An Idiot Abroad in Scandinavia - Pt. 2: Sweden

The first day of our tour in Sweden was in the capital city of Stockholm.

Sweden used to be a superpower in the 16th & 17th century.  It controlled a fairly good chunk of what is now Denmark, Finland, Germany and Russia.

They point this out a lot.

Our first stop on the tour was the Vasa Museum.

The Vasa was a ship that was built by the King of Sweden in 1628 that sank on its maiden voyage right in the harbor of Stockholm.

In a letter written by the British Ambassador to Sweden, the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus was reported to have had a dream that the ship sank.  I’m pretty sure that was fabricated.  Gustavus Adolphus would have wanted to at least appear to be somewhat connected to Providence after suffering such an embarrassing blow.

When he was informed of the news that his greatest warship (almost) had sunk after twenty minutes, he demanded that there be an inquiry into why it happened.

The captain was immediately absolved, which was good because the guilty party was almost certainly going to face execution.  It was discovered that the ship had been too top heavy with two decks of guns and not enough ballast.  The original designer of the ship died before it was completed, and his assistant took over to finish the job.

The king demanded to know who had approved the design of the ship.

Turns out, it was him.

Needless to say, the matter was dropped.

When the king of Sweden commissioned his next set of ships, they had the correct amount of ballast.

In 1961, the Vasa was raised from the harbor, virtually intact.

I couldn’t get over the fact that just a simple thing like not having enough ballast could topple a ship.  I also couldn’t get over the fact that they hadn’t figured that out.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us.  Sometimes it’s not so much what’s above the water line as it is what’s below it---out of sight, unsexy, overlooked.

I visited two different regions of Sweden during this trip: Stockholm in the north and Gothenburg in the south.  It rained in Stockholm, and didn’t in Gothenburg, which is immaterial, really, but I thought I would mention it.

Tour guides in Scandinavia are fond of touting what can be accomplished in a society when everyone pays really high taxes and the government actually doesn’t waste the money.

In Sweden your education is gratis----even college, provided you can speak English, which is a requirement for attending university, and getting a decent job.  Health care is relatively free.  You have some deductibles for medicine and for some doctor’s visits.  Dental costs are also covered until you reach the age of 16 or so, which is fairly awesome.

And the cities are clean.  I mean really clean.

But there are two serious issues in Scandinavia that were glossed over by our guide in Denmark, but highlighted by both guides in Sweden, and illuminated by our guide in Finland.

First, if there was a clean way out of the European Union, the Scandinavian countries we visited would take it.  We were told that Germany was also chafing at the EU along with a few other countries (Including the island nation of Malta, from what I learned through conversations with our Maltese dinner companions).  Basically, they’re all tired of bailing out feckless countries like Greece and Portugal.

Second, in Sweden we saw some dramatic evidence of the anti-immigration sentiment that seems to be permeating much of Scandinavia.  In Gothenburg, immigrants live outside the city in an area that the Swedes (we were told) would not live in if you paid them (apparently the Swedish government tried).  Most immigrants are unemployed as well.  It seems even the most “menial” jobs require English, education and (reading between the lines) that you be Swedish. 
Although there is an appearance of tolerance, openness and liberalism in Sweden, it appears that they are intent on keeping immigrants as far outside the system as possible.

I got to thinking about the Vasa as we toured through Sweden.

Sometimes it’s not what’s above the water line, remember?

While I’ve been on vacation, I’ve been watching the news and have been grieved by what has been happening in Norway, with the apparent right-wing extremist who killed over 90 people.

His reason was a nationalistic one, essentially.  It was his intention to frighten the establishment and to start a revolution.  While he accomplished his first goal, he almost certainly will not accomplish the latter.  He did, however, become the very real, very ugly expression of the fears of his society---fears brought on by dwindling nationalism and an influx of immigrants.  But instead of turning his fear and hatred on the “other” he turned it on his own people.

Admittedly, he was crazy.  So was Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.  His reasons for what he did were eerily similar to the Norwegian mass murderer.  America was caught sleeping with McVeigh, and we didn’t wake up enough to stop the terrorists of 9/11 even though it appears now we had plenty of chances.

Which brings me back to the Vasa...  

The problem of the Vasa was that everyone was in love with the idea of it, without measuring what it would really take to keep it afloat.

Sweden takes great pride in the fact that it cares for its citizens completely---from cradle to grave.  Underneath the idealistic exterior, however, lurks something else---fear and denial.

Perhaps it needs some more ballast. 


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