With the Eurovision Song Contest taking place in Malmo, Sweden this year, I’m already well-prepared in advance for the festivities, with a Swedish flag and a Swedish sash with Sweden written on it. Now some of you might think that I’m the kind of person who has national tat for every country in the world stocked up in my cupboards “just in case”. You’d be right I very much am that kind of person, however trivial day-to-day expenses like paying the rent and putting food in the microwave has prevented me so far from fully amassing my flag collection. The Swedish stuff I’ve had for some years, and here’s why.
We were having an ABBA party at work. Yes I work in the kind of place that has ABBA parties. It’s just incredible isn’t it. It was a launch party for the karaoke game SingStar ABBA (probably the greatest game ever made). In fact there were two launch parties. One at the work bar for everyone to attend, and another more exclusive event only for those who worked on the game and specially invited guests. It was at a specially-arranged venue, decked out with 70s and 80s memorabilia, and plenty of places to try out the game – a proper launch party.
I found myself invited to both although I’m not sure who I slept with to get an invite to the private party as I had fuck all to do with the game. Actually, I think this was back in my heyday when my name was pre-printed on the guest list template that was used for such events. I was one of those people who never actually got invited to anything, but was always assumed to be making an appearance anyway, usually tagging along with someone who had some kind of influence in such things. I was a true socialite, if socialite is a mix of the words social and parasite.
This was back when I actually made an effort to dress up for things, usually a prohibitively expensive effort; but I was never particularly creative, I would just go dressed up as “the colour of things”. The ABBA parties were to benefit from some thrift due to my recent purchase of some Bosnian flag-coloured items, same yellow and blue as Sweden. So my shoes and top were sorted, I just needed some flags or other Swedish tat to complete the look.
I found there was a Swedish shop nearby in Central London. So on the day of the first party, I headed out at lunchtime to try and find this little part of Sweden to pick up some other appropriate things.
Now I fucking hate shopping at the best of times, and this was a classic example of why. I struggle to find what I’m looking for, I never ask the shop staff anything, and I’m an awkward browser.
Here’s how someone else would have done it. OK, picture the scene. Lucy, an overweight 37-year-old recruitment consultant from Wimbledon, is going to a Swedish-themed party and needs to visit the Swedish shop to pick up some specific items. She locates the shop and walks in, straight up to the counter, “HI IS THIS THE SWEDISH SHOP, YOU SELL SWEDISH THINGS RIGHT? TELL YOU WHAT IT IS…. WHAT IT IS IS, I’M GOING TO A PARTY TONIGHT AND I NEED SOME FLAGS AND ETC AND YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN AND THE LIKE HAVE YOU GOT ANY?” Lucy’s startling gobbishness immediately overwhelms the proprietors, she explains her situation and her demands confidently and without mercy. She doesn’t even pause for breath, instead using meaningless gobshite phrases, like “what it is is” to fill the gaps in her sentences. “OH THEY’RE IN THE BACK ARE THEY, GREAT, CAN YOU JUST COME WITH ME TO SEE. OH IS THIS ALL YOU HAVE – OK HOW MUCH FOR THIS BIG ONE, THAT’S A BIT EXPENSIVE ISN’T IT WHAT’S THIS MADE OF, NO I THINK THE SMALL ONE’S TOO SMALL, IT’S TOO SMALL ISN’T IT, DON’T WANT TO BE SPENDING MY LIFE’S SAVINGS ON THIS IT’S JUST FOR A PARTY. REALLY CAN I HAVE THE BIG ONE FOR THE PRICE OF THE SMALL ONE THAT’S VERY KIND, WELL I IMAGINE YOU DON’T SELL MANY AT THAT PRICE, BUT THAT’S VERY KIND, OK JUST HOLD ON TO THIS FOR ME. AND MY HANDBAG THANKS. NOW WHAT ELSE DO YOU HAVE?” Lucy picks up everything, tugs on it to test the quality, grunts about the cost of everything, and throws it all back down on the floor. All the while asking the proprietor questions she has no intention of letting him answer, “SO WHAT PART OF SWITZERLAND ARE YOU FROM OH I LIKE THIS ONE HOW MUCH IS THIS HOW ABOUT THIS ONE, HANG ON LOVE HE’S WITH ME RIGHT NOW, HE’LL BE WITH YOU IN A SECOND – RIGHT HOW MUCH FOR THE FLAG AND THIS SASH IF THEY DON’T GO DOWN WELL AT THE PARTY I CAN BRING THEM BACK RIGHT? NICE SHOP YOU HAVE HERE. RIGHT HERE YOU GO, TWO POUNDS AND … FIFTY PENCE, HAVE A NICE DAY I HAVEN’T EVEN HAD MY LUNCH YET IT’S JUST BEEN NON-STOP.”
She’s out of the shop with exactly the items she wanted, and a discount, in less than two minutes.
Here’s how I did it.
I walked up and down the street about 3 times, subtly checking out the shop to make sure it was the right one, and trying from the outside, to see if they had the things I needed. The potential gossip around town if I was caught going into a wrong shop, or indeed a shop that didn’t stock what I wanted was just terrifying. I definitely had the right shop, but could see nothing but food in the windows. There was a flag, but it appeared to be part of the shop’s furniture and fixings. I almost turned back, but the party was tonight and where else could I get a Swedish flag at such short notice. And turn up at the party without one? Unthinkable.
What I did next required all my courage. I walked into the shop, uncertain if they had what I needed. The shop was completely empty – the delicate door chime might have well been an Olympic fanfare as it echoed around the store. Two motionless shop assistants observed my entrance from behind the counter without even turning their heads. I turned my back on them to look at the goods on the wall by the door. I heard a whisper in Swedish. I tried to avoid eye contact. I prayed to the God of Awkward Shoppers that he would bind them to their counter and under no circumstances let them come towards me or speak to me.
I tilted my head down at some unusual foodstuffs, whilst sweeping the rest of the shop with my eyes trying to find the bright blue and yellows that I sought. I saw another flag on the wall. Another fixture. Doesn’t this place fucking sell anything? Everything here apart from the food was part of the shop. The assistants didn’t move, but they were staring at me. I had to be careful, if I looked too confused one of them might talk at me. But I had to buy time…
I sidled along the side of the shop blindly as my eyes darted all over looking for possible locations for the Swedish tat they surely, surely sold. There appeared to be “a back” in the shop, a small area down a couple of stairs, seemed to have some assorted junk in it – maybe this was the place. I could hardly think straight, I could feel the two of them staring at me.
“Can we help you with anything?”
Fuck, fuck, they’ve caught me. I nearly shat myself. Panic panic, what to say, what to say, what to say, what do I fucking tell them why won’t they leave me alone! “No, I’m good thank you, just browsing.”
Why didn’t I ask them about flags? What if they don’t have flags, what if it’s just a food shop they’ll think I’m a freak if I ask them about flags. They don’t sell Union Jacks in fucking Greggs do they? I had to get them off my back and buy some time so I could make it to the relative sanctuary of the back area. My heart was racing, what if they asked me again? What if they started interrogating me about why I was here. WHAT IF THEY CAME OUT FROM BEHIND THE COUNTER AND APPROACHED ME!? I zoned in on a box of chocolatey stuff. Looked like weirdly packaged maltesers. I picked them up and said, without turning round, keeping my back to my captors the whole time “Ah, yes. Just what I was looking for.” That bought me some time. I could hear them mumbling about me in Swedish. I had to be quick.
With every few steps towards the back area – where I begged the Lord there would be fucking flags – I had to keep them off my tail. I kept picking things up to go with my maltesers, “Ah yes, once again, another thing I was looking for…”
I made it to the back area and stacked the assorted nonsense in one arm, so I could rummage. I didn’t have much time. If I stayed in here too long, one of them was bound to come looking for me, and ask me questions about why I’m here and what I’m looking for and how they can help me, it would be awful. And then I saw them, a box full of tacky Swedish flags on sticks. I grabbed one, it was a bit mangy but I couldn’t swap it for another – you can’t just go in shops and pick stuff up and put them back right?
It was nearly over. I emerged with all my items and cautiously approached the checkout. The man seemed to switch into English momentarily as I approached, seemingly for my benefit, as he finished chatting to his female colleague, “And after I’d finished building the log cabin, myself and … oh good afternoon. Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes thank you.” I noticed some blue sashes that said “SWEDEN” on them, on the counter. I took a gamble, “Are those for sale?”
“Why yes of course. Everything’s for sale.”
Everything’s for sale? Really? No it isn’t, or I wouldn’t be standing here with half a tonne of Swedish chocolates in my arms, I’d have walked in grabbed the flag out the window, brought it straight to the counter, said “Gimme Gimme Gimme” and been out of here without so much as an “A-ha”.
I watched in anguish as he counted up all this imported Scandinavian confectionary on the cash register. Thirty-two pounds. For a tacky flag, a tacky sash and an armful of Swedish maltesers.
I left the shop as I leave many shops, with my wallet considerably emptier and the items I went in for buried in a bag full of needless shit my social awkwardness forced me into buying. As I walked away I caught a glimpse of myself in the shop window, with the flag popping out of my bag and suddenly realised why the shop assistants had given me a wide berth.
I was already dressed for the party. I had a yellow t-shirt on, a blue wristband, and bright yellow and blue shoes. And I had walked into a Swedish shop. They probably thought I was a nutcase, some kind of deranged Swedophile who was going to take them hostage. Their finger was probably under the counter on the alarm button for the duration of my visit. When he told me the sashes were certainly for sale, he probably meant it like “Just take what you want, just take it all and go, leave us alone!”
I got back to work and dumped my spoils in the “usual place” where treats are stored on our floor. The maltesers were popular but everyone only ever tried them once. One colleague came up to me and asked what they were, I said “Well I haven’t tried them myself, but based on what others have told me, they appear to be bubblegum wrapped in chocolate.”
My attire went down well at the parties, and the sash was particularly important just in case anyone thought I’d come dressed as a Bosnian.
I’m going to end this post with a short related anecdote from my Uni days, because it’s one of my favourites and I don’t think I’d be able to shoe-horn it in to any other posts. Other than ABBA my favourite Swedish export is my friend Nicklas (although he has since been recalled) who was over here as part of the exchange programme at my University (Glasgow Caledonian – consistently voted Glasgow’s third best University). His English was almost flawless but Nicklas began my lifelong fondness for foreigners speaking English with some of the phrases he used to say.
We had a tutor on our course, a very short, dumpy, grumpy, frumpy woman with little joy about her. Her hunchbacked swagger and cartoon-monster features used to amuse Nicklas, as did her long wiry uncontrollable dark hair. He was joking about her once and said he couldn’t quite think of the English word for how he’d describe her. But she was like a giant…
This caused us all great amusement. Like a giant only smaller? Time passed and when the opportunity arose we would mention this tutor to Nicklas and remind him of his random and contradictory “giant only smaller” description. None of us ever really got what he was trying to say until one day, the penny dropped, and I knew exactly what he meant.
He meant a troll.