Sweden – Welcome back to “Absurdistan!”


Who would have thought that visiting Sweden again after 25 years abroad would be an experience tantamount to a digitally impaired man in an Apple store?

I left my beloved country to the north in 1990, not even turned 20. Had just finished an equivalent to a college education and I was ready to take on the world.

Having a rebellious father, it wasn’t surprising I would not only follow in his footsteps, but, I took it to a whole new level. Self-appointed editor of our school magazine in an intrepid partnership with the school’s most talented caricature artist set the stage for some rather gut-busting editorials.

Not to mention when I pumped hardcore electronica into the school PA system for a solid 45 minutes by hardwiring a cassette alarm clock in the attic. That had a particularly gratifying impact on the school’s dominant heavy metal crowd.

Or turned the overcoat of the city’s proud fountain statue of Karl the XI into a radiant, pink kimono, using chromium oxide in a concealed electrolytic process. Dauntless king turned geisha!

Still remember the appalled look on that arrogant American exchange student’s face as he cockily stepped into his brand new Porsche and tried to back out in front of the hottest chicks in school. Too bad I had cemented the bottom of his tires into the paved parking lot by removing the pavers underneath two of his wheels…

But I’m getting ahead of myself here – my reminiscing will be saved for another time and place.

I was heavily involved in the field of arts. At 9 I took a stab at that horrific instrument that sounds like a strangled cat, unless you of course know how to pet it properly – the violin. At 11, after 2 months of 3:30 am awakenings to pick cucumbers in a local farmer’s field, I had enough cash to buy my first synthesizer. That was the impetus that launched me into the world of music and audio.

At the age of 20 an opportunity to go abroad came up and I said “good bye” to my home country and headed for adventures in the City of Angels. Once in the US, for one reason or another, I simply lost touch with Sweden and that included the language itself. I spent some 20 years in the US, got sick and tired of it and went to Hong Kong where I have been for 5 years.

In 2012, after 22 years abroad, it was time to go back home and enjoy a quality vacation with my Chinese wife.

Man was I in for a serious chiropractic reality adjustment…

I started to get a sense of how much my perceptions of my home country had changed when I circled over the main Stockholm airport and mused how puny that airport really is. From my vantage point I got the distinct impression we were about to land in an outhouse!

Still being a big fan of Swedish food, and, having withstood the not-so-exquisite cuisine aboard Air China for 15 hours, after immigration and customs we headed for the most Swedish looking restaurant available. Found one and got a table. Time to order: oh, that means I probably should speak Swedish… Riiight…

With my wife amusingly observing, in my absolutely finest “Swenglish” I managed to order a meal, but that blond, blue-eyed waitress just couldn’t wait to say that last punch-line:


How embarrassing… she literally thought I was an American tourist with an exceptional skill in culinary Swedish.

To elaborate on my analogy of a digitally impaired man in an Apple store we exited the restaurant and went searching for a payphone to call my Swedish friend who was supposed to pick me up. My Hong Kong SIM card was not able to make calls in Sweden. 25 years ago there were payphones everywhere. Today: not a single one in sight. Fair enough, “I just buy a Swedish SIM card” I thought in my naïve simplitude.

Once loaded and my mobile rebooted I get a message saying I now need to top up my phone balance and please input credit card information. So far so good, I thought. I typed in my number and with an annoying PLING sound a notification popped up: “The number you have typed is an invalid credit card. Please contact a customer service representative!”

I went back to the store to query that my credit card was indeed valid; it was a Hang Seng Platinum card for Christ’s sake! She took one good look but when her face turned from a sweet cashier lady to a 7-year old trying to solve a trigonometry equation I realized Houston had more than one problem.

The cashier lady called in her boss. After one look he called in the store manager. With a glance at the credit card the store manager proceeded to gaze at me like he’d seen a Martian.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. In a perfectly synchronized Gregorian chant they proclaimed my card didn’t have the necessary chip.

With great confidence I proclaimed that in Hong Kong I just need to put my signature on the receipt and all will be hunky dory. They were not impressed…

Couldn’t call. Couldn’t use my credit card. Alright, time to get inventive – I’ll just ask someone to borrow their mobile so I could call my friend. Big mistake! Apparently you don’t just approach strangers in Sweden anymore. As I tried to hunt down willing mobile phone-users, people avoided my eyes and kept walking as if I didn’t exist. The first one that responded to my plea was a Somalian immigrant calmly sipping an afternoon cappuccino in a lounge chair.

I thanked the man profusely and proceeded to dial my friend’s number. Apparently, I found out later, if your phone number is public and your number is registered with certain Swedish social media, the phone number goes along with a profile picture. So here comes this phone call from a blacker than black man whom they don’t know.

Needless to say, after 3 callbacks and no answer I started feeling like I was a pigment in a Salvador Dali painting…

Fast forward in time and many white strangers later, I did manage to make my phone call. My friend had a medical emergency with her kid so couldn’t pick us up, but she gave me detailed instructions how to take a speed train and then a bus. So I headed for the train station.

Last time I took a Swedish train there was only one state-run railway system. Apparently the railway is now privately owned, but, there are 3 competitors using the same rail line, with the same looking train cars.

My wife and I, of course, are not thinking which one of the 3 train companies we would like to travel with. We were just looking for “train tickets” in general.  Naturally we pick the first booth which sells train tickets. We purchase our tickets and head down to the station to get on the train which is about to depart.

There’s a gate in front of the train where you deposit your ticket. I hurriedly stick mine in and out it comes just as fast. What the hell? I repeat it 3 times. Working at MTR at the time, my wife figures this is just another typical “Ulf-thing” and steps in to bypass. Well, she had no luck either. An officer sees us being very annoyed and comes to assist. He looks at my ticket and clarifies that this ticket is for the “C” company. The departing train is managed by the “A” company and the next train is managed by the “B” company. The “C” company train had departed 5 minutes earlier and I would have to wait for another 45 minutes.

Murphy’s Law won again and my patience and adrenalin levels were reaching nuclear meltdown. We got on the train.

“Well,” I thought, now at the bus station, “We’re getting closer – just a bus ride away from our destination!” Bus arrives. We step inside the bus and I dutifully pull out my wallet to pay.

The bus driver smiles and politely tells me coins stopped being used 15 years ago… The other passengers were looking at me like I was an exotic zoo animal.

No problemo! Here’s some bills – keep the change! ”No” said the bus driver. You can only pay by “tanka mobilen”, which literally can be translated as “fueling” your mobile. Imagine the concept that swept through my mind of a gasoline nozzle trying to fit inside the USB charging slot… “Fueling my mobile?” I questioned, now quite embarrassingly as the passengers started to consider me a major obstruction to their already tight time schedule.

The bus driver explained that you have to open an account online with the company managing the busses and top up money on that account and then the mobile phone can be used to pay the bus fare.

Knowing the next bus wouldn’t depart for another 30 minutes I disgustingly got off the bus, mumbled something to my wife that us Neanderthals don’t know how to take a bus and headed for a local convenience store. I felt at least a tiny glimmer of hope as I did have some cash.

Once in the convenience store a rather irritated young fella with long hair covering up his otherwise bloodshed eyes tried to instill in my apparently mental midget pea-brain, that, how in bloody hell will cash work to register the mandatory credit card number for the mobile bus fare system?

–  “You mean I have to have a credit card to create a bus fare account?” I gasped.

I didn’t need Google translate to interpret the look the young convenience store clerk gave me as an answer.

Downtrodden I stepped out of the store. What to do? It became clear as Mars at perihelion that my chance of getting on a bus was nil.

A taxi appeared to be the only option left. Due to the distance to my friend’s place the hard-earned cash I had exchanged to introduce my wife to Swedish scrumptious delights were soon to line the inner leather coverings of a happy taxi man’s wallet.

Too many hours later I arrived at my friend’s place who had just returned with her kid from the hospital. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry when she innocently greeted us and asked:

–  “Hey, how was your trip? Wasn’t hard to get to our place was it?”


  1. Maybe this is why Stockholm asked Hong Kong’s MTR Corp to run their subway? MTR will also run the new cross London subway.

  2. arturo · · Reply

    Wow! It must have been a great shock to return to your home country and find that everything’s changed. Hopefully after some days you were able to adjust and not feel like a foreigner in your own country.

  3. Ulf, you left out the funniest part: those 20 years in LA! Enjoyable reminiscence. I can relate and my Swedish is horrible.

    1. That’s for another time and place Dan 🙂

  4. Xanthippe · · Reply

    Too funny! And spot on. Everything is automated but the systems are only set up for people who live in Sweden, with Swedish personal numbers, Swedish issued credit cards and a Swedish registered mobile phone. I’m surprised you were even able to but train tickets since they usually only accept Swedish credit cards. Same at the Systembolaget, not to mention renting a car; it’s impossible to reserve a car online since they run your personal number against the tax authorities data base and if you’re not in it, I.e. Swedish, it’ll bounce.

    It’s even hard to be a Swedish tourist in Sweden: a family of 4 who want to ride the buses I Stockholm need to purchase 4 bus cards. The cards have to be pre filled with an amount of money and you have to set your standard trip coupon allotment. Confusing much? If the poor family of 4 don’t use all the remaining money, it is lost.

    And don’t get me started on the credit cards! It’s infuriating to be asked to present a Swedish ID card for every little transaction, in particular as you’re paying with a card issued by a US bank, in the US. I watched two poor Japanese tourists being denied several purchases because they didn’t have Swedish drivers licenses. Eventually, the sales person gave up and asked for their Japanese passports, which they hadn’t brought with them to the store. Silly tourists, didn’t they know that they had to present ID to buy souvenirs with their Japan issues credit cards?

    Fortunately the taxi system is pretty good. Nice cars and drivers who usually know the way so it won’t cost “your shirt”. And you can pay with foreign credit cards!

  5. Walter Blydal · · Reply

    During my 40 years of business life I’ve done export business in 23 countries and six languages, many years during 150 travel days abroad. If I had experienced all those difficulties, as mentioned in the article, each time I entered a new country, I probably would have chosen the quiescent predictable job as a gardener at a cemetary…

  6. This system for buses and trains might work just fine for people commuting to work. But why didn’t they leave any alternatives for visitors and tourists? Why not even instructions in English at airports, train and bus stations? Why not sell at least day-passes in the conveniance stores? Can one assume, they don’t want foreigners to visit at all, unless they have their own chauffeured limo?

    1. It’s possible the signage was there all along. In my case I probably assumed too much before I realized what the deal was. I, a bit naively, assumed things were similar to 25 years ago and how it is where I currently live – Hong Kong.

      1. Possible – but not likely. Too many people have had similar experiences.

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