The Null Device

One year in Stockholm

As of today, I have lived in Stockholm for a year.

A year ago, I arrived at Arlanda on a one-way flight from London, with two checked bags and carry-on luggage; I caught the train to Stockholm, and a taxi (regular car-shaped, though a Tesla with a large iPad-like screen in the middle) to a friend's house. The following day, I picked up the keys to my new flat and went to awaited the arrival of the removalists with a lorryful of packed boxes. It got dark before they arrived, and I noticed my first difference between Swedish apartments and their Anglospheric equivalents: light fittings are not included. Other than the kitchen, each room was devoid of ceiling lights, having only a small socket (of a standard type) and hook on the ceiling. I quickly bought one light from a nearby thrift shop, and the flat wasn't completely dark by the time my things arrived, borne up the stairs by two muscular Russians who could plausibly have been Olympic weightlifters.

I stayed at my friend's place for a few more days as I made the flat habitable; gradually reducing the ziggurats of boxes to piles of flattened cardboard and a mass of familiar objects not yet having a canonical place, and making repeated trips to IKEA. After a while, it was habitable if cluttered; the clutter would take longer to fully dissolve.

Other aspects of getting set up in Sweden went relatively smoothly, if not always quickly. I was able to get a basic, limited bank account in a few days, though it took me a few months to get a Swedish personnummer (ID number); having one of those unlocks many of the mechanisms of the highly digitised, largely cashless society that is Sweden, including a digital identity infrastructure used for pretty much anything to do with finance and the Swish mobile payment system, which is used for everything from buying at flea markets to squaring up tabs. Trading my British driver’s licence for a Swedish one was pretty seamless. Other than that, there was not much hassle; for the moment, my British passport is sufficient to let me live and work here, and I’m informed that, in the worst case, I’ll have a year’s notice if that changes. I am, of course, hoping it doesn't come to that.

The year passed relatively quickly; winter came, shrouding Stockholm with snow and treacherous ice; spring followed, the ice melted, trees came into bloom, and the city came to life as the days became longer. By midsummer, there was barely any night left, only a few hours of twilight, though after the solstice, the night gradually began pushing back. I travelled a little, finding myself back in London more than I expected; first for a gig, then work, conferences, and en route to other events. London changed and yet remained the same (my old flat, with its low ceiling, stifling summer heat and the aroma of kebab grease never far away, had found a new tenant pretty much immediately; a favourite café closed down); friends were mostly still around, and I caught up with various of them on various visits. Ironically, my travels outside the UK have been fairly limited so far: a trip to Denmark for an exhibition, a visit to Barcelona for Primavera and a small amount of travel within Sweden.

Every change of scene brings with it a change of perspective, and a test of assumptions. Moving from Australia to Britain, two cultures with historical connections and cultural similarities, was a subtly uncanny experience, partly from the differences between British and Australian cultures, but also between the actual Britain and any number of idealised Britains, absorbed through old books, childhood TV viewing, pop music, or other media. A move to Sweden, a country that can speak English and yet is not officially an English-Speaking Country, and that was always separate from the British/American sphere, was a jump to another subtly parallel universe; one familiar and different, in different ways than London was from Melbourne.

There are the obvious things: traffic, for example, drives on the right (which, if you cycled in left-driving countries, requires some retraining of muscle memory; I'm still not at the stage of favouring my right leg to rest on at stops). The architecture is more continental, and vaguely mitteleuropäisch, a world of art-nouveau apartments around courtyards in the Germanic fashion and more recent geometric modern blocks of post-Bauhaus functionalism, rather than either the Victorian terraces and semi-detached houses of Britain or the more Italianate terrace houses, motel-style flat blocks and American-style suburban bungalows of Australia. (My eyes, trained on the Anglosphere's landscapes, pick out echoes of other parts of continental Europe; a bit of Paris in Norrmalm, a cleaned-up, more affluent Berlin in Södermalm, and so on.)

Then there is the landscape the city is built on, which, being spread over a set of islands and peninsulae, is slightly fantastic. The pieces of land are often dramatically rocky, and as such, the city is full of sets of parallel streets on different levels, connected by steep stairways, dramatic overpasses and houses with different ground levels. (London has a few of those things as well, though nowhere near as many; Edinburgh probably comes closer.) Sheer rock faces often jut out on the sides of roads carved from them, with the entrances of parking garages or other facilities hewn into them. All this is surrounded by harbour views that make Sydney look bland by comparison. Out in the harbour are hundreds of islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, some inhabited and sporting timber houses, linked by a system of ferries. Then there is the city's small scale (it has only about a million inhabitants), and the fact that nature is never far away, which warps the perception of its space in interesting ways: I can leave my flat in Södermalm, cycle for half an hour (and Stockholm is a great city to cycle in, at least for the 8 months or so of the year when one can cycle without coming to grief on treacherous ice), and find myself in a secluded cove that, other than specifics of vegetation, looks like somewhere one may reach after driving for three hours out of Melbourne.

And, of course, there is the question of language. In Sweden, English is everywhere: almost every adult speaks it very well, companies which hire international talent use it internally, and one sees English around in the city: not just in bilingual signage, but in ad slogans, business names and repurposed neologisms (an “afterwork”, for example, is early-evening drinks in a pub). Some of this Swedish English does have a slightly uncanny feeling one can almost put one's finger on: shops with generic-looking names as if out of an architectural rendering, or English-style pubs with excessively English names, usually related to Charles Dickens. And yet, of course, the language of intellectual and cultural life here is not English but Swedish. After a while, one becomes aware of this, of there being layers one is not privy to. The locals generally are polite, and switch to English when a non-Swedish speaker joins their conversation, though it's there. This also exists in places where there is no language difference, only a different cultural history; while I have lived in Britain for 14 years, and have absorbed enough second-hand knowledge of recent British cultural history, I will never be British enough to understand the references in a Half Man Half Biscuit song. The language difference, though, adds another dimension to this; it is as if there were a membrane between oneself and the cultural life of the country; that until the moment when one becomes fluent in Swedish, one is disconnected, floating.

Sweden has an English-speaking personality, and a subtly different native-language one, which manifest themselves in their culture. The parts of Sweden one sees abroad are different. For example, if one were to think of Swedish indie music in, say, Britain, the US or Australia, one might think of Jens Lekman, or The Radio Dept., or perhaps The Knife. In Sweden, though, the biggest indie band was Broder Daniel, who, while they sang in English, did not match their local success abroad. (Second to them is the solo project of their drummer, Håkan Hellström, who did not sing in English.) Generally, Swedish indiepop in English was strongly influenced by British indie, particularly things like Sarah Records, C86 and the Glasgow school; switch to Swedish, and the reference points often become more elusive and unfamiliar, made for a domestic audience. On the subject of music, the live music scene in Stockholm appears a lot smaller than in London or Melbourne, with fewer gigs and venues; I'm told it used to be much better, before a lot of venues closed down, and/or in the Golden Age Of Swedish Indie, which was some 10-20 years ago.) What venues survive do so tenuously: the last outpost of the institution known as Debaser is facing an uncertain future, as its lease may not be renewed after next year. Record shopping also is a bit thin on the ground; in shops that sell new records, the range of new releases is fairly small; in one shop, the featured CD wall may have half a dozen recent releases, surrounded by rereleases and back-catalogue; if you want to fill in your Black Sabbath or Queen collection, you're sorted. There isn't really anything on the scale of Fopp, let alone Rough Trade, here (perhaps everyone in Sweden is over buying music, and just streams it on Spotify?), though for some reason, there is an abundance of secondhand record shops.

Other things: there is an abundance of high-quality baked goods made with cardamom, cinnamon and/or saffron; Sweden is to those what Australia is to coffee, in that what passes for a cinnamon roll abroad would be unacceptable here. Sweden is a coffee-drinking culture; traditionally filter, though espresso is common now. If you want non-dairy milk in your flat white, there is generally one brand of local oat milk, whose ads are obnoxiously ubiquitous; a few places have soy milk, though nobody seems to import Bonsoy or make anything similar. The supermarkets have an abundance of dairy products, including pourable yoghurts in cardboard cartons (fun fact: Tetra-Pak is a Swedish invention), though Icelandic skyr is less popular than in the UK; oddly enough, Swedish supermarkets include things like caviar in toothpaste-style tubes and entire aisles of different types of bearnaise sauce. Sweden has a reputation for expensive drinks, though a beer is not much more expensive than in London; a gin and tonic, however, will set you back at least twice as much. There is also the state liquor monopoly, with its extensive network of well-provisioned booze supermarkets, previously discussed here; they are closed on Sundays for historical reasons. Sweden is historically Lutheran (and, before that, of course, Norse pagan), though no longer has an established state church. As far as I can tell, the Swedish ideas of lagom and Jante Law are, in practice, a bit like the English idea of social class: there's a grain of truth to them (though with many untidy exceptions), but they're vague enough that any commentator can find them in what they see, like a Rorschach inkblot.

In any case, Stockholm is a good place to live, if perhaps a bit quiet at times. It is easily the most beautiful place I have lived so far.

There are 1 comments on "One year in Stockholm":

Posted by: Leviathan Fri Nov 1 04:51:33 2019

Have you given any thoughts to heading back to Australia?

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