Thursday, 28 February 2008

Nystrom’s Sweden: “A Cold Piece of Shit Country”.

Stefan Nystrom and I are both Australian expatriates currently living in Sweden. We both arrived here in early 2007 and still live here today. The difference is that I moved here by choice whereas Stefan was forced here as punishment for rape.
Stefan was born in Sweden while his mother was here on holidays visiting family but went back to Australia 27 days after giving birth. He has lived in Australia ever since albeit without Australian citizenship, just permanent residency. By the time he turned 32 he had been convicted of 127 charges including one charge of aggravated rape. In 2006 the ever-compassionate Amanda Vanstone decided to revoke Stefan’s residency on the grounds of him being a person of ‘poor character’ and thus deport him back to his country of birth.
Stefan Nystrom soon found himself stranded at Stockholm Airport with no job, no family, no friends, no accommodation, no Swedish and no clue to what he should do next. A year later and it seems Nystrom’s no closer to integrating into Swedish society. Recently Nystrom labelled Sweden as a “…Hitler society…” and described it as a “…cold, piece of shit country”.

Having also arrived here not knowing the language and having also faced many obstacles and frustrations, I can sympathise with Stefan Nystrom to the extent one can sympathise with a convicted rapist. Living here has been a very educational experience and at times very rewarding. But moving to a new country is never easy when you don’t speak the language or understand the culture, and even the simplest tasks become major missions. It would be worse still if you made the move involuntarily.

Having said that, it’s important to keep in mind that in Sweden Stefan Nystrom is a free man. If he were allowed to remain in Australia, I’d assume he’d be expected to serve out a prison sentence. In this sense forced exile in Sweden is a pretty good deal considering as he had been convicted of 127 charges. Many criminals attempt to flee the country to avoid prison anyway, so if I were in his shoes I wouldn’t be making too much fuss.

Yet this week Stefan joined the already long queue outside Kevin Rudd’s office that has formed since he won the last election, hoping for a change of policy. So fed up has he become with Swedish society he’s ready to do time in prison. I never thought Sweden was that bad!

Friday, 8 February 2008

A Guide to Swedish Cuisine.

Last week I finally found a supermarket in Sweden that sold hummus. It was an exciting day, and the fact that I got so excited got me thinking about Swedish cuisine and the depths it has reduced me too.

I view Swedish food the same way I view Swedish design: Unusual, sometimes outright ugly, but always simple and practical. It fulfils its purpose. Nothing is wasted on superfluous needs like taste, aesthetics or any other requirement other then the basic need to keep one alive and relatively healthy.

The typical Swedish sandwich is a good example. This will often consist of a piece of bread, a slice of cheese (no margarine) topped with a piece of capsicum or slice of ham. That’s all. Two, absolute maximum three toppings and that’s your sandwich. Anything else is just being overly lavish. Of course there are some flash fancy cafes can offer something a little more ambitious but judging from the lunchboxes in my various work places, two toppings is the norm. Other popular dishes include pasta (just plain pasta, sometimes served with meatballs but no sauce), potatoes (again just plain boiled potatoes, sometimes with dill) and crisp bread.

In part this functionalism stems from Sweden’s impoverished past when trying to stay alive and survive the winter was more important than using the right spices. People weren’t fussy, and happy to eat any vegetable they could manage to grow in the harsh Nordic climate. Any meat or fish they could get their hands on was either salted or pickled to last as long as possible. Thus Swedish cuisine was designed to provide basic nutrients with little thought given to flavour or variety.
We’re long past those times now, but Swedes like to stick by their traditions. Today at anytime of the year they can buy fresh fish, but they keep eating pickled herring. They are offered a huge array of different vegetables but they stick to potatoes and turnips. The one addition the modern Swede has allowed into their kitchen is tomato ketchup. They add it to everything and anything: pasta, rice, eggs, whatever. People pour it over their meals like I pour milk over my muesli.

For all theses reasons or more, even in the most cosmopolitan and multicultural cities in the world, you’re unlikely to ever come across a Swedish restaurant. Not even in Sweden! Yet ironically the only Swedish word that has managed to force itself into the Swedish dictionary is one that specifically relates to food: smorgasbord.

However there is one important exception to these principles of culinary functionalism: the Smörgåstårta (pictured left). In my view this one dish surpasses Ikea and Henrik Larsson as the best thing Sweden has ever produced. In English this translates as Sandwich-Cake and that’s pretty much what it is: a massive sandwich the size of a cake. Four layers of bread, each stuffed with creamy filling, and then topped with any number of different garnishes. Unfortunately they involve a lot of work to prepare and too expensive to eat regularly. Generally they are saved for special occasions. Smörgåstårtas are so popular that a Swedish policeman recently got into trouble for extorting smörgåstårtas as bribes. That should give you some idea of what people will do for a tasty meal here.