I knew that Sweden was going to be expensive. Sweden taxes luxury items like alcohol, cosmetics, Ferraris, and eating out, heavily. To make matters worse the Swedish currency, called the kronor, is not the Euro, despite Sweden being in the EU since 1994. The kronor is not very big, but there are a lot of them. One US dollar is about 6.5 kronor. Something that costs 100 kronor (like a beer in a bar) is $15. Plus the Swedish bills themselves are overwhelming my wallet, and not in quantity. Like many countries, (but strangely not the US), Sweden puts emphasis on the size of their money. A 20 kronor bill is smaller than a 100 kronor bill. The 500 kronor bills don’t even fit in my wallet. I am forced to fold them into origami American money.
The Swedes also have coins, of course, and they are generally bigger than US currency, and more powerful. The leader of the Swedish coin is the 10 kronor. The advertisement on the side of the gas station near our apartment reads
“alltid en varmkorv för en tia”
which means you can always get a warm hotdog for one of those 10 kronor coins (hotdogs are ubiquitous in Sweden).
The smallest coin is the 1 kronor, which is about the size of a quarter but worth a little less. Sometimes purchases tally to fractions of a kronor, like 231.50 but everyone just ignores anything after the decimal point. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream costs 51.50 at the grocery store ($8), so unfortunately it has slipped from our diet along with fresh vegetables (achieving an Arctic balanced diet). Gasoline is also, unsurprisingly, costly. At 14.xxx kronor a liter, it works out to about $8 a gallon. You at least get 95 octane and they let you pump it yourself, something you cannot do in Oregon.
We were warned by Amanda’s mother that apartments do not come with lights; instead you have to furnish your own. That seemed like the least of our worries until we arrived in our apartment and it was dark. No problem. We shopped at Kupan, which is similar to a Goodwill or Salvation Army second hand store but run by the Red Cross. We were able to find what was in my mind a pretty decent ceiling lamp; Amanda found it hideous and described it as un upside down wooden garbage can. Undeterred I bought it and when we arrived home, we attempted to install it. Remember this was the first night in our apartment and we had arrived with our suitcases which due to increasingly stringent airline weight limits, contained no furniture.
Though many living arrangements are different in Sweden, they still believe in putting ceiling lights on the ceiling. Even with the metric system, the ceiling is still much higher than I can reach. We quickly realized that we had nothing we could even stand on, our suitcases being too soft and no furniture or ladder in sight. We could have asked a neighbor, but we remembered that Swedes don’t like to talk to their neighbors and being new we wanted to make a good impression. Luckily our landlords, who live in Boden, near the coast, were at the building doing some maintenance. I described our problem and they dashed off to ransack the basement and utility rooms in search of something to stand on. They found a perfectly good chair in the garbage room, and gave it to us as a gift. It performed admirably and we had our light installed, plus a fine piece of furniture that we took turns sitting on as we ate dinner.
Encouraged by one working light we decided we should have more. We went to the electronic shop which had dozens of lights hanging in the window. We quickly realized why they have so many lights, no one can afford them. Their most modest examples were 700 kr, more than 100 USD, and these looked like they would willingly be at home around a dog’s neck, to impede chewing on a wound. Like all good American consumers we knew what to do next: use the internet to buy stuff from IKEA. IKEA did have cheaper lights, some as little as 200 kr (40 USD), but they also looked like junk and didn’t come with a bulb. The light bulb we bought for our first lamp was 70 kr (10 USD), and it is without a doubt the most environmentally friendly light bulb I have ever owned. It barely makes any light at all, and virtually none in the first few minutes, a very important time in the functioning of a light. We decided to bide our time, lower our standards, and see what we could find second hand, with a working light bulb included.
Now I have traveled a lot so I have a few tricks up my sleeve. One of my brilliant tricks this trip was to leave our sleeping pads that we use for camping behind, as they are bulky and I figured we could buy new ones in Sweden. I was completely right, you can buy new ones in Sweden, or someone can. Sweden does have a King and Queen, after all, who in case you missed just welcomed their second grandchild into the world…in NYC. Perhaps you missed the news, but it was hard to miss here. Anyways, at first I thought the price of the sleeping pad was the SKU number. Even the most basic, thin, wimpy, inflatable sleeping pad cost more than $100 and the salesman leveled with us and said he would never use it in the cold, which considering our situation didn’t seem like a worthwhile investment. Foam sleeping pads that can be had for $20 in the US were still almost $100. Apparently finding such things second hand is very difficult. Swedes have a different mentality from Americans when it comes to purchasing material goods. Swedes rarely donate things; rather they buy quality items to begin with and use them until they are completely worn out. The second hand market is much smaller.
Life was beginning to look grim, or at least expensive, which is pretty much the same thing. Luckily we received a tip from our helpful landlords “go to the source, the source of junk!” So we went to the “återvingsstation” which is the “recycling center” (“dump” before they invented the environment). This place is really cool. Basically they look at what people are throwing away and if anything looks decent or even salvageable, they save it. They have an extensive workshop with a bunch of craftspeople who repair all the “treasures” and then sell them to keep the program running. We found the two people in charge and explained our situation.
“We just moved to Jokkmokk and we are looking for furniture” Amanda told them in Swedish.
“What do you need,” asked the woman.
Before we could respond, the man beside her responded, “Everything.”
Both jumped into action, “Ok, so you need everything, bed, table, chairs, couch, TV….”
They led us to a storage room and began pulling out the things we needed. “Here is a bed, and mattresses, look good?”
“How much does it cost?” we asked.
“Hmm, 100 kronor ($15)?” they replied.
“Ok! Sounds good!”
They continued like this with everything we could want, and each thing cost about 100 kronor, though a particularly nice leather couch commanded a 250 kr ($40) price. After we had amassed a huge pile of furniture, I noticed several bicycles standing in the corner. One was a slick looking road bike.
“How much for this road bike” I asked in half coherent Swedish.
“Hmmm, well it hasn’t been fixed by us yet, so it might have problems, how about 100 kronor?”
Then they asked how we planned to get everything home. We had originally thought we could load stuff on our car’s roof racks, but this was a lot of furniture.
“We can deliver it in our big box truck if you like,” they offered.
“How much will that cost” we asked.
They thought for a moment then replied, “How about 100 kronor?”
They showed up at our apartment 10 minutes later with 4 people jammed in the cab of the truck. They unloaded in about 15 minutes, including a free armchair they had found that they thought would complement our furniture. To illustrate the fact that we live in a small town, one of the workers said he had moved a table out of this apartment not too long ago. The woman in charge said her cousin had lived in our apartment.
Sweden is generally expensive, but a person can find affordable things with a bit of creativity. Plus there are a lot of social services. We are covered for health care. For example, hospital visits cost a flat fee of 200 kronor ($35) and includes everything, such as X-rays and blood work. While the US spends lots of money on young people and their recreation (sports complexes, school sport programs) Sweden is good at investing money in things aimed at people of all ages. Jokkmokk has a free cross country ski trail system with lights for night skiing (remember during the winter “night” is most of the day). Additionally, Sweden has lots of social services that work to keep people out of poverty, by providing skills and language training and help finding jobs. Newly arrived immigrants (like us) can receive free Swedish language training, 3 hours each weekday, and homelessness and hunger are much rarer than in the US. Certainly these come at a cost, like that $15 beer, that $8/gallon gas, and that 30% income tax, which limit how much excess money you do have to spend on luxury goods.
So I am sure some of you are wondering if anything is more affordable in Sweden. There are a few things to be sure, such as snow, but others are few and far between. Cream seems to be slightly cheaper in Sweden, which may explain why Swedes use it copiously. Also almond paste seems to be easier and cheaper to buy here. That seems to round out the list. The US is much cheaper for almost everything, but at what price?