A surprising Swedish statistic

In Sweden, there is a population of ten million, with two million residing in the greater Stockholm region. Of the overall population, around half of the citizens live in flats.

In a recent survey of flat dwellers in Stockholm, 80% said that they don’t know the name of any of their neighbours. That figure is surprisingly high. I have lived in my flat since October and I can rattle off the first names of at least five of the neighbours. 80% surprises me. And I wonder if this is typically Swedish? If you asked the same question in London or New York or Madrid would you get the same result?

One aspect that might affect this lack of neighbourly knowledge is the type of flat that people live in.

In Sweden, flats are typically either rental flats or resident-owned flats.

Resident-owned flats. When you buy a flat in Sweden, you also buy a percentage of the building which you own together with your neighbours. In these resident-owned flats, the building is run as a private cooperative, governed by an elected tenant board. This means that you are forced to work together with your neighbours to operate and maintain the building. For example, once a year there is a ‘shareholder annual meeting’ and twice a year there might be clean-up parties for the communal spaces. This means you meet and interact with your neighbours. In Sweden, resident-owned flats make up about 21% of the total housing stock.

Rental flats. In rental accommodation, a private company owns the building and takes care of all the communal areas such as gardens, laundry room and stairwells. This means tenants in theory have to never interact with their neighbours. Rental accommodation is about 28% of the total housing stock.

Finding a flat is extremely difficult in Sweden’s cities. To buy is expensive and waiting lists for rentals can be over 10 years. This creates another market for ‘second hand’ rental, where people sub-let their apartments out to others. This creates even further anonymity as the renter is often only there for short periods. In this case, there is probably no necessity to get to know the neighbours. In research from Sweden’s Ministry of Housing, an estimated 200,000 people live in this form of housing in Stockholm.

So, on reflection, maybe it isn’t so unexpected that 80% say they do not know the name of a neighbour in their building.

Statistics aside, one can wonder what impact this has on local communities and Swedish society as a whole. While this encourages the Swedish qualities of privacy, respect and integrity, it surely also contributes to loneliness, unfriendliness and alienation?

Sources: HSB, The Local, SCB, Boverket

11 hacks for surviving Swedish midsummer

With Midsummer arriving tomorrow, it is time to start planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers. As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself.

This year it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance from others. Apart from these guidelines, here are a few more hacks to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.

Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way in corona times is to stand 1-2 meters away, look directly in their eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. You might even give a small wave or touch elbow to elbow. If you are feeling adventurous, follow up your ‘Hej’ with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.

Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the strawberry dessert has even been put on the table.

Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.

If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of skinny dipping when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.

Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. This year, the activities are hopefully adapted to corona. To survive these activities, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.

Protect yourself. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. It remains to be seen, however, if this year people are keeping their distance. If you don’t keep your distance, and don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.

Throw in the thermals. It looks like it might be super sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. One of the warmest ever! But it is good to be prepared. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.

Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill and new potatoes. Remember to use hand disinfectant before you attack the buffet.

Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time.

Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.

Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…

That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.

Glad Midsommar!

Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!

The end of a Swedish murder mystery

At 11.21 pm on 28 February 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot by a lone assailant. He was killed in cold blood on the street after visiting a cinema with his wife. A second shot injured her. Lying in a pool of blood, in the cold Swedish winter, Olof Palme died.

The assassination of Olof Palme (to the left above) has caused headlines around the world. Theories abounded on who had assassinated this very popular and very hated politician. During the last 34 years, the police have investigated the case and failed to identify the murderer. The unsolved case of Olof Palme has gaped like an open wound in Swedish society.

However, today the prosecutors responsible for the investigation announced that they know who the assassin is. In making this claim, they have ended the decades-long mystery. No conclusive evidence was provided, no DNA and no weapon, but prosecutors believe they have the man. They have pointed to Stig Engström, a graphic designer working at a nearby company, pictured to the right above. Stig Engström committed suicide in 2000, so cannot be charged. Therefore the case is closed after 34 years!

Finally, the mystery can be resolved. Or can it? with any lack of clear evidence, it is a very frustrating finale to a very drawn out drama. For a country searching for an answer, this will probably not give them it. And as Stig Engström took his story to the grave, I guess we will actually never know the truth.

Deserted Swedish streets

For those of you who have bought into the myth that Sweden is doing nothing to combat the epidemic, here is a photo of downtown Stockholm. It was taken today by a friend of mine at 11.00am. The normally bustling streets of the capital are deserted. It is admittedly a ‘bridge day’ between a public holiday and a weekend, but even so, the streets are usually much busier than this.

This is a testimony to the fact that most Swedes are taking it seriously.

Shitty Swedish Weather

I moved to Sweden in October 1994, and was due to return to the UK to visit family the following May. May 13th in fact. Exactly 25 years ago today.

I arrived at Arlanda airport in Stockholm to be informed that the plane was delayed due to bad weather. The weather was high winds and snow. SNOW! On May 13th! When I finally arrived in the UK, I arrived to a London basking in sunshine and its citizens walking around in T-shirts and shorts. As you can understand, I questioned my choice of moving to Sweden at that point.

Since then May 13th 1995 has held the shittiest weather record for me. Until today that is – May 13th 2020.

Last night it snowed. Tonight it is forecast to snow and be minus degrees. Today’s weather is a freezing drizzle. It’s even worse further north in the country. This sucks for May.

However maybe there is a positive side to this. I’m not sure what nature was saying 25 years ago, but today the message seems clear. The streets are mostly deserted and the cafe terraces are abandoned. This is surely nature’s way of telling us to stay the hell at home.

When watching the Swedes is a disappointment

I love watching the Swedes. That is, in fact, what this whole blog is based on. Usually I’m struck with admiration and curiosity, sometimes outrage and anger. But right now, disappointment is the biggest emotion I’m feeling.

Sweden is an amazing country that has handled the corona pandemic in a very different way from the rest of the world. This is culturally not so surprising as Sweden is a country that often deviates from the norm. Instead of draconian lock downs, Sweden’s approach is based on personal responsibility, solidarity and common sense.

So why my disappointment? Well, a couple of reasons.

The instructions about social distancing are very clear. Avoid crowds and stand or sit 2 meters away from the nearest person. And yet, many Swedes are not doing this. On outside restaurants and cafe terraces, people are packed together like sardines. In parks and squares, people are squeezed onto shared picnic blankets. What is it about social distancing that people don’t understand? Be sociable yes, but be physically distanced. It’s so easy that it’s ridiculous to not follow it.

The second source for my disappointment is the lack of perseverance that seems to be prevailing. After a few weeks of self control, it looks like many Swedes have tired of it. They think that the worst is over. They couldn’t be more wrong. Now is not the time to relax. Cases are increasing, not decreasing. Now is the time to persevere, to work from home if possible, to keep washing hands and keep your distance. Even if the sun is shining and the weather is warmer.

I am sure my disappointment is temporary. But I would like to say to everybody in Sweden – be happy things are more relaxed here but do follow the instructions of the authorities. It’s that simple. If we all do it, it will all be over sooner. And then we can all sit in the sun in the park.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching the Swedes – from a comfortable distance.

Trump’s obsession with Sweden

In his recent statement, Trump yet again criticized Sweden. This time it was about Sweden’s approach to the corona pandemic. Not only was his statement bizarre, but it was factually wrong. But, hey, who’s surprised?

What’s more intriguing is Trump’s interest in Sweden. This isn’t the first time he’s negatively commented on what’s happening in this relatively small country. From making false claims about everything from immigrants and refugees, to riots and rappers, the man seems obsessed. He even tried to interfere in Sweden’s legal system and accused the Swedish Prime Minister or ‘letting the USA’s African American community down’ when he didn’t get his way.

So why the obsessive focus on Sweden?

Film-maker Ami Horowitz, who made a documentary about Sweden, believes Trump periodically brings up the country in his speeches and tweets because it represents a “liberal bastion that in a lot ways is very different from the United States … Democratic socialism, open immigration policy, high taxes, welfare state, there’s no question Sweden is a paradigm of things the president doesn’t like.

Although he claims to have a friendly relationship with Sweden, the country is a thorn in the President’s side. In other words, a constant reminder that there are other ways to run a country. It scares him. Sweden consistently trumps USA in research on quality of life, equality, opportunity, happiness, safety, entrepreneurship, education levels…..oh the list is long. This must really trample on Trump’s toes. In 2019, Sweden was ranked ‘the most reputable country’ in the world. USA came in at number 17. Ooh, that must sting someone with an enormous ego.

Part of Sweden’s reputability comes from the quality of its politicians. Here, we have a long line of Prime Ministers who behave in a dignified manner. While the USA is important to Sweden, Trump really isn’t. Like most politicians, he is temporary. His days are numbered. But Sweden’s positive relationship with America will continue long after the country has said goodbye to their presidential man child. And hopefully their next leader will be one who respects differences rather than one who fears them.

The Swedish King and the British Queen

Both Sweden and the UK have reigning monarchs. The UK’s has Queen Elisabeth II and Sweden has King Carl Gustaf XVI. Like most of the European monarchs, they are related to each other. King Carl Gustaf is a descendent of the UK’s Queen Victoria, making him and Queen Elisabeth third cousins.

The other evening, they both gave a speech to their respective nations in regards to the corona pandemic. And they were like chalk and cheese.

I first watched the Swedish King’s speech. This bumbling, friendly man stumbled his way through his speech. Heavily dependent on his paper notes, he sounded a bit robotic to me. A friend of mine said it was like watching a trained chimp. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Swedish King. He seems like a nice man. But as a father of the nation in times of crisis, he missed the mark for me.

Then I watched the British Queen. This imperturbable woman, looking straight into that camera, embodied calm and credibility. In her typical restrained manner, her speech had depth and meaning, and her words were truly comforting in a crisis – from the nation’s mother.

I reflected over the two speeches, and why my reaction was so different. Part of it was definitely influenced by the delivery of the speech. The Queen used an auto prompt which enabled her to look into the camera, straight into the living rooms of her subjects. The King also looked into the camera but read from paper notes, meaning he frequently lost vital connection with his audience. The Queen spoke fluently, the King, who has dyslexia, struggled through his speech. The Queen looked dignified and prepared. The King looked like a stunned uncle who has unexpectedly been called upon to deliver a speech at a funeral.

However, I think the main difference for me lies in the cultural value of language. Even though I can speak Swedish, King Carl Gustaf’s words did not resonate with me. I understood him but was not moved by him. His words hit me in the brain, but not the heart. In comparison, English is my mother tongue, my native language. I have a more emotional relationship to English. When words of gravitas are spoken in my native language, I experience them with depth and fullness.

This really surprises me. I’ve been in Sweden over 25 years, I speak Swedish on a daily basis, and many of my relationships are in Swedish only. Yet in times of crisis and seriousness, words in my first language cut through Swedish like a knife through butter. It goes to show the mark that our first language leaves on us – our language of feeling. This is the language that indelibly forms our emotional cultural identity.

The Swedish ‘recommendation’

In the wake of covid-19, the National Agency of Public Health has provided the Swedish population with recommendations and advice. However, it seems that these very words ‘recommendation’ (rekommendation) and ‘advice’ (råd) are causing problems for many people.

How do you understand the word ‘recommendation’? Maybe it’s a friend who is making a suggestion to you? Or a family member who is promoting a certain behaviour? Or a respected critic who is letting you know what restaurant you should eat at? For most of us, the words ‘recommendation’ and ‘advice’ imply a suggestion that we can decide to listen to or not, act on or not. This is how we understand it.

But it doesn’t always mean this and this is where linguistic confusion is arising. As I understand it in Swedish, when ‘recommendation’ or ‘advice’ is used by a government authority it is not something to be taken as a suggestion – it is a serious instruction that has to be followed. It is the strongest action an authority can take. The next step is a law change decided by the parliament.

So when the Swedish Agency for Public Health recommends that we stand 2 meters apart, it is not a recommendation as we might understand it, it is a strict instruction, and does not include a high level of individual choice. It is the step before criminalising something.

In his press briefing today, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said ‘allmänna råd från myndigheter är ingen lösa tips. Det förväntas att (alla) som omfattas av råden följer dem. Inte ibland, utan varje dag och varje minut.’ This translates roughly as ’general advice from an authority is not just a tip. Everybody who is covered by this advice is expected to follow it. Not just sometimes, but every day and every minute.’

This confusion between colloquial terminology and governmental terminology can explain a lot of the behaviour and attitudes we see around us. People are not defying the authorities, they just think that recommendations are elective.

But the bottom line is this – we do not have a choice, even though we might interpret it so. We are obliged to all follow the instructions we are provided with. Zealously.

If we do this, we avoid criminalization and curfew and hopefully can together quickly crush corona.

But it doesn’t apply to me, right?

Out walking today, I passed through one of Stockholm’s biggest building sites – the Slussen renovation. As I approached, I saw a guard in a reflective vest and holding a red flag. He was stopping pedestrians from getting through, as the construction company was blasting into the rock to make a service tunnel. And he waved at me and told me to wait.

It was going to take 10 minutes to safely blast, so I stepped to the side and stood in the sun to warm my face. And waited.

From behind me, a middle-aged man approaches the guard and asks what was happening. The guard informs him of the on-going blasting. ‘But I need to get through’ the man says. ‘You’ll have to wait’ says the guard. ‘I can’t wait, this is very inconvenient’, the man replies. ‘You have to’ says the guard. The man folds his arms, and scowls in silence.

A few minutes later a young woman arrives. She walks right past the waiting crowd that has now formed. She approaches the guard. ‘I have to get through’. ‘You have to wait’ says the guard. ‘No I can’t do that, let me through’ replies the woman. ‘It is not safe’ answers the guard, ‘they are blasting and it is dangerous to walk past’. ‘I’ll be quick’ says the woman. ‘No,’ responds the guard, ‘you have to wait’.

Two minutes later, a voice on the guard’s walkie-talkie allows us to continue through. The middle-aged man stomps off, the young woman doesn’t move – swiping her mobile.

It often seems to me that some people have a hard time accepting instructions. Even if there are signs, or barriers or even a guard with a red flag, they seem to think they are not affected by it. Because they are in a hurry or it is inconvenient. It’s like saying ‘Yes, I understand, but it doesn’t apply to me, right?’

Might these be the same type of people who, despite strong recommendations from the government, nevertheless squeeze into public transport, hang close together in restaurants and still plan to travel away for Easter?

Just wondering….