'Returning to Sweden, I realize how much I have missed its dullness'

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 6 Feb, 2019 Updated Wed 6 Feb 2019 08:00 CEST
'Returning to Sweden, I realize how much I have missed its dullness'

OPINION: After five years abroad, Scottish writer William Easton returns to his adopted home of Sweden and is surprised by what he finds.


Stockholm is just so delightfully and painfully familiar. Here is the superloo where I changed a nappy for one of my three children twenty years ago and over there is where I took a ukulele class to support a friend's hobby.

But things have changed. As Thomas Wolfe put it, "you can't go home again"; return is not return! It is always the discovery of something else, something altered. What you think you know has changed, regardless of how well you you've tried to keep up with things.

After five years in Istanbul, I find myself back in my adopted city and a country in the middle of what the tabloid press tells me is chaos or the broadsheets call political crisis. Having spent too much time watching civil society crumble in Turkey, human rights vanish and journalism turned into an apology for dictatorship, these words seem exaggerated to say the least.

But despite the hyperbole of Sweden's fourth estate, I can't help but notice that there is something vaguely reassuring about their alarmist rhetoric. If the struggle to find acceptable compromise across often similar party political ideology is chaos, one might wish we had more of it. Of course it is a truism to say that such crises are thankfully a long way from military coups and teargas, but the defence of democracy perhaps isn't just about demonstration and fighting in the street.

Yet, no matter how hard Swedish media has tried to dramatize the current seismic shifts in Swedish politics, it still feels more like the gradual movement of tectonic plates than an earthquake. And this is perhaps exactly how it should be. Democracy is dull. It is not really about personalities or populist promises. It doesn't make for exciting headlines or earth-shattering tweets. It is often insignificant, easily overlooked and tedious.

Returning to Sweden, there are of course genuine causes for concern.

There are things to get upset about; the rise of the far right, the recognition that sexual violence is commonplace or that discrimination is routine. These do not distinguish Sweden, but perhaps the ways Sweden confronts these issues does.

Watching how the media and Swedish police dealt with the terrorist attack in Stockholm in 2017, or the debate around The Swedish Academy or how the #metoo movement is incrementally changing societal norms. It seems it is less about grandstanding or demagoguery than an often painfully slow and careful process of analysis.

It has little of the glitter and glam of Hollywood politics USA style, the archaic pageantry of British parliament buffoonery or even the incendiary oratory of Tayip Erdogan. It is lagom (moderate) to use a Swedish word and to be quite frank, Stefan Löfven is the last person in the world anyone would describe as a firebrand.

So, returning to Sweden, what has surprised me is not just change and familiarity but how much I have missed a certain dullness. Snow is falling, the temperature has dropped and the streets are methodically and carefully cleared. Unlike in the US or Turkey, there's no need for any excitement.

I grab a local Stockholm paper and the headline reads 'Fiasco for city's super-toilets'! While I dimly remember how crucial these places were when, years ago, I was dragging three kids across town in the snow, I have to jolt myself to understand how such news makes a headline.

Then I look at Dagens Nyheter and read the earth-shattering mountain-trembling leader "Historiskt replikskifte mellan allianspartier – första på över 5,000 dagar" – a story that describes how the former alliance of conservative parties has begun to question each other for the first time since 2004, and dresses this up as a "historic exchange". Maybe I haven't become fully acclimatized yet, but I'm not sure I'll be tweeting about this.

William Easton is a Scottish writer who lives and works in his adopted home of Stockholm.


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