Note: This is a guest post written by Joe Penny, a third year Geography student who has just returned from a year studying abroad in Sweden.
I stayed in Lund University in Sweden for a year under the Erasmus programme. Since returning I’m frequently asked: ‘What was it like? You must know. Where to go, places to see, places to avoid? What are the “real” Swedes like? What are their preferences?’ Numerous queries have asked about how expensive it must have been to survive there, with many ultimately asking, ‘What’s the price of a pint?’ – – the Big Mac Index for the Irish, surely. Well, to start with, if you want to get a taste for what Sweden is about: Fika! It’s said that, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ The Swedes: they do “fika”. The Swedes love their coffee. They drink coffee together, almost ritually. For the Swedish ethnographer Renee Valeri, coffee “is the non-guilt ridden and neutral counterpart to alcohol, often playing the same role as the latter: stimulating, comforting and making us sociable and talkative – in short, it acts as a social lubricant” (Valeri,1996). If Swedes were going to have a house built, the first item on the contract would state what time and how many coffee breaks there would be. Coffee is the “beverage for work” (coffee with meat), for men “kaffekask” (kask means fortifier), for women kafferep (related to sewing-bee get together). Essentially the Swedes do fika like we in Ireland do the pub.
I carried my Irish world with me to Sweden. I’m a mature student from Maynooth University, a postmodern cartographer. I had worked in Norway and liked their ways – I’d eaten reindeer and regaled my Nordic comrades about my homeplace – Leixlip or in Irish Leim an Bhradain, Lhlaux Laup: the Leap of the Salmon. I told them how the Viking Norse had tried to vault the great white waterfall at Leixlip, only to remain in my place. Surely now the Swedes would see that I was the original Viking returning home. I was travelling from an Ireland in 2013, deep in austerity to the original Welfare State. I was looking forward to my stay in the Skane (pronounced scone-nah) Region of southern Sweden.
My journey to Lund University involved a stop in Copenhagen Airport, before taking my onward train directly to Lund in Sweden. The train line from Denmark to Sweden crosses the Oresund Sound via the engineering wonder that is the Oresund Bridge. It has made a huge impact to the tourist, business and commuting public in the whole region. Lots of Swedes party in Copenhagen and the Danes in turn work and buy property in Sweden. Train travel times from Copenhagen to Lund are approximately 20 minutes.
On my arrival, Lund students dispensed helpful advice and directions about keys, accommodation and the free college taxi to my new home 3 kilometres away in Ostra Torn. The door to door journey had taken four hours, no problems. My student accommodation was kitted out in what could be described as ‘contemporary Ikea’. It comprised a bedroom and study area, kitchen, hallway and bathroom with the requisite mod cons with wooden floors throughout. Laundry facilities on site were only a few doors away. My new place was clean, modern and cosy. My packing had included skins and thermals for the expected temperature lows but it was obvious that the thermal insulation values were impressive – my front door was more an industrial freezer in design and my windows were triple glazed. The windows were large and did not necessarily come with curtains. The morning light, even in the Skane region of southern Sweden is marvellous. Coming from Ireland, the land of ‘the squinting Windows,’ I marvelled at the early sunrises and the lack of the lace curtain. You see, windows in Sweden are rarely dressed, so the inhabitants are on view, en-famille with crystal chandeliers or tea cosy lights a preference.
Weather in the Skane region is mild by Swedish standards and I expected the full range from sunshine to snow and had packed accordingly. Plenty of snow arrived, the roads were cleared. Nobody warned me about the wind, though. A winter in this region means the concept of ‘wind chill’ really means something. Happily, on one my morning walks in the snow I passed the statue of the famous Linnaeus, to see that at least some students had taken care of him and provided pink leg warmers. Who said the Swedes do not have a sense of humour?
Over the next few months I got used to the place. My travel choices to campus varied and depended on sun, hail, rain or snow. Walking to campus took 18 minutes. Cycling took 9 minutes. Public bus, 200 metres from my door, arriving on its dedicated bus route, took 6 minutes. Notably, all bus and train travel was cheap and discounted using my Jo-Jo card. It’s very hard to be late when there’s one bus every 15 minutes.
Lund is a university city of approximately 80,000 people, with cobble-locked streets devoid of cars. The streets chime to the sound of hundreds of bicycle bells and horns and perhaps some close shaves with pedestrians. Lund is also a bicycle city, with second hand, 12-speed bicycles for sale on social media for 500 Kronas — 50 quid to you . This is augmented by the Police Department sales where you can pick up a bicycle needing some repairs for 400 Kronas – 40 quid to you.
The Swedes do public transport really well. You can buy a two day rail/bus/tram, hop-on hop-off ticket for 200 Kronas which allows you to travel in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction and to take in both Sweden and Denmark. I took this round trip from Helsingbor (Sweden) to Helsingor (Denmark) and it confirmed a different story one of my professors from Uruguay told me about Sweden which I found to be true. He told me that when he first arrived as an emigrant with his family he was amazed to discover that the Swedes spoke so quietly to him and each other that he thought he must be going deaf. When I stepped off the boat and wandered through the streets in Helsingor, Denmark looking for my hostel I found the cacophony of street shouts from the kids playing football and having the craic totally at odds to what I had experienced in Sweden. In my time in Lund I had never heard anyone greet each other with a roar from one end of one street to another. That just does not happen. So Denmark was like Ireland in that regard. Denmark also had off-licences, often side by side with stacks of beers, cans, whiskeys and shots available at so-called discount prices for their near neighbours from Sweden to bring back home on the ferry. Helsingor’s sales of beer reminded me of the cross-border sales of the same ‘nectors’ in Jonesboro on the border here in Ireland in the early 1970’s. Sweden’s difficult past with alcohol addiction resolved them as a people to create a state run off-license network which have strict opening hours. The pub in Lund is not something as we know it here in Ireland. Alcohol and food is the usual combination – and the ubiquitous fika to follow, of course.
My trips took me to some of the large cities like Helsingborg, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Karlskrona, Ystad, Malmo and Copenhagen (Denmark); but I really enjoyed some short trips to Simrishhamn and the Ales Stenar (standing stones) in the south east of the Skane Region. In the same general area there is a marvellous medieval castle house called Glimmingehus where you get the sense of the once powerful families who ruled this wealthy agricultural landscape. I engaged our guide in chat about the environs and the house and discovered that he was indeed a multi-tasker: he told me that he was a military historian, wrote historical novels, and owned a riding school business which he had to get back to following our visit. Even in this rural setting, public transport and the roads are in fine shape.
Given the politics and the changing climate to immigration generally, perhaps a trip I made to Landskrona on the east coast was most memorable in that it gave me some insights into the related issues that have shown their heads in other parts of the country and indeed the rest of the European continent. Landskrona has an integration/ immigrant problem whose lineage goes back to the post-industrial clearout of jobs in the shipbuilding and manufacturing sectors and the embrace the country made initially to all nationalities to come to their shores as immigrants. I had decided to make a particular trip to Landskrona to investigate why, in a country with a fantastic rail service, the railway line did not enter the town centre proper near to its port area. The city had had been provided with a high speed line east of the city away from the central business district. It stood out like a sore thumb on the map of the west coastline. Policy decisions in Sweden had rested on two main approaches which initially allowed immigrants to live wherever they wished and then given the circumstances where large clusters of similar nationalities had formed it was decided to issue a quota percentage for each Kommun to reduce ghetto formation. By the time legislation had been drawn up Landskrona City had an immigrant population above 45% of the total. Visits to YouTube and conversations with some people on the street confirmed the racial tension. The local Kommun response reads like social engineering – the railway line which used to stop south of the town was moved east of the town, the port area is being rejuvenated with the service sector jobs beginning to come back and perhaps most notably the Kommun have decide to gentrify and build luxury apartment blocks – facing the sea – near the port area for the first time. The outward flight of Swedish nationals, particularly from the centre of town seems now to be offset by similar exclusive builds near the centre and in the general direction of the new railway line west of town. It looks like it is trying to decentre the city away from the immigrant population. YouTube will attest to confrontations with far-right nationalists on the streets of Landskrona.
But perhaps the true generosity of the Swedes political culture is evident on May Day marches I attended in Lund. It was a festival of joy with huge crowds, bands, speeches and the very real presence of active and attentive young people. Notwithstanding the fact that it was a University City with a local population of young students, the turnout from young people in particular was marvellous to see.
When in conversation with my wife on a weekend visit, we noted how some contemporary events in Ireland seriously underscored differences between Ireland Sweden. When Ireland was discussing the aftermath of the adoption homes scandals, I reflected on the fact that Sweden had passed and resourced their kindergarten legislation in the 1840’s to ensure that working families in a modern country would have kindergartens for their children. Ireland was amidst a famine at that time. I pointed out to my wife how the sole postcard University of Lund gave all incoming exchange students in their welcome pack confidently stated: ‘In Sweden, you can drink the water from any tap.’ Finally, n Sweden you are legally allowed to walk in any part or place in the country, unlike in Ireland where owners insist that I should be required to pay for the privilege to pass over any ‘a right of way.’
In Sweden, the important questions of the day are not about the cost of the property tax, new water charges, the level of taxation, or increasing levels of inequality. The approach in Sweden has been ‘high tax, high spend’: a redistributive economy, which prioritises those areas they as a people believe in. It is not unusual to see political parties in Sweden say they intend to increase taxes, and then to see their support go up in the polls. They spend their money to assure child care issues are properly funded; provide education free; offer health and care cover for the elderly; and create an effective infrastructure. The Swedes are calm and modern, they are not “messers”. They have made the big decisions at the ballot box and then it seems to me that they get on with being human beings.