Sweden is dangerously safe and offensively nice. It’s so nice that you can’t help being annoyed by it. Maybe I’m just a bitter person.
We drove from Denmark to Malmo and stopped for a night before driving up to Karlstad. As we arrived, the streets were bustling with student freshers, acting age-appropriately loud but not causing any trouble worth note–like a Christian rock festival sans God-stuff.
Sweden has unusual laws for the sale of alcohol. The drinking age is 20 (in case you’re wondering what the age of consent is – and you are now – it’s 15). Generic shops cannot sell beer over 3.5% abv, for this you have to go to a government-owned shop called Systembolaget to buy drinks. The Swedish government hold a monopoly on alcohol sales. However, bars can sell you whatever they want. In most cases that means expensive drinks. So we did, we drank Johnnie Walker and found a place that sold a special edition of Talisker – a scotch I’d become quite partial to.
Before long a native noticed my British accent and started making jokes about “fagball” – his name for football – despite telling us he was a great football supporter and a proud West Ham fan. In fact, he was convinced that football was a game for homosexuals, not at all like – by his firm assertion – hockey. He deemed hockey to be a superior game, then told us he was a big fan of West Ham (again). I honestly couldn’t tell if he liked football or not, he seemed to be quite conflicted and it left me confused.
We moved down to another bar where we met a gentleman who was a manager of a few McDonald’s stores. We spoke to him about the local political situation with nationalists, the climate of manufactured fear, and filming people whilst they eat. Apparently, in Sweden, it’s illegal for commercial premises to video capture people eating. That means if someone wants to murder you in McDonald’s they won’t be caught on CCTV.
Someone could walk into Maccies and dig a claw hammer into your brittle skull and it wouldn’t be captured on film. A man could walk into McD’s and drive a stake through your eye-socket and the police would only have traumatised witness reports and a corpse to lead the investigation. A dangerous criminal, torn by murderous bloodlust, hell-bent on extinguishing life could walk into McDonald’s and repeatedly puncture your lungs with kebab skewers and it wouldn’t be evidenced by a DVR – a stark, strange contrast from a British McDonald’s where the food is more likely to kill you than the customers.
But – obviously – McDonald’s murder doesn’t happen in Sweden because Sweden is safe: although it is in the grip of serious, fervent nationalism – on August 20, for the first time in history the hardline nationalist Swedish Democrat Party took a poll lead over every other party. The poll, conducted by pollsters YouGov, suggested that 25% of people would vote for SDP. Although the Swedish Democrat Party plug themselves as a social conservative with a nationalist foundation, they are accused of being a far-right populist party.
The SDP cut their teeth with extremism and still hold links with the extreme far-right, including friendships with groups who like neo-Nazis, ethnic nationalist politics and race baiting. They entered parliament back in 2010 with just over a meagre 5% of the electorate. At the time their chief policy focused on stemming immigration.
Our new friend the McDonald’s manager told us that the anti-immigrant rhetoric has never been more prevalent – an awful byproduct is unnecessary attacks on minority ethnic groups. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for malicious people to falsely claim they were attacked by immigrants to spark tension and add to the climate of fear. That’s right – people genuinely make up they are attacked by immigrants to rally racists to attack ethnic groups they don’t like. #JustSwedishThings.
The time for drinking petered out, the latest bars close at 1AM on Tuesdays. We made our way back to the van and decided to cook some soup in the middle of the street. Fear of arrest isn’t that serious in Karlstad, in fact, we were convinced that a night in a holding cell would be more comfortable than the van. After all, we were tourists (read: white people). We busted out the camping stove, a bag of soup, Tabasco and some mini Babybels, then promptly set about souping up between the front of the van and a parked a white BMW 3 series estate. At the time, we thought it was acceptable to throw our trash under the BMW because the owner – whoever he (or she, it’s 2015 after all) was – had opted to get the smaller engine model.
Not wanting the night to end so early, encouraged by healthy doses of scotch, we set about the hash we had left over from Amsterdam. So there we were, parked illegally on a junction, in a DSSK branded van, on a semi-residential street in Karlstad, hotboxing the van cockpit with the aid of a crappy little 2 euro hash pipe and Holland’s finest. Again, at this point we still considered a holding cell to be a good enough story to end on. But sadly nobody arrested us so we went out to explore the city.
We stumbled and wandered, and looked at the architecture, rivers and landmarks in the way only a belly of booze and headful of hash allows: mouth perpetually half-open, saying the word cool a lot and just generally pissing around. So that’s what we did. We pissed around and got so lost that we found ourselves walking across a motorway, accidentally.
After wandering around for an hour we were convinced that Karlstad may be one of the safest places on the planet. The only anti-social behaviour we’d seen had been our own and even that was quite palatable. It was eerily quiet like an oppressive state after curfew. Nobody was out; nobody was dicking around. We were sobering up and it looked like our best port of call was going back to the van to hit the hash pipe before bed.
On our way back to the van we heard shouting quite close. Figuring this might be our only chance to see some aggravation or crime in the wild we walked towards it. Four guys were riding bikes down the road, shouting, swearing and looking like they were having fun. We shouted them down and asked if they spoke English. They were all in their early twenties and dressed like a British indie band. It was hard to imagine they were the rowdiest group of people in the entire city right then. They told us on Tuesday everyone got stoned and stole bikes then asked if we’d like to join them by stealing bikes. We agreed.
Before you judge me: I had never stolen a bike before. To be honest, I’d never really stolen anything of immediate importance or tangible value before April. Earlier this year I realised I was firmly in my twenties and I hadn’t shoplifted anything in my life. I was working for a cannabis seed company as a blogger, and I was driving to a seaside town in the UK with my boss. He told me he’d seen me post my realisation on facebook and he immediately sought to rectify it. He pulled into a motorway service station and we both stole nice thermos flasks from Starbucks. He told me he used to be a massive fan of shoplifting and he thought it was excellent sport.
It transpires I’m a terrible bike thief. Well, unlucky, not terrible. Every bike I tried was locked, much to the entertainment of the Swedish boys who eventually helped me. We cycled around, switching out bikes when we fancied for fresh steals, and generally acting like twats. After an hour of solid cycling, we were tuckered out and retired to a nearby McDonald’s.
We asked the Swedish boys if they had work or school the following morning, they reassured us that nobody did anything on Wednesday in Sweden (I’m not sure how true this is), they said Wednesday was “Little Saturday” implying that Tuesday was the equivalent on a Friday night. They revealed this is the type of thing they had been doing for years. One of them went to be sick in the bathroom, so we figured it was time to go to bed.
Before we left we posed for a group photo, cycled back to the van on the recently stolen bikes and slept in the van. When we woke up we had a ticket. We promptly drove to Stockholm.