I felt a bit guilty about complaining about the north's weather last month. Most of northern Europe has had a stinker of a winter, so it seemed a little unfair to single out Sweden's north. At least it wasn't quite as drab and damp as the south.
A couple of my northern friends grumbled to me about my weather whinging. They said I should try to be positive, that I have dedicated too much of my column to complaints about northern Sweden. They feel it's time for some positivity. And who am I to argue? Northern Sweden is a fantastic place. And here's why.
Last year The Sun newspaper, the UK's king of dumb tabloids, ran a feature about Facebook's new server farm in Luleå in northern Sweden. The first paragraph had this sentence: “In this remote Swedish community the pale sun rises at 10am, sets at 2pm and the midday temperature is a perishing -30C.” There was no mention that this dark, frigid state of affairs was only very occasionally true in the deep mid-winter. The newspaper went on to talk about how “biting cold and darkness dominate in Luleå, a town perched at the top of the world.” Which is about 85 percent nonsense. The feature gave the impression that Luleå was a dark, dank place all year round.
I live not far from Luleå. In early April, our days are already more than 30 minutes longer than London's and 20 minutes longer than Stockholm's. The vårvinter (early spring) days here are amazing - blazing sunshine reflecting off snow, with temperatures of around 12C. It's glorious. And then there's the midnight sun and our great summers. Northern Sweden is an incredibly bright place to live. Even the deep winters are illuminated by the snow.
My southern Swedish friends never believe me when I tell them stories of the friendliness of northern Swedes. About how people flit from house to house, rarely knocking, having coffee, sharing home-baked goodies and bearing gifts for young ones. It really is like The Waltons TV series but with less religion and more cake. After our children were born we were inundated with gifts. Local tradesmen have done work on our house and not expected payment. I read a piece in a magazine recently with an American wistfully recalling the 1960s when “you could leave your car key in the ignition and never lock your front door unless you were going on vacation.” That American would have loved northern Sweden. I don't know anyone who locks their front door. And my car key stays in the ignition 24/7.
Last month, I raced to our local bank to pay in a cheque. I was late and had forgotten that the bank closed early on a Wednesday. I pulled at the door before realising it was locked. It had closed 90 minutes previously. As I turned to walk away, one of the bank workers bounded to the door and unlocked it. “Välkommen,” he smiled. “Please come in - we're really not that busy.” I was gobsmacked. The percentage of such a thing happening in the UK? Zero.
This has not been an isolated incident. Customer service up here tends to be excellent. Shop staff smile and are courteous. They stop what they're doing and help you find stuff. In the UK the only supermarket in which that happens is the rather expensive Waitrose chain. Over here, staff at the more downmarket Willy's and Biltema are also super helpful. Try asking for help at Tesco's in the UK and you'll likely be ejected from the premises for harassing the staff. Up here, it's actually part of their job to be helpful.
The health system
A few southerners complained like crazy when I was complimentary about the treatment my girlfriend received when she gave birth to our twins last summer. A couple of readers even suggested that I lied about our first-rate experiences. Baffling, I know. Sorry, but since then we've had more great care up here. The combination of uncrowded, modern, cutting-edge facilities peopled by staff who are in the right profession is a potent one. And when you have two children, it's a reassuring combination too. The health system up here is nothing short of sensational.
I'm looking out of my office window. Our land - bought for the price of a derelict semi-detached terraced house in a rundown northern English town - stretches down to the lake at the bottom of our “garden”. It's a huge lake. Over it fly ducks, geese and cranes. We've seen reindeer, elk and roe deer. Snowy owls, golden eagles and lynx are also spotted but less regularly. We've even seen a bear with cubs. And there's the Northern Lights? Have I mentioned the Aurora Borealis? We see them regularly from our living room. Beat that southern Sweden!