Letter from elsewhere

Scandai noir but nice:
Lund, Sweden

Lund Cathedral in winter in Skåne, Sweden

The pharmacist smiled when I asked for iodine pills.

“You see, iodine is actually bad for you, so the government has a big supply and they will give it to you if you need it.”

“They just hand the pills out?” I asked, jiggling the pushchair and willing the baby to be patient.

“Yes,” she was still smiling. “So there’s no need to worry!”

I smiled too, aware that my dishevelled hair, lack of Swedish, and the red-cheeked baby probably told a story I didn’t want to tell – neurotic, mother, foreign, probably hasn’t slept, etc. My small half-Greek, half-British family was safe in Sweden – the government would take care of us – at least if they didn’t repeat their laissez-faire pandemic performance, a cynical little voice in my head added. I wheeled the pushchair out into the square, where a Ukrainian flag was cracking in a sharp March wind. The sky was brilliant blue, as it often is. I tried not to think about the Russian soldiers churning up the forest around Chernobyl.

Moving countries from Germany to Sweden partway through a pandemic and two-thirds of the way through my first pregnancy was interesting enough. Now the thought of World War III was seeping into everything, and I lived in a country with a maritime border with Russia. Before the invasion of Ukraine, unidentified military drones hovered over Swedish nuclear power stations, the Riksdag, and the royal palace in Stockholm. Swedish children on TikTok were targeted by sinister videos declaiming, “WAR IS COMING” and “RUSSIA IS COMING TO BOMB SWEDEN”. I had known that Russian military aircraft had been buzzing Swedish airspace for years, but the war accelerated everything. My privileged paranoia felt foolish but who says “never” since 2016? The government were certainly taking it seriously.

We are far south in Skåne, in the prosperous medieval university city of Lund, closer to Copenhagen (forty minutes by train) than Stockholm (five hours). The landscape resembles my birthplace, East Anglia, and the countryside around Berlin, my home for the last fifteen years – flat, arable, wind turbines. There’s a remote chance we might see the Northern Lights, and we get a bit of snow, but I have a sense of the enormous north of Real Sweden looming silently above us: barren mountains, mosquito-plagued lakes, and dark forests where falu red farmhouses sell for peanuts.

In Berlin we lived in a gentrified kiez of fancy coffee shops and graffiti in a sagging, gloomy tenement flat with Legionnaire’s disease in the water tanks. Our new Swedish apartment is in a barrack-like modern housing estate with a strip mall of fast-food joints. It has a generous balcony and practical tiled bathroom. Low sunlight floods it in winter, and the plastic window frames and central heating keep us at an even 22 degrees year round. We are two minutes from the GP, the midwife who oversaw my pregnancy, the children’s health centre where the baby is measured by reassuring nurses, and the supermarket – which sells wagyu beef as well as herring and quantities of gaudily branded Tex-Mex that Swedes eat every Friday, sometimes in the form of tacopaj, a quiche made with taco mix.

There are green, gas-powered buses and a network of combined cycle-, foot- and bridle-paths that mean we rarely need to cross a road. Horses from the local civic riding school clop alongside hungover students on e-scooters. In the school holidays it is so quiet that a hare crouches in a corner of the children’s playground every day and watches passers-by with impassive golden eyes. Everything is very civilised, very Stepford, as I joked gauchely at first, alarmed by how changed my world was after grimy Berlin. One day when the baby was very new, we were alone at home when the national emergency siren, “hoarse Fredrik”, was tested. I wondered if the world had ended as I looked out onto the deserted estate and heard the 30-second wail of the all-clear.

The idea that Sweden is a humane utopia concealing dark dysfunction is a cliché not just of Scandi Noir but also anti-immigrant mouth froth. I have been triple-bubbled by the pandemic, the baby, and the long waiting list for state Swedish lessons, but it seems to me like any European country. There are some marvellous aspects to it (childcare!); there are some bad ones, and then there are a few horrific tales – in Sweden’s case, a report in a Nature journal at the end of this March revealed that some elderly Swedish covid sufferers were dosed with lethal levels of morphine rather than oxygen at the height of the pandemic. This is not a country for retirement, I thought, blackly, when I saw the older ladies sunning themselves on every bench this spring.

The famous Swedish Model has changed but that’s thanks to a recession in the 1990s and subsequent mass privatisation rather than immigration. Now public spending is lower, leaving a beleaguered health service, cheap vaccine joints all over town, and a stretched school system. The childcare is still there though, even if I have to wait a year to see a consultant for a post-partum health issue.

In my long maternity leave I wheeled the baby for hours through the suburbs, a kind of safari park of architectural styles accumulated over decades, from brutalist cubes to overgrown summer houses and shady bungalows. On one toy-town estate the traditionally styled houses were all unique but packed so close that all difference is erased. We walked through a park that had been landscaped out of the old city rubbish dump to a Bronze Age burial mound rising from a patch of green by the ring road. At midsummer, we saw students in floral coronets. At winter solstice, Lucias paraded through the city streets with crowns of candles. The shop windows were framed with simple fir branches.

Russia practised invading Sweden in 2015, and the country has been retooling its old Cold War system of “Total Defence” since 2014. Military conscription was added in 2018, and the civil defence system reinvigorated. This March, people in reserved occupations in Skåne received letters telling them where they would be posted in the event of war, and a Russian general told TV audiences how Russia would overrun the Baltics by knocking out all NATO radar with a magic weapon and then gobbling up the Swedish island of Gotland. Occasionally, a military jet flies over our flat. Swedes are reportedly stockpiling survival supplies.

I downloaded an English PDF of the famous government leaflet If Crisis or War Comes (it is available in sixteen languages, including Yiddish and Tigrinya). “What would you do if your everyday life was turned upside down?” it asked, before admitting candidly that war preparations had tailed off in recent years and continuing a few pages later, “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up. All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.” I downloaded an app that told me where the 65,000 emergency shelters were. I learned to recognise the “skyddsrum” symbol of blue triangle against an orange background and was comforted when I saw it on a school basement door or under the health centre. Then I learned that the air filters hadn’t been changed since they were built – and we would have to take our own food.

My maternity leave has ended, and the baby wants to socialise before she starts that affordable preschool. I’ve purchased Swedish language textbooks and continue to pay my taxes. My bubbles are deflating one by one, leaving me to work out my place in my new homeland and decide if I should bolt across the Øresund bridge with the baby at the first blare of hoarse Fredrik or sign up to a voluntary defence organisation. They say life changes after you have a child. I’m not sure this is what they meant.

Susanna Forrest is the author of “The Age of the Horse” and “If Wishes Were Horses”. She’s writing a book about stars of the nineteenth-century European circus, “Amazons of Paris” 


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