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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Biking

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The first thing I noticed when I first came to Sweden was all the bikes. Everywhere. I’ve seen more bikes than people. I’ve seen people talk on the phone, text, smoke and walk their dogs while on their bikes. It was clear to me that in order to ever truly become integrated into Swedish society, I would need a bike. I even got asked multiple times, ‘Don’t you have a bike?’ as if walking just doesn’t cut it.

Sweden is a very health and environment conscious country, center stage being the strong biking culture.

This commercial was just released by our county explaining that people who bike are superheros:
(Translation:
~ Halmstad is a biking town.
~ 21% of Halmstad residents travel via bike.
~ We have 21 (swedish) miles of biking trails. [= 210 kilometers = 130 miles ]
~ We are building super bike lanes
~ Everyone who bikes is a superhero)

It took a year, but last year I finally loaned a bike from my in-laws and have been riding it nearly every time I go anywhere.

Even though I’ve been able to ride a bike my whole life, this was different. Biking to commute to work/school or when you go to a friend’s house or when you go grocery shopping is a lot different than riding your bike around the block for fun as a kid or to exercise as an adult. In NYC you don’t see too many bikes, it’s simply not a common way to get around. It’s as if I had to relearn how to ride: bike lanes, hand signals, traffic laws, and getting used to so many other cyclists and pedestrians. Oh how things have changed; before I started biking I had no idea. I was amazed by by husbands ability to hear the tire treads of a bike approaching from a block away. I was blissfully unaware of the high pitched yet gentle dinging of a bike bell telling me to move out of people’s ways. Bike lanes seemed like wide sidewalks. Every time a bike whizzed past me I thought for sure that I would be run over.

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Today my husband and I took our bikes out for a ride together for the first time. It was nice to bike for the fun of it instead of using it as a mode of transport. It’s truly the best way to learn your neighborhood, too. Even though I’ve lived here for two years, biking today allowed me to see more places and understand where everything is in relation to each other and the fastest ways to get around. I learned that there is a separate traffic light for bikes, which means that I’ve wasted a lot of time waiting for the pedestrian one instead. Better safe than sorry though! Enjoying the beautiful Swedish weather on a nice long bike ride followed by a picnic in the park is the way to go.
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Welcome to Sweden

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When you first move to a new country you wonder and worry about a lot of things:

“Is this ever going to feel like home?”
“When will I get used to the way things work here?”
“How long will it take to feel normal again?”
“How long until I can speak the language?”
“Will I ever find a job? Make friends? Get used to the food and traditions?”

For me, the overall answers are, “Yes” and “About two years.”
A few months ago I noticed that I no longer felt the need to take pictures of everything I saw or did. A few months ago I noticed that things were no longer strange and exotic. A few months ago I realized that I had found my place in Sweden, started working more, can speak the language and have a strong group of friends. I began to forget how hard and different it was when I first moved here two years ago. The differences that made me laugh or get frustrated are now part of my everyday life. A few months ago, I stopped blogging.

Today though, I decided to pick it back up. Stopping was never my intention, it just sort of happened as a side effect of being busy and not finding anything fun or interesting to write about. This weekend I watched a new show about an American who moves to Sweden and I felt the need to comment on it, criticize, and continue doing what I can do to help other people who are still finding their way.

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About the show that motivated me to write again: Welcome to Sweden – it is a semi autobiographical comedy of Greg Poehler (Brother of actress/comedien Amy Poehler) moving to Sweden for love (Which he really did do about 7 years ago). Sound familiar? I thought so too, so I was eager to watch it.

This interview (which is in English) and short clip from the show make it seem like the perfect show to watch:

And it’s true; it is about being a “fish out of water” and trying to reinvent oneself. For some reason though, I couldn’t connect to the actual show.

While it shows a lot of stereotypes (of both Americans and Swedes) I can’t say i was personally able to relate to all of it. Greg Poehler plays the over the top ignorant, oblivious, culturally obnoxious American who moves to a country without doing a single second of research or putting a single thought into it. The way the character is portrayed is supposed to be funny and charming, but is a bit insulting. His girlfriend’s parents expect him to fail and go home and wonder why he hasn’t found a job and can’t speak the language after two days. Yes, there are pressures and expectations, but this is exaggerated for no reason.

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“…and so you moved to Sweden to live with our daughter. You have no friends, no job…”

Now, I know its hard to make reality into a show (aside from reality tv) and still make it fun and captivating, but part of the problem for me is that most of the show doesn’t make sense because it’s simply not the way things work. Immigration interview after you’ve already moved to the country? Illegal. Needing to get your drivers license changed to Swedish immediately? In reality, you have a year. The Swedish teacher speaking English to the class/the class introducing themselves in English? Should never happen. Not knowing about taking off your shoes indoors until you’ve lived there for three weeks? Seriously? Come on! Perhaps this is exactly how it was for him, but parts of feel hard to believe.

Maybe I am too serious and like to be overly helpful and informative, and a comedy show doesn’t need to get all the facts straight because there is an artistic freedom, however, I find some of it to be misleading or annoying at some parts. Of course everyone has different experiences and I don’t expect it to portray my exact struggles or observations, but there are a lot of things that are overly exaggerated and even more basic (and potentially very funny) things left out.

Those in Sweden- What are your thoughts on the show? (If you haven’t seen it yet, it is being aired on TV4 play) Those in the US – you’ll get your chance to see on July 10 2014 (My wedding anniversary) as NBC has bought the rights and renewed the contract for a second season – so it must not be so bad. Even if I don’t think it’s great, it’s interesting to see and I will certainly tell my friends and family to watch it to get an idea of what it’s been like for me…kind of.

I will continue watching because it does have potential. I can see the appeal and there are funny parts and parts I can kind of relate to, but it’s still an overall “miss” for me so far.

I think I can do better (in written form)- and maybe one day I will. For now though, I’ll continue blogging.

Welcome back Something Swedish.

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Julbock: The Swedish Christmas Goat

If you’ve ever spent the holidays in Sweden then you’d recognize this common Christmas decoration – the julbock. Usually made out of straw and sitting on a table, but sometimes as a candle holder, an ornament in the tree, depicted on Christmas cards or table clothes — goats are largely associated with Christmas here in Sweden.

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There is even a famously gigantic Julbock made of straw that has been built in a town called Gavle every year since 1966, which measures 13 meters tall (43 feet) and is  burnt down year after year. Although this is not the intention of the Julbock nor is it legal, it is an expected fate.

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There is a long history behind the Julbock which goes much deeper than the decorations we see today.

The origin of the Julbock dates back to before Christianity in Scandinavia, from the worship of the Norse God Thor and his two goats, Tanngnjost och Tanngrisner, that pulled his flying chariot.

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Later, the Julbock was depicted as a humanoid goat figure with horns and hooves, said to represent the devil, ensuring that people deserved their presents. This version of the julbock was altered into a scary prankster who caused trouble and demanded gifts.

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Julbocks being made of straw is nothing new, as it was always associated with the last harvest of the grain. It was once believed that the Julbock was only a spirit, and anything made of straw could be the Julbock. This spirit would check that the house was clean and the preparations were done correctly for the celebrations.

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For a long while the Julbock was the one who would deliver and hand out the Christmas presents – an original Scandinavian Santa. This is the most widely accepted and known version of the Julbock.

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Just as someone in Swedish families dress up as Santa to give out the gifts to the children nowadays, the same was done back then. Dressing up as the Julbock for Christmas also included singing, acting, and pranks while wearing something like this:

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During the 1800′s, people would throw the straw made Julbock back and forth, yelling “Take the Christmas goat!” The straw goat was also passed between neighbors, hiding it in each others houses without it being noticed, in an effort to get the Julbock out of their own house.

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Hoping all of my readers had a wonderful Christmas and that I taught you a bit of Swedish Christmas trivia. If you’re interested in reading more about Swedish Christmas traditions – follow these links:

Julbord: Christmas table (Christmas food)
The first advent
Swedish Santa: Tomte


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Navigating Sweden

I’ve been living in Sweden for nearly two years now and I have a confession: I still don’t know my own neighborhood. Outside of four major streets or highways, street names are an elusive mystery to me. Having grown up in Queens, NYC, where every street is perfectly aligned with a ruler and numbered in order, I’ve never been very great with named streets. Naturally, I thought that was the problem – until yesterday.

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Yesterday I had my first lone adventure in Sweden. I took the 8am train to Gothenburg all by myself so that I can get my fingerprints, photo, and signature taken for my new ID card (Permanent residence, yay!)

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Even though I’ve been to Gothenburg a dozen times before, I’ve never had to think about where I was because I wasn’t alone – especially not trying to find an address. Even though I’ve been to migrationsverket one time before (two years ago) and I was using Iphone maps, I was having a hard time. And that’s when it hit me:

Street signs in Sweden suck. Sorry to be so harsh (it was partially for alliterations sake… I couldn’t resist the 4th ‘s’ word) , but they are so different than what I’m used to, I’ve never even NOTICED street signs in Sweden before. No wonder I don’t recognize any street names. (thankfully, and obviously, I don’t drive)

Let me compare:

Street signs in NYC are ALWAYS posted in the same exact spot on every street corner – sticking out from a pole on the corner, away from the buildings in clear sight of pedestrians trying to find their way – spottable and readable from more than a half a block away. These signs are also always at the same height, not to be missed or confused with anything else.

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Street signs in Sweden can be anywhere. Yes, they are on the corner, but not always every corner. They are not always at the same height (from above store entrances/ signs to almost eye level). And worse of all, they are camouflaged into the surroundings – attached to the sides of buildings, sometimes nestled next to awnings or signs.

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BTW, stumbling upon street names named after Norse gods (Odin and Frigga) was pretty awesome, I have to say.

While the street sign system is not my favorite, I do give partial credit to the addresses. The sorting of addresses on each block reminds me of how books are sorted in a library: each book shelf (block/street sign) indicating which books (addresses) you’ll find there. While I don’t think it gives a good indication of where that address will actually be, if you’re looking at the sign (if you can find it) then you’ll know if that block has the address you need.

In Queens a three part address system is used (xx – xx- xxx street), which seems confusing, but helps understand where in the neighborhood the address is located in relation to other streets. The first number being the cross street, the second number being the house number, and the third number being the street that the address is actually on. Without using cross streets in the address, dependency on a map (or knowledge of the area) is more crucial in Sweden – or so it feels for me.

Of course street signs are different everywhere, and it’s easy reading what you’re used to. This is simply not something I expected to have to adjust to. Now that I’ve noted the difference, I can start paying more attention and forcing myself to look for them – on the sides of buildings.


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Celebrating Cinnamon Rolls in Sweden

October 4th: a day to cherish and savor the beloved cinnamon roll (which originates from Sweden), or “Kanelbulle” a little more than normal.

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To celebrate last year I made Swedish and American Cinnamon rolls side by side to compare. Read about that experiment HERE.

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This year, however, I decided to do something different (AKA: less work) and compared cinnamon buns from different local bakeries.

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I used the same bakeries as when we tasted Semlor last year, in this post HERE (read about each bakery, and another delicious Swedish pastry there)

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At first I was unsure, a cinnamon roll is a cinnamon roll, right? Would they really be THAT different? Here’s our results:

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Traditional kanelbulle, perfect for fika. At only 7kr ($1), you can’t go wrong. A bit more cardemum flavoring, but overall a balanced bun.

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At 14 kr ($2), we were hoping that this would be a big step up, but it wasn’t. It was sweeter and a bit nicer – but not 7 kr worth. I liked this one more than the “benchmark” from Östras, but it was too pricey.

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Even though it looks sloppy, this cinnamon bun was surprisingly delicious. Discouraged by the 15kr price tag, I had my hesitations, but the addition of almond paste really made for an especially tasty treat.

RESULTS:

Paulssons is our choice when we want something a little more festive, like celebrating Kanelbullar dag.

Östras is our day-to-day take-away cinnamon bun.

Regnbågen is a nice treat if you’re having fika there and want to enjoy something sweet.

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I hope those of you in Halmstad find this helpful! Either way, no matter where you are – I hope you had a kanelbulle today!


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Swedish Cartoons

When my Swedish was good enough, about six months ago, I started watching TV to train my new language. My level at the time was pretty limited unless I had Swedish subtitles to follow along, which required my full attention. I wanted something passive to listen to while I did other things. So, I started watching cartoons.

Sweden is one of those countries that doesn’t do a lot of dubbing – except when it comes to the younger audience who hasn’t yet learned English – which means cartoons are in Swedish.

Some cartoons have the same name, but most use a Swedish title and character names. Sometimes these names are direct translations, which aren’t interesting enough to mention. These are a little different; sometimes the translation is just off, other times it’s completely replaced by something seemingly random. It’s fun to see the proper names change from American names to Swedish names.

Mickey Mouse: Musse Pigg

Minnie Mouse: Mimmi Pigg

(Especially interesting because “pigg” does not mean mouse or pig, but ” alert”)

Goofy: Jan Långben – Jan Long Legs

Donald Duck: Kalle Anka (Anka = Duck)

Daisey Duck: Kajsa Anka

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Donald Duck/Kalle Anka is a huge deal here in Sweden, especially around Christmas time. Not only will you always find Donald Duck (not mickey mouse) comics in stores all year round, but it is a Christmas tradition to watch  Kalle Anka every year.

Ducktales: Ankliv – Duck life

Huey Dewey and Louie: Knatte, Fnatte, Tjatte

Scrooge Mc Duck: Joakim VonAnka (Von Duck)

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Sometimes the text stays the same but the theme song is in Swedish, keeping to the same beat:

Talespin: Luftanshjältar – The Heroes of the Sky

Chip n’ Dale: Piff och Puff

Rescue Rangers: Räddningspatrullen – The Saving Patrol

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The Carebears: Krambjörnarna – The Hug Bears

Heathcliff: Nisse

Garfield: Gustav

Popeye: Karl Alfred

Cinderella: Askungen – The Ash Child

Fox and the Hound: Micke och Molley

Calvin and Hobbes: Kalle och Hobbe

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Bugs Bunny: Snurre Sprätt

The Road Runner: Hjulben  – Wheel legs

Wile E Coyote: Gråben – Grey legs

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Super Heroes:

Batman: Läderlappen – Leather patch

Superman: Stålmannen – The Steel man

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Aside from the intro songs being changed, which didn’t phase me that much, naturally each character has a new unrecognizable voice (especially if you don’t understand the language, in which case – listen to some swedish!):

If you are looking for an authentic Swedish cartoon though (which you should!), then your looking for Bamse, “The worlds strongest bear.” If you live in Sweden, you need to know about Bamse.

Through adventures to help others with the company of his friends and boost in strength by eating magical honey his grandmother makes, Bamse teaches moral values, like kindness,  equality and responsibility through real life issues, while still being the most popular cartoon in Sweden. The television clips are from 1972, but the comic books that started being printed in 1973 are still being printed today. Read more about the beloved Swedish classic HERE.

Just a little something fun for a Saturday post – might be helpful for anyone moving here with kids! (Also, I do still find them fun to watch myself for practice …really just a good excuse to sit on the couch and watch cartoons all day)

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