Sweden, a land where consumer has never been king

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One of Sweden’s many pleasant surprises is the beauty of its Baltic coast, whose sandy beaches can look Mediterranean – even tropical – on a sunny summer’s day

In the second part of a three-part series of posts about modern Sweden (the first part can be read here), I look at Sweden’s weather, its inhabitants’ supposed shyness, and how Swedish consumers fare when it comes to buying alcohol and food

When I first visited Sweden a year ago the weather was truly awful (the summer of 2017 was the coolest in Sweden since the 1860s, by one definition, and it felt like the wettest as well). Back in the late 1960s the American writer Susan Sontag grumbled that Sweden’s short summers, during which Swedes lift their faces towards every brief outbreak of sunshine, “have their own pathos.” And its hard to disagree: by the end of July, the best weather had passed, and by the time the sun did come out in late September, it was accompanied by an icy wind. The Swedes’ fixation with midsommar – marked by lots of Akavit, herrings, and maypoles – seemed to be a paradox that depended on their summers’ brevity, not their length or warmth. 

But no-one comes here expecting Mediterranean sunshine so a visitor can hardly complain. And I’m assured that on average the climate’s only a degree or two cooler than my home county of Northamptonshire, even though Northants is 300 miles further south (the southernmost part of Sweden is at the same latitude as central Scotland). Thanks to the gulf stream southern Sweden is in the same biome – ‘nemoral’ according to the Walter classification system – as most of England: broadleaf woodlands, unpredictable summers but mild winters with short frosts. Trelleborg, a ferry port just south of Malmö and the southernmost point of mainland Sweden, even has palm trees.

And in late April, after eight months of heavy rain and intermittent snowfall, the best summer weather I’ve ever experienced anywhere in northern Europe arrived, and has stayed for three golden months. It’s at times like this that you appreciate that even the tiniest village has a spotlessly-clean public bathing place on its nearest lake.

Although this summer has made many revise their assumptions about Swedish summer weather, there’s still a little of the Lutheran puritanism that Susan Sontag so detested. Many big shops still close at 3pm on Saturdays here (unthinkable in the UK); finding any other shops other than large supermarkets open beyond 6pm on any day of the week is very unusual (though, oddly, Sunday opening hours can be more liberal than the UK). This must be the only place on earth where the solitary fruit and veg stall in the town square automatically gives you a printed receipt, saying the exact grammage of what you’ve bought down to three decimal places. Sweden’s officious week numbering system makes perfect sense (roadworks here take place in week 47, not December 1st-8th), but it evokes school timetables, as if all Swedes are unreliable pupils who need to be reminded when their homework is due.

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The interiors of many small Swedish supermarkets are stuck in a 1970s or 80s time-warp, with varnished pine, suspended ceilings, and functional chest freezers

In 1969 Sontag wrote that psychiatry “had never taken root” in Sweden: although eugenics never had anything like the malevolent grip they exerted in Nazi Germany, she argued, many mentally ill people were until the mid-20th century forcibly sterilised or hidden in institutions (a lucky few were exported to sanatoria in Spain, lest the Swedish weather depress them further). That’s certainly no longer true: I stumbled across a jobs fair for psychiatrists in the public library in Kristianstad a few months ago, and I have seen more disabled people out and about than anyone else in Europe.

Another of Sontag’s complaints was that Swedes are sullen and untalkative (even after alcohol), and hostile to children. That’s no longer true: most Swedes are keen to speak English and while they don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, with perseverance it’s easy to make friends. Our daughter has experienced no hostility other than at a Swedish guide troop, where the children spoke only Swedish (and who can blame them). It’s more difficult to disagree with Sontag’s complaint that Swedes push in front of others without apology or explanation on public transport: giving up my seat to an expectant mother on a train recently, the seat was instead nabbed by a young man who ignored my protests as I then had to lug my luggage into the next carriage. But such discourtesies happen the world over and I can’t pretend it was a uniquely Swedish experience.

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“INTERESTING Value for Money”: a refreshingly honest sign outside an English theme pub in Karlskrona

If it was ever true that Sweden had a very high suicide rate, as George Orwell once lamented, it certainly isn’t true now: although Scandinavian suicide rates are higher than Britain, they’re not far from the European average, and Sweden’s is lower than Finland and most eastern European countries. As for repression, there’s little sign of it on the roads (I’ve been overtaken while dutifully sticking to 40km in villages), or in the media (my partner was amazed to hear a discussion in English about penis size on drive-time radio at 8am). The lobby of our local cinema has a wall of cinematic quotations, including “I’m not drinking fucking Merlot” – Paul Giamatti’s famous lament in Sideways – at child’s eye level. Such graphics would be unthinkable in a British cinema without lots of asterisks. Sontag saw pornography on open display in Swedish newsagents in the 1960s, and needless to say it is just as openly displayed today.

It’s not that difficult to get to know Swedes well. We’ve made several Swedish friends, two of whom are coming to stay with us in England this autumn; our daughter has been invited to sleepovers (though these tend to be scheduled weeks in advance, not on the spur of the moment as in Britain). But Swedes can still be remarkably undemonstrative. In the late sixties Sontag went to hear The Doors and Jefferson Airplane play at Stockholm’s Konserthuset and was amazed to see a packed crowd of young Swedes sit in complete silence through both gigs. That lack of extroversion still lingers: we went to see Paddington 2 in the cinema a few months ago and found we were the only people who laughed out loud. We couldn’t believe that all the jokes had been lost in translation into Swedish subtitles.  Watching the England-Sweden football game a few days ago on a big screen in a Kristianstad park, I was amazed to see the huge crowd entirely silent when England scored: at the end of the match they applauded the Swedish team politely and then just as silently began to walk or cycle home.

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In the late 1960s Sontag complained that Stockholm only had half a dozen restaurants that stayed open beyond 10pm, and none after midnight. Pricey they may be, but Stockholm, Malmö and other big Scandinavian cities are nowadays full of clubs, bars and restaurants open until the small hours. Yet in smaller towns like Kristianstad many cafes and restaurants only open up for the year in April, only to close again for their owners’ summer holiday for a month in July, and then close once more for several months over the winter. It’s difficult to understand how such part-time businesses can cover their overheads.

While having an early-evening buffet meal in a Chinese restaurant in Kristianstad one evening in May we were amazed to be told to eat up: the restaurant was closing at 8pm, a good hour before dusk fell and three hours before the last film at the cinema 100 metres away ended.

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A typical Swedish pizza joint. These are places to eat at quickly, not linger and have a lifestyle experience

Some old-fashioned cafes still seem like something from eastern Europe before the Berlin wall fell down: you get a ticket from machine, wait your turn, select an unappetising sandwich covered in cling film from behind a glass screen, get it handed over with a grunt, and end up paying more than you expected. I’ve avoided the crayfish (I had after all, seen Alien on DVD a couple of nights before I first came across such a crustacean, which reminded me of the prosthetic attached to John Hurt’s face). Every small town has a pizza joint, normally run by Kurdish refugees, a functional shack with ropey illuminated signage and missing letters – roadside places where you can get an inexpensive pizza, eat up and then go home, not places to linger in and take pictures of your food on your mobile.

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A Hässleholm cobblers’ shop

If you want to buy anything stronger than weak lager to drink at home you have to drive to a state-run Systembolaget liquor stores- “Part funeral parlor, part back-street abortionist”, said Sontag, whose customers wait in line as for “peep-shows in the rear of 42nd-Street sexbook stores”. But that’s changed too: they are now brightly lit, and it’s no longer a source of shame to be seen in one.

The Systembolaget started because of Akavit. Distilled from potatoes, Akavit was discovered in 1746 and by the early nineteenth century there was a moral panic about it: the average Swede was drinking 46 litres of alcohol a year, about double their current consumption. Home distilling was banned in 1855 and in 1905 the state monopoly on the sales of all but the weakest alcohol started. The temperance movement almost secured prohibition – a referendum was won by the boozers 51%-49%  in 1922 – and as a compromise a strict alcohol rationing system had started in 1917. Rationing was limited to convicted criminals only from 1955 onwards but wasn’t abolished entirely until 1977, only to be replaced by yet another restriction: between 1982 and 2001 Systembolagets were only open on weekdays, and even today they shut for the weekend at 3pm on Saturday afternoons, and at 7pm on weekdays.

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Although state-run Systembolaget liquor stores are a lot less institutional than they used to be, they still tend to display their merchandise like artefacts… 

There’s still an Augustinian approach to alcohol. Oddly, weak lager (which can be sold in supermarkets as long as it is below 3% ABV) is, at about £2 to £2.50 for six cans, often cheaper in Sweden than the UK. A reasonable bottle of Portuguese red at a Systembolaget costs £6.50. But in a bar prices are at least double what you would pay in a British pub (outside London at least) – expect to pay at least £7 anywhere for small glass of ropey house wine (even more than a restaurant in London). Even the beer tent at a tiny Jazz festival I went to last summer was selling 500ml glasses of lager for SEK70 (almost £7).

Absolut Renat – in the 1970s an unglamorous spirit that alcoholics would drink from paper bags – has been reborn as Absolut Vodka, one of the most successful worldwide spirit brands (it’s made in Åhus, a plush Baltic seaside town that Absolut bottles describe creatively as a “Swedish village”). But paradoxically Absolut is more expensive to buy here than almost anywhere else in Europe.  As duty rates are flat rather than a percentage of a bottle’s value, very fine spirits can be a little cheaper in Sweden than elsewhere, but that’s little consolation.

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…and at the checkout they give their clientele improving messages such as “Alcohol is not like other goods…
We promise to act with responsibility and to try not to lure you to buy more than you should”

It’s hardly surprising that most family celebrations and reunions take place at home, with alcohol bulk-bought in Germany. And it’s perfectly acceptable to bring a bottle to a party but then take it home with you half-drunk at the end of the evening, rather than leave it with your hosts.

But there is now a halfway house between bingeing and total abstinence. Drink is a “national form of self-rape”, lamented Susan Sontag in 1969; excessive drinking of duty-free booze on Baltic ferries in the 1980s was so pervasive that Andrew Brown recalls waist-high porcelain funnels outside the toilets, specifically designed for vomit. That’s a thing of the past as well: the ferries I have caught between the German port of Rostock and Trelleborg are all carpeted, air-conditioned and vomit-free.

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Another big surprise is that the Swedish language does not really have an equivalent of por favor, bitte or s’il vous plait: it’s not considered rude to ask for something in a shop or café without saying please. You can follow up a request with tack (thank you) if you wish, effectively thanking someone in advance for the ice cream, beer or coffee they are about to give you. There are other courtesy terms – Varsogod (you’re welcome), Snälla (kindly) – but neither is really a synonym for please. The former is to acknowledge thanks, the latter too formal for routine use.

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A winter’s day near Kristianstad

But despite this crucial difference the Norwegian linguist Jan Terje Faarlund has argued that English is essentially a Scandinavian language – not a Germanic one or a Romance-Germanic one, as normally thought – because its word order, grammar and much of the vocabulary is the same as Swedish and Norwegian. Indeed, there are a few words in English that are arguably even more Scandinavian than Swedish. We still call windows windows, while the Swedish equivalent, vindöga, is now very archaic (instead the Swedes say fönster, from the same Latin root as the German fenster and the French fenêtre). But overall I’m not sure I agree with Faarlund. English has many more loan words from Norman French, and thus we find German or French – in writing at least – more intelligible than Swedish or Norwegian.  Swedish certainly is close to Scots:  barn (child/children) is phonetically the same as the Scots bairn, as is kyrk (church) to kirk; tonåring (teenager) is recognisable the world over. But much of Swedish sounds like a spoonerism of archaic rather than modern English: the Swedish word for Parish is socken (which has an English echo in then Soke of Peterborough, once part of Danelaw England), the Swedish word for need (behov) has exactly the same root as he English word behove. The word for old – gamla – is possibly echoed in the British gammy.

And for such an anglophone country Sweden has a lot of blush-inducing brand names: Plopp chocolate, Friggs rice cakes, the City Gross and Willy’s supermarket chains, a dog food brand with the logical name of Doggy, and even a range of cat food called Pussi (puss means kiss in Swedish, which only deepens the double entendre).

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No giggling at the back please: one of Sweden’s biggest supermarket chains delights in the name of Willy’s

Many of these household staples are almost comically expensive: the cheapest loaf of bread I’ve found in a supermarket costs £1.50, the cheapest lettuce ditto (in both cases about three times what a British supermarket would charge). Piled high by a checkout two weeks ago was an irresistible bargain: cut-price 500g bags of cashew nuts at £8.50 each (even with the discount, about double what they’d cost at Tesco or Sainsbury’s). You really notice what a difference 25 years of supermarket price wars in Britain, and the economies of scale created by a market of 60 million consumers rather than 10 million, can make. Postage is also extortionate here: it costs more than £2 to send a small letter to the UK, at an international flat rate (oddly, sending something to Outer Mongolia would cost no more).

But the latest Scandinavian public policy import is long overdue: deposits (pant in Swedish) on cans and plastic bottles, which Michael Gove now wants to introduce to Britain, in the wake of Free Schools. Recycling rates are exceptionally high here because you get money-off vouchers when you feed bottle and cans into recycling banks at big supermarkets. For the indigent there’s money to be had picking up old cans, Womble-style, from litter bins to earn extra cash – and good luck to them.

In the third and final part of this series, I will look Swedish immigration, how both politicians and journalists have hugely exaggerated the problems it has supposedly caused – and a number of other Swedish paradoxes.

All photographs by Alex Grant

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3 Responses to Sweden, a land where consumer has never been king

  1. Tricia says:

    Oh Alex these are so entertaining. I await part 3 with great interest.

  2. Pingback: Sweden: how a ‘dull country’ is still worth living in | Alex Grant

  3. Pingback: Don’t believe what Donald Trump says about Sweden. Immigration works well there | Alex Grant

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