Walk around Stockholm and, visually at least, the Swedish stereotype is alive and well. The streets are full of beautiful, apparently affluent and predominantly blonde people, and it boasts one of the most egalitarian societies in the world.
Surely Stockholm is a dream assignment? Let’s take a look at the upsides and downsides of this expat paradise.
Pro: a green, safe city
Swedes love the outdoors. Although the winters are long and dark, they make the most of them with sledding, skating and skiing trips outside the city, while the summer months see Stockholm residents soaking up the sun whenever they can in a clean and uncrowded city. Stockholm can be reasonably described as one third water, and one third green space, and there are peaceful forest walks to be enjoyed just 15 minutes outside the city centre.
It is not only a green city, but a safe one too. According to Numbeo.com, it has a crime index of 48.59, compared to 53 in Rome 62 in London. Swedes are a law-abiding people and their capital city also exudes an air of order and wholesomeness.
Con: reserved nature
While Swedes are open, honest, straightforward people, this means they have little time for small talk and (unlike many British, for example) say bluntly what they mean. To many other nationals, this can come across as rudeness.
The Swedish national website Sweden.se suggests this may be down to the weather. A December day is Stockholm is indeed not suited to standing and chatting in the street.
But Dr David Schultz, an American psychotherapist who has lived in Sweden for 13 years, appears to confirm the point by acknowledging that many of his clients struggle with socializing in Stockholm. The advice to expats is to persevere and appreciate that Swedes are perfectly polite and sociable – but just not disposed to small talk.
It seems ironic that Swedes are second only to the Dutch in their proficiency in speaking English as a second language. It just sometimes seems like they would rather not use it.
Pro: the state supports you
Sweden is well-known for its welfare system. Schools (including bi-lingual and international schools) and healthcare are excellent, and public services are well-organized and efficient.
However, to benefit from this, there are hoops to jump through. If you go to live in Stockholm, obtain your personnummer (your unique state-issued ID number) as soon as you can. It will enable to you to register for things like online banking and free Swedish courses, which are offered through SFI (Swedish For Immigrants).
If you are employed in Stockholm, your interests are protected by an active trade union movement; virtually all Swedish employees belong to one of about 60 trade unions. If you work in Stockholm, one of the benefits is a generous paid leave allowance: a statutory 25 days in addition to 16 public holidays.
Con: finding accommodation
According to Numbeo, Stockholm is ranked 49th out of 492 cities in the world for cost of living. As you would expect, rental prices are higher in the city than outside, but still significantly lower than other major cities such as Paris, London or New York.
Some accounts, however, suggest that good, lasting rental agreements are hard to find. While the Swedish state tries hard to make sure that everyone has equal access to everything, this can sometimes lead to confusing and bureaucratic systems that expats struggle to understand.
The official queueing system for rental apartments is a baffling example and has led to the emergence of a black market for queue jumpers. The YourLivingCity website offers advice on how to find accommodation and the many pitfalls to avoid.
Pro: culture for all
Another benefit of Sweden’s egalitarian approach to life is that culture and entertainment is often available free or at low cost. Entry to museums and exhibits around Stockholm are inexpensive, and parks often host free concerts and shows in the summer months. Bicycle and boat hire is also very affordable, the latter being a great way for expats to familiarise themselves with the various small islands that surround the city.
Con: anyone fancy a drink?
Buying alcohol is a curious experience in Stockholm – and indeed in Sweden in general. Drinks in bars and clubs can be expensive and the only place to buy alcohol above 3.5% to take home is the state-run liquor store (Systembolaget or ‘Systemet’ for short’), which has strict opening hours and is closed on Sundays.
A consequence of the high cost of drinking and eating out in Stockholm is that many Swedes prefer to do it at home. Once you break through the Swedish reserve and make friends, you will no doubt be invited to their homes.
ABBA and all that
Sweden has a very clear national identity and expats will not be surprised by the wholesome approach to life, the wonderfully non-hierarchical society, or indeed the cost of eating or drinking in the city. But it is fair to say that Stockholm will reward expats more if they are prepared to adapt and enjoy its idiosyncrasies. Like the locals, once you get to know it, you’ll love it.