Back in the days when I used to meet new people – or indeed people of any kind other than supermarket checkout operators – once we’d gone beyond the initial phase of the conversation they’d often ask me why I live in Sweden. For some reason, the other end of my peripatetic existence, in rural France, never seems to attract so much comment!
What’s perhaps more peculiar is that I don’t actually have a simple answer. I mean, now I can say that I’m happy with the Swedes’ approach to the pandemic, and shortly before that I could, and frequently did, bang on and on about how grateful I am to have been plucked from the slobbering jaws of Brexit by Migrationsverket.
But it’s hard to say exactly what it is about Sweden that makes it feel like home. The people tend to be a bit stand-offish, the grey bit of winter goes on far too long even in the far south, the food is execrable, they’re more than a touch racist and their habit of mixing light – and even heavy – industry with residential and historical construction has resulted in some horrifying juxtapositions (my ‘favourite’ example of this is the probably 11th century castle in the pretty Baltic Sea town of Åhus. Google “Åhus castle” then use StreetView on the red marker for the full effect – it really is worth those few minutes’ effort).
And yet… it is home. Partly because that’s where most of my friends are, despite the stand-offishness, and I suppose partly because when Swedes do technology it generally works, unlike the French version. In Sweden you really do feel like you’re in the 21st century. At least, you do in the new bits of the towns. Out in the sticks, not so much.
Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that I recently re-read a book I edited a few years back which tells the story of two Brits moving to rural Sweden. And it reminded me what it is I enjoy about being in Sweden.
“A Year in Kronoberg” is, of course, modelled along the same lines as Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence”. Each chapter relates the events of a particular month, from the snows of January to… well, the snows of December. But in between are descriptions of what it’s really like to live in Sweden. Not in the cosmopolitan cities of Gothenburg and Stockholm, but a small village in the rural south.
How do the Swedes cope with snow? Are they really all blond-haired and blue-eyed and obsessed with fika? Are there moose everywhere, and do they actually get drunk from eating apples? And is it true that you can’t buy alcohol in Sweden? As the seasons change and the two Brits become increasingly Swenglish, we get answers to all of these questions, together with many others.
We meet a variety of the colourful characters who really do seem to be everywhere in rural Sweden, from beautiful Carina who works in the village shop to Olof the plumber and his terrible jokes, encounter huge Vikings and their even more enormous tractors, learn how to pronounce “Växjö”, discover the Swedish obsessions with sheds, ice-cream and hotdogs, and find out why you should never get excited about a Swedish history trail – or go swimming outdoors after mid-August.
In other words, if you want to know the truth about living in Sweden, you should read this charming, light-hearted and humorously informative book.
I’m typing this on my laptop, sitting in the courtyard of my house in France, at the picnic table under the fig tree*.
I’m listening to my streaming music service on my mobile phone, which is picking the music out of the air and beaming it via Bluetooth to my wireless headphones.
A few minutes ago I was working on my current translation project, about the digitisation of a Belgian city’s administrative processes. My next project is the script for another set of meditation sessions. There’s always something new to do, always clients asking me if I’m available. And I’m making a – very decent, by most people’s standards – living too, from a job I can actually do anywhere. No commuting, no dress code, no office politics.
In a minute I think I’ll go for a walk through the marais, in which case I’ll listen to an audiobook. My current listen is set on a British island not entirely unlike Lindisfarne, and I’ve been toying with the idea of spending the winter somewhere like that – an island connected to the mainland at high tide. As a native of a permanent island, I find places like that very odd and interesting.
Later this evening, I’ll probably play a computer game to unwind. Either No Man’s Sky, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and really is excellent for relaxation, or Witcher 3, which isn’t so relaxing but is utterly stunning in terms of graphic detail and sheer depth of scenario.
At the weekend, I’m going back to Sweden, via Paris** – a city I’m quite familiar with now, and where, of course, I can talk fluently to any French person I happen to encounter.
Our house in Sweden is near the sea, surrounded by beech woodland, and has a garden larger than a whole block of houses in the UK. On Saturday I’m going to a party in Copenhagen, which involves crossing the Öresund Bridge. We’ll pay the bridge toll via an electronic bleeper attached to the windscreen (or, more probably, as I’m going in my friend Richard’s car, an electronic bleeper that I’ll be holding up to the windscreen, because his one has lost its sticky and normally lives in the glove compartment).
I can’t help thinking 18-year-old me, setting off to university for the first time about this time of year, 33 years ago, would be pretty damned impressed and happy with my life, and the technology*** that allows me to live like this.
Actually, 51-year-old me is, too.
*This makes it sound a lot posher than it is. We’ve been renovating the house, which we bought for the price of a garden shed in the UK, for three years, and we still don’t have ceiling lights, or heating. It’s Normandy, so today’s sunshine is going to be eclipsed by thick cloud for the rest of the week while everyone else in the country is sunbathing. The car’s developed a fault that means you regularly have to leap out and wiggle the battery leads before it’ll start. The sickly stray cat that’s adopted us has just snorted a streak of bloody snot onto the picnic table near my mouse mat, and there’s a disembowelled jackdaw (courtesy of said cat) decomposing in the rubbish bin. But anyway.
**Yes, I’m climate compensating the flights, but I still feel guilty. Then again, I don’t have kids, which by my reckoning puts me well on the side of the angels in terms of carbon emissions over my lifetime.
***And, of course, with the EU, which is what really allows me to live like this. Because in the UK I’d be lucky to be able to afford a flat, never mind two large houses. And – tax avoidance for the super-rich aside – this is the point of Brexit. They want people like me to stay in the UK, trapped in a monolingual economy of insecure jobs and extortionately priced housing.
How long can you go without swallowing? It’s actually a surprisingly long time. How about if you’re really dehydrated and desperate for a nice long drink of water? This week I’ve discovered that again, the answer is “a surprisingly long time”.
Ten days ago I came down with some kind of fluey virus thing. This is relatively normal for me – I get one every six months when my body decides it’s had enough and it’s time for me to stop working flat out every day and most evenings.
However, this time it’s a new variety. The lymph glands in my neck have swollen up to the size of duck eggs, I’ve had the aching all over and the sweating and being slightly delirious (primarily manifesting as dreaming insanely complicated spaceship parking games inspired by reading Iain M Banks before going to sleep). But my head has been surprisingly free of snot and there’s been no cough.
I didn’t bother going to the GP about this – I knew that they’d say “It’s a virus, drink plenty of liquids, get plenty of rest and take ibuprofen”. And that I’d have to beg and plead with the nurse even to be allowed to have an appointment to get that extremely self-evident advice. I had plenty of food in and, thankfully, not too much work to deliver (my body is clever like that – it always picks a week when I can actually be ill without worrying about clients).
Then on Wednesday I got a sore throat. “That’s odd”, I thought. Because I haven’t actually spoken to anyone throughout this entire thing – I’d cheerfully throttle whoever gave it to me and I certainly wouldn’t want an old person to have to deal with this. So where has an additional infection come from? I got out the throat spray that I bought on my last trip to the UK (the Swedes, for some reason, feel that if you’ve got a sore throat you should put up with Strepsil variants and nothing else), and thought no more of it.
That was until Thursday, when it started to get painful to swallow. I thought again about going to the GP. They do a drop-in time every day from 10.30 to 11.30 “for infections”, which has always conjured up images of everyone sitting in the tiny cramped waiting room producing interesting strains of cross-infection as they cough and sneeze all over each other. But it was 11 am and I wasn’t dressed and the GPs is 20 minutes’ drive away, and I did actually have a deadline to make.
“I can go tomorrow”, I thought. “It’ll probably be better by then anyway”.
Big mistake. Big, big mistake. By the evening it was really painful to swallow. Like, really really fucking painful. Like whole body wince painful. During the night I managed about five hours’ interrupted sleep, punctuated by taking a variety of painkillers that did absolutely nothing at all, and spending a good part of the intervening time the wrong side of the verge of tears. Many were the occasions upon which I berated myself for not having gone to the doctor’s the previous day. Especially in the morning, when I got up at 8 am, as dehydrated as a 3000-year-old mummy, only to find that it was a bank holiday.
(I do vaguely remember discovering this last year. Despite the fact that Midsommar is the main Swedish festival of the year, they don’t actually celebrate it on Midsummer’s Day. Instead they wait until the following weekend. To me, that’s missing the whole point of it. If you’re celebrating the longest day of the year, surely you do it… on the longest day?! And actually, if they had done they’d have had lovely weather, instead of grey skies and torrential rain. So nyer.)
So anyway, I finally worked out that there was a clinic open – but not until 5 pm. More self-recrimination. Fortunately I fell upon a combination of painkillers and other things that reduced the pain somewhat (primarily super high strength Sudafed, again imported from the UK because the Swedes only have plant-based medications for use against sinusitis. WTF? Have they ever actually had sinusitis?)
Finally the time came that I could set off. The directions said that I had to go to the grey building on the hospital site. Now, fortunately, I have had to visit said building before, so I knew where to go. But this is another case of Swedish small-town mentality. Because you were probably born at this hospital, you of course know which of these two blocks is “the grey building”. Except if you weren’t, of course, in which case, presumably, fuck you:
So anyway, I got there. I went in. There was, surprisingly, no queue. I was seen immediately by a pleasant enough nurse. I explained that I wanted a stronger painkiller as I was having major difficulty in swallowing. She didn’t actually physically examine me, but she did take a swab from the back of my throat, which was only moderately agonising, and read my temperature, which was, surprisingly, normal.
After a few minutes’ wait, she came back and said that I didn’t have an infection, but that it was probably a virus. Big shock. She suggested I try Strepsils. “Or why not a warm drink with honey? And ibuprofen or paracetamol are usually quite effective.” I explained again that I really wanted a stronger painkiller as I’d been taking ibuprofen for more than a week and it wasn’t having much of an effect. She said, “but we haven’t found any infection”, as though that was an answer, and I realised that once again a ‘healthcare professional’ was hearing what she wanted to hear rather than what I was actually saying. Presumably ‘Cocking a deaf ‘un’ and ‘Treat the patient like a 5-year-old’ are major modules in Swedish medical training.
So that was that. I drove back home, climbed back into bed (where, despite having a normal temperature, I immediately had to wrap myself in a towel to soak up the sweat) and have been suffering moderate agony every few minutes since. Still, at least I’m no longer berating myself for not having visited the GP. Instead I just call that nurse a bitch.
Interestingly, the job that I’d had to deliver the previous day was a research application for a project studying Swedish doctors’ reactions to a political decision to open up medical records for patient access. Apparently in pilot studies doctors were shocked to discover that this led some patients to question the doctor’s treatment strategy. Or alternatively to check that what they’d said during a consultation was actually entered into their record. Because despite Sweden’s apparent feminism, this is still an enormously backward, paternalistic society in many ways. My feeling is that this is at the root of the hideously long waiting times here. If Swedes were a bit more bolshy then they’d make so much fuss that this kind of delay – in a wealthy country like Sweden? – would be a thing of the past. Instead, it’s the doctor-patient relationship that’s a historical relic.
Answer: It’s actually the white and blue one. Yes, really.
This week I offended a client. I didn’t mean to, I just had to tell her that I couldn’t translate any more of a particular type of text. And it wasn’t the obviously offensive – I don’t do nuclear, or anything to do with the armed forces, or asset stripping, or even intensive farming. No, it was a menu. A Swedish menu. Because the problem with Sweden, even more than its incredibly Victorian attitude to patients’ rights (i.e. you haven’t got any and should simply do what Doctor says)… is the food.
Sure, they make all the right noises, and pretend that they understand the importance of good ingredients. But – visits by the likes of Jamie Oliver notwithstanding – that’s simply not true.
And here’s the perfect illustration. In fact, here are two illustrations. First, the butter section of a supermarket in a small market town near our place in France (population of the entire municipality: 2,553). In this town there are three supermarkets, plus a variety of other food shops, including the best traiteur I’ve ever visited in my life.
Even if you can’t make out the details, you can certainly see that there are a wide range of varieties and brands. And if you can see it close up, you’ll see organic butter, Breton butter, Normandy butter, butter from Charentes-Poitou, butter with sel de Guérande and sel de Noirmoutier, plus a range of unsalted types, including something called Buerre Devilloise, which I didn’t spot while I was there but will definitely be trying next time.
And second, the butter section of a supermarket in a largeish town near our place in Sweden (population of the entire municipality: 83,191). In this town there are a number of relatively small supermarkets, but this is one of the two biggest.
I haven’t cheated and taken a photo of only part of the shelf – this really is it. And actually, the Milda (bottom right) isn’t even butter. It’s cooking margarine (that’s Stork, if you’re a Brit).
So in Sweden you can get the following: Salted butter. Extra salted butter (and something that’s extra salty in Sweden is really fucking salty). Unsalted butter. Organic butter (salted).
And that is it.
You can’t get organic unsalted butter.
You can’t get unpasteurised butter.
You can’t get artisan butter.
You can’t get any kind of butter from a region.
What you can get is SMÖR (which, coincidentally, is not entirely unlike the Swedish word for “lubricate”, and that’s about what you’d want to do with the butter in these monopolistic packets).
Because when you can’t even get good quality in such a basic ingredient as butter, the rest of your cuisine doesn’t have much of a chance. And in Sweden, notwithstanding the odd star chef, actual authentic contemporary cuisine is characterised by overly fussy presentation and poorly selected, badly combined ingredients. About like Britain in the 1970s, say.
For example, the dish that made me decide I really really couldn’t stand translating any more Swedish menus was as follows, at an (ostensibly) authentic Italian restaurant:
Pasta, chicken, red pepper, curry and peanuts in a cream sauce.
Now, by my reckoning, that’s at least Italian, Indian and Thai cuisines in a single dish.
Because in Sweden, “fusion cuisine” means “scrape out the contents of the dustbin and slop it all onto a plate”.