I had to go back to the UK recently on family business. I was immediately struck by how much faster life was in England compared to up here in northern Sweden. People walk faster, drive faster, talk faster.
So, I made a point during our stay to list the biggest little differences between living in London and living in northern Sweden. Everyone knows that most parts of Sweden are extremely quiet and uncrowded in comparison to most parts of the UK. That’s no great revelation. But what about the smaller differences?
1. The customer is king in the UK
Whether it’s on the supermarket shelves or in a clothes shop, the UK just has so much more choice. At first, I thought I really missed the vast selection of different goodies. But after spending a good 15 minutes deliberating on the various merits of an array of deodorants at Sainsbury's, I realized that this huge choice presents its own problems. The Swedes don’t see the point of more than three or four different brands. And they have a point – why do you need twelve brands of deodorant to choose from? I’m fairly certain that most of them contain exactly the same ingredients. We might be only able to buy one hot Thai sauce at our local Coop up here but it is a very good hot sauce. And it's probably one more than I'd find in a similar small store in a remote part of the UK.
Also, shops just never seem to shut in the UK. Everything is 24/7 and so in your face. Sweden has its capitalistic oddities (what’s with the gambling obsession?) but I rather like its calmer, more measured approach to retail.
When we returned home from the airport, our next door neighbour greeted us with concern regarding our family issue. So far, so normal. But then we noticed that he and our other neighbours had trimmed the grass, watered our plants and left us a fridge stocked with necessities. And they certainly didn’t expect compensation for the bread, sausage and milk. We’d left without much warning so hadn’t had time to ask them to look after things. They just did it because that’s what they do. The chances of that happening back in the UK where our neighbours steadfastly refused to even acknowledge us? A big fat zero.
I swear there is hardly any petty crime up here. In the local town, bikes are always left unsecured. Front doors are rarely locked. People will go into shops and sometimes leave their car running outside, especially in winter. We stayed in a nice enough rural village when we visited the UK – it certainly wasn’t rough. But everything was padlocked. Bikes, bins, garage doors – anything that could be secured, locked down, bolted or fastened had some form of lock on it. Where we stayed I left my car keys on a shelf a metre or so from the front door. I was told to move them because thieves occasionally go fishing through letterboxes with coat hangers in order to snaffle car keys.
4. Aggression on roads
Yes, northern Swedes drive as though they’re immortal. Not because they like to drive fast and think they’re invulnerable to death but because they drive so slowly over such vast distances that time must be cheap to them. However, far rather their dilatory approach to driving than the madness of UK roads, where I encountered road rage within 10 minutes of getting into the rental car (and, no, it wasn’t my rage) and at frequent intervals thereafter. Everyone is in such a rush in the UK.
5. Conform, conform, conform
Up here, there seem to be about five models of car on the road. They’re nearly all estates. I once saw a brand new Porsche and, as it passed, people were turning in the street to look at it as if it were a golden unicorn being ridden by Agnetha Fältskog. Fancy cars are really very rare up here. On UK roads, there’s a huge variety of cars. In everyday civic life too, there’s a huge difference. People up here dress very similarly. In the UK, there is a much wider acceptance of individuality. But UK society also feels more fractured, less safe and more febrile.