More notes on being an immigrant in Sweden

Sweden is a good country. Right? I mean, they are the sort of collectivist society that actually believes that all people should have a decent standard of living, while being an individualist society that believes in every person’s right to be what they want to be. Many things that are still being fought in the US are seemingly non-issues here: gay rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights, for example. The reality is of course that there is inequality still, as we still do have to drag some people from every society kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Plus there’s the issue that men have been working more in private sector jobs, while women have been working more public sector jobs, so there’s a general pay inequality still. But it’s really pretty good, and there is a very open cultural debate about politics and rights. On the news at night, for example, when there is an issue presented, even from somewhere else (such as Pussy Riot in Russia, or Spain trying to ban abortion) there will not only reportage, but then they will have experts debate the issue. Right there on TV!

And yes, there are apparently religious people here, but they are the minority. And it’s strange to be confronted by them. A neighbor recently told us that Mormons came to his door. He was shocked! The populace are actually officially born into the Church of Sweden, and you have to make some official document to become apostate, but few people do. The church advertises on the subway, like other businesses.

A problem with any welfare state is its bureaucracy. It’s pretty intense. And not just regarding money, or not just directly regarding money. I have written a bit about this before, but there is always more. I’m currently caught in a weird set of legitimation regulations that are creating some catch-22 events. One big issue is that I am currently a student in SFI, the Swedish for Immigrants schools, which are not mandated but highly encouraged, I would say, for those who intend to live here. That means I am not working, but similarly to the US, I won’t get welfare payments, as these would be based on my previous income. Many people at the school are in fact political refugees, so they do actually receive some welfare income for attending school. I can get the SFI-Bonus, a payment incentive to finishing the course, but it seems to be only given at completing the level previous to what I started at and the one after the level I am currently finishing. So I continue in language learning. Must complete level D within a year of coming here.

The biggest problem for me currently is that we are living with my wife’s parents, in a relatively small flat, and we cannot get our own because you MUST have income in order to rent. In the states, with first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a deposit, you could rent a place. Not here. You actually have to prove that you have a steady income. This has to do with the banking system as well, which is bizarre. You can’t really get a bank account without having an income either. I could have a million in cash and they wouldn’t let me rent an apartment nor start a bank account. This naturally creates a secondary market in sublets, as well as the Hawala (Islamic word-of-mouth “banking”). Though it is legal to rent out your apartment second-hand, you can’t legally charge more than you yourself pay. That doesn’t stop anybody, of course.

So, we sign into the website for housing, where Sanna has been on the waiting list for our area for years, so we are pretty high up there as things come up, but we can’t actually rent them anyway, because we would never pass the criteria for being able to. I may have mentioned before that I put stuff in storage when i went to Asia in 2000? Or I will at some point. Anyway, everything we shipped here has been in storage here since July. And it’s at a place arranged by the husband of my father-in-law’s sister, in a city called Västerås (not the place in Game of Thrones), about an hour’s drive away, in somebody’s apartment building who trades him the rent for boat work. I went there on Sunday to finally grab some of my warm clothes and socks, which I packed away back in April thinking, of course I’ll have this stuff by winter! If not already then soon this will be the longest period of time I have ever had my possessions in storage and no place to live, and to be staying at somebody else’s house. It’s demoralizing. There are actually psychological studies on this (here, anyway, where they care about how people feel…well, or somebody does). Like the joke goes, a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless. Well, I’m such a loser that I have no job, no income and I live with my wife and infant daughter at her parents’ house. And I can’t even speak the language.

On the other hand, the area where we live in is pretty awesome. Blackeberg was once all fucked up, back in the 1970s. Lots of drunks and drug users hanging out by the liquor store, and in the parks. Ever see or read “Let the Right One In“? That takes place here, in 1982. Most of the landmarks are still there, though the graffiti mentioned is mostly covered now (I saw a bunch of it still there before the book came out.) The swimming pool where the end scenes are is now a preschool, where I hope Marlowe will get to go next year. At some point the community folks complained about the riffraff, and they actually closed the liquor store. Liquor stores are state-run, by the way… The riffraff pretty much left. The neo-Nazi family that lived above Sanna when she was growing up left or went to jail, for example. Lots of political refugees had been placed here, (and all over) and many of these families grew up actually appreciating that they were safe. Now we have immense parks and green land interspersed with apartment building areas, and tons of families with small children. There must be 8 preschools in the area. Plus there are “open preschools” at the building where the BVC is (Barnvård Central, the kids doctors’ clinics), behind the subway station, where you can go at anytime during the day and there are places for kids to play and adults to watch or hang out and drink coffee. Every day when I get home from school, after Marlowe wakes up and has lunch, I go out to the park area right outside our flat and we play. Usually I meet the other parents of kids her age, who are on family leave from work—Sweden insists that both father and mothers take time off to bond with their children (480 days between the two of you, at least 60 for either one), though you don’t have to do it all at once nor at the same time—and these people are scientists and designers and psychologists and stuff, generally intelligent and alright folks. Even some musicians! And plenty of immigrants, though not many that come from English speaking countries. So I get to practice my limited Swedish. I’m actually doing pretty well for having been in class for 6 weeks. But I feel like a brain damaged child when I try to say something. I simply don’t have any vocabulary, and limited grammar knowledge.

Marlowe: I own this town.

One of the other dads mentioned to me that he had read my website bio and saw the connection: Santa Cruz (Lost Boys) and Blackeberg (Let the Right One In) and wondered casually about whether I were in fact a vampire.

The SFI experience is quite intense. As we’re out on the west side of Stockholm, the nearest school is in Vällingby (this translates to “porridgeville”) which is nearer to the smaller townships where lots of refugees get placed. So the classes are about half immigrant and half refugee, the levels start at A level, where they have to learn an alphabet, or a new alphabet, and then onto the idea of reading and then grammar. I tested into C level and caught up in a couple weeks, Swedish is not so far from English, but it’s occurring to me that it’s much more similar to English from about 500 years ago. Cognates don’t really work for translating, for example, as the modern meaning of the word in American English has developed contextually where the Swedish version is the old meaning. For example the verb “att driva” = to drive, is not used to drive a car, (which is the verb “köra”) but is used in the sense of driving cattle. The verb “to write” is “att skriva”, like scrivening or scribbling. Many other words, nouns and verbs, are very similar to their English cognates, but the meaning is not exactly the same as modern usage.

So my class is mostly people from the Middle East, and I mean all over the place, and Africa, and then a few random Poles and several Chinese and a few others. I know one other American, she’s a former Georgia police officer whose husband is either Swedish or here for work. I have seen a couple Brits, a couple Rumanians, Hungarians, etc. It’s pretty intense when the news is filled with the US election, and everybody is queried in class about what they would want Obama to do now that he’s been reelected (some Iranian girl next to me said she wanted him to start a war with Iran… I don’t exactly know where that is coming from.) Most of the Africans speak French as a second language, so I get to try to remember a bit of that during breaks also, they are from Senegal, Congo or Morocco. Another thing I have noticed is that the class is about 80% women (or more: today there were 3 men in a class of 35). Presumably, for the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalians, etc., the dudes are at work, but maybe they’re just staying home. There is a big push to integrate the students into society, but there is a problem with a lack of integration among refugees. A great deal of our vocabulary learning is based on manual labor. There is or had been also a great deal of Swedish men going to SE Asia and getting wives to take home at one point, but my generation doesn’t seem to have these women in the classes, so I think that era may have gone …and there are a bunch of mixed Thai-Swedish teenagers around now. Plus there are a lot of adopted Chinese kids. All in all, Scandinavia is really not as white as it was for the last 10 centuries at all, and that does apparently seem to still bother some people, because there are some parts of the political body that are essentially racist/anti-immigrant, and there are occasional neo-Nazi things happening. Not so much, though. Same in Germany, I hear. Admittedly, the society is still very open to immigration, and by law cannot deny political refugees. But the real issue is cultural, and while the Swedish society seeks to be open to everybody doing their own thing, man, they really aren’t ok with things that aren’t ok.

For example, I was working in the computer room at school and came across a section of text to read and answer questions on that was entirely right-fucking-on, but when I started to add it up a bit I could see that it was intentionally provocative or enlightening to sexists, racists, or fundamentalists or people from societies where these things could be the norm. The first section was about how abortion is free and legal. It went on, things about gender equality, punishment for rape (if a husband rapes his wife was the exact text), how corporal punishment of children is illegal, how children are taught self-reliance and are given a great deal of their own responsibility, how people are ok with people being naked, but it’s not ok to touch people you don’t know very well (especially if they are naked), how men and women can be friends and it does not mean that they are sexually involved or must be, how most people have sex at a fairly early age and nobody is a virgin when they are married, and that’s ok, about how circumcision was not legal for men or women, and where to go for women’s health issues and who to talk to, etc., etc., etc. Whew.

So all that is good. The school itself is a little disorganized. I think every two weeks a new wave of people starts, so the classes get new people and are in a constant state of sifting people in and out of one level and on to the next. I tested for the national test for level C3, so I think I get to go to 3D next week. The school is a private institution that gets its money from the state, there are many schools under the SFI-centrum administration, not all are the same company. This one is very much geared toward “get ’em up to speed and get ’em to work” quickly. I am very into language, and I learn pretty quickly, but my whole vocabulary is based on things having to do with the Swedish way of doing things, like how to get welfare money (refugees can get paid to be in the language class, immigrants cannot, but then the refugees also have to provide proof of attendance and get it signed and stamped and sent back to the taxation offices… blah blah blah) and all the words that have to do with housing, food, manual labor, news stories, etc. Which is fine. I can learn the names of guitar parts by reading the classifieds.

pic from the back of class.

(The classifieds online here, by the way, are It sucks. Just look at it! Ads, and crap, and limited page lists. And it costs money! But everybody uses it – for a fee! Craigslist exists here, but nobody uses it. I don’t understand. And it drives me insane.)

Many things make me silently crazy about Sweden, of course. I could list a bunch (like I am not fond of how difficult it is to put in or pull out the dumb Euro electrical plugs) but that would just end up being snarky. Too internet-like. Plus I may learn to love these things. Or may not, who knows?

However, I will say that I’m currently not at all happy with the fact that grocery stores can only sell beer less than 3.5%ABV. Because as much as the Czechs can make a decent pilsner, Urquell or Starobrno are not my go-to beer. So to get anything good, or to get a bottle of wine (or anything stronger) you have to go to System Bolaget, the state run liquor store. As I mentioned, we don’t have one nearby anymore. There’s one a couple subway stops away, I can go there on my way back from school. But the place is weird. For one thing, it’s very sterile. And it’s a monopoly. Which means, according to Swedish rules, that they actually have to carry whatever you ask them to, though in practice I haven’t tried it. The staff are very trained in flavor and food combining and such, but the reality is still that there is a stigma upon being there, a certain unspoken shame the moment you walk in to buy something. Once you’re in the shop, everybody furtively looks at one another as if judging one another: who’s the alcoholic? Strangely no camaraderie of drinkers! Some people simply don’t care, and will just go for a case of the “strong beer”, i.e. 7% crap from the local breweries that sell the 2.8% or 3.5% in the grocery stores, (like Norrlands Guld or Pripps Blå, [cf. Olde English 800]), but these folks are generally the ones who are just going to sit on the curb outside and drink it. In the small town, Nora, near our old cabin in the country, there’s even a public bathroom on the square outside the Systemet, so the real bums just hang out right there.

Other people try to act like, oh this box of wine? Yeah, I’m gonna use it for cooking…Also this brandy.  I’m into the Swedish microbrews like Oppigårds, which are really good. I had some incredible micro-brew at a pizza place in the city too, Nebuchadnezzar. They are sold by the bottle, ~19SEK per bottle or so (I don’t want to know) and you have to carry them up to the counter and then either bring something to carry them in or buy a 1SEK plastic bag to put a bunch of bottles in. I see people with many bottles rattling around in a plastic bag on the subway all the time. Super dumb. No six pack holders. Supposedly some of the best microbrews can’t sustain a supply to Systemet, so you would have to go to the brewery itself or to a bar that carries it. Wine, on the other hand, is relatively reasonable, we end up with French, Spanish or Portuguese, anything in the 70SEK area. I don’t think we could afford liquor.

An awesome local beer at a local sourdough pizza place. Hipsters are coming to Stockholm.

One other thing that strikes me as odd is the societal stance on marijuana. People think it’s a drug! The generic term for drugs is knark, as in narcotics, and pot falls into this category. People of all ages think it’s extremely dangerous, as much so as, say, heroin, so it is generally avoided and is very illegal. Most kids don’t even try it. Nowadays, however, there are as many people arrested for growing pot as for home-distilling liquor, and you know what that trend means. Heroin, by the way, is apparently being underutilized as well, as the dealers down at Central Station are supposedly giving it away to attract new customers these days!


musician. real person. that's my real name, go ahead, look me up.

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Posted in Sweden
2 comments on “More notes on being an immigrant in Sweden
  1. SSteve says:

    I lived in Norway for a year in ’95/’96 and had the same liquor-related issues. In Norway, the state-run liquor store is charmingly named the Vinmonopolet. They had one red wine and one white wine at each price point so you’d just tell them how much you wanted to spend and whether you wanted red or white and that determined which wine you got. Hard liquor was outrageously expensive–about USD40 per bottle (USD60 in 2012 dollars). And the bottles weren’t even 750ml, they were 700ml.

  2. […] So the other fun thing that happened in 2012 was that I got fired from my job at Pandora (long story) and with a 9-month old daughter, the threat of no health insurance, and a wife who had been on maternity leave from being a pre-school teacher for a year, there was no way to make the mortgage. The bank didn’t help, so within a couple months, we made the decision to leave the country. My wife is Swedish and was into moving back anyway, so we did. It’s been tough for me to be an immigrant at my advanced age, but it’s ultimately a good choice, I think. […]

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