Monday, April 15, 2013

Everything is banned in Sweden

Growing up in Denmark it was a running joke that our Swedish neighbors had banned everything. The notion of "forbuds-sverige", difficult to translate into English because "forbud" is a bit more than simply a ban on something, roughly encompasses the few stark differences between Swedish and Danish culture: Sweden for example has a licensing system for buying alcohol, it is only available in state-owned shops with limited opening hours; Denmark has a similar system to most other European countries where alcohol is available in supermarkets at most hours. But the Swedish banning culture is not just government inflicted official rules, it sticks much deeper into the Swedish culture, also reflected in the "duktighetssyndrom", the "do-good-syndrom", which I encounter on an everyday basis from Swedish friends and colleagues. As a Swede you are supposed to do the correct, lawful thing. Pedestrians don't cross the street on a red light (and if you do, you are promptly being yelled at, using the c-word, as happened to me a couple of weeks ago, but that's material for another post). People follow guidelines and the many unspoken rules such as how you are supposed to put the dividing stick after your groceries at the check-in belt, god forbid you forget, the look from the person behind will illustrate the unforgivable nature of this.

And this brings me to one the few times where I have actually lost my temper with people in public (note, I have never lost my temper with anyone in public in the US or the UK where I spent the majority of my adult life, at least not that I remember). On Friday Zoe and I were going to the grocery store after I picked her up from daycare. I had had a very late lecture to go to and picked her up as one of the last kids so she was tired, I was tired, but we needed milk. After an almost smooth walk around the grocery store where I convinced Zoe that she could only have one snack (she chose an ice-cream, which she partly regretted later as she got cold eating it in the early spring weather), we got to the register where we queued a bit to Zoe's complaint. "It takes long, long time", she said but finally it was our turn. She was hesitant to give up her ice-cream so the guy could scan it but stopped complaining after I agreed that she could sit on the little shelf for packing the bags, after the belt. I had about 6 things to pack in the plastic bag and popped Zoe up on the shelf so she could watch. She was happy. I was happy. I had packed perhaps two of the items when the register guy said: "She can't sit there". I looked at him. "Tell that to her, I said, she will get mad. This will take two seconds". He repeated it to me and I realized he was serious. I told Zoe that she was not allowed to sit there and took her down. She exploded. Crying, screaming. I threw the last four things in the bag and grabbed her hand, dragging her out. But before that I yelled at the guy a lot of not-so-nice words. "Two seconds it would have taken! Two seconds!" From just managing my overtired, hungry little girl to having a hysterical almost 3-year old who was upset and didn't understand why mommy yelled at a guy, the afternoon was ruined. Luckily we still had the ice-cream and after I explained things to Zoe (Stupid Swedish people don't understand that Zoe wants to sit there) she stopped sobbing. We walked home and she was quicker in gaining back her good mood than I was.

But here is the thing. After thinking a lot about I still have no idea why Zoe was not allowed to sit on that little shelf. Don't tell me that it can take 5 full grocery bags but not a 15 kg/33lbs kid. Don't tell me it is because they are worried she will stretch the 20 inches over to the moving belt and get her fingers stuck. I don't recall ever hearing about any fingers getting hurt in a grocery belt but I could be wrong. Perhaps Swedish grocery belts are specially designed to trap little fingers. Instead, this was a clear example of the ingrained Swedish culture of "bans": you are simply just not supposed to do that, so you don't do that. And there are lot of things you are not supposed to do. Growing up in Denmark enables me to recognize these situations and articulate them but worse, my international living experiences help me hate them even more. I could not ever imaging anyone in the US tell me not to do something with my child unless it was clearly dangerous, I sense this would be an invasion of my privacy. In addition to my limited language skills, this is yet another reason I find it so difficult to live in Sweden with its many unspoken rules and regulations. I keep reminding myself that daycare is great and virtually free to make up for the bad things. 

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