Saturday, January 20, 2007

If I was a Soldier, but then Again….

A friend of mine mentioned that a colleague’s wife was from Sweden. Turns out she was much more civilized/normal – she came from Finland where the terrain is similar, but they know how to have fun! At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Swedes, let’s not mince words here – they are the most boring, arrogant and rude people in the world. This reminded me of today’s lesson.

Back in the 1980s, in the midst of a very unpleasant divorce, I was thankfully transferred by my company to their office in Stockholm, Sweden. I readily agreed to this to get away from my eventual ex. The Swedes are a strange lot. Very democratic. After their King died many moons back, they held an election to choose a new one. They chose a Frenchman who had been on Napoleon’s death list.

Back to the plot. You cannot do anything without having a ‘personnummer’ – a personal number. It’s like the Social Security number here in the US. I was not even allowed to open a bank account until this had arrived. This involved many hours of standing in line waiting to speak to someone in the relevant department. It appears that some 56% of Swedes work for the Government. Inevitably, there are lots of Departments. In my day, after greeting them in my best English, I was usually greeted with, “Jag kan inte tala Engelska.” It’s like being in Miami and being greeted at the hotel Reception Desk with, “No hablo inglés.” I’m sure you get the drift.

It took over a week to sort this situation out. I was interviewed, asked why was it necessary to bring a foreigner in etc but was finally granted my Personnummer. Yipee!

A couple of weeks later, I received a letter which had ‘officialdom’ written all over it. I opened it with trepidation, only to discover that it was in Swedish. I took it to my boss, who read it, and started laughing loudly – a rare sight in Sweden when a Swede laughs. It seems that I had never done my 12 months statutory military service in Sweden – a requirement for all able-bodied men from the age of 18 onwards. Thus, the letter advised me to report to the military office in Stockholm to receive my instructions where I was to perform my duty for the country. The boss made many attempts to explain to the authorities that I should not be required to perform this 12 month duty, but after a few days of arguing, I was on a 16 hour train journey, on my way to a military training camp in Jokkmokk, which is a few miles north of the Arctic Circle. In December. There are no daylight hours in Jokkmokk in December or January. But there’s cold and snow.

I was kitted out in my uniform, and pushed out with many spotty youths onto the campground in minus weather at 6 a.m. (When it’s that cold, the temperature gets to minus whether you choose F or C.) I was screamed at by an officer in a language that I did not understand. I explained in a very calm voice to this officer, “I have no idea what the heck you are talking about, and please can I go back to my warm bunk.” Sign language became the norm for me, although a guy who befriended me (had pity on me) called Kjell (pronounced shell as one finds on the beach) was eventually allowed to translate for my benefit. Kjell and his family had emigrated to Tennessee when he was two years old, but returned when he was 14. His English accent was wonderful! It seems the officer expected me to climb a 15 foot rope ladder over a large fence, and drop down the other side. A word that I quickly learnt in Swedish was ‘nej’ (the ‘j’ is silent). No. I was arrested for insubordination, and put into military jail. At least it was warm there. I was interviewed by the camp commander who thankfully spoke English. He said that it seemed obvious that there had been a mistake – probably a computer error. Immigrants did not have to do the 12 months military service, but his hands were tied. I was allocated to cleaning the toilets. After a few hours of this task, the word nej came back. I was then allocated to kitchen duties. Peeling potatoes was a relief after my toilet duties. But after another day of this activity, I said nej again. I spent several days in solitary, but as I couldn’t speak to anyone except Kjell, this was not a problem. The camp commander called me after about a week, and informed me that I was being given the equivalent of an honorable discharge as there had indeed been a computer error. Train ticket. 16 hours, back to Stockholm.

When I hit 65 which will happen (way too) soon, I will receive a pension from Sweden. It’ll amount to the princely sum of about 29 cents a week. I will receive it with glee, despite the fact that it’ll cost them much more than that to send it to me.

I lived in Sweden for three years. Apart from the countryside, they have very little going for them in my book. Perhaps I’m biased. My legacy is that I can speak the language. If you can speak and read Swedish, you can read Danish and Norwegian. The folks from there are in a different (good) league!

Here endeth today’s lesson.