31 May, 2010

Our Sthlm crazies

We had friends that we hadn't seen in a few months over for dinner this weekend. They are a great couple, and are really our only Swedish friends that we *didn't* meet through school or work. They are particularly outgoing and fun, but people say that it's tough to make close friends with Swedes, especially as a foreigner. We haven't had that experience exactly; just being students puts us a different social situation than maybe other people who move here for work, etc. 

But it's a bit of a stereotype that Swedish people are reserved. They don't make eye-contact or smile on public transportation or when walking down the street; they prefer not to ever talk to salespeople in stores and salespeople never talk to customers, etc.  The phenomenon called Jantelagen is full-force here in Sweden, and its result is that one should never call attention to oneself or stand out.
So we got to talking a little about that on Friday as we were catching up with these friends. And oddly, we got to talking about some people we've met in Stockholm who are not at all reserved, in fact, quite the opposite. Just in the last few months, Stu and I have encountered some interesting people in Stockholm, and three in particular jump out as particularly noteworthy. 
I called them our Stockholm crazies, but they probably aren't all actually crazy. Well, maybe the woman who alternates between belting out opera and screaming obscenities. I have seen her out and about several times, usually "shopping" on Drottninggatan or walking around Hötorget. She is an older woman, often carrying several small bags and wearing very colorful clothing, and she pops in & out of stores, singing opera music, muttering to herself, then yelling at people with what I can only assume is not-so-nice words (its all in Swedish!) She has a beautiful voice though...it's too bad for the Tourette's. I think she is totally fascinating. And you can hear her opera singing several blocks from away.

There is also the shoe fetish guy I have twice encountered. The first time, I was waiting on the tunnelbana with my headphones on. A slightly creepy little old man holding several greasy-looking plastic grocery store bags stood right in front of me and said something to me while looking down. I took my headphones off and said "Ursäkta," kind of annoyed, since I thought he was asking me for money (I lived in DC, thats what I'm used to!) But no, he looked up at me, right in the eye, and told me he liked my shoes! I was wearing a particularly fantastic pair of boots, so of course I immediately forgot that he was kind of creepy and very enthusiastically thanked him for noticing. And the train came and I hopped on happily thinking about how great my shoes were, and I went home and forgot about it.
But a week later, as I was waiting for the bus a few blocks from my apartment, the same man was hanging around the bus stop. I didn't actually recognize him as creepy shoe guy until I noticed him staring at a lovely young blonde Swede chatting on her phone also waiting for the bus. And while she was in the middle of her phone conversation, he started talking to her feet! The same way! She actually had to ask her phone friend to hold on while she addressed this creepy old man mumbling to her. Again, he told *her* that she was wearing very fine shoes. And she reacted exactly as I had...thanking him, all proud of her noticeable fashion sense. This creepy old guy is good! He knows exactly what to say to a girl to get a smile. I chose to walk to the next bus stop, though.

Not long ago, Stu and I had work done in our apartment in which they had to cut the electricity and we had to be out by 7:30am. So we were still half-asleep when we headed to Odengatan to find some coffee and breakfast, when a very pushy woman starting walking in stride and talking to us in Swedish. Neither of us was with-it enough to even try with her, so we just pulled the "Sorry, we don't speak Swedish" thing. To which she replied, "Oh no problem, I speak English!" and proceeded to ask us if we had any money we could spare because she had lost her leg and needed 400kr (not quite $60) to get a new one. Stu was totally floored...this woman was walking next to us on two obviously present and functioning legs! No way were we giving money to someone who was obviously a lying liar, boldly walking on two legs while telling us she lost one and that she couldn't receive her state support money without it. Crazy Swedish woman.
And of course, I hadn't had enough coffee to put together that she was actually talking about losing her identification card. Aka "legitimation" in Swedish. Aka "leg" for short. She needed money so she could get a new ID card to be able to claim her benefits. I didn't realize that until after we said no, sorry, no money and then tried to get across the street as fast as possible when one hasn't yet had coffee.

So yeah, not quite crazy (at least not obviously crazy in our limited interaction with her.) But I add her to the list of interesting, unconventional or just plain out-there Swedes we have encountered recently. Not at all reserved. 
And then there are the really great people we've met, through school or work or other friends. In fact, we have met very few people we don't like while here in Sweden. I am even kind of happy to report on our few eccentric Stockholm neighbors, even if they sing opera or incoherently yell at you.


  1. People haven't been as reserved or shy as I had been lead to believe, at least so far. I think it helps I have a cute little kid with me, but strangers are always talking to me.

  2. That's good to hear. Especially since I am definitely the look-people-in-the-eye type. With a smile of course, but I wasn't sure how weird passersby found me.

  3. I love all my eccentric Stockholm crazies too! Good post!

  4. Thanks! I wasn't sure if it was too insensitive to write about people who may suffer mental illness, but I just found them to be so interesting! Well, creepy shoe guy was also just weird, but fascinating nonetheless.

    And more often than not, people are nice and will help you when you are in need. But there have been sometimes when the stereotype fits!

    And Stu, I would be shocked if passersby *didn't* find you weird, no matter what country ;)