Pilgrim Tweet: No sun for Stockholm

3.8 hours. 3.8 hours!

That’s how much sunshine Stockholm has seen in the month of November so far, according to local newspapers. And I can tell you the lack of rays has been acutely felt by Stockholm’s inhabitants. Weather is the prevalent topic of conversation on a daily basis and calling dibs on the sun lamp at work is crucial.

The only other place that is in more pain than Stockholm? Karlstad, Sweden.

1 hour of sun.

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Grey days…

Stockholm is striking in its beauty; the buildings are straight out of an urban European novel. But one surprise about the look of the city is how even its majestic architecture and small-city charm can seem depressing in the November weather. I expected that a city so far north (so far north in fact that it would be uninhabitable if not for the Gulf Stream) would see snow once November rolled around. And though I’ve seen two snowfalls thus far, the skies are mostly grey. Very, very grey. It has been weeks since I’ve seen the sun, a luxury I forgot to enjoy in tropical Bangkok. And though the city is still elegant, the depressing blanket of grey clouds that surround it on an almost daily basis do detract from its allure.

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It is a rainy, cold Sunday and the weather is so depressing that one would have to find a compelling reason to leave the house to brave the elements. But not Swedes. The weather is so typical for this time of year that to them it is a mere annoyance. People are still out and about, running errands and in particular, taking walks, an activity so loved by the English, I never thought I’d see another culture embrace it with such gusto.  On the weekends, this is the activity of choice and my best guess is that even if a meter (I’m working on using my metrics) of snow was falling, Swedes would still turn to each other with an excited look, strap on some snowshoes and crunch around.

In addition to the dank cold and heavy clouds, this time of year also brings 3:30 pm sunsets, if you could call them that. The sun stretches and yawns at about 3 pm and starts tucking in for the night, an occurrence that makes it impossible for my brain to function once it sinks below the horizon. It’s quite unfortunate for my new employers.

As I sit here writing at 1:30 pm, I try to savor the last two hours of daylight and remember this time. This glorious time when the sun is still in the sky (so to speak) at 2:30 pm. Because in a month, the sun will rise at 9 am, set at 2:30 pm and I will flee to the Canary Islands. Or hibernate. Deliberations are still underway.

Smackebröd!

In my first month in Stockholm, I bought my first apartment, started a new job and attended my first Swedish business conference (which I learned is just code for “boozefest”), subsequently learned the massive amount of alcohol Swedes can consume, became well-versed in Sweden’s infamous bureaucracy, got a massage at work that was subsidized by the company, and ate my first tunnbrödrulle _ a wrap sandwich made of mashed potatoes, a hot dog and pink shrimp salad. Yum.

In a word, Stockholm is amazing. This beautiful city so steeped in history is a marvel with its colorful buildings, beautiful people and rich culture. The most striking thing about the city is the water, which weaves its way around each of the small islands that make up the city of Stockholm. It is a bane in the winter, however, whipping biting winds through the already cold air. As far as adjustments go, the cold is the biggest. Wearing layers and layers of clothing, hats and gloves is something I haven’t done since early 2008. It even snowed while I was about two hours south of the city for a business conference, a beautiful sight that had me squealing and doing some cheerleader claps before I realized what I was doing.

The adjustment to Stockholm has been far easier than it was in Bangkok. Aside from the infuriating bureaucracy related to registering in Sweden and getting bank accounts (the fun of which will be detailed in a separate post), everything in this city has been designed to run smoothly. The government’s big brother approach is surprisingly liberating and, in many ways, gives people far more freedom than Americans, whose government’s minimal involvement is supposed to breed freedom that doesn’t really exist. Here, people (including me!) enjoy six weeks of vacation, free computer and cell phone from work, affordable housing, free health insurance, housing insurance that will reimburse you if you break something, subsidized gym memberships, efficient transportation, and free education including Swedish lessons.

There are myriad laws and regulations for everything, but all are meant to protect the people and support them if disaster should strike. There is a safety net here that doesn’t exist in America. Thousands are losing their jobs in the U.S. as the unemployment rate hit 10.2 percent in October, the highest since 1983. And those people have to rely on savings or 401Ks that have been decimated by the financial crisis. In Sweden, if you lose your job you get paid 80 percent of your salary for six months after, a luxury meant to ensure that people can still support themselves despite a financial crisis. The big mystery to me is how they are able to do this when middle class people like me are only paying a 30 percent tax rate _ the same as I paid in Thailand and less than I paid while living in NYC.

After a month in Stockholm I feel as if I’ve lived here for ages. It is so comfortable and easy to be here. The only frustration is the language barrier, though my complaints are minimal as Swedish is an elegant and musical language that I’m happy to just sit and listen to. This month has been a whirlwind of appointments, social engagements, errands and apartment hunting. But I am well on my way to settling in for good. We move into our new apartment in a very desirable neighborhood next month and tonight’s trip to the largest IKEA in the world (!) is one of many, I’m sure.

For now, I’m happy to spend time with my handsome Swede, enjoy time with my new friends and eat smackebröd _ a hard, flat bread (really called knäckebröd but I always bungle it so I have given up) that initially tastes like cardboard but when it is spread with butter might actually be the cure for depression.

Music by Movits!