My first winter in Sweden: How bad could it be, we wondered?

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. In a new series, the Local's reader Alexander de Neree writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

Alexander de Nerée by Lake Mälaren in Stockholm
Alexander de Nerée. Photo: Private

We would love it in Sweden, was the consensus among our friends who – unlike us – had actually been to the country. The people, so stylish! The city, the nature, the furniture! What is there not to love? Except, perhaps, the winters.

And so it happened that everyone we told we were moving in October, noted that the timing was unfortunate. This did not stop with the friends we left behind, who jokingly gave us a pack of vitamin D as a parting gift. Everyone we met in Sweden said the same: good luck with that.

How bad could it be, we wondered?

After the first six weeks of non-stop rain, finally, on Christmas Day, winter arrived in all its splendour.

What we were mainly not prepared for is how prepared the Swedes are for the darkness, the weather and the winter in general. Every un-curtained window in the city filled up with lights in the weeks running up to Christmas. Too late we realised we were the last on our street without festive lights to share. In a panic we scraped the barrel at online shop Webhallen and snatched the last light ornament depicting the three kings arriving in Bethlehem. We hoped no one would notice it was a little early for that.

people on an ice-covered lake
Swedes enjoying the cold weather. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

In the freezing weeks that followed, the Swedes seemed to thrive. In most countries, at the first hint of snow, emergency plans kick in, trains stop moving, red alerts are raised and hoarding stories fill the news.

While we did not really have the right clothes for the freezing temperatures, everyone around us from one day to the next, seemed to have pulled out full ski gear to run errands. That is, those who were not just ignoring the cold and were still running in shorts and a T-shirt; the same people, I assume, who went for a swim in the lake in November.

Daily life did not seem much impacted. People happily dug out their cars with shovels kept in the back for that purpose and went on their way on the slippery roads. Also, the fact that the snow requires people to climb up on the roof to cause local avalanches on the sidewalk was taken in stride. The drainpipes outside our building turned into icicle bombs ready to explode at any moment, giving an exciting edge to leaving the house.

As the cold snap continued, we saw families walk their dog on the ice of the lake, people cross country skiing in the streets and children hurling themselves off hills, zooming past tombstones with abandon. All without any visible concern for the fact that – even by Swedish standards – this must have been a pretty cold winter.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. The snow melted, the ski outfits disappeared, and expensive sunglasses replaced the woollen hats. Within three days of above freezing temperatures, charcoal for barbecues was on offer in the local supermarket. Just like that, we made it through our first winter.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. Moving to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his ‘firsts’ in Sweden.

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OPINION: Why are a Swedish minister’s private bills anyone’s business but theirs?

In what strange world is being late in making a payment to the local council for sewage services a possible sacking offence for a government minister?

OPINION: Why are a Swedish minister's private bills anyone's business but theirs?

In mid-February, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper – the newspaper that broke the sex scandal story that saw the Nobel Literature Prize suspended for a year – published its latest scoop.

“Environment Minister Annika Strandhäll has had a missed payment sent to the National Debt Enforcement Agency, DN can reveal,” its editor, Peter Wolodarski, announced on Twitter.

The debt, 700 kronor ($75) for the installation of a “sludge separator” which should have been paid at the end of 2021, had grown to 1,350 kronor due to late payment charges.

After more than a decade in Sweden, I still find this idea – that the way a minister handles their private, personal finances should be a matter of public interest – utterly mystifying.

From my British perspective, and the perspective of, I suspect, many other foreigners living in Sweden, it’s her money. If she’s late with her bills, she will have to pay a fine. She will probably get a credit marking. That’s her business and no one else’s.

But Tobias Billström, the parliamentary leader of the leading opposition Moderate Party, was immediately out calling for her to be sacked, denouncing her as a slarvmaja, a woman of sloppy, disorderly habits.

“The Prime Minister cannot reasonably keep this slarvmaja – who has now received several chances and official warnings – in her government. Once is enough, twice is once too many,” he declared on Twitter.

So many Swedes then leapt onto Twitter to censure Strandhäll and boast about how they have never once had a debt sent to the enforcement agency, that Kronofogden, the Swedish name for the agency, ended up trending higher than Sweden’s Olympic gold in speed skating, the first in 34 years. 

The story started at the end of last year when Strandhäll was found to have had nine debts sent to the agency since 2018, as part of the investigation of incoming ministers’ finances that has become a Swedish journalistic tradition. 

Strandhäll is by no means the first politician to get into trouble for what people in other countries might see as private economic matters.

Cecilia Stegö Chilò lasted only ten days as Minister for Culture in the first government of Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, after it turned out she had not paid her TV licence for at least 16 years. Even Billström himself, who was appointed Migration Minister at the same time, got into hot water after it transpired he hadn’t paid for his TV licence either. He didn’t resign, of course (he’s a man). 

Then there’s the so-called Toblerone Affair which forced Mona Sahlin to withdraw her candidacy to be the next leader of the Social Democrats in 1996.

She had spent 53,174 kronor on private expenses on a government credit card, including the purchase of two Toblerone chocolates, something she claimed was an advance on salary that was standard practice among ministers at the time.

It also later emerged that she hadn’t paid for her TV licence and had 98 unpaid parking fines of which 32 had gone to the National Debt Enforcement Agency. She was later found to have committed no crime. 

Arguably, the much-publicised dispute between Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch and 82-year-old pensioner Esbjörn Bolin, who sold her his house and then tried to go back on the contract, is also a private matter, but this has not stopped it dogging Busch for two years. 

But with all the transgressions above (apart from perhaps Busch’s problems – at least until she formally admitted to defaming the seller’s legal counsel), you could argue there is some legitimate public interest. Not paying your TV licence was a crime, and both Chilò and Billström were withholding payment in protest. Sahlin was using public money to buy private goods. 

The Strandhäll case is unusually petty, even by Swedish standards. It is also rather cruel. 

The first batch of unpaid bills was from a period when she had been left to care singlehandedly for her children and stepchildren, who were at the time 12, 17, and 19, after her live-in partner, or sambo, took his own life.


The argument appears to be that someone who is bad at handling their own personal finances lacks the required qualities to be a minister.

“Why claim to be able to organise Sweden when you can’t even organise yourself?” tweeted Mattias Lindberg, a columnist for the right-wing web newspaper Bulletin. 

This is an argument that might hold water when choosing an accountant or perhaps a lawyer, but for a politician, does it really wash? What counts for a minister is communication skills, vision, leadership.   

There’s something cultural behind it: a shame in not paying your debts, or failing to properly manage your household. 

In Britain, government ministers used to have to resign if they were discovered being unfaithful to their partners, something which is also arguably a private matter. Per Albin Hansson, who built Sweden’s Social Democratic state as Prime Minister between 1932 and 1946, supported and lived between two separate families and joked to journalists that “they accuse me of being a Mormon”. 

If that says something about British attitudes to sex, the Strandhäll scandal says something about Swedish attitudes to debt. 

Personal debt seems to be peculiarly morally loaded. Skuld, after all, means both “debt” and “sin”.

Perhaps there’s some connection to Sweden’s Lutheran heritage, or perhaps it’s a throwback to the Sweden of the 19th century and before, when poverty was widespread and those who didn’t pay their debts were thrown into a debtor’s prison? 

Either way, for a foreigner it’s one of those instances when, just as you think you understand how the country works, you realise you don’t at all.