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Stockholm--Pearl of Scandinavia

Comparison of Sweden and the US

Stockholm—Pearl of Scandinavia

I have a long history of visiting Sweden, as well as shorter visits to Denmark and Norway. (I’ve never visited Finland.)  The first time I visited Denmark and Sweden was in 1970, following my year’s residence as a student in Kiel, Germany.  This was the time of the Vietnam War military draft, which I avoided by staying out of the US for three and a half years, until the draft was canceled in 1972, and the war was ended.  I’ll be forever glad that I didn’t go the war in Vietnam. Sweden was the sanctuary country for American draft evaders like myself.

In 1970, I met individuals in Stockholm who have been good friends ever since…friends for life!  Unfortunately, several of them are suffering from severe health problems.  Our six-day visit this week is exclusively about seeing these friends here.  It’s a bittersweet visit to see the struggles of my dear friends.  Two of them have Parkinson’s, with worsening conditions after several years. 

Another friend has Aphasia, the condition of not being able to put words together anymore.  It’s a sad condition for the man who mentored me in my first transition from being strictly a classical clarinetist to becoming a jazz flutist.  He was very important to me then.  Now all I can do is to give him love and hugs when we meet.  Luckily, his wife takes good care of him.

Comparing Swedish with American Healthcare

Meeting these friends has led to discussions of the difference between the American and Scandinavian healthcare systems.  Scandinavians receive free healthcare for all conditions.  Some years ago, Susan and I met a Norwegian hospital administrator at a healthcare conference in Phoenix.  A few years later, we took a Hurtigruten Cruise up the coast of Norway.  (We liked this cruise so much, that we took it for a second time a few years later.)  We met him to tour his hospital in Trondheim, Norway.  His opening conversation was: “Welcome to Norway.  In Norway, we don’t care if you’re a tourist, a criminal, or an immigrant from anywhere in the world.  If you need any kind of healthcare while you are here in Norway, there will be no charge!”

Sweden is similar.  Healthcare services include paying for taxis to and from medical appointments.  (Not all Swedes have autos, like Americans do.)  One friend has macular degeneration, which requires an injection into her eyes.  The injections are apparently not as traumatic a procedure as it sounds.  In any case, she receives the monthly injections for free, which would cost thousands for each injection in the US healthcare system.  We had conversations about how hard it is to transition to providing free healthcare in the US when there are so many organizations that would lose part of their profits derived from Americans paying more for our healthcare than people in any other country in the world.

Shifts in Swedish Politics

Sweden has a long tradition of military/political neutrality.  It has not fought in a war for a couple of centuries.  Like Switzerland, Sweden stayed neutral in World War II.  Nazi Germany had occupied Denmark, and then demanded that Sweden allow German soldiers to use the Swedish railway system to travel to invade Norway.  If Sweden didn’t consent, the Nazis said they would invade Sweden instead.  So the Swedish government gave in, and the German military conquered and occupied Norway.  Norwegians have not forgotten Sweden’s betrayal in this act.

Sweden has a long tradition of accepting asylum seekers of any nationality.  Following the mass migration of refugees following the war in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, Sweden accepted more refugees per capita than any other country in the world.  (Germany accepted a larger number of refugees, but Germany has ten times the population of Sweden.)  The large influx of refugees has caused schisms within Swedish society. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland and Sweden, which had been neutral nations for many years, applied to join NATO.  Joining NATO requires the consent of all current members.  Turkey held up approval of Sweden joining because Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey, wanted Sweden to deport the Turks that had fled to Sweden based on their persecution in Turkey for opposing Erdogan.  This would have required Sweden to break its liberal asylum laws to deport the Turkish refugees because of their individual political beliefs.  Sweden refused, and eventually Erdogan relented.  And so, Putin’s stated aim of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO had the opposite effect of solidifying NATO’s military presence to include Finland and Sweden. Finland has a large common border with Russia.

Opposition to Immigration

There is a long-standing conflict throughout the world history of countries blaming their immigrants for their nations’ problems.  Donald Trump condemns immigrants in every speech, saying they are “vermin spreading crimes and diseases.”  Similarly, here is a New York Times headline about Sweden: “The Sweden Democrats, with roots in neo-Nazism, came in second in national elections and will have a powerful influence on a new center-right government.”  This anti-immigrant party wants to abolish Sweden’s long-standing policy of accepting all political refugees.

So far, just like in the US, the majority of Swedes oppose the right-wing Sweden Democrats party.  Unfortunately, in the US we have the Electoral College which gives undue electoral weight to small conservative states.  So, in spite of Hillary Clinton having received millions more votes than Trump, she lost the presidential race to Trump in the Electoral College.  The same thing could happen again in this year’s presidential election if Democrats don’t mobilize in those small conservative states.

Random Thoughts about Sweden

We happened to be visiting Stockholm during the annual Stockholm Marathon.  (We realized that this was why so many hotels were booked up.  Prices were high.)  The marathon had twenty-five thousand runners.  They passed right in front of our hotel.  It took a long time for 25k runners to pass by.  Of course, the leading runners were all Africans.

Stockholm’s transportation system is excellent!  The train from the airport to central Stockholm travels at more than 120mph, much faster than buses or autos traveling ti the inner city. 

The Stockholm subway “tunnel train” is very efficient and inexpensive.  It is expensive to own a car in Sweden.  Parking is limited.  Thus, many Swedes don’t need to own a car because of the extensive public transportation system.

Stockholm is a very international city.  It has a broad spectrum of nationalities and races.  Two of our taxi drivers were Kurds.  There are also Afghan, Syrian, Bangla Deshi, and other immigrant taxi drivers.

This is personal to my taste:  Sweden has the best buttermilk (filmjölk) in the world.  Light filmjölk has low fat, like American buttermilk.  But the 3% fat filmjölk is rich and creamy and is typically eaten on morning cereal, typically granola.  I do this at home eating my morning cereal with our local grocery store 1% fat buttermilk, but it never tastes quite as good as in Sweden.

Low-alcohol delicious pear cider (5%) is served in local bars.

Since I’ve visited Sweden over a dozen times, including my initial six-month residence in 1970, I speak passable Swedish.  When I was on tour with the Indian-jazz-fusion band Mynta, I spoke Swedish well enough to take part in a live radio interview.  But it’s difficult to practice my Swedish when Swedes speak such good English, such that when they hear my American-accented Swedish, they answer in English.

Sweden has no petroleum resources (unlike oil-rich Norway).  Thus there is a strong alternative energy movement.  All buses and taxis are electric (at least as I observed…there may be exceptions).  Public bathrooms all have motion sensors, such that the lights turn off when there is no one there, turning on only when someone enters.  Even department store escalators have motion sensors, only running when someone steps on them, instead of running constantly like in the US.

There is a very high standard of living in Sweden.  There are no slums or poor neighborhoods typical in the US.  But there are also fewer super-rich individuals, or if there are, they blend in without being ostentatious like Elan Musk, Donald Trump, etc.

Part of the tension around the immigration issue is caused by a segment of the Muslim immigrant population.  Many of them cling to their conservative religious traditions and are offended by the open sexual culture of Sweden. 

The question is: Should Sweden take in immigrants who don’t accept or want to integrate into normal Swedish society?  This is similar to the “melting pot” tradition assumed for immigrants in the US. The Sweden Democrats are gaining support with their anti-immigrant proposals.  If they are successful in abolishing Sweden’s traditional acceptance of political refugees, Sweden will have succumbed to the rest of the world’s phobia of foreigners.






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