Monday, November 29, 2010

Winter's Here

The Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, the country’s lead weather agency, has a pretty tangible rule for the arrival of winter. When the median day temperature stays in the minus, the season Swedes detest is here.

We’re enjoying our first clear day in over a week. It’s been nonstop snow since last weekend and although the snowfalls have generally been light, the accumulations have added up.

It started with a few dustings that caused us to sweep our front walkway for the first time.

Pretty soon, our front yard had a nice blanket.

The city doesn’t bother making any serious effort to plow most streets in town, including the one in front of our apartment, because vehicles are required by law to use winter tires after November 1 each year and Swedish drivers are more than used to these road conditions. Just not usually in November.

The same scene looked like this less than 48 hours later.

A couple more meters and the view from our living room will start to become obstructed.

We've stopped trying to keep pace with our white walkway.

Last winter was one of epic proportions for the entire country. Temperature and snowfall records were set from the north to the south, and people are freaking out because the first major snow this winter came almost three weeks earlier than last.

“Experts” — and why anyone would want the responsibility that comes with that title where the weather is so unpredictable is beyond me — have predicted a colder, wetter winter than last year. I scoffed at that until I read that the temperature in northern Lapland one night last week dropped to the lowest November reading measured in Sweden in 15 years: negative 36 Celsius. That’s –32.8 Fahrenheit, almost 65 degrees below freezing.

Even though our region is far less extreme than Lapland by comparison, the forecast for the next three days here says highs of –8 Celsius and lows of –14 Celsius.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

'System' Failure?

It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and you’re lounging on your couch. You get a call from a friend inviting you to a spur-of-the-moment dinner party. Great, you think. You didn’t have anything fun to do and you start looking forward to an evening of good food and great company.

Your friend phoned at 2:15, so you’ve got plenty of time to get ready. Except that you live in Sweden, and in a situation that would dictate you to bring a nice bottle of wine you’re probably going to show up at your friend’s house empty-handed. How rude.

See, for more than a half-century all alcohol in Sweden stronger than 3.5 percent has been sold only at restaurants and bars and through the government-run liquor monopoly called Systembolaget (“The System Company”).

In California, you can buy any alcohol you want in virtually any grocery store. You can buy it between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. The beer is chilled in-store and is always cold when you buy it. Alcohol is inexpensive and can be even cheaper if you buy in larger quantities like 12-packs or cases.

Sweden couldn’t be much more restrictive without banning booze altogether.

The strongest beer sold in grocery stores is labeled Class II and called folköl, “people’s beer.” An even weaker Class I beer can be of maximum 2.25 percent strength and is called lättöl (“light beer”).

Class III beer, starköl ("strong beer"), is everything stronger than 3.5 percent and is only sold at Systembolaget. Wines and spirits, which are obviously all stronger than 3.5 percent, are only sold at The System.

Buying alcohol at Systembolaget is a much different experience than shopping for drinks in a store back home. No beer is refrigerated. All items are sold as individual cans or bottles and there is no discount for buying a case of beer. No brand can be favored over any other, so there are never sales or specials.

The hours are absurdly limited. Systembolaget locations are closed on Sundays and holidays. They’re only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and close at 6 p.m. on Fridays. The latest they’re open all week is 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

Alcohol is taxed on strength rather than price, with different tables corresponding to beer, wine and liquor. It’s all heavily taxed, though.

The cheapest can of beer (the same size as a 12-ounce can of Coors Light, for instance) costs between 9 and 10 Swedish kronor after tax. At the current exchange rate, that’s between $1.31 and $1.46 USD per can.

Hard liquor is ridiculously expensive. To buy a bottle of Jägermeister and a bottle of Bacardi Apple rum (which are also only 700 mL bottles rather than the 750 mL fifths sold in the States) would cost 494 SEK, or about $72 USD.

If you found both on sale at a grocery chain in California, it’d probably run about $20-$25 for the same two bottles.

The Swedish government maintains that keeping the monopoly in place has kept alcohol out of minors’ hands and discouraged binge drinking among adults. You must be at least 20 years old to buy alcohol at Systembolaget, which runs national television ads urging its patrons to imbibe responsibly.

As much as I bag on The System as an annoying, outdated concept, I have found one silver lining. Since the government imports wine from across Europe and the rest of the world in such large quantities, those savings are passed on to Swedes in spite of the high taxes.

The System set a new record in 2009 by selling more than 170 million liters of wine, and the four-liter boxes introduced in the late 1990s are largely to thank. The boxed wine isn’t the Franzia crap sold in the States, either. Quality stuff at a reasonable price.

Systembolaget causes a lot of frustration, especially for new expatriates. I don’t think it works the way the government would like everyone to believe it does, but there’s no alternative. You get used to it. You memorize the hours and you learn to plan ahead. You join the masses who tote the signature purple bags around town on Friday afternoons, when going to The System is literally a social event.

I’ve learned my lesson. Always stash away a couple extra bottles of wine when you’re in Sweden. You never know when you might need them.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Three Months Later

My connecting flight from Munich touched down in Sweden three months ago to the hour. Several weeks after arriving, Scandinavia slowly started to feel like my new home.

The first month really seemed like a vacation, primarily because it was the same duration as my first visit here last winter and also because Sweden is a very festive country in late summer. Swedes have to party themselves out before darkness shrouds the land all winter.

Eventually, I remembered that I actually live here now. I registered with the Swedish Tax Board and was assigned a personnummer (like a U.S. Social Security number, only it’s used much more frequently and for many more things in Sweden). I opened a bank account, bought a cell phone and registered for a government-funded Swedish language course. Then I switched my renter’s insurance from Sacramento to Falköping. It finally felt official.

Amanda and I didn’t expect everything to go according to our original plan, but we’ve had to adapt to a few more changes than we might have guessed.

When I left California, we were all set to lease an apartment in Jönköping, the city where she goes to school. I figured I’d have a good job by now and speak fluent Swedish.

Not so much.

We spent the first 10 weeks in this house on Amanda’s mom’s farm, 15 kilometers outside of her hometown, Falköping.

We moved into our own apartment in the heart of town last week. Great location and an old-school fireplace complemented by some antique furniture. It’s pretty cozy. We love it.

We decided to get a place here for two major reasons. First, as you’ll see on the map below, Falköping is more centrally located to both Jönköping (47 minutes by train to the south) and the second-largest city in Sweden, Göteborg (1 hour, 7 minutes by train to the west).

In addition, virtually all our friends and Amanda’s extended family reside in the Falköping area, and although I’ve been swiftly rejected for a growing list of English teaching and communication jobs, living close enough to commute daily to Göteborg — a huge city with a metropolitan population approaching 1 million — can’t hurt my employment prospects.

My Swedish has improved considerably after only three weeks of classes, but I’m still not where I’d like to be. I start a more advanced course next week so hopefully my language skills will increase at an even quicker rate.

After three months here, everyone I meet still questions my move to one of coldest, gloomiest places on the planet. I can count on two hands the people here who haven’t called me crazy to my face for leaving California for southern Sweden.

In their defense, movies and T.V. shows have tricked them into thinking every mile of the Golden State looks like a San Diego or Los Angeles beach. Nobody here believes there’s snowboarding in California.

I’ve learned to laugh at all the dropped jaws and headshakes. I don’t regret my decision to move here at all. Sure, I miss California — from the people to the prices — but I chose to make Sweden my new home and I’m still loving every minute of it.