Monday, March 12, 2012

Neocolonialism, Christian Evangelism, and the Social Network

I remember reading gut-wrenching proposals for funding that came across my desk from Ugandan women’s human rights organizations working to end the extreme violence, kidnappings, rape, torture and mass murder perpetuated by Joseph Kony and his army of child soldiers, ‘The Lords Resistance Army.’ They wrote of children kidnapped by Kony, forced to rape and murder their own family members. These children were then forced to take drugs and told that they had invisible shields of armor and were invincible to bullets. It was some of the most gruesome human rights violations I had come across. While the extreme violence was mind-boggling, I was reassured to know that there were many rights organizations on the ground in Uganda and other neighboring African countries that were addressing this issue. 
This was nine years ago, 2003 (when Kony was actually in Uganda), but still towards the end of the 26-year timeline of Kony’s violent guerrilla movement which began in the mid 80’s. At the time I was working for an international women’s human rights organization providing grants to support the protection and promotion of human rights around the world. We worked closely with activists in Uganda who were creating incredible strategies for addressing the conflict and protecting the local populations from these human rights violations. Two years later, Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Fast forward to 2012. On Monday March 5, 2012 Invisible Children (IC) launched a 30 minute video entitled ‘Kony 2012’ on YouTube and Vimeo. The video pulls at the heartstrings by introducing the viewer to the murderous Kony, the children he’s victimized, and the change that can happen if we all use their grassroots toolkit to push for US intervention in Uganda to stop Kony. 
When I first saw the video, I felt sick to my stomach. I already knew it was spreading like wildfire, and upon viewing was utterly disgusted by the blatant racism and neocolonialism it smacks of. I felt compelled to write about my analysis of the video and the race/conflict implications that it perpetuates. In the video, Jason Russell, co-founder of IC, introduces us to his ‘friend’ a young Africa boy named Jacob who is a survivor of Kony’s kidnappings. We hear the ordeals Jacob has endured through the over-sensationalization of Jacob crying in the dark while a white guy from the US (Russell) whispers 'it's going to be okay’/I'll fix it. We are thus introduced to the self-proclaimed role of the 'white savior' exacerbating the idea that white people from the US can fix other nations problems better than they can themselves. It simplifies the very complex issue of war and conflict and in particular disregards the historic link to colonization, control over natural resources, and grassroots work on the ground. I also find Russell’s use of his own son in the film concerning as he shows the toddler a picture of Kony and tells him that he kills people and is the bad guy and we need to get the bad guy. Daddy, the white guy, will take care of it, seems to be the message it perpetuates.

The New York Times reported that ‘[the video] attracted 50 million viewers and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on the first day alone and rocketed across Twitter and Facebook at a pace rarely seen for any video, let alone a half-hour film about rebels in central Africa.’ In fact, Kony 2012 has become the fastest growing Internet video campaign in history, now reaching at least 70 million views, about eight times the population of the country I live in, Sweden. 
Sounds good right? I mean when is the last time a human rights issue dominated the  internet on such a global scale. Sadly, to my knowledge, not even the genocide in Darfur garnered this kind of wildfire on the web. 
Unfortunately, while the video is perhaps the best social network fundraising tool in history, it actually fails the people of Uganda, the ex-child soldiers, and all the survivors of Kony’s terror on multiple levels. Perhaps even more concerning is the blind faith that millions of people have demonstrated upon ‘sharing’ the video on Facebook and #ing it on twitter - urging everyone up to their senators and US President Barack Obama to find Kony and arrest him. And, even more horrific is the blatant proposal of US military intervention in Uganda. 
Upon closer examination however, this instant following and motivation is likened to the fervor experienced at an evangelical church. While the video appears secular and doesn’t even mention religion, deeper investigation into who IC aligns themselves with, unveils a direct link. 
Alternet reported that Jason Russell, co-founder of "Invisible Children,” while speaking at Liberty University Convocation Discussion in 2011, responded to a question regarding motivating apathetic Christians and others, with the following: “...The trick is to not go out into the world and say, ‘I'm going to baptize you, I'm going to convict you, I have an agenda to win you over.’ ‘Your agenda is to look into the eyes, as Jesus did, and say, ‘who are you? And will you be my friend?’ - Like he did to the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the fisherman.” He goes on to say that “...a lot of people fear Christians... they see us and they go, ‘You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want me to believe in your God. And it freaks them out.” 
The problems behind Kony 2012 are easy to detect, yet the viewing masses don’t seem to be connecting the dots. I was shocked to see many of my socially responsible friends sharing the video with comments urging people to get involved. I couldn't’ help but wonder: was this video the largest evangelical sermon the world has seen? My niece who is 13 was engaged in discussion with me about it and I quickly realized the reach this video had. It was already being shared in classrooms. Classrooms! Angelina Jolie, Oprah, Rhianna, Justin Bieber, P Diddy and other celebrities have already given their endorsements - spurring an additional onslaught of interest and support for the IC and their campaign. 
Soon after the video went viral, criticism also arose regarding IC’s financial records and their refusal of an external audit. Concern has been raised regarding the little amount of their overall budget that goes to their actual work in Uganda. While my experience working for a non-profit allows me an understanding and empathy regarding the difficulties in communicating overhead costs to donors, IC’s budget is concerning and clearly prioritizes advocacy, travel and movie-making above their actual mission, which only garners around 30%.
The video also fails to mention the many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground that have been dealing with the Kony (and ongoing conflict) issue for years; it invisibilizes the African human rights work being done and the strategies Africans have implemented (we funded some great grants towards this work specifically when I worked at Urgent Action Fund). And finally, it pushes the idea that US military intervention is the way to lasting peace and freedom (which in most cases has actually led to increased violence, rape, and displacement i.e. Afghanistan, Iraq and so on). Of course, the mission of ending child slavery, rape, torture, etc. is a great cause and I applaud the creativity/marketing used to get people energized and inspired - and in the end to raise money. I just have some fundamental problems with what was presented and the work being done.
Many Ugandans, from politicians to activists, have raised their concerns about the the video and the message IC is spreading. However, very few people are taking note of their perspective. Is it more appealing for Americans to hear African history told through the lens of the white man? Has IC made a believer out of you, or as they like to call it a ‘friend’? 
Where do we go from here? How do we now educate the masses as to the deeper issues of the Kony 2012 video? What does this teach us about social networking, fundraising and social justice? How do we reverse this propaganda? 
Why not listen to what Ugandans are saying about it and spread their words? You can start here:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Just Like Starting Over

On August 6th, 2010, I was on the island of Naxos in Greece, celebrating the last few days of my amazing honeymoon with my hubby. 
We, two Virgos, who rarely throw caution to the wind (well maybe that’s just him), decided to rent a vespa to explore the island. The hotel had a rental company they used for their guests and within 15 minutes we had a vespa out front, a signed contract, and absolutely no idea how to drive it. The manager of the hotel looked on concerned. He inquired about our motorcycle/vespa experience. None. He told us we were venturing into a dangerous realm, especially on a Greek island where traffic laws are close to non-existent. I assured him I had ridden on the back of motorcycles for years... how hard could it be? He furrowed his brow and made some comment about how ‘women always think they can do anything.’ Infuriated, I jumped on and had Erik sit behind me. Whether it was the belittling I felt from the manager, or the sheer fact that I had never driven anything with two wheels expect my bike, I felt unsure and decided I didn’t want to drive. Erik, the safety manager in our relationship, was also put off.
The manager suggested we rent a car instead. And, me being set on adventure and open Greek air, pushed for a 4-wheel ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) instead. The manager again looked at me with trepidation, but agreed it would be safer than the vespa. But first, he told us about all the accidents he had seen and how the hospital in Naxos was too small to accommodate serious injuries. He went on and on about all the inexperienced people who get in accidents. We nodded and then asked for the ATV. The  reluctant manager drove Erik on the vespa to the rental shop to make the switch. Minutes later we were off on our ATV. 

For two days we had fun in the sun and enjoyed our little ATV and it’s throwing-caution-to-the-wind wobbly-ness. We loved it. It was just us two, wind against our faces, my arms wrapped around the man I love. We were all smiles every time we got on ‘Esperas’ which is what we named it (after our favorite hotel in Santorini). 
On our final day in Naxos and our last day with Esperas, we decided to take it up the mountains to see the small villages that promised hand made olive soap, homemade ouzo, picturesque landscape with a church every 2 minutes, and donkeys hanging out by citron trees. Delicious. The mountains were steep and had numerous blind curves. Surely if we were going to crash and die it would be on these roads. No horn to warn others of our small existence. 
We walked the cobblestone streets of two small villages, took lots of photos, and decided to head back in time to hit the clear waters and baking sun. We had to get back to Plaka beach where our favorite restaurant Nostimes made the best Greek food on the island. On our way down the mountain, I remembered riding on the back of my friend Jason’s motorcycle through Costa Rica when we lived there. It was always a dangerous experiment navigating those rural roads and I smiled contently knowing we never crashed. 

Erik enjoying cafe in the town square

When we got back into town we wanted to take a short-cut (insert ‘red-flag’/bad choice here). We made a u-turn and took a right to head to the beach. Seconds after, the back left wheel locked up and the ATV spun hard on the right side and suddenly, as if in slow motion, I realized we were flying off Esperas. I think I called Erik’s name, my hands now loose of my love’s waist. 

My back tailbone was the first to hit, I think. I knew it hurt, but couldn’t figure out what happened. My flip flops were strewn like when you kick them off drunk after a good party and wake up to see them in odd directions on your living-room floor. All was quiet in my head and then as if blurred vision came into focus, I heard Erik screaming swear words and getting up a few feet away from me, covered in blood. I had blood on me and all over the camera, which was still in my hand. I couldn’t move and my back was killing me. Erik stood dripping blood with rocks embedded in his feet, knees, hands, and elbows. 
Next my helmet was being taken off and some Greek people were surrounding us. We apparently crashed at the gravel entrance of a semi truck company. I remember looking at the chain link fence surrounding the hot, beige, dusty landscape. Huge trucks lurked in the background. The Greek men didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Greek, but they offered us water to pour on Erik’s wounds. I still couldn’t move. Erik was pacing. The Greek men poured some sort of alcohol on Erik’s wounds and he screamed. I was very quiet and just kept saying ‘relax, it’s not that bad, we’re ok’. Strange as Erik is the calm one in our relationship, and I the Italian. 
In my head, we would brush off and get back on the bike (that was now laying on it’s side completely busted up) and make it to the beach in time for dinner at Nostimes. The Greek men were concerned about the gas in the ATV and I suddenly feared being killed by the thing exploding. I suddenly had the urge to throw up. This must have been the adrenaline and trauma kicking in. Erik asked them to call the rental company for us. They arrived, surveyed the situation and took the bike. Before they left they asked us if we wanted a taxi to the hospital. We were in such shock and trauma that I remember us not knowing if we needed to go. In the end, we decided we should at least get checked out. Still, I figured, we would make it to the beach before sunset.
The taxi arrived and Erik approached me to help me get up. But I couldn’t. My foot wouldn’t work. So I was lifted into the taxi and we hauled our bloodied, graveled bodies, onto the sticky, hot, black, leather seats of the taxi and headed to the hospital. 
My first sight while being wheeled into the ER at Naxos‘ hospital was the garbage pails at the end of each bed. They were filled with bloodied paper that had provided the previous patient with the proverbial sanitary experience. We were seated on separate beds and nurses came over to do our intake forms. The first question after my full name, was the name of my father! Yes folks, they needed my father’s name to admit me! I was too weak to argue about the sexist nuances relating to their forms, so I gave them my father’s name begrudgingly. 
I looked over to Erik’s bed and saw a portly-no-funny-business nurse scrubbing Erik’s bloody wounds like you scrub a dirty pan with a Brillo pad. I think I threw up a little in my mouth. She continued to pour alcohol and iodine on his wounds while cutting stones out of his flesh with a small scalpel. Not exactly what I pictured our honeymoon involving. 
As Erik was being bandaged, the doctor poked and bent my swelling foot. Ouch! Yes that HURTS. I was to be X-rayed and was promptly wheeled into another waiting room along with an old man with a very nice cane, two italian tourists who must have broken something and a Norwegian woman, accompanied by her husband and son, with an incredibly swollen, red, nose making her look like a troll doll. 
I was lifted onto the X-ray table and was left there, no heavy lead blanket to protect my other body parts. Broken in a foreign country. After years of traveling all over the world, to war zones and jungles, I wound up getting injured on my honeymoon in Greece. It was more than ironic. 
‘The foot is broken and we are going to cast it now‘ were the words coming from the doctor’s mouth, like slow motion soup being spewed in my face. Erik held my hand with his bandaged one. My anxiety was starting to rise. Up until this point I was still going to the beach (at least in my head), which in my opinion, was still top of ‘the most important things to accomplish that day’ list. Erik kept repeating that I would be okay and I nodded from a distant place where my mind was residing. 
Since there was no orthopedic at the ER that day, I was casted and we were told to come back tomorrow, which was impossible as we were to board a ferry to Athens. So we were referred to a private orthopedic. I asked for crutches and was informed that they don’t provide them and I would have to go to the pharmacy which was now closed. Our reality was starting to feel more and more like a National Lampoon’s vacation. The ER doctor scribbled a number on my Xray form and instructed the taxi. After a few minutes we were in the orthopedic’s office, with it’s stark white walls, plastic couch and jesus photo on the otherwise abandoned book shelf. The orthopedic did not speak English and he called a friend to translate. The translator was a wonderfully helpful woman who said, ‘Isn’t it good luck to break your leg? So your marriage will be a lucky one!’ It was like a script line right out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I was re-casted and told to see the doctors once I got to Sweden. The prediction was I would have a cast for 2 weeks. Not bad. The translator had more up to the minute information on the local pharmacy which apparently re-opened at 6 p.m. Things were looking up. So it was back in the taxi, to the pharmacy, and then back to the hotel.

Waiting to be X-rayed
Getting Casted

And, this my friends, is where the sky fell. We were staying at a hotel composed of many staircases, which previously never crossed my mind! My world shrank around me and I felt both infuriated and vulnerable. Erik had to basically carry me up to the room where I stayed until we departed for the ferry the next day.
Dealing with the ferry, getting to the next hotel in Athens, the airports, plane changes etc, was exhausting, difficult and painful. I was rolled around in wheelchairs, and those little airport go-carts. I was stared at constantly and at the same time was often made to feel invisible by rushing passengers and people who didn’t look beneath their noses (at the wheelchair, with a leg sticking out, approaching) while walking. It was a very disturbing perspective of what, at times, it must be like for people with handicaps. I got in the habit of staring back at people, which was kind of fun. But, perhaps the most interesting moment came at Munich airport during our transfer. As the plane was not able to park at the gate, I was driven to it in the pouring rain and then attached by multiple straps to a board (in a very One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fashion - no joke). Two German assistants then carried me up the Jackie O stairs, while I was left feeling as far from Jackie O as her late husbands fidelity.
We were picked up in Stockholm by Erik’s parents and immediately taken to the ER. The ER doctors asked if the Greek doctors had given me a blood thinner, since I was flying with a cast which increases your risk for blood clots which can be FATAL (duh). Hmmm, nope, no blood thinner in this body (feel heart rate increasing). A look of shock came over the doctor’s face and he instructed me that I would be given one immediately... in the STOMACH. Up to this point I had not been offered painkillers and realized that I had been dealing with a broken foot for the last 3 days with no Mother’s Little Helper. Codeine, or Morphine Light as they call it here, was handed over and I was able to sleep through the night at home in preparation for my appointment with the ER the next day.
After hours of X-rays and waiting, I was put in a boot and told that I would be in it, not for 2 weeks, but 6 bloody weeks! 
At home with my new boot
Almost two weeks later, I’ve found myself completely depressed. I never knew how difficult immobility was, especially for someone as active as myself. In many ways this situation has been similar to when I first moved to Stockholm and felt immobilized by my lack of Swedish and knowledge of my surrounding. After over 6 months of building my life here - which includes being out of the house for yoga and Swedish school every day - this sudden captivity felt just like starting over. In fact, it felt like I was starting everything over. Like an infant that can’t quite do things for itself, I was left asking Erik for help with everything. I can’t even carry a glass of water! Of course readying myself for yoga teacher training in October has been put on hold. 
I was shocked at how much anger I felt at being so dependent. I had outbursts of self pity and infuriating moments when I couldn’t open the door to our building, or shave my legs in the shower. I cried, but felt bad for doing so when I thought of a deceased friend who had just dealt with much worse during a 2 year battle with ovarian cancer. In my funk, while on codeine and drifting in and out of my 100th cooking show, I had a Skype conversation with my Mom. While she provided all the motherly love and empathy I needed, she also told me my struggle, this fight I was having with my reality, was futile. There is absolutely nothing I can change about having a broken foot. The only thing I can change is my perception about how that affects my mind, my emotions, and most importantly my abilities. I actually laughed out loud when she said it because, in the end, she was totally right. 
I can work with this if I am willing to try. I can do art, I can write, I can go for short walks, I can read good books, and I can be thankful that I am still here... a little broken, but always on the mend. Like any rebirth, starting over can seem impossible and daunting, but with a blank slate we often discover our true attributes and talents. 
Thanks mom for calling my attempts futile! It may have been the one thing that kicked my moping ass back into gear.
she cursed and cursed and cursed in a futile attempt to stop her foot from being broken: fruitless, vain, pointless, useless, ineffectual, ineffective, inefficacious, to no effect, of no use, in vain, to no avail, unavailing; unsuccessful, failed, thwarted; unproductive, barren, unprofitable, abortive; impotent, hollow, empty, forlorn, idle, hopeless; archaic bootless. ANTONYMS useful.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Back to School: A Journey Through a Free Education System

After spending around three years with my partner, I decided it was time to learn his language. I felt that if we were going to be together for the long run, it was important to be able to have our relationship in both English and Swedish. Furthermore, if we were ever to have kids I wanted them to have two parents who spoke both tongues. There was also a side of my partner I wanted to access, and that could only come from speaking his language. 
Two years ago, I came to Sweden and spent five weeks in an intensive Swedish course at Folkuniversitetet. It was invigorating to be back in school after so many years... eight to be exact. Taking courses as an adult felt different and I noticed my increased level of commitment, compared with that of my college years. It was also wonderful to be in a class with people from all over the world - me being the only person from the U.S. Our teacher was older and very strict. She wore a lot of tartan and reminded me of an old British schoolmarm. I almost thought she would whip out a ruler, but fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your learning style) she kept us controlled with sharp glances and curt words instead. English, which for many in the class was a second or third language, was not allowed... ever. It was a combination of her severe teaching style and the commitment level of a group of people who were paying top kronor, that ensured I received a great education. I learned enough during that time to have a fairly lengthy conversation with my Swedish friends/family. 
Flash-forward two years. My partner and I got engaged and made the decision to move to Sweden, or to be more precise, to move me to Sweden. Throughout the decision-making process and moving ordeal, I took solace in the fact that I would be going back to school. In my daydream-believer mind, I equated going to school in Europe with the terms ‘sexy’ and ‘hip’, and imagined long philosophical conversations with schoolmates over coffee and cigarettes (neither of which I consume anymore). It excited me to know that I would be learning again and challenging myself to speak the language fluently. It had been two years since the last course and I knew I had let my Swedish fall by the wayside. The funny thing is, I never imagined it being difficult or even different from my ‘perfect’ class at Folkuniversitetet. 
One of the greatest things about Sweden are the social benefits given to all residents. Sweden is so forward-thinking in fact, that I don’t even have to marry my parter to get these benefits. I can be ‘sambo’ with him. This means that we live together as partners - and I get the same benefits that he does as a Swedish citizen (minus the passport). Upon arrival, and after a little paperwork, I had free healthcare and free education (along with a list of other benefits such as the extensive parental leave program). Free education to me is one of the most crucial aspects of a society’s ability to advance. It is a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, many countries don’t see the benefits to this, or they only see the cost advantage of charging to educate those privileged enough to have funding for their education. Sweden, on the other hand, welcomed me with open arms and said, ‘come learn our language, we’ll pay for it and if you do well, we’ll give you some money too’. Revolutionary and damn sexy.
I knew in advance that learning Swedish via the government’s free program would be different than a private course. The process was typically Swedish: head out in a winter blizzard to some random office where there is no reception, take a number (you know, the paper kind they have a grocery stores, with the two pieces hanging off like legs that you often rip before your number is called), wait, wait, wait, listen to the silence, stare at the other immigrants, wait, wait, more silence, and then get called by your number to meet with an evaluator. 
The evaluator and I proceeded down the hall to his office where he asked me questions in Swedish. I sat there feeling an intense pressure to do well and get placed at a high level. This was really silly because I was only there to learn and a higher level didn’t mean anything. It was the old, competitive U.S. culture rearing it’s ugly head! After a few minutes the man escorted me to the testing room. I had no idea I would be tested and suddenly my pulse shot up a notch. I’ve always hated tests. Suddenly, I was 14 again and freaking out like I was taking a biology exam, for which I never studied for. I was placed in front of a computer and had to do reading, writing, and listening comprehension (I wrote about seeing Santa creep through the woods at Swedish Christmas and the disgusting Lutfisk). To my surprise, I understood the Swedish! As the tests went on however, I realized I was not as fluent as I had thought. 
After finishing the test, I was directed back to the waiting room and received a new number. The sky was black now, the snow blizzarding about. I occupied myself by worrying if I would be able to find my way back home and whether or not I would be placed low. Then, after what seemed an eternity, I was called back into another little office. I was told I tested at a level C3. This was super good and I was really proud of myself. Considering there are levels A-D and each has 3 levels, I had done well. 
A few weeks later I was placed at a school by Stadshagen, a gritty, gray, construction zone one stop away (yet miles apart in hip city standards) from my house on the tunnelbana. I was eager to get stared and approached the reception staff in Swedish. I was told to wait for the teacher. After a while, an old woman  instructed us into the classroom. I was ready, pencil (which I hadn’t used since high school) in hand, Swedish ready to pour off my tongue (or the back of my throat since it’s Swedish), and a eagerness to make it to level D by the end of the week. 
Then the teacher, Gun, passed around a piece of paper. I looked down confused. It was the alphabet! I shook my head and looked again, nope, still the alphabet. Then she, in her raspy, and unclear old Swedish voice, began to recite. I was suddenly back in kindergarden and slowly noticed that while I recited the letters like a pro, the majority of the class did not. As the class went on, I found myself communicating with the teacher and reading with the Swedish accent I had picked up at Folkuniversitetet. I began to wonder why they had tested me for placement, as it was clear I was right back where I had started 2 years earlier.
At the end of class Gun called me to the front. In Swedish she proceeded to tell me that the class was too easy for me and I would have to switch. Thank the goddesses. 
The next day, I went to her morning class. I have always prided myself on being a pretty good judge of character and when I smell a bad apple, although usually sweet smelling on the outside, it’s rotten at the core. Something was strange about this school. There was no order. It was total chaos. I walked into my new classroom (after being shuffled around for 1/2 hour by the receptionist who didn’t know where my class was) and Gun asked me to introduce myself. As I did, I looked around at what appeared to be a group of misfits. One guy encouraged me to sit next to him, in a pervy kind of way, and the class giggled. Was I back in grade school? I took my seat and tried to follow Gun’s broken and incoherent pedagogy. The women next to me whispered tips on where we were and what was going on, but in truth they didn’t really seem to know much more than me. No one understood the syllabus, because there wasn’t one. Throughout the class people wandered in and out. Every time a student came in, Gun would re-instruct this student on what she had just taken a 1/2 hour to instruct us on. We were quickly accomplishing NOTHING. People answered their cellphones in class and no one really seemed to care. Had I taken the wrong test? Was I at the wrong school? 
The potential problem with Sweden’s free education is that it’s outsourced to education companies. These companies (or at least the one I was attending ‘Hermods’) get paid on retention. Therefore, it didn’t really matter if she taught us anything, as long as we kept coming back. 
The next day I heard a rumor that Gun had found out that two women had switched out of her class because they did not like her teaching style. Rumor had it that she found out, marched into their new classroom, and screamed at them - bringing them to tears. Bad apple indeed. 
I knew that I had the option to switch schools and I wanted to go to ABF Huset, which I heard was the best (although they were full when I tested in). I had to get out of there. During the following class I approached Gun and told her my schedule didn’t work with her class, which was true for the most part. She told me that there were no other C3’s and that I probably would have to stay. I knew she was lying. That afternoon Erik called SFI and had me transferred to ABF. Sweet relief. 
ABF was like a whole new world. I was tested in again and provided with an overview of the structure they use. I was asked what my learning style was, what my goals were, and what my teacher should know in order to support me in the best way possible. I felt heard, catered to, and nurtured. And this was just the intake. 
My new teachers at ABF are wonderful. So full of energy and eagerness to teach. My class is full of (mostly) people who also want to learn. 
It is incredibly interesting that these two schools - Hermods and ABF - are supposed to be providing the same thing: Swedish language education. As I trudge though the learning curve associated with traversing new systems, I have found that things aren’t always as they appear. Free education doesn’t necessarily mean good education. And, like anything in life, there are always a few bad apples hanging on the tree. Regardless of the challenge, it was good to experience both. Maybe Gun’s job was to teach me to appreciate what else Sweden has to offer. 
So while it’s true that ‘you can’t always get what you want’, it’s also true that ‘if you try sometimes, you get what you need.’ Perhaps it's experiencing the former that ultimately gets us to the latter.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Friendship: The New Dating Game

At 33, after 4 1/2 years of a long-distance relationship, and 7 years of a career in international women’s human rights, I decided to pick up my life and move to Sweden - the land my fiancé hails from (ironic, as I hate the cold).

The leaving process was a lot like a death. I was leaving the town I grew up in (minus 3-4 years living abroad during/after college). I was leaving my family - most of whom I could reach within 5 minutes driving. I was leaving my career, which up until I met my fiancé, was what I was married to. And, finally, I was leaving my friends. While most of my friends live all over the world, there are still a few in my home town who I remain very close to.

My heartache was indescribable. On the one hand I was going to live, full-time, with the love of my life. After years of plane trips, planning, and dreaming, we were finally going to be together permanently. On the other hand, I had to let go of the life I had built for myself. The process was like slowly ripping a bandaid off. Everyday we tugged at the edges a bit more. Until the departure day finally arrived.

Saying those goodbyes were by far, one of the hardest things I have ever done. Hugging my Grandmother who is 87 and feeling here soft hands in mine, telling my 10 year-old niece that I would always be there for her - even from a distance, holding my god(dess) daughter for the last time, leaving my office and colleagues after years of collectively working towards the fulfillment of women’s human rights, sharing last words with my family members and friends, and watching my lovely Rocky Mountains disappear behind us as we rode towards the horizon and the airport.

Our priorities and attachments change as we get older. While leaving my family when I was 19 to travel the globe was hard, it didn’t have the same impact that this goodbye did. Building homes and careers and watching elders in your family age or babies be born, makes the notion of leaving a bit less tangible. This move was no exception.

It’s a well-know fact that we are habitual creatures and become comfortable in our routines. We often spend years, or lifetimes, building our communities. We basically know where we are going at all times.

As a result of my career, I had traveled the globe, worked in war zones, been in bombings, escaped violent protests, and worked with some of the most incredible women human rights defenders in the world. Therefore, living in a new country should come easy to me. Learning a new language would be exciting. Rediscovering my talents would be rewarding. And making friends would be simple.

While all these new opportunities are blessings unto themselves, I somehow forget the important role my friends play in my daily life. Suddenly, after a more than full-time job and a busy social life, I was quiet. The buzz of life had crept to a whisper. And while I occupied my time with yoga, writing, walking and cooking, some moments required the warmth and ear of a good friend.

My partner is amazingly supportive and has made the move as painless as possible. He helped to ensure I had many things set up when I got here and was always willing to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on. But, our partners cannot be the only ones we rely on. It is healthy to have friends outside our relationships, friends we can go crazy with, wear wigs with, dance our brains out with, geek out with and cry with. And while I still have many friends all over the world, I suddenly found myself alone in our apartment on many an afternoon.

I always prided myself on being a person who made friends easily, and not just acquaintances, but lifelong friends. However, the older I get, this seems to get harder for some reason. Maybe I’m just not that gregarious anymore. Or perhaps it’s the language barrier that makes me a bit skittish when approaching Swedish people for conversation. Or maybe it’s a daytime issue, sans alcohol?

All this got me thinking about how we make friends and how making friends is a lot like... dating. Unlike childhood, where school and activities produced the perfect friend-making environment, when you grow up your circles sometimes shrink as your routine may not force you to interact with new people. Or, as in my situation, you move halfway around the world, and need to build a new community. And this means you have to put yourself out there, much like you do when you are dating. In some ways, I was newly single again.

On the first day of my yoga class, I met a woman after class who struck up conversation in Swedish. We briefly chatted about the heat and intensity of the class. ‘Hej da’ (Goodbye) I said, as she left. I felt happy. It was a simple interaction, but it reminded me how important social interaction is. I wondered if this would be just an acquaintance or if she might become a friend. Much like dating, it’s hard to tell during those first few interactions.

As the weeks went on, I would see this woman at yoga from time to time. We would chat about small subjects, mostly yoga, and how we were doing. Slowly, the conversations broadened to include what we did outside of yoga, and then I mustered up the courage to ask her to ‘fika’ (coffee). And, similar to dating, I was nervous! Why I felt this way I have no idea, but I speculate that it is the uncomfortable feeling we get when we are in a new environment and unsure of the protocol for social interaction. Or, a bit like dating, we are unsure what the other person’s response will be. When does light conversation at yoga shift to coffee afterwards? Is it when you discover that you have more in common than yoga? Or does it shift when you recognize that you have discussed enough topics to render your interaction positive based on common interests? I remember feeling this way when I was dating. A bit unsure of what might happen when you cross the line from simple greetings to the next step in human connection.

On another day at the yoga studio (I know, I’m there all the time), a very gregarious, loud, man from the U.S. was sharing his thoughts with a fellow classmate. I was drawn to the familiarity of his outward nature (unlike most Swedish people) and his flamboyant presence. I missed my community and immediately had the urge to break into his conversation. His eagerness to almost shout about his boyfriend who won’t marry him, his bowel issues during the class, his contempt for the Swedish laundry system in apartment buildings, his lack of awareness of all people around him (or his desire for them all to hear), was so comfortable and homey to me. I realized, with horror, that I was missing that barbaric North American culture (not to be confused with the typical N. American tourist culture), on some surreal, and almost unrecognizable level.

As I listened on, he would occasionally glance at me smiling, as if he knew I was listening and liked it. I wanted to shout ‘Hey, you’re from San Francisco? I love San Francisco! I think the laundry system here is weird too!’ But, instead, I shrunk back into the couch. I realized that the woman he was talking to was his friend. I’m sure he already had a gaggle of friends, as it appeared he had been in Sweden for a while. When your friendship circles are overflowing, do you really want to invite a newbie into the picture? And, just like that, I felt like I was dating all over again. This time the scenario was similar to when you want to chat someone up, but they are with someone else and you aren’t sure if it’s their partner. Here this man was, talking to this woman, and instead of thinking ‘is that his partner?’, I was thinking ‘is that his friend?’. Was this like hitting on someone else’s friend? Was it poor form to slip my way into their established banter?

Would I come off as too eager, or even needy, if I interjected into his conversation purely because some cultural genetic link bound us in a filthy display of U.S. culture? Did I really want this guy, who was kind of obnoxious, as a friend? Or, was I just attracted to his very outspoken presence? Either way, it felt like I was on the prowl for a partner... and I quickly remembered how awful dating could be at times. At least this didn’t involve those ridiculously high-heels I used to wear.

With all the Facebook, Twitter, My Space, and Blogspot, social network mediums out there, have we lost our ability to make friends in person? Have we crawled so far down the tech tubes that we find ourselves living safely, albeit individualistically, in the web-womb? Has online dating, turned into online friending?

Does it take moving across the world to remember how, simple comments/exchanges, can lead to lasting friendships? Or has the vulnerability of real life become too hard to swallow now that we live so virtually? As hard as it is, I prefer the uncomfortable and often awkward moments that signify the sparks of in-person friendship, over the profile proselytizing that has become the modern online community. While putting myself ‘out there’ again feels a bit like being on the prowl, at least I know I can still ask someone to ‘fika’ and live to tell the tale. And maybe, I'll even find friends to 'wig' out with here in Stockholm.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Death Comes Without Warning. Well, sometimes. (How to stay alive in Sweden)

On the day we arrived in Sweden, Erik and I walked jet-lagged around the neighborhood. I swayed this way and that - still fresh from the long journey. I instinctively crept towards the walls of buildings, that way if I slipped on the sheer ice that is Stockholm sidewalks, I would have the walls to crash into. Little did I know, this was the most dangerous instinct I have ever had.

Erik tugged my mitten-clad hand and informed me of the sign up ahead: ‘Risk för snöras, istappar.’ The sign had an image that reminded me of meteors headed towards earth. In my mind I understood the Swedish to read ‘risk for snoring monsters shaped like meteors that could fall from the sky’. Um, no. This, Erik alerted me, was a warning for falling icicles. I giggled a bit at the concept and the hilarity of his concern, but when I saw he was serious I composed myself and listened on. Apparently these ice daggers are really dangerous and, have been known to kill people! I quickly moved away from the inner sidewalk and sidled up to the curb towards the street. My giggles packed tightly away in my mittens.

Strangely, after visiting Sweden for over 4 1/2 years, I had never really noticed these signs. Perhaps because we were living in the suburbs at the time. Now that Erik had pointed them out, I suddenly saw them everywhere. There was no escaping them. My walking habits immediately changed. Now I couldn’t walk anywhere without being conscious of what might pierce my brain as I strolled Stockholm’s streets. I now swerved and swayed to avoid the ‘istappar’ danger. I imagined what it would be like to be killed by a falling icicle. Not pleasant, I decided. And so, whenever I saw death’s warning, I would crook my neck up, and peer at the huge icicles that seemed to be just waiting for me to walk by so that they could come undone.

‘How do Swedish people deal with this impending death threat?’ I thought to myself. And quickly, as the winter days continued, I learned that there is a whole mechanism within Swedish society for handling the foreboding crystalized daggers.

During my second or third week in Sweden I noticed men on the roofs of buildings and cordoned-off areas on the sidewalk and streets below them. What were these guys doing on the top of these enormously high buildings? You guessed it. Their job is to break down the icicles! To prevent death before it kills you. As soon as I realized what was going on, I had a million questions: Do you grow up knowing you want to be an icicle handler? How do they keep track of all the icicles in the city? Once knocked down, how long before the icicles grow back? How many icicle handlers are there in Stockholm? Does this country seriously pay people to climb up roofs and knock down icicles? What do the icicle handlers do in the summer?

Like the other city employees who keep things running smoothly, such as bus drivers, trash collectors, and sidewalk shovelers (at least in Sweden), the icicle handlers are a part of a well-oiled, albeit strange, machine that keeps Stockholm’s streets safe. These guys (haven’t seen any women up there) are on ice-laden roofs, suspended by harnesses, edging along slowly and, knocking the icicles down and dashing all hopes the icicle may have had of killing you.

Suddenly, the streets felt a bit more sane. And then it happened: as I approached the back exit of our building, to head to the laundry rooms, I saw the ‘istappar’ warning sign. It was literally right in front of the door. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ I thought to myself. I mean seriously, how can you avoid the ‘istappar’ if you have to walk directly under it? What was the point of having the warning sign right there? Why not just knock the icicle down? I didn’t know what to do. Did this mean I wasn’t supposed to use this exit? Wouldn’t there be a sign if that was the case? How else would I reach the laundry rooms? In the U.S. I at least knew I could sue someone for this type of reckless abandon of reason, but here in Sweden, they actually trusted people to take care of themselves!!

I decided I had to risk it, for the good of clean clothes everywhere. So I bolted out the door, praying that my head would be spared by the icicle goddesses. And it was. But, every time I had to go in and out of that door, I ran as quick as I could, my heart beating fast. I’m sure the Swedes who saw me thought I was crazy. After a few days of this cat and mouse game, I noticed something a bit scary. Right outside the door was the remains of a giant icicle. It’s huge body, bent and broken, lay strewn across the threshold. It had fallen!! ‘It could have killed me’, I thought. And again was faced with whether to go out the door or not. I conquered my fears, but felt a pang in my heart, as I burst through the exit hoping I would be spared.

Then, yesterday, the sign was missing. I crept out the door, peering up before my usual lunge past the danger zone. To my surprise, all the icicles were gone! Yes, the building grounds keepers had taken them away! Thank goodness too, for just the other day I read an article about a woman who was hit in the head by a huge falling chunk of ice! She almost died (see photo below).

I still don’t know how the icicle handlers track the elusive icicle, but I am thankful that this odd, yet functioning, Swedish mechanism works. While death often comes without warning, this is one warning sign I’m going to pay attention to. So, if you ever decide to visit Sweden in the winter don’t forget to watch for the signs: ‘Risk för snöras, istappar.’ They may just save your life.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Destruction of All Things Good: How Starbucks and McDonalds will be the Ruin of Swedish Culture

In early 2010, the world's largest coffee chain will invade Sweden. At Arlanda airport there is a huge advertisement for the notorious coffee monopoly that will, for now, be confined to the airport. It’s a great idea right? Because what any healthy country needs is a 3,000-calorie, mocha, caramel, dolce, triple-shot, 1/2 caf, frappuccino. Aside from the sub-par coffee and obesity enhancing ‘Venti’ options disguised as ‘cafe’, Starbucks represents the destruction of a European landmark: the locally owned neighborhood coffee shop.

But my concern goes beyond the loss of coffee-shop culture. It stems from the deep respect I have for the precious commodity that is Swedish culture - in all its vastness and glory. A healthy diet made up of fish, potatoes and vegetables is quickly being replaced by Big Macs and super-sized fries. In a culture where going out to eat is a fairly recent development due to high prices at restaurants, cheap imported fast food has produced an appealing alternative. Small, light, meals are being substituted with U.S. sized portions loaded with trans fats. As my bus rolls by the McDonalds in Slussen, slim, milky, Swedish faces stare out the windows as they push the burgers and fries into their mouths. How long will it be until the obesity epidemic that has ravaged the U.S. destroys the healthy balance of Swedish diets?

It’s not just a concern for coffee shops and healthy diets. What happens to a progressive and healthy society when other cultures are express shipped into their living rooms? The more quick fix, body perfect, skin-injected, happy meal lifestyle has arrived in Sweden, and it scares me.

In the Hötorget area of Stockholm, American Apparel (AA), a modern U.S. company that touts it’s ‘non-sweatshop, prime, working standards’, but that simultaneously degrades women in a way that takes us back to the beginning of gender equality arguments, has become a hip and trendy place to purchase - thong unitards, among other trashy throwbacks. In an ‘art house’/soft porn marketing campaign (which they describe as ‘provocative’), AA has found a way to bring porn (of young emaciated girls who are barely women) into our neighborhoods, with huge billboards of the scantily clad stick-thin girls in degrading poses. We are taught to believe this is appropriate and sexy. And while Swedish women appear less affected by image/diet campaigns (in part because the obesity rate is non-existent compared with that of the U.S.), I presume it isn’t long until teenage girls here begin to starve themselves or vomit up their McDonalds. Worse, when you walk the area of Stureplan, you can see the results of ad campaigns like AA’s. With young girls looking more like they are working the streets, rather than walking them. Women, even after all the work we have done to be seen as more than objectified Barbie dolls, seem to have fallen trap to an unrealistic ideology: deadly skinny, questionably young and, totally vulnerable, is what men want (this is of course addressing a hetero-normative scenario). Paying big bucks, or kronor, to look that way, is the logical next step. Botox recently made it to the mainstream newspaper here with a huge article on its popularity in Stockholm. Unfortunately, Sweden is not immune.

The juxtaposition: Walking by the AA store in Hötorget is a man pushing a double baby stroller/trolly in the middle of the day. He is a Swedish male, probably in his early to mid thirties. His two kids, aged around 1 1/2 and 4, are with their father because he has ‘Pappaledighet’ (paternity leave) or is a stay at home dad. In Sweden, a couple can take up to 13 months off work between them, with the state paying 80% of lost wages up to a ceiling of SKr24,562 ($3,425) a month. A further 90 days can be taken for a token sum. The leave can be used in a block, or taken in batches before the child is eight. (The Economist, January 2004). What this means is that fathering (more than diaper duty some nights) is an integral part of Swedish culture, a phenomena that I was struck by when I first began visiting Sweden. You see them all over, fathers parenting, and not just for a few hours. You find them on the bus, lugging a huge stroller and calming unsettled little ones. You see them wiping their noses, and teaching them new words. Mid-day, you can find them in the grocery store, pushing the kiddos around, doing the household shopping. Changing diapers, wiping spit-up, calming cries, and teaching children about life, is all part of their gender equitable job description as a father. How does this very important human aspect of being parented fully, affect a society? Are Swedish children who are parented by both parents equally more adjusted, healthier, etc.? Is gender equality more attainable because of this norm?

It’s amazing how culture shocked I was by this when I first came to Sweden. In the U.S. it is not as common. And, although there is an increase in stay-at-home fathers in the U.S., we are a far cry from paternity leave, or from leaves that extend over a period of 13 months. In the U.S., if you’re lucky, a parent can take 2 months off (usually the mother). Sadly this leave is often referred to as ‘Short-Term Disability Leave.’ Interesting to say the least. To be fair, though sadly noted, Sweden is not perfect either. Although they have one of the few, if not the only, paternity leaves in the world, too small a percentage of fathers take it. Admittedly, there is still work to do, however it is clear they have taken the lead internationally. And from what my eyes see daily - this should be recognized and commended.

As this culture shift (that started in 1974) towards paternity equality grows, how will it be affected by the import of U.S. imperialism? Is it just a matter of time before we reverse the progressive outcomes of Sweden’s hip and forward-thinking social democracy? Can Sweden survive McDonalds and stay fit and healthy? Will they continue to ‘fika’ (have afternoon coffee and treats - a national pastime) at local shops with homemade goodies? Will women develop the deep insecurities that plague adolescent girls in the U.S.? Perhaps the scariest question of them all is whether men in Sweden will continue to father in a way that trumps fathering in the rest of the world? Will Sweden’s progress be reversed by the globalized pornification of, *gasp*, U.S. culture?

Is it just me and my newly-arrived eyes that see a demise of cultural genius? Or, can we truthfully link the arrival of Strarbucks and other U.S. cultural icons, with the potential downfall of fatherhood? You decide.