January 24 2007
-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my partner, although I usually refer to him as my husband – Sweden has a civil union status for gays and lesbians that is, from what I’m told, about 99.5 percent the same as marriage. It’s called partnerskap.
-How long have you been living in Sweden?
I moved here on Dec. 29, 1998.
-What is your age?
I am 45.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Sweden?
I would never have imagined moving here until I met my husband – I was living in Barcelona at the time and we met at a club. It was love at first sight. Anyway, it was much easier for me to move here than for him to move to the U.S., so I took the plunge. I haven’t regretted it for a single second since then. I hope I can always say that.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
As an American, it was quite easy – we applied in the U.S. at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC and it took about five weeks to process.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
No, Sweden has a very strong social welfare system and since I had a work and residency permit, I was immediately eligible once I’d applied for and got my personnummer – the equivalent of a social security number in the U.S., something I was required to get immediately on my arrival, as I recall. And you can’t do anything without it, it is your identification number for just about everything.
-How do you make your living in Sweden? Do you have any type of income generated?
About three weeks after I arrived, I saw an ad in the No. 1 Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, for a job for a native-English-speaking editor. I applied and after a month and a half of interviews and tests, I eventually got the job, which I still have.
-Do you speak Swedish and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I do speak Swedish fluently, although it’s been a painful journey to get there. We speak English at home, and when I started at my job, the company did everything in English. I never took the free Swedish classes that are provided to immigrants (they actually will pay you to learn Swedish if you don’t have a job), although when I first arrived and before I started working, I took a three-week intensive course at Folkuniversitet, which is an adult education school here. It took me a good four-five years to get fluent, since people either like to speak English and want to practice with you, or are very gracious about doing so. I still speak English with most of my closest friends, and it’s been hard to go over to Swedish with people that I began my friendship or work with in English. What I do now is start in Swedish with any new people I meet. Also, my office is no longer English speaking, so I speak Swedish a majority of the time there.
Learning Swedish is probably the most difficult thing I’ve done here, and I spent a lot of time beating myself up over not learning it faster. It went much easier once I stopped that. I didn’t want to be one of the many Americans I know who understand Swedish perfectly well, but aren’t comfortable speaking it, even if they’ve lived here 10, 15 and 20 years or more. When I moved here, I thought this was an awful thing, but now I think it’s unfair to judge people on this. You do what you have to do, and you can get by in English here so if you don’t learn Swedish, I can’t be critical of you.
As for Swedes, they may think it’s bad with people who never learn Swedish, but they aren’t likely to say anything to one’s face about it.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I don’t really miss my family – since we lived rather far apart in the States – me on the East Coast and others in the Midwest or Southwest, we saw each other maybe twice a year at most, and I manage to get home for Christmas or Thanksgiving every year. Plus my parents come every other year, and my youngest brother has visited many times. And my other brother sent his two teenagers last summer as well, so I get a family fix pretty often. But we were in Chicago for Christmas in 2006, and I hadn’t been since 2003, and I realized I can’t go that long without a U.S. Christmas fix.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
We’re not likely to leave Sweden, even on a temporary basis, although we talk about buying a second home somewhere on the coast between Valencia and Barcelona all the time, since my husband’s parents were from Spain. My job pays extremely well by Swedish standards, so I’m not motivated at all for changes on that end either. About the biggest plans for the future are travel – Swedes are big on traveling – and we’re planning on going to Vietnam and Laos in a couple of months – maybe Shanghai in the autumn, plus eventually we plan to get to India, Australia and New Zealand, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil at some point.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Stockholm has a peculiar housing situation – it used to be almost all rental housing, with the government owning a majority of the apartments. It was, and still is, difficult to find rental apartments in the city, which is where everyone wants to live. There’s a lot of black market apartment renting here, it all seems very Soviet somehow.
But, over the past 15 years or so, the government has gone through stages of selling off apartments to the tenants. We were lucky enough to buy our old apartment about six years ago, an apartment that my husband had lived in his entire life. It was worth a lot more than what we paid for it and we eventually sold it and bought up the apartment we live in now, which is in a very central part of the city – a 15-minute walk to my office.
I’ve lost all perspective on whether housing is expensive here or not, but one thing is certain, I’ve realized that Americans are used to living in a huge amount of space when compared to Sweden at least. People live much smaller here, and it seems like right now the typical apartment of say, 75 square meters (which is something like 800 square feet I think), in the city, would cost something close to 3 million Swedish kronor. With the dollar so weak, this is equivalent to about 400,000 US dollars.
-What is the cost of living in Sweden?
It’s difficult for me to gauge. Housing seems relatively expensive, as does food. And salaries are surprisingly low and taxes high. But the government takes care of an awful lot of things that you don’t get in a place like the States: free higher education, healthcare, childcare, elder care. Plus parents get 18 months of parental leave (if both husband and wife share it) at 80 percent of their salary, sick leave for children, jobs that are very secure. And things like public transportation are much more extensive than in the U.S., so you can take buses and subway and trains virtually anywhere.
I still don’t understand how Swedes have such a high standard of living, though. They all buy the latest mobile phones and computers and iPods, they really know how to dress, and they do a lot of traveling (the cliché tourist destinations that all Swedes go to are the Canary Islands, Rhodes and Thailand). The one thing I know is that they have no savings, since they expect the government to take care of them if anything should happen.
-What do you think about the Swedes?
I like Swedes. They’re supposedly cold and quiet and insular, but I’ve never found that to be true. I have a mix of friends, a couple of whom are expats, but the rest are Swedes. I suppose my experience is unusual, since it seems that many people that I’ve met and worked with who were expats found it difficult here. But I think it helps that even if I am a Swedish citizen (I have dual citizenship), I know that I’ll never be a Swede, I will always be a bit of an outsider. And I kind of like that. It relieves you of certain responsibilities, and you never have to feel embarrassed for things that, uh, “Swedes” or “Sweden” does, you never have to explain why the president is an ass, or why a civilized country in the 21st century would have the death penalty, or any number of other things.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Sweden?
I think Sweden’s strongest point is that it has the strongest family values of just about any country in the world – and I’m not talking American family values, I’m talking real family values, such as free or very cheap childcare, long parental leave, employers letting parents stay home with sick kids, that kind of thing. As a gay man, it also is pretty damn good on gay rights.
On the negative side, the darkness in the winter can be painful – when I first moved here, it wasn’t nearly as dark as I thought it would be, but over the years, I find it harder to deal with. I’m so sleepy during deep winter, it’s impossible to get out of bed in the dark.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Sweden?
Stockholm is easy for English speakers to manage – it is very Anglo-friendly, although this can be deceptive when Americans and Australians and others expect the culture to be Anglo, and it just isn’t, no matter how much American and British TV and movies Swedes see. The culture here is very consensus-driven – everyone should agree on everything – and this can be wonderful and it can be an absolute nightmare.
I guess the other thing I would say is that while the system really takes care of you, you really need to learn how to manage it. I don’t know how I would do it without my husband.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Sweden?
The main expat website that I know of is The Local - lots of forums and information. Then of course there is my own blog, How to learn Swedish in 1000 difficult lessons. There are a number of other blogs I’ve read over the years, but they seem to come and go so I’ll leave it at that.