Aliens, Groceries, and the Dangers of False Familiarity

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These are not messmör buns. These are blåbärsbullar, an innocent accompaniment to afternoon coffee.

These are not buns with messmör. These are blåbärsbullar, an innocent accompaniment to afternoon coffee.

Sweden kind of looks like Vermont with the mountains ironed flat. The town I’m in, Uppsala, is centered around a downtown of shops, restaurants, and cobblestone streets, straddling a small river. The west side of the river is home to both the tallest church in Scandinavia and the oldest university in Sweden. On the outskirts of Uppsala are residential neighborhoods, dissolving into barn-dotted countryside. The town and surroundings are crisscrossed with paths and trails, always bustling with cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians.

The familiarity of the landscape makes the differences here surprising. It feels like I’ve been kidnapped by aliens and placed in a zoo-like artificial habitat, but the aliens have slightly miscalculated my native environment. Things so far have been just somewhat unfamiliar. Shops have Snickers bars on the shelf next to salty black liquorice. Traffic lights flash yellow to signal an impending green light. There are six separate bins for sorting recycling. People speak Swedish to me automatically but happily switch to English when I ask. Everything superficial is…kind of like home.

This contrasts sharply with my previous experience living abroad. During my gap year in rural Senegal, no one assumed I spoke the local language. There were no candy bars, no traffic lights, and no recycling bins in my village. The culture, the landscape, the lifestyle was so foreign to me that I couldn’t even form unconscious expectations. I could only be surprised.

In Sweden, I’m always tripping on my own assumptions. Example: my first trip to the grocery store. After 20 hours of traveling from Philadelphia to London to Stockholm to Uppsala, all wrinkled and jet lagged and burnt out on months of excitement coming to a crescendo, I dropped my bags in my new room and could pull only one thought into focus: I need coffee and a bagel, stat.

I stumbled down the wooded path to the grocery store behind my student housing complex. First, the bread aisle. I stared at and poked every item for a good 20 seconds. There were soft square things and hard round things and hard square things and soft loaves and brick-like loaves and lots of Wasa crackers. There were only a few bags with stacks of round things, and they all felt a bit too soft, but I gave up and picked one with visible seeds (flax?) and pleasing graphic design on the package. (I also judge books by their covers because who would waste their time on making a really beautiful cover for a garbage book?)

The dairy aisle was next. Oh, Swedish dairy. The bread aisle was overwhelming but not dangerous. How wrong can you go with flour, water, and salt? Milk, on the other hand, can go disastrously wrong, as anyone who’s poured the sour stuff over their Lucky Charms can attest. All I needed was cream cheese. In the cheese section, there was only one item which came in a tub. It was called messmör. Yes, it had “mess” in the name. No, I did not see the warning signs here.

By this time, all my decision-making energy was spent. I saw a bag of coffee with a French flag on it and figured it was French roast, which I don’t particularly like but with which I am familiar. Certainty was more important than enjoyment by that point. French roast it was.

When I got back to my corridor’s common kitchen and opened the bagels, I found that the bagels did not, in fact, have holes. This was because they were not bagels. They were some kind of multigrain bun. Choosing to pretend nothing was amiss, I popped a bun in the toaster and opened the messmör. Messmör looks like a glossier, brownish version of butter. It does not in any way resemble cream cheese. Still foolishly hopeful, I smeared the spread on my toasted bun and took a bite. The flavor resembled that of the flavoring packet that comes in a box of Kraft mac and cheese– salty and sweet and alluding to cheese without committing to cheese. It was not great. I finished that bun, but after even the Swedes in my corridor turned down the tub of messmör, there was no hope. I had to throw it out.

The coffee was simply French roast, and I’ve found that I quite like certain other novel dairy products, but the messmör bun was an omen. “Your assumptions are prone to error here,” says the messmör bun. “Seeming familiarity can overshadow real differences here,” says the messmör bun. “I won’t be intimidated by misjudgement of the packaging of foodstuffs,” say I.

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