A round peg in a square hole.

William Simons

Stockholm to Stalingrad by train.

The last couple of weeks has seen me commuting back and forth between Stockholm and Åre on the nightly sleeper train. You can say what you like about the age of the wagons and the cleanliness of the sleeping compartments, but as a concept the service is great. Jump on at Åre just before 7 pm, glass of wine in the buffet car and then catch up on a film on your PC; before being tossed off the train in Stockholm’s Central Station at 7am. Coming back the other way, you’re allowed to climb aboard at 9am (although the train doesn’t leave the station until just before midnight) and you wake up in Åre just after 8am.

One really strange aspect of train travel that harks back to communist times is “allmän väckning” or a wake up call for the whole train. I find it really worrying that big bror has to wake me up at a state appointed time. I almost leaped out of bed in my boxers to salute the flag and sing the national anthem. By the way, it’s a little known fact that no Swede’s actually know the second verse of the national anthem off by heart.

Allmän väckning got me thinking. Is there any other aspect of Swedish life that feels more like you live in Stalingrad than Stockholm? The obvious and well-trodden answer is the Swede’s alcohol policy, I’m not going to go there as we’ve already covered it; but when you think about it there are quite a few examples.

Everyone goes on holiday in July in Sweden, whether they have kids or not. Why oh why people don’t wait until the crowds have gone home and flights are cheaper in August or September – no, vi av been told zat vi ska go on ze holidazs in July and zat is vat vi do! It’s actually great to work in July as you will be alone in the office and every man and his dog are on holiday on the west coast – it is like a second paid-for holiday! Of course this coincides with school holidays, but I’m talking about pensioners, young couples without children and free sprits that are not bound by their children. Another example is the half-term holiday in February / March. This is set in stone for the next millennium. Of the top of my head its Malmö week 7, Gothenburg week 8, Stockholm week 9 (joy of joys) and northern Sweden week 10.

There is also a curious tradition of only demonstrating on May 1st, when the streets are filled with the middle-classes demonstrating about the topic of the day. Don’t you just love Sweden, we won’t make a fuss during the rest of the year but come May 1st, I’m going to hold my placard high!

Any other examples? Well yes – candy is only purchased on Saturdays, we still have national service in the military, certain cakes can only be baked at appointed times in the year and try finding spare ribs outside of the Christmas period.

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