Saturday, June 06, 2009

Two Years in Stockholm and Memories of the Ghetto

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of my landing in Stockholm, Sweden. I’ve managed to survive a whole lot of days in this country. So obviously I celebrated in what I thought to be an appropriate American fashion.

I went to a movie. An American one of course. Followed by standing outside of Stadion listening to Bruce Springsteen. I am cheap and didn’t have tickets. Luckily, playing in the 1912 Olympic stadium allows for the sound to carry. It was glorious. Dancing in the Dark seemed an appropriate song to be hearing as darkness tried to envelope the city around 11 in the evening.

When I made my way home I found myself attempting thoughtful reflection. Of course, thoughtful reflection doesn’t always work well for someone like me. Instead I reminisced about the misery that was my first move to an apartment in Sweden.

I knew maybe three people in Stockholm when I moved here. I had no job. I had no car. I wasn’t able to move into my apartment for about ten days after having moved here. I have had Swedes tell me I was brave to move here considering those circumstances. Having lived here for two years now, I understand that when Swedes say “modig” or “brave,” they actually mean “you are a complete idiot, why the hell would you do something like that.” Swedes tend to be very polite passive people. Luckily I had an uncle with an apartment.

In the ten days between landing in Stockholm and being able to move into my apartment I began the ever exciting task of buying furniture at IKEA for a new apartment. I stockpiled a few chairs and a table at my uncles place and patiently awaited my move-in date.

Because I had agreed to renting the apartment before moving to Sweden I had not seen it. As we all know, I am an idiot. I had ten days to go explore my new surroundings. Find out exactly where I was living. Find out how to get there. I did not do that. Because that would show some sort of foresight and logical thinking.

When move-in day rolled around, I didn’t really know where I was going. But I knew that I wanted to make the move as painless as possible. So, in what I thought was a good idea, I packed a backpack and a suitcase to take with me. In my bags I was carrying some clothes and a couple of pieces of flat packed IKEA furniture. I headed for the pendeltåg. The commuter train that I learned to hate over the coming months. I was not living in the middle of the city. By any means.

It was the middle of June and surprisingly warm. I found my way to the train without any problems. I got on the train going the right way. I did not find a seat. I had a lot of luggage so there just wasn’t room for me. I studied the different stops so I would know which stop was immediately prior to mine. This would allow me to prepare. I was thinking ahead. And that’s when it happened.

The train stopped. Not at a train stop, which would make sense, but in the middle of the tracks. I’m not an expert on trains, but being stranded in between stations on train tracks just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. I stayed calm and sat down on my bags.

Time passed slowly on the train. Slowly and silently. This was my first experience with the deathly silence that is Swedish public transportation. There were no announcements as the sun beat down on a train full of quietly seething Swedes.

Finally, after about ten minutes, the conductor came on and babbled something about not worrying, just a problem with the signals up ahead and we would soon be on our way. Turns out, he was a liar. We sat there for 30-45 minutes. I give such a big range, because my memory says 45 minutes but I fear that the two years have just made me bitter.

Suddenly, if suddenly can be used to describe such a long wait, the train started moving. At this point, the suffocating heat of a stranded train has left my shirt stuck to my sweaty back and my forehead running with little rivulets of sweat as I finally arrived at my stop and stepped off the train. As an aside, the girls couldn’t keep their eyes off of me. It was obviously my boyish good looks.

As I mentioned, I had never been out to my apartment. I didn’t know where to go. I had an address and an idea. Some would think that a map would have been a good idea. Those people would be right. Unfortunately, I was not one of them. So I wandered around carrying a backpack and a large suitcase which I had stuffed two flat-packed chairs into. I turned right out of the train station. After struggling with my bags and wiping sweat out of my eyes I realized I wasn’t going to find the street I was looking for.

I backtracked, this time going left out of the station. And did not find my apartment or the street I was looking for. So I backtracked again, this time to the station in hopes of some sort of sign from God. Instead, I found a sign from SL. Which is almost the same thing.

Turns out, I needed to turn left out of the station. So I headed back to where I had just come from. By this time, my shirt was not only sticking to my sweaty back but also my sweaty belly. The rivulets had become a deluge. I was hot.

I wandered in amongst a large collection of high-rise apartments. From the open window of one of the apartments I heard Coolio singing Gangsta's Paradise. I saw people all around me in traditional Middle Eastern garb. I didn’t hear a word of Swedish. It was such a change in scenery from the middle of Stockholm. It surprised me. Not a good surprise. Not a bad surprise. Instead it gave me a look at Sweden that very seldom is mentioned.

Suddenly, the realization hit me. I was in the Swedish ghetto. Euphemistically known here in Sweden as “the suburbs.” The area is essentially social welfare housing speckled with some student housing. I was trying to find the student housing.

As my desperation grew, and I looked more and more like I went swimming with all of my clothes on, I realized I still hadn’t found the damn street that my apartment building was supposed to be on. By this point, I was just angry. I had wandered into what is, not so euphemistically, known as a jumbo cluster fuck. There were streets with no names. There were streets that lasted one block. There were towering apartment buildings without addresses.

My apartment was on the 12th floor. Suddenly, it hit me, these buildings were big, but they weren’t 12 stories big. So I started counting the number of floors on each building as I passed it. None had 12 stories. Except for one. But it had small balconies. I knew enough to know that I didn’t have a balcony. I kept walking. Kept sweating. Kept cursing my decision to carry two IKEA chairs in a large bag. All the while counting the number of stories in each building.

Suddenly, I saw one building in front of me. No balconies. Over 12 stories. Ugly as sin. Then another. Then a third. I walked to the front of the first building, because somehow, in my wandering, I had managed to sneak up on the buildings from behind.

There it was. A student housing sign. Then a street sign. Then building numbers. The key worked and I made my way inside. Up to the 12th floor where I immediately dumped my backpack and bag on the floor, peeled off my shirt and shoved my face under the kitchen faucet.

I was home. A home which did me well for nearly a year and a half. I have since moved from “the suburbs.” I do not miss them. But it was always an adventure.

Welcome to Sweden. And reminiscing.


  1. You don't live in the suburbs anymore? And it only took you 1,5 years? Damn, you're lucky.

  2. God the glory days of crappy apartments. Wait, mine was in the city but only cost 13.000SEK per month (plus tv, gas, and electricity)and was owned by a bitchy girl from Östermalm. Amazing.

    It's so funny how despite all the craziness, things seem to work out. =)

  3. good for ya! just yesterday i went to somewhere called märsta to check out a room in an apartment. and i had no idea how the neighborhood gonna look like.
    the first thing i noticed on the train to märsta was utterly different faces !! i could barely find any swede!
    by the time i got off the snake. i even got more shock. i felt like if i were in China, i turned around no it was somewhere in africa another turn showed me some different races!so i didn't turn any more just looked down head for the bus station. ...
    and finally the place , the guy turned out to be from middle east and not friendly and so arrogant. this first thing absolutly was enough beside the room was a the very begining he told me that he had just got off the phone speaking with a Swede guy who wants the room.
    i am gullible but not that much!
    so i had no reason to say "yes", as an excuse i mentioned the distance to university(which was a fact). but he flipped out and started saying some nonsense like "people wants cheap and in(at) the center".
    i just didn't find to spoil my state of calmness(which i'm always in, this state hits you when you have no money haha) ... and left that garbage can.
    i just wasted a beautiful day visiting that bas** it was quite an experience,though.

    however congratulation on how tough you are(put some stress on are) brave !
    hope to see your new post soon buddy

  4. Aw, this post made my eyes teary, and me laughing. I sit here all :')-ish! this was my favorite post, so far.

  5. Congrats! Once again, you've given me a really good taste of what living in Sweden must be like as an adult. Had I not stumbled across your blog, I may have moved to Sweden on a whim trying to experience some of the things you'ved shared. So far, based on what I've read, I'm glad I haven't moved there - yet. But I may still need to. Nevertheless, keep up the great work. I read the posts religiously. Tack sa mycket!

  6. Sounds like you had a rough first experience of adult life in Sweden. I really sympathize with you because I've been to many suburbs like these and they are not nice. I can only imagine what it's like living in one. Damn Miljonprogrammet. It's the symbol of what's wrong with Sweden's immigration and integration-policies. How will immigrants get integrated when yhey just send them off to these ugly, poor suburbs where the other only people (kind of) they meet are other immigrants. It's terrible.

  7. Btw, are you voting for the European parliament today, Hairy?

  8. Wich "Suburb" was it? Just curious.

  9. If you do move to sweden there is alot of other options than Stockholm. Besides, like anything, its hard being new and if u got no experience, or the language skill, u will end up finding the apartments that noone else wants.

    Had proberly been pretty cool if there were ways to get help with stuff like that. People translating ads etc.

  10. @anonymous – I feel like that comment ight there is exactly what is wrong with the Swedish housing system. That there is surprise that someone, after one and a half years, isn’t living in the suburbs anymore.

    @sapphire – crappy apartments can go both ways. Even nice ones can be crappy if youre getting ripped off.

    @mike – the housing situation is just a mess here sometimes. But it sounds like you’ve experienced that first hand yourself.

    I love the comment about the state of calm taking over when you have no money. Being broke does have a way of making certain things much calmer.

    @julia – well thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

    @JErikR – it has its ups and downs. And a lot of times I write about the downs because they tend to be a bit more ridiculous and it gives me a chance to vent. But I will say this. Im really glad I moved here, and sometimes, whims are a hell of a lot of fun. Even if they leave you living in a Swedish ghetto (which I will say is still pretty nice for being a ghetto) and sweating profusely as you try to find out where you are living with half of IKEA in your suitcase.

    @Robban – it was a bit of ashock to the system. But it was fun. Well now it seems like it was fun. I remember cursing profusely as I wandered around trying to find my way.

    But youre right, the housing I was in was part of the (in)famous program to build one million housing units. Good times indeed. It just leads to isolated communities that makes integration even more difficult. But at the same time, Stockholm needs housing. So I have no good answer.

    Except to vote. Which I did.

    @anonymous – it was just south of Stockholm. We’ll leave it at that and let your imagination run wild.

    @anonymous – you are absolutely right. Stockholm, from many aspects, might be harder to get into in terms of housing and things like that. But at the same time, it’s a beautiful place.

  11. Hairy
    I dont know if you are a huge boss fan or not but you should've ponied up for the tickets. The Swedes are crazy for him. Outside of seeing bruce in NJ/NY/PA I would suspect Sweden would be the best atmosphere to see a Bruce show.

  12. in my second adventure in wonderland to find a room, yesterday i went over to some guy house,after checking the room and some other stuff he threatened me to lose my testicles(his eaxct word was balls,by the way)if i do anything wrong about his daughters, dear God !
    i said did i look like a rapist.what do u think do i?!
    what does a guy have to do in Stockholm to get a room and keeps those vital parts!
    since i'm a little just a little crazy i gonna go for it.(for the room not losing them)!
    and since i'm a kinda slacker i'm calling you a "responsible citizen"
    for that voting thing!

  13. Congratulations for reaching the two year mark! I know it is hard to move back and I admire you for it:)

  14. @Travis – I am a big Bruce fan. And actually managed to get myself into the concert on Sunday. It was glorious. The weather was beautiful and Bruce played Thunder Road. And that’s really all I need.

    @Mike – oh wow… you’re ballsy. See what I did there? Man, I am hilarious.

    @Néstor – Thanks! It feels good to have made it.

  15. ballsy ha! you mean extremely brave in Swedes prospective. we have a bone to pick later .
    any way i went to one of those irish bars around Gamlastan and i just found some lovely Australian and Irish people there .give me an exact name and directions where i can meet some North American dude, please!
    P.S. don't forget i'm utterly price sensitive.

  16. Congratulations Mike!

    In a few days it will be my 18 month anniversary. I still only have two friends...etc etc

    Nah just kidding, I am enjoying it for the most part!

    We should have a beer soon!

  17. @Mike – stay with it. Eventually some Americans will show up at those bars. Or Canadians.

    @Shane – it’s not always easy. What with two friends and all. I kid, I kid. Good work on 18 months though.

  18. i only made it to 26 months (but who was counting?), and then i ran like hell. you're very, er... modig. wink wink.

  19. 26 months is solid. Im getting close to the 25 month mark. We'll see how much longer I make it.