Stockholm, Sweden Report of what it's like to live there - 08/03/14

Personal Experiences from Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden 08/03/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Lengthy overseas expat career all over the world.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. Takes surprisingly long to get here since there are no direct flights. Must transit through New York, London or Munich, and there are often missed connections making the trip even longer. Expect about 12 hours of travel time.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Eighteen months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Foreign Service Officer assignment at U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The embassy (along with everyone else) has had lots of problems securing suitable leases for suitable properties. There is a real housing crunch in this city. Embassy staff are usually housed as singles in the city or families out in the suburban island of Liding (or further afield in Djursholmen). Apartments are not particularly large and lack storage space, even in the bedrooms and bathrooms. Parking spaces are usually way down the street at a local shopping mall garage rather than near the property (unless you live in the 'burbs). It took us four months of temporary housing before we got our place. The apartment itself is ok but the neighborhood, while not too far of a walk from the embassy, is pretty lifeless and bleak (think Soviet-style bloc apartments, but better maintained).

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Everything is available, prices are very high for most things.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Can't really think of anything that you can't get here or get shipped through the DPO. The embassy has a small commissary for some U.S. products, and arranges periodic commissary orders from Germany for people who want other specific items (Thanksgiving turkeys, various liquid items, etc.). Many over the counter pharmaceuticals in the US are by prescription here, so you may want to pack up on those before coming.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is McDonald's here and some local fast food places. McDonald's is not too expensive but everything else is.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

In the summer there are ticks in the countryside that carry a Lymes disease-type illness. The Embassy Health Unit will vaccinate you against this. Otherwise no issues.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO mail and diplomatic pouch. Reliable and relatively quick. Swedish post is reliable, but expensive. Packages are not delivered to residences, and you have to go pick them up in postal locations that are not particularly close by and hold ridiculously short and inconvenient hours of pickup. You must have passport or local Swedish ID exactly as spelled on the incoming package or they will not release it to you. They charge hefty duty on anything being imported from outside the EU, even if you shouldn't have to pay it as a diplomat. I avoid using local post if at all possible.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Not particularly easy to find, and would be very expensive if you do find it. I don't know of many people here who have domestic help except perhaps for nannies for their kids that they have brought in.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Sure, but expensive.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Pervasive and safe, but you can have a problem in some places (grocery stores) because if your credit card doesn't have a compatible chip and code system, they will ask you to provide ID along with your credit card. If you don't have a Swedish ID (in other words, if you have not been accredited and given your Swedish "personnummer" yet), they may not allow you to use the card.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Not sure, but I'm sure it's available.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is incredibly pervasive here. Would be nice to understand some basic Swedish, especially just to understand the signs, but very easy to get by without it.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Probably not much of a problem here, although many, many buildings have really tiny elevators (with manual doors and a sliding iron gate) that would probably not accommodate a wheelchair (and may have steps leading up to the entrance anyway).

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Safe and extensive. You can't really hail taxis on the street unless your lucky. You have to phone in advance. Taxis are very expensive, so are usually only used for special occasions. Drunk driving laws here are very strict, so if you are planning to drink during your night out, plan on not driving.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Cars aren't usually necessary given the compactness of the downtown area and the extensive public transport system. Cars are expensive, no parking at the Embassy and no covered (or provided) parking near your assigned housing. Gas is crazy expensive even after you get the tax back. Many people have cars, particularly those who live out in the suburbs, but most do without. You must also have winter tires, which many people buy in the States and ship with their HHE since they are much more expensive here. Local garages will store your unused tires for a fee (helpful, since you will probably not have space to store them on your own).

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. Quite good quality and quite fast. Probably about US$80/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Surprisingly affordable. Many local options, although until you are a real person in Sweden (i.e. you have been accredited and received your "personnummer"), you can't do much of anything here, including signing up for phone service (you can't even join a gym or rent a DVD until you have your personnummer). We got our two year plan through Tele2, who threw in a free iPhone 5 as part of the deal. If you want a local phone before you get your personnummer, you can always buy a pre-paid chip if you have your own unlocked phone.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No quarantine that I'm aware of. I have no pets, but I'm sure there is quality pet care available. One thing to keep in mind is that there is a Swedish law that forbids pet owners from leaving their pets unattended for more than six hours. So if you would need to leave the dog (or even cat) alone while you are at work, plan on having to get a sitter come in while you are away. This will of course be ridiculously expensive.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

No. Positions for family members within the mission are relatively few. Would be very hard to find anything on the local market. Swedes require fluent Swedish for even the most menial of jobs. I've only heard of one person (with specialized engineering skills) get offered a job on the local market here. Maybe some teaching jobs at the international schools? But I wouldn't plan on landing a job on the local economy here.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Don't know, but I'm sure there are plenty if you look.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business attire at work, including suits for men. Casual but elegant out in public. Take your shoes off when entering a private home!

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

This is a very safe place, so no particular concerns. That being said, it's not a paradise either, and there are incidents of theft, car smash and grabs, etc. Use normal precautions even here. Violent crime is pretty rare, fortunately.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

This is a very developed country with high quality medical care. That being said, I've been surprised how sick people get here so frequently (locals and Americans alike). There is a seasonal "kräks sjuk" (vomiting sickness) that goes around every winter and seems to hit almost everyone (not me yet, touch wood). Medical care is very expensive for those that are not part of the Swedish social services system, although presumably reimbursable under your insurance.

Stockholm doesn't even bother to clear or salt the sidewalks during the winter, so they pile up with snow and ice, making for treacherous walking. Be very careful in the winter. Many people by clip-on cleats to attach to the bottom of their shoes to keep from wiping out on the ice in the winter.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

As good as it gets. Can't think of any place that would be better.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Winters are long and pretty cold (snowy, but typically not frigid). More importantly, winters are DARK. The embassy issues natural light lamps ("happy lamps") to combat the depression that ensues from the darkness, but for some people, it really is a struggle. And even if winters aren't as harsh as you might fear, they are very long, with truly warm weather often not coming until late May or even later. Spring and fall are pretty short. Summers are glorious, rarely getting outright hot and nights always cooler and pleasant. Summer daylight goes on seemingly without end (at its peak, it never actually gets dark here at night, just a little darker than the day).

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

No personal experience but my understanding is that the quality has improved quite a bit in recent years and now there are no significant issues. A few English-language international schools to choose from.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I'm sure that this would be a welcoming place for special-needs kids but don't have any personal or anecdotal experience.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

A real problem here. The Swedish social service network is one of the best in the world but not available to resident diplomats, except at full price (crazy expensive). Swedes get 18 months off when they have a child, so the expectation is that parents will take care of their kids for the first year. So there are no services available to kids under one year old, even at a price. As resident diplomats, we don't get a year off, but there aren't places set up to help take care of kids at that age anywhere. Local schools starting at one year have a long waiting list, although since you will pay full price (around US$1,800/month per child), you can often negotiate a slot.

Local nannies are very expensive (US$20/hour and up). You can bring in a nanny from overseas as a diplomat but they must live in with you (and most housing isn't big enough to comfortably accommodate) and are still required to have an expensive minimum salary (US$1,300/month or so, plus various benefits). If you have pre-school kids or are planning to have kids while here and don't have a good arrangement already set up, think carefully about a tour here.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

I would assume so.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Not too many people here are really expats other than embassy people (the highly educated, English-speaking Swedish workforce, combined with the extremely high price of living in Sweden make the idea of sending expats to come work here not worth it to most companies). There are a fair number of "love refugees" - Americans and others who met Swedes, fell in love, and decided to come live here with them. Morale is a mixed bag here. Everyone agrees that it's a nice country, but the expense, the weather, the lack of affordable help and the insularity of Swedish society are downers.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Cross country skiing in the winter, running/swimming in the summer. Happy hours and strolls around the city. Entertaining at home. We've been a bit homebodyish, but there is a nightlife scene here. Bars and restaurants are plentiful but expensive.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes. All around, this is a good place for families and singles. Swedish society is a bit tough to penetrate but those who put in the effort can find social networks to integrate into.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Certainly. Incredibly open, tolerant society. Surprisingly not a huge gay scene here (only a few venues) but in part because LGBT have so integrated into society that there is no sense of needing separate venues to congregate. Very large annual Pride parade/festival.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Probably one of the better places in the world all around in this respect. The Swedes take gender equality very seriously here. There have been some tensions with the ever increasing flow of immigrants, particularly those from nations in conflict (Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.). There were even riots in the Stockholm suburbs in summer 2013 where they were trashing the neighborhoods and burning vehicles (like in France), which came as a real shock to the Swedes. But as an expat, I would expect little if any trouble here.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Midsummer celebrations, architecture and dynamism of this beautiful Scandinavian city.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Getting out to the archipelago islands during the summer. Brunch cruise through the Stockholm waterways year round, lots of museums, coffee and sweets get togethers ("fika"). Cross country skiing in the winter.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Handblown glass, wooden horses, Ikea furniture (not exactly unique or local at this point!).

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Clean air, safe environment, incredibly developed. Beautiful scenery, islands and countryside outside the city.

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10. Can you save money?

You're joking, right? Not a chance. The COLA hovers between 80 and 90 percent, but you still burn through money here.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Not much. I had lived in Sweden before, so no big surprises coming back.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Probably not. Such a wonderful country and a great place to visit, but living here isn't nearly as nice because of the weather, the expense, the lack of spousal employment opportunities, the high cost and limited availability of pre-school care and the insular nature of Swedish society. Stockholm is also not a particularly cheap or easy point from which to quickly get away to other locations that don't share the same weather and expense. Like I said, it's definitely a very nice place, but knowing what I now know, I would probably have preferred to go somewhere else instead.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Dreams of a hot summer.

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4. But don't forget your:

Wallet, parka.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Book 1 of the Millennium Trilogy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) and anything by Ingmar Bergman.

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Millenium trilogy (Stieg Larsson).

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7. Do you have any other comments?

I don't mean to be down on Sweden. There are lots of good reasons why Sweden enjoys a wonderful reputation around the world and why it sounds like such a cushy gig. But people should be aware of the drawbacks as well. This could be exactly everything you're looking for, but for others it might pose challenges (all the more frustrating when you haven't enjoyed it, but everyone feels you got so lucky and now "owe" having to go to a tough place next). If you're looking to save money here, you've picked the wrong country.

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