How the bird in my lobby reminds me of loneliness of life in Stockholm

There's a bird in my lobby. And, each time that I return to Stockholm, that bird, greeting me upon my arrival, feels like a reminder about life here in this town, writes The Local's reader Ken Appleman.

How the bird in my lobby reminds me of loneliness of life in Stockholm
A walk down the street in Stockholm is a private act, according to the writer. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

I'm an intermittent visitor to Stockholm. An accidental expat. My wife got a job that thrills her here, and I come frequently (or as frequently as possible, in these pandemic times) to support her. We're from New York, though – upstate, these days, a rural area about 150 miles north of the city – and I grew up in Brooklyn. Each time I arrive, that bird – a digital bird that tweets whenever one enters the lobby – reminds me of the curious quiet of this sombre town, compared to the one that I grew up in.

My experience of street life is of being jostled. Psychic jostling, if not physical. When you walk around the streets in New York, jostling is constant. You really can't keep to yourself, even though you might not talk to anyone. Walking in New York is an inherently social act – you are interacting by taking up space, by crossing someone else's field of view. They know you're there, you know they're there, and, whether you actually speak or not (which of course, most often, you don't), you've interacted.

Here, though, in Stockholm, the bird – tweeting alone in the empty lobby – reminds me that the street feel is the opposite. A walk down the street in Stockholm is a private act, no matter how many people there are on the street with you.

I remember that one of my earliest introductions to this took place about a year and a half ago when I, still very new in this town, walked in the part of a sidewalk labelled for bicycles. The rider on the bike that came up behind me and nearly mowed me down didn't say anything, didn't ring a bell, didn't beep a horn, nothing. It was lucky for me that I happened to turn his way – and was thus able to get out of the way, just in time – or a collision would have been inevitable.

It wasn't until later that I realised that that reticence to interact is baked into life in this city. It showed me that there is so little desire to communicate with strangers that people won't even warn you to get out of the way of their bikes.


In our lobby, the bird, cheeping from a speaker near the ceiling, may be related to artwork. There is a plaque on the wall, separate from where the birdsong emits, and several large colorful photos, printed on glass. An artist's name. The words “Green Leaf”.

It may be related to that artwork (there is a bird in one of the photos), but the relationship isn't entirely clear. Even on the artist's website there's no mention of a digital bird with this artwork. I mean, it says, “pictures of glass mounted on a wall” (a weird Google-translate formulation of what probably says “pictures on glass”), but no mention of an audio accompaniment of any kind, avian or otherwise.

Each time one enters the lobby, though, the bird tweets insistently, over and over. Imagine one of those clocks that tweet at you to mark the hour, but instead of doing it once an hour, it does it every few seconds, without stopping. Most of the residents in this building seem to pay it no attention – just some minor background noise, signaling lobby arrivals and departures.

But to me, every time I arrive back in the empty, minimal, very Swedish lobby, the automatic birdsong doesn't feel like background noise – instead, it feels like a reminder about life here in Stockholm. This muted city, dressed in dark colours. “The loneliest city in the world,” according to a recent article in a local publication, because so many of the apartments in this town are occupied by one person, living alone.

Is there really a digital bird in every Stockholmer's apartment building? I don't know – but I can't help thinking so. What would greet them if not?

This article was written by The Local's reader Ken Appleman. Would you like to share your story about life in Sweden with The Local? Get in touch with our editorial team at [email protected].

Member comments

  1. This article resonated with me. After 1 year living In Stockholm we have made the decision to move on by mid year once lockdown restrictions hopefully easy in our home countries of UK or Australia. Whilst beautiful, this city lacks something, hard to quantify sometimes. But I miss the humour and gregariousness that are ever present in other places I have lived

  2. Ah this beautiful city, but oh so quiet and lonely. Socialising here feels like a task you have to do, rathet than something that springs up organically.

  3. If you are a human being and want to have any sort of interaction with other human beings, Stockholm is not for you. This is a nice place for a tourist, but to enjoy living here as a foreigner you have to be dead inside.

  4. Replying to AO, I think ‘dead inside’ goes a little too far. I love everything about Stockholm. I don’t live in Stockholm anymore, but did so a couple of years ago. I’m now based further south although, at present, I am stuck in the UK waiting for restrictions to be eased and until I consider it safe to return. I empathise with Ken Appleman and understand how he feels but I have always sensed that Swedes are reserved people and probably poles apart from Americans, especially New Yorkers, judging by how Ken describes them which, I find, to be very eloquent. I think Swedes are wonderful, warm people and no less so in Stockholm. As a Brit who has lived there off and on since before the millennium, I would probably be described as reserved as a Swede but it’s just how we are. We all like to have a good time; it’s that what floats our boat doesn’t float everyone else’s boat. No, I agree with Jamboree to a certain extent in that, sometimes, an individual needs to put a bit of effort into socialising. However, the effort sometimes isn’t enough for a Stockholmer to reciprocate.

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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.