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…