Step one:  Marry someone who will go to Sweden as a visiting researcher and therefore be entitled to a work permit.  This is not actually why I married Amanda but is just one of the many perks gained through marriage to her, among which include dealing with her constantly cold feet, especially important now in the minus 30C weather.

Unlike France where bureaucracy can slow things down for months or even years, I was able to obtain my work permit and residence card in about 20 minutes.  We also were eligible for a personnummer (basically a Swedish Social Security number) that not only allows access to their socialized healthcare, but also is necessary to do almost anything, such as buying car insurance, mailing a package internationally, owning a car, or renting an apartment.  In Sweden they make no effort to conceal the fact that people are in fact numbers. Just as we also joke about the US healthcare system, Swedes often say that even if you arrive at the hospital, dying of blood loss and making sounds akin to an espresso machine milk steamer, the hospital personnel will first calmly ask you for your personummer.  Though belittling, one seems to receive all kinds of benefits from being a number.

Step two:  Move to a really small town. The town of Jokkmokk has a population of about 3000, but the district of Jokkmokk has a population of 5000 and it is about the size of New Jersey. Start asking around for work in your field, in my case cooking, farming, construction, teaching, outdoor leadership, delivery driver, and anything else I can get away with.

Main street Jokkmokk around 3pm

Main street Jokkmokk around 3pm

Step the third:  Take free Swedish classes (if you have a personnummer) at SFI (Svenska för Invandrare or Swedish for Immigrants) to improve language skills and meet people from Bulgaria, Iran, Spain, England, and Somalia.  I love learning new languages and meeting people from other countries.  One person of note is middle-aged veterinarian who is either from Bulgaria or Serbia depending upon the day and the whimsical political impulses of the two neighboring countries.  His name is Vladin and he has a great sense of humor, helped by the fact that he is continually mixing up “she” and “he” in Swedish and that he is very adept at forming rhymes in a language that he has not yet mastered.

Step four:  Go to the Arbetsförmedlingen (unemployment office) where they will help you look for work and even pay you to do internships.  I almost took an internship with a local restaurant that serves wild foods (reindeer and arctic char for example) and I would have been paid by the Swedish government, not the restaurant.  There is also an option to get hired part time by an employer who will pay 20% of your salary and the Swedish government will pay 80% as long as you are enrolled in a Swedish language class specific to your job (as long as you can present your personnummer).

Step five:  On Saturday, invite the guy who sold you used touring skis over to your house for “fika” (both a noun and a verb meaning “improved coffee break”) along with his wife and two kids.  Network.

Step 6:  Answer a call at 9pm on Sunday evening from someone whose first name is “Olof Thomas” who says he has a business selling reindeer meat and needs help cutting up reindeer and making reindeer charcuterie.  Can I come for a try-out the next day, leaving at 6am to ride 40km north to an even smaller town where the business is located?

Step 7:  Yes.

So now I have a job for a few months at least while the reindeer harvest is in full swing.  My first day I got to eat reindeer for lunch (it is incredibly delicious, dark red, lean, tender, full of taste but not gamey) and the people I work with are wonderful.  My Swedish may not improve as quickly as I thought though. Their English ranges from very good to flawless, but also they speak Sami (North Sami) between themselves.  I have tried to pick up some words, but the language is extremely complicated (Sami is part of the Finnish-Ugric branch of languages) and I can’t even get an answer for something as simple as “goodbye,” which has many variations, accounting for expected duration, who is leaving, how many they are, etc.   In the first three days I made cured, smoked, and dried sausages, Suovas (smoked reindeer meat meant to be cooked), Torkat Renkött (dried and smoked reindeer meat), Renskav (basically philly cheesesteak meat that cooks very quickly and is very tender “Sami fast-food,”) as well as many other things.

Smoking boneless reindeer shoulders

Smoking boneless reindeer shoulders

I work with two guys in their early to mid thirties (Olof Thomas and Nila), and their cousin (Sofia) who is in her mid twenties.  Uncles and fathers and other cousins are constantly stopping by and lending a hand, tending to the smokehouse, or sharing a cup of coffee.  You can check out the company at  Olof Thomas and Nila buy choice reindeer from other herders (often their relatives and friends) but each of them also has their own herd of reindeer, which they must tend to in addition to running their business.

Sofia making a birch fire to smoke reindeer meat

Sofia making a birch fire to smoke reindeer meat

So now I have a job where I get to continue my education with meat cutting, curing, and smoking, but also I get to experience Sami culture and food traditions (I am beginning to sounds like an anthropologist).  While we drink super strong black coffee and nibble on sweet saffron bread with raisins and pearl sugar we discuss topics such as winter grazing grounds, blood pancakes, the taste of moose, how to cook reindeer feet, and tanning reindeer hides.  Utsi Ren’s market it for mostly Swedish customers, as most Sami have other, less expensive, ways of acquiring reindeer meat, so Olof Thomas and Nila are interested in any suggestions and feedback I might have to improve their products.   I am very excited to be a part of what they are doing, and in addition to our freezer filling up with reindeer meat, I am collecting lots of stories as well!

A few thousand reindeer in a corral in the foothills

A few thousand reindeer in a corral in the foothills

A business based on reindeer can be a bit tricky because the reindeer are not always where you expect or want them to be, which can make it difficult to fill orders.  This year they are behind on processing reindeer so it looks we will be processing a load of 75 reindeer right before Christmas.  I can’t help but wonder if these were the reindeer that didn’t get a callback for pulling the sleigh!

We have been in Sweden for more than two months now.  The first month was spent in Stockholm taking intensive language classes at the Folkuniversitet.  Amanda took an advanced class as her Swedish skills are quite good, owing to the fact that her mother is Swedish, her dad speaks Swedish, and she spent summers in Sweden as a child.  I opted to take a second level beginner class, as I feel when learning languages it is better to be overwhelmed (which I was) than to understand everything (which I certainly didn’t).  The classes went well for both of us and I was able to meet some interesting people, including a Canadian diplomat, a Swiss woman who is from the same town where my grandmother was born, a woman from South Africa with an Italian passport, and a French journalist who writes for a ski magazine.

The author studying Swedish in Stockholm in October

The author studying Swedish in Stockholm in October

We were able to buy a 1987 Volvo 240 sedan (pros: built like a brick, cons: looks like brick) from one of Amanda’s classmates and we loaded it down with all the bags and skis that we had brought from Oregon, as well some gifts from Amanda’s mormor to help outfit our new living quarters above the arctic circle.  We also equipped the car with some very lightly used studded snow tires that are very grippy and bristle with studs, a must for northern Sweden. It is in fact a rule that cars must have snow tires after November 1 in Sweden.  The car has a manual choke which you have to pull out while starting the car, and then slowly push back in as the car warms up. It may seem like a simple task but it seems to cause Amanda the same amount of anguish as one would expect from performing a tracheotomy for the first time (she is not going to be that kind of doctor).

Our "new" car, its almost as old as us!

Our “new” car, it’s almost as old as us!

We tied our skis to the roof racks, and eased our 113 horsepower cream colored chariot onto the highway and off towards Östersund, a town located right in the middle of Sweden on the north-south axis, and also where Amanda’s aunt and uncle live.  Stockholm to Östersund is about 600km, or roughly 380 miles and we drove mostly on two lane highways.  While there is still some daylight to be seen, it is becoming rarer and rarer, so after a stop in Uppsala (a beautiful old university town just north of Stockholm) for a meeting with a prominent anthropologist who works with the Sami people, we drove on to Östersund in the dark and rain.

Swedes have made many adjustments to deal with their particular climate such as saunas, aquavit, engine block warmers, studded snow tires, orienting streets, buildings, and towns for maximum sun exposure, and of course, rally lights.  Rally lights are an extra set of headlights that are often mounted on the front of the car and provide extra lumens when the high beams are turned on.  Extra lumens doesn’t really capture the feeling of looking into these lights on a dark night before they have been dimmed.  The light is strong enough to make it feel like it is boring into your head, and the logging trucks often have six or so of these high powered lights mounted high on the cab, a truly blinding sight.  Amanda, known for her sometimes confusing analogies, likened them to the gaze of a snake.  I am not sure how those two are related, but I think she was speaking more about the terror than the light?  Fortunately Swedes are usually quite conscientious and respectful and they dim their rally lights as soon as they see approaching headlights.  Anyway our car does not have rally lights, but we quickly wished we had a set to light up the dark northern forests.

We arrived in Östersund around 9:30 pm, which meant we drove in the dark for five and half hours.  We even passed through a small snow squall just before arriving, the first snow of the year for us (November 1st).  It was noticeably colder in Östersund than in Södertälje and the next morning we would awaken to icy roads and large snowflakes filling the sky and covering the ground.  We were given a warm welcome by Amanda’s aunt Linda and her husband Leif and their two dogs Saga (a border collie, English setter mix that loves to jump in your face; her and Amanda did a tooth cheers on accident) and Ants (pronounced Auntz, a huge bristly hunting hound of some sort that sits regally on the couch, chest thrown forward, as if waiting to be knighted).  Linda and Leif are a singing duet, trained in the national anthems of countless countries, often breaking spontaneously into some unheard of song.  Linda is tall and blond, quick witted and speaks English extremely well, enunciating each word and often ending sentences with a rising, questioning tone, and accompanying raised eyebrows.  Leif is kind and pensive and often uses his hands in “comme ci-comme ça” gestures to emphasize his points or to supplement his low growls of disagreement.

Linda, Leif, and Ants the dog in Östersund

Linda, Leif, and Ants the dog in Östersund

We had a wonderful time in Östersund, taking cold walks on the many miles of trails that include impressive public art sculptures, cooking spicy Thai green curry, going fishing with Leif and his son Frej, and visiting an interesting museum that included a Sami art display as well a sort of a natural history section on Sweden.  Linda and Leif cooked us “plätta” small Swedish pancakes cooked in a special cast iron pan with round indentations for the plätta.  We ate them with whipped cream and blueberry-raspberry jam.  I think I ate about 40 or so of the little cakes.  Leif’s son Frej is a professional freestyle skier who finished first in Sweden’s freestyle competition, pulling off a never before seen trick that is both unpronounceable and incomprehensible, just think lots of spinning, flipping and a graceful backwards landing after being 30 feet in the air (you can check him out at:  Frej, at 20 years old, is quiet and thoughtful and has decided to possibly forgo competitions because of the stress and expectations, and rather to focus on being in ski videos.  Amanda and I are both hoping that he will come visit us and join us for some backcountry ski tours in Lapland.

Leif and Frej fishing, we ate fish from the grocery that night...

Leif and Frej fishing, we ate fish from the grocery that night…

“There are rules in Sweden!”

This is a phrase we have begun to say quite often.  I believe it was coined in 2009 by Amanda’s stepfather, the Swedish Björn Söderberg, a notable figure in chemistry, wine drinking, good humor, and a savage but gracious ping-pong player.  Sweden, perhaps owing to long periods of cold and darkness, devised many rules to guide their social lives and generally make things more complicated to pass the time.  Some rules are as simple as couples may not sit next to each other at the dinner table, or one may not drink before the host has raised his or her glass first.  Some are much more complicated and require a deep working knowledge of mathematics, phrenology, astrology, and divining to comprehend and execute.  No matter what your level of cultural perceptiveness and sensitivity is, you will most likely be judged by someone as being obnoxiously inconsiderate and uninitiated in the myriad rules of Sweden.  It is important to note that many Swedes feel many of these rules are truly idiotic and a waste of time.  However, even those who rebel against them still occasionally find themselves unconsciously implementing them, while others relish the opportunity to draw from the depths of some convoluted past an obscure rule that others ignored or forgot.  Amanda’s grandmother slips into this category, and perhaps not without a smile.

SwedenFall2013 002

The rules-guru Märit and Amanda stroll alongside the channel in Södertälje.

Märit is a well educated, kind, and patient woman who worked as a pharmacist and ran the local chapter of the Red Cross.  She has crush on Colin Firth, likes whiskey, dislikes all birds, and has a full working knowledge of Swedish rules.  Märit is nearly 85 years old, she knows rules that virtually no one knows or follows.  Her world is one where old is constantly battling new, and she holds firmly to the old way of doing things, at least when it comes to rules.  I have learned many obscure rules from her, such as one may not begin a letter with “I” even though most of the letters in my Swedish textbook do so (“hmmrmmph, that is NOT correct”).

Also I learned that one must never put their keys on the table, and when I moved my keys to the counter I miraculously imbued it with the same table taboo.  Recently I made the mistake of not immediately taking my hat off after coming home to Märit’s apartment.  The hat I like to wear is a wool English style cap. It’s very popular right now and very effective at concealing the lack of vigorous hair growth on my head.  In the US I wear this hat all the time, and this seems to be a totally acceptable thing.  This is not the case with Märit.  A few short minutes after I had entered the apartment and she had decided that I had purposely not removed my hat the first questions came.

Aaron in lifevest

The author and his hat. It’s called a PFD, not a life-jacket.



“Are you cold?”

“No” I replied

“Then why are you wearing a hat?” she asked, the lines between her eyebrows wrinkling in displeasure.

“Oh because I like this hat and I usually wear it all the time” I said.

“In Sweden you must NEVER wear a hat inside” she triumphantly responded.

“Ah ha, but even a nice cap like this?”

“You may NOT wear a hat inside, it is a RULE” said Märit, her shoulders rising.

“But I see many people wearing hats inside, even my Swedish teacher”

“hnnmgghh, these young people…”

“My teacher is not that young, he is probably 40” I said

“Well it is not right!” she said with a quick jerk of her chin sideways.

Not willing to give in to old rules I replied:

“Well I like to wear a cap like this because I am losing my hair, and the cap makes me look much better.”

“You may not wear a hat; you should get one of these things (motioning around her head with her hands)”

“A wig?” I said.

“Yes that’s right, a wig, why don’t you get a wig?” she asked matter-of- factly.

“You want Aaron to wear a wig?” laughed Amanda.

“A wig?  I don’t want to wear a wig!” I said also laughing at the ridiculousness of this plan.

“Should I get a long white wig like judges and politicians used to wear?” I jabbed.

“No!  You must get a real wig.  A wig is good and you can wear a wig inside.  I used to have a wig, it had curly brown hair and was very warm,”  said Märit authoritatively.

“I prefer to wear my cap.”

“Well it is not right to wear a cap.”  She insisted.

I wore my cap for another hour or so and then took it off.  With as seasoned a rules-warrior as Märit, one cannot hope to change her mind or convince her otherwise.  Perhaps I should start looking for a nice warm wig.