Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Straight Outta Hammerkullen: The Miljonprogrammet.

When I first arrived in Sweden, the most off putting sight were the huge lifeless apartment blocks everywhere. Unless you’ve been to Sweden, you’re idea of Swedish housing is most probably the wooden red houses surrounded by forests and lakes. But in reality large mass-produced sterile concrete blocks are far more common. These buildings litter the skyline of every Swedish city and town, often on their outskirts. They can look so similar to old Soviet Union-era satellite towns that one could be forgiven for thinking the iron curtain was actually located 1000 km west of St. Petersburg.

Such suburbs are commonly referred to as Miljonprogrammet suburbs, named after the government initiative that spawned them. In 1965, in an effort to combat an emerging housing shortage, the Social Democrats launched the Miljonprogrammet (Swedish for the Million Programme), with the aim the building over a million new homes within ten years. The new dwellings were designed and built on the principles of cheap, simple, functional living. Much thought was given to providing shared facilities such as laundries, bike sheds and rubbish rooms, as well as public utilities such as parks, churches, libraries, nurseries, schools and hospitals. The new suburbs were designed just as much by sociologists as architects, with the eventual aim of building the ideal environment to breed healthy, comfortable, community-minded citizens, with all their basic needs provided for. The one factor that wasn’t taken into consideration was aesthetics. Housing needed to be built quickly and cheaply thus the grey concrete exteriors and monotonous design.

In Gothenburg typical Miljonprogrammet suburbs include Angered, Hammarkullen and Bergsjön. Other famous Miljonprogrammet suburbs are Rinkeby in Stockholm and Rosengård in Malmö. But the Miljonprogrammet are not limited to the big cities and even the smallest towns can boast their own Miljonprogrammet areas.

They were meant to be the suburbs of the future, and considering how they’ve ended up it’s amusing to look at original artists’ impressions and designs in museums. The sketches might depict something from The Jetsons, but forty years on the Miljonprogrammet suburbs are now synonymous with immigrants, crime, unemployment and social decay.

As I’ve already mentioned last month in another blog entry, Sweden is one of the most racially segregated countries I’ve ever seen, and it is the Miljonprogrammet suburbs that have ended up hosting nearly all the immigrants. In such areas there is barely a blonde hair in sight, yet other suburbs would suggest Sweden is the most culturally homogenous place on earth. Either a suburb is populated exclusively by immigrants, or not at all: the division is that distinct.

Not surprisingly, like any area predominately populated by immigrants, Miljonprogrammet suburbs have a poor reputation amongst the host culture. Listening to some people talk of them you’d think they were talking about Grozny and they are indeed often nicknamed “the ghettos”. The worst perception of them is that they’re full of Swede-hating Islamic extremists planning the next September 11 attack. At the very least they’re populated by welfare cheating foreigners who refuse to integrate. Tabloid media also like to seize on higher crime statistics and portray them as de facto war zones where even the police are too scared to tread.

Old readers may remember Hammarkullen as the location of the very first construction site I worked at, so unlike many Gothernburgers I’ve actually been to a Miljonprogrammet suburb. I was there everyday for nearly a month and from my experiences I can confidently say it really isn’t that bad. It wouldn’t be my first choice when looking for a flat but if it is the worst part of Gothenburg, then Gothenburg has some very comfortable living standards. I’m not so widely travelled that I can claim to have seen the world’s most down trodden but I have seen plenty of suburbs in cities like London, Paris, Glasgow and Belfast, which are significantly worse. Windows are bordered up or broken, barbed wire lines every fence, rubbish is strewn everywhere, everything is falling apart and in decay, junkies are passed out in the gutter, CCTV cameras monitor your every move and large conveys of heavily armed police are ever present. These are all aspects of really run down areas and Hammarkullen has none of them. I found it was clean, well maintained, and so safe kids played in the street unsupervised. Hammerkullen might not be about to win any architectural awards but it isn’t skid row.

For me the most disturbing aspect of Hammerkullen and Angered is their location as they are quite visibly isolated and cut off from the rest of Gothenburg. When you take the tram from town you actually leave the city as you travel through large industrial areas and forests, without making any stops for a good 10 minutes before finally arriving. Coupled with the fact that its populated exclusively by immigrants, and you’ve created a real sense that this an out-of-sight, out-mind-dumping ground for non-Swedes.

Anyone opposed to migration to Sweden will point to areas like Hammarkullen as proof of their convictions. Higher unemployment and crime, the argument goes, are caused by immigrants who don’t want to work and/or are more inclined to commit crime, while the deep segregation comes down to immigrants’ refusal to integrate. Now I don’t want to get up on my soap box (but I will anyway) but there are some glaring problems with such arguments, not least of all the assumption that immigrants choice to live in Miljonprogrammet suburbs, or that they’re even given a choice. Half the students in my SFI class live in places like Angered or Hammarkullen and I’m yet to meet one who does so by preference. I’ve already been through the perils of the Swedish housing market so I won’t do so again here, but suffice to say that finding a rental property isn’t easy for anyone. If you’re a immigrant, especially one that doesn’t have a job or speak much Swedish, it’s harder still.

I’m yet to see the city where newly arrived immigrants are allowed to move straight into prime real estate. Due to its location and relatively lower living standards compared to the rest of the city, its plain delusional to believe people choice to live in Hammarkullen rather then Örgyte (a wealthy part of Gothenburg). But as one of my classmates said recently, “I need to live somewhere, I can’t sleep on the streets.”

As for integration if you want migrants to integrate it is hardly conducive to force them all to live together in the same suburb on the city’s outskirts, physically detached from the rest of society.

It is easy to look at the Miljonprogrammet housing and see it as a giant ugly mistake. But in the end the Social Democrats did succeed in reaching their aim of creating over a million new homes. (Considering the Swedish tendency to be exact with figures, if the programme had fallen short I wouldn’t put it pass them to rename it the 957,200 programme instead.) Considering Sweden’s population at the time was only seven million (today it is nine million) creating a million homes in only ten years is quite an achievement. The living standards they offered have since been surpassed but at the time they did represent a significant improvement.

The Miljonprogrammet suburbs have also spawned a life and culture of their own. For one they’ve given birth to their own dialect of Swedish, popularly known as Rinkeby Swedish after the Miljonprogrammet suburb of Stockholm. (Rinkeby Swedish is basically Swedish mixed with terms and pronunciations from Middle-Eastern, African and Latin American languages.) Miljonprogrammet suburbs have also produced a host of contemporary Swedish musicians, filmmakers, artists and athletes. Internationally the most famous Miljonprogrammet citizen is Inter Milan footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic who grew up in the means streets of Malmö’s Rosengård.

Given their reputations as ghettos it’s hardly surprising that the Miljonprogrammet has given birth to Sweden’s hip-hop scene. The Latin Kings, one of Sweden’s first commercial successful hip hop acts, became renowned in the 1990s for writing lyrics that were not only in Swedish (until then all Swedish hip hop was in English) but in Rinkeby Swedish. As you can see from this film clip, Miljonprogrammet buildings are a prominent feature and life in the Miljonprogrammet is pretty integral to their image.

Since the 90s The Latin Kings have lost a fair bit of street cred as their front man, the ludicrously named Dogge Doggelito, is now more famous of his segments on lifestyle programs and advertisements for supermarkets (pictured right). It doesn’t help that he dresses like a real-life Ali G without the satire. However the legacy of intertwining hip-hop culture with the Miljonprogrammet continues. Rather then feel ashamed or stigmatised by the hyperbole surrounding the Miljonprogrammet suburbs, hip-hops artists have co-opted it and even glorified it for their own ends. (There are even white middle-class Swedish hip-hop artists have to pretend to be from the Miljonprogrammet.) Below is a more contemporary example, and one more local to Gothenburg. The music isn’t anything special but the clip gives you a good idea of what a Miljonprogrammet suburb looks like.

UPDATE: It has since been brought to my attention that the fifth picture in this blog entry, of the pink flats by the cliffs, isn't a miljonet suburb at all. It's from the island of Lidingö, one of the more posher areas of Stockholm. But I suppose the fact that it can be mistaken for a miljonet suburb is reflective of the egalitarian nature of Swedish housing.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

SFI and the Steve McClaren School of Languages

The other week I had this dream. Basically I’m in a large room with all my friends and family…and for some reason Mick Jagger is there too. Naturally everyone in the room is asking about life in Sweden and the topic of language comes up. Someone (I can’t remember who exactly) asks if I can speak Swedish yet. I reply by saying something like “Not really but I’m learning, and I’m slowly getting there”. Then Mick Jagger starts laughing and shouts at me “What do you mean? You hardly speak any Swedish!’ To illustrate his point he then bombards with a tirade of Swedish and I can only respond with a blank vacant stare. “See? He doesn’t understand anything,” he shouts to everyone in the room. He then proceeds to ridicule and humiliate me in front of everyone I know.

When I woke up I didn’t need to delve too deeply into psychoanalysis theories to interpret what this dream meant (except for maybe the Mick Jagger part. That confuses me; I don’t even like the Rolling Stones.) Subconsciously I feel guilty and ashamed that after 18 months I still don’t speak or understand enough Swedish to confidently say, “Yes, I speak Swedish!” or more accurately “Ja! Jag pratar Svenska!”

The common retort from native English speakers living in Sweden is to bemoan the lack of opportunity to practice. This is in fact true and the majority of Swedes will switch straight to English without blinking an eyelid if they detect just the slightest accent. It doesn’t help either that all my friends are English speakers, as are my work colleagues. And now that she’s back in Sweden A is more concerned about the possibility she might forget how to speak English than how much progress I make in learning Swedish (and I also suspect she enjoys having her own language and being able to talk without me being able to understand.) So I’m only speaking English at home too.

However while I’m in process of deflecting blame and absolving myself of any responsibility for my poor linguistic skills, I would also like to point an accusing finger at SFI.

SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) is the government-funded program designed to, as the name suggests, provide free Swedish lessons to immigrants. Two evenings a week, for close to a year now, I’ve been going to such classes. Having paid good money for a beginner’s course in Melbourne I was pretty rapt when I learnt that my visa entitled me to learn here for free. But unfortunately, like a lot of initiatives from the Swedish welfare state, the ideal doesn’t match up to the reality and SFI has a pretty poor reputation.

The most common complaint I hear is the quality of the teachers. The few people I have meet who have been happy with their SFI education are adamant that it came down to having a good teacher. But such people are in the minority. One of my work colleagues has a teacher so bad that currently the whole class are officially boycotting classes until she is replaced. According to my colleague lessons don’t get any more taxing then passing a ball around the room and saying “Hello, My name is …” in Swedish when the ball lands in your lap.

I’m pleased to say my teacher isn’t quite as apathetic but she’s no Mr Chips either. She’ll typically turn up 20-30 minutes late. Half way through our 2 hour lesson she’ll stop for a 30 minute coffee break, and it is not unusual for her to let us all go early either. And that’s when she turns up. Often she’ll let us into the computer room and let us play around with Swedish educational computer programmes. Although I don’t complain too much when this happens because I often end up learning more then I would if our teacher ran her usual lesson.

As far as I can tell there is no standardised curriculum or class plan. Teachers are given textbooks and learning aides but beyond that it seems they’re free to run the class anyway they like, hence the inconsistency in standards between classes. My teacher chooses to move through things at a comically slow pace, and through class exercises that are as helpful and stimulating as dot-to-dot puzzles are to an aspiring artist.

One of her favourite tasks involves handing out cards with pictures of various fruit and vegetables, and corresponding cards with their names in Swedish. We then take it in turns, in pairs, to match the words with the pictures. It isn’t until everyone in the class has done it 50 times over that our teacher is convinced we understand and we’re ready to move onto something else. We can spend weeks working on things that I’ve managed to pick up within the first half hour.

The last class I attended we went though adjectives. Basically an adjective can be slightly different depending on the category of word it is being applied to, and whether it is singular or plural. When we first covered this in a class last month, I had it down pat by the end of the lesson. Not because I’m a fast learner (quite the opposite when it comes to languages) but because it just isn’t that hard. A month later we’re still on adjectives, and I’m getting a good idea how Bill Murray felt in Groundhog Day.

Another problem with SFI, which I’m sure adds to teachers’ apathy, are the large class sizes and lack of resources. Due to a large influx of immigrants there is a long waiting list to enrol, and the SFI schools obviously can’t cope. At the start of every semester my class will typically have 30-40 students. After three or four weeks this will drop down to 20, but then it won’t be long before another 20 students from the waiting list are rushed in.

The running joke amongst expats is that you can pass SFI without learning a single word of Swedish. A lot of people I know say they’ve passed two levels of SFI when on every occasion they’ve had a test they’ve been convinced they had failed. Because of the high demand, it’s suspected that students are passed just to churn them out and ease the workload.

So there you are Mick, an educated cosmopolitan population combined with an under funded education program, and I’m left speaking Swedish at the level of a 2 year-old.

Maybe I should take a leaf out of the Steve McLaren School of learning languages. For those not in the know, Steve McClaren is an English football manager who recently accepted a job coaching FC Twente in Holland. Below is a video of him being interviewed by a Dutch journalist. Despite the fact she speaks excellent English, McClaren does his best to pass himself off as a native Dutchman. Obviously he can’t speak Dutch, so he does the next best thing…

…He speaks English with a Dutch accent. I like the way he needs to pause and think before he says long words or add in phrases like ‘it is like…how you say...” thus adding further to the impression that English is his second language. Swedish people often make such pauses, but it’s because they’re thinking of the Swedish word in their mind and need a moment to search through their English vocabulary to find its equivalent. Seeing as McClaren is speaking his native tongue, it makes you wonder what’s going through his mind when he stops and pauses.

To be fair I do have a friend who, when stuck for a Swedish work, will resort to using the English word but in a Swenglish accent. But he can often get away with it because Swedish people do in fact talk this way: add in an English phrase in Swenglish midsentence while talking Swedish. Although even he wouldn’t try and do it for a whole conversation!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

My Castle

My apologies for another long absence between blog entries. This time my excuse is that I’ve been moving flats. However I’m settled now and back to the blog with a load of material on the Swedish housing market.

Like a lot of things in Sweden, finding a place to rent isn’t easy. In part this is because of a shortage of housing that seems to be affecting a lot of places. But it is also compounded by the Swedish fixation on rules and regulations, and closer analysis of the situation once again reveals sticky fingerprints from the meddling hands of the Social Democrats.

In our last flat we were living on what is called a second-hand lease, aka we were renting off someone who in turn was renting off the original owners. This is quite common in Sweden. In fact getting hold of a first hand lease where you’re renting directly off the owners, is exceptionally difficult and often involves being on a waiting list for years. Second-hand leases are significantly easier to obtain, but by no means easy. Demand is so high that if you place an ad for a vacant flat you’ll get half of Gothenburg banging on your door. It is generally accepted in Sweden that if you want to find a place to live, you need contacts. Don’t bother with advertisements or agencies, just tell all your friends to tell their friends and hopefully someone will get back to you. This is basically how we found our new flat.

Because first-hand leases are so sought after when one manages to finally get one they loath to give it up even if they have no real desire to ever live there again. This is exactly the situation A and me found ourselves in with our flat. Our landlady rented it out because she no longer wanted to live there. But we did. We were quite happy there and would have been happy to continue living there. However the rules governing second leases means that after 18 months our landlady had to either move back into her flat or give up her first hand contract. Thus we were forced to leave while she’ll move into a flat she doesn’t want to live in. All this just to keep a first hand contract!
This is quite common. Anyone in Sweden can retell similar stories and just about everyone I know who rents second-hand is renting off someone who has no intention or desire to live there in the foreseeable future but refuses to give up their contract.
We’ve heard from our neighbours that our landlady was hardly ever home when she rented it, and the flat next to us is also empty. Meanwhile Gothenburg is in the midst of a housing shortage.

It’s a bizarre and crazy situation and I’ve spent the last month asking every Swede I know why this is. After all a first hand contract is basically the only way people rent property in the rest of the world and holding one is no big achievement. They’re better than second hand contracts as it gives you more long-term stability. Second-hand contract by contrast means you’ll have to move in 6-12 months. But otherwise there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about first hand contracts other than their rarity thus starting a vicious circle. No one wants to give them up about their hard to obtain, so they become hard to obtain because no one is willing to give theirs up. This seems to be the common explanation from expats but there has to be more to it than that.

A big feature of the Swedish housing market is the strict government control over rents instead of a free market allowing you to charge whatever you want. There are rules that dictate exactly what you can charge governed mainly by the properties size and attributes. If you’re renting second hand you cannot charge more then what you’re paying unless the flat is furnished in which case you add no more than 10%. Location isn’t a big factor so a 2 bedroom flat will cost the same regardless of its location in the city. If it’s an inner city or in an outer suburb, assuming their of similar size and standard they’ll be the same rent. For Melbournians it would be like renting a flat right by the Yarra River in Southbank for the same price as a flat in the most decrepit industrial areas of North Sunshine. Or for Sydneysiders, renting a house in Kirribilli for the same as a house in Redfern.

This ensures rents stay low and affordable, and thus landlords cannot exploit the housing shortage by charging extortionate rents such as they’re currently doing in Sydney and Melbourne. Consequently investing in property isn’t the money-spinner it is in other countries and far fewer rental properties are owned by private individuals. Furthermore there are plenty of rules that restrict what you can deal with a property once you buy it. I’m lead to believe that when you buy a flat in Sweden you’re not really buying a flat (and this is one of those situations that starts to verge into Communism) but you’re buying the right to live there indefinitely rent-free. But the flat is still owned by the co-op that own the whole building thus you’re still subject to their rules and restrictions.

Most apartment blocks are owned by government agencies or private corporations. The upside of all these rules is that rents stay relatively low. The downside is that the rental market is a lot smaller and finding a rental property becomes a lot harder. From what I gather it has become more difficult in recent years because currently many of these agencies are encouraging tenants to buy their properties outright. If you already own the first hand contract than you can buy it at a discounted rate, sometimes up to 30% cheaper. One theory I’ve heard is that people are hanging onto their leases in the hope that they’ll be offered the chance to buy it at a bargain basement price thus allowing them to immediately resell it on the free market and pocket the difference.

The idea behind equality in rents regardless of location is to prevent rich-poor divides developing in Swedish cities, as no one will be priced out of a certain area. While there is definitely still some sort of economic divide (plenty of landlords and housing agencies factor in an applicant’s income when choosing tenants) to some extent it has worked as most Swedish cities seem to lack obscenely wealthy suburbs and desperately poor ghettos. However as few people find rental properties the traditional way and instead you rely on contacts, newly arrived migrants are significantly disadvantages and this has caused large ethnic ghettos to emerge in the outer suburbs. As migrants typically don’t have a large network of contacts to rely on, they’re often forced to take the first property offered to them, which is most likely to be in the one of the less desirable locations.

For all it’s ideals and good intentions the Social Democratic housing policy for rental properties has contributed to making Sweden an exceptional racially segregated city which I can envisage as being a major social problem in the coming years. But this is a whole other topic and one for a whole new blog entry. (Possibly one I’ll have written by next week).

However looking around me in my new flat I can’t really complain too much. Right now I live in a newly renovated flat, fully furnished with all the modern conveniences such as dishwasher and central heating, in a very central location (only four tram stops to the centre of town.) Despite my struggle to find a secure or fulfilling job, I cannot complain about my living standards, which are quite possibly the highest I've had since moving out of home. If I were to move back to Melbourne today a flat of this standard and location would be right out of my price range and I cannot envisage myself living like this in Australia for at least a good number of years. But thanks to the Social Democrats even a student and a minimum wage earner can afford to live like inner city yuppies.

See…I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something stifling about this place.

Following on from my most recent blog entries I was surprised to find an article in the Guardian Weekly a couple of weeks ago essentially making a similar point about the Nordic welfare states (albeit far more articulately). You can read the article here.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Meet the Myrdals

With temporary unemployment and very disappointing summer weather I suddenly have time on my hands and not much to do with it so I’ve started educating myself a bit more on Swedish history. Now I’d like to share some of this knowledge and introduce you to Gunnar and Alva Myrdal: arguably the mother and father of the modern Swedish welfare state. Their published work and ideas have been hugely influential in Swedish policy making from the 1930s onwards. As well as being distinguished academics in their own fields both have also served as Government ministers for the Social Democrats. The repercussions of their ideas can be seen everywhere in Sweden today.

Gunnar Myrdal was an economist and a prominent member of the Stockholm school. This body of economists and academics anticipated many of the ideas later developed by John Maynard Keyes. He served as a Minister from 1933 until 1947. Alva was also a writer, academic and later a diplomat and peace activist. Both are also Nobel Prize winners. Gunnar won his in economics in 1974 (although he later argued that the prize should be abolished after it was also awarded to right-wing reactionary economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman) while Alva won the Nobel Peace prize in 1982 for her work in campaigning for disarmament.

Gunnar Myrdal is best known outside of Sweden for his study into race relations in America, ‘An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy’. Published in 1944 Myrdal basically argued that while America held noble ideals about equality and liberty they had failed to enact such ideals in practice particularly in regards to its African-American population. The study was cited in the Brown vs. the Board of Education court case and is generally considered quite influential in subsequent race relations policies made thereafter. Gunnar Myrdal also wanted to undertake a similar study into gender inequality but could never get the funding.

In Sweden the Myrdals are better known for ‘Kris I befolkningsfrågan’ (Crisis in the Population Question) which they co-wrote in 1934. The premise of the book was to find ways of promoting universal living standards in Sweden while at the same time also preserving individual freedoms. This became the basis for Sweden’s third way: a compromise between socialism and capitalism that achieved the security and equality of the former while preserving the freedom of the latter. The goal was to create a society where everyone had equal access to health care, education, housing, employment and overall a comfortable lifestyle.

The Myrdals cannot be credited with creating the Swedish welfare state as the concept of Folkhem (Swedish for Peoples’ Home) had been advocated by the Social Democrats since the 1920s. However their ideas were important in the implementation of Folkhem in practice. They advocated a number of sweeping social reforms that transformed Sweden for the better and whose legacy can still be seen in Swedish society today.

However less commonly known about the Myrdals’ work was their promotion of eugenics and forced sterilisation. A key part of ‘Kris I befolkningsfrågan’ was addressing declining birth rates and encouraging child bearing. But the Myrdals also stressed that it was vital to the security of the Folkhem that children grew up in stable and relatively wealthy environments otherwise they were at risk of becoming a future burden on the state. Some inherent characteristics needed to be breed out of the population for the good of Folkhem and ‘unviable’ individuals needed to be prevented from reproducing and spreading such traits. Rather then seeing such characteristics as products of the environment of that individual, they were seen as inherent in that individual and therefore likely to be passed onto their offspring. If someone is an alcoholic or a criminal it is because they are inherently an alcoholic or criminal and so will their children. Basically the Myrdals argued that such individuals should be denied the right to raise children as they would inevitably be unproductive for society and just feed off the welfare state. Alva Myrdal herself argued that around 10% of the population are unfit to breed and should be forcibly sterilised.
Like the concept of Folkhem, forced sterilisation in Sweden predates the Myrdals. Compulsory sterilisation of the disabled and handicapped was first enacted in 1922. As one prominent politician said “The Folkhem…would be built up and populated by healthy and happy people, and in the same way you removed weeds from your own garden, you could remove weeds in the Folkhem before they grew up.”
However once again it was the Myrdals who expanded on these ideas and pushed them further. In 1941 forced sterilisation was expanded from the disabled to anyone deemed to have an asocial style of living. The guidelines were so broad and vague that in theory anyone could be forcibly sterilised if the appropriate authority deemed them abnormal. Forced sterilisation remained in Sweden until 1975.

As I said this aspect of the Myrdals work is rarely mentioned, probably because it grates badly against everything else that they advocated. But it certainly sheds some light on my perceived conformity of Swedish citizens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the average Swede is too scared to break the mould of what is considered normal on the off chance that they might get their genitals snipped off like some sort of domesticated pet. Its more that government policy post-WW2 was obviously implemented with very distinct ideas of how one should live and behave. The ‘cradle-to-grave’ (or erection-to-resurrection) welfare state and the large degree of influence the government inevitably has on people’s lives, has possibly moulded individuals to act a certain way. Government housing for example, looks like it’s all come straight off a convey belt. Forced sterilisation is the most extreme example. Anyway, just a thought.

On another interesting (although possibly irrelevant) note is that Gunnar and Alva’s son Jan Myrdal grew up to become the Noam Chomsky of Sweden. These days he is a prominent far left writer and activist whose hatred of western liberal democracy has lead him to become an apologist for some dodgy people. In his younger days he stuck up for the regimes of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot, and even defended the Chinese government over the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like many old lefties who still cannot accept the communist lost the Cold War he has found solace in making a living from defending racist misogynist homophobic Islamic fundamentalists who happen to share his hatred of the west. Interestingly enough like his parents Jan also seems to have some glaringly obvious contradictions in his politics as he is also fervently opposed same sex marriages. You can read an interview with him here. Just like Chomsky he seems incapable of delivering a clear short answer to a question.

Note: I’m afraid my Swedish still isn’t good enough to read adult non-fiction so much of my information comes from the limited amount of material available in English. If I’ve made any mistakes, misunderstood something, missed anything important, or you have any criticism or feedback then I encourage you to get in touch. I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Denmark: Bizarro Sweden.

I’ve just spent the past week in the north of Denmark. Some friends of mine rented a house right on the coast near a town called Løkken.

I didn’t really expect Denmark to be much different from Sweden at all. It is only a two-hour ferry trip from Gothenburg. At its closest point Denmark is only a 15-minute ferry trip from Helsingborg and Copenhagen is only a 20-minute drive from Malmö. In theory Danish and Swedish are similar enough to one another that Danes and Swedes can still understand each other. Not surprisingly few Swedes consider a trip to Denmark as going abroad.

For me being in Denmark was a little like being in Sweden in some sort of parallel universe. Everything was similar but subtly different, hence a bizarro Sweden. (Bizarro world is a term from Superman comics that was later made popular by Seinfeld. It basically describes a world where everything is reversed and/or inverted from the norm. For example in Seinfeld Elaine enters a bizarro world when she meets a new group of friends each of which resemble her original friends in some way but have completely opposite characteristics.)
The money is still called kronor and it is issued in the same dominions as Swedish kronor but the notes are different colours and the coins different sizes. The flag is also basically the same but with a different colour scheme. Written Danish looks very similar and even with my limited knowledge of Swedish I was able to understand many words. Most the words are basically the same with the odd letter or two changed. They also have a slightly different alphabet. Instead of letters like Ä and Ö the Danes have letters like Ø and Æ. Words are also pronounced differently so that they sound familiar yet still noticeably different.

In some aspects Denmark was very different. The landscape in the north of the country where we were staying was completely different. The whole west coast of Sweden is basically large mounds of solid rock leading to still lifeless sea, with plenty of forests inland. Denmark by contrast was completely flat and relatively barren. The west coast consisted of a long sand beach with white sand and decent surf. It was the first actually beach I’ve seen since leaving Australia. In all it reminded me of the Shetland Islands and the less spectacular parts of the Great Ocean Road (the part between Anglesea and Apollo Bay).

Architecture was also noticeably different. Rural Swedish homes are typically large wooden houses painted in bright colours. In Denmark most buildings were small and made of brick. We spent a day in Aalborg and it reminded me more of Germany than Scandinavia.

Denmark also seems to be one of the few European countries that allows smoking in pubs and restaurants. Having spent the past year in a country where smokers are forced out into the cold and onto the street, it was a little disconcerting to be in a restaurant where everyone was lighting up straight after their meals.
But the biggest cultural shock was being able to buy beer, wine and aspirin from a supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, as opposed to buying them from a state owned shop during business hours.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

A Cause Without Rebels.

The above photo is of a schoolyard in Stockholm I came across recently. If you can’t make it out, the message painted on the roof says “They Said ‘Sit Down’ I Stood Up”. I took the photo because this is the strongest articulation I’ve seen yet of the Swedish philosophy on education. True to its image Sweden has a lot of modern and progressive ideas about raising children. Kids are typically given a lot more freedom and independence compared to other countries while schools encourage students to question everything around them. When I was relief teaching at the international school, teachers often complained that the Swedish kids were more difficult than the international ones basically because they were far more assertive and less willing to submit to the teacher’s authority. Just think of Sweden’s most famous child: Pippi Longstocking. Completely independent, confident, assertive, irreverent, brash, insubordinate: she’s the archetypical Svenska Barn.

The bizarre thing is that despite being raised on such ideals Sweden is a remarkably law-abiding and subservient place. Far from creating a population of Bart Simpsons, it has actually resulted in a nation of Ned Flanders (but without the religious fundamentalism). The running joke amongst expats is that Swedes won’t even disobey traffic lights, even on a long road with no car in sight for miles in either direction. Supermarkets have introduced a scheme whereby you can scan your own purchases with a handhold scanner, and just swipe your credit card as you leave, thus having no need to queue at a cashier. Now this strikes me as in invitation for trouble. Imagine the possibilities such as only scanning every second or third item, or scanning the cheap generic brand while actually taking the expensive brand. For all I know this is a problem but that fact that the scheme is still up and running, and customers still aren’t scrutinised suggests to me that the majority of people are doing the right thing.

People’s lifestyles are also remarkable conformist. So many apartments and houses look alike, furnished with the same Ikea furniture. Everyone buys their cloths at the same shops, has the same activities, and go to the same places at the same time. Everyone eats the same thing. During the Xmas/New Year period I had three different Xmas dinners, each of which included exactly the same dishes. I recently saw a jumper advertised in the H&M catalogue and was thinking of buying it. In the week between the catalogue being delivered and actually buying the jumper I noticed half of Gothenburg was suddenly wearing the same jumper.

So now I’m thinking maybe there is some form collective reverse psychology going on. You encourage kids to rebel and so they do the opposite: they completely conform. You tell them to disobey, they obey.
Or maybe it’s simply a case that rebellion loses its appeal once it becomes legitimate. You tell kids they can disobey, that they don’t have to take orders, and suddenly there is no longer a point to being disobedient. One can stand when they’ve been told to sit but if no one is going to make an issue of it than one might as well be sitting and resting their feet.
And I suppose refusing to rebel when you’ve told to rebel is still a form of rebellion.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Articles on Sweden

My apologies for not updating this blog for a while. Of late I've been flat out working as a phone monkey for that medical marketing research firm, interviewing Doctors in three different continents. Hopefully soon I’ll get a chance to start blogging regularly again but in the meantime I thought I might post a few links to some interesting articles that I've come across recently.


This article was published in the Guardian Weekly last week and is basically about concerns that English is overtaking native languages in Scandinavia. Most of it is about Norway but I can conform that it all applies to Sweden too. In fact not only is English the language of business and academia, it also seems to be the language of graffiti, football hooligans, gangs, billboards and advertisements. It's also considered pretty hip and trendy to slip in English phrases and expressions into daily speech.


In this article Guardian colonist (and Swedephile) Polly Toynbee writes about recent Swedish politics while making parallels with developments in British politics. Due to its massive welfare state, gender equality and neutrality (often wrongly equated with pacifism) Sweden has been held up as a utopian model by lefties and liberals the world over and Toynbee seems to be a prime example. It is a view that can often grate with some Swedes who see it as an overly romantic view of their country that ignores many of their problems. The common rebuttal to the Toynbees of the world is that their naive and not fully aware of what Sweden is actually like. While this piece is written by an expat it gives you a general idea of the sort of gripes some Swedes have and the debates that take place. (Note: as this piece is published in a blog you might need to scroll down the page to find it. It's titled 'Polly Toynbee gets her Swedish Facts Wrong'.)
I've engaged in many debates just like it. Admittedly less frequently over time as the longer I stay here the further I move from Toynbee's romanticism, but I still maintain that Sweden's problems are minor compared to those of many of other countries such as Britain or America. I can understand why someone from either would see Sweden as a utopia in comparison.

And Finally...

An interesting article about the Swedish Australian Football team, who will be travelling to Melbourne this August to play in the International Cup. Regular readers of this blog may recognise the writing style...

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Observations of the Swedish Language

Generally speaking if a Swedish word looks like an English word, it often means the same thing even if it is pronounced differently. However notable exceptions are “slut” which means close/shut, “bra” which means good, “fart” means speed, “fack” means pigeonhole, and a “Facket” is a trade union.
The Swedish word for marriage, “gift”, also means poison, which seems appropriate in a country with one of the highest rates of divorce.

Some other Swedish terms are pretty funny when translated into English word for word. For example vegetables are called “Grönsaker” which literally translates as “Green things”. “Svartsjuk” translates as “black sick” which means jealousy. “Svartfisk” means “black-fish”, which is squid. “Ögonblick” literally translates “eye-blink” and means “moment”. (Eg. “Vänta en ögonblick” – “Wait one moment.”) And finally my favourite is the Swedish word for bat, “fladdermus” which translates as “flapping mouse”.

Some other amusing expressions include “Nej men hej” which is something you say when you unexpectedly bump into someone you know. Its literal translation is “No but hi.”

“Vad Sjutton” is a type of old-fashioned cursing. Translated into English it means “What Seventeen.” Why seventeen, I don't know, but don’t say “What sixteen” because you’ll just look stupid. A variation on this term is “Sjutton också!” which means “seventeen also”.

“Gott Mos” means “good mash” (as in mash potato) and can be used as an all-purpose compliment. If it strikes you as a little bizarre imagine what “cool bananas” sounds like to a Swede.

“Lagom” is a Swedish word which basically means “not too little, not too much, just right”. Despite being a highly subjective term I have been told if you’re in a deli or butcher it is possible to order a “lagom” amount and shopkeeper will know exactly how much to give you.

Mind you there are plenty of English terms and expressions that don’t make much sense to Swedes. When the Aussie Rules football team got together late last year to watch an AFL match, many of the Swedes in the room were befuddled when they heard the commentators says “He kicks the ball across the face of goal”. (“But a face is what’s in front of your head. How does a goal have a face?”) It is also difficult trying to explain how the act of being inside a closet, or coming out of a closet, relate to being gay.

UPDATE: Regular reader Fillipa (native Gothenburger now living in Coburg) has been kind enough to bring another odd Swedish expression to my attention.
"Jag kände inte igen dig" which means "I didn't recognise you" but in its literally tranlsation comes across as: "I didn't feel again you."

Another term that I've discovered since this blog entry was first posted is the term "extrapris" which obviously translates as "extra price" but not so obviously is applied to things that are on sale.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

How Binge Drinkers the World Over Have Funding the Swedish State.

An interesting fact I learnt this week: Until very recently the brand Absolut Vodka was actually owned by the Swedish state. After Bacardi and Smirnoff, Absolut is the highest selling brand of alcoholic spirit in the world. Unlike Ikea furniture it is still made here in Sweden.

Absolut is owned by a company called Vin & Spirit, who were originally set up by the government in 1917. Until 1994 they had a national monopoly over all production and distribution of alcohol in Sweden. This had to be relaxed before Sweden could join the EU in 1995, however the government maintained ownership. While western governments the world over were quick to sell-off everything they owned in the 1980s and 90s, Sweden was largely protected from privatisation from successive left-of-centre governments. However since 2006, Sweden are currently going through one of those rare phases in their history where they’re run by conservatives. (Although right-wing by Swedish standards is still left of Kevin Rudd.) One of their election promises was a plan to catch up with the rest of Europe and privatise a number of state-owned enterprises including V&S.

This week V&S were sold to French company Pernod Ricard. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they decide Swedish taxes are too high and relocate production to Estonia. Yet it is still surprising to hear of a state enterprise like this lasting until 2008. In fact despite recent sell-offs the Swedish state still own a lot of things. They own Apoteket (chemists), SJ (national railways), Vasakronan (real estate), Vattenfall (energy), Teracom (television and radio) and of course Systembolaget (bottle shops). Apoteket and Systembolaget have monopolies over their respective industries. The Swedish government also part owners of Nordea (a bank), SAS (airline) and Telia (telecommunications).

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Definitive Proof that Global Warming is Real.

It has been a crazy week on the west coast of Sweden. After a whole winter with barely any snow it has suddenly poured down for over a week. Below is a selection of photos taken in the last few days. The first one is a lake only 20 minutes walk from where I live.This is a table and BBQ just outside my flat, which gives you an idea how thick the snow was. (Yeah yeah, I'm sure you've seen thicker snow but I haven't alright!)
The next two were taken in my neighborhood.

This is right outside my flat.
A park in the city centre.

Friday, 21 March 2008

My Life As A Swede’s 1st Birthday.

As of today I have been living in Sweden for exactly one year. I’ve been a bit slack at updating this blog of late but I’m still persisting with it and as I look back on the past 12 months I am proud of my achievements.

I’ve managed 50 posts (nearly 40 of which consist of me paraphrasing articles from I’ve had close to 2000 hits. According to the cluster map on the blog I’ve had visitors from every continent on the planet. My blog has been read in countries such as Peru, Benin and what I think might be Mauritius (or someone with wireless internet connection stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean). I’ve recorded many hits from America yet barely any from Canada indicating north of the border they're far more discerning about what they read on the Internet. I’ve even recorded hits in China meaning my blog has sneaked past the watchful eyes of the Chinese state censors (Free Tibet!)…until now. As I look towards the next 12 months I can only expect my hit count to increase further, especially now that I've insert the words “Porn”, “Free”, and “Download” into one of my blog posts.

Looking back it has been quite a year. The experience has really opened up my eyes and I’ve learnt many things. I’ve learnt that fish tastes much nicer when its been cooked. I’ve learnt that there are people outside of Australia who listen to John Farnham. I now know how to spend 8 hours sweeping the same floor. I know that you only bother going to Denmark if you want to buy cheap booze. I’ve discovered that sticking tobacco under my lip makes me dizzy. I’ve learnt there is still a country in this world that shows episodes of “Cops” and “Married With Children” during prime time, AND that there is a television station showing more episodes of “The Simpsons” than Channel 10. I’ve discovered that despite five years at university and a degree in Journalism I still struggle the basic principles of English grammar such as differentiating between “its” and it’s”, “then” and “than”, etc. I’ve learnt you should always check your pockets before washing your clothes. Finally I've learnt that slacking-off isn't a pass time, it's a life style. Yep, it has been a real journey of self-discovery and when I return to Australia it will be as a much wiser person.

A Walk In Delsjön

Some photos from a lake not far from where I live.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Nystrom’s Sweden: “A Cold Piece of Shit Country”.

Stefan Nystrom and I are both Australian expatriates currently living in Sweden. We both arrived here in early 2007 and still live here today. The difference is that I moved here by choice whereas Stefan was forced here as punishment for rape.
Stefan was born in Sweden while his mother was here on holidays visiting family but went back to Australia 27 days after giving birth. He has lived in Australia ever since albeit without Australian citizenship, just permanent residency. By the time he turned 32 he had been convicted of 127 charges including one charge of aggravated rape. In 2006 the ever-compassionate Amanda Vanstone decided to revoke Stefan’s residency on the grounds of him being a person of ‘poor character’ and thus deport him back to his country of birth.
Stefan Nystrom soon found himself stranded at Stockholm Airport with no job, no family, no friends, no accommodation, no Swedish and no clue to what he should do next. A year later and it seems Nystrom’s no closer to integrating into Swedish society. Recently Nystrom labelled Sweden as a “…Hitler society…” and described it as a “…cold, piece of shit country”.

Having also arrived here not knowing the language and having also faced many obstacles and frustrations, I can sympathise with Stefan Nystrom to the extent one can sympathise with a convicted rapist. Living here has been a very educational experience and at times very rewarding. But moving to a new country is never easy when you don’t speak the language or understand the culture, and even the simplest tasks become major missions. It would be worse still if you made the move involuntarily.

Having said that, it’s important to keep in mind that in Sweden Stefan Nystrom is a free man. If he were allowed to remain in Australia, I’d assume he’d be expected to serve out a prison sentence. In this sense forced exile in Sweden is a pretty good deal considering as he had been convicted of 127 charges. Many criminals attempt to flee the country to avoid prison anyway, so if I were in his shoes I wouldn’t be making too much fuss.

Yet this week Stefan joined the already long queue outside Kevin Rudd’s office that has formed since he won the last election, hoping for a change of policy. So fed up has he become with Swedish society he’s ready to do time in prison. I never thought Sweden was that bad!

Friday, 8 February 2008

A Guide to Swedish Cuisine.

Last week I finally found a supermarket in Sweden that sold hummus. It was an exciting day, and the fact that I got so excited got me thinking about Swedish cuisine and the depths it has reduced me too.

I view Swedish food the same way I view Swedish design: Unusual, sometimes outright ugly, but always simple and practical. It fulfils its purpose. Nothing is wasted on superfluous needs like taste, aesthetics or any other requirement other then the basic need to keep one alive and relatively healthy.

The typical Swedish sandwich is a good example. This will often consist of a piece of bread, a slice of cheese (no margarine) topped with a piece of capsicum or slice of ham. That’s all. Two, absolute maximum three toppings and that’s your sandwich. Anything else is just being overly lavish. Of course there are some flash fancy cafes can offer something a little more ambitious but judging from the lunchboxes in my various work places, two toppings is the norm. Other popular dishes include pasta (just plain pasta, sometimes served with meatballs but no sauce), potatoes (again just plain boiled potatoes, sometimes with dill) and crisp bread.

In part this functionalism stems from Sweden’s impoverished past when trying to stay alive and survive the winter was more important than using the right spices. People weren’t fussy, and happy to eat any vegetable they could manage to grow in the harsh Nordic climate. Any meat or fish they could get their hands on was either salted or pickled to last as long as possible. Thus Swedish cuisine was designed to provide basic nutrients with little thought given to flavour or variety.
We’re long past those times now, but Swedes like to stick by their traditions. Today at anytime of the year they can buy fresh fish, but they keep eating pickled herring. They are offered a huge array of different vegetables but they stick to potatoes and turnips. The one addition the modern Swede has allowed into their kitchen is tomato ketchup. They add it to everything and anything: pasta, rice, eggs, whatever. People pour it over their meals like I pour milk over my muesli.

For all theses reasons or more, even in the most cosmopolitan and multicultural cities in the world, you’re unlikely to ever come across a Swedish restaurant. Not even in Sweden! Yet ironically the only Swedish word that has managed to force itself into the Swedish dictionary is one that specifically relates to food: smorgasbord.

However there is one important exception to these principles of culinary functionalism: the Smörgåstårta (pictured left). In my view this one dish surpasses Ikea and Henrik Larsson as the best thing Sweden has ever produced. In English this translates as Sandwich-Cake and that’s pretty much what it is: a massive sandwich the size of a cake. Four layers of bread, each stuffed with creamy filling, and then topped with any number of different garnishes. Unfortunately they involve a lot of work to prepare and too expensive to eat regularly. Generally they are saved for special occasions. Smörgåstårtas are so popular that a Swedish policeman recently got into trouble for extorting smörgåstårtas as bribes. That should give you some idea of what people will do for a tasty meal here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008


I think I’ve already commented on the irony of Sweden producing so many renowned crime writers when Swedish society has such low crime. But today Gothenburg witnessed an event that could not only have come straight from a Martin Beck novel, but wouldn’t be out of place in the next Die Hard film.

Last night at around 1am masked men with rifles raided the main Post Office building. As they fled the scene they set alight to nearby cars, and scattered the road with metal spikes designed to puncture car tyres. They also left a series of suspected bombs (see picture below) around the post office and nearby police station. As far as I know it has yet to be confirmed whether these packages really were bombs. I do admire the robbers’ consideration by not only labelling their bombs accordingly, but also labelling them in English so even a migrant like myself would understand. I also admire the audacity and planning put into such a heist. But than again I also wonder why they wasted such a scheme on robbing a post office rather than say…a bank.

On discovery of these ‘bombs’ the local streets were cordoned off and evacuated. The bomb disposal experts were called in, but like most Swedish workers they were in no hurry and didn’t get there until 7am. No doubt they stopped for a coffee break at 7.30am. By 9.15am I was making my way to work and my tram was diverted so as not to pass the Post Office. One of my work colleagues who lived closer to the bomb scene wasn’t allowed to leave her flat until 12.30.

I’ve been trying to follow what coverage I can in the local media with my limited Swedish, as there is still a lot I don’t know. I’ve tried looking for articles in the international media but I haven’t found a single mention. In fact if you google the words ‘Gothenburg’ and ‘bomb’ you’re far more likely to get articles like this: articles about a suspected bomb found in a skip in Gothenburg last week which ended up being a vibrating dildo. This really says a lot for the standards of world journalism.

Still, twice in one week streets in Gothenburg have been cordoned off and bomb disposal experts called in. With the exception of maybe Baghdad there can’t be too many cities in the world that can claim a statistic like that.

UPDATE: It probably comes as no surprise that the "bombs" really were just suitcases with the word "bomb" painted on the side. It has also since been confirmed that nothing of significant value was pinched from the post office during the burglary.