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A round peg in a square hole.

William Simons

Stockholm to Stalingrad by train.

December 4th, 2010 by williamsimons

The last couple of weeks has seen me commuting back and forth between Stockholm and Åre on the nightly sleeper train. You can say what you like about the age of the wagons and the cleanliness of the sleeping compartments, but as a concept the service is great. Jump on at Åre just before 7 pm, glass of wine in the buffet car and then catch up on a film on your PC; before being tossed off the train in Stockholm’s Central Station at 7am. Coming back the other way, you’re allowed to climb aboard at 9am (although the train doesn’t leave the station until just before midnight) and you wake up in Åre just after 8am.

One really strange aspect of train travel that harks back to communist times is “allmän väckning” or a wake up call for the whole train. I find it really worrying that big bror has to wake me up at a state appointed time. I almost leaped out of bed in my boxers to salute the flag and sing the national anthem. By the way, it’s a little known fact that no Swede’s actually know the second verse of the national anthem off by heart.

Allmän väckning got me thinking. Is there any other aspect of Swedish life that feels more like you live in Stalingrad than Stockholm? The obvious and well-trodden answer is the Swede’s alcohol policy, I’m not going to go there as we’ve already covered it; but when you think about it there are quite a few examples.

Everyone goes on holiday in July in Sweden, whether they have kids or not. Why oh why people don’t wait until the crowds have gone home and flights are cheaper in August or September – no, vi av been told zat vi ska go on ze holidazs in July and zat is vat vi do! It’s actually great to work in July as you will be alone in the office and every man and his dog are on holiday on the west coast – it is like a second paid-for holiday! Of course this coincides with school holidays, but I’m talking about pensioners, young couples without children and free sprits that are not bound by their children. Another example is the half-term holiday in February / March. This is set in stone for the next millennium. Of the top of my head its Malmö week 7, Gothenburg week 8, Stockholm week 9 (joy of joys) and northern Sweden week 10.

There is also a curious tradition of only demonstrating on May 1st, when the streets are filled with the middle-classes demonstrating about the topic of the day. Don’t you just love Sweden, we won’t make a fuss during the rest of the year but come May 1st, I’m going to hold my placard high!

Any other examples? Well yes – candy is only purchased on Saturdays, we still have national service in the military, certain cakes can only be baked at appointed times in the year and try finding spare ribs outside of the Christmas period.

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Systembolaget for beginners.

November 26th, 2010 by williamsimons

One of the most bizarre things about life in Sweden is the Swede’s attitude to alcohol. This is illustrated even more by the government’s attitude and the fact that there is a monopoly on alcohol sales. William Simons explains more about Systembolaget.

There is only one place to buy wines and spirits in Sweden and that’s a government run monopoly called Systembologet. Getting your head around this strange system is a founding principle in being integrated to Swedish life. It is by no means logical or easy to understand why the state don’t trust their citizens to buy alcohol from say a supermarket or petrol station, but be rest assured, with every debate on alcohol there are a multitude of “doom predictors” foretelling stories of children being left at home whilst their father is unconscious in a gutter.

Before taking out my wit-sharpened knife and cutting Systembolaget to shreds, let’s look at the positives. In my local Systembolaget, I can go up to any member of staff, tell them I have x of my hard-earned kronor to spend and that I’m having lamb tonight – what do you recommend? They will be able to come up with a half dozen selections in my price range and all will match my dinner superbly. If I want to try a whisky that my Systembolaget doesn’t stock, I can simply order a bottle at my branch and it will be delivered free of charge in the next couple of days. I have to tell you that this makes my job as a writer on wines and whiskies much easier. Can you get this service from a European supermarket? Their homepage is also fantastic, with a database of the finest wines and spirits known to humanity – all with tasting notes and detailed information pertaining to originality and variety.

One thing that a Systembolaget beginner has to get their head around is that Systembolaget is not there to sell alcohol. Their one and only mission in life is to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol. Well that’s all right then, close the doors and turn the lights off and don’t sell alcohol then. Errrrr no, unfortunately Systembolaget contributes so much to the Swedish coffers that in reality the government can’t live without them. Through the 2000’s Systembolaget contributed between 100 -120 million kronor per year to the state and in one year these nice people threw 200 million the state’s way! That’s 200 million reasons to keep the monopoly. The not selling of alcohol policy continues inside the store with Systembolget’s marketing – or lack of it. There are no special offer signs, no buy two – get one free deals and no free glasses when you buy a special bottle. The only adverts in the store are signs warning of the dangers of consuming what you’re about to buy.

Of course I’m a joy to sit next to at dinner parties and the one time every decennium that I’m invited out, the conversation often turns to Systembolaget and why we can’t just get rid of it. Along with the 200 million reasons I’ve already mentioned, there is always the argument that (a) there would never be the range if privatized and (b) a private enterprise would never buy in as much and therefore it wouldn’t be cheaper. What utter rubbish! When I point out that most supermarkets are the masters of negotiation and wheeling and dealing and that competition always brings down price, the next line of defence often turns to the “Swedes can’t be trusted to buy their own alcohol” argument. But what makes a Swede’s attitude to alcohol different from say a German or Brit? Systembolaget of course the Swede’s “lördags godis” attitude to life.

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Whilst the cats away, the mice will wear dirty socks.

November 22nd, 2010 by williamsimons

The present Mrs. Simons has wisely decided to leave the grey shores of Sweden and take some late autumn sun in Spain, leaving yours truly in charge of the two juniors (six and nine years old). Unfortunately for the good lady, I consider myself a better pappa than a husband, which at least means both children will not wither of starvation, go to school dirty or be bored through lack of entertainment. Parent’s meetings will be attended, bed times will be adhered to and breakfast will be cooked.

The only person to suffer from my wife’s absence is me. Unfortunately I focus so much on the children, it was 5 days after the good lady stepped aboard her carriage that I realized I hadn’t changed my underpants – so much have I been focused on sending the children down at the appropriate time for the bus, cleaning, buying shopping, watering plants and doing a spot of work. All this begs the question as to how single parents cope? According to some recent research there are some 300 000 single parents out there. We are lucky enough to live in a land with pre-school and after-school child care, which at least lets single parents load the washing machine, but on top of that they have to get out there and earn some money. Does this mean that there are 300 000 people walking around in 5 day old socks?

Of course while the cat is away the mice will play and standards have been dropping at Chez Simons. Dirty dishes have been left out, beds have not been made, music has been played too loud and the microwave has been pinging a little more than usual. This is great for the first couple of days, but then one misses the love of my life here and there and of course the chance to shower when needed.

We have been married for ten years now and we are at that “comfortable” stage. I know when she’s unhappy just by hearing the way coffee is made, we don’t have to endlessly impress each other and we both complement each other to the stage where the sum of our parts is greater than the two individuals.

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Only 110 days to go!

November 15th, 2010 by williamsimons

Many thanks for all the feedback from my posts – both good and bad. In an effort to reduce the bad I thought it might be an idea to properly introduce myself. I’ve lived in Åre (the largest ski resort north of The Alps) for the last 14 years, having been born and bred in England. I’ve been working in sales and marketing for over a decade, but the world changed and I have been one of the many people made redundant. During the last year, I’ve been expanding my hobby of freelance writing and have been lucky enough to be published here and a few other places.

As one of the thousand or so year-round residents of Åre, life is inevitably focused on winter. Right now snow guns are spewing out snow, builders are busy hammering, new slopes are being prepared and companies are busy recruiting staff for the winter season. Nobody minds the tourists coming – we accept it as an inevitable way of life, indeed thanks to our proximity to the Norwegian border and the weakness of the Swedish Kronor, we have tourists almost 365 days a year. By the way, my favorite Norwegian joke – What’s the difference between a Norwegian and a mosquito? A mosquito is only a pain in the arse in the summer.

There is, however, one aspect of the winter that all residents of Åre hate. They stock up on supplies, avoid going out and pay that little bit more attention to locking their doors at night during this time. As I sit here writing this, it is 110 days before this dreaded date. A date when all hell breaks loose, when we are made to feel like second-class citizens in our own home and a date counted down to like a countdown to a dentist’s appointment. Yes ladies and gentlemen, that date as you have surely guessed by now is vecka 9 and more specifically the Sunday arrival date of vecka 9.

For those of you that are not fluently versed in the Swedish tongue, vecka 9 is the ninth week of the year and as Swedes are creatures of habit, every area of Sweden has their own set half-term school holidays and of course week 9 is Stockholm’s turn. It is the week when my secret parking space is taken up by a brand new BMW, our supermarkets are invaded by hyper Stockholm wives who complain that the lobsters are too old and the week where we all get told off it is too cold.

During the winter I have the pleasure of driving a taxi, but on just that Sunday it is a little bit harder to get out of bed and takes an extra snus or two to get through the day. The problem is that all Stockholmers are just so hyper when they arrive. I got a good telling off by a Saltsjöbaden fru at the train station this year, because there weren’t any taxis waiting for her LAST YEAR! In common with other letters of accommodation, most renters have a set time when that accommodation is available. Do you think Stockholmers respect that? No, they arrive early and give the poor soul who is responsible for giving out the keys a dam good dressing down. In 2009, the owner of one of the supermarkets actually got assaulted because one of his 08 customers had to pay for a parking space.

But here’s the most bizarre thing about week 9. Despite the hell we have to go through on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; on Wednesday Stockholmers become the nicest, warmest and considerate people you have ever met. I guess they have had chance to relax, to unwind and to get into the Jämtland manyana way of life. I like to think as a Jämtland republican, that Stockholmers take a little bit of this feeling home with them at the end of week 9 and this makes life more tolerable during the remaining 51 weeks of the year until they come up again.

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On / Off Swedes.

November 9th, 2010 by williamsimons

William Simons looks at why Swedes are either on or off and wonders if it is something to do with candy.

Have you ever noticed that Swedes are either on or off – 100% into something or not interested at all? I first realized this phenomenon when I worked for a ski season in Åre and tried to get a date in what American fighter pilots call a “target rich environment”. I was forever getting knocked back because the answer was “I’m working tomorrow”. My English attitude was to scoff at this and wonder why they just couldn’t turn up to work with a hangover, but no, they were working tomorrow and that was it.

This attitude permeates through all aspects of Swedish life and not just their attitude to the workplace. Have you ever been out on a mid-week evening in a Swedish city? They are ghost towns and the clubs and bars are only the territory of the alcoholics. However, come Friday and they are bustling with life and the only way people go home is horizontal. The same attitude applies for drinking at home. A glass of wine with dinner on a Wednesday night? No way! Save it for Friday and Saturday, when we’ll get so drunk it will be Sunday afternoon before I can remember my own name. Just look at Swedish industry and life – it is the same there. Cars (beige airbags on wheels or super car monsters), furniture (flat-packed nonsense or classic everlasting masterpieces), sports (number one for years or super mediocre journeymen), music (world renowned number one artist or elevator music), holidays (constant work followed by an orgy of freedom in July) or even politics (middle ground indistinguishable blandness, then suddenly the far right).

 I believe that there is one single cause of this on / off mentality and that is Lördags godis. This literally translated is Saturday Candy, the idea that children are not allowed any sweets during the week and that they must eat nothing than moose steaks and smoked fish, but on Saturday they can do wild in the pick and mix and drain as much sugar and e-numbers that their little stomachs can take. It is a god given right for every Swedish child to be driven to the local supermarket or sweet store, to fill up paper bags with sweets and then to bounce around like a power ball on speed, high on sugar for the rest of the day. Lördags godis affects teenagers and young adults in many ways, not least of all, in their attitude to alcohol.

 Now I’m not going to make any friends here and have lots of angry letters drop into my inbox, but I don’t see what is wrong giving the odd glass of wine or beer to say 16 years olds. In the company of responsible adults, what is wrong with letting your young adults have a glass of wine with the family, round the dinner table? The Swedish attitude is that teenagers should not experience alcohol until they turn 18 – which results in the Lördags godis attitude of not coming out of the bar until you are thrown out. 18 year olds have no idea how to handle drink, what drink suits them or even how to enjoy a drink in moderation. 18 year olds are welcomed home by their parents on their birthday with a glint of admiration in their parent’s eyes and a bucket by their bed. The “English” attitude that the pub is the centre of the community, a place where all ages can congregate, get jobs, medical advice and integrate into the area is so foreign thanks to Lördags godis.

 This begs the question that if it wasn’t for The Lördags Godis / on off attitude would Björn, Benny, Agneta and Frida have the self discipline to sit down and write hit after hit; would Ingvar Kamprad had the single mindedness to sell furniture in flat pack or wether Christian von Koenigsegg would have built a car that is recognised as one of the most “on” cars in the world?

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The Stupidest Thing To Do In Sweden

November 5th, 2010 by williamsimons

William Simons talks about the joys of Snus.

What is the stupidest thing to do in Sweden? Insult the King? Declare your love for Norway or imply that ABBA was miming in The Eurovision Song Contest? No, by far the dumbest, pointless, time wasting exercise is to stop “snussing”. Snus is a tobacco related product that is often mistakenly translated as snuff and which is placed between your lip and your teeth and gives you a mellow, calm high. It is in other parts of the world, Americans call it “chew” and of course it is also on sale in Norway (at double the price) and surprisingly I have found evidence of across the counter sales in South Africa. It is sold in handy little tubs that contain either the loose, wet, soil-like snus (for real men) or in handy pre-packaged pouches that you simply take out of the container and discreetly stuff up your lip.

After much debate, research and argument it has been finally decided that the harmful effects of snus are……none! It is better much than smoking, in that you don’t kill yourself or people around you, it doesn’t smell on your clothes and you don’t have to stand in a doorway to do it. It can also be argued that it is a great way to stop smoking by starting snussing – but why one would want to replace one addiction with another is beyond me.

Which brings me neatly on to my main point – I snus and have even tried to quit a few times and failed. The only thing this process has taught me is that quitting snus is the dumbest thing one can do. It doesn’t make you feel healthier, it doesn’t leave you with more money in your pocket, it will add at least five kilos to your bodyweight and will make you hell to live with. Why would you want to put yourself through that? Don’t even think of beating the trend by quitting, according to the BBC snus sales are increasing by 15% annually and snus manufacturers are doing more and more to tempt us – by adding flavours like cranberry and liquorice. With smoking being banned left right and centre it even feels like the government wants us all to stuff one up.

 Isn’t it funny that despite an EU ban on the sale of snus, Sweden has an exemption? What’s even stranger is that the EU let themselves be rolled over and their tummy tickled by Sweden on this issue and yet Brussels wants us to have straight bananas, to wear florescent vests when we wash our cars and crash helmets when we walk the dog. They want us to do all this but don’t think Swedes have the right to buy a bottle of wine from a supermarket? Why couldn’t they put their foot down on the sale of alcohol, whose sale is only permitted through the monopoly of Systembolaget? That dear reader is the whole new sermon and one that will take me about a week to write.

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Boy abandoned by his parents outside Parliament.

October 28th, 2010 by williamsimons

Despite years of counselling, marriage guidance and fake family outings; a young child was left outside the Swedish Parliament today with no home to go to, when his two guardians decided to go there separate ways.

 One onlooker said “the poor boy looked totally lost and as though his life did not have any meaning anymore”.

 The boys mother, Moaner, was seen frantically trying to drum up support for a new child (ED – surely seen frantically coming the streets of Stockholm in search of her child?). She had turned her back on this poor boy after years of fostering him in the ways of politics (ED – surely nurturing him for adulthood?).

 His father, a bearded, bedraggled man in a rather dowdy jacket also seemed not to care that the apple of his eye was missing from the family coalition (ED – are you sure? Don’t you mean family home?). His Dad was last seen leaving parliament on a bicycle leaving a trail of carbon footprints behind him.

 Police have appealed for the public’s help in finding the lost boy, who answers to the name of Lars. Anyone making contact with him should take him to the nearest job centre (ED – you’re fired – you mean Police station!).

 Lars Ohly is 56.

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Motorbike – Insanity on two wheels.

October 20th, 2010 by williamsimons

I might have a mid-life crisis but there’s no way I’m buying a motorbike.

William Simons explains why despite knocking on the door of 40, he has no plans to buy any leathers.

Last weekend we had a Harley-Davidson rally here in my home village. I’ve never understood the pleasures of biking and never been tempted to have a go or to understand them. Frankly I just can’t see the point of eating flies, having rain drip down the inside your collar and getting cold, when my Volvo has a windscreen and a heater.

                 On closer inspection, the vast majority of the visiting bikers were shall we say of the grey variety. One wonders why Grandpa feels the need to dress up in leathers and sit on a two-inch square seat instead of putting his slippers on and watching the box from the comfort of his armchair? Have these people felt the need after saving up, raising children and navigating the perils of life, to risk death on some windy hilltop road?

                 As a man that changes his underpants daily, the main question I have is where do you store your luggage? Surely if you are away from home for a couple of nights you need at least a change of clothes. From one extreme to the other, some of these guys had a trailer, towed behind their angel of death. If you are going to do this – buy a car!

                 Just for kicks I decided to see how much a Harley-Davidson costs – over $4000 for the cheapest working model! A 1986 Sportster 883 for you bike nerds. Has everyone that dons a crash helmet undergone a lobotomy? Think what you can buy instead! For the same price you can purchase a sailboat that sleeps 4, allows the whole family to spend time together and can take you places where rolling thunder is something that comes from the skies, not the road. A quick search on EBay turns up a multitude of cars for the same money – even a convertible Ford Mustang GT if the wind blowing through your balding locks is what turns you on!

                 Now along with all able-bodied men, I rate myself as a good driver. No serious accidents and only once has the Simons-mobile been in the ditch, despite us spending half the year driving on ice. Notwithstanding this, I’ve had numerous bumps, scrapes and near-misses that have caused me nothing more than embarrassment and a scratch to the paintwork. Having the same fender benders on a bike would put me in hospital! According to a British report a biker was seriously injured or killed every 413 800 miles they travel. To put it another way if you and one hundred of your leather clad mates decide to bike the 2780 miles from New York to Los Angeles and back again, at the very least one of them will be dead by the time you get back home. The same study reveals that you are 28 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured by driving a motorcycle than a car. Well Zipadee-doo-dah, why don’t I just call up The Grim Reaper by taking up bear wrestling or feeding lions by holding a steak between the cheeks of my arse?

                 The freedom of the open-road, wind in your hair and the sound of rolling thunder? No thanks. Give me air conditioning, a muffled exhaust and a stereo any day.

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Big Brother is watching you! (Thank goodness for that!)

October 20th, 2010 by williamsimons

William Simons talks about the Swedish Social Security Number and thinks that the invention of sliced bread should be relegated to second place in the list of all-time great inventions.

Have you ever stopped to think that our system of Personnummer (or Social Security Number) is the most  humdingingly, brilliant idea since Björn Borg decided to give up football and pick up a tennis racket? We don’t seem to appreciate enough this very lifeblood of our existence, how it makes life easier, safer and more open for not just you and me; but since 1947 for all whole range of companies and organizations.

For those of you that don’t know a personnummer is the equivalent of the American Social Security Number or the English National Insurance Number – but on steroids. It is your birthdate in the format year, month, day followed by four unique identifying numbers. There is also an equivalent organization number for every company, charity or organization in Sweden. What can you do with this number? Well to put it simply, this number is connected to your purchasing and “citizen” history and allows people to make quick decisions about creditworthiness, age or suitability. In practical terms, one could turn up at a gas station, fill up your car, then realize that you have forgot your wallet; but by giving your personnummer to the cashier, they can simply invoice you that amount at a later date (providing you have a clean credit history). The person or organizational number also helps suppliers make informed decisions about new customers and therefore avoiding credit risk. The system goes much deeper than this. Want to know how much your favourite celebrity earned last year? Just ring up the tax office with your celebrity’s personnummer and they will tell you. Unsure about your potential new employee? Just ring up the cops with the personnummer and they will tell you if they have a record.

As Swedes we use personnummers so frequently that we almost fail to appreciate their significance until we realize how bad the alternative is. In The U.K. for example, they have no requirement or system for personal identification. Moving into a new house, opening bank accounts or registering to vote is a nightmare. It is so archaic that potential customers have to produce passports, utility bills and bank statements just to prove that they live at a certain address.  There is currently a move to introduce national ID cards in Britain, which is being as warmly accepted as a turd in a swimming pool. Fears of “big brother”, the nanny state and freedom of information are being thrown around by opponents, but looking at the Swedish model, what do these people have to fear?

Now as a writer I’m supposed to give you a balanced view and come up with some disadvantages at this point. I’ve tried all the usual tricks I have of expanding my mind – taking the dog for a walk, having a think on the toilet and putting in an extra snus; but I have to tell you that I can’t come up with a single disadvantage! Sure if you have a poor credit rating, it makes it harder to obtain credit – but if I were a seller I would need to make sure I’m going to get paid. The system is so brilliant it is self-policing with consumers “protecting” their good standing of their personnummer by making sure they pay on time.

So the next time you are asked for your personnummer, just remember that it owes as much to Sweden’s success as ABBA, Sven-Göran Eriksson or IKEA. If this is the nanny state, then send me to bed early with a cup of warm milk and a kiss on the cheek from Stockholmgrad.

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Man trapped in hole stays there!

October 15th, 2010 by williamsimons

With the eyes of the world watching, a man has been found alive in a hole he has dug himself and he refuses to come out. Despite a valiant rescue attempts by experienced hole-diggers such as “Basher” Sahlin and “Redneck” Östberg, he remains stuck 620 metres underground (Ed – surely you mean in a condo in Florida?).

With the world’s press waiting at the arrivals gate at Arlanda and his turkey neck President Moaner, clutching a bunch of red roses and singing the national anthem; he still did not come out. “We’ve mounted The Social Democrat’s biggest ever rescue operation, sent down packs of meatballs and cloudberry juice and he’s still trapped” said the ailing President.

Via a webcam and microphone the man seemed not to care that his country missed him. “It is much safer over here” he said. “Nobody asks any embarrassing questions about how many times I show up in parliament or about my expenses. I’ve been here for 2 months and that Reinfeldt hasn’t shouted at me once”

Questions were asked in parliament about the trapped hole digger, but no one could quite remember his face or him actually turning up for business anyhow. One un-named source said “he’s dug his own hole, he can stay in it. Apparently he is up to his ankles in excrement.” The man will now be forced to live in poverty and never be able to return to his post again without a huge wad of notes stuffed into a rescue capsule (Ed – are you sure about this?).

Tomas Bodström is 48.

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