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Subterranean Homesick Blues

I left British soil just before Christmas 2011, to start a new life in Stockholm with my Swedish partner and 11-month-old son.

New country, new start. I’d been looking forward to it immensely. Nothing was cooler in the UK at the time than Scandinavian crime, with the likes of Wallander, the Millennium Trilogy and The Killing all at the height of their popularity. The bands, the cars, the interior design. Ask most British people to say one word in connection with Sweden, and it will probably be just that: ‘cool’.

I had decided the best way to acclimatise would be to put my home country behind me, and ‘become Swedish’. After a few weeks and various form-filling my presence in this snow-covered land was legal, and I started the first of many Swedish lessons.

For the first six months or so I felt like a tourist, but then as my Del Boy Swedish slowly progressed beyond the phrase-book stage, I resolved that the only way to become a part of Swedish society with all the new friends and new opportunities it had to offer, was to become nothing less than fluent. So I pushed on further. If I wanted to watch something, it had to be in Swedish, or if it wasn’t it had to have Swedish subtitles. If I wanted to read a book, it had to be in Swedish. Ditto newspapers and magazines. I set myself a rule that when I left the apartment, I would speak nothing but Swedish, with five exceptions: at the doctor, at the dentist, at the bank, with the taxman, and anything to do with my son. This led to daily, mildly embarrassing situations, like being asked at the supermarket something as straightforward as whether I wanted a bag, and responding proudly: “Förlåt, min svenska är inte så bra” (‘sorry, my Swedish isn’t very good’), before standing there gormlessly waiting for her next move, knowing full well the normal thing to do would be to simply speak English.

The months passed, I found work (home-based), my Swedish got a little less brutal, the snow eventually melted, I found new parts of the city to explore, and for that first year the whole thing remained a bit of an adventure, and I didn’t think much about the future at all.

But then I became conscious that something wasn’t right. I hadn’t acclimatised at all. I hadn’t made any new friends. I worked in an empty apartment. The only people I saw apart from my family were the teachers at my son’s nursery, who spoke no English and with whom I would exchange a few clumsy words of Swedish.

And come to think of it, I thought, this is all a bit shit. Why does nobody talk to me? Why do people seem so dull and conformist? What’s with the hysterical political correctness everywhere? Why is it still freezing cold in April? Where are the decent pubs? Why don’t they drink real beer? Why don’t they show rugby on the telly? Why are the Sunday papers so thin? Why does nobody do anything on a Sunday? Why’s the music so bad? Why is nowhere open before 10am? Why are all the buildings so fucking square?

And while asking questions, why was I going all the way to Södermalm on a whim to visit the English food shop, and coming away with 400 kroner (about £40) worth of rubbish (‘Ooh, Horlicks. Ooh, Marmite. Ooh, PG Tips’)? I could also ask why I bought a Sunday Times for 100 kroner, on a chilly and overcast Thursday, to read outside an ugly shopping centre which my imagination was trying to turn into a sun-drenched beer garden on the Cowley Road? And I could barely contain myself when Lewis came on the telly on a Saturday night – having previously deemed it a poor man’s Morse – and found myself bereft whenever a season came to an end.

Slowly it dawned on me. Not only was I not Swedish, I never would be. And furthermore, I didn’t want to be. My nostalgia for my home country was overpowering.

I have always found people’s pride in or attachment to their nationality a little peculiar, given it really is nothing more than an accident of birth, but as my time in Sweden has progressed I think I get it. It took me around three years to understand, but eventually I realised that for the first time in my life I was suffering from homesickness.

homesickness1

I’ve met people who cannot bear to be away from home other than when on holiday, and many more who have tried living far from home and found they simply couldn’t do it. This was something else I never quite understood. Homesickness was something I always associated with childhood, or with moving away to start university.

So I recently did a little research on homesickness in adults.

‘Homesickness’ is a translation of the Greek ‘nostalgia’, a term coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. They were banned from singing Swiss songs, lest they lose their effectiveness on the battlefield. At the time, nostalgia was seen as a dangerous and potentially fatal illness. Symptoms reportedly included fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death.

Sir Joseph Banks used the word in his journal during the first voyage of Captain Cook. On 3rd September 1770 he stated that the sailors “were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia”.

In the current era, the British actor Robert Lindsay abandoned attempts at a career in Hollywood due to homesickness, admitting he once broke down in tears on the side of a Hollywood freeway when Elgar came on the car stereo.

It’s an increasing problem in these days of globalised working, and particularly among people who live away from home for 15, 20, 30 years, before finally giving in and returning home, only to find that their home country has changed beyond recognition, leaving them with nowhere to call ‘home’.

I write this at the beginning of January. In Sweden, the period between Christmas and the end of March is known as oxmånaderna – the ‘ox months’ – as in you need the strength of an ox to get through them. Stockholm is a grim place at this time of year unless you have the right mindset. On a Sunday in January in Oxford, I would retire to the Royal Oak with the newspapers for a Sunday Roast, or the Rusty Bike where I’d almost always bump into a familiar face. Here, they just don’t have that Sunday culture like they have in Britain, where there are any number of things on offer to help you forget that it’s Sunday. I simply try to keep as busy as possible (not difficult these days with two kids, I can tell you), spend quality time with my family, and run when I can, until I can barely feel my legs.

I do still experience stomach-churning nostalgia from time to time, when seeing pictures of old haunts on Facebook, or when hearing from an old friend, or when reminiscing about certain places with Hedda. I downloaded an app to my phone which lets me listen to all national and regional radio stations in the UK. That was a mistake (aah, tailbacks on the A34, those were the days). And sometimes it comes out of nowhere. But it’s a relief to have realised the fault in my approach to life here in Sweden. I now know it’s okay to hold onto my Britishness when I need it. It will always be there. The other lesson is that nobody can ever hope to integrate anywhere without a lot of effort on their part. That took me three years to learn, and I’m finally taking steps – taking six months off on paternity leave (thank you Sweden) while I decide what I want out of life here, joining a British football team etc.

There is no cure for homesickness, but life is what you make it regardless of where you find yourself. My kids thrive here, and the grass is very rarely greener on the other side. As difficult as it can be at times, then is then, and now is now.

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When I met Karl Ove Knausgård

All he wanted was a smoke.

All he wanted was a smoke.

I was a little obsessed with Karl Ove Knausgård last year. The Norwegian writer, now living in Sweden, has been described as the 21st century’s Proust for his 3,600-page, six-book autobiographical work ‘My Struggle’ (Min Kamp). ‘My Struggle’ is a work of brutal, harrowing honesty about a normal, irritable man’s life.

Knausgård has admitted that he sometimes feels that he has made a “Faustian bargain”, achieving huge success by sacrificing his relationships with friends and family. He has also admitted that his life after ‘My Struggle’ has often been hell (there’s a Youtube clip of him in tears describing it).

A frustrated writer doubting his ability to ever break through with the only thing he ever wanted to do, Knausgård decided as a last resort that he would write the story of his life. “Either I do this, or I might as well die.”

The first three books are published in English, but when I came to the end of the third I felt I had no choice but to read the rest in Swedish rather than wait for the English translations.

Anyway, I had to go to Trondheim with work in the Autumn. I had volume 4 packed, and was almost finished it by the time I landed in Trondheim after two flights. At arrivals, the first person I set eyes on was….Karl Ove Knausgård.

I couldn’t believe it. But he’s a distinctive-looking guy, and with his denim jacket, long, slightly unkempt silver hair, lined, downbeat face with an unlit cigarette between his lips, it was certainly him. He was stood with an all-male entourage by the exit. Already holding his book, I hastily took a pen from my bag, and dialled Hedda’s number for a ‘you’ll never guess who I’m with’ call. Just as I made the call, Knausgård and his crew made for the exit. I hung up and walked up behind him.

“Excuse me, Karl Ove,” I said. He turned round. Gormlessly, silently, I held up my book. He gave a hint of a smile, trying to disguise the fact he couldn’t be arsed. I was suddenly conscious of the fact I was wearing a tie. I was definitely a wanker to him. One of his entourage made a sound like the first syllable of a stifled laugh. “What’s your name?” he asked, taking the book from me, seemingly uninterested in why an English-speaker had a Swedish copy of his book. “Calum. C-A-L-U-M.” “Like that?” “Perfect.” He wrote: ‘To Calum, with all my best!’ and signed below, before writing the place and date in the top right corner. Stretching out the moment (when everything about his body language suggested he wanted to fuck the fuck off), I said: “Nice to meet you, I’m a big fan.” I offered my hand. Unmoved, he took it, before disappearing out the door. What a guy.

Interesting developments in the frozen north

"You don't know what you're doing," went the old football chant. Except this time it's not coming from a tattooed psychopath in a Bristol Rovers shirt, but voters in Sweden. Gustav Fridolin (left) of the Green Party and Prime Minister (for now) Stefan Löfven of the Social Democrats

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” went the old football chant. Except this time it’s not coming from a tattooed psychopath in a Bristol Rovers shirt, but voters in Sweden. Gustav Fridolin (left) of the Green Party and Prime Minister (for now) Stefan Löfven of the Social Democrats

The events described in my last blog never did get resolved to the satisfaction of the established order. Earlier this week it was announced that Swedes will be heading back to the polls again in March 2015, in the hope that this time they might vote the right way after the election in September produced deadlock. The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), with 13% of the riksdag, voted against newly-elected Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s budget proposal, triggering a political crisis. The SD’s votes, added to those of the four ‘Alliance’ opposition parties, proved decisive in bringing down the Social Democrat-Green Party minority government.

One of the dullest political arenas in Europe has been catapulted onto newspaper pages and television screens across the continent.

At a press conference announcing their decision to vote down the government’s budget, acting SD leader Mattias Karlsson stood in front of a large screen with the words: “We will always try to bring down any government and budget which supports increased immigration and which gives the Green Party decisive influence over immigration policy.”

The Green Party – led by the 12-year-old (unless anyone can provide me with evidence that he owns a razor) do-gooder Gustav Fridolin, who gives the impression of someone whose main goal in life is not to upset his Mum – have been called an “extremist party” by the SD, and seem completely unaware of many legitimate concerns voters have, for example over little Sweden accounting – along with Germany – for 50% of all Syrian refugees in Europe. The SD have discussed initiatives to help such people in their own countries instead of inflicting such resource-draining numbers on councils with already creaking infrastructures (all I would be asking for personally is for the issue to be discussed in open debate as a start). Sincere or not, this hasn’t succeeded in ending the established parties’ ‘fingers-in-ears, not-listening’ stance towards the SD.

Karlsson, by the way, is standing in for leader Jimmie Åkesson, who went on sick leave shortly after the election, citing burnout. It remains unclear whether he will make a return before March’s election. It is tempting to speculate that the level of abuse and vitriol relentlessly hurled at Åkesson in recent years by the more undemocratic elements of Swedish society has had a significant role to play in this. Whatever your views on his politics – and again I personally disagree with enough of the SD’s to not vote for them – at least he’s part of the democratic process, pushing his cause in a non-violent manner. Anyway, the Swedish reputation for fairness and open-mindedness is, I’m sorry to say, a bit of a joke when I look at the treatment he has received from some, ironically the type that strains every sinew to come across as the cuddly liberal.

Karlsson has said he wants the March 2015 election to be an “immigration referendum”, which may yet force the established parties to publicly address the sorts of concerns many voters have but which in the world’s most politically-correct state public figures won’t dare talk about.

Some are blaming the opposition Alliance parties for the current malaise, for refusing to abstain their votes. The Social Democrats were certainly annoyed about this – the only votes that should carry any weight, apparently, are their 30.7% of the riksdag. Many will attest to my dyscalculia, but I know that 30.7% is less than a third.

The more sane commentators have had the temerity to suggest that the crisis is largely Löfven’s doing, given his inflexibility in both shutting out the SD above all else and in negotiations with the Alliance parties.

Familiarity breeds contempt, but so does complacency. For all the good the Social Democrats did for Sweden in the 20th century – in building up a welfare state envied the world over, and industrialising a largely poor, agricultural economy into the modern world – it appears voters have finally become tired of the Sossarna’s sense of entitlement when it comes to power. “In the Social Democratic imagination, it is always the other parties who should support the Social Democrats – never the other way around,” wrote Hanne Kjöller of Dagens Nyheter, referring to Löfven’s botched attempt at remaining in power.

It’s hard to say how events of this week will affect the March 2015 election. A lot depends on the behaviour of the established parties in the next three months. Maybe some of those who voted SD will see the present crisis as a wake-up call and return grudgingly to the established fold. Then again, others will probably look at Löfven, Fridolin et al. and decide the established order are still not listening to them.

From a personal point of view I am looking forward to the prospect of being spared four years of Social Democrat rule. As a hard-working and law-abiding family man in my thirties, I do not anticipate many favours from them.

Just a final point, which perfectly illustrates the alarmingly childish and irresponsible attitude the people running Sweden today have.

A few weeks ago I was watching Skavlan, which is basically a Scandinavian Wogan, where celebrities and public figures from across the Nordic countries sit and chat on the sofa of the slightly-effeminate but likeable Norwegian, Fredrik Skavlan. Magdalena Andersson, the Swedish finance minister was on. Skavlan mentioned that he’d heard a rumour that in her previous office, she would always work with the blinds shut, whatever the season, weather or time of day. Andersson confirmed this, and naturally Skavlan enquired as to why. “Because the window had a view overlooking the SD building. I didn’t want to see it.”

Make of that what you will.

Thoughts on fascism and the Swedish election

Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson

Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson

“At the airport there’s a yellow line by the baggage carousel and you mustn’t cross it. And no one does. Baggage distribution is a nice orderly process. And that’s the way conversations are organised in this country as well. There’s a yellow line you mustn’t cross. Everyone’s polite, everyone’s well mannered, everyone says what they’re supposed to say. It’s all about avoiding offence.”

“It comes as a shock to read newspaper debates in Norway. What heated discussions they have! That’s inconceivable here.”

“In Sweden they all think the Swedish way is the only one. Any deviations from the Swedish way they regard as flaws and deficiencies. The thought of it is enough to drive you insane.”

– A Man In Love, Karl Ove Knausgård

Fêted on both sides of the Atlantic for overseeing the fastest economic recovery in the Western world, thanks in no small part to the ear-ringed and formerly pony-tailed Anders Borg – hailed by those in the know as the best finance minister on the planet, the ruling centre-right Moderate party have been unceremoniously kicked out of power after eight years by an electorate fed up with a perceived decline in welfare and public services, particularly schools and housing.

The problem is, the Swedish people have failed to throw their electoral weight behind any one alternative. As I write, the Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven is in the final stages of building a minority government with the Green Party. The centre-left Social Democrats received 30.7% of the vote, an increase of 0.3% on the general election of 2010. The Green Party polled 6.9%, down 0.4% from 2010.

Where did the votes go?

Enter the Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson.

Founded in 1988, the Sweden Democrats (SD) describe themselves as a socially conservative party with a nationalist foundation. They were formed as a successor party to the Sweden Party, formed in 1986 after a merger of the racist organization Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish) and a faction of the xenophobic and populist Progress Party. The Sweden Party was part of the white supremacy movement, and the party’s first chairman, Anders Klarström, was formerly active in the Nazi Nordiska rikspartiet (Nordic Reich Party).

In line with other far-right movements in Europe at the time, the SD made negligible electoral progress during the next 20 years, barely an afterthought on the Swedish political scene. In 2005, the 26-year-old Åkesson assumed leadership of the party, they donned ties and made respectability their aim. This has not always been easy in the years since, with scandal never far away from the party as Åkesson has fought to uphold his ‘zero tolerance’ stance on the party, weeding out members guilty of racist or xenophobic outbursts, and other inappropriate behaviour.

For non-Swedes, the SD are to the right of UKIP but not openly racist in the manner of the BNP.

Their breakthrough came in the general election of 2010, when they won 5.7% of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the sixth largest party with 20 seats in the riksdag. The seven ‘established’ parties spent most of the post-election debate guaranteeing that they wouldn’t in any way co-operate with the SD. The leader of the Left party, Lars Ohly refused to have his make-up done at the same time as Åkesson. Reported to have said he cried tears of sadness when learning of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Ohly’s two children both go to private school.

The Swedish writer Henning Mankell, a socialist, said at the time: “That was silly. Every time anyone from the SD is shunned like that it can have little effect except to make more people sympathise with them. It is the unemployed, the ill, those who feel themselves marginalised and cast out, who turn in their powerlessness against the established parties and vote for those who reach out to them. The SD becomes the only decency they find in a political landscape where everything else is hypocritical and forsworn. The SD listens to them. In the SD’s programme they find their own thoughts, their own anger, their own fears.”

Anyway, four years passed during which nobody, whether those in parliament or the media, seriously took the argument to the SD. The 340,000 people who voted SD were racists to be vilified. As to why a fringe group of far-right nationalists suddenly had 20 seats in parliament (one more than the Left party under Ohly), well, why bother about that, a racist is a racist and if we shout loudly enough they’ll go away.

Unsurprisingly, the SD were the big (some say only) winners during the general election of September 2014. Even during the weeks leading up to the election, with the SD neck-and-neck with the Green Party in the fight for third-place, the thought that maybe, just maybe it might be worth discussing some of the issues which maybe, just maybe the SD were using to win votes from the other parties – immigration, high taxation of the elderly, lack of faith in the justice system, Sweden’s relationship with the EU – didn’t seem to occur to the media, particularly the newspapers (of whom Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet only lifted a ban on SD advertising in 2006, a ban heavily criticised by free speech organizations. Expressen still retains a ban on SD advertising).

Meanwhile, the Green Party talked about closing down Bromma airport, Sweden’s third-largest and most important for business travel. Allegedly, some in the party think Sweden has no need of any airport south of Sundsvall. Anything to avoid talking about the real issues.

Aftonbladet in particular just got more and more ridiculous the closer it got to election day. A comic for social democrats and the non-thinking, Aftonbladet’s editorials and comments section seemed to stray further and further away from the point at hand, and the cries of ‘racism’ became even more shrill as it became clear that the SD were going to make waves at the election.

The contest over the third party wasn’t even close. The SD more than doubled their 2010 election result, taking 13% of the vote. Over 800,000 Swedes (of a population of 9 million) voted SD, giving the party 49 seats in the riksdag to the Greens’ 25. Stefan Lofven has to get a budget through parliament in November. The SD are now big enough and powerful enough to vote it down.

Aftonbladet, unserious as ever, reacted the morning after with the laughable headline: ‘Vi är 87 procent’ (‘We are the 87 per cent’). A bit like the ‘We are the 45 per cent’ campaign after the Scottish independence referendum which, other than reminding everybody that they lost the argument, I never quite got the point of.

The reaction across the rest of liberal Sweden was equally hilarious, yet slightly sinister and unsettling at the same time. “Who are these 800,000 people?” they screamed on Facebook from the comfort of their suburban villas, the newly-washed Volvo estate car (room for three kids) in the driveway. “I feel ill” said others.  Still missing the point entirely.

Yes, some of the people who vote SD are racists. This will always be the case. But in my opinion the 13 per cent who did vote for them deserve better than to be further ostracised when the reason they are rejecting the established parties in the first place is that they feel nobody is listening to, let alone addressing, their everyday concerns. Ignore people for long enough and eventually they will start to get pissed off. Sweden does not have 800,000 racists, the notion simply isn’t serious.

What concerned me the most, and provoked me to write this article, was the issue of the 2nd vice-speaker position in the riksdag. Traditionally, this post is filled by a member of the third-largest party in parliament. As the democratically elected third-largest party, the SD nominated their party secretary Björn Söder. Söder recently assumed office but not before two weeks of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing as the liberal elite, both in parliament and the media, grappled with how to reconcile a hugely undemocratic move – blocking Söder from the position – with their self-vaunted democratic ideals.

To be fair, a handful of senior politicians from the established parties have spoken out in the aftermath of the election about the need to finally take on the SD in debate, having woken up to the fact that unless they do, they’ll be waking up to a 20% SD vote in 2018.

The “fingers in ears, not listening” method doesn’t ever tend to work in politics. Worse, it takes the ordinary men and women on the street for mugs. The word ‘fascist’ is thrown about like confetti when it comes to the SD. Maybe they are, but the tone in the likes of Aftonbladet (vote for Party A: acceptable human being, vote for Party B: unacceptable human being) and in parliament, where the established parties maintain their stance of not co-operating with the SD (I don’t agree with you so I’m not working with you) goes against the most basic fundamentals of democracy and is almost by definition, fascist.

Real issues which affect ordinary working people with families on a daily basis are pushed into the background while the chattering classes fall over each other to see who can shout ‘Look at me, I’m not a racist!’ the loudest. I’m not racist, but then as someone aspiring to be a decent human being, that is a default position which I have absolutely no need to declare. Neither do I vote SD. I remain sceptical of the success of Åkesson’s ‘zero-tolerance’ drive, and am uncomfortable lending my support to any party with a racist element.

But to totally dismiss 800,000 voices as of unequal worth is as troubling as it is ironic in a country desperate to be the most open and liberal of them all.

On pregnancy and cricket

I woke up earlier than usual. In a couple of hours I would get the train to London to fulfil a lifelong ambition – a day’s cricket at Lord’s. I’m easily pleased.

I had a weird hand-me-down phone that was years out of date, and when it was charging it made no sound when somebody phoned or texted. I picked my phone up and saw “33 missed calls, 1 text message.” Somehow there was something a lot more menacing about the one text message than the 33 calls. I opened the message and read. “Calum, you have to pick up. I’m pregnant.”

What do you do when your girlfriend of three months tells you she’s pregnant?

If I am being totally honest, during those first few seconds there was a fairly big part of me that thought, “Shit, no cricket.”

Having called Hedda back and assured her that everything would be ok (Probably. Possibly. “It could have been an AIDS test.”), I had a leisurely shower and strolled down the Cowley Road to her flat. I’m not trying to make myself sound cool, I mean my stomach was starting to dance around a bit by now, but it’s not like she was waiting on CPR or something, and I figured rushing about like a lunatic wouldn’t help my mental state. Besides, it was too late to make her unpregnant. I even had time to let my friend know that “something’s come up” and to have a good day at the cricket.

Anyway, she stood teary-eyed in the doorway when I arrived, but that’s about as far as I’ll take that day. I remember it was pushing 30 degrees outside.

Caught in that awkward stage between being feckless teenagers at one end, and financially comfortable within a stable and established relationship at the other, it nevertheless seemed the only option was to prepare ourselves to become parents a little earlier than we’d have planned. Sometimes I look at my son and am frightened to think about my initial instinct on finding out Hedda was pregnant, which didn’t exactly welcome the prospect with open arms.

I would need to write a series of books to fully describe the next four years, but it has included two countries, five homes – of varying quality, one property purchase, language courses with classmates from about every modern war zone (“Where in Libya are you from?” “Tripoli.” “Big city.” “Shit city.”), countless job interviews, a hideous carbon footprint, many, many tantrums (a few from my son as well), and just to keep us on our toes, another baby. I finally got round to popping the question to Hedda last summer, trying desperately hard to concentrate as Johan tried his utmost to uproot a potted tree in the background.

The grey hairs that first appeared at the tender age of 26 are a small price to pay for what Johan has brought to my life. One of the best things about parenthood is that you stop taking your own self so seriously and concentrate more on the things that really matter. It’s often stressful, at times extremely so, and certainly the hardest thing I have ever done, but I guess in the end the aim is to give him a better life than I have had (which hasn’t been bad at all). I don’t beat myself up about anything as much as being a Dad – did I play with him enough today, was I too harsh at dinner-time, did I get shampoo in his eye, does he like his birthday presents, is this apartment big enough for him, does he notice that I’m stressed? But you just try to tell yourself you’re doing your best, and try to minimise the psychological damage your many flaws will inflict on him. I never quite understood that cliche about not being able to remember a time before your children came along. I do – quite a lot happened. But it does seem a little emptier at times. Not at 6am on a Sunday though.

It’s not just the physical looking after of children, it’s the fact that just about everything you do is in some way connected to the aim of making their existence – both today and in the future – as comfortable and happy as possible, often putting yourself through things you wouldn’t have dreamt of doing previously. I stood in the rain and cold for an hour yesterday morning and watched Johan go down the same slide for the 67th time. I wouldn’t have been anywhere else in the world.

I have still never been to Lord’s.

Life in Sweden. An Outsider’s Perspective.

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.