Friday, April 04, 2008

Getting in the mood

Between reading assignments, I've been planning the research trip for my summer job of updating Lonely Planet's guidebook to Sweden (I'll mainly be covering the north, which I love). In plumbing the depths of my laptop for probably outdated map notes, I found the text of a miniature coffeetable book I wrote for LP that never came out (the series was canceled, alas). Generalizations abound, and most of the book was, if I remember correctly, researched during wine-fueled late-night conversations with friends, so it may need some salt -- but here are a few tidbits. (I know...old text + old photos = a weak glob entry, but hey, I'm on deadline.) Enjoy.

Lagom är bäst

Lagom is a Swedish word that doesn't have an exact equivalent in English. Like ordning och reda, it encapsulates a philosophy. Lagom has to do with balance and moderation - roughly speaking, it means 'not too little, not too much, but just enough.' But it doesn't carry the sense of restraint or deprivation that a similar word in English might. To understand the idea of lagom, one has to realize that excess is undesirable, that 'just enough' is the perfect amount and that nobody in his or her right mind would ever want more than the lagom amount of anything, whether it's money, snaps or butter on their hardbread. Under the darkest possible view of lagom, one might infer that Sweden strives for mediocrity, that ambition is selfish and normalcy is success. But for the most part lagom simply implies a distaste for overindulgence and greed, an appreciation for balance in life, and an urge to maintain equilibrium in all things. Exaggerating the definition of lagom, after all, wouldn't really be lagom.

Stockholm runs like a well-oiled machine. Public buses are clean and go everywhere, including late at night, and are never off-schedule by more than a minute or two. Same goes for the subway (Tunnelbana). There's a certain amount of collective agreement about the proper order in which things should happen that tends to keep the city running smoothly, at least for the most part.

It's also a society that emphasizes efficient use of resources. Environmentally friendly practices have been built into the city's infrastructure to the point that recycling is almost effortless. Locally grown produce, fish and game are relatively accessible and used whenever possible. Hotels and youth hostels provide sorting bins for guests' garbage. It's an expensive city, so waste of resources holds little appeal on a practical level. And Stockholm's famously clear water is such a visible and important element of the city's beauty that ecologically sound behavior makes perfect sense.

But there's an interesting dark side to this characteristic Swedish trait of conserving resources and behaving efficiently. Part of Stockholmers' reputation for chilliness toward strangers - sometimes even borderline rudeness - may be linked to their fondness for efficiency. People don't tend to waste a lot of time on social courtesies. Visitors from other countries often mention being taken aback by this. Swedes don't typically chat with strangers on the bus, for example, or apologize if they bump into someone on the street. But this restrained attitude isn't intended as rudeness. More likely it's based on a realization that deep friendships are, in fact, seldom formed with random passersby asking for directions or the person who happens to sit next to you on the bus.

One related theory argues that land-partition reforms beginning in the late 18th century ended up destroying village communities, leaving the Swedish people with a sense of isolation and self-reliance. This is reflected in such oft-cited proverbs as 'Alone is strong.' Swedes also tend to resist owing each other favors; situations that might produce indebtedness, such as buying rounds in a bar, are usually avoided. It may be a mostly socialist country, but in certain aspects it's every man for himself.

Ordning och Reda
It's hard to spend much time in Stockholm without hearing this phrase, the ubiquitous Swedish expression that translates roughly as "order and method" or "order and organizaton." Even if you don't hear it, you're bound to leave with some understanding of what it means. Ordning och reda practically defines the typical Swedish personality and way of life. Much more than just an expression, it's a neat and tidy three-word philosophy that most people apply to their everyday lives without even thinking about it. The basic idea is "a place for everything and everything in its place," but the concept extends far beyond mere objects. In the home, ordning och reda translates to a noticeable lack of clutter. Shoes are neatly arranged by the door, furnishings are sparse, and anything untidy is hidden away. But in a larger sense, when applied to the outside world, it refers to the proper way in which things ought to happen.

Get a Queue
One excellent example of ordning och reda is the queue system. Stockholmers line up for everything. There are places in the city where it's perfectly normal to see people standing in line in order to take a number from the queue machine so they can stand in line. The worst offense anyone can commit on Swedish soil is to jump the queue, particularly if you happen to be shopping at System Bolaget, the state-run liquor store. Stockholmers themselves will elbow past little old ladies on their way to take a number from the machine, but once they have it, the pecking order is written into the heavens and cannot be altered. (It can, however, be sold for profit; travelers have reported seeing early birds hit the queue-number machines as soon as a business opens in the morning, then sell their places in line to people in a hurry.) No matter what sort of business you hope to conduct in Stockholm, the first thing you should always do is look for the queue machine and take a number.

Writing on the Wall
Even Prince Eugen scribbled on walls; the painter prince's frescoes grace City Hall (Stadshuset). Graffiti in general hasn't reached quite that level of government approval, but some of Stockholm's most provocative underground artists have become local heroes. The best-known among them is Akay, whose work with graffiti and poster art evolved into larger projects, like setting up a miniature Swedish summer house (complete with picket fence and laundry line) on a traffic island between two major highways. His efforts to reclaim public space for the public, using guerrilla branding techniques that promote an idea without actually selling anything, have won Akay international fame and appreciation.


  1. Anonymous7:33 PM

    Never saw a Lonely Planet Spider Monkey that could shake 'n bake. You could be the exception to the rule.

    Northern Sweden...kinky!

  2. Anonymous11:54 AM

    hmmm... queues don't sound very efficient.

  3. "Snaps"? Like the kind Eazy-E talks about?

  4. No reason to go all the way to Northern Sweden. Your pal Akay already recreated those cute little red houses on a Stockholm traffic island: