Whenever I get asked for Swedish travel tips I completely blank. I usually blurt out something like: “If it’s summer visit the Stockholm archipelago and during winter time check out the Ice hotel”. I have not been to the latter and only once or twice to the former.
However, I was talking to @jco recently about his move from San Francisco to Stockholm and in a moment of weakness I offered to send him some cultural tidbits to get him up to speed. This is an area I feel somewhat more comfortable in. Below is my introduction to the country I grew up in. I’ve tried to include both items I think are genuinely good but also the cringe worthy moments, songs, films and tv shows that most Swedes know about but wish they didn’t.
Note that I take an almost Techcrunchy approach to journalistic freedom in this post. I will pass opinions off as fact, the research will be minimal and I’ll do anything to get my point across. It’s also worth adding the disclaimer that I haven’t lived in Sweden (voluntarily) for the last seven years, so I’m somewhat out of date.
If there’s one thing Sweden has done right it’s music. For such a small and sparsely populated nation we’ve produced a vast catalogue of great tracks. I have assembled a playlist I feel accurately represents what we have to offer, at least if you share my taste in music. Amongst them are some songs in Swedish, some in English, a few would be recognized by most of my countrymen and for others you might have to dig a bit deeper to find a fellow fan.
Then there’s the bland but chart topping nonsense they play on the radio. For some reason Swedish writers and producers have managed to be involved in the creation of quite a few Billboard hits. A bit of Wikipedia research suggests it took off in the 90ies and they’re still going strong with songs on Taylor Swift and Katy Perry albums.
Some say our success is due to the ubiquitous and affordable music schools, others attribute it to the fairly generous unemployment benefits. Supposedly the latter is great if you’d rather rehearse a few songs instead of going to work.
While there’s a lot to be proud of, let’s dig into the slightly more embarrassing parts.
There’s a genre of music in Sweden called “dansband”. If you boil it down it’s just all around shitty music but it’s perfect for old people to dance to. For those of us that can’t dance there’s still an upside: the band outfits, in particular those from the 70ies. Just marvel at these album covers.
Eurovision song contest has always been a source of great bewilderment for me. If you have been lucky enough to be spared exposure to this event, let’s just say it’s a music competition amongst Euro-ish nations.
Eurovision is a big deal in Sweden. So big in fact that they have somehow managed to turn the process of selecting our contribution into a month long televised event at six massive concert venues. It’s all quite dreadful.
Enjoy this example from ‘91. Snappy dressers, those dancers.
As a bonus, here’s Sweden hosting it in ‘85.
Tomas Alfredson recently directed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the novel by John Le Carré. That movie is decidedly not very Swedish, so I’d like to direct your attention to two of his previous films.
Let the right one in
This one seems to have made it outside the country, at least to the homes of film buffs.
From the Wikipedia page: “the film tells the story of a bullied 12-year-old boy who develops a friendship with a vampire child in Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm, in the early 1980s. Alfredson, unconcerned with the horror and vampire conventions, decided to tone down many elements of the novel and focus primarily on the relationship between the two main characters”.
And if you don’t like the subtlety of the Swedish version there’s an American shot for shot remake. You can watch that one without subtitles, safe in the knowledge that they probably spent more on the unnecessary CG effects than the total budget of the original film.
Fyra nyanser av brunt
The title refers to the four stories this film is made up of, all depicting kind of shitty situations. The film was also released as four separate tv episodes, so together they make for quite a long movie. If I recall correctly there were even an intermission half way through when I saw it at the cinema.
The writers and cast are made up of a group of comedians, actors and general media elite types often referred to as “Killinggänget”. They’ve also made a number of great tv shows, for example “Torsk på Tallin”.
Below is a scene from Fyra nyanser av brunt, all in Swedish, of a couple reading the same book together. That’s it. It triggers a mild depression whenever I watch it. The inane discussion, how neat everything is. My personal hell.
Another filmmaker that has had some impact abroad is Lukas Moodysson. His eccentric streak aside he’s made two films that do a great job of capturing two very different times.
Set in Sweden in 1975 Tillsammans is about life in a socialist commune. Lots of free love experiments with questionable results, people working as welders and unusual upbringings.
I’m not sure I can watch this movie again, the cringe levels are off the charts. It’s Moodysson’s debut film about teenage life in a small Swedish town. Pretty much a spot on portrayal as I recall it.
Let’s see what’s on TV.
One of my favourite tv shows growing up was Musikbyrån, literally translated: the Music bureau. It was a straight and to the point show about music with interviews, shows, video clips and whatnot. It was on one of the state tv channels so no ads or pressure to include what is popular on the charts.
Below is short clip from the show. It’s an interview with Trent Reznor of Nine inch nails and The Social network fame, he’s telling people to get off his lawn.
I don’t get the appeal of “På spåret”. It’s some sort of quiz show with celebrities. It’s been running since ‘87. I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents have watched it since then.
Recently they revamped it a bit with new hosts, contemporary music guests and it seems people my age are now watching it unironically. Have they learned nothing?!
Below is a clip from the first episode. Awesomely awkward.
Filip och Fredrik
These two fast talkers have been creating some of the weirder tv shows in the last 10 years. One highlight would be High Chaparall, where they travel to the US and hang out with C-level celebrities. Gary Busey for example.
Here’s a short clip of Filip doing a biopsy on Fredrik to extract a small bit of meat that Fredrik then eats. As you do.
Ett år i Sverige
What would a year look like in Sweden? Starting off in January; it’s cold. No surprises there. Around easter you get to eat Semla. It’s basically a bun filled with whipped cream. Delicious. We keep eating these even though they supposedly killed our king back in 1771. Health recommendation: don’t eat 14 of them in one go.
On the 30th of April we light massive bonfires. It’s an excellent excuse to get drunk. In fact, that’s the telltale sign of any proper Swedish holiday. Speaking of, next up would be midsummer. Here’s an excellent German IKEA commercial that outlines the important parts.
There’s a national day in there somewhere, but that is not really celebrated last I checked.
For the most part we skip Halloween, bonfire night and all that rubbish. Instead the next most important holiday involves watching Disney cartoons at 3pm. Some of you might call this “Christmas eve”. This Slate article describes the phenomenon the best.
Below are a couple of interesting episodes in Swedish history, according to me.
When most of Europe was out colonizing the world the Swedes must have been busy elsewhere. Probably for the best. We did however have one colony for almost 100 years, the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy. We gave that back to the French though, huge mistake if you ask me. We could have had the first “high tax haven”. Don’t think you pay enough tax, Mr Buffet? Transfer your money to Saint Barthélemy.
According to Wikipedia we haven’t been to war since 1814. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Just let the Nazis use your railroad and sell weapons to the other side, all at the same time. Easy.
As depicted in “Tillsammans” mentioned above the 70ies in Sweden had a somewhat red filter over it. Lots of anti Vietnam war demonstrations, the US withdrew their ambassador and the Swedish left wing party even collected money for the Viet Cong. I found this Swedish banner when I went to Vietnam, it was in the “Museum of American war crimes”.
In the latter part of the cold war a Soviet submarine runs aground near a Swedish naval base. This was quite a big deal as you can imagine. The incident lead to most the eighties being spent chasing submarines, often later found out to be marine animals of some sort.
In ‘86 our prime minister, Olof Palme, was murdered on his way home from the cinema. The perpetrator has not been caught.
While the US has a long tradition of killing or otherwise injuring presidents this was the first time a Swedish leader had been killed in hundreds of years.
Largely shielded from troubles the country was, as seen from our time, somewhat naive. In a recent documentary about Palme there’s a scene where he asks the journalists to turn off their cameras so he can fetch his house key from the hiding place.
The first proper commercial radio station in Sweden didn’t appear until 1993. This might baffle some americans. I remember the first time I heard a radio jingle, this might have been the mid 90ies. I didn’t understand why they would play such an annoying fucking music snippet and all they did was sing the radio station’s name over and over. At first I thought it was a joke, but soon realized that it wasn’t. Brave new world.
The good bits
I’ve probably pissed off one or two Brits or Americans by moving to their country and having the audacity to complain about something. Often just because it’s different from what I’m used to. I’m even harsher in my judgement of Sweden though, as @jco would tell you. But there are of course tons of good stuff too. So here goes, these are the things that I’m proud of after having been away for a while.
According to this Wikipedia page Sweden has some of the best income equality in the world. I assume high taxes (spent fairly wisely) will do that to a country. For example university studies are free, ensuring that you can go regardless of your parents economy. In addition to there not being a tuition fee you get a, by international standards, generous sum of money each month from a government run organization called CSN. It’s enough to live on without having to work while studying. Part of that is a loan and part is a government subsidy.
Gay marriage is allowed. Abortion is legal and pretty much a non issue. Probably because “only 1 in 10 Swedes thinks religion is important in daily life”.
Dealings with the government seems to be a lot smoother than compared to the US. The taxes may be high but at least they are easy to file. A pre filled form is sent out with your salary and most other forms of income on it. If you think it looks correct you just text a code to a phone number. If you need to change it you do it online on the tax authority’s website. In fact most government websites accept something called Bank Id, where they trust your banks to identify you. I sorely miss this when dealing with the DMV.
Speaking of banking, checks have been out of fashion for a long time. Electronic transfers between accounts are easy and free.
Transparency and openness as the default. Remember the US election last year when Romney refused to release his tax returns? In Sweden tax returns and much more are public. Want to find out who owns a car? Text the plate number to 72503 and you’ll get the name and city of the owner.
Another aspect of this openness is Allemansrätten. From Wikipedia: “Allemansrätten gives a person the right to access, walk, cycle, ride, ski, and camp on any land—with the exception of private gardens, the immediate vicinity of a dwelling house and land under cultivation”. Better than risk getting shot for trespassing.
These two cities have a few things in common. They are roughly the same size at 800-900k, both are quite beautiful in their own ways and they seem to have a constant lack of available apartments. There’s plenty that tell them apart though. For example Stockholm has a pretty decent subway system. Muni/BART leaves something to be desired when it comes to coverage, reliability and speed in SF.
Then there’s the vast number of homeless people in SF. This article estimates it to 13500 (or 6500 depending on how you count) and this report states the same number in Stockholm is about 400. I don’t think those numbers are directly comparable and there’s of course the difference in climate, but it gives an indication.
All that said I have no plans to move back anytime soon. I hope @jco has a great time and I’m eagerly awaiting his report.