How I Met Sweden

The Yellow Umbrella, symbol of the How I Met Your Mother TV show, and being at the "right place at the right time". Note: the Swedish flag colors!
The Yellow Umbrella, symbol of the How I Met Your Mother TV show, and of being at the “right place at the right time”. Note: the Swedish flag colors!

I moved to Sweden the day after my 26th birthday. ”It must have been the saddest birthday party ever” – my new foreign friends would later comment. Wrong! Only a year prior, I was celebrating the 25th, with a broken leg and a broken heart, which was sure sadder! Coincidentally, on that same day, a little sitcom hit American TV sets: How I Met Your Mother. A story about a guy called Ted, who in 2030 retells his children the emotional journey that led him into meeting their mother. And that same TV show, after 9 long seasons, ended last Monday. The ending was more bitter than sweet, more harsher than an average viewer would expect, and to be honest – I didn’t like it. But, and without spoiling it too much (although I’m so famous for spoiling TV shows, that some friends even call me The Spoiler Woman… ”worst supervillain name ever!”), it made me reminisce my own emotional journey in Sweden, almost equally as long as Ted’s.

I liked this country instantly – the first time I came, for the actual interview for PhD studies, overlapped with Midsummer (sw. Midsommar), the longest day of the year, and basically the holiday in Sweden. White nights, beautiful weather, polite people, the amazing Vasa ship, the famous City Hall, H&M, language which at the time almost sounded as Serbian: all those ”sh”, ”tj” and ”lj” sounds; and water – water everywhere! I finally saw with my own eyes why Stockholm is called ”Venice of the North” – I visited Venice not long before that, and I liked Stockholm so much more!

Almost 8 years later – what has changed? I still love it. But as we grow, we learn that nothing is perfect, right? I often say I feel 1/3 Swedish because that’s the amount of my functional lifetime spent here so far. And still, due to a ridiculous loophole in the Swedish Aliens Act, I’m not entitled to the permanent resident status, and of citizenship I can only dream. But let’s come back to that later.

The late Serbian prime minister, dr Zoran Djindjic, had a vision of Serbia as a ”pretty and boring country” alluding that it must leave the turbulent times behind, and work to improve and build supportive institutions and move towards stability. I often think he was alluding to Scandinavian countries as a model, too, due to very stable, borderline-flaccid systems. As I already mentioned in my previous post, the truth is always in between. The way I see it, many of Sweden’s greatest strengths are also its weaknesses, or as one of my favorite metaphors calls it: double edged swords. So let’s recount them!

I am, obviously, a music person, and I own a yellow umbrella - just like the eponymous Mother from How I Met Your Mother! But I play tambourine, not bass guitar!
I am, obviously, a music person, and I own a yellow umbrella – just like the eponymous Mother from How I Met Your Mother! But I play tambourine, not bass guitar!

1. Music. I loooove (most) Swedish music. Swedish music in English, Swedish music in Swedish, Swedish music I always knew was Swedish (ABBA, Roxette, Ace of Base, The Cardigans, Robyn), Swedish music I realized was Swedish soon upon moving (Neneh&Eagle Eye Cherry&Titiyo /all of them are half-siblings no less!/, Europe, Björn Skiffs, Axwell, Katz, Eric Prytz, José González, Stakka Bo, The Hives, Koop, The Caesars… and let’s not forget Günther!) and Swedish music I get to know and love over all these years (alphabetically from my playlist: [ingenting], Adiam Dymott, Adrian Lux, Alina Devecerski, Anna Ternheim, Avicii, Crashdïet, Damn!, Darin, Edith Backlund, Elliphant, Emil Jensen, Familjen, Freestyle, Håkan Hellström, Hästpojken, Ikona Pop, Johnossi, Jonathan Johansson, Kent, Kim Cesarion, Kleerup, Kristian Anttila, Laakso, Laleh, Lo-Fi-Fnk, Lorentz & M.Sakarias, Lisa Miskovsky, Looptroop Rockers, Lykke Li, Linda Pira, Mando Diao, Marit Larsen, Maskinen, Masquer, Medina, Melinda Wrede, Melody Club, Miike Snow, Miss Li, Moneybrother, Museum of Bellas Artes, Nicole Saboune, Niki & The Dove, Oskar Linnrös, Pacific!, Panetoz, Pauline, Petra Marklund/September, Petter, Rebecca FionaSalem al Fakir, Sambassadeur, Shout Out Louds, Sibille Attar, Sugarplum Fairy, Swedish House Mafia, The Ark, The Embassy, The Similou, The Sounds, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, The Tough Alliance, Timbuktu, Timo Räisänen, Veronica Maggio, Vincent... to name a few).

Madonna in studio with, as she calls it, her "Viking harem": Avicii, Vincent, Salem al Fakir and Magnus ”Filthy” Lidehäll.
A recent photo of Madonna in studio with, as she calls it, her “Viking harem”: Avicii, Vincent, Salem al Fakir and Magnus ”Filthy” Lidehäll. She does have good taste!

Wow. Well, this list shocks and impresses me at the same time! And it contains literally every genre: from hip hop, garage rock, guitar pop, r’n’b to glam metal and electronica. Yet, many of these artists are still unknown to the global audience – for example, it took a few years until Icona Pop’s big break, and I still believe it’s not their best songs that are the most popular worldwide.

With all this musical diversity, one would assume that Swedes have a rather diverse music taste, which should also reflect the night life and clubbing. Wrong! Most popular songs are still in the domain of well, hm, ”pop music”, fostered by the ridiculous, overblown, 6-part weekly schlager competition for the Eurosong representative, called Melodifestivalen; and by a team of Swedish songwriters pumping out saccharine hits for Britney Spears and Katy Perry, led by Max Martin.

Night life and clubs also feel restrained due to similar, and a few additional reasons. ”Kl. 3 dör Stockholm, och jag med” / “At 3am, Stockholm dies, and so do I” – a friend once wrote. Yes, most clubs close at 3am. Which would be fine if you’d go out around 10-11pm, but due to ridiculous prices of booze served (see below), people tend to have pre-parties and ”fuel up” at someone’s crib, and go out around midnight. Which gives you what, 2-3 hours of ”solid” fun and socializing? Lame. Most bars and pubs close at 1am, and coffee places at 5-7pm (!). In-between hybrids that serve and provide everything listed above do not exist, to my knowledge.

Thematically, the choices are limited too – there’s a bunch of hipster places at Södermalm which play something another friend once described as guitar rave; snobby clubs at Östermalm where the guards won’t let you in if you’re not cool and/or snobby enough; and pop clubs which usually include karaoke, where mostly middle-aged divorcees hang.

A place that has a diverse music playlist, drinks menu and clientele, including the dancefloor is… called Xanadu, and it doesn’t exist in Stockholm 😛 The ones that come closest to the dream are Debaser Medis and Pet Sounds Bar.

2. Semi-prohibition. Alcohol is crazy expensive in Sweden, and it cannot simply be bought anywhere and any time. I wasn’t aware of this when I moved, so I lost half an hour looking for a bottle of wine in a supermarket, deciding the store was simply too big for me to find it, and buying some sweets for the dinner party instead. Alcohol is sold in specialized stores owned and controlled by the government, called Systembolaget, recently described to have an atmosphere of ”part funeral parlor, part abortion clinic”. I sometimes feel weird going there. I’m asked to show my ID at the counter more than often, which confuses, scares and flatters me at the same time. But, I must salute the system. Because of it, alcohol seems to be the drug in Sweden, instead of marijuana or heavier stuff, unlike other countries. However, the problem of alcoholism persists – drunkards hanging in front of these stores, at your local pizza restaurant, or simply around town – are not a rare sight. They are often called ”Alkisar” or ”A-team”. They are not a rare sight anywhere in the world, but here it has a stronger weight. Because, these people have all the benefits of the system to make something out of their lives, yet they chose to squander it. Which brings us to —

3. Social welfare. Sweden is a prime example of a social welfare state, with a reliable government and borderline-communist utopian system. For someone like me, originating from a corrupt, rotten and conservative country, this is rather refreshing and almost unreal! But does it really work? Generally yes, but as Milind wrote,”it is burdened by bureaucracy and insane regulations”, and not only for the housing market! A social welfare hallmark that maybe suffers, and concerns me, the most is —

4. Equality. No doubt we’re all different, ai’t? Even within our sad little species, we’re genetically polymorphic, geographically limited and economically segregated. But what makes us equal? We’re all humans, and we all deserve equal opportunities. A welfare state such as Sweden is built upon this principle, upon human rights, free market and free movement. Gender equality, although still criticized, even within our academic world, has reached a high point: not in many other places in the world can one have something called ”paternity leave”, represented as a bunch of young fathers pushing baby trolleys up&down the streets. Sexes are equalized to such a degree that women take charge in many roles, which somewhat led to regression of manliness in Sweden. Metrosexualism, tight jeans, beard attempts and hair products are slowly becoming trademarks of a modern Swedish man. Sigh.

But, what about myself? A foreign, non-EU woman? The woman part we can lay aside for now – although, it is odd that even though the life science profession is dominated by women, majority of professors are men. But non-EU? Hm. I don’t believe I have equal opportunities as my EU counterparts. Free movement doesn’t really apply to me, since the time I spent on my PhD studies doesn’t qualify as work, even though I was receiving salary and paying taxes, same as every other hard-working individual in this country. Hence, I am not eligible for permanent resident status, and if left without a job, I must pack my bags and leave. And this is still the case, even now when I’m a postdoc. Do you know what type of Visa I have? ”Visiting researcher”! After 8 years! Funnily enough, many other EU countries recognize non-EU PhD students as a working entity, and give them equal benefits. Which is among the reasons why Sweden is losing this enormous brainpower to Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium… And the reason to doubt my deserved —

5. Freedom. What is freedom, exactly? I like to define it as ”being and doing whatever you like and want, as long as you don’t mentally or physically hurt anyone”. It is a tricky one, if you think about it. Someone will always get appalled or offended, no matter what you say or do. Sweden is a rather unconventional country, in comparison to many others. You can walk down the street in a top hat or without a real skirt, without a blink of an eye of a beholder. Sure, some older and more conservative individuals may look at you in confusion, but generally no one cares… Which then leads people into doing what they want too much, such as using public transportation as their office, bathroom, living room and kitchen. Which doesn’t mean that Swedes lacks —

6. Politeness. Swedish people are extremely polite. Another refreshing thing for someone like me. Actually, I miss this aspect of Sweden (together with impeccable organization and clear rules… which are not double-edged swords!) whenever I’m elsewhere. It likely has to do with Swedish education and upbringing. People will almost always hold the door for you at the station, thank you for the dinner, greet you at the corridor. But is this genuine, you ask? Yes, but. Extreme politeness may lead to avoiding any discussion, confrontation and speaking own opinion. And that could be the reason why Swedes have a reputation of being distant and cold. Another reason could be —

7. The IKEA/smörgåsbord principle. Also known as ”do-it-yourself”. I love this one more than an average expat, because of my somewhat proud and independent personality, but it sure can be annoying! People here are used to tend for themselves and become a bit of loners in the process. Most popular sport? Jogging. Alone. At the coffee place? Take your tray and be your own waitress. Assemble your furniture with your own bare hands.

Blue French horn vs. Yellow Umbrella: two symbols od How I Met Your Mother. Again, the Swedish colors!
Blue French horn vs. Yellow Umbrella: two symbols od How I Met Your Mother. Again, the Swedish colors!

I don’t know. I still prefer it to the British ”May I help you, madam? May I help you, sir?”, but once in a while I’d like to raise a hand like a diva and shout: ”Garҫon!”. And then, there’s —

8. Language. I love Swedish. It’s simple. It’s rather easy to pronounce. Trust me. My native language is a strange mix of Czech and Russian, and I grew up learning French, English and Italian. So Swedish came as a well-deserved holiday. But, as Ruiqing wrote, almost all Swedes speak English perfectly, so maintaining Swedish is a bit of a challenge. But is that really so? Do they all, really, speak perfect English? Debatable. Depends. Easily so in an academic setting. Among well-read, open-minded youth. But I’ve encountered the opposite as well, together with their follow-up confusion when I start to babble in several different languages.

Ted finally meets Tracy, a.k.a. The Mother. Under the yellow umbrella!
Ted finally meets Tracy, a.k.a. The Mother. Under the yellow umbrella!

So, if you’ve reached this far, congrats and thank you! I can recount my Swedish experience in many, many more characters. And I still haven’t told you how exactly I met Sweden! But maybe that’s not important? Just as it wasn’t important how exactly Ted met his future wife. But how will it end? Bitter or sweet? Will it end at all?

Sweden has built me as a person; everything I have and am now, I owe to the wonderful opportunities I was given here. And they seem to be coming, even when it feels like they won’t! I call them Æsir ex machina, Nordic gods who come out of nowhere to save the day 😀

Legen… wait for it…

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