I recently lived five months in Sweden, teaching at Uppsala University, travelling frequently to Stockholm, visiting the far north in Abisko and the exploring the medieval ruins of Visby.
Upon returning to my home in Northfield, Minnesota, a small ex-urban college town near Minneapolis-Saint Paul, several contrasts between the America and Sweden struck me. The US and Sweden are two different worlds, in several respects.
Consider the following:
In Sweden, I lived in a small university provided house, considered a spacious accommodation. Our US house, however, is approximately twice the size of my Swedish residence. Americans on average drive much larger cars than Swedes. Most of my American neighbors have three car garages, and across the street resides a family with four automotive vehicles. Americans really do “live large” by Swedish standards.
Why the difference? America’s lower taxes allow individual Americans more discretionary income for home mortgages or for securing loans for multiple vehicles. Swedes, in contrast, contribute more in taxes for a greater array of governmental services, like extensive publicly-provided health care, family and elder care services, in return for less discretionary income.
Much of my time in Sweden was spent surrounded by many bicyclists or ensconced on trains and buses. All of that vanished upon returning to my home in America. My US environment features transport in large automobiles with mass transit an infrequently available option and bicycling a far less widespread activity.
In Sweden, ownership of two cars marks a household as economically elite. Not so in the US, still very much a “car culture.” Our two-car garage in Minnesota is the smallest on our street.
American governments do less to discourage auto ridership. One reason is the widespread popularity of auto ownership in the US, which makes efforts to curb auto use dangerous for any elected official. Another reason is the abundance of gasoline available at about half of the price that Swedes pay.
I found Sweden’s mass transit to operate pretty well, except for a two week disruption of rail service between Uppsala and Stockholm in June that left me pining for an automobile.
Night and day
I arrived in Sweden in January, when daytime involved about five hours of dusk. I left in June, when nighttime consisted of three and one-half hours of dusk.
The long days and long nights resulting from Sweden’s very northerly latitude are challenging for a visitor from one of America’s lower 48 states. It is one Swedish trait to which I doubt that I could ever fully adjust.
When should I go to sleep and when should I wake up? The answer to that question varied greatly with the season in Sweden. The only effective response to such a seasonal variation, it seems to me, are very dark curtains and very bright sun lamps.
In Minnesota, one pays no sales tax on food, clothing or prescriptions. The large sales tax in Sweden produced a change in my diet. I ate far less meat and reduced my portion sizes at meals. I also dined out less because the average price of a meal out was fifty to one hundred percent higher than in the US.
Substituting my unspectacular cooking for the fine food prepared by my wife, who spent most of the five months back in the US, also led to more meager repasts. I lost weight and was probably healthier as a result, but did miss a few culinary indulgences. I ate only one steak during my five months in Sweden, at a student “nation” at Uppsala University at a price well below what restaurants charged.
Upon returning to the US, I was immediately struck by the larger number of overweight people. Swedes, on average, are much trimmer than Americans.
Higher food prices may be part of the reason, but Swedes on average seem to have more physically active lifestyles than do Americans. They walk and bicycle more, and caloric “fast food” seems to comprise a smaller portion of Swedish diets.
Those reasons, combined with more comprehensive medical care for all citizens, helps to explain why Swedish lifespans are on average longer than those in the US.
Upon returning to the US, I was surprised to find that people in stores and on the street began talking to me. The “buttoned up” quality of Swedes yielded very few such casual conversations during my five months in their country.
American extroversion may be more evident in the center of the US than in the urban centers of America’s coasts. I found casual and friendly conversations a pleasant experience again in the US. It helped me “reconnect” with my American culture very quickly.
Swedes are highly focused on New York City. I saw more New York Yankees caps in Sweden that I have ever seen in the US outside of New York City. Living in Sweden, one gets the sense that New York City comprises the totality of Swedish interest in the US.
Americans who do not live on America’s east coast pay far less attention to New York City than do Swedes. For many Americans, the city represents several less desirable American traits. That is a perception nowhere evident in Sweden. And, for the record, I, along with millions of Americans, despise the New York Yankees.
In recent weeks I have experienced two very different cultures, indeed. Americans could learn from Swedish innovations in mass transit and health care. Swedes could use more discretionary income and social extroversion.
I miss Sweden, but realize, having spent several decades in the US prior to my Swedish sojourn, that the US is indeed my cultural home. My time in Sweden revealed to me just how “American” I am, and I thank Sweden and Swedes for that useful self-knowledge.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.