by Aaron Gertler
There are meatballs on the menu the night I sit down with Carl, but they are more than one inch in diameter and not served with lingonberry jam, and thus do not count as Swedish meatballs.
But that’s okay. Carl is Swedish enough to satisfy the rigorous VG requirements even without brown sauce or pickled cucumbers. (I’ve been craving meatballs since I began writing this blog post.) As my classmate in a course that integrated politics, economics, and philosophy, he could be relied upon to bring the Swedish perspective into any debate. Fun fact: Sweden’s most notable philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg, not only has Sweden in his name, but is known for claiming he’d entered the spirit world with God’s permission, starting a new branch of Christianity, and influencing such luminaries as Kant, Goethe, Borges, and Helen Keller. Johnny Appleseed—who was a real person, it turns out—was also a Swedenborgian missionary.
Carl is not a Swedenborgian missionary, though he does an excellent job preaching the virtues of Sweden, the country. The first such virtue: as of 2010, it no longer drafts every eligible young man for three to fifteen months of service.
Why did the draft last so long, anyway? “Sweden used to have a huge army—hundreds of thousands of men. We wanted to be able to mass them on the border in case of invasion.” From who? The USSR? “Exactly.” But the USSR fell before I was born. “It took us a while to react to that.”
Carl was part of the last year of graduating seniors to face conscription, and though many men his age were able to skip their service (Sweden isn’t all that strict about it), he grabbed the bull by the horns and wound up in what he calls “interrogation training.” This sounds menacing, and the thought of being waterboarded by an angry Carl Sandberg is far from pleasant, but as it turns out, his training focused on language learning—Arabic—with some of the world’s most talented instructors, for the purpose of peaceful communication only. (Sweden is firmly opposed to torture—another virtue).
To further improve his Arabic, Carl spent a year at Damascus University in the capital of Syria. He’s managed to stay in touch with some of the friends he made in his time there (many of whom have escaped to Sweden, one of the world’s most receptive countries to refugees), but he tells me it’s “really, really bad” there and that he fears for those he knows are still inside the country. “The community I was a part of just doesn’t exist anymore.”
Since then, however, he’s been a part of many other communities, in countries ranging from Japan to Kenya to Saudi Arabia; more than anything, he seeks to understand the world on its own terms. If more people like you are out there, maybe we’ll have fewer Syria-like conflicts? He’s too modest, or too realist, to answer me—but as an optimist myself, I think there’s a chance.
Knowing Carl, it’s hard to imagine he had to find Yale rather than Yale finding him, but his path to the university, minus the Damascus interruption, is similar to several I’ve heard in my time as the Vicarious Globetrotter. He attended public—in the English sense, meaning private—school until eighth grade, at which point it turned “private”—public, that is—or did he mean “private”, in the American sense, adjusting his language to match my confusion?—no, actually, private but publicly funded—was that high school or middle school? Anyway, someone educated Carl, and used the Swedish government’s money to do it. He could have gotten a free college degree, as well; very few Swedish universities require any kind of private contribution. Thanks in part to this, most of his high-school classmates stayed home to get their degrees, though gap years are common. It took a classmate going straight to Princeton to change his worldview: “I realized, oh! The process isn’t that impossible.”
For Carl, in fact, getting in wasn’t even a little bit impossible, which isn’t a surprise; he seems to have successful genes. His mother is a physical therapist (perhaps even proficient in Swedish massage, though I don’t ask), and his father is an agent working to facilitate the entry of Chinese and Indian companies into Sweden’s booming export market. He has an older and younger sister; both are published authors, and one wrote a novel with the impressive title of…
“Oh, man, how do I translate this? Something like… ‘We Are Not Like The Ones That Get Each Other In The End’.” Does that fit on a book jacket? “It’s shorter in Swedish.” What’s it about? “Life.” I’ve read three books from Sweden, all of which were the Steig Larsson trilogy, but if it ever gets translated, Carl’s sister’s will be the fourth. I’m sure it’s very similar.
My next question is so vague that I’m amazed it always seems to work in these conversations: What’s it like to be from (your country here)? (In this case, I say “Sweden.”)
“I think it’s good. Sweden has an extremely good reputation around the world, which makes life easier. When I crossed the border from Syria to Turkey, I was with a couple of British guys, and when the border police saw my passport, they waved me through. ‘Oh, you don’t have to wait in line! There’s a special line right over here for you.’” (Based on what I know of the reputation of British tourists, his friends might still be waiting.)
Are there any dark secrets in Sweden’s past? We think of it as a golden social democracy, but everyone has skeletons in the closet. “We’ve always had close ties to Germany—in both good and bad times. We were neutral during World War II. Somehow, we weren’t invaded.” That’s interesting! Especially considering how bad Finland got it. “Well, they tried to be neutral, too, but the USSR was just too close. We sent a lot of soldiers to help them out.” (And help they did. You should really pause for a few minutes to read about the Winter War, in which Scandinavians on skis invented Molotov cocktails and conquered one of the world’s mightiest military machines.)
But wait: that’s not really a skeleton. Sweden did right by Finland! Anything else? “We’ve got this crazy extremist party who won some seats in Congress in 2006. They’re very xenophobic; some of them are racists.” And they have a lot of popular support? “About 4%. The lowest you can get and be in Congress, basically. Nobody likes them, and all the other parties have sworn not to deal with them. But Swedish government is so deadlocked that they have a deciding vote sometimes. It’s annoying.” There you have it, reader: roughly 4% of Sweden is objectionable.
The other 96% seems to be pretty chill. Carl checks Swedish news every day, since “something is always going on”, but that news is usually low-key and local; for controversy, the media often resorts to American politics. Save for immigration rates (Sweden’s are the highest per capita in the developed world), there’s little to fight over. And even with these squabbles, Sweden—perhaps the world’s most comprehensive welfare state—provides a tight safety net for those who arrive in search of safety and financial security. Its trade barriers are quite low, it’s avoided the Eurozone crisis by maintaining its own currency (the krona), and it weathered the Great Recession with little permanent damage. All in all, it’s enough to make a guy want to take up the Yellow Cross and celebrate this Nordic slice of heaven on Earth.
Carl’s youth, on the surface, seems to mirror the easygoing nature of his nation. Outside of school, he played soccer and (indoor) tennis, while one of his first great adventures involved a busking tour of Europe with a friend—trading guitar and song for food and change, making enough for train tickets, and moving on. And everyone loves Swedes! Brilliant. Did you make out like bandits? “We did okay. We tried to seduce the audience […] for a younger crowd, we’d play Red Hot Chili Peppers [huge in Sweden, as it turns out], and for older folks, we’d play Bob Dylan and the Beatles.”
Carl, of course, is far from Sweden’s only musical export. Swedish songwriters like Max Martin and RedOne write many of the greatest “American” pop hits, but they’ve also given the world ABBA, Ace of Base, Robyn, the Knife, Lykke Li, and of course, Swedish House Mafia. Not bad for a country of nine million people. Carl is keen to impress upon me, however, that his nation doesn’t endorse every hometown artist: “Basshunter writes number-one hits for the U.S. and the UK, but to us, he’s a joke. A joke!” (Note to the reader: I just spent three minutes watching the video in that hyperlink. A joke, yes, but a damned catchy joke.)
Though he’s too worldly to be certain he’ll settle down in Sweden for adulthood, Carl does his part at Yale to bring attention to his region’s culture. Thanks to “the great Scandinavian Society!”, we can expect to see the Lucia festival (pretty girls carrying candles on their heads) and Crayfish Festival (self-explanatory) become Yale traditions starting next year. But neither of these is Swedish alone; how do you set Sweden apart from other Nordic states? “They’re pretty similar… let’s see… we have the best music. And Skål!”
The latter is apparently an exclamation used for toasting, and seems like precious little for a nation to call its own. How about history? Are there any great Swedish heroes you learn about in school, who stood up to bigger nations? “Well, Sweden used to be a lot bigger… Finland was part of Sweden. So were the Baltic states. Eventually, they all split away.” So… other countries get to have national heroes who stood up to Sweden? We eventually figure out that this is likely the case. Still, for all its losses, Sweden came out ahead of the game, internationally—Britain and France held colonies longer, but seem to have suffered for it.
Not that Carl is eager to set his nation above others. If anything, Sweden raised him as a worldly person rather than a fervent patriot; in our conversation, he showed strong support for new immigrants to Sweden and an acceptance for the foibles of other cultures. While Americans struck some past subjects as braggarts or prudes, Carl thinks their distinguishing feature is friendliness: “They’ll invite people to their homes much more often than I’ve seen in other countries.” Nothing about us struck him as especially strange; by the time he came to Yale, he’d seen it all, more or less.
This marks the end of my fourth post, and though I can’t yet say I’ve heard it all, Carl’s story brought me one country closer. Until next time, reader, here’s hoping you listen to as much ABBA as your heart desires—and may the welfare state be with you.
Did this extremist party have any major scandals?
Carl practically salivates upon hearing this question, before regaling me with the story of a cell phone video from 2006 which went public last year, showing several leaders of the far-right party insulting Swedish-Kurdish comedian Soran Ismail and wandering through Stockholm carrying iron poles and looking for a fight, all in broad daylight.
(Note: Soran Ismail is followed by 125,000 people, which in Sweden is proportionally the same as 4.2 million Americans. Thanks to Google Translate, I was able to understand exactly three of his last 50 tweets, the funniest of which was “Is there anyone who can invent a comfortable boot?” To make up for this failure to translate, I instead offer you the Swedish Chef, because the Swedish Chef is universal.)
Aaron Gertler is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.