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.

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Weird Swedish Food… Filmjölk

“Check the expiration date. Well then ask the waiter. No, seriously, there’s something wrong with it. I think it’s gone bad. Seriously, taste it.”

It was the morning after I arrived in Sweden. My boyfriend and I had stayed in a beautiful Stockholm hotel and were having a lovely breakfast. That is until I decided I wanted some yogurt and bravely ventured up to the buffet alone. Swedish signs stood next to the mystery foods mockingly. I stood there frozen by indecision. “It looks like yogurt. All five of them look like yogurt. Maybe they’re different flavors. I’ll just pick the plain one and put berries in it.” Sorted.

The taste is hard to describe. Its flavor is close to what I would expect yogurt kept two weeks past its expiration date would taste like. It’s sour, stinky and inedible. However, I am the only one in this country to think so. Swedes universally love filmjölk. They eat it for breakfast. They eat it as a snack. They throw fruit, knäckebröd or jam in it (probably to get rid of the taste).

This fermented milk product is as loved by Swedes as Kalles Kaviar. And frankly, it’s just as nasty. Perhaps it was my upbringing eating mega-sugary foods in America that has deprived me of the ability to enjoy this simple pleasure. Or my lack of adventurousness when it comes to food.

Then again, I’m not really keen to eat anything that tastes as if it will lead to a case of food poisoning.

Lonely summer in Stockholm

Parking on the street? Check. A seat on the subway? Check. Empty tables at outdoor cafes? Check. Uhh … what is going on?

Empty subway platforms during rush hour

In a country where a generous six weeks of vacation is the norm, it is only natural to assume that there will be times at which the city feels empty. But here in Stockholm, it seems the Swedes all schemed to choose the same month to go on vacation and leave the city’s restaurants and shops shuttered. July was that such month, where the city’s inhabitants, having shucked off their winter coats and saved up their holiday time, all left. Perhaps 40 percent of the shops on my street closed. Rush hour looked more like nap hour. And my office felt like a graveyard, save for the few of us stuck there desperately dreaming of ways to pass the time.

I have enjoyed the city’s emptiness. There are tons of perks and Mondays feel like Sundays. But try to get anything done in summer and you’re going to be s#&% out of luck. Looking for a job? Forget it. Waiting to hear if you got into graduate school? Sorry. Need to see the chiropractor for a neck injury? He’s at the beach!

In America, where your number of vacation days is similar to what you would take off to battle a severe flu, we are experts at portioning out our holiday time to relieve us from the doldrums of each intense season (Blinding snow? Hello Caribbean. Blistering heat? Oh hello London).

But these Swedes are a hearty bunch. They battle through the arctic temperatures and depression-inducing darkness, and save up the days for summer, the time of year that turns Stockholm into an outdoor paradise. Then they motor off to their summer homes in the archipelago to enjoy an uninterrupted month (or more) with family and friends. And it is all done without a hint of remorse or concern that things still need to be done. It is such a part of the culture that only the government would have the power to alter this practice. And they won’t do anything about it; the prime minister is on vacation.