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Reader’s story: How I adapted to Sweden’s cashless society

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

a hand rejecting Swedish banknotes
Once you go cashless, can you ever go back, asks a The Local reader in this column. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

I’ve lived in Sweden for almost a year now. I did my daily groceries, took taxis, went on public transport, ordered take away and even bought an apartment. Despite all these transactions, I can honestly say I would not know what a krona looks like for the simple reason that I’ve never seen one. Well, as a paper napkin once, but that wasn’t legal tender.

Before moving, I had heard about Sweden going cashless and Stockholm being the pilot city for that experiment. But I was sceptical. It sounded like something governments say to make themselves seem more modern and digital. It is also something banks like to say to justify closing branch offices.

Maybe my scepticism stemmed from having lived in Hong Kong which is incredibly cash focused and where many transactions were still settled by cheque as if it were the 80s. This was not improved by living in Switzerland where I worked at a bank. The bank was always propagating to its clients to do all their banking online and not bother with cash. The Swiss senior bankers, and the Swiss themselves in general, would walk around with hundreds of Francs in cash in their wallets; just in case they felt the urge to buy a second-hand car at short notice, I presumed.

The adjustment to full cashless feels a little like when they banned smoking from restaurants and bars: at first you think it will be weird. After about two weeks of going to smokeless restaurants, you wondered what maniac allowed people to smoke inside while you were having dinner in the first place.

The same goes for cash when you think about it. Your employer puts the money in your bank account. You queue at an ATM to get it out and then when you go to buy groceries, you give it to a supermarket who then bring it back to their bank in an armoured truck, who put it in the supermarket’s bank account. Why not take the money from your bank account and put it in the supermarket’s bank account directly and cut out the circus in the middle?

After 11 months of no cash, I’m completely adjusted and excited. I happily bleep and Swish and don’t miss the pot of coins on my desk in the slightest. It also seems that Swedish society has adapted well. Except at Systembolaget, where someone occasionally pays with cash, nearly everyone from young to old pays with their phone or card without blinking.

This made me wonder why Sweden seems so far ahead of other countries in this regard. One thing a colleague mentioned was a clever safety angle used to push the cashless society. An abundance of cash everywhere is a risk for those handling it. It’s the same reason most countries justified the smoking ban: health and safety of staff working in restaurants and bars.

In addition, I suspect that Swedes enjoy the modernity of abandoning the pot of coins on their desks to lead the way to the cashless future ahead of the rest of the world.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The death of ice hockey legend Börje Salming last week touched the nation, partly because he broke the mould for acceptable Swedish behaviour, says David Crouch.

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The mood in the stadium was ugly that September night in 1976, as the USA and Sweden national teams prepared for battle in the world’s first truly international ice hockey tournament. The Toronto crowd booed the American national anthem and was indifferent to the Swedish one. 

Then a mean-looking Swede took to the ice and the entire stadium rose to its feet. The ovation continued for several minutes (you can watch it here). It is considered the greatest moment of all time in Swedish hockey.

The Swede in question was Börje Salming, a Swedish legend, who died last week from a cruel and terminal illness. It is no exaggeration to say that his death touched the nation, and beyond. How many Swedes can claim to have had an obituary in the New York Times

For Swedes, Salming was much more than an international sporting superstar. His rise to stardom in North America in the 1970s and 80s reflected a social transformation as Sweden moved away from the collective ideals of the folkhemmet (people’s home) towards a more individualistic, competitive and outward-looking society. 

Tributes to Salming describe how he blazed a trail for Swedish hockey players into the North American big time and challenged the stereotype of the “chicken Swede”, the soft European. But he also changed perceptions about acceptable behaviour. Without Salming, one could imagine that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the bad boy of Swedish football, might never have made his big break and left Rosengård. 

Salming was born in 1951 near the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. His mother was Swedish while his father was a member of the indigenous Sami population. Salming’s Sami heritage made him a target of abuse, and he often endured racist anti-Sami slurs. In his memoirs, he attributes his toughness as an ice hockey player to his Sami heritage and the adversity he faced growing up.

Börje Salming wearing a traditional Sami kolt and Tiger Williams, one of his former teammates in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo Fredric Alm/TT

When Salming started to play professionally, the prevailing style of ice hockey was sossehockey (social democratic ice hockey), according to sports lecturer Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University. Sossehockey demanded that the team come first and no single player should stand out – an embodiment of the Jante law that celebrates modesty and uniformity over exceptional talent. Moreover, Salming was seen as lazy, troublesome, thuggish, and even un-Swedish.

But it was just these qualities that made him attractive to the Canadian scout who recruited him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. They met in the locker room after Salming had been sent off for wiping out the referee.

In the NHL, he was an overnight sensation with his brave and combative style. After his first game, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: “Toronto is up 7–4, it is ten seconds left of the game. Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”

He went on to play more than 1,000 games for the Maple Leafs and break all kinds of records for a defensive player. In 1996, he became the first Swede – indeed the first European – to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. 

His reputation as a tough guy was enhanced in 1986 when an opponent stamped on his face, slicing it open with a wound that required 250 stitches. He was back on the ice two weeks later. 

Yet at first, Salming was scorned by the Swedish hockey establishment. They saw him as being seduced by money and joining the ranks of brutal American players with broken noses and no teeth. It took time for his achievements to be recognised back home, where he eventually became a national icon. 

After he stopped playing professionally in 1993, Salming became a successful entrepreneur with his own brand of clothing and cosmetics, and he wrote cookery books. He became a vocal spokesperson for Sami rights and the conservation of the wilderness, speaking out against mining in areas where reindeer-herding is a way of life. 

In August this year, it was announced that Salming had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neuron disease. The seriousness of his condition was obvious at his last public appearances in Toronto and Stockholm in the weeks before his death. 

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game the day after Salming died, their players wore shirts with BORJE written in yellow on a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag – and a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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