Remember this guy?
It’s the Swedish chef from the Muppets. And although he is just saying ‘gobbledygook’, oftentimes to me, this is just what Swedish sounds like.
I’m back in the land of Volvos, Ikea, Absolut, and ABBA. But as I wrote about a year ago when I visited Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, there is so much more to this land of nine million. My first taste of this Scandinavian nation (besides in Chicago’s Swedish enclave: Andersonville. In the early 20th century, more Swedes lived in Chicago than in Gothenburg) was during Christmas time a year ago with my Swedish friend Paula, and it could not have been more charming with white lights and candles all aglow. Now I was back in this California-sized country and coincidentally it just happened to be winter again. The dead of winter to be precise: mid – freaking cold – February. But, guess what? I still really liked it anyway. And if the freezing temps didn’t scare me away now, I could only imagine how much I would love it in the spring and summer.
Now mind you, in relative terms, it wasn’t even really that cold. The daily temps hovered around O°C or 32°F, which is normal or above normal for my Chicago blood so it was just fine. In fact, most of Sweden has a temperate climate, despite its northern latitude, with four distinct seasons and somewhat mild temperatures throughout the year. Sweden is much warmer and drier than other places at the similar latitude, and even somewhat further south, mainly because of the Gulf Stream. Plus the sun was shining, the sky was a deep blue, and the Swedes were smiley and sunny themselves.
But what was it about Stockholm that I liked so much? I think if I had to pick one word to describe it, it would be charm and aesthetics. Okay that’s two words… so sue me. You can imagine with a history of award-winning Scandinavian design, the Swedes care about how things look. So as a result of this, you get a very clean, well-planned city with amazing design elements from the newest cultural center, the Kulturhuset to the normally boring, now innovative office parks on the outskirts of town.
Sweden’s capital is one of the most beautiful major cities in the world, a mirage of marigold and terracotta-colored buildings shimmering between blue water and bluer skies all summer, or covered with snow and dotted with lights in winter. Built on 14 small islands joined by bridges crossing open bays and narrow channels, Stockholm is a vibrant, modern city, famous for producing sleek designs, edgy fashion and cozy cafes.
The old town, Gamla Stan, is a charming island of winding cobblestone lanes and pastel colored centuries old buildings. Just to the south of Gamla Stan is another island neighborhood, Södermalm, exuding a hip young vibe, with pedestrian streets lined with cute cafes, bohemian shops, art galleries and restaurants.
And speaking of islands, Stockholm boggles the mind and tickles the adventurous spirit with its 24,000 or so islands, that make up the archipelago that surrounds it all, creating vistas and waterfronts in nearly any direction.
I spent a lovely week here meeting some great locals through Couchsurfing, walking through the snowy lanes, splashing in slush puddles and keeping myself toasty warm with many coffee bar breaks. And I was here just in time for Sweden’s biggest gossip news: Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria is finally going to marry her prince, long-time companion Daniel Westling. Their marriage will be that of fairy tales–joining two very different worlds. He is just a ‘commoner’ of humble beginnings, a small-town guy from a middle-class family; she was raised at Drottningholm Palace, just outside of Stockholm, and is Europe’s only female heir apparent to the throne.
They met at the gym, where he was her trainer, and will marry in 2010. Now royal watchers are looking forward to Sweden’s first royal wedding since Victoria’s parents, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, married in 1976. Ooh, the excitement. Maybe I’ll come back next year for the big shindig. I’m sure my invite is forthcoming.
Besides royalty, around 16% of greater Stockholm’s 1.2 million people are immigrants, which creates a much more multicultural and diverse cityscape than many travelers might expect. It’s certainly not all meatballs and ABBA now. In the last 10 years Sweden’s capital has emerged from its cold, Nordic shadow to take the stage as a truly international city. What started with entry into the European Union in 1995, and continued with the extraordinary IT boom of the late 1990s, is still happening today as Stockholm gains even more global confidence. Stockholmers have, almost as one, realized that their city is one to rival Paris, London, New York, or any other great metropolis.
With this realization comes change. Stockholm has become a city of design, fashion, innovation, technology, and world-class food, pairing homegrown talent with international standard – you can hear it in the laughter of laid-back weekenders in the city’s many open spaces; and it seems you can buy it in the shops, which are full to bursting with cutting-edge Swedish products. This glittering feeling of optimism, success, and living in the “here and now” is what makes me wonder why I shouldn’t be living in Stockholm.
Sweet Sweden Stats
- The capital, Stockholm’s, daylight lasts for more than 18 hours in late June, but only around 6 hours in late December.
- With so many social services in effect, and a virtual absence of poverty, Sweden’s personal income taxes are some of the highest in the world. In 2002, personal income tax rates, the combination of state and local rates, were 31% on the first increment of taxable income up to 232,600 Krona (about $173,065); 51% on the next increment up to 374,000 Krona (about $278,000); and 56% on increments of income above 374,000 Krona. Since the late 1960s, Sweden has had the highest tax quota (as percentage of GDP) in the industrialized world, although today the gap has narrowed and Denmark has surpassed Sweden as the most heavily taxed country among developed countries.
- Sweden had left-side-of-the-road traffic from approximately 1736 and continued to do so well into the 20th century. The changeover just took place in 1967.
- Sweden has one of the best education systems in the world. The school system is largely financed by taxes… in other words, students go to university for free. Along with several other European countries, the government also subsidizes tuition of international students pursuing a degree at Swedish institutions, although there has been talk of this being changed. So now, of course, I am thinking of getting my master’s degree here. Only a few countries such as Canada, the United States and Japan have higher levels of university degree holders.
- Sweden has been transformed from a nation of emigration ending after World War I to a nation of immigration from World War II onwards. In 2007, immigration reached its highest level since records began with nearly 100,000 people moving to Sweden. The largest immigrant groups living in Sweden as of 2007 are people born in Finland, the Former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Poland, Iran, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Turkey, Chile, Lebanon, Thailand, Somalia, the United Kingdom, Syria, China and the United States.
- Sweden is the third largest music exporter in the world, with over 800 million dollars in 2007 years revenue, surpassed only by the US and the UK.