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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Where did everybody go? How Stockholm becomes a ghost town in summer

It’s July in Stockholm. The streets are empty, the bars are eerily deserted and you don’t have to wait an hour to get a table for brunch. What is going on? 

Where did everybody go? How Stockholm becomes a ghost town in summer
The Local's reporter Chiara Milford trying to interview a lonely traffic light in Stockholm. Photo: Michael Parker

Some tumbleweed drifts down the street. 

You text one of your Swedish friends to meet for fika but they say they’re out of town and won’t be back until August. You check your email but it’s all out-of-office replies.  

Your favourite cafe has a sign in the window saying “sommarsemester!!” with a smiley face and a flower.

A group of international students zooms by on electric scooters. For the first time since you moved to Sweden, there isn’t a queue outside Systembolaget, the alcohol chain.

Where on Earth did everyone go? 

It’s not a zombie apocalypse, it’s not some natural disaster that you missed the memo about evacuating, and it’s not everyone suddenly taking pandemic precautions extra seriously and self-isolating. 

It’s summer. 

Most of the people usually crowding Sweden’s cities will be swiftly on their way to their sommarstuga (summer house) in the countryside to spend the warmest months of the year.   

Around a fifth of the population are lucky enough to own a summer house, and even more have access to one through family and friends. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Swedes were among the most-travelled nationalities in the world. Even though many are opting to stay within national borders this year, they’ll still be getting the hell out of the cities for a Svemester (Sverige + semester – “Sweden holiday”).

It’s hard to know exactly how many people leave Swedish cities over the summer – the government doesn’t track the locations of its citizens to that extent – but you don’t need national number-crunching agency Statistics Sweden to tell you that the exodus is pretty high. 

Most employers offer staff a minimum of 25 days annual leave and Swedes take a big lump of that off during the summer, particularly while school is out in July. 

So that’s the reason you may feel like you’re living in a ghost town right now. 

It was difficult to get hold of anyone to interview for this story. The only thing around available to talk to me was one of the traffic lights between Hornsgatan and Ringvägen in Södermalm. 

“Honestly I don’t see the point of me turning on for work every day,” they told me. “There are barely any cars to stop, and barely any pedestrians to usher across the street.”

Even though they’ve been at this crossing for several decades, the yearly summer exodus still comes as a surprise.

“One day there are hundreds of cars at my intersection. The next, it’s just a couple of drunk kids on scooters.” 

“I miss the pollution,” they said. 

Still, with fewer people around you can finally find a place to sit at the city’s outdoor bars, relax on Tanto Beach without feeling the breath of the stranger on the towel next to you, and walk down Götgatan without bumping into the unfortunate date you filed under “seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Glad semester!

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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