This is a post about Swedish myths and legends. Not the ones about Thor, and Odin, and Freya. If you want Norse mythology Neil Gaiman’s book is quite entertaining. No, this post is about the stories that people far from Sweden tell about this country.
I once was interviewed by Google’s country manager in Ireland. He admitted that he liked to cultivate an air of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory about the place for outsiders. Sweden seems to have developed a similar aura. It is prosperous, well governed, and has an outsize impact on the world. But stuck all the way up here in the frozen north not many visit. So it has become a canvas for people to paint their own pictures upon.
It is the land of Abba, of blondes, of Vikings! It is a social democratic paradise! Or lately because of Covid-19, it is a beacon of liberty and freedom in a world gone mad with nanny-state health regulations! Funny how it is simultaneously a poster child for both the left and the right.
Those of us who actually live here can be amused and exasperated by this. As an expat immigrant who is still connected to the media back home, you do hear various questionable tales told of Sweden. I thought I should call BS on a few. In no particular order…
“There are no strikes in Sweden” – I remember hearing this as I wondered whether I would be able to fly to Ireland because SAS cabin crew were having a dispute. While strike rates are low, only 7,500 days in total in 2019, Sweden does have them. But there are strong cross industry work agreements between unions and employers, so serious disputes are rare.
“Sweden is moving to a 30 hour work week” – I wish! When I first started hearing this I would have been really happy with just working 40 hours a week. There was a lengthy trial. There were some positive results. But it wasn’t suggested this would become the norm for the country. The legend was born though! And now if I had 10kr (about €1) for every retweet or facebook share of it I probably would be down to a two day week myself.
“Sweden is a tolerant and open minded society“. This is mostly true. Stockholm’s Pride week is a huge celebration of values that are still marginalised (or worse) in some places in Europe. But what if you are talking about vices? Alcohol is only sold in the state run Systembolaget shops with restricted hours, and high prices. There are strict laws for illegal drugs, with severe penalties for possession which are based on a zero tolerance policy and no distinction between hard and soft. And the approach to sex work is to criminalise the buyer, something which is, er, controversial.
“Sweden has more public holidays” – I had a debate with an Irish Labour party researcher about this one. Yes Sweden has 13 public holidays this year, whereas Ireland has 9. Two of the Swedish ones are Easter Sunday and Whit Sunday which em, fall on Sunday each year. That takes us down to 11. However in Sweden (just like Austria when I lived there) the holidays are on fixed dates. With one or two exceptions, if they fall on a weekend they are lost. This year 3 of the days fell on a Saturday. So we will have 8 in total. And while it isn’t specifically Swedish, the person commented on having holidays evenly spread out during the year. Sweden cares not for such things! Our last public holiday was Midsommar eve on June 19th. The next one is Christmas day! You can do the maths yourself 🙂
“All Swedes are blondes” – Sometime around 2007 a Swedish woman admitted to me that her blonde hair came from a bottle, and she was not unusual in that. That was the day my Swedish dream died, and I have never fully recovered.
“Swedish has achieved gender equality” – Yes, Sweden is ranked as amongst the best in Europe. There are more women in the Swedish parliament (46%), company boards (over 30%), the gender pay gap is narrower (women receive 95% of men’s pay), and there is generous parental leave which includes a requirement for men to take time off. But more can be done. Women still take more of the burden of child rearing, of housework, and they still face disadvantages in the workplace.
Sweden’s Healthcare System – In Ireland you will often hear the complaint that the health care system is “third world” – there are waiting lists, long queues at A&E, people sleep on trolleys. “If only we had a system like Sweden” they cry. Well when I broke my wrist ice skating in 2017 it took 7 hours from contacting the health sevices to getting out the door with a cast. I am told that is about the usual. A year ago I spent 17 hours in A&E! Around 02:30 am they wanted to admit me to the hospital, but they had no beds. I was to be admitted on paper, but would have to sleep in the waiting room. Sound familiar? The system here is very good. I have no complaints about the quality when I have needed something for me or my family. But it has a load of its own problems too (getting to talk to a GP is considerably easier in Ireland).
Sticking with healthcare, it has been the year of covid, COVID, Covid-19, Covid. And because of Sweden’s different approach to managing the pandemic there have been a load of stories around the world about what Sweden is doing and why. Though many of the people writing them do not seem to have checked with Sweden on what is actually happening on the ground. So some Covid myths…
“There were no shortages in Sweden” – I was told that Sweden had not experienced any product shortages in Spring 2020. Hahahaha. Despite the fact that Sweden produces about 3 million rolls of toilet paper per day – we had panic buying and loo roll shortages as well.
The biggest Covid myths have been about how exactly Sweden has tackled the pandemic. And unlike the other myths these are more of a right winger thing. I have seen it said “There are no lockdowns”. “There are no restrictions”. “Sweden is pursuing a ‘herd immunity’ strategy”, and so on. This is one area where Swedes get defensive. They feel the national approach has been misrepresented, Sweden’s particular circumstances downplayed, and they are being used to justify other’s agendas. I would say they are right.
Sweden has implemented restrictions, they just have differed from the full lockdowns elsewhere. But their situation is different too. Half of Swedish households are single occupant. There is a broad, deep social welfare net to protect workers who are ill – so people have no hesitation to “stay home if you are sick“. The Covid campaign is directed by a respected expert, Anders Tegnell, and Swedish people mostly follow the guidelines without grumble. The focus has been on a sustainable long term management of the pandemic – measures that people can live with for 12-18 months.
There are issues of course. The disease badly hit elderly homes and immigrant communities. Infection and death rates have been higher than in surrounding countries. Dr Tegnell has said he should have recommended more was done in the Spring. Right now we are experiencing a second wave, and restrictions have been tightened. But in general when you talk to Swedes they feel that: first they are happy with how things are being handled. Second Sweden’s approach works for Sweden, they would never suggest they have the answer for the rest of the world. And third, this is a long-term campaign. It is only at the end will people be able to properly assess how effective it has been.
One thing that everyone is very clear on, is that Sweden is NOT following a “herd immunity” strategy. They are not letting the disease run through the young and healthy (claiming a few thousand along the way) in order to protect the vulnerable. If that was the plan, you can see it isn’t working too well. It’s estimated that about 20% of Sweden has been exposed to Covid at this stage. Herd immunity needs about 70-80% of the population with antibodies. It would take over 2 years at this rate (and tens of thousands of deaths) to acheive it. So no, that is not the Swedish Covid strategy.
I think Sweden is a wonderful country. There is a lot about it I love. The people and the political system here have done a great job building what is a pretty fair, just and equitable society. Which of course is why it scores so strongly on different indices of Human Development, Democracy, Corruption, Quality of Life, etc.
It is not paradise though. It has challenges too – political, social, economic. And you try finding decent bagels, or Barry’s Tea here. Also I am told the Guinness is generally shocking.
Many places can learn a lot from Sweden. But simple lift and shift rarely works. The unique Swedish society, and history, and geography, and economy come together to make Swedish solutions work in Sweden. But it does help if the wonderful Swedish idea you want to adopt, or the Swedish outcome you want to achieve is actually real, and not just another myth as tangible Odin himself.
When I first moved to Sweden one of the things that surprised me was how this enviromentally aware, socially concious country is very very car centric. Out in the ‘burbs most people get around by car. The cities are ringed with retail parks accessible only by car. The average car size here is a lot larger than in Ireland. And the brands are fancier. You hardly notice the big Volvo XCs, or their VW, BMW, Audi equivalents. But then this is a country that makes cars. The rule of thumb is – “Countries that make cars, make them cheap (e.g. UK, Germany, USA). Countries that don’t make cars, make them expensive (e.g. Ireland, Denmark)”.
My first Swedish car- an Audi A6
On arrival in 2015 I bought a second hand Audi A6 2L turbo. Not because I was a petrol head that wanted a big luxury car. But because it was being sold at work, and was very good value. An Irish reader will go – “but what about the insurance?!?!?” And with good reason. If you contacted an insurance company in Ireland, newly arrived in the country, with no driving history for them to assess, and looked for a quote on a “luxury performance” car they would either:
a) laugh hysterically, before refusing outright to give you a quote. Or
b) give you one that would be a multiple of the car’s value, and involve handing over 1-2 of your children, as well as selling a few surplus organs.
Car insurance in Ireland is expensive*. It’s totally different in Sweden. Here the car is insured, not the driver. So my policy (fully comprehensive, and where anyone could drive the car) was about €900/year. Which I felt was pretty reasonable.
As an aside the A6 was a joy to drive on motorways. Not so practical in Swedish suburbs, and very thirsty when you did! It is no more though, and I am a bit more enviromentally sound today.
Back when I started this post in January (I discovered it sitting in my drafts folder) I was not driving. There was one big health related reason for that. And it was May before I got behind the wheel again. That was quite a pain in the arse. The suburbs of Stockholm are a place where things are easier with a car. But this being Sweden, while a car may make things easier it is not essential.
The local bus services are good. And the kids and I were able to adapt, even if we had to get up about 30 minutes earlier each day. Flexitime at work, an understanding boss, and remote working meant I could keep my employer happy. In this internet age it is possible to handle many things online. For the few we couldn’t – local friends, and sometimes family helped.
The biggest routine thing that needed to be taken care of was grocery shopping. But of course you can do that online. My usual supermarket is ICA, the largest chain here in Sweden. It works pretty much how you would expect. Order online, specify a delivery time and day, and pay the 99SEK delivery fee (about €9 – how does that compare to other countries)? As I have a loyalty card for them they can see my past purchases and their online site is quick to pre-populate the shopping cart with my usual stuff.
It’s convenient, really helped with my situation, and generally works well. Except when it doesn’t.
On the second order there was a couple of things I thought I had ordered, but figured I must have left them out. It was on the third order, when I checked, that I was sure I had problems. I found I was missing two loaves of bread, and about 1kg of mince (my plan was to make a load of lasagnes for the freezer). It was a little odd they were missed. These are big, and not exactly rare or unusual items. But hey, mistakes happen. I understand that. The real question is how are they handled by the company…
There wasn’t an online way of reporting a problem so I called ICA. They didn’t quibble about the report. They immediately put through a refund. But if I wanted the missing items I had to place another online order, and then call them to look for a refund of the delivery charges.
Excuse me? They made the mistake. But I was expected to take three steps to get if fixed (as well as making sure I was at home when the replacement delivery turned up). That is not exactly outstanding customer service**. I pointed this out to them and while the CSR was sympathetic there was nothing she could do. This seems like a clear signal to check out their competitors.
MatHem is probably the best known one in the Swedish market. They are a pure play online delivery outfit – only around since about 2010. The expectation would be that an internet only company will have a different and more supportive attitude to their customers? I shall have to see***.
In the Spring when I could not drive my slightly less enviromentally nasty automobile, I was on the bus all the time. And there is a high chance that is where I picked up (my probable case of) Covid. So I found myself at home, unable to go to the shops. And also unable to use any internet grocery service, as their lead times shot up to 2 weeks once everyone else was at home. What was an infectious person to do?
Fortunately I have good friends. They were able to pick up stuff for me, and drop it to the door. So if the virus would not get me, starvation wouldn’t either. One friend asked his girlfriend to do the drop as she would be working in the area. She left the bags at the door with some treats from her work as well. But you see she works for Fonus, one of the large Swedish funeral chains.
Which meant that later when people asked me how I was doing I could also tell them that the undertaker has been and left her card and brochure! 🤣
* People are quick to blame the insurance companies for this. They may be making big profits (I don’t know), but I would place the blame at the liability law that allows the claims and the payouts. A different legal framework in Austria and Sweden means the Irish experience is not repeated – and *shock* the roads feel safer! But the Irish legal profession are doing very nicely out of the local system. And they have managed to avoid most of the public anger over “compo culture”.
** In general customer service in Sweden is good. Once you reach a human that is. There are horrible queues to talk to real people on phone support lines. But it is a world away from Austria. There the idea that a customer could make a complaint is met with puzzled confusion. And you can forget any chance of them actually taking some sort of action.
*** Word has it that MatHem is burning through their investors money while they try and make a profit in the online grocery business. I don’t have a problem with getting some VC/TechBros pay to deliver my groceries to me!
About a week and a half ago I came down with a “flu-like” illness. In Sweden you can only get a test for the coronavirus if you are admitted to hospital, or if you are a healthcare worker. Which means I don’t know for sure if I had the most famous illness in the world at the moment. But on the basis that – if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. I am going to say my temperature, cough, chest pains, and lethargy, on balance of probability, were covid-19. My name is Seamus, this is my story…
Don’t worry, I am not going to bore you with all the details. But I started to feel ill around Wednesday the 25th of March. I had a cough, was feeling off, and that evening my temperature started to go up. By Thursday it was at 37.9°C and while that is not too high I had very little energy. Like everyone else I was working from home at the moment, but I told the boss I was just going to rest for a day or two.
As I went into the weekend my temperature continued to climb. It spent most of those days from about 38.6°C to (briefly) 39°C. I had a dry cough, and could feel a pain in my chest. I had almost no energy. I would have breakfast, watch an episode of something on TV and then, exhausted by that much effort, I would sleep on the couch.
Saturday was the point in time where I got worried (and I now know my friends and family were too). I was lucky that the kids had gone to their mother a few days before I started to get sick. That meant I only had to manage myself in the house. But if my temperature got much worse, or I started to have breathing problems then I was very much on my own. And while people in their mid-forties with no underlying medical issues generally do okay with the coronavirus, there are no guarantees.
I had family and friends checking in with me twice a day to make sure I was still responsive. And local friends were told where to find a key outside the house in case I could not be contacted. I was given a quick test to assess if I was having breathing difficulties:
Try and count out loud, from one to thirty, in your native language, without stopping or taking a breath. If you cannot do it, then you should contact a doctor.
My mother the nurse
Saturday was the day where I felt the worst. But it also was the point where I decided in my head I am not going to let this thing beat me. Once I did that it was like a switch was flicked in my head. Physically I was the same, but I felt a little better. And by Sunday night my temperature had started to fall. And after that it was just a slow return to normality. The sweats and chills stopped, my energy and appetite returned, though it was Friday before my temperature dropped below 37°C. Right now it is just the last traces of the cough I need to shift.
So what next? Well Sweden has become a bit famous for its unique approach to the pandemic. It is hard to tell whether they will test for antibodies in the future. I will probably never know for certain if it was covid-19 I had. And apart from the bragging rights, the more important thing is whether or not I am immune now. I hear there is talk in some countries of identifying those that are, so they can be given immunity certificates, and allowed to leave quarantine. But then the restrictions are relatively light in Sweden anyway. It would be my luck though to be immune and then for them to institute a full lock down…
The biggest question has been how to return to society. I wasn’t really hoping for a party, with a brass band, fireworks, and loads of beer. But some consistency on guidelines would have been nice. The WHO recommends you stay in quarantine for 2 weeks after your symptoms have gone.
Sweden says 2 days! In the end I have decided to go with the Irish guidelines: 2 weeks from when your symptoms first appear, or 5 days after your temperature returns to normal, whichever is longer. That means that, baring a relapse, I will open my front door, and emerge, pale, blinking, and trembling into the great wide open on Thursday morning.
I am pretty aware that I have had it easy in a lot of ways. I had a shitty few days, but I have had stories of other people my age being floored for several weeks. My friend Conor in Ireland was confined by his family to the playroom for 2 weeks. He was jealous that I had a whole house to myself 🙂
Now that it is pretty much done, I want to say thank you to all the people who helped me get through it. My ex minded the girls when they were supposed to be with me. Friends and family in Sweden and Ireland called me, sent messages and worried about me. It was a pain in the ass sometimes to deal with them when I just wanted to lie down and think about my poor life choices. But I also knew it was a sign people were worried about me and cared for me. That was a huge psychological help. And finally there are the people who made offers to bring me groceries. There were so many I could have had a twice daily delivery if I had wanted. But big thank you to Treasa and Johan, and Mark and Katarina who I did let do a few runs for me. Hopefully I can repay all of you in someway, just without you having to get the bloody virus.
A long time ago I heard a story about a married couple trying to get a spouse green card in the US. One of them was from the UK so there was a interview process by the immigration authorities to confirm their marriage was real. They talked about the confusion when they were asked (in separate interviews) what floor their apartment was on. One said the first floor. The other the second floor. Because of course in the US the bottom floor is numbered 1, and in most of Europe that is numbered as 0, and the first floor is the one above.
But not in Sweden. They have their own special way of doing this!
In any given building the lift panel will usually have one button that is marked as the floor where people enter and exit the building. Usually with a green ring around it. But god only knows what number that will be!
This is the lift panel in the building next to my office (my company uses both). The entrance floor isn’t 0 or 1, but er, number 2.
My office building is even stranger. Apparently the entrance is on floor 4! Because we are on a hill, and there is a lower down slope entrance we do have a floor 3. But can anyone tell me where floors 1 and 2 have gone to?
With this eccentric approach to floor numbering I would be surprised if many Swedes can pass their US immigration interviews 😉
Last night we had the first proper snow of the season, in Stockholm anyway.
Being so close to the sea Stockholm doesn’t get as much snow as the rest of the country. And global warming isn’t helping things either. We usually get some before Christmas, but the serious stuff, that will stay on the ground for days, and the cold that freezes the water for the skaters, really only comes in January and February.
Away from the balmy south it is a different story though!
This was the snow map for the country for yesterday.
Sweden is the land of white crockery. We were in IKEA yesterday, and I don’t think we saw anything other than plain, brilliant white cups, plates, bowls. and mugs. Which is all nice. But when I saw these beefy, brightly coloured mugs in Dunnes* in Cork I had to have them.
Mugs from Ireland
They bring a nice bit of cheerful colour to the table. But it does seem a bit funny bringing delph to Sweden.
* Okay I have cheated a little, the jug is from Flying Tiger which I suppose does make it Scandinavian.
One thing I have been doing in 2017 is spending more time on the water. I have been out kayaking a bit and I really want to do a lot more. I like the freedom, the simplicity, and the self sufficient nature of it on the overnight trips.
The girls are a little young for it, but we have a local lake, with a canoe club, and a stock of canadian canoes. So down we went today. The girls acquited themselves well.
The problem now is that they are dangling club membership in front of me. Pay about €50 and never have to pay for rentals again. But I haven’t been a canoe club member before. Thats a line I am not sure I can go over…
My Outdoors group on Meetup said they were going out at a city rink, and would help beginners get on their feet. I ran out. Bought skates. Turned up. And I was doing okay for the first hour. Then I fell clobbered used my hand to break my fall and that was it.
I was in the cast for a month. It came off just in time to go skiing. I returned from skiing on a Saturday. The following day, I was back on the ice with a wrist brace. I made a few trips out, and in the end I did about 12km of skating, but this is a goal that has evaded me. This year. I am determined I will do it next winter.
I found the skating was a great exercise. I have never been a runner/jogger, but this was something I could get into. The views are better, there is a great vibe to getting into a rythym which you feel you can keep up for kilometres. Of course it needs a totally different set of muscles to the ones I have used before. I found my ankles started to get sore after a few hundred metres and occasional stops were needed.
Still, next winter I will do the entire lake. I want to see other parts of Sweden from the frozen water. And as a bonus, the same bindings are used for the ice skates and for cross country skis. I will learn how to do that as well before the snows melt!
I don’t really do “New Year’s Resolutions”. I prefer to pick up and pursue challenges as I go along. It’s a while since I have set myself a good one – something that will take a bit of effort to complete. But here it comes. – the first formal personal goal for the coming year.
The lake in (what I call) our back garden is Norvikken. It’s a decent sized freshwater lake north of Stockholm, about 7km long, and about 400-500m wide. It freezes in winter. And when it does it is supposed to be one of the best skating lakes near the city. The kommune even clear the path all around the outside so there is a 17km distance ice skating track.
My goal is to skate the full 17k before the winter is out.
To do this I am going to need to:
Learn how to ice skate
Get the right distance skating gear (including safety equipment) and get proficient at using it.
Find a person/group to do this with (never skate alone)
I also need the lake to freeze again. It has ice at the moment, but a recent thaw has thinned things quite a bit.
I’ll keep you posted on how things go. The first step should be the easiest. Our little housing development has 2 small playing areas – bigger than basketball courts, smaller than a full astro turf pitch. In the winter they flood them and let the water freeze. This gives a safe skating surface for the kids. Once I get some skates I can go and embarrass myself there. I may need wrist guards, knee pads, a helmet and a dignity hiding bag as well though.