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The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

A day as a guard

April 18th, 2016 by David Cairns

Life as an Ambassador. Driven around in the Jaguar. Visits all planned so you go straight in. Most of the people you meet invited or screened. A diplomatic bubble.

But what about those who work on the front line? What is their day to day life like? How are they treated, by visitors, and by other staff? I decided to find out by volunteering to join our guard team for a morning in April.

In the run up all was exciting. Would I get a gun, asked my son? No. But handcuffs and a walkie-talkie yes. Was the uniform cool? Yes, and a reminder to watch the waistline.

On the morning itself, I was nervous. Would I do something stupid? What if we had a security incident, and I was hopeless? My boss for the day, the head of security, sent me instructions, and there was a lot to learn. I almost overslept the 0700 start. That would have been bad.

In the end, fortunately, all went well. It was also quite an eye opener. Our guards have to be bi-lingual, and answer any call that comes, as they also operate the telephone reception. The post room had pictures of some of the nasty things that people send to Embassies, and that was sobering as I went through the day’s mail. You get to know all the Embassy regulars, from the garbage guys to the regular police checks, and these relationships are important. Something can happen at any time, and that means you, and your stuff, has to be ready. Our guards are young, but much more mature than I was at that age. For our own colleagues most say hello; others are lost in their own world and don’t (and I realised I’ve been guilty of that).

HMA with Rickard and Stefanos

Thanks to Rickard and Stefanos (pictured here), and Tobias for looking after me.  It was fun, with a great team, who are an excellent front line for us here in Stockholm.

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Voting in Britain

March 21st, 2016 by David Cairns

There are about 3.5–5.5 million UK citizens living overseas, and about 30,000 in Sweden. In the future, British people are likely to get a “vote for life” although that is not possible today. But if you have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years you can vote.

You can register online to vote – it takes less than five minutes and once that’s done you can choose to vote via one of three methods. You can vote either by post; by proxy (you designate someone you trust to vote on your behalf in the UK); or in person at a polling station in your constituency. If you can’t or don’t want to register online, you can still download and post back paper forms.

To register to vote you will need to know your National Insurance number and your passport details. If you don’t have a National Insurance number you can still register, but you may have to supply more information to show who you are. If you were too young when you left the UK to have been registered, then you can register as an overseas voter if your parents (or guardians) were registered in the UK in the last 15 years.

Do spread the word. #ovrd, #yourvotematters, and #expat.

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City Runs

February 4th, 2016 by David Cairns

Since moving to Stockholm I’ve been blessed to live next to the Djurgården, and to be able to run around Djurgårdsviken a few times a week.

I always try and go for a run when I travel. I like how you get to know a city or country a little bit more, and it’s a good antidote to work breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  In my time as a diplomat I’ve managed to visit around 80 countries. So I thought I’d share my top 10 city runs, and maybe a couple to avoid. Here goes:

Top 10

1. Tokyo. The loop around the Imperial Palace. Yes, I’m biased as it was my last posting, but this favourite of Tyler Brule (of FT and Monocle fame) is a great, green, 5km circuit in the heart of the city. Best time of year? Early April, when the spectacular cherry blossom is out.

2. New York. Around Central Park with fantastic skyline views. Best time of year? Fall, with those amazing colours.

3. Sydney.  Around the harbour and parks, then look back onto the Opera House. A total wow.  Lots and lots of superfit people everywhere which was a bit intimidating….

4. Geneva. From the UN down around the lake to the famous fountain. Spectacular views of Mont Blanc. Best time of year? January can be fun, with the natural ice sculptures by the lake. Summer also good and you can swim. Or waterski.

5. Pretoria. The Pretoria city game park. Bit of a cheat this, because you have to drive to get there. But an early morning run when you meet giraffe, zebra and ostrich. How cool is that? Anytime.

6. Moscow. Around the Kremlin. Not long, but a definite power buzz. Summer.

7. Rome. Yes it’s polluted, but around the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, there is a certain wow factor, especially if you pass Lamborghini’s 75th anniversary car event, as I did.

8. Hong Kong. Along Bowden Road, then up to The Peak, and back. A great (long) run, with amazing views from the top. But as the pollution has got worse, it’s much less fun than it used to be.

9. London. Saving the best for (second)last? I don’t know, but the run through St James Park, Green Park, and Hyde Park, and round the Serpentine, is one of the best. Best time? June, at the peak of England’s green.

10. And Stockholm. Every season good so far, even in the snow.

Runners up

Paris. Along the Seine, around Eiffel Tower. Vancouver. A little known entry. Along the sound. Lovely views of the mountains. Washington. Along the river from Georgetown to the Lincoln Memorial, then stop and look up towards Capital Hill. Ottawa. From the centre, over the bridge into Quebec and back. Interesting geography and history. Brussels. From the EU institutions through the Leopold arches and on up to the parks. Helps you cope with EU business. Sometimes. The Hague. Small city, nice park. Boston. Over the “Make way for ducklings” pond. Oslo and Helsinki. Around the harbours. Rangoon. A bit polluted, but interesting route past temples and parks. Vilnius. Good castle climb.

Also rans

Delhi (too dusty), Singapore and KL (too sweaty), Port Stanley and Reykjavik (too windy), Erbil (actually quite nice in spring when I went – there was a certain Tuscan look to the hills. But basically it was around a hotel compound). Lisbon, Istanbul, Canberra, Riga (not memorable)

Exotic but disappointing:  Antarctica. Rothera Base. The run is around the airstrip, so basically dull. Good bragging rights though. Probably best to avoid in winter.

To avoid? Sadly, it’s probably all about pollution and security, so I’m afraid Kabul, Baghdad, Islamabad, Jakarta, Kathmandu, Lagos and Bangkok put me off.

And finally. Best swim? Cayman Islands, from the British Governor’s House along 7 mile beach.

Any tips for even better runs gratefully received.

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January 5th, 2016 by David Cairns

As we return to work, a few reflections on our first Christmas and New Year here in Sweden, a look ahead to this year, and information on how to vote.

Nobel celebrations are amazing. We had two(ish) British winners in December: Angus Deaton the Economist, and Tomas Lindahl the Physicist (who has done much of his work in the UK. I agree, it feels like a cheat to claim him, but the Nobel Foundation decides these things, not me). A cosy supper for 1,350 at the Stadshuset? Even now I can’t quite get my head around how they manage that.

It wasn’t that dark. Well maybe it was, but it was frosty and white, and by Cambridge standards it snowed in Stockholm. So my kids got the white Christmas holiday we’d promised.

Pepparkakor and blue cheese is lethal. To the waistline. But how yummy. And how addictive. A deathly combination of sweet and salty.

How many julbord before you overdose? 2? 3? Janssons frestelse is the best bit. Discuss.

Glögg is too sweet. And that’s not (just) because I saw the news programme showing just how much sugar goes into it.

Stockholm Christmas markets. The one at The Royal Stables was lovely. The kids were a bit dubious about dancing to Små Grodorna in Skansen. Fantastic candle shops, which brings me to …

Candles in the windows. We are totally converted.

Skiing. Having been spoilt by the Swiss Alps we were ready to be disappointed. But Åre was a lovely town, in beautiful scenery, and a great drive to get there. There wasn’t enough snow for proper off-piste, but we’d definitely go back for some powder. Lots of good skiers. My first try at cross-country was very humbling.

The Cairns on the slopes in Åre

And of course Christmas 2015 was especially special because of … the new Star Wars movie. With Max von Sydow! And we went to the opening! My children were blown away by the whole thing. But, Stockholmers – why do you leave such a mess in your cinemas? It was gross.

Meeting Darth Vader


2016 will be a big year for celebrations. 400th anniversary of Shakespeare (check out Statford-upon-Avon in April). 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth (Howarth in April), 150th of Beatrix Potter (Hilltop in Cumbria in July) and 100th of Roald Dahl (Great Missenden in September).  It will be the Queen’s 90th birthday (and the Swedish King’s 70th).

And the EU referendum

There are about 3.5–5.5 million UK citizens living overseas, and about 30,000 in Sweden. Expats will be able to vote in the UK’s EU referendum due to take place by 31 December 2017.

To register as an overseas elector you must have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years. You will need to know your National Insurance number, and have your passport to hand if you have one. If you don’t have a National Insurance number you can still register, but you may have to supply more information to show who you are. If you were too young when you left the UK to have been registered, then you can register as an overseas voter if your parents (or guardians) were registered in the UK in the last 15 years.

You can now register online to vote at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote – it takes less than five minutes and once that’s done you can choose to vote via one of three methods. You can vote either by post; by proxy (you designate someone you trust to vote on your behalf in the UK); or in person at a polling station in your constituency, but of course if you live overseas you’re unlikely to be able to able to do this. If you can’t or don’t want to register online, you can still download and post back paper forms. Remember to return your completed form as far in advance of the deadline as possible. The actual deadlines for registering to vote and applying for an absent vote will be set once the date of the referendum is known.

Do spread the word. #ovrd,  #yourvotematters, and #expat.

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November 25th, 2015 by David Cairns

I know that my mum is super proud that I’m an Ambassador. But if you asked her what I actually do, she’d probably say: “I’m not sure”. She’s not alone. Lots of people like the idea of Embassies and Ambassadors, but lots of people ask: “what do you actually do?” So, just to explain a little, here are my top priorities whilst I’m here as Ambassador to Sweden and Director for the Nordic Baltic region.

The EU. The UK Government has a clear plan. It wants to improve the way the EU works. It wants to renegotiate some elements of our relationship with the EU. And when it has done that it wants the British people to vote in a referendum to remain as members of a reformed union. The negotiation comes first; the referendum second. Sweden is one of our closest allies in the EU. My job is to get the Swedish Government to agree with the changes we want to make, and to help secure agreement by all 28 members of the EU.

Visiting the English School in Gothenburg

Prosperity. My Prime Minister is clear on what he wants from me: to help British business in Sweden; to support Swedish investors in the UK so they grow their business there; to help deliver multinational trade agreements, such as between the EU and the US, that will help businesses and consumers; to champion science and innovation collaboration; and to encourage tourism to the UK. So in my Residence in Stockholm we will have about 4,000 visitors in the coming year, most of which will be business related, coming to what I hope will be fun, and useful, events.

Security. When I was at school I visited East Berlin, going through Checkpoint Charlie. By the time I was at university the Berlin Wall had fallen, and I remember visiting the first McDonalds in Moscow in 1991. As a diplomat I’ve seen countries of the Former Soviet Union join the EU, and it’s been amazing to think that my children can grow up thinking of Europe as united. Sadly, Russia’s actions in Ukraine last year have put some fear back in the air. So across this region we will support our EU and NATO allies to give them the reassurance they deserve. Further afield, it is five years since the Arab Spring, and the hopes of many young people in that region are far from being realised. My job here is to work with countries such as Sweden who, like the UK, are large aid donors, to try and help bring peace, prosperity, and democracy to the countries of the Middle East.

And last, but not least,

Serving British citizens. At the end of the day, the most important job an Embassy does is to help British Citizens who get in trouble. More than 60 million Brits travel overseas each year and Embassies help around 20,000 British nationals. Sweden is, I’m happy to say, a safe place. But if there were to be, say, a plane crash, a terrorist attack, or a tsunami (unlikely, I know) then I and the Embassy would do everything we could to help any British people caught up in such an incident.

Visiting Stockholm's Vasa Museum with staff from the UK's Mary Rose Museum

And then there is lots of other amazing stuff. We hosted an event for designer Efva Attling last week as she launched her new Beatles jewellery collection. The Thursday before were invited to an evening with the Vasa and Mary Rose Museums, who were celebrating 20 years of partnership.  The Sunday before that was Remembrance Sunday, so I gave a reading at the English Church, and we held a lunchtime reception for the British community afterwards.  And in October I helped open an extension to the fantastic Goteborg English School.  It is a great job.

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My First Impressions of Sweden

October 9th, 2015 by David Cairns

There is a tradition in the British Foreign Ministry that when Ambassadors arrive at their new post, they write a “First Impressions” telegram back to the Foreign Minister in London. Later, on departure, they write a farewell “Valedictory” dispatch. I will send my First Impressions at some point before Christmas. So this blog is perhaps a “First First Impressions” piece.

What to say about Sweden after a month? Some things I heard in the briefing I was given before I arrived I can really see. Some things I’m not so sure.

A beautiful country? Absolutely. One of the first things we did on arrival was to take a boat to Grinda Island in Stockholm’s archipelago and spend the day swimming off the rocks. How amazing that was. Our house is on Djurgårdsbrunnsviken and every morning we wake up to the patter of feet of the trendiest joggers I have ever seen. We had to make an emergency trip to Asics for my daughter to get kitted out properly.

An equal society? Yes and no. As Maddy Savage wrote in The Local we’ve also been struck by the equality between men and women. More women in leadership positions, and men taking equal parental leave. All very impressive and something for the UK to learn from. In money terms we’ve certainly seen the smart end. As a Swedish friend said to us as we watched the boats: “when the sun comes out the toys come out.” We will explore the rural ends of the country and tougher ends of the city, but with beggars in most supermarket doorways there’s inequality somewhere.

A consensus society? I’ve read debates on migration, NATO, business corruption, education, and the arguments between political parties. All healthy stuff. I watched Stockholm’s football hooligans on TV. There wasn’t much consensus there.

Traditional or modern? Both. Like the UK. The ceremony The King holds for new Ambassadors is an amazing, and moving, traditional event. But meeting Hans Vestberg of Ericsson and hearing his future vision is something very 22nd century. When you live Asia, you hear people talk of Europe as a museum. But I don’t think Sweden is, nor the UK.

What else?
People worry more about the weather than even the British do. At home we’re so pleased to have a sunny day we just enjoy it. Here I’ve heard countless times: “it may be sunny, but just wait for the real Swedish weather to come.” Nej.

Next time I’ll write a little more about what it is that Ambassadors and Embassies do…

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August 18th, 2015 by Paul Johnston
Four years after arriving here, I leave Stockholm at the end of this week for a new posting at the UK delegation to NATO in Brussels. I’m looking forward to the new job and new city. But it will be hard to leave Stockholm, and I will carry with me many memories of this wonderful city, beautiful country and the friendly, fun and fascinating people I’ve had the privilege to meet from Luleå to Lund, Gothenburg to Gotland. Here are nine reasons our years in Stockholm have been so memorable.

S is for Science: I had heard about the Nobel ceremony, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. It was a privilege to sit in the Konserthus three years running to see a succession of British laureates – John Gurdon, Peter Higgs, Michael Levitt and John O’Keefe – receiving the greatest accolade in their profession. It was also a great honour to be a guest at the Nobel Banquet in the City Hall, and wonderful to witness a nation elevating and celebrating science, and admiration for scientific discovery, to a genuinely national event.

T is for Tack för Maten: I love the Swedish custom of the guest sitting next to the hostess proposing a toast to thank the host and hostess for the dinner. I’ve been the recipient of many lovely “Tacks” at our Residence, from ministers, industrialists, scientists, authors and many others. I’ve also had the pleasure of delivering quite a few “Tacks” myself. One I will always remember was at City Hall in front of about 1000 people at a graduation ceremony for the Karolinska Institute. Speaking to a Nobel Laureate, dozens of professors, and hundreds of PHD graduates and medical doctors, I tried to sum up why, as a mere political scientist, I admired and envied those gifted with the skills to do “real” science.

O is for Olympics: I would have loved to be a scientist, but I would also love to have been an athlete. The next best thing was the events we had here to celebrate the London Olympics. We held the British International Primary School’s annual Sports Day in the Stockholm 1912 Olympic stadium and in the same stadium I received on behalf of the Embassy a good luck vase for London 2012 at a special commemoration event marking the centenary of the Stockholm games.

Ambassador Johnston with school children

C is for City: I said when I was appointed that my wife and I looked forward to living in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Every day as we take our morning walk along Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, we remind ourselves of what a joy it is to live in a city of islands, of water, trees, clean air and light. Even in a less than perfect summer, this remains a very nearly perfect capital city.


K is for King: there are historic links between the British and Swedish Royal Families. Indeed, there’s a beautiful stained glass window in the English church, celebrating the life of Crown Princess Margaret, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, who married King Gustav VI Adolf. In my four years here, I had the privilege of a visit to Stockholm by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as the honour of attending the wedding of Princess Madeleine and another British national, Christopher O’Neill.

H is for Home: anyone whose job involves moving house every few years, will tell you how important it is to feel at home. We’ve been privileged to live in a beautiful house, in an exceptional setting and to share it with many guests, coming for receptions, meals and other events, to promote UK business, encourage investment, and support cultural, scientific and other links between the UK and Sweden. But feeling at home is about more than that, and it’s thanks to our colleagues and friends in Stockholm, and to the friendly and helpful people we’ve met in shops, cafes, restaurants, on the phone and elsewhere, across this city and country that we’ve felt so much at home.

The British Residence

O is for Officials: one of the reasons I applied for this job was that I’d always enjoyed working with Swedish colleagues, in various jobs at the Foreign Office in London and at the United Nations in New York. All the officials I’ve worked with, in the Prime Minister’s office, Foreign, Finance, Business, and Defence Ministries, and elsewhere, have been unfailingly helpful, professional and co-operative. The same is true of the Swedish politicians and business leaders I’ve met. Our close political and commercial relationship is built on, and depends on, these ties and on the work done by all my colleagues in the Embassy team. I’m grateful to them all.

L is for Princess Lilian, who was born in Britain, met Prince Bertil during the Second World War, married him in her sixties, and died in 2013. We had the privilege of organising a memorial service for her at the English church, which was attended by the whole of the Swedish Royal family, and by her friends in the British community. Getting to know my fellow UK nationals in Stockholm, and their friends and families, not least through the congregation of the English church, has been another delight.

Memorial Service for Princess Lilian at the English Church

M, finally, is for Music: my wife’s first introduction to the beauty of Sweden was listening to a Lucia at the Swedish Consulate-General in New York. Our first event at City Hall was for the award of the Birgit Nilsson Prize. We’ve been to wonderful concerts at Berwaldhallen and the Konserthus and we’ve had some beautiful music in our house and in the English church. Above all, I’ll remember the Lucia concerts at Oscarskyrkan. Sitting in the dark with the sounds of the choristers old and young converging from across the church bearing candles. The beauty of the music, the promise of light in the darkness, the essence of the Swedish spirit. I’ll never forget it.

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July 15th, 2015 by Paul Johnston

Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today.   The UK is committed to tackling this threat. We were the first country in the world to make our emissions reductions targets legally binding.

This week, the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay presented a new report produced by leading scientists from the UK, US India and China. The report specifically focuses on the risks of climate change in the longer term. Some of the key conclusions are:

  • The risks of climate change should be assessed in the same way as risks to national security and public health.  The worst case scenarios are the most important to understand.
  • Climate change risk assessments should be updated on an ongoing basis so that new data and changes in experts’ best estimates can be communicated to political leaders.
  • Without stronger political commitments and faster technological progress, global emissions are likely to follow a much higher pathway than is consistent with limiting warming to 2°C.
  • On a high emissions pathway, the risk of crossing thresholds in our ability to successfully adapt will increase over time.  High temperatures could increasingly exceed the tolerance limits of people and crops, and sea level rise could exceed the adaptive capability of coastal cities.
  • The systemic risks of climate change are likely to be larger than the direct impacts.  Climate shocks to food production, magnified by counterproductive policy and market responses, could pose great risks to global food security.  High degrees of climate change could pose a great threat to national and international security.

The Risk Assessment does not make policy conclusions. But it serves to highlight the imperative of an new international agreement. The Paris Conference in December (COP21) will be a pivotal moment. Britain will be working for ambitious, credible and legally binding agreements.

Sweden and the UK have worked together closely on climate policy, including the Green Growth Group, and our and others’ efforts will be needed to achieve the breakthrough we need at the end of the year.

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July 13th, 2015 by Paul Johnston

Today begins the UN Finance for Development Summit in Addis. It marks the start of six critical months.

Will 2015 be remembered as a turning point in international development policy, leading to ambitious multilateral agreements? Or will it be known as another year of ‘what-ifs’?

Conferences and summits are no substitute for action. But they are a way of engaging leaders to commit. I worked on the UN World Summit in 2005.

Now the international system faces even bigger challenges. With four hugely important conferences before the end of the year  – on international financing, climate, sustainable development and trade – the international community has the opportunity to work together to find new solutions.

Success will lead toward eliminating poverty and protecting our planet. Failure will condemn future generations to insecurity and risk and put our earth in peril.

The EU has set an important signal ahead of the Finance for Development Summit, with a commitment by European Union member states to spend 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) on overseas development assistance.

The UK has met its target – as of course has Sweden – and has been the first to make this commitment part of domestic law. We encourage other EU member states to do the same.

Development assistance is crucial in helping countries achieve sustainable development and address climate change. But now the conversation needs to move beyond aid and into a more holistic financing approach. “Multi-stakeholder partnership” is an ugly phrase, but it means bringing government, business and others together in a shared cause.

We also need policy reforms in developing countries to ensure the support received can be used in the best way possible. There must be transparency when it comes to tax and the extractives industry, anti-corruption measures in place and enforced, trade barriers reduced and illegal financial flows stopped.

Success in Addis would set the tone for the rest of the year. To follow are the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York in September, the Climate Change Conference in Paris and the WTO Trade Ministerial in Nairobi, both in December.

Together Britain and Sweden can provide leadership to break the traditional divisions and help achieve global success.

Because we should look to make 2015 a turning point for progress – not the year of missed opportunities.

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July 10th, 2015 by Paul Johnston

You don’t need to look far afield to see the risks from economic insecurity. Tackling those risks requires foresight, resolve and readiness to take difficult decisions.  Britain is demonstrating this.

On Wednesday, our government reaffirmed its commitment to the interdependent goals of a strong economy and robust security. Our finance minister George Osborne presented the Government’s summer budget and, as he said in opening his speech, “This is a Budget that puts security first”.

Despite financial pressures, the government has put its money where its mouth is and committed to meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence each year for the rest of this decade, increasing the defence budget in real terms every year.

The UK will be the only major nation spending 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% (the international target) on international development.  And our international engagement doesn’t stop there.

  • We have 4,000 personnel on 21 military operations in 19 countries, and a permanent overseas military deployment of over 15,000.
  • We have a budget that means we have been able to commit to spending over £160 billion on equipment over the next decade to keep Britain safe. That includes new Joint Strike Fighters; more surveillance aircraft; hunter killer submarines; two aircraft carriers; and the most advanced armoured vehicles.
  • Our commitment to NATO and to this region is significant and enduring.  We have Royal Air Force Typhoons conducting Baltic Air Policing duties and we will have 4,000 troops exercising with eastern Allies during 2015. The UK remains at the forefront of the development of NATO’s new ‘spearhead’ brigade, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and we will lead the VJTF in 2017, contributing up to 3000 personnel. Also, the UK will provide at least a battle group of 1000 service personnel each year to the VJTF up until the beginning of the next decade.

Funding this defence investment requires prosperity at home. So we will make Britain even more open for business, reducing the corporate tax rate to 18%, and introducing allowances to hire new employees. Britain is the jobs creator of the Western World, with almost two million net new jobs in the last five years. We will build on that, securing our economic defences, strengthening our international partnerships, building security and prosperity together.

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Blog updates

27 May

Editor’s blog, May 27th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, Would you spend a day doing manual labour in high heels? That’s what Swedish…" READ »


17 May

What about “att”? (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! It often seems like the small words are the ones that cause the most confusion.…" READ »

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