City #15, August 2014. Stockholm may be the perfect city: beautiful and well run, its inhabitants are tall and healthy-looking. They speak English with an English accent. It may even be a bit too perfect: you sometimes get the impression that even the city’s flaws are deliberate, well thought-out. And perfection comes at a price: the country is terribly expensive, especially alcohol, (if you’re drunk in Sweden you’re either very rich or not used to drinking).

Type of Youropeans? A bit reserved, which can be perceived as arrogance. They are sticklers for rules. But the country is changing: blond is no longer the only flavour in Sweden. There are those who venture to greet a stranger, and even some Swedes who kiss one another goodbye. But the Law of Jante still applies. Based on a novel written in the 1930s, these ten rules are all variations on the theme ‘don’t think you’re anything special’. It is still the group that matters in Sweden, and individual success is slightly suspect.

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City Column

Invasion of Roma


It’s around 5.30 in the evening. A group of Roma women walk past me into the Gamla Stan metro station. They walk in single behind their leader, looking like shabby but cheerful colleagues who have just finished a hard day’s work.

Beggars are a new phenomenon in Sweden. You see them sitting on the street and sleeping in doorways; they all profess to be ‘very hungry’ as they show you a picture of their children and brush a stray tear from their eyes. National boundaries have never meant much to gypsies, but the EU’s open border policy has made it even easier for them to travel. Moving into new, northern territory was a logical choice: it may be very cold there, but Swedes are rich, and more importantly, they have a world-class social benefits system.

The arrival of the Roma has sparked a heated debate. ‘Expel them, ban begging,’ say the Sweden Democrats, the country’s most far right political part. A politically incorrect stance in Sweden, but not uncommon in other places. Many Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, have banned begging (asking money for tuneless caterwauling on violin a with only two strings is however allowed).

A few years ago I saw an article in a British tabloid, which included a number of captioned photographs. In the first one, taken from a distances, a well-dressed man is getting out of a mid-range car. In subsequent photos the man takes a bunch of old clothes out of the car boot, puts them on, and goes out to beg. FRAUD screamed the headlines of The Sun, or the Daily Mail. The Roma are also suspected of being frauds. Shady syndicates are said to import women from Romania to work for a period of exactly three months. They are assigned begging posts, provided with laminated photographs of pitiful children, and when their shift is finished, someone comes around to skim off the day’s proceeds from the plastic begging cup.

It is a European problem (though not, in my view, the most serious problem) said the police in Bucharest when I asked them about it. They are Roma, not Romanians; the two are not synonymous. They travel, and yes, they steal, they said. But regardless of whether or not they are organized, and whether or not their plight is real or faked, theirs is hardly a good life. You couldn’t pay me 10,000 Kronen to spend the night in the doorway of the Stockholm branch of H & M (I’d rather sleep in Hotel Skeppsholmen, and I’d advise you to do the same!).

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