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.


  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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Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Swedes have a deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol, embodied in the state monopoly on its sale. Although ridden with guilt and hypocrisy, it is a healthy relationship, says David Crouch

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Those boxes by the checkout sum up my problem with Systembolaget, Sweden’s chain of state-owned liquor stores. The boxes are called ångravagnar, from ångra, to regret. “Psst,” says the sign over each one. “Have you changed your mind? Here you can put back any drinks you don’t want to buy.”

The boxes are there to make you think again – do you really need all that booze? Won’t you hate yourself if you don’t put back a bottle or two? 

The regret boxes seem to serve little practical purpose, because they are almost always empty. Instead, they are there to send a message, whispering “Psst!” in your ear: “Don’t do it! Alcohol is wicked!”

Smiling assistants lurk around the stores, in theory so you can ask them what wine goes best with your food. Nonsense – they are the morality police, another “psst” in your ear. Talking to them feels like going to confession: forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. Then there are all the TV ads for Systembolaget depicting toddlers being abused by drunken parents, or pious staff saying their aim is to sell less alcohol, not more

As a result, entering Systembolaget feels like having sex in church: a shameful pleasure. Here you cease to be an adult capable of taking decisions for yourself and instead become a wayward teenager who needs to be shepherded towards acceptable behaviour.  

Systembolaget – abbreviated to Systemet, or “the System” – is the embodiment of Swedes’ deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol. It is institutionalised guilt on national scale. 

This guilt has historical roots. Sweden once had a serious alcohol problem. A century ago, average vodka consumption reached almost a litre a week for every man, woman and child. For decades, the country battled to find a way to bring down consumption, first with rationing and then the state monopoly from 1955.

The guilty view of alcohol lives on in all sorts of ways. Sweden, a nation renowned for embracing modernity and liberal freedoms, still has a significant temperance movement. The snappily named Independent Order of Good Templars has 24,000 members – more than most of Sweden’s political parties – and believes that Systembolaget should close at 5pm and be shut altogether on Fridays and Saturdays. 

In Britain, for example, politicians like to pose with a drink to show they are “of the people”. This could never happen here. I once went campaigning with a political leader in the run-up to elections, and we needed somewhere warm afterwards for an interview. But she declined to enter a convenient bar in case she might be photographed in a place selling alcohol. 

Quite apart from the System’s restrictive opening hours, there are very few stores – just 450, or one per 23,000 people. Until very recently, there were more golf courses in Sweden than places where you could buy a bottle of wine over the counter. (There are 449 golf courses, down from 454 in 2019.)

A recent opinion survey has compared attitudes to alcohol in the Nordics. Sweden emerges clearly as the Nordic nation that is the most uptight about alcohol. Fewer than half (45%) of Swedes say it’s okay occasionally to get drunk; one in five say it is even wrong to get drunk at a party. Finns and Danes come out as far more relaxed about booze. 

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. In my experience, the best way to liven up a social gathering in Sweden is to uncork the gin and let it flow copiously. Not so long ago, a former government minister responsible for raising the tax on alcohol became so inebriated (berusad) at a party in the Stockholm archipelago that he exposed himself to the female guests. 

And yet, Sweden’s relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. Systembolaget is popular among Swedes, its reputation exceeding that of well-loved brands such as IKEA, Volvo or Spotify. More than three-quarters want the state monopoly on alcohol to remain in force, while only 18 percent say they want wine and spirits to be on sold in other stores

Despite its faults, Systembolaget represents society taking collective responsibility for a drug that has the potential to cause great harm. After decades of free-market liberalism across the globe, it is easy to forget that societies once behaved like societies, instead of leaving everything to individuals and the interplay of supply and demand. 

How refreshing that young people are not bombarded with advertising telling them they need booze to gave a good time. Living here, you would never have any idea that the country supplies the world with that supreme party drink, Absolut Vodka. Consumption is ticking downwards, and fewer than 3 percent of Swedes drink every day

When I see those regret boxes, part of me wants to scream: “Regrets?! No way! It’s been a hard week, let me get wasted in peace.” But the boxes are the price I have to pay for the comforting knowledge that, in this aspect at least, Swedish society takes responsibility for its citizens’ welfare. I don’t like it, but I accept that it is necessary. It is not ideal, but it works. 

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