Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mojitos with a side of Swedish fish

I have arrived in Sweden! For those who know me well, you know that this was a bucket list item for me. I relate to the Scandinavian culture more than almost any other outside of my own. Often, I feel that I relate for reasons that I don't fully understand. That's why this part of the trip is so special to me.

I met up with my friend Greg here. Greg was my next door neighbor in Memphis. He is a geographer whose recent move to Norway was featured on the House Hunters International TV show.

We are staying in the Viking Radisson Blu hotel near the center of Stockholm. We have easy access to the subway and have been exploring shops, restaurants, and various old parts of the city. The city is amazingly clean and beautiful. It's still quite cold with ice and snow on the water surrounding the city.

Last night, we attempted to emerge ourselves in the local culture by attending a salsa dance class at a Cuban restaurant. What I've learned is that this is the sort of thing that no tourists ever do. It's a great way to meet locals since at a dance class you're constantly rotating dance partners.

We showed up about 2 minutes late and were one of the last to arrive. The teachers asked which level we were and explained how and where to hang our jackets-- in Swedish. That's when it hit me. The one thing that I didn't think much about was that the lesson might be in Swedish.

As I was hanging my coat, I thought to myself, "this is really going to be an experience-- taking a salsa lesson in Swedish..." But, by the time I returned, the teacher had switched to English. The advanced class was still taught in Swedish. At first, I felt a tiny bit disappointed to not hear another language, but then also thankful that I would understand what I was participating in.

Our lesson had 6 women and 2 men. Our teacher was a man too, so about half of the time, I could dance with a partner. The other half, I tried to follow along and remember my place in the dance line. For Greg, I think the experience was great. He was the more advanced of the male students and was able to meet each of the other 5 women.

Our teacher was from Africa with a native language of French. I can imagine that learning to teach in Swedish was quite a bit of effort on its own, much less switching to English at the last minute. He was a great teacher though and we both appreciated him accommodating us.

After the lesson, I was starving. The dance floor bar (which was in the basement) told me that the kitchen was closed. So I went to the bar upstairs to see if I might have more luck. I asked the bartender the same question and he asked the owner who then examined me closely. I flashed a big smile with a "please feed me" look and he agreed to make one more dish- for me. I had a great shrimp scampi and a mojito. While I ate, I talked to the bartender about random things, like the word for "fork" in English.

Eventually Greg and a nice woman from our class joined me at the bar. They were hungry too, but were told no. We sat and talked for a long time about all sorts of interesting topics, all sipping on mojitos. Our new friend guessed that I was German. The interesting thing about me traveling in Europe is that nobody is ever able to guess my nationality, even after talking to me. I will write a complete post on this topic later.

Our new friend shared all sorts of interesting cultural things with us. We learned which regions around Stockholm are known to be snobby and why. We learned about Swedish stereotypes toward the Norwegians and the Finnish. They are very similar to US stereotypes held by those in big cities about those from the country.

We learned about how hard it is to get an apartment here and how college students apply for dorm housing about two years before they go to college. In Stockholm, rent is held by the government at a reasonable level. In turn, there is little incentive to build new apartments. The result is that many people wait in line for an apartment for years before having the chance at one. The landlords are also able to be quite picky about who moves in and will often turn away renters for silly reasons. (This reminds me of the housing market in Malibu!)

We also learned about just how safe it is here and how a young women almost never feels in danger. This is of course a foreign idea to me.

Lastly, we learned about the process to get a drivers license here. It sounds incredibly time consuming, complicated, and expensive. They also use universal signs here that don't have words on them like "stop" or "yield" so drivers have to memorize all sorts of extra things.

Some may view my travel style to be a bit unusual, but my main interest in any country is learning about the local culture through its people and food. I'm much less interested in learning about a city only through its tourist destinations. Think of a tourist who learns about Memphis only by visiting Graceland. It's just not the same.

We are just about to head back into the city today. Who knows what we might find or who we might meet!

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