Being An American in Sweden

I’ve been living in Stockholm for ten years. I like it.

I like that I can speak English to a stranger without even wondering if he or she will answer in kind. I reckon around 95% of the people I encounter have conversational English, including immigrants from non-English-speaking countries.

I like that most Swedes, or at least those in Stockholm, whom I meet in passing will not fail to respond to an uninvited inquiry or observation I might make to them. It seems a Swedish characteristic to resist making the first step in a personal encounter but, once engaged, the Swedes I meet will not resist a bit of back-and-forth at the bus stop or grocery store.

Looking toward our apartment complex from the Minneberg bus stop

Looking toward our apartment complex from the Minneberg bus stop

For both good and ill, in my view, popular American culture (i.e., from the USA part of the North American Continent) continues to flow into Sweden through fast food chains, IT-related companies, movies, TV, music, computer games, and fashion.

The language of business and science is English, and there is plenty of international business, science, medicine, and technology in Sweden.

So, I float along on this ambient bubble of English language (both American-style and the Queen’s), and the local familiarity with, even affinity for, popular USA culture.

I don’t look typically, or stereotypically Swedish. Many legal residents, immigrants, and children of immigrant Swedes don’t. From my DNA-genealogy service I learn that my two population reference groups are found in, first, Germany and, second, Lebanon. Three of my grandparents were born in Greece, and the fourth, born in the USA, had lineage back to Holland and Scotland. So, my appearance is not untypical of a person from, say, France, or thence southward and eastward. Before I open my mouth to speak American I might be taken as an immigrant from another part of Europe.

Upon a first conversation, I am often thought of as being from England. I always identify myself as from California. Almost everyone I meet has been to California, wants to go to California, or has a relative or friend in California. It’s still a magical place in the imagination of many.

(Beginning of rant)

What about the “socialism”?

What socialism? It rankles me that politicians and other professional talking heads in the USA make gratuitous and inaccurate assertions about Sweden’s form of government and its politics. They know nothing about it.

First, “socialism” is this (from merriam-webster.com):

1: …collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

The government doesn’t own or administer the means of production, and private property is everywhere:

Sweden is a highly competitive capitalist economy with a generous and universal welfare state by applying very high income tax to all that distributes income across the entire society, a model sometimes called the Nordic model. Approximately 90% of resources and firms are privately-owned, with 5% owned by the state and another 5% operating as consumer or producer cooperatives. (Source).

Sweden is more accurately (but still too simply) called a “welfare state”, as in the above definition. I have heard the same word used for England.

Income taxes are graduated to 55% at the top marginal rate. There is a also 25% maximum value added tax (VAT, or “MOMS” in Swedish) on most things bought, including government services.

Taxes pay for what Swedes want the state to provide: single payer hospital and medical insurance (with limited co-payments), but with services provided and managed by counties and private companies; subsidized child daycare; preschool and grade school education; university and other post-grade school education (not books and housing); social services for various categories of people including immigrants, the disabled, the aged, and so forth. Whether this is “welfare” is arguable.

So far the medical services I have received have cost out-of-pocket something, but not too much, and I’m satisfied that my personal physician is properly solicitous for my health. I have had referrals to specialists who reassured me I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.

The point is that in this country of around 9.5 million people and with eight political parties, the voters have elected politicians who cause the government to provide these services. Currently, the government is scaling back the provision of some of these services, or the subsidies for them.

In addition, of course, the government does what most other governments do: defense, judiciary and law enforcement, coast guard and other national border maintenance, public health, foreign affairs, state land and property management, etc.

I opine that some of what the Swedish government does wouldn’t work in the USA because of different histories, and mostly because the USA is so vast in comparison; and, that the USA is a union of 50 different states for which there is no analog in Sweden.

End of rant; back to what I like.

I like that in Stockholm I don’t need to own a car. The public transportation system (for which I pay a senior-discounted $77 per month at the current exchange rate) is extensive and convenient. When we need a car, we reserve one via the Internet from a “bilpool”, a commercial enterprise that places cars around Stockholm. We pay for time and distance only.

Alvik Metro Station in the Fall

Alvik Metro Station in the Fall

I like that Stockholm is an international capital. There are many national and international NGOs headquartered or with regional offices here. I attend many public presentations in English at some of these organizations, and also at some of the universities.

I like that Stockholm, and Sweden in general, is awash with good music, both popular and classical. My preferences are for blues, jazz and classical. There’s plenty of world class quality music to choose from.

I like that the national public news and broadcasting organization often hosts TV forums where the leaders of the eight  political parties, sometimes all of them together, answer questions from journalists and engage with the other leaders. It’s good for the democratic process.

I like that the political scandals, when they may occur (and not very often), are of the most benign nature, especially in comparison to, say, those occasionally revealed in Chicago or Washington. D.C: credit card stuff, minor hanky-panky.

Fall scene in neighboring Traneberg

Fall scene in neighboring Traneberg

I like that there are seasons in Sweden, and that one can welcome Spring and Summer so gratefully.

I like also that there are many English-speaking expatriates in Sweden, especially Stockholm, from the USA, Great Britain, and countries formerly in the British Empire. We form clubs, associations, and book discussion groups in which native Swedes are also welcome to use their English.

As I said, I’ve lived here ten years, longer than I have lived in any one house or apartment in California, Brooklyn, Alaska, and Texas. (Places lived).

In the apartment complex where Eva and I live, I have watched the older folks grow still older. Some have disappeared; some have become less physically able. Even though I don’t have more than a nodding acquaintance with some of them, I feel akin to them. They, like I, are the survivors. Despite the long and often cold winters, despite life’s vicissitudes, they carry on stoically—a trait in Swedes that I admire.

That’s enough to like.

It’s good to be here.

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About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
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5 Responses to Being An American in Sweden

  1. Paddy Kelly says:

    I also like Sweden and it riles me a bit when other expats complain about the bad bits but never mention the good bits. This was a good discussion of the good bits. I would add sill (how I love that chewy fish), excellent building standards, free hot water in rental flats, and central heating to that list too.

    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Yes, indeed, about the sill. My father and I would consume a jar of pickled herring, in the USA, but the local sill is far superior–especially the kind Eva prepares every Christmas.

      And yes about the building standards, and all engineering projects. I am also impressed with Swedish inventors.

      Thanks for commenting, Paddy.

  2. Hi! Being that you are a lover of music, I would like to recommend the “Festival Omodernt” that takes place in early June at Confidencen Slottsteater!

    However…. on Monday, February 3, there will be a prelude concert at GRÜNEWALDSALEN, KONSERTHUSET at 7 pm.
    “TONALT GRÄNSLAND MONTEVERDI MÖTER SCHOENBERG”

    Here is a little more information:
    CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI, Madrigaler
    ARNOLD SCHOENBERG, Verklärte Nacht, op. 4 – Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op. 41
    Biljetter 200 :- (50 :- studerande) | Biljetter bokas genom Konserthusets biljettkontor.
    Öppettider: helgfri måndag-fredag 11:00-18:00, lördagar 11:00-15:00 samt två timmar innan konsertens början. Telefonbokning: 08-50 66 77 88. Boka/köp på internet via http://www.konserthuset.se.

    Performing:
    HUGO TICCIATI violin (the initiator of the festival!)
    PRIYA MITCHELL violin
    EMLYN STAM viola
    GÖRAN FROST viola
    QUIRINE VIERSEN cello
    GUY JOHNSTON cello
    CHARLES ECONOMOU piano
    ALEXANDER OLIVER recitatör

    This is an incredible festival – check out this article written by Lola for “Slow Travel”.
    http://slowtravelstockholm.com/2013/06/28/omodernt-music/

    If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me, Deborah Duerr, at deborah@galleriduerr.com!!

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