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

When I arrived in Sweden I wanted to get a Mac again, but I was astonished at the cost. The cheapest Apple was about $5,000 - way above what I could afford. Even the software packages were about 50% more expensive than in the US. An idea started to germinate. Then I got lucky. I was wandering through the largest bookseller in Västerås and there it was; a nice little Macintosh sitting all by itself. It turned out that Apple Computer was using this bookstore to sell their computers to students.

Micke was the name of the store manager and very quickly we struck a deal. I'd go to his store every day for 2-3 hours and demo the computer to the customers in return for a loan of one of the Macs. It was a win-win. I used that free Mac to write a business plan for a mail order company that would import Macintosh hardware and software to Sweden and sell it at a discount rate.

We needed capital. Just some seed money, that was all. I approached one local bank and was turned down flat. I tried a second bank and the answer was: “When do you want the money - this afternoon?" Just like that, without a credit record, without even being Swedish I secured a line of credit that would jump-start our (Lotta was a partner) new business. We called it “The Software Revolution” and our logo was derived from a detail in the French painting “Liberty leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix. It was the only logo I've ever seen that featured bare breasts.

We rented a tiny two-room office next to a hair and nail salon and I designed our first catalog of products. Somehow we assembled a small mailing list and the little booklet of a catalog was mailed out in January of 1990. As luck would have it, the catalog reached our potential customers earlier then expected. We were out of the country and unable to take any orders (see Crossing the Iron Curtain and Other Nightmares )

By the time we came back, we had enough faxed orders to keep us busy for a week. The business was up and running...in a way. Immediately, we started to work on another catalog - a staple of mail order in the pre-Internet days - this time in full living color and magazine format. I really managed to screw up this time. I transposed a couple of numbers in our telephone number - listed on every damn page - and the number belonged to a US expatriate, a Vietnam draft dodger who lived in Västerås since the 70's. We were able to buy the number from him, but he was not pleased to say the least.

The catalog came out in July and in August I decided to attend a Mac convention in Boston to firm-up supply lines, buy products and so on. It was the perfect storm. We received four orders in the month of July and in August I started spending money on computer products in Boston. The bank freaked out and shut down our credit line and my credit card. The reason for the lack of orders was simple; Sweden practically shuts down in July and August as the Swedes take their generous vacations and fly to the Spanish beaches in search of warm weather, sun and cheap booze.

By the second half of August the orders were multiplying again and the bank restored our line of credit. Finally, I was settling down in Sweden even though I didn't really understand what made the Swedes tick. It's a country of many contrasts and is in some ways unlucky. Sweden has a very low crime rate and strict gun controls, yet the Prime Minister, Olof Palme, was gunned down in central Stockholm while walking home from a night at the movies in 1986. Palme felt so safe that he had no bodyguards; unimaginable in most countries. The assassin was never identified and the motive remains a mystery. Later that year the nuclear accident in Chernobyl released a radioactive cloud that settled over Sweden and poisoned livestock and produce for the next couple of years.

From a purely personal viewpoint, Sweden never felt very safe for me. Within days of picking up our US Volvo in Göteborg Harbor and parking it outside our apartment in Västerås, someone tried to steal it. Later our offices were burglarized, not once but twice, apparently by a gang who shipped stolen computers to the Soviet Union. The insurance covered most of it, but it was a hassle.

SWEDISH MYTH No. 2
Swedish Girls are all Very Sexually Liberated - Probably True

I cannot attest to the sexual liberation of Swedish girls since during my time there I was married and did not fool around. But there was one occasion....
As our company grew, we hired a bookkeeper to help with our accounts. Her name was Monika and she was pretty in an unassuming way. One day I was sitting in my office working on the computer when Monika came to show me some papers. It was early evening and we were alone in the office. She stood next to me as I was going through the papers and suddenly something nudged my right arm. It was a breast! Large and pointy! I moved away slightly, but the determined breast followed. I pirouetted out my chair and we continued the discussion as if nothing had happened. From then on I maintained a safe distance from Monika.

Despite small setbacks, the company seemed to be doing well and the future looked promising. In a few months we'd managed to buy a house in the country, outside of Västerås. It was an ideal place surrounded by fields on three sides with a forest right behind the dirt road that led to the one-acre property. There was the main house, a large, but dilapidated barn and a small two and a half story guesthouse. It was a small compound. And we got a great deal with the bank generously giving us a mortgage with only 22% interest. Twenty-two percent!!

The property was called "Vrånga" and we called it "Vrånga Gård" or "Vrånga Court". That sounded a bit more impressive. I loved it there. As the seasons changed, the view was always different. We had deer crossing our garden and we saw elk passing by several times. I enjoyed the forest behind us. There is a magic in the silence and solitude in the forest, just ambling through the conifers looking for little orange mushrooms called kantareller or chantrelles. They are delicious just fried in butter with toast.

SWEDISH MYTH No. 3
All There is to Swedish Food is Meatballs - False

I quickly developed a taste for Swedish food. It's quite a bit more than just meatballs. A traditional smörgåsbord (literal translation "sandwich table") is buffet-style and usually consists of a tantalizing collection of pickled herring, cheeses, hams, shellfish and warm dishes like small meatballs and, my personal favorite, a potato casserole called "Janssons Frestelse" (Janssons Temptation). The dish includes anchovies and pickled sardines and is so good that I was not surprised that Jansson was tempted by it; whoever he was. Traditionally, neat chilled vodka or aquavit is drunk with the food. Sounds odd, but it seems to work.

The highlight of any smörgåsbord is "gravad lax" or "gravlax" (literally "buried salmon"). This is delicious salmon cured with salt and sugar. It is simple to make with only salmon fillet, kosher salt, sugar and dill as ingredients. A brick or other heavy object is also needed. This is used instead of actually burying the salmon. See my recipe below.

The Swedes are generally low-key unpretentious people. Emotions are kept in check and any ostentatious behavior is frowned upon. The "personal freedom" that has lately become such a political hot potato in the US, is an accepted way of life in Sweden. One day during my first month in Sweden I was watching the 7 o'clock news with my family and my mother-in-law when suddenly, a report from a nudist beach was broadcast. We watched the reporter, up to his knees in water on some beach in Sweden, talking about some incident or other. Surprisingly, he was also nude with his dick a-dangle in full view of the camera. This was all perfectly normal and nobody blinked or made a comment. The local indoor swimming pool had sex specific changing rooms; as expected, but these changing rooms were interconnected by a large door that was frequently open allowing back and forth views of nude people of both sexes. And nobody cared! It was considered perfectly normal.

This low-key attitude extends even to the Swedish royalty. One winter Lotta, Benjamin and I spent a week in Âre, the ski resort in the North of Sweden. We stayed in the best hotel in town which was roughly the level of a Holliday Inn. One evening, tired after a day on the slopes, I decided to take a sauna in the hotel. As I turned up in my robe the receptionist asked me if I could wait a few minutes because the sauna was occupied. This was unusual so I asked who was in the sauna. The answer was: "The King of Sweden". There it was, King Carl XVI Gustaf was staying in the same hotel and skiing on the same slopes as we. Again, nobody cared and his privacy was totally respected.

SWEDISH MYTH No. 4
It's Always Cold in Sweden and Swedes Drink a Lot of Alcohol - False and True

As one travels through the Swedish countryside, there are clouds of strange odor. It's moonshine! Because booze is very expensive, a lot of the country houses have a little still to distill their own liquer. In supermarkets entire aisles are filled with tiny flavoring bottles to make the illegal hooch taste like French brandy. I was once offered a drink out of bottle labeled "Absolut Moonshine".

It's not always cold, but the summer is very short and sometimes it's over before it starts, but the sun shines until midnight and barely sets for a couple of hours. The depression sets in during November and December when there are only a few daylight hours and perpetual darkness seems to last forever.

By the spring of '93 our business was experiencing financial problems. A large US company set up a branch in Sweden and because of their buying power, they could undercut our prices at every level. We restructured and let go some staff then we decided to reduce our overhead by moving the company to our house. I spent most of the summer restoring and insulating the old guest house and we moved the office there in the fall. It was too late and the financial strain had negative effects on our private life and marriage.

This was a difficult time; a reason why I was looking forward to an upcoming party arranged by Lotta's sister as a surprise for her boyfriend. I needed to get out a bit - schmooze and socialize. A vast quantity of spare ribs was bought and I proceeded to grill them in the cool November air as our contribution to the party.

It was a Saturday afternoon that we drove to a house in the country with a banquet room rented for this occasion. There were about 80-100 people there and everyone brought food and drink. It felt very festive in the banquet room; tables were set-up in a U-shape and every chair had a place card and several sheets of paper with some writing on each sheet. I didn't really pay attention, I was just glad to be out and able to put our problems aside for the evening.

The party started with everyone having some food and drink. I was happily devouring my ribs and sipping shots of frozen vodka when someone tinkled a glass with a knife and demanded everyone's attention. "Now we will sing number five". At this point everyone stood up with their sheets of paper with the lyrics of "number 5" and sang their hearts out, a cappella. Some traditional Swedish ditty. When the song ended we all sat down again and continued with our food. A few minutes later this ritual was repeated, this time with “number 8”. And so it went for a couple of hours. Then, as if someone gave a secret signal, we all picked up our empty dishes, cleaned up the room a bit and piled into our cars.

The party was over. Literally.

A week or two later I was on the plane to California. Almost exactly ten years after I arrived in Pasadena, I was back. It was not the triumphal return of the prodigal son. I had two suitcases and a pair of skis, very little money and no prospects. In the space of a few short months, I'd lost my house, my business and my family. It took a while to recover from this and I barely survived the emotional rollercoaster.

I haven't been back to Sweden since.


Gravlax Recipe

2+ pounds fresh whole or half salmon (NOT previously frozen, tail and/or head cut off
1 large bunch of fresh dill
1 tablespoon per pound granulated sugar
1 tablespoon per pound Kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
Splash of vodka or tequila (optional)

Cut salmon lengthwise and cut away all bones and spine, but leave the two halves joined by the skin.. Sometimes there are bones left after filleting that can be pulled out with needle-nose pliers. Yes, this is food and engineering all in one! Pat both open halves dry with a paper towel.

In a bowl, mix sugar, salt and pepper together and spread mixture evenly on both salmon halves. Spread dill generously on each half. Splash some vodka or tequila over the salmon halves (optional). Fold one half over the other and tightly wrap in saran wrap leaving no air. Place in a ziplock bag. Remove all air upon closure - a straw-suck works best. Place salmon package on a plate or in a shallow dish and apply weight similar to a brick on top. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, turning once or twice during this time. After 24 hours, remove the salmon and scrape excess dill, salt and sugar and discard any juice remaining in packaging.

To Serve
Slice the salmon thinly on a shallow diagonal, garnish with sprigs of dill and serve on pumpernickel or rye bread topping it with the mustard sauce below. Fold any remaining salmon and keep refrigerated in an airtight ziplock for no more than 5 days.

Mustard Sauce

4.5 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons cider or rice vinegar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup snipped dill
3/4 cup Canola oil
salt
freshly ground white pepper

Put mustard, vinegar, sugar and dill in food processor. Pour oil very slowly through feed tube with processor running until sauce emulsifies or thickens. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Refrigerate. Sauce can be made 2 days ahead.


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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions