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NORTHERN SWEDEN DISPATCHES

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‘If they have bad news, they’d rather not tell you’

Having spent the last six months struggling to get settled in northern Sweden, ex-Londoner Paul Connolly shares his frustration over locals' hatred of confrontation.

'If they have bad news, they'd rather not tell you'

I would first like to take this opportunity to say ‘sorry’ to Andreas from T3 Broadband. I hollered and raved at him like a loon last week as I bemoaned his company’s customer service.

In truth, T3 hadn’t been that bad. But poor Andreas had answered the phone to field a complaint about my broadband service at precisely the wrong time.

For the past six months we have been attempting to organize the renovation of our house as well as sort out personal numbers, bank accounts, tax affairs – the whole shebang of emigrating somewhere.

The tax people have been great – exemplary in fact. Incredibly helpful and surprisingly flexible. Our local bank has been fantastic too – once they even opened the branch 90 minutes after closing time so I could pay in a cheque. Try doing that in the UK.

But, oh my, the local tradesmen. I’d heard that there is, shall we say, a more relaxed attitude to working practices in northern Sweden than in other parts of the country.

In theory this is great.

People aren’t in thrall to their careers and they spend more time with their families. It is an admirable concept. Noble even.

However, by all accounts this approach has been mostly abandoned down south as people chase work and promotions.

To all those bemoaning the erosion of traditional values, let me extend an invitation to head north. Here you will find a hugely laid-back community of local tradesmen.

Not for them the unseemly scrambling after new business. Heavens, no.

There are cinnamon buns to be eaten and long aimless chats to be had. I discovered early on up here that most local tradesmen prefer not to return telephone calls. Clearly they regard such activity to be tantamount to desperation – you must never display eagerness for work.

After all, if you have time to call someone back you can’t be that busy. As for e-mails, well, I’ve given up e-mailing tradesmen up here. Actually, strike that. Never mind tradesmen, there’s rarely any point e-mailing anyone. Trying to contact your SFI teacher by e-mail to ask a question? Don’t be daft.

How about e-mailing the local municipality to check progress on a project they asked you to become involved with? Yeah, good luck with that. You will never, ever hear from them again, unless you turn up in person – cinnamon buns in hand – to ask them face-to-face.

But it’s the local tradesmen who really do my head in. I’m not contacting you to discuss the weather or the recent Luleå vs Skellefteå ice hockey game. I’m not a flaming debt collector.

I WANT TO GIVE YOU MONEY.

Why does this happen? I suppose some of it is due to the northern Swedes’ hatred of confrontation. If they have bad news for you, they’d rather not tell you.

But this reticence only accounts for probably 10 percent of the communication problems I’ve faced. I even write e-mails in Swedish now, so it’s not a language barrier. I’ll admit it, I’m foxed. As well as infuriated.

But there have been a few exceptions and, in the spirit of the forthcoming festive season, let me offer my fellow northern immigrants a gift – the gift of the details of some excellent northern tradesmen (these are all within an hour of Umeå).

For all your geothermal heating and plumbing needs look no further than the incredibly enthusiastic and professional Jim Wållberg of Svenska VPG (www.svpg.se); for windows and doors, Låge Eklund, the jolly owner of Åkullsjöns Snickeri (www.akullsjonssnickeri.se) should be your first choice (as he was for Benny from Abba, in case you were interested) and for all things electrical, the lugubrious Roger Vikstrom of Bygdsiljums Elektriska (no website but Google is your friend) offers reliable and affable service.

There, my northern compadres, these are the fruits of six months of banging my head against a wall of apathy. I have suffered so you don’t have to. Happy Christmas. (And God Jul to Andreas from T3 Broadband – I’m sorry, I really am).

Paul Connolly

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PAUL CONNOLLY

‘Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one’

Ex-Londoner Paul Connolly loves living in northern Sweden. Really, he does. If only the local delicacies didn't taste of asbestos and insulation – and that's BEFORE you even get to the fermented herring.

'Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one'
Sweden, you're letting yourself down, writes Paul Connolly. Photo: Kr-val/Wikimedia Commons & Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT & Restaurang Tre Kronor

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

We've recently had some correspondence with Migrationsverket over our Swedish citizenship application. It's not gone particularly well.

Indeed, so badly has it gone, that yesterday I started to worry that we might have to move back to my place of birth, Blighted Blighty, the self-harming, laughing stock of the civilized world.

This induced real, gut-wrenching panic. I really don't want to go back to the UK. I've made this plain in other columns.

I love northern Sweden, truly I do. I love our house overlooking a lake; I love the friendly people; I love the work-life balance; I love the gender equality; I love the community spirit.

Why would I want to return to a country incapacitated by a spasm of senseless nostalgia and anti-modernity, and presided over by a political class that has abdicated responsibility and handed over the running of the country to the old, the dim-witted and the barbaric?

I want to live in a civilized country, a forward-looking country. And Sweden ticks all the boxes – except for one. And where does it let itself down? Its food culture.

Does any country that not only allows, but celebrates the existence of kebab pizza, deserve to be called civilized? I'd imagine not many Italians would think so.

You see, northern Swedish food is lousy. There's no getting away from it. I try to be positive about everything here but the cuisine up here is undeniably abominable. 

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There are people who rave about Flying Jacob, a recipe devised by an air freight worker in the 1970s, a dish with chicken, peanuts and bananas. 

“A recipe devised by an air freight worker in the 1970s.” Has there been a more dismal phrase written in culinary history? 

I suppose we should offer thanks that the recipe doesn't conclude with 'and garnish with brown linoleum shavings'.


You can find the original recipe (in Swedish) for Flying Jacob here. Photo: Kr-val/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, a principal ingredient in the Flying Jacob is cream. 

Northern Swedes have dairy products with everything. Bloodpudding (an utterly taste-free distant cousin of the UK's delicious black pudding) is eaten with butter. BUTTER!

It's the same with palt, a food that was used when the Swedish army had run out of cannonballs in 17th century warfare.

I'm not actually sure what palt is made from. 

It could be a wood industry by-product, or perhaps now that asbestos is banned from use in construction work, they've found another purpose for it as the principal ingredient in one of northern Sweden's least tasty and most-hard-to-chew, er, delicacies.

I've tried palt, of course I have. My twin girls love it and have insisted I try it (with butter, of course!). 

My verdict? I've never actually eaten insulation but I imagine it's not too dissimilar in texture and taste to palt.

But it's not been a complete dead loss. The girls, displaying that bewildering toddler fascination for terrible food, love it, for example. And there was a local dog that sometimes trotted onto our land for a spot of toilet action.

One well-aimed palt boulder soon disabused Lasse of the notion that Connolly Acres was a safe haven for a bowel movement. He's not been seen since.

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A ball of palt. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT

Food is so terrible up here that I wasn't even going to mention surströmming – the rotting, fermented herring that all Swedes claim to love.

In any case, surströmming is a national rather than regional food. When I say 'food', what I really mean is 'dare'. Because that's what it is. It's a dare. The vast majority of Swedes don't eat it because they like the taste.

If they genuinely enjoyed the taste why would they place the tiniest flake of rotting flesh on a piece of tunnbröd and smother it in potato salad, cheese and onions? How can you taste that?

No, if Swedes really enjoyed surströmming, the way they proclaim to, they'd be scooping it out of the tin – in much the same way as Winnie The Pooh uses his paws to eat honey from those big jars – not covering it in a mountain of other ingredients that are used purely to disguise the foul taste of hell.

However, it's the north's pizza obsession that most baffles me. They don't even like proper pizza. 

Kebab pizza? Hamburger pizza? It's pizza for toddlers.


Kebabpizza, one of the most popular pizzas in Sweden. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Ask for extra fresh tomato on your pizza, and they look at you as if you've asked for the sacrifice of their first-born. But ask for another couple of kilos of kebab meat or a litre of bearnaise sauce and they'll smile and oblige happily.

Bearnaise, yeah, there's that butter again. This reliance on dairy is easy enough to explain. Cream, milk and cheese are all easily-accessible in the north; they're local foods in the same way that tomatoes, peppers and onions are staples in the Mediterranean. 

And, during the cold winters of the past, the populace needed to fatten up.

But it's 2019 now. We have central heating. How about trying something that isn't smothered in cream or invented by an air freight worker (would you want to fly in a plane designed by Gordon Ramsay?)? 

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How about some food with tomatoes?

Tomatoes have been our stock ingredient, the base of nearly everything (non-child related) we cook, since our London days. 

We've had northern Swedes over for dinner and they've been clearly discomfited by the pronounced absence of dairy in the food – one chap picked at his tiny portion of tomato-based food as if expecting to uncover a hand grenade.

I'm pretty sure most of the villagers here think we're part of some tomato-obsessed cult.

My neighbours are mustard-keen gardeners. They have a greenhouse where they grow huge numbers of tomatoes. A year or so after we moved here, I asked them what they cook with them.

The woman looked at me, puzzled, a big bowl of tomatoes in her hand.

“Cook? No, I don't cook with them. I just grow them because I like to. And because we know you like them.”

And she handed over the bowl of lovely tomatoes. And has continued to do so every summer since.

It's an exchange that encapsulates northern Sweden: wonderful neighbourliness and a total aversion to good food.

Paul Connolly is a Skellefteå-based writer and monthly columnist for The Local. Follow him on Facebook and read more of his writing on The Local.

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