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'After two years in Sweden, it finally feels like home'

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'After two years in Sweden, it finally feels like home'
Stockholm. Photo: Christine Olsson / TT
16:26 CEST+02:00
The Local's assistant editor Catherine Edwards reflects on some of the things she has learned about Sweden – and herself – since moving here.

I moved to Sweden almost by accident. Having studied languages at university and spent time living in Italy and Germany, I knew I wanted to try out life in a new country, but couldn't decide which one.

So it's more down to luck than any clever planning on my part that I eventually ended up in Stockholm – and that the move has turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made. After two years, four apartments in different corners of the capital, and an unreasonable amount of pastry, Stockholm finally feels like home.

A few months after arriving, I wrote about the things that had surprised me most in Sweden, including the fact that doors that often open the opposite way to what you expect. Pushing a pull door isn't quite a perfect metaphor for trying to adjust to a new country, but it sort of works.

It can feel like you're going in the wrong direction, using all your strength to attempt something that wouldn't need a moment's thought back at home; something that on the surface looks easy, but you're getting nowhere, wondering what vital piece of information everyone else knows that you don't.

Sometimes the obstacles you face as a foreigner are small, such as the impossibility of finding clothes to fit my 5ft 2 frame, and sometimes they're more serious; I've seen several friends wrestle with webs of bureaucracy when attempting to renew residency permits.

READ ALSO: How Brexit made me quit my job, pack up my life and move to Sweden

I never expected to feel like a native within weeks, and Swedish culture isn't particularly far removed from that of the UK, but the first few months in a new country are exhausting. Everyday tasks have to be relearned: cooking with different ingredients, looking the other way when crossing the road, respecting different norms around greetings and personal space. You're balancing two different lives that don't quite match up, like a dodgy translation. Because of this, Stockholm's large international community is both a blessing and a curse; having friends who are in the same position as you provides a valuable safety net, but can close you off to what's going on in the country.

When I first announced my move here, most of my friends and family reacted with surprise. British expats tend to move to other Anglophone nations, or else seek out sunnier climes in southern Europe, and some people I know remain unsure of exactly where I've ended up, confusing Sweden with Switzerland or one of the other Nordic nations. Brits don't tend to learn much about Scandinavia at school or elsewhere – I knew embarrassingly little about Sweden when I arrived – which means it often gets reduced to the broadest stereotypes.

Even Swedes often don't seem to grasp the appeal of the country. Earlier this year, my boyfriend moved to join me here, and we're regarded with a certain suspicion each time we explain that no, neither of us is Swedish, we actually just like it here. 

Working at The Local has been a great opportunity to learn what makes this country tick. The work-life balance and transparency mean it's probably one of the best places to be a journalist, although it might not seem instantly newsworthy. Most Anglophone newspapers don't have full-time correspondents in Scandinavia, and some of the stories that headline the national news would be considered 'fluff' back home. Some of the most read stories on The Local Sweden since I moved have been about elk sightings, the Northern Lights, and an 'ice penis' in Gothenburg. But there are plenty of serious topics to explore beyond the stereotypes, from the fast-growing tech scene to issues surrounding integration, which are all well worth reporting and paying attention to.

At the moment, there's a growing interest in Swedish culture and lifestyle, and particularly the image of Sweden as a relaxed, lagom country. My quality of life has improved massively since living here, thanks to the clean air, good quality housing, and an attitude to free time that means your weekends are actually your own. 

It's impossible not to embrace the Scandinavian concept of 'friluftsliv' or 'outdoor life'. I walk everywhere I can, swam outdoors in the summer, and joined a gym and a netball team despite a lifelong conviction that I was not and would never be 'a sporty person'. In England most adults struggle to find time for hobbies, but the Swedish combination of long days in summer, generous childcare policies, and bosses who encourage you to leave the office at 5:30pm means most people I know here are able to pursue their passions out of work. And when my lack of coordination inevitably led to my first sports injury, the welfare state meant I benefited from a high quality of generously subsidized healthcare.

I love the way the sun illuminates the pastel hues of the buildings (Sweden actually gets more sunlight than the UK each year), the surreal art in the underground stations, and, in the winter, people walking across frozen-over lakes. But though it looks and feels like a fairy tale at times, it isn't, of course, and has its problems just like any other society. 

Even in the short time I've been living here, the far-right has seen rapid growth in Sweden, from the Sweden Democrats in the mainstream to extremist neo-Nazi movements. The large numbers of refugee arrivals put pressure on the country that led to huge displays of solidarity and generosity, but also a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment. And the response from Swedish women to the global '#MeToo' campaigns has shown that even in a country hailed as one of the best place in the world for women, sexism and harassment still exist.

These problems aren't unique to Sweden, but its reputation as a socialist, liberal country makes them easy pickings for anyone trying to 'prove' this system hasn't worked. The fact that Sweden is often viewed as either a paradise or a failed state makes it hard to start nuanced discussions about these issues.

Then, there are other problems more closely connected to Swedish society. For example, a recent study showed that around 15 percent of people who die in hospitals and care homes die alone, a number that hasn't fallen in the past five years despite government promises. Meanwhile, half the population live by themselves, and almost as many report feeling lonely. While the Swedish welfare state gives everyone a chance at independence, it's worrying if this has the side effect of leaving some people without anyone they can depend on.

For the first few months, I had a rose-tinted view of the country, excited at every new revelation from the 'right to roam' to the fact you get an extra 'holiday supplement' on top of paid annual leave. This idealistic view of Sweden may have worn off slightly, but I'm still enchanted by this country that has so much to offer, and hope that more foreigners will consider, if not moving here themselves, then at least learning more about Sweden beyond the cliches. 

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