On Sweden and other strange things in the North

Today is my last day in Sweden and after almost a year of living in this strange place, I am ready to go home. But have a feeling I will be back someday, even if it is just to be with the people who have become my extended family here and revisit the places I loved or adventure to the places I didn’t get to this time around.

I’ve been thinking about how to arrange these thoughts so let’s start big. Sweden is fucking huge. I mean, size-wise, South Africa is more than 2.5 times larger, but Jesus, there is so much empty space. That’ll happen when the entire country’s population is that of Johannesburg, I guess. Having a population that small over more than 400 000 square-kilometres of land means it’s sparsely populated and there is a lot of “backwater” Sweden that people just don’t speak about. The people who come from these places? These are the people with whom I’ve spent the past year.

Big cities

Stockholm sucks. Let me get that out of the way. It’s a weird city with very little character left bar the oldest part of town (Gamla Stan) and parts of Södermalm, which has become the hipster area. The archipelago is the one thing saving it from being a downright shithole that turns people into rabid bears wanting to tear out your throat if you so much smile at them in the street. The streets are the same as any other modern European street and the dialect is awful. The language here is nasal and people almost sound like Marvin the Martian … but in Swedish. The speech pattern is in perfect iambic pentameter, which is disconcerting as fuuuuuuuuck. And Stockholm’s residents seem to think they’re the only ones that exist in Sweden.

That being said, some of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had have been in Stockholm. A walking tour of the city, overlooking the entire archipelago was a sight to behold. I had the best dessert I’ve ever tasted from a tiny dim sum restaurant and saw some of my favourite paintings by Picasso and Andy Warhol, as well as The Scream by Edvard Munch, which was temporarily exhibited at the Moderna Museet.

There’s the Gothenburg-Stockholm rivalry. They think it doesn’t exist but it’s the typical East Coast/West Coast vibe where Gothenburg generally wins. People from Stockholm will tell you that Gothenburg is full of dirty hippies who secretly want to be British and Gothenburgers will tell you Stockholm is, well, Stockholm. I won’t say which is better but it’s Gothenburg. I may have been raised on the east coast, but in Sweden, the west is where it’s at for me.


I could write a thesis on how strange Swedish people are. You have this weird sense of impersonal distancing, which is joked about the entire Nordics over. You don’t talk to Swedes in the street. They will look at you like you’re mad and walk the other way or ignore you. Don’t smile at them randomly. They will think you’re weird and possibly scowl at you in return. They hate everything and everyone, queue for everything (even to use a public swing) and stand far apart from each other like Cornonavirus social distancing has been a part of its cultural heritage. If you want to get to know random strangers and make small talk, you’ve come to the wrong neighbourhood. It’s really difficult to make friends here.

But when you finally do break the ice, they’re amazing human beings. I have become friends with people with hearts of gold. One of them is a nurse in training who only gets drunk after 28 beers. Another is a librarian who loves Hozier as much as I do. There’s an Irish-Swede whose singing puts angels to shame and a few others who make my heart feel at home. Our housemate here is the most down-to-earth and caring person and he has a doggo named Erza who has my heart in her little paws. But basically, it’s hard to make friends unless you’re at a university or social setting where friendship is natural. Swedes only really let loose when they’re drunk and that’s when you get to see their kindness and love.

It reminds me that despite social norms – and some norms really are trash – people are generally kind and loving and want kindness and love. No matter how hard people may seem or how their environment has shaped them externally. Some stereotypes are so damn true, though, and it’s wonderful when you see a Swede do something typically Swedish unironically.

Also, King Erik XII was more commonly known as “Erik of Pommern”. Yes, the Swedish king became a pirate. Just one of the many fun facts about Sweden’s royalty, whom people here love but are still highly critical of.

And then there are the exchange students I’ve met since February last year. They are ridiculous and I love them.

The land

It’s cold. That’s all.

Just kidding. It’s only cold 91.1% of the time. Summer is gorgeous and the sun doesn’t set most days. It just hovers around the horizon like a clingy dude who has a crush on you. However, it doesn’t mean it’s warm. Some days go up to (gasp) a whole 27 degrees! But that’s basically it. That’s a Swedish heatwave. In summer it is lush and green and you had better have some time off because lakes are where it’s at. I think we went to almost every single lake in the vicinity and hiked through every forest. These two pretty commonplace occurrences of nature are what I will miss the most about the landscape.

It rains all Spring and Autumn. That’s all. If you’re not sure about the weather, it’s probably raining.

Winter is a bitch. Last night was -9 degrees and it’s currently snowing and raining at the same time. You get used to not feeling your fingers and toes. But it’s also stunning. We’ve had snowball fights and I ended up building a snowman with our neighbour’s eight-year-old daughter. The nights leading up to Christmas are quiet and the snow is crisp on the ground as people aren’t out walking. I often just saw Jackrabbits hopping through the snow and a few deer leaving their footprints behind but generally, snowy nights are my favourite. The coldest we’ve experienced while being here was -17 in Lapland. At some point, you forget your nose even existed. The sky in winter is the purest I’ve ever seen it – ever. On clear nights, you can see forever.

Two-thirds of Sweden is forest and its easy to see why films like The Ritual seem plausible in the imagination. The idea of cults is believable due to the interconnectedness of history and the land. Midsommar was actually accurate in its portrayal of historical practices from the Vikings’ blood eagle to the practice of Ättestupa (ritual suicide at 75 years old). The land itself is intrinsically linked to how people lived. This is poetic, especially when you take into consideration that 200 000-odd Sámi people still live in northern Sweden and live off the land.

Moose are hella huge. Like, will-take-out-a-Hummer huge. Reindeer are surprisingly vicious. Wolves are scarce, foxes are timid, Jackrabbits and squirrels are brazen, deer are stunning but kinda stupid, and you’re very lucky if you ever see a bear. The two snakes that exist in Sweden are sorry excuses for snakes.

Swedish society

Although a socialist democratic state, it’s essentially functioning capitalism, if there is such a thing. It’s a free and open economy with heavy regulations by the government. Basic minimum wage means everyone can live a decent life no matter the job. At 125 kr (R230) an hour, it’s easy to see why. Life is not as expensive when you earn in Kronor. Though property prices are quite ridiculous in the major cities, owning a dog is possibly more expensive than owning a house. Median tax is at around 20% to 24%, which is lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recommended 30%. However, there is NOTHING you need to pay for over and above your salary for a basic living unless you want further insurance: Health, education, unemployment and disability insurance, and security (among a few other things here and there) are included in your tax.

Less than 5% of national tax goes toward the military. You can have little to no tertiary education and live better than your average professional in South Africa. Life is good for the employed no matter the job. And if you belong to a union, you will never have an issue with work.

That being said, there is an undercurrent of discrimination that runs through Swedish society, mostly based on race and national origin, which I wrote about here. If your name doesn’t sound Swedish, good luck finding a job. If you’re not white, you might not want to be customer-facing. If you don’t speak fluent Swedish, well fuck off. Gender disparities still exist and it’s rife; women earn on average 73% less than their male counterparts. And although our little town is one of the world’s most gay-friendly places, homophobia is actually growing. And the big one – Sweden is the rape capital of Europe. But the sex industry is lit. Sex workers are protected by law and nothing considered deviant is entirely frowned upon. Sex shops are like any other – advertising in windows and all – and people have no issue walking in and out of them as if they’re going for takeout. I like this.

White Swedes love to blame the country’s issues on immigration but the truth is, there is so much wrong in this society and Sweden just brushes off the causes of these issues as if they don’t exist – and so they grow. The rising right-wing parties – Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) and the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordfront) – are fuelled by US- and UK-bred racism. They’re the ones who want fewer social securities because they have a problem with everyone (even the black people) getting them, and they buy into the idea that Sweden is a nanny state.

I don’t understand how your country taking care of you is a bad thing. In fact, Sweden is very much against state paternalism, which operates under the guise of “protecting people from themselves” but dictating their actions through government mandates. Individuality and self-determination are at the root of the country’s desire to ensure its people are able to do whatever they desire without having to worry where their next meal is coming from. Having a dream doesn’t mean you have to struggle for it.

This doesn’t even cover half of my experience here. One day, I will write something possibly more poetic. But for now, let this be a kind of a basic explanation of this silly, strange country I have had the privilege to call home for the past year.

To all my friends here, thank you for making this adventure a great one. I will be back one day. You can be sure of that. Until then, hej då and tack så mycket! Jag kommer att sakna dig.