My first year in Sweden: ‘It’s OK to lighten up and like your country a little’

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

a swedish flag in stockholm
The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée reflects on his first year in Sweden. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Now that it has been a full year, it is time for a column summing up the big “first”: my first year in Sweden.

An important thing to note is that it was obviously not a normal year. When usually a first year in a new country would be full of going-out-and-meeting-people, this year was more a brisk-walks-and-working-from-home and keeping-your-literal-distance experience.

However, as countries go, you could have done worse than moving to Sweden in these weird times. The brisk walks are always in pretty surroundings and the lockdown was not so severe as to turn Stockholm into a ghost town.

That does lead me to a general observation about life in Sweden: the government seems to rely quite heavily on their people’s discipline and own responsibility. The Covid approach being a case in point. When other countries ordered restaurants and non-essential shops to close, Sweden opted to recommend its citizens to stay at home.

Now, I’m not Swedish but I noticed that it was not so easy to resist the temptation to go out for dinner every now and then when everything remained open.

But more importantly, it was a little puzzling what the restaurants – and other businesses graciously allowed to keep their doors open – were to make of the approach. How are you supposed to run a restaurant if the government strongly recommends against going to your place for it may, well, kill them?

Personal choice, maybe, but the incident of the official whose personal choice enticed him to spend the holidays with his family in Spain despite the Swedish authorities’ recommendations, illustrated quite well the personal choice conundrum people were faced with.

Another observation I made is the tendency of Swedes to put down their own country quite a bit. When I told a Swedish colleague, who was living in Beijing, that I enjoyed my life in Stockholm he said that Sweden was only bearable for four months a year.

Now I know for a fact that Beijing is a drab nightmare of endless ring roads full of traffic jams and when you decide to skip the traffic and take a walk, you can chew the air pollution, that’s how thick it is. Suggesting that life in Beijing was to be preferred over life in Stockholm seemed a bit of a stretch.

It turned out to be a pattern: people telling me the winters would be unbearably cold and dark and miserable. In the summer it would either be too full of people or there would not be any people around. The food was going to be boring, the people unwelcoming, the music silly – never-ending misery was to be my part.

I know that people bragging about their countries like they personally had a hand in its greatness are embarrassing. But it’s OK to lighten up and like your country a little. I for one am looking forward to my second year here.

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. Alexander wrote for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. Finally – an immigrant saying something positive (other than me). Good work.
    Appreciate the positive outlook.


  2. I’m about to hit 2 year mark and sadly for me more negatives than positives. And I am generally a positive person with a balanced view of things, and I have lived in 5 countries.

    Quite simply I find the culture too reserved and closed and Stockholm might be very pretty on the postcards but up close can be very dirty and has a real litter problem.

    I do think the food is generally very good and once you overcome the mountain of bureaucracy things can run fairly efficiently.

    1. Simon –

      Maybe it’s you…Sweden is an amazing country, with incredible achievements.
      And if the culture is “too reserved” for you – I suggest hitting the bar and getting sloshed with a few Swedes. They cheer up fast with a bit of booze in the tank.

      I love the food. The restaurants are fantastic.

      Regarding the litter: What country are you from?

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For members


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.