plea for basic rights. And I am afraid that the day Tim Geithner or any other U.S. Treasury Secretary marches in a Gay Pride parade, Borg and other progressive politicians in Sweden will have taken to marching with a tranny on each arm, dressed in a pair of chaps or platform heels and swinging their hips to the Village People.

Butlers for Stockholm’s subways

In American election campaigns, candidates pledge to keep taxes low, balance the budget and stop credit card companies from robbing consumers with high fees. Swedish candidates pledge to offer citizens a butler service. For the subway.

It’s the kind of news piece that sounds like a prank, especially to the ears of a cynical American. U.S. states are battling unemployment, dismally low budgets and in some cases are tearing up paved roads so maintenance costs can be saved. But Sweden, which has had a relatively easy road back to normalcy after the recession, doesn’t face the kind of basic issues with which the U.S. grapples. Its citizens are fully taken care of by the government and its debt is 43 percent of the country’s GDP, compared to the U.S. with 93 percent.

So the Social Democrats, who are considered the underdogs before national elections next month, have proposed to offer Stockholmers “butler” services. No, sadly, this doesn’t mean there will be a kindly older gentlemen in a tailcoat with a towel over his arm offering you afternoon tea. Though that would be a serious bang for your tax buck (or kronor as it were). They are proposing a system of services that would include leaving your dirty laundry at a subway station and picking it up at the end of the day; ordering groceries online and picking them up outside your station; and offering public transport butler services that function like concierges at an airport.

This insane proposal, which was unveiled Monday in an editorial in daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter by two party members, is supposed to give people more time with their families. The amazing thing is that they actually care. Or pretend to. Their flowery editorial is full of trite and sentimental phrases that one wouldn’t expect from a failing novelist, let alone government officials:

“We want everyday services for both those who drink lattes and for those who serve lattes.”

“Everyone’s dreams are unique and different. But we locals are often united around a central factor: time. How do we make enough time for everything we want, and must, do?”

“When should we love? When will we laugh? When should we talk? When should we play with the children? When will we have time to live life as it appears in our dreams?”

Oh boy. This exaggerated sentimentality and seeming alarm about the “suffering” of Stockholmers is either the product of a frantic party behind in the polls or of a city so spoiled it doesn’t know the difference between necessary assistance and indulgence. I can tell you that the people of Stockholm want for very little and enjoy the generous benefits of this social welfare state with its low property costs, free health care and 13 months paid paternity leave.

And though it is very generous for the city to offer to wash my delicates, I think that’s a job I can continue to handle on my own. Thanks.