Something Swedish


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Gekås – The biggest store in Sweden

Sometimes part of my part-time teaching job involves going to companies to help employees improve their English. Over the past three months I have been holding three weekly English lessons for a company called Gekås. If you are planning on moving to Sweden, knowing about this place is a must. If you are going to visit, it’s even a tourist attraction.

Every Swede knows what Gekås is, because it’s the biggest and cheapest “super store” in Sweden. I knew what it was  before I even moved here. Everyone I met used to ask if I have ever been there and were disappointed when I revealed that I hadn’t.  I didn’t get the big deal- I come from the U.S. where huge stores that sell tons of cheap stuff are everywhere, so I didn’t think much of it – until I went to work there. Walking through the store itself takes forever, not to mention through the warehouse to get to the offices.

ullared_flygbild_2004_07_sm

Before I went there for the first time I knew that it was very big, very cheap and very famous – not just because people mentioned it to me, but because of the T.V shows. Yes, multiple. One show includes following/interviewing regular customers as they shop and employees as they work.

The other, more famous, show is based around two employees (morgan & ola-conny) that travel to different countries (season 1) and different states of the U.S. (season 2) doing different things despite their difficulty with the English language and inability to communicate.

(They start speaking English at 0:45 )

What does that have to do with Gekås? No idea, aside that sometimes they go back to the store and their faces are all over Gekås merchandise and advertisements.

olaconnyochmorgan_mpw2014_big

So, obviously the store is huge, both in size and familiarity, but the neighborhood is not. Gekås is in a small town in Sweden called Ullared, which has only 800 inhabitants. The 40 minute bus right from the train station is mostly trees, fields and farms. Gekås was built in the middle of nowhere in 1963 and just kept growing until it put Ullared on the map.3675390-pix-geksdiagram_2014

At 35,000 squared meters (376, 735 sq. feet), it’s over 100,000 squared feet (9,300 sq. meters)  larger than the biggest Walmart in the U.S. . Due to the low prices, people travel to shop at Gekås, enough so that they have their own hotel, cabins and campsites next to the store. If you spend a whole day shopping, you can eat at the full sized restaurant on the 3rd floor, the salad bar on the first floor or have a beer at the sports bar in the middle of the store – in the women’s department.

sportbaren_121013 hotellet_fasad

 

Don’t be surprised to see people with two carts full of merchandise, exploring the 19 different departments on the hunt for more. Combine this with thousands of customers (record of 27, 500 in one day, 4.6 million in one year), it gets awfully crowded, even if it’s a big place. The good news is that there are over 62 cash registers to help with the congestion. That many cash registers helps with that many people, but also with how much merchandise they sell and money they make: a record of 33 million SEK (5 million USD)  in one day.

Thankfully, going every week meant I never had to go crazy to find everything I wanted or needed, but I did find a lot of good deals (like games and clothes) and cheap prices on household stuff I would have bought anyway. I have only explored a tiny part of the store, since I only had 30 minutes between teaching and my bus, so,  I’ll certainly be back.


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Shopping in Swedish Supermarkets

When you move to a new country it isn’t the huge cultural differences that catch you off guard, but the day-to-day tasks that are seemingly the same but secretly aren’t. Food shopping in Sweden seemed easy enough whenever I tagged along during my short visits, never paying close attention to the details, but when I started solo shopping I started to notice differences.

These are observations and experiences beyond the obvious language barriers, currency/prices, and metric differences that I wrote about here when I first arrived.

Tubes: In Sweden, tubes aren’t only for toothpaste, apparently. When you walk around the supermarket you will find tubes everywhere. Mayonnaise, tomato paste, but most of all caviar and many many different flavors of cheeses! These soft cheeses have flavors ranging from ham, turkey, shrimp, lobster, bacon, reindeer meat, to mushroom or onion.  Even the tubed caviar has started to branch out into new flavors such as caviar mixed with cheese, dill, or even diced up boiled egg! You can spend a lot of time browsing these tubes! Seems strange to me, but completely normal in Sweden!

Quantity: Unlike in my hometown you will never see anyone shopping for a months worth of food in a single trip. Where as people often take hours in the supermarket, shopping in bulk, with food piled high in the cart, creating long lines and general chaos, it has been the exact opposite experience in Sweden. In the five months that I have lived here I have only seen the large push carts used a few times, and never even half full, let alone filled to the brim. Most use the small hand baskets, (or none at all) only walking out with one or two bags of food. (This is based off of living near the center of a small town, which to me is similar to living back in Queens, NY. I’m sure some things vary if you live in the country or a large city.)

Frequency: Shopping for less at a time means more trips to the supermarket. Instead of going two or three times a month, I now go food shopping at least two or three times a week. At first I thought this was a pretty annoying inconvenience, but I have grown to enjoy it. Each trip is quick and easy.

Freshness: Part of the reason shopping this way makes sense in Sweden is that the food does not last as long. If you buy vegetables, fruit, or bread, do not expect them to last for weeks. This took a long time for me to adjust to, constantly buying too much food only to have to throw it away later in the week. The amount of preservatives is much lower, the fruit ripens faster and goes bad faster. We buy our bananas green and we look for the firmer peaches, avocados, mangos, and nectarines. The next day or two they will be ready to eat, unlike the agonizingly slow week I used to wait for my fruit to ripen, which then stays ripe and ready to eat for at least a week or two- which I now see is just far too long. Our bread must be freshly baked; I’ve never paid such close attention the the best before date before – it turns out that mold forms quite quickly, who knew? Until now I never understood why my husband was scared of American bread after seeing it stay fresh for weeks. I have thrown out way too many loafs of bread and far too much fruit by refusing to believe things here don’t last as long as back home. Buy only what you need for those few days, then its back to the store for more.

Look for the Green Keyhole: No, that was not a riddle. Sweden marks healthier food alternatives, lower fat and/or higher fiber, with a green keyhole on the packaging (since 1989).  How convenient, too bad I didn’t know about it for a long time. Use it.

Lösgodis: On the other side of being health conscious, a staple in every Swedish supermarket is the colorful wall of sweet and salty lose candy. This sets Grocery shopping in Sweden apart from anywhere else. More details about the Swedish candy craze here.

Bag it: In Sweden the line doesn’t stop moving because the cashier needs to hold your hand. I haven’t been in, or ever heard of, a supermarket where the cashiers bag your groceries for you. It’s not their job, so don’t expect it. Instead there is a longer split conveyer belt to give each customer time and space to pack their bags. In New York most supermarkets bag the groceries for you, (or you will you find a youngster waiting at the end of the conveyer belt packing your bags for you in hopes of a tip). Many times only to be repacked by the customer afterwards because they are unsatisfied with how they were packed. Some stores have special “Bag your own” lines that some people use, but usually only when other lines are too long.  As an ex-cashier, I can say that bagging everyone’s groceries is a stressful waste of time, especially when there is a huge quantity and the customer sits back and watches instead of speeding it up by helping. I think Sweden has it right to have everyone pack their own groceries, it makes the line move faster and it can be packed the way the customer wants.

Bags: In Sweden you have to buy your grocery bags along with your purchase. Nice, quality, no-need-to-double-up, can-fit-a lot-of-stuff,  won’t-break, bags. Instead of paying the 2 Kronors for a bag you will sometimes see people use the free produce bags for smaller/lighter items and carry things like soda by hand. Many people use other bags that they have from other stores, or backpacks, or purses. So, it’s not completely odd to see cheese, milk, and chicken sticking out of someones purse.

Barcodes: In Sweden instead of your cashier helping you bag your groceries, we help our cashiers. Instead of carelessly piling your items on the conveyer belt, Swedes are more thoughtful and organized. No piling. No mess. Instead, it is common to try to place items with the barcode facing the scanner so that the cashier can swipe quickly and easier. This speeds up the line significantly and is appreciated by everyone.

Sssshhh: I can tell you first hand that in New York people love talking to the people ringing up their groceries. We know customers by name, what days of the week they came in, what they always buy, we knew about their family, their neighbors, and the latest gossip. Some customers even get on longer lines just to talk to their favorite cashier. Spending our work hours talking to and laughing with different people was the best part of the job, it kept our mind off the long hours of standing and repetitious work. I have never seen any of this in Sweden. One likely reason is because of the quantity and efficiency differences. Cashiers are often only ringing up a max of 20 items instead of 50-100 and spend much less time with each customer (especially with not having to bag or look for a barcode), so there is not as much time to make conversation. Another is that talking too much to customers slows down the line in itself, which wouldn’t be appreciated. In Sweden it is normal to smile and say hello, then continue to place your items on the belt and wait for the total. Everything is very friendly, but nothing beyond that. One stereo type of Swedes is that they are not great at small talk, which this truly showcases.

Cheese: Before I met my husband I never enjoyed cheese. When he came to New York he searched all of the local supermarkets for a decent selection, only to be disappointed time and time again. There is a very strong love of cheese in Sweden, from frukostsmorgas topping (Open breakfast sandwich) to evening crackers and cheese, so you will always find a huge selection.

What differences have you noticed in your new local supermarket?


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Cooking in Sweden: “Matlagning i Sverige”

Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew (as my hubby reminded me of yesterday as he rescued me from my own cooking). I’ve been finding a few difficulties as I start to cook more, and maybe its a mix of being in Sweden and “Meg…you don’t know how to cook.”  For now though lets ignore that small personal detail (Which I am getting better at – I have yet to kill anyone or have any major complaints) and talk about why Sweden is making my cooking even harder than it already is.

I thought it would be a great idea to make chicken potpie, something different and it seems easy enough… if you have the ingredients. Chicken: Check. Peas, corn, carrots, string beans, mushrooms: Check. Chicken broth or soup or condensed soup...Eh? No check. Okay…Pie crust, Don’t see those...lets make it simple and throw some biscuit mix like Bisquick or Jiffy on top to make a pie topping. Huh? Where IS this stuff? Okay, I’ll substitute. Condensed mushroom soup instead of chicken broth and croissant sheets for the pie top. Thankfully hubby stepped in once he knew what I was planning on cooking and helped out, because my substitutes weren’t cutting it and I was in over my head. So together we made an awesome meal, I love cooking together.

Tangent - Its great to have a Swedish husband- they know how to cook. No, seriously. Everyone in Sweden is required to take Home Economic classes, both boys and girls. Which means that men actually have a basis for cooking, cleaning, and sewing (for example). Now, I speak only from my own experience and knowledge but I haven’t heard of a high school having home ec except in T.V. shows (or at least NYC, or at least the schools I’m familiar with?) [also based on not knowing many/any guys who cook] I remember being told that it’s no longer taught in high schools, and I’m pretty sure those classes were 90% female students. – End Tangent

Getting back to Sweden messing with my cooking. It’s so hard to find what I am looking for. I understand translating the ingredients, that’s expected. But some of the things that I am so used to are no where to be found. Most of which are very insignificant, but sometimes I do find myself walking in circles desperately searching for something that either doesn’t exist or is packaged and categorized so differently there’s not way for me to find it. (The second obstacle being easily remedied over time).  I have found myself looking up recipes to ingredients of the main recipe that I would normally find in a can or a box, like corn bread or creamed corn. I know, I know – that’s not Sweden’s fault. Its a personal preference type of issue that I’ll adjust to.  HOWEVER it is partially the U.S.’s fault. There I said it! I am so used to everything being instant! Nothing is from scratch anymore, which is a great convenience but the knowledge and know how is also fading fast throughout generations. 

What do you mean I should make the pie topping out of flour and butter? (“You can do that?” “Yes…” “Well I never had to..”) But I have these handy dandy croissant sheets!  Yes, a lot of this just showcases my cooking ignorance, but the point remains that there are more quick/instant substitutes in the States. I know a lot of my friends in NY would have the same issues.

Going to the store to buy oatmeal (Havregryn), and not understanding what to look for. “This isn’t oatmeal! This is just a bag of grains.” “What do you think oatmeal is?” “Well, ours is instant.” “So is this.”  Yes, of course I know that this exists, I have some in my pantry N.Y. (That I used for a Swedish desert recipe one time…), but it’s not what I think of when I go shopping for oatmeal. I’m used to individual serving sized packages perfectly flavored for you. Easy Peasy! Now I’ve learned to add my own sugar and fruit and/or jam and a lot more milk than I’m used to.

I am not writing this as a complaint about missing rice-a-roni or mac-n-cheese (of course there very well might be all these things and more in Sweden, I am only referring to the local grocery store in a smallish town). I hate reading forum discussions of people badmouthing their new country because of its differences and things they “lack”. I just thought it was a cultural difference worth sharing.

On a food related note, last week I made sauce (from scratch, which came out good, but not great) for the first time and while shopping for the ingredients I picked up a fresh basil plant.  It was so tempting, I thought how nice it would be to have growing on our window sill. A small plant to brighten up our apartment, something to cook with and smells delicious. What a bad idea! Little did I know only a few hours later it would be seriously dying because it couldn’t survive leaving the store and being in the cold for the 5 minute walk. And so I used what I needed for the sauce, tried my best to keep it alive longer by watering it and keeping it away from the cold windowsill during the night and in the sunlight the next day. It was no use… BUT I did find that you can grow basil  from clippings being submerged in water. So, a week later and my baby basil is still alive and kicking! Looking 110% healthier and maybe even growing? But it still hasn’t formed roots, so we will see!


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When the Cat’s Away, the Mice will Play – “När Katten är Borta Dansar Råttorna på Bordet”

Min Katt, hon heter Delilah

Hmm, not really, but tonight is the first night by myself in Sweden. The hubby has to travel for work sometimes and so here I am while he is in Denmark until tomorrow. I wish the title of this post could be a little more accurate, but I guess we don’t actually have the roles of cat and mouse so it wouldn’t work regardless, I just really wanted to use it as a title and show a photo of my cat.

For anyone who knows some amount of Swedish will recognize that the Swedish title isn’t an exact translation of the English one.  Instead of translating word for word, which would be, “När katten är borta, möss spela” (When the cat is away, mice play). Swedish has a corresponding idiom as English which has the same meaning but is said differently, the text in the title translates to: “When the cat is away dancing rats are on the table.”

It is almost 8pm here (20:00- I don’t think I’ll get used to saying time this way) and the most “playing” I’ve done was to take a lovely two hour “tupplur,” which means “nap.” I learned that word yesterday- from twitter! And I certainly haven’t danced on any tables!! (I think I like being likened to a mice over a rat)

I suppose my version of “playing” will be staying up later than normal  to see if I can make some phone calls to some family and friends. With the six hour time difference it’s hard to get a hold of people who work until 5 or 6pm, since I am usually sleeping or at least off the computer at that point since hubby wakes up kind of early. The timing hasn’t been too hard to deal with though, it turns out that when I wake up early enough (7 – 8 am) a handful of friends are still awake in NY from that night before since its 1 or 2 am for them (Gotta love the night owls, the bar hoppers, the bar workers, and the insomniacs). And then there’s my Aunt who wakes up super early and is usually the first person I talk to once or twice a week around noon my time. Some friends and family don’t work or have traditional hours so I’ve been pretty lucky to get a few calls every once in awhile.

Technology is amazing, having Skype has allowed me to be in another country and not feel as alone. Sometimes its a 60 minute video chat and other times its a quick cigarette break phone call from a best friend. Skype is how we managed a long distance relationship for three years and its how I will keep in touch with friends and family now. Its cheap and easy and even allows me to buy a NY phone number so its affordable for everyone. I know I sound like a commercial, but that’s only because there are still people not taking advantage of it and it helps  me so much on a daily basis.

So, my other “playing” for today was actually pretty routine- shopping for the apartment. There are a few shops in town that I always go to because I love to buy little things to organize and decorate with. I shop carefully, knowing that money doesn’t grow on trees (Why, oh why!?), but it  IS my first apartment and I AM home a lot, so every once in awhile I’ll go to  AhlensLagerhaus, Clas Olson, or TGR to see if I can find something useful. Today felt like the colorful jackpot! Min nya kudde och tre nya korgar – “My new pillow and three new baskets”

Tomorrow I will force myself to study Swedish, I have been slacking; twiddling my thumbs while I wait for my “Personnummer” which will (Aside from making me a real person!) allow me to start SFI, Swedish for Immigrants, and start looking for work. I didn’t come here to wait, I came here to live and learn. And I will!

Reach for the moon, the worst that can happen is you fall short and catch a star.

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Happy Pounds

Since I’ve been in Sweden I’ve somehow managed to rip three pairs of jeans (In my defense one pair was during my two month stay during the summer!). Maybe this isn’t the type of thing one normally shouts to the world, but here it is. By no means would anyone consider me to be, for lack of a better word, fat. I’m only 5’2 and 115 pounds (Hold on, I need to start using this darn metric system! 160cm and 52Kg) However, I have put on a few “Happy Pounds” as my best friend defined them. Three years ago I was probably more like 105 pounds (47kg) and this year I have fluctuated to 120 pounds (54kg), and I am actually proud of that! I have always wanted to be a healthier weight and now I have happy pounds to help! I eat when I’m happy and I am happy when I eat. By no means do I think I have put on too much weight, but my pants don’t seem to agree! I never realized that just a few pounds can make you want to walk around with your pants unbuttoned. And who can blame me? I am around so much new and exciting Swedish cuisine! Oh, how I love everything topped with lingon berries  and/or a creamy sauce. Fresh potatoes and strawberries in the heart of the summer. Meatballs, herring, salmon, and potato casserole all year round. And the traditional ham and lutefish during Christmas. Anyway, now that we have narrowed down a few of the culprits behind my ripped jeans, lets move on. (I will post plenty about food in the future)

The point is I needed to get new pants which means I needed to go shopping. Clothing shopping in Sweden really confuses me. The prices, the sizes, the measurements- I’m not there yet. The first two pants I try on are just to understand what size I am, (the smart thing would have been to look up a conversion table.) 36, 38? 27 x 33? These look like mens clothing sizes to me! Which number is the waist and which is the length? Now, don’t get me wrong. I think this makes more sense than saying I am a size 2 or 4- what is that anyway? At least these are actual dimensions. To my relief the descriptions are in English, so I know if I am looking at a high or normal waist, regular or slim cut.  I was surprised to encounter the same issue shopping in Sweden as I did in New York: What is with all the slim cut jeans?? Why do people want to walk around without circulation to their legs? I am not paying money for pants that I have to struggle to get in and out of, and that cause pain!

499, 599, 399. Swedish prices. As I mentioned earlier I am getting better at understand the value of an amount of SEK, however it gets harder  as the numbers get higher. One USD is about 6.7 SEK (right now), so I always assume 1:7 which means means that 70 kronor is about 10 dollars, which is the way I estimate prices, in relation to domination of 10. Then we get to the 300+ range and I have to think slightly harder.

Anyway, back to pants. I have a 20% coupon for one item so I am excited to go shopping. I’m discouraged by the 499 price tags (75 bucks, yes I think that’s expensive!), but figure the coupon will make it worth it to get a nice pair of jeans. I was wrong. I instead went to H&M (Which is another Swedish based store by the way) and found three pairs of jeans on the sale rack for 100 SEK each! That’s 15 bucks!

So, it might not have been an exciting day, but a victorious one. Sweden does have higher taxes and slightly higher prices on certain things, but the more I shop the more I feel like the prices are reasonable and not so far from what I’m used to.


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Adjustment: “Justering”

It’s official! I have been living in Sweden for exactly one month!

Reflecting upon this I think its appropriate to list some things that I have already, or need to in the future, adjust to. This applies to a few different things: being in a new country, being “on my own” for the first time, becoming a wife.

  • Language: I’m currently waiting to be allowed to take my SFI (Svenskundervisning för invandrare: Swedish for Immigrants) classes. Its easy to live and survive in Sweden without knowing the language. But why? I want to stop missing out on conversations, be able to socialize easily, grasp the culture better, and I don’t want to be “That ignorant American”
  • Money: I’m finally getting the hang of converting Kronor (SEK) (Krona is the singular, which translates to “crown”) to the equivalent amount in Dollars (USD), which is very helpful in understanding how much I’m spending on things, especially in relation to what I’m used to paying for them in NY. However, there is a step beyond this. I think I’m beginning to be less dependent on that relationship, I am learning the prices of things in correlation to other Swedish things instead of American equivalents. I’m getting the hang of judging if something is too expensive compared to Swedish prices of the object or if i can find it in another store for less.
  • Shopping: This is obviously directly related to money, plus some additional factors. Sweden has a 25% tax. Having said that, naturally things are in general more expensive than I’m used to. It’s a different economy which would of course mean that prices are different anywhere you travel. (I have read many forum threads of people complaining and crying about high prices which is so rude!) The tax is calculated into the price. I love this, but it did take some period of “Oh…right!” There is no surprise at the end when the cashier gives you the total. There is no calculating the wrong amount of money. A lot of Swedish stores charges for bags. I’m pretty sure there are a few areas in the U.S that has started doing this recently, but it was very strange to me at first. I think its great, actually, but I am still adjusting to remembering it. It is usually 2 Kronor for a (sturdy) plastic bag, that’s the equivalent to about a quarter (25 cents). Instead of using 4 bags, its easy to pack everything into 2, or use bags from other stores you already have on you. The thing is you have to remember to place the bag on the conveyer belt or you don’t get one. Or in other stores (like clothing stores) they ask if you would like to buy one. Which, while I have learned my numbers and I can understand how much I am paying at check out, I still have to ask what they said so I don’t miss out on a bag. Take a number. A lot of stores use the ticket system instead of waiting on line, it’s usually only enforced and used if the store is rather busy, but I am still not used to looking for the ticket machine.
  • Grocery Shopping: I’ve always enjoyed grocery shopping, more than shopping for clothes, even. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I did not do it that often, living at home meant I was not the one doing all the shopping. So yes, part of this adjustment is getting used to being the one who does a lot of the shopping (maybe most), which is part of being “on my own” and being a wife. The other part of this adjustment is cultural and the language boundary. Its aggravating not being able to recognize the food you are looking for, or looking at. Sometimes its the packaging that is not what I’m used to and sometimes I just can’t read or figure out the name because its in Swedish.
  • Cooking & Cleaning: No, its not an adjustment because cooking and cleaning is different in Sweden, I’m just doing more of it. So, part of my adjusting this month is keeping our apartment clean, doing laundry, dishes, and cooking. I actually do enjoy it, its pretty relaxing and keeps me busy and entertained since I am not currently working. Thankfully I have a great husband who helps with any of this whenever he can (Willingly, without being asked!) And who likes to cook. Score!
  • Co-Existing: I’ve never lived with anyone aside from my family.  It is going excellent  and I think we are both pretty easy to live with, but moving in with someone is always an adjustment!
  • Being Without: Its easy to get used to the things you do, the things you eat, and the things you buy and use on a daily basis. Some of those things don’t exist here or are very expensive, which is fine, I am not complaining, but it is worth mentioning along the lines of adjusting.
  • Missing Friends and Family: I think this goes without being said and doesn’t even need an explanation.

Over all its been a great month and it will only get better once the adjustments are easier to handle. One day at a time.

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