Imagine a country where it is dark for most of the year. Think of a place where the snow is so deep you can’t leave home without a snow-plough. Envisage somewhere so cold that if you go out with wet hair it freezes and breaks off. And a glass of beer costs around £5, if you can find one.
Welcome to Sweden; a country that is so dull even Sven-Göran Ericsson noticed. I was born and bought up in Sweden. Until the age of sixteen I knew no better. I thought it was perfectly normal that it snowed from October to the end of April. I didn’t grumble when I was fed raw fish and bits of elk. The fact that I had to go to and from school in the dark didn’t bother me. I thought, like all those around me, that Sweden was great. I thought it was the centre of the universe. I imagined I would live there for ever, marry Thomas Östman from the village next door (even though he hated me) and have lots of little Annikas and Björns.
Although Sweden as a small child is rather nice, you never tire of building of snowmen aged five, Sweden as a teenager was not fun. As I write this I am trying hard to remember any highlights. Or in fact anything exciting that happened at all. In the summer there was lots of swimming, Sweden is full of lakes, but there are also lots of mosquitoes. And they’re twice the size of the ones you have in southern Europe. And twice as nasty. In the winter of course there was ice-hockey. This is really all Swedes care about. They might pretend to want to beat England in the game this evening but it doesn’t matter nearly as much as thrashing Russia or Finland at ice-hockey.
I spent most of my weekends as a teenager with friends drinking beer or any other alcohol we could get hold of by the local lake or hanging out in the only café within a twenty-mile radius playing pin-ball. The most exciting event was a dance held in the village hall every two months. We would spend hours getting dressed up, stealing alcohol and drinking it on the way there. Of course there was no alcohol allowed at the dance; that would be too reckless. The disadvantage of this method was that for those of us who couldn’t hold our drink we often ended up in a freezing ditch on the way to the great dance.
Then I visited England. Suddenly jumping in a freezing lake at the end of April to celebrate the fact that spring is around the corner seemed eccentric, if not downright insane. Hurling myself naked from a sauna into a snowdrift no longer felt like a great way to spend the weekend. I also discovered that there was a whole world out there we Swedes were rarely told about. And that there was this thing called the sun; which didn’t only come out in June, July and August. It didn’t take me long to decide to move permanently. I would go home to Sweden for holidays to see my mother and friends full of stories of London.
“Do you want to stay here for the rest of your life?” I would ask my friends, looking around at the snowdrifts and elks.
“Why not?” They would reply. “There’s no place like home.”
Sweden is rather like a drug; you think you need it until you get away. We are brought up with endless propaganda which I suppose is why so many of my compatriots stay there. As children, for example, we learn songs about how great it is that it’s snowing.
“Yippee it’s snowing,” run the lyrics of one gem. “Isn’t that fun? Hurrah. We’ll get our skis on and take our sleighs out and won’t we have a blast.” Well, hello? It may seem like fun for a day or two, but it snows from the beginning of October to the end of April. Call me old-fashioned, but in my view there’s only so much fun you can have on a pair of skis.
Some enlightened Swedes know this and this is why they chose to leave. Ulrika Johnsson, Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo to name a few. It’s a little known fact that Greta’s most famous saying “I want to be alone” is often misquoted. What she really said was “I want to be alone. In New York. Or anywhere else but Sweden.”
Swedes are taught from an early age is that they are the only people in the world who know how to run anything. I admit that if you look at IKEA they have a point. Where else can you get a plate of meatballs, furnish your kitchen and stock up on aquavit all at the same time? Though of course you won’t find any aquavit in IKEA stores in Sweden. Oh no. Alcohol is a very dangerous substance and only the state can be trusted to sell it. It is sold from a state-owned shop called Systembolaget, which closes at half past three in the afternoon so you need to plan the fact that you would like a bottle of wine with dinner before lunch.
Of course Swedes don’t complain about it. They are used to being obedient. On September 3rd 1967 at 5 am the whole country went from driving on the left to driving on the right, despite the fact that in a referendum 80% of the population had voted against the change. My mother says Sweden is the only place in the world this could have happened as everyone there is so used to doing as they’re told. Imagine trying the same stunt in Italy or France.
It is a myth that Swedes are jolly, happy people. If this is your image of the average Swede it’s because you have probably only met Swedes abroad. And of course they’re happy; they’re the lucky ones that got out. Or you have caught them just before one of the three main events that punctuate the Swedish calendar and give them all a licence to drink as much as they like and sing their favourite drinking song called Helan Går, all about downing your glass of aquavit in one. There is the last of April, when Swedes congregate around lakes, break a hole in the ice if they are still frozen over, and jump in. On Midsummer’s Night Eve, when it is light all night, you dance around a Maypole. Should you happen upon this festivity you must be prepared to sing a song about little frogs which ends with everyone throwing themselves on the ground. At the end of August you have the big Crayfish party which marks the end of summer. As you can see, living in Sweden is one long cultural fest.
But on a normal day in Sweden no one smiles. If you happen to smile people look at you as if you’re a lunatic or trying to steal their wallet.
I was amazed when I first came to England that everyone was so friendly. I wasn’t used to people chatting to me in the street or cracking jokes.
When I took my children there on holiday last year I was depressed by the place. OK, so it rained for the whole two weeks which might have had something to do with it, but I found the people so, well, sad. It is well known that Sweden is always near the top of the suicide ratings for developed countries. Even though they have a very good standard of living, they are more prone than most to topping themselves. Win or lose tonight, most Swedes will wake up miserable tomorrow morning.
The image of Swedes is that they resemble their most famous vehicle, the Volvo; reliable, steady and safe. But unlike the Volvo they are prone to the odd eccentricity, like Sven’s new formation or dancing naked around Maypoles. They are an unnerving mixture of deadly dull and totally eccentric.
Of course Sweden has its upsides. It is a beautiful country. When it’s lovely, Sweden really is divine. The sun shines, the air is fresh, the flowers are bright and the lakes inviting. There is no pollution, hardly any traffic and the whole place feels clean and rich. Swedes do have reason to be patriotic and now, from a distance, it’s one of the things I most admire about them. How they can find so much to be pleased with themselves about it beyond me. Especially now Abba is unlikely to get back together and Volvo is owned by the Yanks. But good luck to them; we could do with a bit more of that pride and patriotism in England.
I still go back there regularly. My husband and I were married there eight years ago today. For our honeymoon we went to an island close to Gothenburg. Of course it rained for the whole two weeks, but luckily we had the World Cup to watch.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019