• Sweden’s alcohol security system

    Systembolaget with the grille down

    The most secure place in any Swedish city? The prison? No. A bank? No (there is no actual money in Swedish banks anymore – that’s another story). The town hall? No way. This is Sweden. All doors are open. Except, that is, the door of the Systembolaget.

    And it’s not just the door. The Systembolaget doesn’t just shut and lock its door. It puts a metal screen down behind it. And then lots more metal screens behind all the big glass windows. It’s a full lockdown. It is the most secure building in any Swedish town, anywhere.

    Security isn’t a dirty word

    Systembolaget is an important word in Swedish. It’s the name of the state monopoly alcohol supplier. No one but no one in the country can sell you take-out alcohol stronger than a 3.5% lager except Systembolaget. And when Systembolaget closes, it’s closed. Like Fort Knox.

    Swedes are born to it. As a result, they have all perfected a certain style of alcohol purchasing. They plan ahead, in bulk. Being Swedish, this comes fairly naturally. They’re good at planning ahead. It means that when you’re in the checkout line in Systembolaget, you’re surrounded by people with crates of the stuff.

    Even the drunks (yes, state control hasn’t worked) buy their 12% lager in bulk. With my two bottles of Pinot Grigio, I look ridiculous.

    Wine is the forbidden fruit

    And I’m so bad at remembering the strict opening hours that I always miss them. I drink almost exclusively 3.5% lager as a result. It’s a little tedious. Wine has become something of a wistful memory. If only I could plan ahead better, I might taste it again.

    I live in Skåne, the southern breadbasket of Sweden, where the orchards and a few vineyards are fertile and plentiful. Yet even here the state is watching. Visit any of the idyllic Skåne vineyards and you can sample the wine, maybe enjoy a meal with wine, but buy a bottle to take away with you? Oh, no, no, no…

    Only Systembolaget is legally allowed to sell you wine to take out, so having visited the vineyard, you would then need to head back to the city and find a Systembolaget in order, perhaps, to find the fine Swedish vintage you were after.

    They might need to fine-tune that one before Skåne becomes Europe’s answer to the Napa Valley.

    If you ever get hold of any alcohol in Sweden, you might want to wash it down with a Swedish hot dog

  • The day the waxwing came

    (Photo by Patrice Bouchard)

    The icy North Wind blew us a mysterious guest this January. It arrived on our balcony unseen, caught us aware, touched our hearts, and left a poo. 

    I looked up, and there it was, sitting plump and still, staring in through the kitchen window. Soft, fluffy brindle feathers, darker wings with flashes of red, white and yellow and a tail with a yellow bar along the tip. 

    Livin’ in a twitcher’s paradise

    It didn’t fly away. It just sat there, staring at me. I called my son. He said it looked unusual. I hadn’t really considered it. But now he said so, I couldn’t say what it was. 

    We googled. We found a match. My five-year-old was right. It was unusual. The bird on our balcony was a waxwing. That meant nothing to me. The RSPB told us that it liked to winter on the eastern fringes of Britain. 

    Costa del Malmö

    Clearly, it also liked to winter on the southern tip of Sweden. Not the Costa del Sol, but preferable to its summer home above the Arctic Circle. Maybe it had flown all the way down to us that very day? 

    Was it dying, I wondered ominously? It wasn’t moving. The night was dropping to minus 7. Would it survive? Would I have to sneak out without my son noticing next morning and dispose of a frozen corpse? 

    Berry, berry hungry

    The RSPB said that the waxwing’s favourite food is the rowan berry. Just beyond our balcony were two rowans, stripped of their leaves, but still hung with red berries. If this waxwing still had use of its wings, surely it would find them?

    By morning, it still sat on our balcony. But it had turned around in the night, a movement that felt like progress. It had pooed too, so the bodily functions were working. Still more hope.

    Then hope turned to abundance. By mid-morning, some 50 of its mates converged on our rowan trees. Our waxwing joined them. By lunch, there wasn’t a berry left. 

    A day later they were gone, but while they were here, they were a bloody miracle. 

    On the subject of Swedish wildlife, I saw a hare… where?

  • Get off my land

    (Photo by Lisa McIntyre)

    I love Rupert the Bear. There, I’ve put it out there. Anyway, I was reading my son one of the ancient Rupert the Bear Annuals the other day – those dusty old Daily Express hardbacks full of Rupert stories from the 1930s onwards, when a picture stopped me in my tracks. 

    Obviously, a lot about Rupert the Bear is dated. There’s plenty that could be culturally dissected today. In this case, it was the innocent sight of a cartoon image of Rupert and his friend, Bill Badger, being shown a sign on the edge of a wood by a gamekeeper. 

    The sign read: “Private property: no picnicking”

    The pair had been doing just that – picnicking in a wood. The gamekeeper gave them the benefit of the doubt, since Rupert said so imploringly that they hadn’t seen the sign. All was well. Only it wasn’t really, was it? Two children (well, a kid bear and a kid badger) were being kicked out of a wood for picnicking. 

    The narrative flies in England. Now I live in Sweden, and viewed from here, it doesn’t fly at all. Swedes inherit the right to roam from birth. All land outside a person’s private garden is fair game. Picnicking in a wood is just a given. Telling kids they can’t do it would be tantamount to treason. 

    Trespassing is the right thing to do

    It made me think about my own English upbringing. My family were walkers. We walked everywhere. I had it drummed into me, one footstep at a time. At the same time, my parents made it abundantly clear to me that while trespassing was legally wrong, it was not morally so. 

    I was always reminded that – like the poacher – as long as you’re not caught, it’s OK. It has meant that all my English life has been imbued with a tone of us and them – the common people and the landowners – and an uneasy co-existence. I always trespass as a point of principle, but I’m always on guard against the gentry. 

    I guess that’s why The Levellers came from England, not Sweden. There’s only one way of life, and that’s your own, your own, your own!

    Talking of rights, is it your right to migrate?

  • Would you like sugar with that?

    (Photo by Laura Ockel)

    Swedes love sugar. Seriously, they’re sugar monsters. I know what you’re thinking: who isn’t? But where other nations mix the sweet stuff with other vices – be they fags, booze or deep-fried snacks – Swedes just stick to the sugar.

    Example 1: fika. It’s a cute name for extremely regular coffee breaks at which you eat super-sweet cinnamon buns, with a side of coffee.

    Example 2: Lördagsgodis. Literally, Saturday sweets, this is the weekly ritual of buying a shed load of candy every Saturday, without fail, because it’s Saturday.

    Example 3: supermarket sweets. Sweden has a supermarket dedicated entirely to sweets. Seriously, it’s called Hemmakväll. Google it.

    I rest my case.

    It’s not so trad

    Wall-to-wall sugarcoated pastry and buckets full of sweets feels like a traditional part of Swedish life. But then I went into Malmö’s brilliant Technical & Seafaring Museum and read this…

    ‘In 1850, Swedes consumed 4 kilos of sugar per person (annually). Today, they’re up to 40 kilos per person.’

    Did they just get way more into sugar? Well no, and yes. The museum went on to explain the 19th century sugar beet industry (ok, you can stop reading here, but I thought it was interesting).

    The Skåne region – Sweden’s southern breadbasket – decided to try out their first cash crop.

    Harvesting and refining sugar beet was incredibly labour intensive, which was useful since there were a lot of poor Swedes who needed a job in the 1800s. It also meant there was a lot of, well, sugar.

    And in the day’s before globalisation, the closer your market, the better. So they sold the refined stuff to those same Swedes – by the truckload – and hey presto, everyone’s sugar intake ballooned.

    So there you go. Next time I succumb to a cinnamon bun, I can blame 19th century agri-business. Ah, that feels better!

    While we’re on Swedish tastebuds, how about hot dogs with added Swedishness?

  • Caught with my tech down

    (Photo by Patrick Kool)

    For my friends and I – being English – the most exciting thing about Malmö, Sweden is the kallbadhus – a bathhouse on stilts over the sea where it’s against the law not to be nude.

    The idea that a public space is frequented in the buff – as per regulations – by ordinary Swedes without a ‘by your leave’ is the stuff of English fantasy and scandal. And yet, it’s not the biggest deal about the place. 

    No phone to preserve my modesty

    Having become a regular to the kallbadhus over the past year, I have long since got over the initial transgressive thrill of being nude in public. I’ve quickly become at ease with the murmured chat of portly businessmen on their hour off. 

    What I have come to savour is not so much the nudity (which is nice), but the calm. Aside from nudity, another sauna rule at the kallbadhus is minimal noise. It is a place of quiet reflection. 

    It is also a place of intense heat and moist bodies. It’s not easy to take a locker key in without it burning you, let alone an iPhone. Which is perhaps one reason why no one does. The kallbadhus is not only a clothes-free zone, but a tech-free zone. 

    An island of gazing faces

    This makes the kallbadhus something truly unique in today’s world: a public space in which no technology intrudes. Even my beloved English pub is now a place of smartphones and TVs. But not here. 

    At the kallbadhus, a large group of strangers congregate to sit, side-by-side, in relative silence and stare out of the windows at the rocks, the sea and the sky. There’s nothing else to do. 

    When the event of the last half an hour is the seagull that passed the window, or the oil tanker making its steady progress across the screen of the horizon line, the mind feels something a bit like what childhood was to me – a time before the internet. 

    The kallbadhus is a little accident. An anachronism. It’s not a techlash. I don’t think anyone planned it. But by chance, it is the place where I can go to be in another place, where only your thoughts roam, and boredom lurks quietly. 

    While we’re on the subject of how great saunas are, Being Nude Isn’t Rude

  • Are you social distancing?

    (Photo by Everton Vila)

    This is an emergency. Where is the urgency, Sweden? Well, the same accusation was being flung at the UK until this week, but let’s look a little more closely at the facts. 

    Slowing the curve

    So, the scientific evidence is clear. During epidemics you get ‘the surge’, and the only way to avoid an uncontainable spike in cases is to limit people’s contact with each other, or ‘social distancing’. 

    This means, essentially, avoiding large-scale organized fun, no kissing, no bear hugs, dammit no shaking hands. It involves a nod at best, or if you’re getting avant-garde, a foot rub (through sealed footwear). 

    It means keeping chat to a bare minimum, and certainly making sure to avoid animated chat on subjects liable to impassion (to minimize the spread of saliva). Since coronavirus is the only subject in town, and a passionate one at that, it means zipping it. 

    Supermarket sweep

    It means heading to the supermarket at asocial hours when you are least likely to bump into people you might have to interact with either verbally or otherwise. 

    It involves dressing soberly, betraying no emotion, and acting as if everything is entirely normal. This, despite the fact that it’s clear there has been a run on legumes and toilet roll, like some strange inversion of a midsummer BBQ weekend. 

    But remember, the greatest scientific minds in our nations have been studying the facts, not the fake news. They have observed quite clearly that social distancing measures have been rigorously enforced by Swedes and Brits for generations. 

    Put out the fire

    Clearly, drastic measures were required in Italy, where social distancing was a concept so alien as to be entirely uncommunicable. The same goes for Spain and France. Even those hot-blooded Danes (the Latins of the Nordics) had to rein it in. 

    Meanwhile, life has continued entirely undisturbed in Sweden. Policy only started to shift in Britain when it was realised that eradicating free movement of people was a central plank of government policy. Talk about win-win…

    Yes, Swedes and Brits were separated at birth, and Swedes are just Brits with good branding

  • What’s your storm name?

    (Photo by Gatis Vilaks)

    Mine’s Storm Caleb. That’s if the rule is Storm followed by the name of your first pet. Otherwise it’s Storm Eileen. That’s if the rule is Storm followed by the name of your maternal grandmother. But enough of this frivolity…

    I live in windy city. Malmö, on the southern tip of Sweden, is so windy it ought to have Chicago’s nickname, but has clearly been windy for so long, no one really bothers to mention it anymore. 

    With Storm Ciara coming through, followed apparently by Storm Dennis this weekend, it’s taking ‘windy’ to the next level. 

    Let’s be Swedish about this

    Obviously, as new Swedish residents, we chose to avoid car-shame and head straight out to buy secondhand bicycles. Let’s take back the planet, one revolution of the pedal at a time!

    We have moved into an apartment on the very westerly tip of a peninsula sticking out into the Oresund Strait, a tip of land that locals pointed out wasn’t there 10 years ago. It’s meant to be sea, and the wind thinks so, too. 

    Time for some turbo

    So of course, we did what every new arrival does in February after their first Swedish winter. We said screw riding into a force 8 gale and bought an electric-powered cargo bike to carry our son to preschool, like any self-respecting Swede. 

    This is – remember – one of the world’s great bike cities. It’s right up there with Copenhagen, only you’ve never heard of it. Cycle highways galore, loads of cute traffic lights for bikes, the works… But in the winter?

    No. In the winter, Swedes lock themselves inside their very well-insulated apartments. That’s unless they go into their underground car park to take their Volvo SUV for a spin. Hey, wait, Volvo SUV? But Greta said…

    So there I was…

    Working my key into the automatic garage door operator after a grueling cargo bike mission across town with my son, only for the door to rise on a pair of Volvo SUV headlamps. I back up the ramp in ungainly fashion. 

    The Volvo purrs up the ramp and two middle-aged Swedes view me from their car seats, expressionless. What are they thinking? Look at that curious man on that contraption! In this weather! Hahahahaha

    I don’t think Swedes name storms. Storm Ciara just belted through, but I think Sweden probably just called it ‘a storm’.

    What else have I learnt about here? Hot Dogs, with added Swedishness

  • If life gives you cucumbers…

    Cucumber in a plastic wrapper
    (Photo by Charles)

    …write a blog about cucumbers.

    Sometimes life descends into pure farce. On a wet January evening in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Malmö. Or anywhere. It goes from the mundane to slapstick silly. 

    So I was in my local supermarket. I had my large-volume backpack on (I cycle my groceries home) and I was standing in front of the organic cucumbers. But why did I feel wetness just above my left hip?

    It was definitely wet

    I was wearing a heavy winter coat. It wasn’t raining outside. I took off the backpack and looked at it. The bottom left corner was dripping wet, as if it had been dunked in a puddle. Strange. I hadn’t put it down once. 

    I opened it. Empty. I’d come shopping. Of course it was empty. It was going to be filled. Perplexed, I put it back on and chose an organic cucumber from among the sad specimens, reflecting on how quickly my wife had eaten the last one. 

    Is that a cucumber in your backpack, or are you just…?

    I walked away into the avocado aisle. Once more, I felt the wetness on my skin. Dammit! What is this? I whipped the backpack off again and glared at it. Why? Where was this water coming from? 

    Then I clicked. The side pocket. The long, thin side pocket. I unzipped it, thrust my hand in, and slowly drew out… what? 

    A long, thin plastic codpiece, containing the remains of an organic cucumber bought at this same supermarket the week before. It was now half liquid, and the top half was a phallus without gusto. 

    I held the dripping member in my hand and stared around the shop wild-eyed.


    I saw the headlines already.

    I scurried to the organic cucumber section and flung it on the pile. Then thought, Noooooo! What am I doing? That’s disgusting. I picked it up again and ran with it dangling in my hand. 

    Finally, God placed a wastepaper bin at the foot of the kumquats. I was saved. I slam-dunked it. I straightened up. I looked hastily around. Act casual: Oh, two paw paws for only 20 kroner. A surprisingly good deal…

    If you enjoyed that, try Talking To A Three-Year-Old

  • I saw a hare… where?

    A hare standing in a grass field
    The photo I didn’t get (Photo by Vincent van Zalinge)

    “Here hare here”

    So says the note found by Uncle Monty on the door of his Cumbrian cottage in the classic 1980s film Withnail & I. But the hare – that larger cousin of the common rabbit that few of us are very sure about – is not something you see here, there or anywhere. 

    Until today. 

    Today I walked within a couple of metres of a real live hare, startled it, and then watched it lollop across the field to the far hedge for a few minutes. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I knew they were bigger than rabbits, but I didn’t know they were that big. 

    Strange thing is, I grew up in rural Herefordshire. I’ve recently spent another few years in a Herefordshire wood, and yet my first sighting of a hare was on a scrubby field next to the fast encroaching urban sprawl of southern Malmö – Sweden’s third largest city. 

    Sweden has wildlife

    I know this. The elk, the bears, the reindeer. This is a country with proper outdoors. By regional standards, it’s populous – but it still has a population the size of London in a country the size of Spain. 

    But Hyllie – a suburb that has sprung up next to The Bridge to Copenhagen – doesn’t scream wildlife hotspot. In mid-November, it looks like some bleak noir version of Dubai. Cranes, bricks, dust, mud, piercing security lights, diggers, noise, tower blocks, etc. 

    My apartment is in the midst of all this. Funny thing is, there are rabbits living in the building site outside my bedroom window. They scurry all over the building sites. And now their larger cousin, the hare, keeping to itself a field or two away. 

    Nature surprises you where you least expect it. 

    Since we’re getting back to nature, Ever Wanted To Be A Bear?

  • Being nude isn’t rude

    Ribersborg kallbadhus in Malmö Sweden
    Swimwear, denied

    I went to the kallbadhus the other day. It’s a Swedish thing. A municipal sauna and sea bathing spot at the end of a jetty. They are dotted along Malmö beachfront. A sign in the saunas advises the visitor that swimwear is not allowed. 

    Sharp intake of breath

    They say nothing helps you see your own culture like going abroad. Removing your clothes in public is just something the English don’t do. I’d never particularly considered this fact until confronted with an alternative. 

    Last summer in Ibiza, I went naked on a beach. At first, I was terrified I would shock or insult someone with my naked manhood. The same sense of contravening a taboo lingered on the air at the kallbadhus. 

    A good Swedish slap

    It’s what made the whole experience – including six invigorating immersions in the Oresund – so pleasurable. The utter, languid, Saturday morning casualness of the whole affair. 

    You leave your shoes at the front door. You leave your clothes and bags on the benches in the locker room (of a municipal changing rooms – what, no theft?!). You take one pocket-sized towel to place your bottom upon in the sauna. 

    You step into the sauna to discover not only men enjoying a moment’s calm sweating, but women, too. The sexes mixing naked – have you ever heard of the like? And doing so with nonchalant indifference. 

    Dinosaurs love underpants

    It’s the name of my son’s favourite book. It’s funny. And so English. With accompanying audiobook read by Rik Mayall. 

    “It all began when cavemen felt embarrassed in the nude, so someone dreamt up underpants to stop them looking rude”

    Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman & Ben Cort

    That’s a line I love, and find difficult to explain to a four-year-old. Is this a caveman trait? If so, why doesn’t it affect the Swedes? 

    It must be the pent up English Christian issue. All that shame and sin. But then, the Swedes do Lutheranism better than anyone. 

    Just where does the naughtiness of nudity come from for the English? Who knows, but it’s been called out for me at the kallbadhus. 

    Up for another dip? Read about The Baltic Cure For Fear