50 Shades of Swedish Anger

Abundant bike parking at Malmö's Central Train Station

Abundant bike parking at Malmö’s Central Train Station

I moved to Malmö from San Francisco with my wife and daughter four years ago. Aside from Sweden’s national health system and affordable childcare, Malmö’s urban bike lanes impress me the most.

Malmö’s abundant, accessible and safe network of bike lanes allows one to travel safely throughout the city and beyond.

I often ride to family functions about 20 kilometers
(12.5 miles) 
outside of Malmö on the bike lanes, door to door.

This integrated infrastructure allows and encourages people to bike.

In comparison, San Francisco’s bikes lanes share the streets with cars.  This left me with the impression that only hessian bike messengers and eco warriors rode their bikes in The City.

Biking in San Francisco always seemed like a political statement as well a badge of honor. Rightfully so considering how dangerious the streets of San Francicsco can be.  As a pedestrian I had been almost run over seven times in one year alone.

In the 11 years I lived in San Francisco I never once considered taking to the bike lanes.

But in Malmö I ride at every opportunity. Up until my daughter no longer fit in my bike’s child seat I rode her to school everyday.


Once a week I took her to swim class on the bike. In this moment exist my two favorite aspects of Swedish living – biking and swimming. Both organically integrated into life through the investment of infrastructure, which underlines Sweden’s cultural prioritization of healthy choices and lifestyles. 

The Swedish Government requires that children possess basic swimming skills by age 11.

Global warming poses little threat to this nation of swimmers. If the polar icecaps melt they will simply back stroke away. Hypothermia may present a problem ,however, I am confident Swedish scientist are experimenting with genetic splicing with polar bears. 

Ask any Swede “ Can you swim?” and most answer without hesitation, “Of course.

The Swedish Swimming Federation or Svenska Simförbundet (SSF) acknowledges, rewards and motivates the advancement of swimming skills with a multiple leveled system of medals each named after aquatic creature such as turtle, penguin, fish, shark etc.

At this time, my daughter achieved the silver penguin and is shooting for the Gold penguin.

SSF swimming medals chart

SSF swimming medals chart

Our swimming day ritual consist of stopping at Subway buying an overpriced sandwich, arguing about whether or not to buy a cookie, then biking to swim class.  Just before we reach the swimming center we make a detour, which leads us down into a tunnel under the main road.

At this time my daughter exceeds the age and weight limit for the bike’s child seat. The spokes blow out and the tire wobbles as she screams in delight enjoying the echoing of her voice as we zoom under the tunnel.

An intangible moment of parental joy.

This detour takes us off the official bike lane and onto a small, very tight, two-way street behind the swimming center. 

One day last fall, as we entered the street a car approached in our direction forcing us to the left side of the road. Then immediately a car came from behind and passed us. Anja still reeling from tunnel ride laughed and wiggled in the seat.

As the car, a little ford escort station wagon passed us the driver looked back.

His expression could only be described as the combination of the following possibilities: he’s insane, he knew me, I owned him money, he’s perplexed, he’s stressed or all of the above.

Rocking a wool cap with shoulder length blonde hair, he looked like the base player for a band that opened for Alanis Morissette at the Lilith Fair in 1993.

I noticed three kids in the car and concluded quickly he’s having a bad day.

We parked, dismounted and locked the bike. As I began to herd my daughter toward the entrance I noticed, at a perpendicular angle about 5 meters away, the guy from the car closing fast and cursing in Sweden.

“ Fan Jälva !”

My Irish genetic code, inherited from my mother, experiences an instant past life regression recalling immediately what Irish monks felt when the Viking raiders climbed out of the long boats.

In contrast to this moment, in general I find Swedes a very peaceful and non-confrontational people. In my experience when the rare confrontations occur one can end it by raising ones voice, stepping into the person in an aggressive manner and uttering a gentle F#*@ OFF.   

But I realized this guy’s going Viking on me.

I’ve got my daughter with me and we’ve got to get to swim class.

Gold  Penguin!

So immediately I say in English “ Sorry, I don’t understand Swedish.”

Part of me, however, wants to test my theory about Swedes and confrontation. Are they truly committed to non-confrontation? What if I crank this up? It’s not going to be too hard to ratchet up this scenario. Yet I cannot afford to be wrestling on the ground with some Viking berserker if my theory turns out incorrect.

I’ve got my daughter with me – behind me – and we’ve got to get to swim class!

Gold penguin

So I don’t.

Instead, I deescalate the situation.

I’m 6”1’ (186 cm) and at this time about 220 pounds (100 some kilos). I’m not a small person; the guy’s similarly built but now pumped up with rage.

Immediately, I turn at a angle to him, not facing him directly.

I do not look him in the eyes, I lower my voice, roll my shoulders down a bit; bend my legs in order to make myself smaller.

This is a submissive animal kingdom strategy but it can help defuse a confrontation. However the train has left the station with this guy and me on it.

I speak calmly and use I instead of you.

 “Jävla  $%^ @ skit!” he rants. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Swedish,” I calmly state.

“Oh you don’t do you! Well I will learn you!” he barks.

Now this statement offers many possible responses. 

I want to say, “ Oh by the way it’s not learn it’s teach.”

But I don’t.

In my experience every Swede speaks English but not every Swede speaks English well, nor at the crucial times you need them to, like when you go in for the vasectomy and need clarity about what is going to be snipped.

Ask any Swede,  “Do you speak English?’

And they generally respond “Of course.”,  in a tone which seems to imply ‘What do you think I’m German?!”

Then they impress themselves with their English skills negating your opportunity to practice Swedish. Later they often resent you for living in Sweden and not learning Swedish.

Writer Steven Karwoski practices his Nordic rage at the Viking Village in souther Sweden.

Writer Steven Karwoski practices his Nordic rage at the Viking Village in souther Sweden.

Most importantly, I realize that Swedes lack, to coin and trademark a phrase, Mellan Anger or Middle Anger.

I find Swedish anger comes in two forms either complacent, non-confrontational, seething annoyance or Viking raider, chaotic rage.

Now in Philadelphia where I grew up we had all kinds of anger about the same amount as Eskimos have names for snow. We had snow as well but only a few types of snow that I recall – snow, snow flurries (small snow which does not amount to a school snow day) and slush.

But anger, well, we had 17 levels of parking incident anger, 8 levels of pre- annoyance before you reach the stage of raging anger.

So I know anger.

“ Don’t you know that you are not suppose to…” he rants at me.

I think to myself 
ok come on, ‘not suppose to what?’ What is it that I could have possible done? What international crime against humanity did I commit that justifies this moment of rage? Please tell me now.

“Don’t you know that you are not suppose to bike on the left side of the road!”

Where was this flavor of rage when the NAZIs decided to take over Europe?

We could have used this guy then.

The Norwegians could have.

They might have shared the oil later, maybe not, maybe , probably not.

There are things to get upset about and there are things to get upset about.

So to recap, generally Swedes avoid confrontation, it is culturally a no no.

So say a fascist regime passes through your land on their way to take over Europe and slaughter your neighbors now that one ignores because you are neutral and pacifist nation.

However, a guy riding his bike on the wrong side of road now that’s an injustice one can make a stand against.

 “Oh you don’t” he seethes

“No actually I don’t ,,,”

Then I said “I’m sorry but you don’t need to be rude, I didn’t know …..”’

“ Oh you didn’t”  he spits out.

“ Now you’re being hostile” I state.

This silver bullet stops him.

Then I repeat, reiterate. “ There is no reason to be rude and hostile.”

This psychological one-two combination, this emotionally intelligent Tai Kwon Do take down causes him internal reflection, I can see the wheel turning slowly.

Our non-confrontational culture that prides itself on manners and rigid rules of engagement rarely acts rude and most importantly never is hostile.

We have the Nobel peace price.

We’re pacifist.



Rude, hostile???? 

 His system clogs, his engine seizes, he toggles.

I collect my gear and he collects his – literal cultural emotional baggage.

Then I motion to the door, an overture of kindness and manners, a gesture – please you go first.

An overture but also street-smart maneuver, because I don’t want this berserker behind me.

I open the door for him and in the best Swedish I say “Varsågod” roughly translated meaning 
“You are welcome”

A: to be polite 

B: to speak his language. 

I did not add Stockholm slang Miffo = Moron 

But I wanted to.

But I don’t .

Because I’ve got my daughter with me 

and we’ve got to get to Swim class.

Gold Penguin!


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