Cultural Immersion 101

Declaring out loud that you don’t like ABBA is perhaps the closest thing to blasphemy around here (maybe only second to shouting ‘Kanelbulle tastes dull’). Being the well-mannered folks they are, Swedes would typically refrain from saying how much of an idiot you are for not falling head over heels for their world-renowned band, yet there’ll be tell-tale signs; nostrils flaring, slight frowning, eyes narrowing in ire and disbelief, and an overwhelming “I’m disappointed in you” demeanor. Unlike my fateful “Kanelbulle isn’t even that great” declaration- the silver lining was that a Swedish friend of mine was so adamant that I have to “see the light” she bought me free Kanelbulle everyday for a week – persistence didn’t pay off in making me love ABBA’s music.

Growing up, I idolized Sweden. I didn’t know much about its culture, heritage or traditions, though. What I did know was that Sweden is the birthplace of two of my most favorite things: the Nobel Prize, which – as I explained in an earlier blog post – was the most venerated accolade in my family, and Thor.

I must’ve been around 8-9 years old when I first laid eyes on a Thor comic book. The Arabic version – unimaginatively entitled “The sufficiently strong Thor”!!!- had a slightly different back story for the Norse superhero: fearing they might strike a sensitive chord in the conservative Arab world by mentioning that Thor is the pagan god of thunder, the editors of the Arabic edition simply said he’s just a regular Stockholm-born Swedish guy who likes to obliterate bad guys with his carefully-engineered hammer when he feels like it. That was my earliest recollection of Swedes: blond, gigantic and superhero-y with bulging biceps and magical hammers for toys.

Sweden continued to make sporadic appearances on some of my favorite TV shows and movies: from Phoebe’s hilarious impersonation of a Swedish masseuse in “Friends”, to the hilariously-stereotypical portrayal of the Swedish architecture firm “Sven” in “How I Met Your Mother”. Edward Norton’s love-hate relationship with IKEA in “Fight Club”, To Gus Fring’s character-defining Volvo V70 station wagon in “Breaking Bad”, an emblem of his disdain for excessive opulence. And, of course, let’s not forget the infamous Swedish chef from The Muppets (most Swedes hate him, by the way)

So I’ve been here for five months now. I try as much as I can to immerse myself in the mainstream Swedish culture, but language remains an insurmountable barrier. However, every now and then I stumble upon something so awesome that I just can’t overlook. Here are my current top-two favorites:


I contacted my family a day after I arrived safely at Stockholm, and it was rather emotional. They took turns talking on the phone, wishing me luck and asking me to take good care of myself. When it was my teenage brother’s turn, there was no mawkish sentimentality. He went “hey, dude, I need a favor. I’ll text you a name, a Swedish name, and I want you to go outside, like NOW, and ask the first Swedish person you meet how to pronounce it correctly. I’ve been debating with Ali and Muid (his nerd friends) all night over this, and it’s driving us crazy! OK? DON’T FORGET. All right, here’s mom, talk to her”.

He texted me the name seconds later. I stared at the screen, “PewDiePie”…What the hell is that? Knowing his passion for practical jokes, I thought it might be a Swedish curse word. “No way I’ll ruin my first day here by accidentally calling somebody’s mom a name”, I thought. And yet, being the curious fellow I am, I googled “PewDiePie”, and oh my! Not only that he was a real person, he was – I thought – the epitome of how easy it is for one to make money off the internet these days. The guy – a foul-mouthed 25-years-old Swede from Gothenburg who matriculated at Chalmers Institute of Technology before dropping out – posts videos of himself playing videogames (while incessantly cursing at everything that moves) to his YouTube channel. And not just ‘a’ YouTube channel, THE MOST SUBSCRIBED channel on YouTube. The grumpy old man inside me murmured something along the lines of “back in my day, people had to be talented to be famous”, while the pragmatic, business-driven, wall-street type Ayman marveled at PewDiePie’s innovative business model.

Two months were enough to turn me from a hater to a fan. I’m not a gamer, but now not a day goes by that I don’t check out PewDiePie’s channel. Nothing takes the edge off after a grueling studying session than watching someone calling a video-game character a &^*$%.
Try it, it’s fun 

The Bridge
Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson once described the interior of a German car as “bleak as a Swedish police drama”. Old Jezza got it right. Swedish cop drama series are so melancholic they make their American counterparts seem as uplifting as Sesame Street. No brash, mega-sized, American style extravagant production with costs in the nine figures. No massive explosions or cool CSI-like lab scenes, and none of that naïve “good always wins” nonsense. Swedish police drama focus inwards, shedding light on the monster hiding inside all of us. The recipe for a successful Swedish police drama seems to include grim weather, broken families, psychopathic tendencies, long pauses and an inexplicable darkness that engulfs you and leaves you in a somber mood. And IT IS AWESOME. Nothing makes you feel more appreciative to be alive (and mentally stable) than looking long into that bottomless abyss and knowing that you don’t belong there.

If you’re on the look for a good drama series, and if you’re both intrigued and a bit intimidated by the multi-layers of the human soul, then I strongly encourage you to give it a shot.

My current favorite is “The Bridge”, a Swedish-Danish thriller that takes place in the Oresund Bridge (which connects Sweden and Denmark). I’m half-way through season 1 right now. I won’t say anything about the storyline, fearing that I might enrage the spoiler-phobes around here  just take my word for it, it’s extremely engrossing. Check out the trailer:

(Source of the cover picture:


Written by Ayman

21 Jan 2015