Up and Down in Sverige
or Swedish Party Animals
(in two riveting parts)

As a native Czech I have a tenuous link with Sweden that goes back almost five centuries.

The Swedes, these days a mild mannered and agreeable folk, have evolved from brutal Viking invaders who raped and pillaged their way through Europe around 1,000 AD. The warrior society proudly robbed and murdered their weaker neighbors as an expedient means of amassing goods, livestock and anything of value that could be traded. After all, it was much more fun to attack and rob others then to tend a farm, raise pigs or harvest wheat and make a meager living the traditional and peaceful way. These tasks were taken care of by the womenfolk who were left behind as their men had a ball terrorizing the entire Europe. Even their religious beliefs reflected this ultra-aggressive behavior. The Viking creed says that warriors will go to Heaven (Valhalla) where they will continue to make war and fight during the day and feast on pork in the evenings.

The Thirty Year War started as a religious conflict in early 1600 between the Catholics and Protestants within the Roman Empire and developed into a free-for-all series of battles in Central Europe. Europe in those days was a patchwork of duchies and fiefdoms ruled by local lords who constantly fought among each other and most of the soldiers were mercenaries who cared little about the reasons for the fights. The opportunity to loot along the way and be paid for it was the obvious incentive. It was toward the end of the war in 1648 that the Swedish Army was on the outskirts of Prague preparing to take control of the city. As the Swedish forces attempted to take the city from the East they were repulsed by local noblemen and their private armies who managed to defend the Charles Bridge over the river Vltava (Moldau). After a bloody battle lasting several days, the Swedes were driven back and turned instead to looting the Prague Castle of artworks and statuary that was laboriously carted back to Sweden. The Prague noblemen were justly proud of their brave defense of the city and incorporated a gloved hand holding a sword through a portcullis into the Citys official seal. That motif remains part of the seal to this day.

The art and statues are now at Drottningholm, the official royal residence in Stockholm. Every so often some Czech has a crazy scheme to simply steal the unguarded statues and return them back to the rightful owner - the Czech people - and become national hero. So far these schemes have remained just fantasies - it's hard to hold a grudge for 470 years.

The Swedish warrior age declined gradually as the Swedes, still a very poor nation, settled into an agrarian society and no longer sent out invaders and robbers to bring home the bacon. Instead, the bacon was made locally with the Swedes perfecting the art of meat and fish preservation by salt-curing and smoking. These methods are used today for pickled herring (sill), various hams, and gravlax; salmon cured in salt and sugar.

The last warrior was Alfred Nobel who invented dynamite in 1867. Nobel filed patents for 300-odd other inventions and became very wealthy as he felt his dynamite legacy as the "merchant of death" was unfair. The Nobel Prize was established and every year the interest on the money set aside by Nobel is divided between the prize winners. This hints at the pacifist Swedish way of thinking; the unique ability to separate good and bad and thereby retain good national conscience. Sweden managed to remain more or less neutral during the Second World War and continues to keep itself separate in conflicts like the Middle East issues. This has become the Swedish way of avoiding conflict; simply stand aside and ignore it.

When I lived in Europe I had an image of Sweden as a clean and happy place. A particular scene stands out where I arrive in a fashionable hotel in the country after traveling all day on snow covered roads. The hotel is warm and full of friendly people, all blond and blue-eyed who party in comfort at the hotel bar. I'd never had the opportunity to visit Sweden until 1988 when I moved there lock-stock-and-barrel. The Sweden I found was quite different.

My situation in Los Angeles was becoming difficult. I'd lived in LA for about 5 years, supporting myself as a freelance designer. It wasn't bad, and I'd married a Swedish woman, Lotta, and we have a son, Benjamin. Suddenly our position felt very precarious. Neither one of us had a Green Card and there was no possibility of getting one. Although there was an illegal immigrant amnesty in 1987, we did not qualify as we had not been in the US long enough.

The decision was made to move to Sweden, a country that will welcome me with open arms and make me feel safe and wanted. Nothing would be a problem, I was assured by Lotta, who felt homesick and worried about our insecure position in the US. Lotta and Benjamin, at only ten months old, flew to Sweden just before Christmas 1987. I was to follow as soon as the Swedes provided me with the necessary papers. There was a problem after all. I did not possess a passport. I'd never become a British subject, as citizens are called there, and unlikely as it seems now, I came to the US with a visa stamped in a "Travel Document". This is a kind of a passport given to people who are stateless, which I essentially was.

Sometime during the preceding five years, the Travel Document was lost and beyond my California and UK drivers licenses, I had no form of identification. In desperation I called the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington; after all I was still a Czech citizen. They laughed at me: "Mr. Kriz, why the fuck do you think we would do anything for you!?". It would be naïve to expect better treatment since, in their eyes, I betrayed the communist paradise by leaving it 18 years earlier. I tried the British Consul in LA and that also led nowhere. At least they were polite. I was stuck in a country where I had no right to be...

As Lotta bravely tried to sort this out in Sweden, I waited in LA and weeks turned into months. Cash was running out and I started to liquidate our meager possessions as I could no longer afford the apartment in Studio City. I sold everything, either directly or through a giant garage sale one Saturday. It was an unsettled time and there were uncertainties and temptations. I advertised my brand new refrigerator for sale and a woman responded. She came, checked out the refrigerator and left a deposit to pick it up later. When she came back, she was all decked out in a little skirt and frilly socks tucked inside elegant pumps. She sat on the sofa that was also for sale and showed no intention of leaving. I'm an actress, she said and I wondered just what kind of an actress she was, this being San Fernando Valley - the world headquarters for adult entertainment. But I showed no interest, I was committed to going to Sweden and she left. It was one of those life little forks and I wonder what would have happened if I'd taken the wrong fork.

Eventually the papers came through. Lotta managed to persuade the Swedish officials to let me into the country with ...nothing. After some awkward questions at LA airport, I was on the plane to New York and then to Stockholm. This was the third time I was changing countries and I was a bit apprehensive. I really didn't know what to expect. I flew to Sweden...

I had certain ideas; after all everyone has an image of what Sweden is all about. Here are some of the most popular myths:

Sweden is a Socialist Country with the Highest Tax Rate in the World - False and True

Sweden is about the size of California and has a population of about 9 million people. The vast majority live in the cities in the South of the country. There is plenty of room, but the climate is forbidding with long winters, short and unreliable summers. When I was about to move there, one of my Czech friends remarked: "Sweden, that's a socialist country!". This myth persists to this day. During the healthcare bill debate, a conservative talking head, Bill O'Reilly, mentioned Sweden as a socialist, government-centered example that we, in the US should avoid at all costs. It was stupid at best. In Sweden, private enterprise flourishes, but every citizen has certain unalienable rights....in other words, the government looks after its own people who enjoy free healthcare, generous welfare benefits and other financial help. This is offset by a relatively high taxation rate, but...the Swedes don't seem to mind.

I arrived in Sweden one Sunday morning in May and Swedish customs were evidently expecting me. Yes, Mr. Kriz we knew you were coming today. There was no passport to stamp, so they just let me into the country. My wife Lotta was waiting and we drove west for 90 minutes to Vasteras. I was hungry after the overnight flight and wanted to stop for some breakfast. This was an easy request by US standards, but because of the high prices, Swedes just don't eat out that much and there was nothing open on Sunday morning. Oh, well.

We settled in a small ground-floor apartment on the outskirts of Västerås. Lotta worked the night shift in a local hospital as a nurse testing sleep apnea patients. At least for the moment I didn't have anything to do during the day except to get to know my son whom I hadn't seen for 6 months. And to get acquainted with my new country. Västerås is an industrial town of about 100,000 located at the western edge of Lake Mälaren that stretches all the way to Stockholm. It's set in a typicaly Swedish flatland countryside with fields interspersed with forests. Although most of the land is privately owned, there are very few fences and access in the country is allowed just about anywhere. I loved the Swedish forests, they were a living thing and I spent a lot of time hiking and picking wild mushrooms, mostly around Västerås.

Later in the summer we moved to different apartment closer to the City Center and I began school to learn Swedish. School was free, in fact the government paid me about $10 for every day I attended. The class had about 20 people from all over the world, including India, Russia, England, US, Iran. We were given a textbook that I found dispiriting. In the book were images of, say, a shoe repairman with a caption: "This is Ahmed, he is happy repairing shoes" or a hot dog seller: ÓThis is Masoof who likes selling hot dogs". The message was to forget who we were before...forget your past and be like us...but don't expect too much....I didn't like it and felt the need to rebel.

I've always had a natural aptitude for languages so the lessons were moving too slowly for me. I learned more Swedish from watching US movies with Swedish subtitles. I gave up on the school and tried to get a decent job, perhaps with an architectural firm. It was tough going as there were really only two architectural companies in Västerås. They were both kind enough to hire me for 3 months or so, but the architectural vernacular and my lack of knowledge of the local building codes were a major handicap. Also, the Swedes did things a bit differently. Once I was asked to design the interior of a small health clinic. I designed the layout and function relationship chart, and I tried to make the space interesting with some wall embedded lighting and unusual corridor/room relationships. I showed the drawing to the firm's principal and he did something totally unexpected. He got down on his knees, placed the drawing on the table in front of him, and proceeded to "take a walk" through my corridor by slowly scrolling the drawing toward him and down the edge of the table. A lot of people cannot translate a layout into a three-dimensional space. But a senior architect? Then he grunted something I took to be an approval and that was that.

Before I left California I was introduced to the world of personal computing; Apple Macintosh, specifically. Like many, I resisted computers for a long time, but then one of my clients offered me the use of a Mac 512k; 512 referring to the amount of RAM, about half a megabyte. Take it home for the weekend, he said. So I did and messed about a bit with MacPaint and MacDraw. Then I spent $30 on Microsoft Flight Simulator and I was hooked. I soared over San Francisco in a little Cessna trying to land at Oakland and frequently crashing. By today's standards the Mac 512 was primitive; it had no hard drive and everything ran from floppies. But it worked more or less and I started buying magazines and learning more about the computer and the available software.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions