Today, Sunday 17th January 2010 is a historic date. It is the day that the first non state-owned pharmacist opens its doors to the public. This marks the start of the dismanteling of a government-owned monopoly and is designed to give the public more freedom of choice and improved customer service. I applaud it.
This is indicative of the changing culture in Sweden – a move from state control to a privatised market defined by competition. It’s a move from collective control to individual choice.
However, Sweden’s national culture of collectivism sits deep and isn’t changed over one night.
The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority demanded this week that all local councils should immediately shut down their solariums due to health risks and prevent people from sunbathing. This is a clear example of the Swedish state attempting to control the choice of the individual citizen. Surely people have the right to choose if they want to visit solariums, no matter how unhealthy it might be, especially if it helps them get through the dark half of the year? Not everyone can afford a winter holiday abroad.
In the debate about privatisation of pharmacies, some Swedish politicians argued that releasing medicine freely on the market would turn Sweden into a nation of drug abusers. As if the average Swedish citizen is too simple-minded to handle the overwhelming access to paracetamol.
I guess it’s the same with sunbeds.
I often wonder how many English people end up with broken noses when they visit Swedish friends at home.
You arrive at their building. You tap in the obligatory door code. Climb the stairs or ride the lift. Ring the doorbell and wait. Swiftly, the door opens. But in the wrong direction! Unlike in the UK, the doors open outwards in Sweden and you didn’t expect it. The door moves towards you like an inevitable wave. And you’re not quick enough to get out of the way. Smack! Broken nose.
But why do Swedish doors open outwards? What could be the explanation? Does it symbolise that the English are inward-looking, and Swedes are more outward-looking? Is it for security? It’s more difficult to kick in a door that opens outwards. Could very well be.
I think, however, it’s something entirely different. The price of accommodation in Sweden is high. Houses and flats are sold according to their precious square meterage. This makes the space behind a door important. Definitely sellable. Furnishable perhaps. One extra usable square meter means space for a hatrack.
So, it’s obvious, doors open outwards to give people a valuable extra square meter. And this is roughly the price of a broken English nose.
Early January in Stockholm and it’s dark and cold. So cold that the lakes turned to ice a month ago. So cold that your lungs hurt when you inhale. So cold that being outside, well, is brief. I scurry from flat to office, office to home. I try to find as many underground shortcuts as possible. I freeze even though I am wearing 5 layers of clothes.
I walk briskly down Kungsgatan, hunched with cold, and cursing the sting of the chill, when a focused Swede runs past me. Dressed in shorts, a reflective vest and a Ipod, he’s off on a jogging round. Probably down to the frozen canal and along the slippery canal-side path. He’s probably going to circle city hall and run casually along the lakeside, past the boats frozen fast into the ice. His legs are red and slightly chapped. His breath is billowing steam. But he doesn’t seem to care. The cold won’t stop him from his daily jogging round.
That’s what I call determination.
Freezing? It’s for wimps.
I love living in Sweden. I love Swedish people. I love Swedish values.
I was born in England but Sweden has, quite simply, become my home. After 15 years of living in Sweden, and working with cultural awareness training, I decided it was time to share my observations on life, culture and society.
My views, my perspectives and my experiences in this cold and warm country in the north.