December 7, 2013

An American Boards a Train in Sweden

Remember how in my last post I said I'd had some arguments in Swedish? At least one of those is a story worth telling. I boarded a Norrtåg train last Saturday night on my way into Umeå for church the next day. I rather enjoy taking the train. I had a car all to myself, my iPod was charged and ready to go, and I was settling in for forty-five minutes of pure contemplation. The conductor came by to check out my ticket. Since the train is never full, I've started just buying my ticket on board. It was the usual cost: 60 kronor, or about $9. I handed him my debit card. And there began the problem.

Here's a tip for any of you who plan on traveling to Sweden in the near or distant future: make sure your debit/credit cards have advanced chip technology in them. I'm not even sure exactly what the difference is, but the Swedes act utterly confounded when they see that my credit card just has one of those "old-fashioned" magnetic strips that you swipe through the machine. I am quite certain that I have said "Det finns inget chip" (There's no chip) more times than virtually any other phrase in Swedish, maybe short of hello. Maybe. I always have to explain this: to cashiers, to bus drivers, to train conductors, to people walking by on the street who can just sense that I'm the kind of person who has the old magnetic strips on my cards. Usually my only defense is, "Uh, I'm from the U.S.?" But are we seriously that far behind on the times?

The strangest thing about it, perhaps, is that there is always a way to swipe your card the tried-and-true way on the payment machines I've seen. But occasionally, the service people don't believe me and they ask for another form of payment. Sometimes I oblige, sometimes I just show them myself that my card isn't outdated by sliding it through the machine myself. The fact that this works is almost always met with surprise and suspicion, as though I have performed some voodoo magic to bypass the need for a chip. So on the train that night, it wasn't really shocking to me that the conductor was confused by my credit card or that he needed an explanation of why there was no chip and why that was actually okay.

He looked befuddled as he flipped my card back and forth, scanning it with his eyes for some sign of life.

"There's no chip," I ventured again, this time in English. He looked down at me more confused than ever. Okay, so English wasn't the way to go. I switched back to Swedish.

"There's no chip, but it's okay. It will still work."

"No, no," he kept insisting.

"Here, let me show you," I said, as I pointed towards his machine. He clutched it closer towards his body as though protecting it from my wanton attack.

"It won't work," he said over and over. "Do you have another form of payment?"

I showed him that my other card was just as archaic, apparently, and counted out my cash only to find that I was 10 kronor short.

"Since you can't pay, we will just bill you. There will be an extra fine of 50 kronor."

"Okay," I agreed, not entirely convinced that this was necessary but willing to do what I had to do to make this conversation end.

"What is your Swedish personal number?" he asked me.

"I don't have one."

At this point, I think I actually saw his head swell up in frustration and anger. "What do you mean you don't have one?"

"I'm from the States! I mean, I have a U.S. social security number..."

He was exasperated beyond belief that I had the audacity to be an American on his train with no Swedish personal number and no up-to-snuff bank cards to boot! I tried to explain again that I have taken that train dozens of times now along that very same route, that I have used that same card before, that he can just swipe it through his machine and everything will be okay, I promise.

"I don't care what you have done before, it doesn't work like that!" he kept saying to me, the aggression in his voice rising.

I could feel the frustration in my own voice. "Well, what do you want me to do?" 

We fought it out for a while before I decided to try and purchase a ticket online, where they don't care whether or not my card has a chip. The conductor walked away, promising to return to see if my little plan had worked. In the meantime, an old drunken guy meandered into my car and sat nearby. He reeked of beer and he kept shouting out to anyone who would listen that he needed to know how long the train would be stopped. He asked me a couple times to look it up on my computer.

I got online and tried to see how long our stop was. It was taking a while.

"Today, please!" the drunkard demanded.

"Sorry," I told him. "It takes me a while to look some things up because my computer doesn't have Swedish diacritical markings on it."

"Wait... why not?"

"Well, it's a U.S. keyboard."

He was thrilled to discover I was from the States, and I was thrilled that he hadn't been able to guess that earlier in the conversation. He asked which state I was from, what my name was, etc. The conductor came back and agreed to accept the ticket I had bought online for a train leaving the next morning (though, if memory serves correctly, he rolled his eyes). As if the night hadn't been rough enough on this guy because of my American shenanigans, he had to tell Drunkard that he wasn't allowed to have alcohol on the train. Drunkard explained that he had just been on a train that allowed him to drink his beer.

"I don't care what you have done before, it doesn't work like that!" the conductor said. I wonder if he practices saying that in the mirror every morning...

Anyway, a few hi-jinks later, including the drunken man's "pretending" to pour his beer down the bathroom sink so as to fool the conductor (didn't work), we were finally at our destination. I had talked with the old man for a good part of the trip. He was curious as to why I was in Sweden, what I'd studied, where I hoped to be in the future. Everyone asks me if I will be coming back. Yes, I say. Sometime. I just don't know when.

Why not right after Christmas?, they ask.

I usually stammer something about not having money or not being able to find a job here. Those seem like the reasons anyway. The old man had his own solution to that, though. "Come back, find a nice guy, marry him. That's how you do it!"

That easy, huh? Hopefully I can find someone with a chip in his credit card.

As we were ready to get off the train, the old man took my hand in his and kissed it. I wished him a nice evening. "It already has been," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I met you!"

I stepped off the train a bit disconcerted that I had lost out on my peaceful contemplation but feeling kind of magnificent and like, bad-to-the-bone that I had fought with that conductor guy in Swedish. Not to mention figuring out the secret of life from that somewhat disorderly old man, who later asked me (again) where I was from. It was probably just the beer talking, but I tried to convince myself that maybe my Swedish was just so good that he had to double-check my claims of being American.

Today I took the bus into 
Umeå instead. The payment machine wasn't working, so I didn't even have to explain my chip situation to anyone and the trip was free. We'll call that karma doing its magic.


  1. You know you're fluent when you can argue with people. I had to talk Mike and me out of a sticky situation with a hostel janitor in Spain, and after that I felt like I could truly say "I speak Spanish" without feeling like a farce.

    Also, I think drunk guy totally meant you should marry him. Obviously.

    1. I'm always hesitant about the word "fluent," and I especially know it doesn't belong in a sentence involving me and Swedish. ;) But you're right to say that I totally felt like the argument solidified my competence in the language! Things are gettin' pretty legitimate up in here.

      Maybe I should have made a pact with that drunk guy, like "If we're both still single when I'm thirty and you're seventy..."

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    1. It always creeps me out when people do this, Marc. Slash makes me intensely curious! WHAT WERE YOU GONNA SAY? I'm sure it was hilarious.