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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

People in Sweden will often jump the queue to get to cooperative daycares.
People in Sweden will often jump the queue to get to cooperative daycares. Photo: NTB

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

The Swedengate Twitterstorm last week was a clash between recent arrivals in the country and Swedes with deeper roots, says David Crouch

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

Last week saw a global storm in a Swedish teacup. The hashtag #Swedengate trended briefly in the US and the UK, sparked by an obscure observation that some Swedes would sometimes exclude visiting children from the family evening meal

Much fun was had at Sweden’s expense, and foreign media raised an amused eyebrow at all the fuss. But the conversation soon moved on. Cheap jibes at Swedish hospitality offered some light relief from war in Ukraine and the Texas school shooting.

Not so in Sweden. For four straight days, #Swedengate trended on Twitter among the top 10 hashtags in this country, not to mention a torrent of posts on Facebook and elsewhere. Popular tweets racked up tens of thousands of likes. Respected authors and academics hit the airwaves to explain the custom at issue. The placid Swedish duckpond (ankdammen) became a whirlpool. 

So why did most of Sweden spend the best part of a week debating its food culture? Swedes enjoy international attention, it makes a small northern nation feel noticed and important. Articles about Sweden in foreign newspapers are often picked up and discussed in Swedish media. As one Swede wrote during a Swedengate dispute on my Facebook feed, “we love to see ourselves as strange and special, even exotic”. 

But if some ripples are still being felt abroad, the eye of the storm hangs over Sweden itself. Swedengate was a clash between recent immigrants to Sweden and Swedes with deeper roots in the country. Or, to put it more bluntly, between multicultural Sweden and white Sweden. 

“New Swedes” (nysvenskar) often come from cultures that are extravagantly generous with respect to food. The idea that a guest, let alone a child, should sit separately and unfed during a meal seems monstrous to people with Iranian, Afghan, Arab or African backgrounds. My wife’s side of the family here, which has Polish roots, are positively mortified by the thought that a visitor might not be fed. 

Feeling this pressure, the old Swedes dug in their heels. The sensible thing would have been to lighten up, take the hit, confess that this once used to happen but now not so much, and admit that it looks to outsiders like very mean behaviour. This was the approach of singer Zara Larsson, who poked fun at “peak Swedish culture” and joked that “we might not serve food but we do be serving bangers” (i.e. great pop songs).

Instead, most old Swedes performed somersaults to defend the practice of excluding others’ children at mealtimes. In the mainstream media, it was explained in terms of personal insecurity or embarrassment, individualism, 19th century poverty, even respect for other families (!). On social media, people furiously supported the practice or furiously denied that it ever happened; they claimed it was not a Swedish phenomenon, or dismissed the whole thing as irrelevant. 

In any case, it is impractical to feed kids who turn up unexpectedly at mealtimes, said some. Others claimed it was an attempt by Russian trolls to derail Sweden’s Nato membership. Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency (yes, there is such a thing) investigated whether Swedengate was a foreign disinformation campaign (it wasn’t). Author Jens Ganman, better known for his cynicism about Sweden as a cauldron of immigrant crime, was offended that people were ignoring his nation’s generosity towards refugees

The irony involved in all this was not lost on new Swedes. “As a white swede, how does it feel being judged for something that only a ‘small’ minority of your nationality do?” tweeted one, hinting at mainstream Sweden’s suspicion of Muslims as woman-hating extremists and terrorists. Said another: “It’s fucking wild to see all these people getting super defensive about #Swedengate.”

And new Swedes swiftly grasped that old Swedes were defending the indefensible; the Svenssons were in a hole and digging themselves even deeper. Whichever way you look at it, the practice – however rare it might be – of not inviting kids to share a family meal is, frankly, bizarre. 

Lovette Jallow, an author who emigrated to Sweden from Gambia when she was 11, wrote: “Laughing at Twitter finding out that Swedish people will not feed strangers. As a kid growing up here we knew to just go home around dinner time. On the flipside, my mom would feed Swedish kids though.” Centre Party youth leader Réka Tolnai tweeted: “It’s funny that the world has discovered what we immigrant kids have been talking about for years.”

Since the mood in Sweden swung against asylum and immigration in late 2015, new Swedes, particularly those from outside Europe, have experienced persistent pressure to prove that they fit into Swedish society. They have been told at every opportunity that they must integrate into Swedish society and conform to its behavioural norms. And no matter how hard they try, it is never enough – non-white Swedes feel keenly that they are second class citizens. 

With Swedengate, the boot was suddenly on the other foot. Who wants to be Swedish when Swedes are so weird?! For people from the Global South, as several observers noted, Swedengate became less about hospitality and more about far-reaching criticisms of Swedish society, such as its history of colonialism and racism. Using a debate about food to attack someone for racism seems a bit like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. But the bigger picture is that new Swedes felt emboldened by Swedengate to express their broader grievances against Swedish culture.

The first week of June was the moment when new Swedes, immigrants, expats, whatever you want to call them, found their voice. Swedengate marks a step towards immigrants speaking up for their rights and celebrating the many contributions they make to Swedish society – not least in terms of helping to introduce a more warm and welcoming culture around food. 

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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