Nice sunset view as we pass over London, England, on our way to Albania.
Where are Kevin and Ruth now? Hiking in Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

Where are Kevin and Ruth going next? Porto, Portugal on June 25th!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Another update from Volkan and Heather- Reporting from Sweden

Back in May, you had all enjoyed a guest post from our friends Volkan and Heather who were visiting United Arab Emirates.  Here is a link to that post...

Now, our traveling friends are in Sweden and they've sent another interesting update for you all to read!

Volkan and Heather:

We put together our cultural tidbits about Sweden. Read on, if like us, you are fascinated with the Swedish way.

We expected the Swedes to be shy and unfriendly. But much to our surprise, as they love practicing English, they were happy to chat as long as we started the conversation. The Swedes really do speak phenomenal English, even old people. They start their English lessons around age 10 in school. That’s when my french lessons started so that is definitely not the magic bullet. They all claim that the real secret to their language success is watching tv and movies in English.

In the month that we were in Sweden we made friends, had them over for meals and had wonderful conversations. But the Swedes never invited us to their homes, only to meet in restaurants. We were told not to take it personally as the Swedes take a while to get comfortable enough to invite people to their homes.

We did not find Sweden to be prohibitively expensive, perhaps because of the strong dollar ($1=8.60 SEK). This email is written using only U.S. dollars. Prices at the supermarkets were reasonable, better than suburban New York. Lunch specials at restaurants were around $11 (lunch specials are known as dagens rätt.) They include a main dish with a salad, bread, butter, a drink (beer or soda) and coffee.

Local transportation via train was cheap and convenient within the metropolitan area, about $3.

Beer was usually under $1 for 1/2 liter cans. We saw quite a few alcoholics, but they were not omnipresent. Low alcohol beer (2.2%-2.8%) was common. Alcohol at restaurants cost a lot more.

Summer is a blink and you’ll miss it affair. In the month that we were there, July, we had 3 sunny days. I wore a jacket every day. But even on the cold, rainy days the sun would flicker by for one gorgeous moment, shining radiantly on the gray clouds.

All the Swedes that we spoke to were fervently devoted to their generous welfare system and nobody complained about high taxes.
This is the tax rate for 2014:
0% = 0 – 2,690 USD
31% = 2,690 – 62,140 USD
51% = 62,140 – 88,180 USD
56% = 88,180 USD and up

Apartment buildings were all well-maintained and clean, as were the surrounding grounds. Even government housing was well manicured, lush and thoughtfully designed. In fact I would not have recognized it is as government housing if I had not been told.

Living in the suburbs or the city, one does not need a car. Most people live within a 10 minute walk of the train station, supermarket, library, restaurants, bars and bank. One need not walk on the road, as there are dedicated walking paths criss crossing each community. Parks and schools were dotted throughout the neighborhoods. One can choose which school one wants and need not go to the local school.

Maximum annual pay for medical care is 110 euros. One pays around 20 euros to see a doctor until one reaches the 110 euro max. After that it is all free (according to our one friend.)

Swedes get 16 months of maternity leave to share between the parents. Two months of that is reserved exclusively for the father. Most of the time the mother takes more time off. If the parents choose to split the time equally, the father will get a bonus of $1500. Our pregnant feminist Swedish friend has insisted that her boyfriend refuse the bonus on the principal that men should be doing equal parenting without needing to receive a monetary reward.

Considering the generosity of the state, I find it odd that one must pay 60 cents to use the toilet in Stockholm.

We wondered where all the money comes from to pay for the generous social system. The Swedes must be producing a lot. When we asked, they pointed to mining, weapons and technology. They reminded us that companies like IKEA that come from Sweden are now based in Luxembourg so don’t pay much into the Swedish system.

The Swedes talk about life in and before the 1970’s, as the golden years. Jobs were so plentiful that one could just name the field that they wanted to work in. We were never able to get a straight answer about why things changed in the 1980’s. Some said that companies left Sweden for cheaper labor in Estonia and Russia. But we have no verification of that. Seems odd that would happen during the Communist era.

We were shocked at how diverse Stockholm and its suburbs are. We expected a sea of blonds but in actuality there are tons of immigrants, mostly Syrian, Ethiopian, Somali, Turkish and Iraqi.
Jobs are hard to come by, but the generous welfare system has everyone covered for housing, food, university and healthcare. Sadly there is tension from the immigrant community who feel disenfranchised. We even heard stories of some neighborhoods where ambulances were afraid to go in without a police escort, as rocks would be thrown at them.

A young Afghani refuge told us his story of working his way through Europe and ultimately smuggling himself into Sweden where he sought asylum. He said the authorities were kind to him from day one, providing food, housing, medical care and even money for cigarettes. He spent a year learning the language and was then trained to be a chef. The refugees are not able to choose where in Sweden they want to live, he was only given free housing in a northern town. After his training he moved to Stockholm for work. Though he has adapted well to the Swedish system, sadly his values still seemed solidly Afghani, unchanged by all his years among the progressive Swedes. He spoke of marrying a virgin and moving to Peshawar, Pakistan to raise their children. He didn’t value a Swedish education for his children over something he could get in Peshawar. Though we also met plenty of immigrants who fit in well in Swedish culture.

In the last 5 years with open borders with Romania, Sweden has had a huge influx of Roma who beg all over the city and suburbs. It was the same in Paris, but in Paris they begged with their children. In Sweden I never saw any Roma children. I was told child begging is illegal in Sweden and so they don’t bring their children.

It is strictly illegal to hit children in Sweden. Children are told to dial 112 if anybody hits them. To remember this number children have a little trick where they touch their one mouth, one nose and two eyes.

How do Swedes view America? Well unsurprisingly they don’t trust America’s motives in world politics. But the Swedes readily embrace U.S. culture and technology. Many people mentioned that Sweden copied the U.S. culturally but lamented that Sweden was 10 years behind the U.S. Sweden seemed very up to date to us. But they do smoke more than in the U.S., but a hell of a lot less than in Paris. We met a Finnish woman who has been living in Sweden since the ‘70s. She told us that the education system in Finland is one of the best in the world. Yet, you will never hear Swedes complimenting Finland or other Scandinavian countries. She said they always look up to the US.

Another way that Sweden is more advanced than the U.S. is at the supermarket where one can use a wand to digitally scan each item before putting it in ones’ grocery cart. This makes the checking out process much quicker as the items are already scanned. It is an honor system but sometimes the carts are checked to make sure one has scanned all the items. Using these wands makes one eligible for more discounts.

Swedes are proud that they have not been in a war for 200 years. Though they are quick to add that they are very ashamed that they let the Nazis pass through to invade Norway. They also readily admit that they profited greatly by selling iron etc to both the Nazis and the Allies and continue to sell weapons.

There is a famous Swedish concept known as logam where one should be content with a moderate amount of material wealth, instead of striving for opulence. With that in mind, we didn’t expect to see a lot of conspicuous consumption. And having heard that Swedes are environmentally minded we expected that they would have small, modest cars. But surprisingly there were driving huge station wagons. And of course many of them were Volvos. Not to mention the Bentley dealership in downtown Stockholm.

Many Swedes have a summer home.

It is not uncommon for Swedes to work in Norway as the salaries are higher.

We had a high expectation of consumer protection in Sweden. In some cases our expectations were met, for instance every dairy product has its fat content well marked on the front of the package. Even more important, every item in the supermarket has a price per kilo so one can easily compare prices with a similar item even if it’s in a different size package, even items like ice cream and oil. Irritatingly in cafes, dessert items often do not have the prices marked.

Like everywhere else, the Swedes use a ton of plastic bags. But they do recycle, though it doesn’t appear to be mandatory.

We received from the cash machine a local currency note worth the equivalent of $60. The note had a pink mark on it and nobody including banks would accept it. Apparently it was marked from a bank robbery. We were repeatedly told to contact the cash machine company and fill out a litany of forms. The cash machine company would then refund the money to our U.S. bank, minus a $10 processing fee, assuming that we could give them our bank routing information and international transaction codes. What a pain!

We thought that the sauna culture would be pervasive. But most people don’t have access to saunas in the city and suburbs. They build saunas mostly at their summer homes on the coast so that they can jump into the cold water after a hot shvitz. Some even take a dip in the winter after carving a hole in the ice.

Stockholm is a spectacular city, especially in the evening when a golden light illuminates the old buildings surrounding the bay. The city is highly walkable with lots of pedestrian streets, picturesque walking bridges connecting islands, busy cafes and stylish shops. Lots of free concerts in the parks.

The now magnificent old part of town known as Gamla Stan had fallen into disrepair. In the 1970’s it was a slum and red light district. The then unknown band ABBA lived there. The dilapidated town was slated for demolition. Thanks to some high minded citizens it was saved.

People complain how difficult it is to find an apartment to rent in Stockholm. When one is 18 years old one puts one’s name on a list. About 8 years later they are eligible to choose from some offers. One bedrooms can cost monthly between $600 in a less desirable neighborhood and about $1400 in more upscale neighborhoods.

Swedish food is delicious and there are also lots of options for ethnic food.
The variety of Swedish dishes seemed limited but as we only had a month, it didn’t bother us.
Typically the choices were:
Meatballs with potatoes and lingonberries
Baked salmon with potatoes
Tomato based fish stew
Smoked salmon with potatoes served with a honey mustard sauce (people make their own gravlax at home.)
Cod in a white wine sauce with potatoes
Steak on a board surrounded by mashed potatoes: Plankstek
Shrimp salad sandwiches
They also love their pizza, salads, lasagna and hamburgers with fries.

The Swedes enthusiastically take a daily cake and coffee break which they call fika. A typical fika will include a cinnamon or cardamon bun. The cardamon is absolutely delicious. Though after being in Paris, we felt the Swedes could make their pastries a little more delicate and crispy.
Swedes do not eat dessert after meals at home.

Well hope you enjoyed our precious little nuggets of information.

We just arrived in Oslo and are hoping to learn the ways that the Norwegians and Swedes differ.

Thank you again Volkan and Heather! We look forward to your next update!

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  1. Replies
    1. Not a blog just an email that they send out to family and friends who might be interested in their thoughts. I liked reading about their views on a country versus views many North Americans have on the same country.

  2. I love reading their updates - thanks for sharing. They really should be bloggers!

    1. We agree with you Cheapchick. Heather does a great job in describing life there and how the locals live.

  3. Interesting. Kinda sucked about that bank note. I remember getting a counterfeit twenty out of the ATM down the street. I immediately took it in to them and they exchanged it. I guess they wanted to keep a customer? Not sure.

    1. Yeah, it does suck about the bank note as it wasn't their fault that they received it out of the ATM and that they shouldn't of had to jump through hoops to exchange it and then also be out the $10 processing fee.

  4. Fascinating reading and interesting information. I'm going for the beer! Look forward to following your travels in Norway!

    1. It was interesting reading for sure and I am know that Kevin would be with you on the beer! This was not about our travels though it was from a couple that we have meet on our travels and this is their take on things and it will be them that will be headed to Norway.

  5. What a great read!! Thanks to Heather and Volkan for sharing. They REALLY should start a blog. I would be on board!!

    1. We totally agree with you Doug and Nancy, they should start a blog. Heather really has a way with words and helping you understand what life is like in a particular country that they are visiting in.

  6. Very interesting...................I really wonder about the Tax rates, is it on gross or do they have a deduction system...'

    1. From what I can see online the tax rates are based on your gross income but I could be wrong, as I only had a quick look.

  7. What an informative insight into a different culture. I enjoyed it - thank you for sharing.

    1. We thought that it was very good post on what life is like in Sweden, especially when Heather shows some comparisons to life back in the United States.


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