May 09 2007

Lessons in Swedish commuter etiquette…

One of the things that helps make my 35 minute train ride to work so tolerable is the abundance of free commuter newspapers. These small, tabloid-sized newspapers are distributed in virtually all major European cities. (For all I know, something similar may be available in bigger cities in the U.S., but I’d never seen one until I moved here.) Depending on how awake I am and how hard I want to wrestle with the Swedish, I will at least scan the headlines during the trip. But I NEVER miss doing the sudoku puzzle. It helps pass the time and supposedly wards off senility.

Now it used to be there was only one free commuter newspaper in Sweden (Metro), but this year two more appeared on the scene (City and punktSE). The new competition for readers spurred all three companies to employ people to actually hand the paper to commuters at major transportation hubs (Tres convenient). At Malmö’s Central Station, the distributors for all three papers tend to stand in a row right next to each other (presumably to keep each other company), so I usually end up taking a copy of each as I pass by.

This morning the Metro hander-outer wasn’t at her usual post, and because it was raining and I was running a bit late, I didn’t take the time to grab one on my own and ended up boarding the train with just the City and punktSE. No worries, though, because each of those papers has a sudoku puzzle in it — in fact punktSE has THREE of varying levels of difficulty. This makes punktSE my favorite, because I can usually knock off the easy puzzle on the way to Landskrona and then tackle the medium or difficult puzzle on the trip home when I tend to be a little more alert.

I grabbed one of my preferred seating locations in the Quiet Car, on the aisle where four seats face each other with a small table in between. There was a woman in the seat directly across from me (reading a Metro), but both window seats were empty. I placed the punktSE on the table beside an abandoned copy of the Metro and a section of the Sydsvenkan (the region’s largest morning newspaper) that someone had left behind. I then opened the City to scan headlines and when I saw that its sudoku puzzle looked pretty manageable, I started working on it, happy that the easy punktSE puzzle could be saved for the ride home.

That’s when the woman sitting across from me put down her copy of the Metro and picked up my punktSE without so much as a glance my way. This was HIGHLY unusual and technically quite rude, as one of the unwritten rules of Swedish commuter etiquette dictates that unless you put the paper on the table youself, you ALWAYS ask your seat mates if they are finished with it before picking it up.

I assumed that she would just have a pitch through it and put it back on the table, so I elected not to say anything to her. There was no one else sitting near us so she had to know it was mine. And besides, I was in the middle of the City sudoku puzzle and saw no reason why she couldn’t read my punktSE until I was ready for it.

Until she took out a pencil and started doing the easy sudoku puzzle.  I couldn’t beleive it!  And I probably should have piped up right then and there but it seemed sort of silly to do it at that point since I hadn’t said anything to her when she initially picked the paper up.  Besides, if this woman had the stones to read my paper without asking, she could very easily have the gumption to argue with me about it, too. And this would be a further violation of the unwritten rules of Swedish commuter etiquette regarding Quiet Car silence.

So I held my tongue and continued with the City puzzle, and as the train pulled into Lund I thought to myself, “At least I’ll have the medium punktSE puzzle to do on the way home.”

Guess who got off the train in Lund and took my punktSE with her?!  I was floored by this, but once again did not say anything…because unlike my paper-stealing, puzzle-doing seatmate, I try to respect the unwritten rules of Swedish commuter etiquette, one of which dictates that you do not verbally assault someone in a foreign language in the Quiet Car.

So as I sat there, stunned at both at this woman’s rudeness and my very non-confrontational Swedish reaction to it, folks who had boarded the train in Lund began to settle into the seats around me. One of them was a young woman who proceeded to eat an apple so loudly that it sounded like a glacier calving every time she took a bite.

It was at this point that I resigned myself to the possibility that the unwritten rules of Swedish commuter etiquette had been suspended for the day and I just didn’t get the memo.

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Feed my ego!

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