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‘In northern Sweden we lock our door to shut out the friendly people’

What happens when you take a big city man and drop him in rural northern Sweden? Let's just say that born-and-bred Londoner Paul Connolly has a few stories to tell you.

'In northern Sweden we lock our door to shut out the friendly people'
Paul Connolly's life today and before. Photo: Private & Nina Eirin Rangøy/NTB scanpix/TT

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My girlfriend and I were watching the final episode of the last season of The Bridge when it happened. A dark car rolled slowly past our house, car stereo bassline juddering. Through the windows of our living room, I could see youths in the car.

Instinct kicked in and I leapt off the sofa, slipped on some shoes, grabbed the keys to my truck, and rushed out the front door. The car rumbled slowly past in the other direction as I opened the door of the truck.

They'd reached the dead end of the track that runs past our house and had doubled back.

I backed our truck out of the driveway. The car was now about 200 metres up our track, heading towards the main road. I could catch them if I put the pedal to the metal.

The last time I'd seen this kind of driving – hooded youths in a dark, bass-filled, slow-moving car – had been in Shoreditch, in east London, where we lived before moving to rural northern Sweden.

It usually meant one thing – they were looking for empty houses for a spot of opportunist burglary.

As a born-and-bred Londoner, I dealt regularly with dodgy characters in urban environs.

I'd confronted a gang of youths who had intimidated my girlfriend as she tried to enter our apartment block in Shoreditch and had also – at 3am in the morning in my t-shirt and boxers – apprehended a ham-fisted burglar who'd woken me up while trying to break into a shop adjacent to our apartment.

I wasn't going to put up with this nonsense in northern Sweden, I thought, as I put my foot down and began my pursuit of the slow-moving car.

I was quickly gaining on the car as it headed towards the main road. I tried to formulate a plan as I drove. What was I going to do when I caught them? Run them off the road? Too extreme. Follow them with my lights on full-beam? Might be a plan.

Just then, the car indicated right and pulled into a neighbour's driveway.

It suddenly clicked. The driver of the car was Robert, our neighbour's teenage son.

And he'd been driving slowly because he had just started to learn to drive.

He'd been on an impromptu driving lesson, not casing our house.

His taste in music may have been questionable but so was my girlfriend's and I wouldn't force her off the road just for liking Dua Lipa (can't say it hasn't crossed my mind, though).

My London paranoia had overwhelmed me again. We've lived for six-and-a-half years in a rural village in Norrland, 20 kilometres from the nearest tiny town and at least 60 kilometres from any kind of major-ish conurbation.

And my urban antennae still hadn't been evolved out of existence by constant exposure to our new, peaceful surroundings.

In London, the sound of traffic is a constant thrum. Here, when a car drives past our house, we always look out – it's a pretty rare event.

We can even tell which neighbour is driving past by the sound of the engine.

Obviously, there is some crime here. There were four or five burglaries in our nearest town a few years ago and the media had a field day. It was front page news for a week and columnists were predicting the end of Norrland civilization. But we survived.

That's almost the strangest thing. People really do think society is about to collapse if there's even the smallest 'crimewave'. What wouldn't even make the gossip grapevine in London becomes huge news here.

When I moved here I was a pretty unapologetic 'big city' type. I spent most of my life living in London. For five years before we moved to Sweden, we lived in Shoreditch.

If we wanted a bottle of wine, our local off-licence was a 30-second walk. Now, it's an 80-minute round trip to the local government alcohol shop, Systembolaget.

I've lost count of the number of last-minute 90 km/h dashes to the local System on a Saturday lunchtime because we have guests coming for dinner and we forgot the shop closes early on Saturday. Planning isn't a big thing in the Connolly DNA.

I love our neighbours. They are some of the kindest, most good-natured, most helpful people we have ever had the pleasure of knowing (and they totally destroy the myth, peddled by southern Swedes, that northerners are unfriendly folk).

When we had twins, just over five years ago, it was tough. But without the kindness of our neighbours, it would have been a lot tougher.

However, I do wish our neighbours wouldn't walk into our house whenever they feel like it.

My girlfriend was confronted, mid-breastfeed, by two neighbours we didn't even know that well who were keen to see our new daughters. Donna was in the nursery at the time. Upstairs. They had just let themselves in and stomped up the stairs to see who was around.

We now lock our front door when we're at home but not because of people wishing us ill or liking the look of my hi-fi, as was the case in London.

In northern Sweden, we lock our front door to shut out the friendly people.

Paul Connolly is a Skellefteå-based writer and monthly columnist for The Local. Follow him on Facebook and read more of his writing on The Local.

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What makes a northern Swedish town of 1,000 a great place to live?

The small town of Sorsele in Swedish Lapland has been rated as the best small town in Sweden for local amenities by a new study.

What makes a northern Swedish town of 1,000 a great place to live?
Would you want to live here, in Sorsele? Photo: Anna Simonsson/SvD/TT

Property and housing magazine Hem & Hyra looked at the total number of service points, including grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, ATMs, and petrol stations, and measured which towns had the highest number of facilities per capita.

Sorsele, a town otherwise known for its hiking and skiing opportunities, came top of all 2,011 “urban areas” in the country. It’s the main town in the municipality of the same name, home to part of the huge Vindelfjällens Nature Reserve.

It boasts a high school, three grocery stores, doctor’s office, and a branch of the alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. All in all, it counts 17.1 amenities per 1,000 residents, more than anywhere else in Sweden.

Also available in Sorsele (but not included as service points for the purpose of the study) are a hardware store, bakery, florist, and grill restaurant, but no dentist and no bank after its last bank branch closed in May of this year.

“We are pretty good but some parts are missing. We have no clothes shop. But we have just enough,” Kjell Öjeryd, the chairman of the municipal board, told the magazine.

A total of 1,113 people lived in Sorsele at the end of 2020, according to Statistics Sweden.