Illustration via Max Fleishman (CC-BY-SA)
This morning, with a simple phone call, I was transported to Sweden and made friends with a retired clergyman who, along with his wife, is volunteering his time to talk to strangers around the world.
The man, who preferred not to tell me his name, is one of the Swedish citizens answering phones as part of the The Swedish Number program. Sweden is the first country in the world to have its own phone number as part of an effort by the Swedish Tourist Association, a volunteer organization, to connect people around the world with random Swedes.
If you call the number (+46 771 793 336), you'll automatically be connected to someone in Sweden, and you can discuss whatever you like. The Swedish Number was created to celebrate the anniversary of the 1766 Law on the Freedom of Printing, which made Sweden the first country to abolish censorship and allow press freedom.
Swedes can sign up to be a part of the program through an app, and can turn it off and on whenever they're ready to start or stop accepting calls. The program is running for two months, and international calling rates may apply to people calling from outside the country.
The stranger I connected with lives in Hallstahammar, a small town about 150 kilometers west of Stockholm. He and his wife are both taking calls from random strangers, and he said the pair found out about the program through "the Facebook."
After we spoke, I spent some time looking through photos and Google Maps street view images of his small town, enchanted by the greenery and quaint homes that popped up through my searches.
"I think it’s a brilliant idea to use the phone without cost to meet someone they don’t know," he said. "I hope other organizations copy this thing. It would be an interesting way of having a short conversation with someone you will probably never meet or talk with again."
The retiree I spoke with has had at least 10 conversations with people from all over the world. Many callers came from Turkey, the country with the most inbound calls; according to the Swedish Tourist Association, 35 percent of calls come from Turkey followed by 30 percent from the U.S.
Other callers came from Belgium, England, and at least one from the U.S. He told me the man from the U.S. asked if he could visit Sweden because he hopes to find a bride.
It's not the first time a Swedish tourism organization has tried to connect foreigners to Swedes. The "Find Your Swede" program from Visit Sweden uses personality tests to match individuals with people from Sweden and connects those strangers through Instagram. (Though it doesn't always work.) And the country's official Twitter feed is run by a different Swedish citizen each week.
I only had to wait a minute before I was connected to the man in Hallstahammar, and though at first the conversation was a bit stilted, we quickly warmed up to each other.
It was nice to talk to this stranger in a quaint little town I may never visit. He told me it was a gray and rainy day, and a rather chilly 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). When I told him I was from San Francisco he seemed pleased, and I later found out it's because he once hosted an exchange student from Sonoma, California and visited the Bay Area, including San Francisco.
"My impression from films and books about America didn’t fit in with San Francisco. It was, in a way, much like Europe," he said.
The Swedish Number program could similarly alter stereotypes people have about Swedes and their views about the people calling. It allows an exchange of culture and ideas through something as simple as a phone call.
Talking to this stranger about their day and how they live their lives is rewarding and pleasant, though I imagine the experience isn't always so comfortable. The man on the other line was friendly, funny, curious, and excited to talk to me, a stranger living halfway around the world. Give it a try!