Monday, November 05, 2001

Rather than go on and on about how unpleasant it is to quit smoking, I think it's time for another short but in-depth lesson on Sweden.

3. The mobile phone (or as they say in America, the cellular).
Everyone in Sweden has a mobile phone. Babies and daddies and big sisters and little brothers. Great Aunt Åsa Britt. The man behind the ticket counter at the subway. Everyone riding on the subway. I think mobile phones are issued at birth - babies are sent home from the hospital with a box of plastic diapers, a terrycloth blanket and a little tiny blue or pink mobile phone with little pink or blue pre-paid cards that already have money on them so baby can call grandma whenever mom and dad are refusing to cooperate.

When I first arrived, I resisted getting a phone. Though they seem to issue them to babies, they don't actually give phones to foreigners - invandrare - when they arrive, interestingly enough. But I was offered one at my job. It wasn't until I got stuck on the subway (that damned green line is the absolute worst subway line in the world, ask anyone from Stockholm, it just stops for 15 minutes at a time with barely a message from the conductor) one too many times and missed business meetings and realized that if I just had had a mobile phone, I could've called Anna Carin and explained why the hell I seemed to have not shown up.

So I gave in, and got a mobile phone. Which in effect made me much more a full member of Swedish society. I suspect that owning a mobile phone is more important than speaking Swedish, when it comes down to it.

Because in fact, society assumes that you have a mobile phone. You don't have to plan in the same way if everyone has a mobile phone. For instance, you can switch gears at the last minute when it comes to what bar you're going to meet your friends at because the first one is too full, too smoky, too uncomfortable. Or, you can easily locate your husband at the airport when he's somehow missed you coming out the international arrivals gate.

Then there's the handfree thing. When I first arrived nearly three years ago, it was disconcerting to see perfectly normal-looking people walking down the street and yakking away to nobody, or worse, my thinking they were trying to say something to me as they walked along when in fact they were just using a handsfree device to talk on the phone without holding it to their ears (and possibly avoid frying their brains with microwaves, although it's debatable about whether these things help or actually make it worse). I did rather quickly realize they were talking on phones, but it still occasionally gives me a bit of a shock.

And then there's the whole SMS thing - short messaging service. Which Americans think is stupid with a capital D. But it isn't. Basically you use your phone to send short messages typed using the keypad, messages that cost almost nothing. I'm almost embarrassed to say what I use it most for - sending unbearably cute little messages to the husband when he's at work: du är min lilla pussgurka. Which means you are my little kiss-cucumber. Yes, it loses something in the translation, but that is a good thing, believe me. Uh, I also use it for other things, like when I forgot to say bon voyage to one of the people who works on the team I manage - she was going on her honeymoon. I knew she was in the air already but she'd get the message when she landed.

The final thing about mobile phones is that once they become such a part of life, they mostly cease to be so goddamned annoying. Yes, people talk too loudly on them in inappropriate places sometimes. Yes, people forget to turn them off at the movie theater or the opera (in movie theaters, for instance, along with the trailers they run a little piece telling you to shut your phone off, so actually it isn't so often that phones go off during a movie). But there's no prestige attached to owning one (well, maybe a little. My first phone seemed hopelessly huge and old-fashioned within months after I bought it. But I've had my trusty Ericsson T28 world for about a year now, and I'm quite in love with it. It's very sweet.) And usually, they manage to make life, well, easier.

Geez, this sounds like an endorsement, which I don't want it to be. I'm really just trying to explain how it works.

- by Francis S.

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