“Welcome To Sweden”

A new TV series hit the Swedish airwaves this spring called Welcome to Sweden which has definitely raised an eyebrow by this American living in Sweden.  It’s described as a comedic view of Greg Poehler‘s life experience, having moved to Sweden to marry and live with a Swedish woman almost a decade ago (seven years to be exact). The show basically chronicles the funny, awkward and downright weird experiences of an American guy moving to Sweden.

The show has now been launched on NBC in the United States with the first showing on July 10, 2014. I won’t go into a critical review of the show but I can say that it touches many of my own experiences living in Sweden, many of which I have described in the American Norseman blog over the last 5 years (I’m waiting for the royalty check). So far the reviews have been pretty good with the L.A. times describing it as it “the best thing to happen to broadcast-network comedy since Modern Family.

If you’d like to get a small glimpse of what it’s like to live in Sweden as an American make sure you DVR/TIVO Welcome to Sweden.

Categories: Sweden, Swedish Living | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting Jim Morrison with the Spirit of an Old Friend

Morrison's grave at Père Lachaise

Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise

Our most exciting and “interesting” experience in Paris was at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.  My best childhood friend Johnny and I were huge fans of The Doors and the bands lead singer Jim Morrison is buried in this cemetery. Like Jim Morrison, Johnny was a pretty wild and unique soul who died earlier than he should have. I thought it would be nice to visit the place where one of our childhood idols was laid to rest in memory of my friend. From this humble gesture came an adventure reminiscent of something that would only come from time with Johnny.

When we arrived at the cemetery it had closed for the day due to poor weather and risk of lightning. Visiting the location took quite a bit of time so I was disappointed knowing we would not be able to return during this trip. As we started to walk back towards the subway station a woman approached us and asked, “How bad do you really want to get in? Is visiting the cemetery important to you?” Intrigued I said yes and explained to her that we’d traveled a long way and would not have a chance to return and see it again. She said, “I think I can get you in, follow me…” and then we headed towards the subway to board a train and enter the cemetery from another gate. While traveling the woman coached us on what to say to the duty guard at the next gate and long story short we lied to the guard and said we need to visit a group inside who were the only people currently allowed in the cemetery. The guard allowed us to enter and radioed other guards that we would be joining the group shortly. At this point it was getting dark and using my phone GPS we ran though the cemetery searching for the grave of Jim Morrison. Being alone, at night, in a 120 acres cemetery in a foreign city is quite an experience.

Erik with the spirit of Jim & Johnny

Erik with the spirit of Jim & Johnny

After searching for about 25 minutes we were nervous, a bit scared and ready to give up. By a stroke of luck I saw fences around a small plot hidden behind tall tombstones and sure enough, it was the grave of Jim Morrison. I spent about one minute remembering my friend and taking two picture before we started running for our lives out of the cemetery. Our plan was to exit out of another gate which was close Morrison’s grave but when we arrived it was unmanned and locked. It was almost completely dark in the cemetery now and the next closest gate was really far away. I started to get kinda scared at this point because the cemetery officially closed at dark and we were at least a 10 minutes from the next exit that might be open… As we started to run, headlights shined on our backs and I thought the guards had found us and that we were finished. Thankfully, it turned out to be a nice couple delivering flowers to grave sites and they asked if we needed a ride out. We said yes and exchanged nervous but pleasant conversation as they drove us towards the exit. They stopped the car just inside the gate which was the original entrance where we tried to get in about an hour before. We thanked them, jumped out of the car and rushed towards the exit. The guard, who recognized us from the first time, started yelling at us in French as we passed so we started sprinting towards the gate and sweet, sweet freedom. The yelling in French continued when we crossed the gate threshold and we were flat-out like two school girls getting out of trouble once our feet touched the main road. After about a block we turned around and realized no one was chasing us and as our adrenalin drained we laughed, hugged and reflected on one of the craziest travel experiences we had ever had.

For those who knew Johnny, you will understand right away why this event made me both very happy and very sad. An adventure like this was the epitome of Johnny. I can honestly say the last time I had done something similar was with him and it really felt like he was there with me in spirit. Only with Johnny would I be pushed to do something crazy like this and then have fun adventure stories to tell my other friends about.

~ Thank you my good friend for one more great memory involving you…

Categories: Europe Travel, France | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas in Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

We spent Christmas 2012 in Paris, France. Paris had always been on our radar for “must see” destinations in Europe and this grand city did not disappoint. Given its sheer size and historical significance we spend 6 full days touring the major sites, enjoying great food and doing our best to immerse ourselves in French culture. Christmas is a special time of year to travel in Europe and this was our second year in a grand destination (in 2011 we were in Rome, Italy). It was hard to be away from family and friends during the holidays but in a small way visiting sites like the Eiffel tower and St. Peter Basilica on Christmas day creates it’s own special memories.

Our itinerary was filled with top sites and a few “offbeat” destinations that provided a mix of touristy interactions with intimate and exciting adventures.

Champs Elysees, Rue Cler and Christmas Markets: Shopping is an important staple of the holiday season and there is no better place in the world to shop than the Champs Elysees. Home of Louis Vuitton, Prada and just about every other famous fashion brand, a trip down this grand boulevard can cause serious damage to your credit card. Fortunately we did more window shopping than actual buying🙂

Le Café du Marche in rue Cler

Le Café du Marche in rue Cler

Christmas Day Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral: Notre Dame Cathedral is an iconic landmark on the Left Bank of Paris. We spend Christmas morning on huge bleachers outside the cathedral watch the service on the “jumbotron.” The rest of the day was filled with long walks though famous parks and a delicious dinner at Le P’tit Troquet, a small family run restaurant with amazing Fois-grois (something I would usually never dream of ordering).

Christmas Day Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral

Christmas Day Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral

In the steps of my favorite author: As a huge Hemingway fan, I couldn’t leave the city without visiting his famous “haunts” as referenced in some of my favorite books – The Sun Also Rises and An Immovable Feast. A majority of my Birthday was walking the Left Bank enjoying some Hemingway “signature cocktails” and excellent food in legendary establishments such as Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, and Brasserie Lipp.

In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes meets Lady Brett at Les Deux Magots.

In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes meets Lady Brett at Les Deux Magots.

Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Orsay Museum: A trip to Paris is not complete unless you have a chance to appreciate the great architecture and influential art. The Louvre and Orsay Museums enjoy impressive collections from famous painter all around the world. From a historical perspective the Louvre is top-notch but, I enjoyed art from the Orsay much more. The Eiffel Tower, a work of art in its own right, was a wonderful experience and well worth navigating the expected crowds and lines.

Mona Lisa (and her crowd) in the Louvre

Mona Lisa (and her crowd) in the Louvre

For more Images from Paris, please visit my website at www.erikfunfar.com

Categories: Europe Travel, France | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Norwegians & Swedes — What’s the difference? Part II

In April 2011 I wrote a blog about my observations of the difference between Norwegians & Swedes. Turns out this is one of my most popular blog posts based on Google hits, so I thought I’d revisit the topic for my interested audience. I’ve now been working in Norway for two year and lived in Sweden for almost four years, so I’d say that my knowledge base is pretty robust at this point. That being said, these are just observations from a lonely American and should be taken with a grain of salt…🙂

Clothing

Swedes and Norwegians are both fashionable peoples. The global clothing giant H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) is a Swedish company that has done for fashion what IKEA did for home furnishings; modern design, decent quality and good prices that is available to “everyone” (for fun, think about how this business philosophy connects to Swedish social policy). Helly Hansen, the outdoor sport clothing giant is a Norwegian company that is world renowned for its high- quality ski gear (again, very appropriate considering the nation’s infatuation with skiing :)). In both countries, pants are worn too tight for men and are way more expensive than anywhere in the US. 

The Swedes and Norwegian’s differ in what they consider fashionable. In Stockholm, it almost feels like a tight fitting country club where everyone, and I really mean everyone, floats thru the city with the latest fashion trends and overpriced bags (men & women). It’s sophisticated and well put together, but not as pretentious as you would think at first glance. The Norwegians have a slightly different approach. They are also wearing high-priced clothing, but it’s usually a bit “edgier” (think a mix of sportswear and skater) and often it’s more about functionally than the latest style. Norwegians wouldn’t blink an eye at spending $1500 on a winter jacket. Moods of Norway is a great example of this.

Living and working in both places has definitely influenced me to “step up” my game in this area. Gone are the bar t-shirts, sandals and fleece jackets. In are the Polo shirts, Tweed jacket and deck shoes. I look forward to someday getting back to my California “beach wear” but for now it’s fun to be a fashionable European.      

Language (Swedish Chef)

Swedish & Norwegian are different languages but share many words. Norwegians usually have no trouble understanding Swedes but the Swedes can sometimes struggle with Norwegian. This is mainly due to the high level of Swedish TV broadcast in Norway. On a side note, if you ever wondered why both countries are fluent in English, one could argue that this is due to their fantastic education systems or that is because most of their TV broadcasts are in English and not dubbed (like in France, Germany, and Italy). I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and there is a direct correlation between the amount of English on television language and the level of English spoken by the citizens. Anyway, the Swedish and Norwegian languages are very similar, enough so that my knowledge of Swedish can help me get by In Norway.

Now, the more interesting difference (for me) is the way in which the languages are spoken. Norwegians speak with roller coaster like inflections that are very pronounced compared to Swedish. The best way I can describe this is to say that the Swedish Chef sounds more Norwegian than Swedish.

“Yorn desh born, der ritt de gitt der gue, Orn desh, dee born desh, de umn bork! bork! bork!”

Social

Both Norwegians and Swedes are reserved in their approach to new people.  They tend to let you do most of the talking initially which gives them the opportunity to feel you out or to confirm a stereotype  in order to find the appropriate way of “interacting” with you. This might sound a bit strange, but Scandinavians usually have a pretty good read on other cultures, while other cultures generally are a bit “in the dark” about the Scandinavians. To be honest, it’s a bit unfair but that’s another blog post… Anyway, when it comes to this initial categorization, it feels the Norwegians are a bit less judgmental, but also more naïve, regarding people from other countries. For a large portion of Norway’s history, its people have been isolated by geography due to the physical environment (small fjord-based communities insulated even within Norway) and isolated by lack of travel outside Norway due to cost (Norway was a poor country until the discovery of oil, more on this in the next section). In my experience, this lends Norwegians to be friendlier during initial meetings but a bit constricted in the way they ‘frame’ others.

Swedes on the other hand tend to be quite “ traveled” as a society, from both holiday vacations and business trips. I read a business article a while back that said Swedes are some of the most connected people in the world. This is partly due to the economic conditions in Sweden but also its distant history as a world power. This level of contentedness allows Swedes to have a pretty good idea of cultural tendencies (especially, when it comes to Americans and Western Europeans), but it takes them a bit of time to open up to you. Once they understand where you’re coming from, Swedes are open, courteous and fun. 

It’s been said that once you’ve become friends with a Norwegian or Swede it’s a lifelong relationship. They’re going to put you to the test over an extended period of time, but once you’re in – you’re in. This is not the easiest path for new people (like me) and I can tell you from experience that making friends in both places is extremely hard. However, I can say that the friends I do have in Sweden and Norway are very special people and I look forward to having them as a part of my life regardless of where I live.

Old vs New Money

This may be the most “sensitive” topic in this blog. Sweden and Norway are both healthy countries economically. I’ve lived in Stockholm and worked in Stavanger (one a capital city, one an “oil town”) for a majority of the recent recession and I can tell you that in my experience, neither place was greatly affected. This is mostly due to fiscal policy, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here.

Sweden has been relatively well off for hundreds of years. Enormous timber and Iron ore reserves have fueled steady growth for the Swedish society, which has given the country an aristocratic feel. Swedes are proud of their fantastic public infrastructure, uniform healthcare system and generous social benefits. This has been the product of many years of social policy engineering and things like four weeks mandatory vacation are considered rights by the Swedish people. This long term accumulation of wealth and benefits has bread a society of mature and sophisticated people. Swedes tend to have a mild sense of entitlement when it comes to quality of life, but absent is their need for huge amounts of material wealth.

Norwegians by contrast have been quite poor for a majority of the country’s history. Norway is an extremely beautiful country to visit, but not the best place if you have to conduct modern business. For instance, the flight from Stavanger to Oslo takes about 45 minutes but to drive would take about 7 hours. Norway’s fjords and lack of above ground natural resources has kept the country’s majority working class centered around small towns, separated economically from the material wealth of other countries. This started to change dramatically with the discovery of oil on the Norwegian continental shelf (I’ve actually been on Norway’s first offshore oil rig). Today Norway is an economic powerhouse with wealth unimaginable to its citizens just 60 years ago. Before going on, it’s important to note that Norway is THE model country in the world in managing oil wealth. A massive influx of funds from oil often cripples countries, which are commonly referred to as the “curse of oil.” Norway has placed a majority of its oil money into a reserve for future generations, as of today that’s about $150,000 per citizen.

Norwegian salaries are quite high and despite extreme taxes, Norwegians are pretty wealthy people. I tend to think or Norwegians as “new money” because they often behave like people who, well, have recently come into money. This is the best general way I can describe it: do you remember the character Molly Brown in the movie Titanic? She was the wealthy lady that came from a working class background, strong and resourceful but a bit unpolished. Without going into further detail, I think you can get a picture of what I’m talking about…

In both cases, I would say that Norwegians & Swedes are some of the most sensible, responsible and caring people I have ever come in contact with. They both have strong moral compasses that are reflected in their public policy and how they conduct themselves on the world stage. They are small countries in terms of population, but make for great role models in building societies that protect individual freedom while taking care of the common good. In my opinion these countries deserve more of the limelight.

Categories: Norway, Sweden, Swedish Living | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Budapest: Loin Cloths and Spare Bedrooms

Spring and autumn are some of the best times to travel in Europe. Tourist crowds are gone leaving the great European cities vibrant and full of locals. This is very true for Stockholm, a city that basically shuts down in the summer time when most Stockholmers are traveling to place they’re sure will have sun or relaxing in their summer home out in the Swedish countryside. If you want to feel the real “vibe” of a city in Europe, come on the shoulder seasons.

Budapest from Castle Hill

Buda Castle

So with a weekend open in the beginning of October, I decided to take a solo trip to the capital of Hungary, Budapest. This city has been on my radar for many years as one of the must see destinations in Europe. Hungary has a long and impressive history with a significant “dark period” under Soviet control. In 1989 when the USSR disbanded, Budapest was a city that rivaled Vienna in beauty but had been put through the communist ringer for over 40 years. As an American and long-term resident of Europe, countries caught in the middle of post WWII have always interested me.

Budapest has come a long way since 1989 and has managed to revive its charm while living with some “left overs” of the communist era. Over a three day period I wore myself out with my Budapest travel guide trying to soak up all the city had to offer. I visited most of the major sights: Basilica of St Stephen, Castle Hill, Parliament Building, Grand Market Hall and I even saw Ronald Reagan. I also had two very unique experiences in the Rudas thermal baths and trying AirBnB as my option for accommodations.

Liberty Bridge

Yummy Sausage

Budapest is well known for its thermal baths located throughout the city. Some are elegantly decorated; some are like amusement parks for families. The Ruda Baths are recognized for their history with a concrete dome dating from the 16th century when Budapest was under Turkish occupation. I like to think of myself as a pretty open guy who is willing to try new things. With that mind-set, you can often find yourself in very peculiar situations and especially so when travelling abroad. So, I decided to try the Ruda baths as it supposedly offers the most “traditional” bath experience in the city (I’m usually a sucker for traditional). Upon entering the baths, each man (women are not allowed) is given a “loin cloth,” a wrist band a locker number. Two of those items are pretty self-explanatory. And the third, well that’s where things got interesting…. Men in the baths are asked not to go naked but everyone is required to wear a piece of cloth that makes you feel like a Roman in the times of César. The loin cloth is basically a napkin with a string that goes around your waste – Business in the front, “party” in the rear. So, I changed into my outfit and entered the main bath complex which is a huge room under a gigantic dome. About 100 men were soaking in various temperature baths around the room and the protocol is to start with cooler baths and work your way up. So, as the rule following guy I am, I started on the left side of the room and worked counter clockwise entering the five different baths with the last one being 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit).

Rudas Bath

Now after you’ve done this for about thirty minutes your body feels like a boiled egg waiting for that plunge of cold water relief. To help you with that, big wooden buckets are perched around the room. You walk up, pull the string and get drenched by five gallons of ice cold water that makes you want to scream like a girl, but you can’t because your surround by a bunch of guys wearing loin cloths. Ah yes, back to the loin cloths. It’s pretty odd being in a room with a bunch of guys whose bare backsides are in plain view where ever you look. Even more strange for me was the Russian, Hungarian, German languages being spoken around me with no English speakers with in ear shot. This was a locals place and I guess one would question whether this would be the best place to strike up a conversation trying to make friends anyway… I chose the “quite option” and enjoyed my one hour soaking time and departed Rudas bath with a just one of many memorable experiences from Budapest.

Another first for me on this trip to Budapest was using the AirBnB online service that connects travels to people who rent out rooms in their homes to make a little extra money. This offers a unique and inexpensive way to truly live like a local which I try to make a hallmark of all my travels. The other great part is the money goes too directly to people of the city, not international hotel chains. My AirBnB experience was “interesting” in that I stayed with an Italian family that lives in Budapest part of the year and Rome the other. I used my room as you would any hotel, spending most of my time out sightseeing and staying in the room to sleep and get cleaned up. I would highly recommend this for those adventurous travels who really want to get the “feel of the place.”

Street Performer

In the end Budapest was all that I hoped it would be – Interesting history, fantastic food and unforgettable cultural experiences. In our modern world, cities and people are becoming more and more homogeneous. Budapest has all the makings of a city continuing down the path of ultra-tourism similar to Prague. KFC’s, Full English Breakfast, knock-off Louis Vuitton, and Zara’s on every other street corner. I think I even saw a Starbucks which amazes me because their coffee sucks compared to everyone other option in Europe but I digress… Budapest is a great city and I hope to return to experience it’s old world elegance mixed with moden charm.

For more images of my trip to Budapest, please visit www.ErikFunfar.com

Categories: Europe Travel, Hungary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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