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OPINION & ANALYSIS

My first year in Sweden: ‘It’s OK to lighten up and like your country a little’

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

a swedish flag in stockholm
The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée reflects on his first year in Sweden. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Now that it has been a full year, it is time for a column summing up the big “first”: my first year in Sweden.

An important thing to note is that it was obviously not a normal year. When usually a first year in a new country would be full of going-out-and-meeting-people, this year was more a brisk-walks-and-working-from-home and keeping-your-literal-distance experience.

However, as countries go, you could have done worse than moving to Sweden in these weird times. The brisk walks are always in pretty surroundings and the lockdown was not so severe as to turn Stockholm into a ghost town.

That does lead me to a general observation about life in Sweden: the government seems to rely quite heavily on their people’s discipline and own responsibility. The Covid approach being a case in point. When other countries ordered restaurants and non-essential shops to close, Sweden opted to recommend its citizens to stay at home.

Now, I’m not Swedish but I noticed that it was not so easy to resist the temptation to go out for dinner every now and then when everything remained open.

But more importantly, it was a little puzzling what the restaurants – and other businesses graciously allowed to keep their doors open – were to make of the approach. How are you supposed to run a restaurant if the government strongly recommends against going to your place for it may, well, kill them?

Personal choice, maybe, but the incident of the official whose personal choice enticed him to spend the holidays with his family in Spain despite the Swedish authorities’ recommendations, illustrated quite well the personal choice conundrum people were faced with.

Another observation I made is the tendency of Swedes to put down their own country quite a bit. When I told a Swedish colleague, who was living in Beijing, that I enjoyed my life in Stockholm he said that Sweden was only bearable for four months a year.

Now I know for a fact that Beijing is a drab nightmare of endless ring roads full of traffic jams and when you decide to skip the traffic and take a walk, you can chew the air pollution, that’s how thick it is. Suggesting that life in Beijing was to be preferred over life in Stockholm seemed a bit of a stretch.

It turned out to be a pattern: people telling me the winters would be unbearably cold and dark and miserable. In the summer it would either be too full of people or there would not be any people around. The food was going to be boring, the people unwelcoming, the music silly – never-ending misery was to be my part.

I know that people bragging about their countries like they personally had a hand in its greatness are embarrassing. But it’s OK to lighten up and like your country a little. I for one am looking forward to my second year here.

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. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. Alexander wrote for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. Finally – an immigrant saying something positive (other than me). Good work.
    Appreciate the positive outlook.

    Thanks.

  2. I’m about to hit 2 year mark and sadly for me more negatives than positives. And I am generally a positive person with a balanced view of things, and I have lived in 5 countries.

    Quite simply I find the culture too reserved and closed and Stockholm might be very pretty on the postcards but up close can be very dirty and has a real litter problem.

    I do think the food is generally very good and once you overcome the mountain of bureaucracy things can run fairly efficiently.

    1. Simon –

      Maybe it’s you…Sweden is an amazing country, with incredible achievements.
      And if the culture is “too reserved” for you – I suggest hitting the bar and getting sloshed with a few Swedes. They cheer up fast with a bit of booze in the tank.

      I love the food. The restaurants are fantastic.

      Regarding the litter: What country are you from?

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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