Saturday night in Stockholm in March. Night has descended. The remnants of the winter snow are melting away leaving gravel and sand on the pavements and in the gutters. The wind whistles along the facades of the buildings, round the corners and away into the sky.
The streets are empty. They echo with isolation. Like a post-apocolyptic landscape, all sign of humanity is wiped out. It’s like the bomb has dropped. It’s as if all Stockholmers have died from a mysterious disease and all that is left is an abandoned shell of a city, the diffuse lights in the apartment windows and the blinking neon of the local pizzeria.
Stockholm is eerie like a ghost town.
But this vision is not unique to Stockholm. All over Sweden, in every town, on every street, the sight is the same. It’s Saturday night in Sweden. In March.
And it’s the final of the Swedish Melody Festival on the telly.
The other day I heard a interesting quote by Drew Curtis about Sweden. Drew is the founder of community website FARK and a popular lecturer in social media. He said ‘I love Sweden. The entire world should be like Sweden. They all like to drink and get naked, and the women are hot. I can’t think of a better nation on the planet.’ No reinforcing of stereotypes there then.
This inspired me to find other quotes from celebrities about Sweden. After extensive searching, I only managed to find 3 more. And here they are.
The legendary Lou Reed said,
‘Compared to New York City, Sweden is a very scary place’
I don’t know what national characteristics or behaviours he was basing this on. Then there’s New York Doll’s member Johnny Thunders who said,
‘I was in Sweden for 10 days. They put me on the front page of the daily papers eight days in a row. I did nothing to warrant any of the attention. It was ridiculous.’
Small country, ‘big’ international celebrity.
And, finally, my personal favourite from the very religious Sir Cliff Richard,
‘Sweden is just about porn and gonorrhea’
So, the newspapers are trying to paint a picture of a ‘Wallander curse’. A second Wallander actor, Emil Forselius, was discovered dead this morning in his apartment. He had committed suicide. A while ago, popular actor Johanna Sällström also killed herself – while in the middle of a Wallander film project.
The myth of Swedish suicide still has a strong hold outside of Sweden. When non-Swedes are asked what stereotypes they have of Swedes very many of them say ‘suicidal’. Why is this the case?
Is it because of the long dark winters and the problem we can have with seasonal adjustment disorder? Maybe. Is it the legacy of depressing, morose Bergman films that have painted a miserable and introspective view of the Swedes? Perhaps. Is it the lack of ‘godliness’, no real strong belief in religion, that means taking your own life is easier? Could be.
Combined, of course, with statistics.
According to statistics, Swedes have the highest suicide rate in the world. This is something that non-Swedes often love to refer to. But statistics are deceptive.
Most countries in the world do not even keep statistics of suicide, especially those countries with strong religious beliefs (which is most of them). When people commit suicide, they call it something else, in order to secure a place for the dead person in heaven or to prevent the family from being burdened with shame.
But in Sweden, suicide is not a sin. Suicide is a tragedy. In Sweden suicide is documented as what it is – suicide – as a reminder for the rest of us how fragile our existence is.
So, of course Sweden has the highest statistics, because Sweden is one of the few countries to actually keep accurate documentation.
I don’t believe that Swedes have a tendency to take their own lives more than other nationals. I just believe that when they do, the nation doesn’t try to hide it. It is hard enough for families to deal with their grief without having to also be weighed down with shame.
Ultimately, Sweden is a modern society where citizens have free choice to make decisions that influence their own lives. Suicide is, in its extreme, a way of exercising this free choice. It is of course a tragedy but it is not something we should ignore and hide.
As long as some people in our society feel that suicide is their only choice, it is our obligation to document and defend an open dialogue about it.
I returned from Helsinki to Stockholm after a couple of days away. I got on the plane at 18.00 Finnish time and flew to Stockholm. The flight was 45 minutes long so I landed at 17.45 Swedish time. I got on a plane and arrived before I took off.
Nordic time travelling rules!
Sitting in the airport lounge waiting for my flight to Helsinki, I am amazed by Swedish efficiency. Outside, the heavens have opened. It has been tanking down with snow all day long. And yet, no flights are cancelled or delayed. Snow ploughs are working feverishly to clear the runways. De-icing trucks are eagerly spraying fluids over the bodies and wings of the planes. Staff are shovelling and transporting snow from one place to another.
This is Swedish efficiency at its best. In England, a few flakes of snow and the airport would have been shut, stranding passengers.
I don’t know how long this Swedish efficiency can win against the elements. Long enough for me to be boarded and on my way, I hope.
She talks about a report released in January this year by the Social Insurance Inspectorate which looked at the number of sick days taken by Swedes.
In 2005, 14% of the working age population were on sick and incapacity benefits. This was more than any of the 30 major countries in the OECD. Interestingly, over 50%of the Swedes who were on benefits were away for more than 6 months, compared to the other OECD ccountries where this figure was between 10-20%.
However, according to the report released in January, this has changed. The number of people on sick and incapacity benefits has dropped dramatically, as has the number of people on long-term benefits.
So, is this a miracle of health care? Has it do with an upsurge in national fitness levels? Has there been an increase in medication? No.
In 2008, the Swedish government introduced check-ups every three months for those on sick leave. And amazingly, many people have discovered that they are well enough to work after all.
According to the report, the Swedish state has saved 650 million crowns in benefit payments.
So that’s where the money came from to reimburse commuters for the delays in the public transportation system.