My first winter in Sweden: How bad could it be, we wondered?

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. In a new series, the Local's reader Alexander de Neree writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

Alexander de Nerée by Lake Mälaren in Stockholm
Alexander de Nerée. Photo: Private

We would love it in Sweden, was the consensus among our friends who – unlike us – had actually been to the country. The people, so stylish! The city, the nature, the furniture! What is there not to love? Except, perhaps, the winters.

And so it happened that everyone we told we were moving in October, noted that the timing was unfortunate. This did not stop with the friends we left behind, who jokingly gave us a pack of vitamin D as a parting gift. Everyone we met in Sweden said the same: good luck with that.

How bad could it be, we wondered?

After the first six weeks of non-stop rain, finally, on Christmas Day, winter arrived in all its splendour.

What we were mainly not prepared for is how prepared the Swedes are for the darkness, the weather and the winter in general. Every un-curtained window in the city filled up with lights in the weeks running up to Christmas. Too late we realised we were the last on our street without festive lights to share. In a panic we scraped the barrel at online shop Webhallen and snatched the last light ornament depicting the three kings arriving in Bethlehem. We hoped no one would notice it was a little early for that.

people on an ice-covered lake
Swedes enjoying the cold weather. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

In the freezing weeks that followed, the Swedes seemed to thrive. In most countries, at the first hint of snow, emergency plans kick in, trains stop moving, red alerts are raised and hoarding stories fill the news.

While we did not really have the right clothes for the freezing temperatures, everyone around us from one day to the next, seemed to have pulled out full ski gear to run errands. That is, those who were not just ignoring the cold and were still running in shorts and a T-shirt; the same people, I assume, who went for a swim in the lake in November.

Daily life did not seem much impacted. People happily dug out their cars with shovels kept in the back for that purpose and went on their way on the slippery roads. Also, the fact that the snow requires people to climb up on the roof to cause local avalanches on the sidewalk was taken in stride. The drainpipes outside our building turned into icicle bombs ready to explode at any moment, giving an exciting edge to leaving the house.

As the cold snap continued, we saw families walk their dog on the ice of the lake, people cross country skiing in the streets and children hurling themselves off hills, zooming past tombstones with abandon. All without any visible concern for the fact that – even by Swedish standards – this must have been a pretty cold winter.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. The snow melted, the ski outfits disappeared, and expensive sunglasses replaced the woollen hats. Within three days of above freezing temperatures, charcoal for barbecues was on offer in the local supermarket. Just like that, we made it through our first winter.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. Moving to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his ‘firsts’ in Sweden.

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Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.