“You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?” John Travolta asks Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. “It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just… just there it’s a little different.”
This sums up how I feel about Sweden. I tried to relay this idea to my family while we were on holiday in the UK, but it’s exceptionally hard to do. The big differences are easy to explain. Sweden’s generous parental leave system, the high standard of living, the beauty of Stockholm’s archipelago.
Even the negatives are very concrete: The lengthy housing queues, the administrative nightmares with the tax office, the price of a pint in Gamla Stan…
But the little differences… well, as luck would have it, the whole idea of the little differences transpired before us as I brought my mum and sister to Stockholm after a London visit.
We were taking the National Express coach from Victoria station to Stansted airport, and had left ourselves with ample time to catch the flight. We’d checked in online in advance, and had planned for an hour and twenty minutes to get from the door of the airport to the plane itself. Ryanair recommends 30 minutes. We’d be fine, right?
But then we got the bus driver from hell.
Before we even left the station, he started pacing up the aisle of the bus muttering “We’re already 15 minutes late – we’re going to hit peak hour traffic.” I’ve never driven a bus myself, but surely the best thing to do when your own bus is late is to drive it rather than pace the aisles. Pacing is rarely the answer when you’re running late.
But our problems hadn’t even begun.
For almost every single passenger that got on along the way, there was a different form of ticket to deal with, none of which the driver seemed to have ever encountered before. Cash, cards, printed tickets of all varieties, reservations, no reservations. Some passengers had none of the above.
And each passenger seemed to exasperate the driver until he properly lost the plot. When a calm Spanish-sounding man asked why he couldn’t board the bus, the driver snapped and threatened to call the police.
“I’m not just a driver, I have the authority to allow people on the bus,” he shrieked.
The Spaniard never made it on board, and he wasn’t the only one. The driver stopped at some stations simply to tell passengers that he had no room on the bus. Let’s consider that for a moment. It’s an airport connection, no one is getting off until the final stop, and he was pulling over to tell people they couldn’t board.
We eventually arrived 45 minutes late, after the gate had closed for our flight.
The driver never said a word on the loudspeaker about the delays, never offered an estimated time of arrival, and even told one passenger “I don’t care about the passengers, I am getting paid until 9pm, that’s all that matters to me.”
By some miracle, which was not helped by random bag checks from overly zealous bag checkers, we made the plane in the nick of time after running all the way to the gate, which just happened to be on the other side of the airport.
Throughout the flight, I took the chance to assure my family that the same would never happen in Sweden – Sweden’s drivers aren’t lunatics and the ticketing systems are clear. Touching down in Skavsta was a dream come true.
We’d bought tickets in advance and could simply show the Swedish driver our receipt on a smart phone. There was an orderly queue for the bus, on which there was room for everyone.
The bus travelled along a calm route to the centre of Stockholm, all the while displaying a screen with the progress of the journey and our estimated time of arrival. The driver didn’t stop for passengers, and didn’t feel the need to assert his power as being “a lot more than just a driver”.
In short, the trip reflected my idea of the little differences where the Swedish system works, and it was the perfect introduction to the country for my family.
Of course, Sweden’s public transport is not the ultimate example of a well-oiled system. I met a man from Osaka recently who told me that he loved Stockholm, but that Japan put Sweden’s public transport system to shame.
It’s the little differences like those that I notice the most, he told me.
And while we were coming from different ends of the spectrum, I couldn’t have agreed more.