‘The hardest thing about living in northern Sweden is not what you think’

OPINION: Former Londoner Paul Connolly writes that while most of the things you'll hear about northern Sweden are either exaggerated or untrue, there is one serious problem no one talks about.

'The hardest thing about living in northern Sweden is not what you think'
Winter driving is nothing compared to finding a good mechanic. Photo: candy18
It's -20C as I write this in my house in northern Sweden. There's around 1.5 metre of snow in my back garden. My kids have a party to go to this afternoon in a nearby town. Before we go I'll have to remember to plug in the car to warm up the engine and cabin. I might have to unfreeze the wheels by hammering the brake discs with a mallet.
The girls will have to adhere to an elaborate routine before they leave the house. Two layers of 'normal' clothes, scarfs, hats, gloves, snowsuits and big snow boots.
Yet the cold is nothing more than a minor irritation up here. I feel it's a small price to pay for four to five months without rain. I hate rain.
Indeed most things that people fear about northern Sweden are either exaggerated (the cold in winter, darkness – it's a sparklingly bright and sunny January morning here), untrue (unfriendly locals – our neighbours were not only initially very welcoming but have been enduringly lovely), or only partially true (depending on exactly where you live, the bugs can be a pest for a few weeks each summer).
None of these issues bother me much, although mosquitoes regard me as a fine, rare and succulent treat, so I'm not overly fond of their high season.
No, the one thing that has remained a source of persistent vexation since we moved here nearly seven years ago is the lack of competent car mechanics.
Coming from London, where there were droves (that has to be the collective noun, right?) of mechanics bidding for our business, this has rather stumped us. 
But all the local mechanics are either utterly inept or don't need the work and thus never return phone calls or emails. We've grown used to Swedes' passive communication etiquette but it still rankles with me (it's just so rude to ignore emails and messages) and these days I tend to cut these people straight out of my life.
But the ineptitude is off the scale. One fixed the wrong side of the suspension (and then denied he'd done so and only relented once presented with photographic evidence of his cock-up). Another hamfisted idiot fitted brake pads but forgot to fit both pads, a mistake that left us with 12,000 Swedish kronor ($1,330) worth of damage to my brake system (and rendered the car hugely dangerous in the process). And yet another buffoon neglected to tighten the bolts on one of my wheels, which led to the wheel flying off the car while I was driving at 80km/h.
This low level of competence means that those mechanics who are halfway capable can pick and choose their customers. Some are even known to 'sack' customers who, they feel, want too much work done or who turn up late for an appointment (yes, this happened to us). 
One particular chap carried out a considerable amount of work but didn't charge us. This was his way of 'letting us go' in punishment for us being late. A sort of severance (non-) payment. Another reluctantly took on our car for a service, and then didn't charge us. We later found out he hadn't done any of the work either.
Apparently, mechanics up here just don't want to fix cars. No competent mechanics anyway. According to one friend, any decent Norrland mechanic's ambition is to fix heavy plant machinery. Cars are for kids.
As a result, the franchised car dealerships, such as Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, stalk engineering schools, signing up promising teenage talent way before they graduate. 
A good car mechanic can therefore command a princely salary at a franchised dealership in town, which leaves the rural parts at the mercy of the incompetent and rude. 
I've long felt that a good immigrant car mechanic could make an absolute fortune in rural northern Sweden. In our part of Norrland, which is expanding quickly and expects an influx of 5,000-7,000 people over the next few years, the demand will only get stronger.
As for us, we think we've finally found a good mechanic. I had a flash of inspiration last year after our most recent mechanic disaster. American cars are hugely popular up here and there is a strong support network. 
So, we bought an old American truck and found a mechanic who specializes in working on them. He seems to be a real aficionado. It'll definitely cost us more but if it results in a safer vehicle – and fewer episodes of being left on three wheels – then I really don't care.
Best of all, he responds to texts and emails…

Member comments

  1. He writes about “northern Sweden” but does not reveal what “northern” is or where he actually lives. My ancestors and relatives are from Skelleftea. Is that “northern” Sweden? If not, I don’t know what is.

  2. Hi Ray! Paul Connolly lives near Skellefteå, as it says in bold at the bottom of the article.

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.