Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Hobbits of Sweden

(An old but favorite essay, written in 2002 after the first year in Sweden was over, and things were still going relativly well. This was also in the middle of the three years when the Lord of the Rings films were coming out.)

Being in part a description of the curious nature and odd habits of the native peoples of the savage northern kingdom known as Sweden.

The name hobbit implies a people of diminutive stature, and this is perhaps the single aspect of hobbit nature not possessed by the natives of Sweden. The truth of the matter is that if one goes sojourning in this northern kingdom one will spend a lot of time looking upwards in an attempt to establish eye contact. The Swedes are among the taller peoples of this earth, just slightly less in average height than the inhabitants of Rwanda and Kenya.

Here is where any difference between our Scandinavian hobbits and those of J.R.R. Tolkien's Shire end. The trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, begins with preparations for a large birthday party and dinner. After having resided in Sweden for merely a few months, it became apparent to me that dinner parties are the chief concern and perhaps full time obsession of the adult natives. So it has been a bit of shock for the author to watch his Generation X hobbit counterparts, who only a few years ago were drinking themselves silly on cheap Danish beer and even cheaper Finish vodka, now throwing elaborate feasts with fine wines and elegant fares. An adult birthday party is occasion for cooked cheese dishes, meat and vegetable pies, cakes, ice cream, beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, and perhaps a smörgåstårta; the elaborate arrangement that turns a loaf of bread into a layered construction of liver pate, hard boiled egg sections, mayonnaise, lox, shrimp, cucumber slices, and caviar. Fortunately for the Swedish hobbits, their culture supports a vast array of reasons for dinner parties, among them being Midsummer's Eve, the opening of the crayfish season in August, and any mundane activity such as moving into a new apartment. Traditional Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas demand, of course, an even greater level of feasting in this largely agnostic utopia.

Each society's climate fosters a degree of linguistic specialization on its people. Bedouins have many words for sand, Eskimos for ice, and rain forest dwellers have hundreds of terms for the color green. This remains true in Sweden as well. Swedes consume more coffee than anyone else in world—excepting their neighbors the Finns—and this reflects appropriately in their language.

To fika is not just to go out for coffee, but rather implies an entire range of interrelated social, political, business, and snacking activities. The corporate culture of a company that outlawed coffee breaks would quickly breakdown as no internal communications of any significant nature could take place outside of the fikas. Its workers, suffering from caffeine withdrawal, would revert into their Viking berserker ancestors. In short order a combination of violent demonstrations, human rights protests, strikes, sabotage, and union actions would leave the company's offices a charred mound of ashes. After UN peace keepers were called in, the author(s) of the policy would be labeled as worse than either Slobodan Milosivic or Adolph Hitler, and then exiled to the artic tundra of the north, or even worse, Norway--land of uncultured seal-clubbing Scandinavian hillbillies.

Like the pragmatic hobbits of the Shire our Swedes have a deep and enduring fondness for good clothes, as well as all things simple and well made. Anyone who owns a Volvo or modernist couch can vouch for this. Publicly, no hobbit will admit to having a liking for any aspect of tawdry and trashy American pop culture, though a quick check of the local TV guide and movie pages of the newspaper will expose an almost total degree of hypocrisy here. It is also suspicious that the hobbits refer to American as "the land where the Ricki Lake Show comes from."

This attitude can also be seen in culinary matters as well. While Swedes rail against even the very concept of peanut butter as the ultimate proof of American decadence it can still be found in any average-sized grocery store. Standing outside the aisle that contains exotic foreign foods, one can observe otherwise upstanding hobbit citizens sneaking out, glancing nervously over their shoulders as if leaving through the front door of a brothel in full daylight on a Sunday morning*.

Perhaps the ultimate ideal of hobbit life is that of the rural existence. Swedes retreat to the countryside for long sunny weekends and summer holidays, and the joy that the natives here take in the arrival of summer can hardly be overstated. Living in a country with a climate like that of Seattle's is what created this unique breed of pale-skinned sun-worshipping hobbits in the first place. Their only act of imperialism--thus far--is their annual colonization of the sunny Spanish Canary islands, at the height of which migrating Swedes outnumber the locals several times over. It is in Sweden a basic human right to be able to take at least three weeks of one's nationally mandated five weeks of annual vacation time within the summer months.

From their family country houses Swedes set out in treks through the forests where they gorge themselves into intoxication on wild strawberries. To the average Swede-Hobbit the Swedish strawberry is not just a symbol of summer, but its divine essence given shape and substance. Explorers and visiting anthropologists are cautioned to immediately agree with the natives' religious insistence that these are the finest strawberries in the world--the Edenic ancestors of all other pale and pathetic foreign fruits that carry the same name. Failure to acknowledge this has left more than one visitor naked and tied to a tree, enduring their last few minutes of life on this Earth undergoing archaic tortures perfected by Vikings.

Aside from these pagan rituals the only other disturbing sight which one might encounter in the Swedish countryside is the occasional dwarf of Germany. Their native country being filled with 80 million inhabitants, German dwarfs often voyage north and purchase hobbit summer cottages in order to experience the un-crowded rural life. This also allows them to indulge in their almost fetish-like worship of the Swedish national symbol, the moose. It is an almost tragically common occurrence in the woods of Småland to come across intoxicated dwarfs dismantling roadside moose-crossing signs to take home to Germany.

The author of this paper had spot of adventure while visiting Stockholm's famous Skansen's petting zoo, where he was nearly trampled to death by a horde of invading hunnish dwarves who where eager to reach the Moose pens. At least once a year a party of Germans spends a night in the city jail after an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle one of the animals out of the park. The closest that any known moose-smuggling ambition has come to fruition was an incident when a German tourist was stopped from boarding a car ferry on what he insisted was a just a slightly furry, long-handled SAAB motorcycle.

Of all other societies on muddled Earth the Swedes most closely resemble the Japanese in both culture and temperament. Each has a love of seafood, raw fish, and other exotic fares. Both are also the descendants of violent warrior cultures and subsume their passions into extreme forms of politeness. A typical hobbit exchange might run as follows:

"It would be my pleasure to offer you some coffee."

"Yes, many thanks."

"No thanks are necessary. Thank you for your company today."

"Ah, but thanks shall you have."

"I thank you for your thanks. Cookies?"

"Yes, even more thanks."

"It is nothing, thank you for your last dinner party."

"Think nothing of that. Thank you for the time before…"

Like two samurai exchanging their names, lineages, and lists of defeated foes, it is best to allow Swedes to run through the ritual expression of their gratification for all previous social contacts. Anything less will constitute a display of shocking rudeness and imply poor breeding on the part the interrupting party. Occasionally Swedish passions will not be restrained, and then there is trouble. Most often these outbursts are channeled into bouts of vodka drinking, Ace of Base concerts, and extreme left wing politics. The latter activity being one that hobbit teenagers practice in the same manner that other youths play at extreme sports. It is even more rare for physical violence to erupt, but alcohol-fueled pillagings of downtown Copenhagen are not unknown, and there is the tragic once-in-a-while sacking of Austrian ski resorts.

"Bengt! What is good in life?"

"To roam the kitchen aisle at Ikea with a Volvo at your command and the wind from the electric fans in your hair."

"No!" (followed by the sound of smackage taking place). "Sven! What is good in life?"

"To set fire to the resort dining room, to destroy chair lifts, and harass local bar wenches."

A final semblance between the Japanese and Swedish hobbits is that each has a deeply ingrained conviction that their social-welfare system is the logical end point of human evolution. In Europe the Italians assume that anything different from their system must be better, and to the Swedes it is any society differing from their own that must be worse. The fact that the rest of the world has failed to adopt Swedish Social Democracy only confirms a lack of good hobbit sensibility amongst other peoples.

It also stems from the outside world's apparent lack of knowledge about this enlightened system's many benefits. Swedish newspapers are filled with articles assuring their citizens of their superiority in all fields. While eating breakfast one day this author came across one such pierce of journalism proudly entitled, "Swedish Sperm Better than Danish Sperm" (Sydsvenska Dagbladet, 15 September 2002, page A38.) If one chooses visit this odd but savagely beautiful northern land, be prepared for a lot of condescending looks on the part of the locals if you wish to discuss any positive aspects of your native land. Americans are strongly advised to stick to talking about the genius of Woody Allen and his films. With these few simple precautions travelers can enjoy their stay among these stylish hobbits under the gray skies.


* A note about surstroemming, the infamous Swedish sour herring. This is a dish prepared by allowing fish to rot over the course of six months while being submerged in various solutions. It is then packaged and continues fermenting with such vigor that each metal storage can bulges ominously outwards. When opened, the fetid liquid inside tends to jet outwards in noxious blast and emit an odor that has been charitably characterized as being perhaps the most vile smell on Earth. Surstroemming is a sensitive topic with the Swedes. Merely bringing it into a conversation causes the hobbits to immediately shift to a prickly defensive mode reminiscent of that of Koreans who are in the company of foreigners discussing the eating of dog, or Englishmen when any aspect of their culinary lives is brought up.

To be fair to my Swedish friends, none of them have actually risked life or limb trying out this potentially lethal dish—-at least they have claimed so in a series of informal dinner party polls. A few of them have threatened to force feed me surstroemming though, particularly whenever I have been "talking too much shit." So far I have confidence that this is only a bluff as they appear to be too frightened to be seen purchasing rotten herring, let alone taking the risks inherent in opening a potentially explosive can of rancid fish. Some have also spoken idly of acquiring sour herring to try at Christmas, but for now they seem content to go to the town hotel's julbord (a pre-Christmas buffet) and partake of more normal foods, such as jellied  fish (lutefisk), smoked eel, and blood pudding.

My impression from their conversations is that surstroemming was originally invented by demented lumberjacks living in the remote northern forest who had become crazed by long periods of total darkness, coffee deprivation, and who at the time were meeting their hydrational needs by imbibing a litter of moonshine each day. In short it is basically a survival food for northern Swedish redneck loggers who are so saturated with alcohol that they are no longer able to a) taste or smell anything, and b) whose high blood alcohol concentration renders them immune to mild bacterial infection like botulism.

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