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Opinion: How my perfect picture of Sweden needed adjustment

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Opinion: How my perfect picture of Sweden needed adjustment
A postcard-perfect view over Stockholm's Riddarholmen. Photo: Nele Schröder/The Local
06:59 CET+01:00
From my early childhood, I have always had a beautiful image of Sweden in my mind. I imagined red houses and happy, dancing people – but I wanted to know how much of this picture was actually true. Moving to Stockholm for three months this year allowed me to finally put my preconceptions about Sweden into perspective.

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Recently, I wrote about the obsession of many Germans with Sweden. Researching for that article made me think. I am a German who came to Sweden after all – so I started reflecting on my own reasons for coming to Stockholm. Could it be related to the so-called Bullerby-syndrome, the German idea of Sweden as a romantic, ideal country? 

The reason for my early fascination with Sweden is probably the simplest and most superficial there is: Pippi Longstocking. I was about six years old when I discovered a very old edition of the 1946 tale 'Pippi goes on board' in my grandmother’s attic – and read it about ten times in the following two years.

For carnival two years later, I dyed my hair orange and put my braids up with wires. And it wasn't just Pippi herself that inspired me; I was fascinated by the country she lived in. Pippi Longstocking and other books by Astrid Lindgren, like 'Vi på Saltkråkan' (We on Seacrow Island) provided me with a perfect image of the Swedish landscapes and the people who live there.


A collection of Pippi Longstocking books in Swedish. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The Lindgren obsession faded as I got older, but this image of Sweden survived. Sweden, to me, meant happy people enjoying the beautiful nature, dancing around at midsummer and overall just having a good time – it sounded like paradise.

In reality I had never been to Sweden, nor had I any idea what it actually looked like. So I decided to travel here, stay a bit longer and get a real picture of the lifestyle. As much as I hate saying it, I’ve got to be honest: I came to Sweden because of clichés.

At the beginning of September, I moved to Stockholm for a three-month internship. This experience finally helped to put things into perspective.

The first Sunday I spent in Stockholm was September 9th: election day. For The Local, I went around the city and asked voters about their perspectives. This took me to the suburbs that tourists don't visit.

In Rinkeby, people told me about the negative experiences they have had with media, both in Sweden and internationally. “The problem is that they're talking for us or about us but never with us,” said one woman.

After seeing the positive outcome for the far-right Sweden Democrats, who gained over 17 percent of the vote in the election, my solely positive picture of Sweden started to change. This was when I began to grasp that Sweden, just like Germany and any other country, is not perfect through and through.


Election posters in Stockholm's city centre. Photo: Nele Schröder/The Local

The second big revelation my weeks here gave me was about the Swedish people. Whenever I am visiting my local IKEA in Germany, there are pictures of laughing families, of people dancing on midsummer and happy children running through forests all over the place. For a long time, this was the only picture of Swedes I had in mind.

I never imagined that the people here could actually be a bit distant when you meet them the first time and don’t like small talk. Or that the locals in Stockholm are so well dressed it’s intimidating. But here we are. On the brighter side, when you actually get to properly talk to a Swede, they make brilliant conversation partners. (And they inspired me to change up my wardrobe a bit.)

And last, but not least the Swedish personnummer. When I first heard about the social security number I thought they were just like the passport numbers I knew from Germany: useful for verifying your identity (when buying concert tickets for example) but unimportant most of the time. I would never have imagined it to play such a big role in everyday life. People without the ten-digit code are basically nothing in Sweden, unable to participate in society fully.

As an international student here only temporarily, I don't have this magic code. That means I can’t pick up mail, borrow books from the library, become a member at my local supermarket – the list goes on.

That is one thing that actually makes me look forward to going back to Germany – I'll be able to do all these things I've always taken for granted. On the plus side, not having a personnummer provides me with the perfect excuse to not talk to people on the streets that want me to donate money (another thing I could only do if I had a number).

My time here was a bit like meeting your favourite actor. You always admire them from afar, but when you actually get to meet them, you'll probably see that they are just humans as well.

It's important to emphasize that getting a more balanced perspective on my over-the-top stereotypes did not lead to a falling-out-of-love on my part. Somehow these experiences have made the perfect image of Sweden I had less of a paradise and more of an approachable place where real people live, not just fairies and other perfect mythical creatures.

And this has actually encouraged me to seek every chance to come back in the future.

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Mirar - 02 Dec 2018 14:32
Stockholm is a little more antisocial than the rest of Sweden, mind. This is easy to notice if you come to Stockholm from anywhere else in Sweden too... But we really need to do something about the personal number and people visiting short term.
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