Waiting in the Room, Masturbating

The Outline of Swedish Hospitality

European Reliquary: Sweden

Sweden is known for its hospitality.At least when it comes to welcoming migrants into the country.During the refugee year 2015, for instance, Sweden was one of the countries in the EU that granted the most people asylum.

An unambiguous sign of generosity.

However, this is an image that gets somehow complicated when you cross the threshold of Swedish homes.In the realms of the private, with no guidance from the state, hospitality can suddenly turn into a neurosis. No,I am not talking about expectations that visitors should take off their shoes, a fully uncontroversial requirement in a land of mud and snow. The demand to bring your own sheets if you stay overnight is also in order. You just don't question it. Also, fewexpect to be offered alcohol at a party.This explains whythe refrigerator and the area around it are quickly filled up with similar bags from the state monopoly liquor store, with its socialist reverberative name ‘The System Company’.

The in other countries somewhat arguable requirement from a guest to get a ‘husesyn’, that is, to be shown around all rooms, is something you shouldn't even need to ask for.No matter how messy it is.To open the door to the bedrooms and its unmade beds in order to give your guests the opportunity to judge the most private spaces – in Sweden, you just can't escape it.

No, what gives rise to both trauma and shame in the area of Swedish hospitality is something else. Namely, the question of whether you should invite your children's friends to join the dinner table or not.

Ask any Swede and pay attention to the effect this has on them.

To join a friend at his or her home after school and then have to wait in the room when he or she is going to have dinner is something every Swede can relate to.It's a Freudian ur-scene in our cold, restrained areas, handed down in way that made me suspect that no one had actually really experienced it.In other words, a situation of mythical qualities.

My own memories of not being welcomed to dinner tables are vague.The occasions that I can recollect, I now assume have more to with the fact that I, a shy kid, simply didn't want to sit down with strangers.With excuses such as ‘not hungry’, or ‘gonna eat at home’, I managed to escape awkward conversations, or even worse, disgusting food.

A self-chosen estrangement, later on projected on the hosts as simple cheapness?

Or maybe it was at myhome that friends had to wait upstairs for me to finish my meal.With four children and two gardener incomes, perhaps my mother didn't have enough of her hashed potatoes to feed another hungry kid?

Asking myself this, I felt the Swedish self-consciousness taking over, with its fear of being perceived as something other than basically likable.

But no.‘Of course, friends were invited to eat with us,’ my Mum said when I asked her. ‘But then there were some who didn't dare to eat different food than what they got at home.’

Different food?I kept myself from digging any deeper into that.

Instead, I began to ask around among friends.And aflood of testimonies rushed over me. Stories of being left alone with Lego and Turtles, or just to, literally, your own devices – ‘we used to masturbate in the room, out of revenge for not getting any food,’ a friend told me.

The topic seems to hit a nerve made up of poor Swedish self-esteem and a masochistic desire to emphasise these experiences as a national peculiarity. A true Protestant act of self-mortification. 

To find out if this is something that is isolated to Sweden, I asked around among my non-Swedish friends in Germany, where I now live. It didn't matter which country they came from.Their jaws all dropped.

Who denies their children's friends permission to sit at the dinner table?The custom, if it can be characterised as one, is like the urban phenomenon to call everyone else a hipster, but never in your life define yourself as one.

‘It is strange to spontaneously invite someone you do not know for food,’ another friend speculated.

How can it ever be considered strange? I wonder.

‘This no longer exists,’ I heard from someone who asked around at his workplace.Yes, everyone can relate to it, he said.But modern Swedish parents would never be able to exclude their children's friends from the dining table.

I'm not sure.

In Swedish internet forums on parenting, the issue is still being vividly discussed.If you have not prepared more food than suffices for the family members, are you still expected to invite your child's friend, an anxious parent wondered?I don't want to make meat sauce every night for an extra hungry teenager, another complained.

Finally, a friend came forward.In his family, dinner was something sacred, for the family only.And his parents expected the situation to be the same at his friends' places.Eating was something you did with your closest ones. And like me, escaping the intimacy of dining with strangers, his parents felt the same with inviting his classmates to the table.

The result was having them wait in a separate room, leaving everlasting memories. As another friend told me:‘Food never smelled as good as when you sat up in your friend's room and waited’.