I’ve written a great deal in praise of Swedish culture, from the mandatory paid paternity leave to the high level of innovation, but I’ve never visited the country.
So you can imagine my excitement when I learned the Swedish Tourist Association, in honour of the 250th anniversary of the country abolishing censorship, recently created a phone number that lets people from anywhere in the world instantly connect with a Swede.
This was my shot to hang out with the locals from six time zones over.
“You are calling Sweden,” said an automated voice as I got patched through. “You will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden.”
After a few rings, I heard the line open. Quickly I realised I had no good reason to be calling this person at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Oh well. The damage was done.
Daniel was the first to pick up. He’s 19 and studying natural sciences in high school. I learned all this after some awkward introductions.
But we quickly got to chatting. I asked him several questions about Sweden that probably seemed about as culturally savvy as asking an American if everyone loves apple pie. Yes, Daniel likes IKEA. Everyone loves IKEA. No, he doesn’t go there just for the food. He goes to actual restaurants that are closer to his house.
Daniel tells me I was the fourth person to call him that day. The other three were a Dutch person, a Turkish person, and a Trump supporter from New Jersey who allegedly opened the conversation by asking Daniel how he felt about a made-up sexual assault statistic.
Not wanting to take up too much of his time, I wished him luck on the Swedish SAT he was taking this weekend and apologised for the Trump supporter one more time. Then I ended the call.
But one Swede does not a country make. So I dialed again.
“You are calling Sweden,” a familiar voice told me. “You will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden.”
This time an older, more grizzly voice popped up on the other line. Still feeling good from the call with Daniel, I went in with a much more confident introduction, thinking I’d get an equally warm response. Instead I was met with three seconds of silence.
“Oh, I see,” the voice said. “You’re from that … fuck … I didn’t think this thing would work … So what do you want?”
I learned from Mike — who is 30, a truck driver, and introduced himself as “Heisenberg,” even after I asked him twice what his real name was — that I’d interrupted him playing Sky Rim. He said his friend downloaded the app, but that he never expected anyone to call. I was the first.
Mike spent a great deal of time venting his frustration that people outside Sweden seem obsessed with the concept of “fika,” or the coffee breaks Swedes take several times a day.
“It’s like, you have a cup of coffee, you know, it’s not a big deal,” he says. “I don’t know why it’s a big deal in other countries — the word fika, like what the fuck?”
Mike also told me he was a Trump supporter (was he the guy from New Jersey who called Daniel?) because the Donald is the anti-politician people have wanted for so long. Mike described him as a “breath of fresh air” and said he was a real human, and not a robot. I told him many Americans would disagree.
By the end of my two phone calls, a lot of what I thought Swedes held sacred — the coffee breaks, IKEA’s meatballs, the eminent pop producer Max Martin — didn’t seem like they were such a big deal. (Neither one of the guys I spoke with had even heard of Martin, despite his legendary status in the music world.)
And despite The Swedish Number professing that “the chances that you are connected to the same Swede twice are small,” the third person I called ended up being Daniel again.