As an ex-pat it can be very easy to gripe about certain aspects of the host culture, especially when things don’t go as smoothly as you would like.
One of the aspects of Swedish culture I’ve bashed my head against on numerous occasions is Swedish bureaucracy.
I recently went to my local post office to collect a registered letter sent from the UK. I presented the slip of paper with the reference number on it to the counter clerk. She asked me for some ID. I gave her my driving license. She glanced at it, went into the storeroom at the back and came out a minute later. Without my letter!
She gave me back my driving license. Here is a transcript of the conversation that followed, starting with the clerk:
– I’m afraid we can’t give you the letter.Why not
– Because the name on the letter is not the same as on your ID.
– Really? But what does it say on the letter?
– It says “R.F.Gott”.
– Ok, and on my driving license it says “Robin Forsyth Gott” . The same as in “R.F.Gott”. “R” for Robin and “F” for Forsyth.
– I’m sorry, but we can’t accept it. Your first and last name must be on the letter.
– But look, my name is not a common Swedish name. In fact it’s probably fair to say that I’m the only person in the whole of Sweden with this particular name, don’t you think? I mean, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d be giving it to the wrong person.
– That maybe so, but we have rules to follow.
– What if I showed you proof of my address? A letter from my bank here in Sweden, for instance? Surely that would be proof enough.
She shook her head with that vigorous certitude that only these small-minded bureaucrats seem to be able to do.
– No! Proof of address is not acceptable. Your first and last name must be on the letter.
– But the letter’s been sent from the UK and people don’t do that in the UK. We write initials and surname.
– Then I suggest you contact the sender and ask them to resend the letter with your first and last name on it.
– But I don’t know who the sender is. You won’t give me the letter so that I can find out.
– Then I’m sorry, but I can’t help you!
By now the pitch of my voice, together with my blood pressure, was starting to rise. I leaned hard on the counter.
– So, what do you suggest I do? Put a public notice in the London Times reminding all Brits to write full names on all correspondence to people in Sweden? Or maybe I should just buy 60 million stamps and write to everyone personally in the UK. What do you think would be best?
She glared at me. I’d resorted to sarcasm, something Swedes find both incomprehensible and deeply offensive.
– Now you’re being rude.
I resisted the temptation to say “And you’re being stupid!” It would not bring me any closer to getting my hands on the letter.
– Look, I want this letter. It’s important!… Please?
She put her teeth together and snarled at me.
– I CAN’T HELP YOU!!!
I put my teeth together and snarled back.
– THEN HOW DO I GET MY LETTER???
– CALL THE POST OFFICE!!!
– BUT YOU ARE THE POST OFFICE!!!
– WE ARE A SUB POST OFFICE! YOU NEED TO CALL THE MAIN POST OFFICE!!!
At that point I gave up, turned and stomped off, muttering and cursing under my breath.
I got home, called the “main” post office and spoke to a very charming woman who immediately understood my predicament.
“Well, it does sound like the clerk was being a bit over-zealous, but you do understand we have to take precautions against theft and fraud?”
“Of course”, I said. “But this is going a bit far, don’t you think?”
“Mmm, it does sound like it”, she said. “I’ll call them and ask them to give you the letter.”
I went back to the “sub” post office, wearing my smuggest grin as I presented my slip of paper to the same clerk I’d grappled with before. It was clear from the expression on her face that she’d been given a dressing-down by her colleague at the “main” post office. She snatched the piece of paper from me and stomped off into the storeroom. A couple of minutes later she returned, letter in hand. She sniffed and slammed the letter down on the counter. I snatched it up, did an about turn and walked out.
I’ve been watching my back ever since. Because, even though the Swedes are not by nature vengeful people, they can make exceptions. Especially when someone dares to challenge one of their sacred rules or regulations. And even more especially when that someone wins!
But even though I’m watching my back, I’m not too worried. Because if they do put out a contract on me, there’ll be no element of surprise involved. They’ll certainly ask me for my ID before they bump me off. With my full name on it!
By the way – if you want to see more of my doodles/drawings, and read some wonderfully on-the-ball writing, pop over to Shelley sackier’s blog at: