Culture, Travel

Nine Difficult Things About Living in Sweden

I should start out by saying that I feel a little guilty for writing this. I have lived here in Sweden for almost two and a half years. It is a lovely place in so many ways. It is the first and only country that I have lived in outside my own. Overall it has been a pleasure and adventure to be here. However, I feel that there is very little honest writing from the inside about why it can be hard to live in Sweden, written from a real expat. I know that many of the points below can apply to much of Europe, and almost all of them could apply to other Scandinavian counties like Norway and Finland. The benefits of living in Sweden are well known, like long vacations, free health care and free university, so I don’t really feel a need to comment on those things. Also, the more annoying things like the weather and high taxes are well known to most people, so no use commenting on that either. So here is my little list of the nine most annoying things about living in Sweden.

Sweden does not respect personal privacy or GDPR. While most of Europe takes privacy seriously, Sweden maintains a culture of open data, meaning that Sweden’s tax agency, Skatteverket, actually sells the data it collects to companies like Ratsit and Hitta through a licensing scheme. This basically means that any google search of your name will reveal your age, family status, address, income, phone number, number of people living in your home and so on.  We might as well live in Ecuador when it comes to protecting data privacy. So not only is your private data made public, but these companies profit from it without consent. This practice is in clear violation of the recent set of GDPR laws passed in 2017

Ratsit.. Probably the most hated website in Sweden.

which are designed to protect the public’s privacy and data. Another major problem is that it is very easy to look up someone’s personal number (this is the Swedish equivalent of a social security number). With this number, you can order many services and products without having to pay upfront. You can imagine how easily it is to have your identity stolen and used to purchase goods while ruining your credit. Furthermore, all car license plate data is open as well,  so if you cut someone off in traffic or upset the wrong person, they can easily look up your name and address online and come knocking on your door.

We have dealt with the creepy nature of this situation first hand, as some creepy person saw a photo of my wife somewhere on the internet and figured out her mobile number and started calling her. I don’t know why the EU looks the other way when it comes to these violations, but it is a major concern for those who care about privacy. 

Public transportation is expensive and unreliable. I have been commuting about 80 miles each way for my job for a while now. On my return trip home I give it about a 10% that the train will be severely delayed or cancelled

The headless worm

altogether. Recently there was a fire in Helsingborg. It was close to the tracks and caused one of the overhead line supports to fall. This effectively cut all north/south rail transport in southern Sweden off for a couple of weeks. While this is a rare instance, there are few redundant rail lines and the delays can be exponential as there is only a single main rail line that runs north/south. It’s common for my 90 minute commute to take up to 4 hours due to delays. Also, the cost of rail travel is not economical in most of Europe and Sweden is no exception.

A regional train pass is about $170 That is arguably the same cost as it is to drive, with fuel prices being over $6 USD per gallon here and in most of Europe. The Oresund commuter trains are threadbare, unwashed and generally dirty inside and out with regular cancellations and delays. The 20 minute train from Malmö to Copenhagen over the Oresund bridge is about $30 USD round trip.

Typical Seat on Oresund Train

Eating out is ridiculously expensive. I’m coming from Los Angeles, which isn’t a cheap city, but the prices people pay to eat out are astronomically high, and so most normal people tend to eat out only on very special occasions. As an example, last night I met a friend in the city center for beers and conversation. We each had 2 domestic draft beers, a fries and salad. The bill was about $75 USD. A hamburger in the evening will run you about $20, while a plate at a typical sit down restaurant (nothing too fancy) will be about $35 per person, with beer almost $10 and wine at $15 – $20 per glass. You can do better in Manhattan or West LA. The problem is lack of choice.. there are tons of fancy hipster and luxury restaurants here in the town of Malmö, then there are the kabab shacks. Not much in-between. Also, if you want to eat out or get a dessert after, say 8pm you are out of luck. We have stopped eating out in Sweden and just save our money for travel. Once we figured it would be cheaper to take one of the super saver flights from Malmö to Poland or Spain, eat out a nice restaurant with wine and all the trimmings, fly back home than it costs to take our family out for dinner here in Sweden. However if you do need a quick bite, you can always find a shawarma or chicken roll for around $5. Oh how we miss the cheap taco stands in California with all the free salsa you want!!

Alcohol. If you didn’t know, alcohol is a BIG deal here in Scandinavia. It is very highly taxed and treated as borderline illegal controlled substance. You can only buy alcohol from one store.. the state owned monopoly Systembolaget, where  clerks in bowties will suggest what wine to pair with your dinner.

It’s 3:30 on a Saturday and you have a dinner party? Sorry Sweden says you can’t handle it.

This store closes at 6PM on weekdays and 3PM on Saturdays. It’s only one example of how the Swedish government treats people like children, and when you treat people like children, I guess they will act like children. I suppose that is why you hear about Swedes going absolutely crazy when they leave the country. It is forbidden to even sell a cold beer except in a restaurant. The beer must be sold room temperature, lest someone get too crazy and crack open one on the way home! Alcohol is also taxed very highly and spirits can cost about 3-4 times the price compared to neighboring Germany.

I have never seen so much alcohol free alcohol.

Now, most Swedes disdain this nanny-like treatment, but if you happen to bring this up in conversation, they will defend this practice by giving you a long speech about how a million years ago, everybody in the country was a raging alcoholic and the government needed to step in and take over. I don’t buy it, and I think progressive Swedes are silly to allow themselves to be controlled like this. Yes, we had prohibition in America, and maybe it was for good reason at the time, but this is 2019! I think that Swedes willingly accept whatever their matriarchal government tells them to do without making too much noise, bringing me to my next point.

Sweden is very conformist and even conservative.  Now, Swedes actually think they are extremely progressive, and judging by the heavy taxation and government imposition in every area of life, anyone can agree they are definitely far left politically, but culturally, you will find that

Conformity

Sweden (and much of Scandinavia) is in reality surprisingly a conservative and conformist society. You see this reflected in fashion, the way people communicate and how people are expected to act. I really notice it when I go across the bridge to Copenhagen, or visit a city like Berlin, where art, music self-expression and diversity are much more part of the landscape. Jante law is a strong part of the Swedish culture, and it is important to not stand out too much, talk too loudly or dress too boldly.

Jante Law

Swedes are expected to behave and follow the rules. You will definitely get a raised eyebrow for having a wine or beer with a meal during the week. I cannot tell you how many times I have brought a nice bottle of wine to someone’s home only to have it quickly be hidden away in a cabinet somewhere and then we sit around and sip coffee all evening. Another personal observation is that swedes have a reputation for being very comfortable with things like nudity, topless sunbathing, mixed sauna and such, but I think these are more of an urban myth than reality, at least where we live. I suspect these cultural things may have shifted in the last few years due to a huge influx of people from other cultures, especially into southern Sweden. It is also considered taboo and impolite to discuss politics, immigration or problems that Sweden struggles with. Best to stick to the weather unless you are amongst very close friends.

Shopping on the internet is like going back to 1995. Sweden has managed to keep Amazon at bay in order to protect local business and limit access to cheap goods. While I find this to be a noble cause, one must remember that Sweden has is a relatively small population and shopping choices are fairly limited beyond your basic products and standard issue H&M fashion lines. Case in

Many items will not ship to Sweden, even from the EU

point, it is almost impossible to find an unusual or ironic T-shirt, unless maybe you are searching at second hand shops. Also, most stores keep very limited hours. Because of some strange import laws, most items cannot be shipped from US or German Amazon. Also, if you order any item from outside the EU, PostNord will hold it hostage until you pay a 25% tax on the estimated value of that item, plus an additional import fee for items from outside the UE. If the package came from China, you will have additional fees because postnord cannot handle the demand, and (this is just my informed opinion), Swedes are not supposed to have access to cheap goods. After you pay these extra fees, most packages will never arrive at your home. You will need to go to your local packet collection center, wait in line and hopefully if everything goes as planned, they will give you your package. Needless to say, the recent increases in import fees can make many low value items from ebay or Alibaba no longer worth it… which is the intended effect.

Everything I Like to Eat is Considered a Luxury Here. I probably belong in the Mediterranean, because I love things like cheese, wine, shrimp, spicy chillis and high quality meat. All those things are at a premium here and generally extremely expensive. Also fresh fruits and vegetables are not grown in Scandinavia and usually come shrinkwrapped in plastic to prolong shelf life and conveniently be sold at a higher unit price. However, there are some great farmers markets and international grocers, where fruits and produce can be found for a fraction of the price, but the normal supermarkets usually are lacking in fresh greens.

The Press is Censored. The city where we live has regular shootings, bombings, car fires and petty crime. However, it is extremely difficult to find out what is happening in the press. The press seems to be unable or unwilling to report crime, rather they focus on feel good stories that gloss over the real problems of Sweden. There is a fantastic documentary called The Swedish Elephant that goes into detail about this. Often we have to find out what is happening here in the international news or from our friends that are police officers. Also, crime statistics are not collected or reported, nor are arrest reports or records, due to privacy. This is ironic given that everyone’s sensitive personal data is all over the internet.

Crime is an increasing problem for Sweden (and much of Europe). Malmö is a city of 300,000 or so. For an American, this is a very small town. In the 2 years we have lived here I have had 2 bicycles and a motorcycle stolen. A woman holding a baby was shot in the head a couple of weeks ago in broad daylight. We hear bombs regularly. Business are shaken down for “protection”. Children find

Swedish Police

hand grenades in the school yards. Balkan and Middle Eastern gangs run the streets. There are the famous “no go” zones like Rosengård, Malmö. This month the Davis cup tennis tournament had to be moved to Stockholm with heavy security due to previous year’s Muslim riots. Gangs of young men roam the streets with nothing to do. Sweden has accepted over 10% of its total population from the middle east and Africa in the last 3 years. Like many unpopular laws, this was not done with public approval. Unfortunately, many of these people come from war torn countries and bring those conflicts with them to Sweden. They often have a difficult time integrating into Swedish culture, and so they establish and remain in their sub cultures, which can sometimes be in conflict with Swedish systems and values. This, combined with the Balkan-based gangs and crime networks who have been operating in Sweden for many years, are a huge problem for Swedish police, citizens and business owners.

This may seem a little harsh, but many Swedish people are delusional and in serious denial about the effects this all has on their own country. I have personally found that most people with these opinions are affluent and do not mix with non-white foreigners very often. They tend to live outside the cities possess a very idealistic sense of how life in Sweden is only getting better. Others are very upset about how much crime has come to Sweden but are fearful to speak out for fear of being labelled a racist or worse. I have also met a few Swedes that preach open borders and government benefits for the world, while privately they are quite nasty and frankly racist in their personal views. Yet there are others that have a realistic view of the situation, yet are very compassionate towards the people that have arrived and do their very best to help refugees and migrants integrate and get a strong start. At the very least, it is sad to live in the city center and have things stolen on a regular basis. We do sometimes hear bombs and see burnt out cars and bullet holes in business. Businesses are shaken down for “protection” and bombed if they don’t comply. There was a huge bomb of a shop last week in Lund. The police stations have been bombed a few times since we have been here. While the Swedish government seems overfunded from my perspective, the police are totally overwhelmed and understaffed. Criminals and thugs know they can behave (and drive) however they want with little consequence. This is especially obvious on the street I live, where modified cars race at top speed, running lights while narrowly missing pedestrians on any given night. The parks are open 24 hours with no security, so nightly graffiti and vandalism has taken over the cute and beautiful city parks in Malmö and other cities. The police are nowhere to be found.

Depressing Soviet error functionalist architecture (Malmö especially). While Sweden is a pretty country, many of the cities are quite depressing with endless rows of drab, brown brick apartments with no external decor. Stockholm is an obvious exception to this rule, but otherwise many of these terrible buildings were part of the Million Programme, which was part of the government’s effort to build a million new apartments between 1965 and 1974. The result is a country that is littered with ugly Soviet era brown brick featureless apartment towers with no individual features or design. Strangely, Sweden is known for its beautiful minimalist design, but that is generally on the inside. Malmö especially is full of terrible featureless brick apartments with no structural features or even balconies, just endless rows of depressing looking structures that remind me of low income housing apartments back in America. It only takes a short trip south into Germany to appreciate the cute little towns with their exposed timber frame houses and hanging flowers in the windows. Sweden definitely lacks creativity when it comes to apartment building structures.

Next, I will write about the top 10 things I love about Sweden, but for now I hope this helps give some honest perspective if you are considering moving to Sweden. I know that many of these problems are not unique to Sweden, but they are some of the most difficult things I find about living here. Please comment and tell me what you think.

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