I am often asked by friends and family back home what living in Sweden is really like. The first thing to say is that I haven’t moved to Korea or Vietnam, and while there are undoubtedly cultural differences between Sweden and the UK, they tend to be subtle ones.
The second thing to say is that Scandinavia is not the utopia Brits appear to believe it to be.
With that out the way, what struck me first about Sweden – and I noticed this before I moved here permanently – is the equality between men and women. The most obvious physical indicator of this is the number of men pushing prams. Perhaps it’s my mind playing tricks on me, but if anything it seems like there are more men with prams than women. Similarly, when I drop my son off at nursery, I’m at least as likely to meet a fellow father doing the morning run than a mother. The average female salary still lags behind the male slightly, but on the whole any British person living in Sweden will certainly notice how blurred the line is between gender roles, particularly as far as children are concerned but also in general – I had never seen a woman operating a JCB before moving here.
On the topic of children: alongside an appetite for adventure and trying something new, one of the biggest factors behind the decision to move to Sweden was the cost of childcare and general ease of bringing up kids here in comparison with the south-east of England, where we lived previously. To give the most obvious example, our son attends a high-quality private nursery, for which we pay about £120 a month. When we lived in Oxford, we were a little disconcerted to discover we’d have to fork out £50 a day for the most basic state childcare.
As far as actually giving birth to the little buggers is concerned, there are also differences. My son was born at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and I have nothing but good things to say about the work the staff there do and indeed the NHS as a whole. You want to talk about ‘heroes’ – they’re not necessarily wearing camouflage and a beret, but often scrubs and a pair of worn-out crocs. But when our daughter was born, here in Stockholm, the service provided was first class. In Oxford, my fiancée had to stand in the corridoor in agony for two hours before getting a room. Not wanting to be caught out again, this time round we rocked up at the hospital during the first twinges of labour and were given a room right away, which was ours for the next 15 hours. In Oxford, I was sent home a few hours after my son was born. Here in Stockholm, we were both able to take our new baby daughter to a top-notch hotel next-door to the maternity ward for the night. The only payment required was £30 for the father. The hospital even paid half the fares for the taxis we took to the hospital and back. I pay a fair bit more tax here than I did in Britain, but there are times when you think ‘Aye, fair do’s.’
Another thing I noticed soon after moving here was the general friendliness – or lack thereof – of the people here. I should point out that I can only speak for Stockholm – I have travelled extensively throughout Sweden and though many of them share a similar social hesitation, they are generally friendly people – particularly in Gothenburg. But it is only since moving to Stockholm that I have truly appreciated how friendly British people are. In Stockholm, no-one will help you with your pram in the metro station if the lift is out of order, which – despite the rest of the world thinking everything runs like clockwork here – it often is. Once you reach the platform, the suspension on the pram worn from bumping it down 30 steps (my son loves it though), don’t expect people to make way for you and your pram. Instead engage yourself for battle as you try and make it onto the train before the doors are shut. Just when you think there’s space, another wave of people come from nowhere, slipping past you on either side, bashing the pram or kicking the wheels. Finally on the train, don’t expect anyone to step aside in the standing area to allow room for your pram. And it’s not just parents who have to suffer from a lack of common courtesy – almost every day I see elderly passengers forced to stand as twenty- and thirty-somethings decide their legs are more worthy of respite, or more likely, don’t stop to think that there might be other people using the metro that day. I used to use the London underground on a fairly regular basis and didn’t see any of this. Indeed we took our son there last summer without any issues.
On ground level, the social differences are similarly visible. I have been to a number of house parties and social events in Sweden, and the clear conclusion I have drawn from these experiences is that very few Swedes will initiate conversation with somebody they don’t know. I’m still not sure whether this might partly be down to them not feeling comfortable or confident speaking English, but the longer I have spent here the more I have been impressed at Swedish people’s competence in my language (I recently spoke to a perfectly fluent 15-year-old), and so I’m sceptical as to how much of a barrier this is for them. In Britain people usually make an effort to include new people at social events, to put them at ease, at least in my experience. But in Sweden there tends to be an air of suspicion around outsiders – in an innocent rather than sinister way. It doesn’t make them bad people – even their behaviour on the metro doesn’t make them bad people, just different. I’m sure there’s a way of cracking them. And it should be noted that for all Britain can be an easier place to get along socially, I have met a number of fantastic people here who would not recognise themselves in the above description of their compatriots.
I love Swedish food. I’m not sure they have a national dish, singular, rather a number of foods which are quintessentially Swedish. Meatballs, of course. Crayfish and prawns in the summer (with beer and aquavit at Midsummer). Caviar in tubes (good on eggs, apparently). Open sandwiches (take a British sandwich, remove the top piece of bread – there, it’s Swedish). They are also healthier here. Whenever we went over to Gothenburg for a few days to visit Hedda’s parents while we were still living in England, we always came back a couple of kilos lighter. It took me almost a year in Sweden to realise that you can’t buy individual packets of crisps here. And the biggest size of soft drink bottle is 1.5 litres.
The weather. Contrary to what many back home probably think about Sweden, it can be glorious. Last summer, Stockholm was consistently warmer than London, hovering between 25 and 30 degrees for about eight weeks. The real difference when it comes to the climate is, of course, winter. Stockholm winters are tough. By Christmas it gets dark at 2.30pm, and by January temperatures plummet, with the odd day seeing minus-15 on the thermometer (minus-19 is my own personal record). In England, winter is December to January. In Sweden, December to March, and in a bad year, April. It’s that period from February that I actually find most difficult. In Britain you’d be seeing the signs of Spring, whereas here it is still freezing, and you can go weeks without seeing the sun penetrate the ever-present heavy blanket of cloud cover.
There are obviously myriad other observations after two years, but I’ll end on a couple of fairly trivial points.
Newspapers. Thin. Two qualities, two tabloids, no Sundays. Just not the same.
Beer. Lager or nothing. Sweden is a wonderful country despite its flaws, but on this last point I feel entitled to question just how civilized it really is.