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. As did I.
A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flat-pack 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.
The Nordics have such a firm reputation for being well-organized that it had not even occurred to me as a factor to consider when moving to Sweden. During my first visit to Stockholm, arriving from Switzerland – a country that famously runs like clockwork – I was not disappointed. A modern pleasant airport with a fast train taking me right to the centre of the beautiful well-kept city where everything is cashless, contactless and seemingly frictionless.
Even the loud and messy building site that was the area of Slussen at the time was covered with posters jokingly inviting visitors to join the locals in complaining about the mess. This chaos was obviously not the normal state of affairs in Sweden.
A year and half after moving here, however, the first cracks are starting to show. It has gotten to the point where my Italian husband at times jokingly refers to Stockholm not as the Venice, but as the Naples of the north.
It was small things at first. The entrance gate at Coop was broken; not for a couple of days but for 8 months and counting. The commercial Covid test in a barely converted metro station kebab shop, executed by two teenagers. The disorganization at my Swedish language school, that gives me low level anxiety to the point of me just wanting take over and run the school myself.
- My first year in Sweden: ‘It’s OK to lighten up and like your country a little’
- My first time learning Swedish: Why I’m so excited about SFI
- My first impression of Stockholmers: Who are all these well-dressed dads?
- My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What’s the fuss about ‘personnummer’?
You may rightly ask whether any of this matters. There are other entrances to Coop. The kebab shop Covid test came back on time so we could travel, and when an actual teacher shows up at my Swedish language school, I am indeed learning Swedish.
On the other hand, it makes you wonder: why not organize things well, if you go through the trouble of organizing them in the first place? And some things, like the backlog in the processing of personal number requests at tax agency Skatteverket, are causing more serious real-life problems for people.
The question that looms large is whether this is ‘lagom’ related. Has the Swedish philosophy of ‘just enough’ led to a ‘good enough for now’ attitude? On the face of it, a more ambitious philosophy could lead to a better-organized society.
But you also have to be careful what you wish for. In my experience, in a country that runs like clockwork, you will find yourself surrounded by clockmakers. Sure, you don’t have to wait long for your personal number but there is more to life than administrative tasks. Every other aspect of life is also steeped in a culture of efficiency and that is not necessarily pleasant to be around.
In Sweden on the other hand, every time I dialled a helpline to express my polite wonder about why things were taking so long, there was without fail a friendly, cheerful and perfectly English-speaking person making sure my question was being taken seriously. Even if there was not much they could do for me.
Would I prefer not having to call at all? Sure. But maybe I should also accept, like the person on the helpline, that ‘good enough for now’, is sometimes just enough.
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 previously wrote a series for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.