Gerald Laffey loves Norrland. Absolutely loves it. But there are a few cultural and behavioral aspects about Swedish life that annoy him. Here they are…
I’ve lived in northern Sweden for three years now. All my friends and family are understandably thoroughly bored of my extolling the virtues of living up here. The thing is, it’s a great place to live. The blend of affordable housing (especially in the countryside) and very good public services is a potent one. And I love the approach to gender equality, especially as I have a baby daughter. And being so close to unspoilt wilderness while having urban areas nearby is undeniably attractive. But maybe I do tend to go on about it. And while it’s true I am very happy living here, I wonder if sometimes I overcompensate – most people seem to have such a wrong-headed perception of northern Sweden, I often fall into the trap of exaggerating its charms in order to combat their cynicism.
But there are things that really irritate me about living here. Some issues are almost certainly experienced by every non-Swede who lives in Sweden but some are peculiar to living up north. Ready? Can you handle the truth? OK, here goes. Don’t hate me now!
1. ”Don’t hang up!”
If you’re going to cold-call me to sell me car insurance/children’s books/ventilation/rat poison please have the courtesy to NOT hang up the second you hear a non-Swedish accent. And if you ARE going to hang up then have the decency to not call again an hour later and hang up again once you hear the same Irish accent.
You know, make a note on my file. “Angry Irish person, swears a lot, made threats: do not call again.”
Also, a few weeks ago I called the organiser of a local dance group to find out when the next gathering was. My wife and I were eager recruits. We wanted to dance! But no. She waited until I’d finished asking her in Swedish if she spoke English and then hung up. Not a ‘nej’, nothing. She just hung up. I’ve since learnt that she works for a church.
2. ”Sweden is NOT the center of the universe!”
I am Irish. At school we were taught French, German and Spanish. I can converse in French because I spent four years studying the language. I can understand some German and Spanish. I am not totally language-phobic. We have acquaintances who have never even been to Stockholm, never mind left Sweden.
They take ALL their holidays in Sweden. They are getting very grumpy that we are not yet fluent in Swedish. The last time they came round for fika, they harrumphed at us for our still basic Swedish and we snapped at them.
“You learn English throughout your time at school,” growled my wife, Aoife, “and most of your TV channels have lots of English language programming – learning English for you guys is relatively easy. You are steeped in the language from an early age. In Ireland, no schools offer learning Swedish as an option. It simply isn’t an in-demand language. Also, we are busy with our 4-month-old baby and are doing our best from a standing start.”
“Oh!” exclaimed one of our acquaintances, with a quizzical look on her face. We thought she had finally understood and would cut us some slack. “No way! You really don’t learn Swedish at school in Ireland? Why not?!”
Cue the sound of two foreheads hitting the kitchen table.
3. ”Bring a bottle!”
When you come to my house for dinner intending to drink two litres of wine, please do not think a box of poxy chocolates will suffice as a gift. Especially when it’s really obvious that you’ve had the chocolates in the back of a cupboard for a couple of years. If you’re going to drink wine, bring a bottle of wine with you. If you want beer, bring beer. We’ve had one dinner party guest (gift – a bunch of gas station flowers) who complained that we didn’t have the right brand of beer! The nerve!
One English friend has told me that the local Swedes assume all the English and Irish are rich and can afford loads of alcohol. These are the same Swedes who earn around 500 kronor an hour (which is 150 kronor an hour more than I earn) and think I’m a miser because I bulk-buy my toilet roll.
4. ”Would a ’thank you’ kill you?”
If I open a shop or office door for you, please say “tack.” Please don’t just stare through me as if you’re Elton John and I’m one of your flunkies. The same goes if, when I’m driving, I’m kind enough to let you out at a road junction. Say “tack,” or raise a hand in acknowledgement – it’s really not going to cost you anything. Why act as if I don’t exist? Also, if I call or email you, please have the good manners to respond, even if the answer is something I don’t want to hear. Don’t just ignore me. That drives me crazy, and is most of my non-Swedish friends’ number one gripe about Sweden. Anyway, I feel better now. Those are my main four irritants. Other, lesser, irritants written down on my notepad are:
“Trot racing – speedway for horses. Pointless.”
“Shop hours – how can you run a hair salon and not open on Saturdays?”
You know, if that’s all I have to moan about after three years of living here, I’m really not doing too badly.
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