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.

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.

Reflections on America…

I have been back to the United States three times in the two years I have lived abroad. Each visit has held different surprises, moods and feelings. During my first trip back after more than a year in Bangkok, I felt a strong kinship with and longing for the places I had called home. My second trip in January and my first since moving to Sweden was spent in snowy Philadelphia with family, and was simple in its comfort and warmth. But my latest trip back to Philadelphia, NYC and my most favorite place, Maine, was both unsettling and profound.

I have noticed my feelings change toward the U.S. since I left in July 2008. I initially felt a deep longing that has morphed over the last two years into a sadness at what it has become. The most difference, of course, is the effect the financial crisis has had on American homes, businesses and people. And it has left me with one resounding conclusion; America is broken.

I called NYC home for three years. I became an adult there, worked there, laughed there and suffered there. It holds a special place in my heart and during each visit, I felt a strong connection to the streets, the people and the energy. It felt like the center of the world and its unique character made it all the more enigmatic and thrilling. But this visit was different. During my five days there, I noticed the bitterness and anger, the faulty subways, the grime, the shuttered stores, the political wrangling, the distrust, the wariness, the suffering. I felt nickled and dimed at every turn; tips here, taxes there and a surcharge thrown in. It felt like climbing a mountain against unyielding winds. It was a struggle and not one that I remember from early 20s, trying to make it in the city as a journalist.

Perhaps being a few years older and living in Europe has changed my perception. In the land of five-week vacations, free health care and more than a year of paternal leave, people here aren’t hardened. Their extra vacation pay, work-paid cell phones and subsidized massages make it easy to smile and laugh. The all-inclusive price tags and the efficient subways mean that very few are inconvenienced or stressed. Life here is just easy.

One thing about home that has not lost its ease and comfort, however, is time with family. The longer I am away, the more I realize the profound love and friendship we share and just how much I cherish our short time together. Their presence, laughs and stories recharge my heart for the long absences and makes me long for the America I love and genuinely want to live in. But for now, America is not a place I want to be – a statement that hurts as much as it relieves in its assuredness.

For now, I count myself lucky for the visits home every few months and the comfort of the life I have made in Sweden. I feel fortunate to have left the struggles of my early 20s in NYC and enjoy the comfort of home-ownership, low taxes and love. I desperately hope the America I grew up in and loved for all those years recovers and returns. And not just for me, but for everyone that calls it home.

A Saturday in Stockholm’s Archipeligo

Stockholm’s archipelago is gorgeous; the jutting and receding coastlines of the islands are dotted with multi-million dollar property that everyone would love to get their hands on, if only they won the lottery. Or founded IKEA.

The sheer number of islands that make up the nearly 40 mile- (60 kilometer-) wide archipelago is astounding: 24,000. The wide waterways that wind through the islands are home to pleasure boats, ferries, cruise lines and shipping boats as it is a major shipping route. The scenery is lush with green and purple trees, vast rock faces and … well, opulent wealth that characterizes these islands. The ferries that take the two-hour journey to the further regions is stocked with Stockholm’s elite, traveling to their summer homes, and with screaming children. I believe they belonged to willfully ignorant parents hoping for a peaceful day trip, but it remains speculation as they were nowhere to be found on the large boat.  

As it was my first time in the archipelago, we took advantage of a sunny, if not chilly day, to pack a picnic lunch, sit in the sun and watch the boats go by. It was perhaps the most lovely scenery I have seen since I arrived in Sweden and a place I hope to go back to. When it warms up. Which it won’t. Cause it’s Sweden.

Spring in Stockholm! False alarm.

It was 10 Celsius (50 Fahrenheit), the snow piles were finally melting and the sunlight was glinting off the ice chunks floating in the water. But you would have thought it was the height of the summer with the way the Swedes were walking about this Saturday and lazing by the water. You see, Swedes are used to Nordic winters but they don’t like them. So as soon as the sun comes out they’re like college girls on spring break; cold or not, clothes are coming off.

I guess I can’t blame them though. I too am sick and tired of enduring months of snow, slipping on ice and generally being frozen. And it was the first time the mercury went above 6 Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) so were it not for the glaciers, I might have whipped off my jacket too.

The day was brilliant, everyone was out and it seemed as if finally (FINALLY) spring had come.

Then we woke up on Sunday. To snow falling. Horizontally.

F#%& you Sweden.