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2006-12-05 - 4:14 p.m.

...ah, sverige...

Today K and I ventured downtown for the next phase in our treasure hunt to gain permanent residence in O Canada.

Our first stop was the German consulate, to get our police clearances. Actually, we went to there to pay some money to get a "stamp" so that we could then pay some MORE money and mail the stamped paper to a German address to get our "certificate of conduct." (and I am hoping that no one reported that little incident I had with a waste bin back in 1999....). So we went in, filled out a form, paid money, got a stamp, and then left.

Actually, that's not true. First we drove to the skytrain stop, tried to find a parking space, and parked in a metered spot where the meter was broken, called up and paid by cellphone, which took a small lifetime because I had to text in my license plate number. Then we hauled ourselves up to the skytrain, only to discover a gajillion people waiting in line for the next train. HOLY MOLY! Going in to downtown Vancouver during rush hour is like squeezing into a jar of marbles.

So, having paid $4.50 for parking and another $4.50 for skytrain tickets, we then got BACK in the car and drove downtown, where we paid another $14.00 to park near the German consulate.

Where was I? Oh yeah. We were in and out of the German consulate in about 10-15 minutes, about $45 poorer (not counting parking). We then walked to the Swedish consulate which was tucked more thoroughly in the heart of downtown. We walked several blocks, took the elevator to the 14th floor of the HSBC building, walked around the darkened corner to the Swedish and Finnish consulates...which were CLOSED. Staengt. Closed until December 11th, for no apparent reason. And with no warning. And I had even called the consulate number beforehand. Klaus had even checked the webpage. No indication that FINLAND AND SWEDEN HAVE DECIDED TO GO ON HOLIDAY FOR THE NEXT WEEK.

Staengt. Interestingly enough, this is the only Swedish word that my mother knows. And the reason she knows it is because she visited me one June, when the whole country was closed. In fact, Sweden was so closed that we went to Denmark for the weekend. Even further in fact, it was ALWAYS rather difficult to commit an act of commerce in Sweden because the opening hours seemed to be chosen with the express purpose of confusing potential customers: Open Mondays and Wednesdays, 10-3:30, Tuesdays, 11-5pm, Fridays, 9-11:30. Closed Thursday.

In Sweden I lived the life of a Thursday customer. I nearly starved one Easter, because I didn't realize that all shops closed on the Wednesday-Friday BEFORE Easter, and I was out of food. I called my mother to warn her that I might die, and if I did, I wanted my tombstone to read, "Unprepared for Swedish Easter."

All of these memories came rushing back to me as we stood at the darkened door. It brought me back to my first visit to the Swedish embassy in NYC, which pretty much prepared me for life in Sweden. Way back in 1997, I arrived at their door, first thing in the morning. I was buzzed into a quiet, darkened room full of 70's style IKEA furniture and glass windows behind which sat several middle-aged, austere, Swedish looking women. I walked up to the first window and asked to apply for the visa.

The lady did not even look up from her computer and said politely, "yes you will need to speak with my colleague at the next window."

I shuffled a few meters to the left until I was standing in front of the next lady, and then repeated my question.

This lady looked up briefly before saying, "Yes, this is where you apply for a visa, but you will have to take a number."

I turned around ... and faced a room completely devoid of humans. There was NO ONE in the room. I shrugged my shoulders, walked to the center of the room, took a number, and stood there. At which point the lady looked up, smiled, and called, "Number 72, please." And so I walked back to the window.

A near-perfect introduction to Sweden. (it would have been absolutely perfect if the consulate had been unexpectedly closed on the day of my first visit). As it was, I did have a perfect introduction to the "number" system in Sweden.

Sweden operates on the concept of taking a number. Butchers, bakers, cheese shops, post offices, banks. Heck, at banks there were actually three different number-taking machines designed for three different types of number-taking customers. (and since I understood no Swedish, I took one from all three machines and just waited for the first one to turn up.). It was a scary day at the post office on the one day when the number machine was broken.

It's reached a point where Swedes don't know how to function in the absence of a number system. Just try entering a ferry, bus, train, or airplane with a bunch of Swedish businessmen, and you'll see what I mean. They push small children out of the way (I actually saw this..). And all of these memories came flooding back to me as I stood at the closed door of the Swedish consulate.

Anyway, I don't want to be TOO harsh on Sweden. It's a beautiful little country. It holds the only tax office I've visited where the forms are in about 15 languages, and the ladies offer you a cup of tea while you fill them out. You can bike anywhere in Sweden, and the meatballs are great. Heck, I love IKEA, and knaekebrot. And they hold the coolest celebration of an Italian holiday I've ever seen (Santa Lucia Day, that is.) Let's not forget their near-zealous respect for the environment, and of course ABBA. There are many reasons for me to love and respect Sweden. I just wish they had better opening hours...

So in the end we are one step closer to completing the application which proves that we are not criminals: the US FBI has my fingerprints, Switzerland has their web form, Germany has our money. Sweden, alternatively, has a holiday.

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