If you want to grasp how a country works, have a child there

I met a Swedish girl in a Dublin pub in 1995. What I knew about Sweden back then you could have scribbled on the back of an Abba stamp. Nevertheless, two years later I found myself stepping off a plane in Stockholm, blinking in dazzling sunlight, vaguely surprised to find myself not on a reindeer-specked tundra but in a modern city where I would end up staying forever.

I kick this story off with the why and the how because the question you are most asked by people here is a hesitant: “But . . . why would you come to Sweden?” After two decades in Stockholm my standard answer is: “Well, why wouldn’t you?”

I like Stockholm. It’s modern and old fashioned and gorgeous and odd and functional and quirky and hot when it’s hot and freezing when it’s cold. Stockholmers have a reputation for being rude, but it’s more that people here give each other space, a trait I admire. Nobody will probe into your business, but if you want your business probed into it can definitely be arranged. Give a Swede a drink, for example, and they’ll talk about anything, often for way longer than is necessary.

I like Stockholm. It’s modern and old fashioned and gorgeous and odd and functional and quirky and hot when it’s hot and freezing when it’s cold

I taught English when I arrived. After a couple of years I ended up at a company that made computer games for children. (Thanks, Mum and Dad, for getting me that computer back in the 1980s.) I’m not at the same company now, but I’m still in computer games, as a programmer, now working in mobile. With 18 years under my belt I’m a grizzled veteran in a youthful industry, and getting more grizzled by the month, while my managers get more fresh faced.

Stockholm is a world capital of information technology and gaming. Spotify, Mojang, Paradox Interactive, Avalanche Studios, Klarna, King, Dice and Skype all started here. It’s a weird time to be alive, when making a monster move across a screen counts as a job. I’m fine with it, and I love what I do, but I’m occasionally reminded how odd it is.

Helping hand: Sweden offers essentially free preschool, free healthcare, free university, free school lunches. Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor via Getty
Helping hand: Sweden offers essentially free preschool, free healthcare, free university, free school lunches. Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor via Getty

I also had a child. If you want to grasp how a country works, have a child there. It’s a great way to meet people, and to learn new words. Vab, for example, which stands for Vård av Barn, or Care of a Sick Child, and refers to being paid about three-quarters of your regular income by the state if you need to take time off work to look after a sick child. Trust me, you’ll need to know Vab when norovirus season rolls around. Spy is another one to jot down. It means vomit.

Sweden is extremely generous when it comes to children. It has this odd idea that it should be easy for everybody, even single parents, to hold a full-time job. So it offers essentially free preschool, free healthcare, free university, free school lunches.

“And what about the huge tax burden?” I hear online commenters cry. I pay the same income tax as I would on a similar salary in Dublin. I checked. And I get all the stuff I’ve mentioned. I consider that a good trade-off. And because very few people here live in poverty, society is generally safer and fairer. I’d happily pay tax for that instead of having another €50 a month to waste on Ikea tea lights.

There are drawbacks, of course. The ways I’ve had my Guinness mispoured would make a grown man sob into his open prawn sandwich

So I can recommend Stockholm as a place to live, assuming you can find a flat to live in. It’s a fair and functioning society, with a love of the outdoors, huge lunches, pickled fish, rocket-fuel coffee, recycling, sunshine and drinking songs.

There are drawbacks to living here, of course. Good luck finding a cup of tea that doesn’t have flowers or fruit or exotic oils in it, or a bottle of wine after 7pm or on a Sunday. I will never be able to spell Swedish words thanks to vowels designed to torture foreigners, and the ways I’ve had my Guinness mispoured would make a grown man sob into his open prawn sandwich.

But you get used to anything. My son is grown now, and can be served in a pub. I have a Swedish partner and a shiny Swedish passport. So where, I often ask myself, is home? When I’m in Stockholm I miss my home in Ireland. But after a few days in Ireland I want to go home to Sweden. It’s an odd feeling. But I guess that’s just how it is for those who live abroad. Our blessing and our curse.

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