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NORTHERN DISPATCHES

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Swedish health-care staff actually care about us

After the birth of his two bonny baby girls, former Londoner Paul Connolly swoons over Swedish healthcare's 'just the right side of hands off' approach that left him feeling safe despite his wife's swollen elephant trotters and high blood pressure.

Swedish health-care staff actually care about us

You gotta love the Swedish health service. I sped my pregnant girlfriend into hospital a couple of weeks ago with complications – her feet swelled up to the size of elephant trotters and her usual freakishly low blood pressure almost capsized the monitor with its relentless upward trajectory.

We were taken straight to the maternity ward, offered a choice of private rooms and told to relax. Donna was then subjected to a systematic testing process that told the staff exactly what was going on with her. After an overnight stay, two doctors, Rolf and Hannah, came to our room and informed us that they would be performing a Caesarian section the next day to remove our 33-week-old twins a full seven weeks early.

It was all a little bewildering. But by 1pm the following afternoon, I was holding Caitlin and Leila, two stupendously bonny baby girls. I may have shed a tear or two. I may even have hugged a couple of bewildered doctors, a few midwives and a passing cleaner. But I didn’t care. It was, quite simply, amazing.

The whole process up here in northern Sweden has been terrific. Right from the start the care has been pitched at exactly the right level – just the right side of hands-off. Until the late complications we’d had a simple pregnancy so we mainly saw our barnmorska (midwife) and a doctor every few weeks for an ultraljud (scan).

What struck me first about the hospitals up here was how uncrowded and efficient they were. If we had an 11am appointment, the appointment would take place at 11am. In the UK an 11am appointment is purely indicative of the day in which you might be seen. They may as well just offer you an AM or PM slot, like some delivery companies – it would be just as accurate.

There was another remarkable difference between the UK and Sweden. I have had mainly good dealings with the UK’s NHS but some of the staff employed would be better suited to working with delinquent sharks – they’re about as caring as a needle in the eye. The staff here were born to be in healthcare. They’re compassionate, caring, knowledgeable and, generally, good company. Their people skills are first rate.

Some of the nurses, however, are a little too fierce in their advocacy of breastfeeding. One bespectacled bore even advised us to use breast milk to treat skin conditions and backache. She was obsessed with breast milk. During a conversation about our endless house renovation project, I was a little surprised that she didn’t suggest it as an excellent alternative to exterior paint, and then slip out a little hip flask and take a nip of the “white gold”.

The doctors, though, are more pragmatic – they recommend breastfeeding for as long as the mother is comfortable with it but no more.

Twelve days after the birth we’re still in the family unit of the hospital. We have our own room with TV, DVD player and private bathroom. The team here want to make absolutely sure that the girls are ready to come home with us but want to ensure we have plenty of time to bond with them before we do. In the meantime we’re picking up tips from professionals on how to look after our children; it’s been invaluable.

I have a friend in the UK who has just given birth to a premature baby. Her experience has been somewhat different. “I had my C-section on the Monday and stayed on the postnatal ward until the Thursday. My son was in the neonatal unit and I had to get down two corridors and through the labour ward to get to him. The first day I was taken in a wheelchair but after that I had to walk, or rather shuffle there and back. I then had to leave. I have to deliver his breast milk twice a day and then go home. It’s heartbreaking.”

I really do know how lucky I am to be in Sweden.

Paul Connolly

Read more from Paul here, including his Northern Dispatch column

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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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