Stockholm Syndrome: Nothing private about property

I arrived late to our class last Thursday to find everyone poring over the property papers.

“Nej men va fa-an,” said Arri, my Somalian friend.

I sat down beside him and he slid his copy of DN Bostad across the table to me. It was open at a page of what could well be the most expensive, and expansive, homes in Sweden.

To my shame, I find that images of fine homes in the property pages torment me like the front page pictures of war and disease and famine probably ought to.

You can keep your fast cars and luxury yachts and private jets and vintage wines and paradise islands – all I ask for is a simple life and a gigantic manor house in the Swedish countryside. I weaken at the temptation and shrivel inside as the impossibility of it all dawns on me.

So it was just as well that Rositza, our delectable Bulgarian Swedish teacher, called the class to order.

The subject of our lesson was to be property. Or rather, accommodation, since the question of ownership did not really raise its head.

“Let’s be realistic!” she joked. I felt that was a little unfair – Arri is planning to become a dentist and could well be in the market for one of these places in a few years.

Anyway, our exercise was to talk about our own accommodation using the standard Swedish code.

“Två rum och kök,” said Cuban Bobby. “Two rooms and kitchen.”

He added that he lived in Akalla and that his flat covered 50 square metres. (Swedes’ ability to know to the precise half of a square metre the area of their home has always impressed me. Bobby seemed to have got the hang of it.)

Gregor from Russia amused himself by describing his student room in square centimetres. An Algerian woman whose name nobody seems to know said that she and her three children shared 55 square metres in Kista.

All good fun, but I had noticed that Sarah, an English scientist who happens to be married to a Swedish lawyer, was fidgeting uncomfortably.

“Sarah, where do you live?” asked Rositza.

Sarah blushed.

“Umm, ahh,” she muttered avoiding the question.

Rositza wasn’t about to let go. She repeated the question.

“Oh, erm, Grevgatan,” said Sarah. “In Norrmalm.”

Rositza thought for a moment.

“Did you say Grevgatan? Oj oj oj, that’s not Norrmalm, that’s Östermalm!”

A dozen pairs of eyebrows shot skywards at the mention of Stockholm’s swankiest area.

“So how big is your Östermalm apartment, Sarah?”

By now Sarah was crimson.

“Oh, erm, well, fairly big,” she mumbled.

“No, as we discussed, rum och kök, square metres,” said Rositza, with a mischievous glint in her eye.

“Oh, ok – um, well, six rooms and kitchen, 160 square metres.”

The air thinned as a collective breath was taken by the class, and Sarah looked as though she was about to faint. I asked her afterwards why she didn’t just lie if she found it embarrassing. She said she finds it hard enough telling the truth in Swedish.

But Sarah’s awkwardness was compounded in the coffee break: the Algerian woman asked if she could come and work for her.

Sarah asked if she was also a scientist and blurted out that the pharmaceutical company where she worked happened to be recruiting.

“No, I mean in your big apartment – do you need a cleaner?”

The following Sunday I was delighted to put my new vocabulary to the test when I went to look at a few apartments with a friend of mine who has just been booted out of his ‘second-hand’ dwelling.

A Swedish property viewing is an exercise in mind-games. The whole thing is squeezed into an intense 45 minutes when everyone in the city turns up to give the place the once over.

There is no leisurely wander, no soaking up the atmosphere or imagining the future. No, Swedish property viewing is fast and furious, with a snake of potential buyers temporarily turning the place into an Ikea display room.

Bitter rivals avoid eye contact but assess each other’s potential wealth as they desperately hope that nobody will outbid them for their new dream home.

The strategy seems to be to walk around the place with a sneer on your face, hoping that your attitude will put others off.

But that’s the wrong approach. My theory, rejected outright by my friend, is that you should do the opposite. You should extravagantly flaunt your love for the place, declaring that you will stop at nothing to get it.

“Two million?” you should say. “It’s worth double. At least. Let’s go straight in at four million.”

If said with utter conviction, nobody will even think of bidding against you.

“That’s not the Swedish way,” said my friend.

He’s right, of course. Perhaps a property viewing would make a good field trip for our Swedish class. I think I’ll suggest it. Or we could all just go and look around Sarah’s place.

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Properties in Sweden