A Report From a Swedish Sandbox

sandbox

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit my friend in Örebro, Sweden.  We don’t see each other very often and both of us are guilty of not responding to emails within the first 3,475 days of having received them but every time we meet up we pick up where we left off.  No awkward silences.  No grudges.  Just good old chat.  This is what friendships for life are all about.

Anyway… there I was, relaxing on the couch, watching the Swedish answer to Antiques Roadshow, sipping red bush tea and thinking about the recent conversations I had with Swedish mums while we (without much success) tried to prevent our merry offspring from consuming all the sand in the sandbox.  The conversation went a bit like this:

  • I tell them about how much Peanut’s nursery costs per month for 4 days a week – they gasp
  • I tell them that after BlueBeretDad and I have spent about 30% of our hard earned salaries on nursery fees, and the remaining 70% on bills, rent and a monthly Blueberry Muffin treat we have enough left to pay for:
  1. about 55 packs of standard nappies
  2. about 55 boxes of Toddler formula milk
  3. 1.8 Alexander McQueen Studded Pump Shoe
  4. 250 Green and Black’s Maya Gold chocolate bars,or
  5. 416.6kg Asda organic carrots

and the Swedish mums gasp again (Swedish is a very gasp-friendly language).

  • I tell them that a lot of women cannot go back to work as their earnings would not even cover the childcare costs let alone any other essentials, like food or mortgage – they gasp
  • I tell them that we could have sent Peanut to nursery at the age of 3 months (Swedish nurseries don’t accept such young babies) and had I had my first ever job that didn’t provide any additional maternity/paternity pay apart from the statutory support I would be facing a very tough choice or (more likely) Peanut would not be feeding their children with all that sand right now ..yeah yeah, they gasp (I begin to wonder whether I have somehow acquired a new superpower – The Ability to Make Swedish People Gasp as soon as I mention childcare in the UK – and I start cooking up a plan to take over that poor planet Earth). They gasp. I yawn.

When it is their turn to shock me they tell me that:

  • both parents in Sweden are entitled to combined total of 16 months paid leave per child and I shed a tear
  • first 13 months are paid at 80% of the parent-on-leave’s most recent income, rest is paid at flat daily rate and I cry
  • public childcare is guaranteed to all parents with fees capped at 3% of parental income I sob.
  • a lot of shift working parents have access to night time nurseries… Whoop! I know what you are thinking, as I was thinking the same! Until I found out that you need a confirmation from your employer that you actually work nights… Oh well, maybe one day! I blubber.
  • parents have 480 days (240 each) of paid parental leave per child (pay depends on the earnings) that can be used to cover school holidays/sickness etc. until that child is 8 years old I bawl and stuff my face with sand

Now don’t get me wrong, it is not all IKEA and elks dancing on ice in the land of Sweden.  The generous help with the childcare comes at a price – my sandbox friends tell me that there is a higher expectation on mothers to go back to work after having been mammalediga. Being a stay at home mum is not common and may be frowned upon or gasped about.  But there is a choice and if as a parent, you want to continue working the Swedish government does not financially ruin you for having made that “lifestyle choice” to have children.

It also seems fairer that both men and women can take out a considerable amount of paid leave to care for their children, which means that it is not important what gender candidates one employs.  It makes sense and it points Swedish society in the right direction on its way to equality.  It is a shame that Britain is toddling way behind when it comes to taking care of its children citizens.

Just before I went to bed I scratched Nova, a very friendly Labrador with the patience of a Blue Whale,  on her very full belly.  Nova had a great day in her dog nursery today, playing and making new furry friends.  For those of you raising you eyebrows, ready to gasp, it is a legal requirement in Sweden to provide care for your dog if it is on its own for longer than 6 hours at a time.

On the way back from the sandbox I asked my dear friend how much Nova’s nursery cost.  It turned out to be about a third of what we pay for Peanut’s nursery.

They say it is good for a child to grow up surrounded by pets…

Hey Ho To Sweden Off We Go

stockholm

“Maybe it wasn’t a great idea” I muttered to myself picking the remains of Peanut’s first ever case of projectile vomit out of my hair.  How convenient that he decided to do it on our first proper holiday abroad as a family of three.  Unfortunately I didn’t manage to stop my friend’s Labrador who mistook the puddle of half digested banana and fruit smoothie for desert.  Welcome to Sweden.

Fast forward a couple of days, and there we were;  clothes washed and aired, no more drowning in the sea of baby sick and enjoying our time.  Friendly people – check.  Great pastries – check.  Sunshine – check.  Elks mass immigrating to Finland so that I never catch a glimpse of a single one – check.

Once upon a time I spent some time in Sweden, studying the secrets of the Swedish language, becoming an expert in all things Abba, making friendships for life and despairing over my thesis on the postmodern traits in Swedish crime novel writing.  I was also desperate to see an elk.  It wasn’t meant to be even though once my friend’s dad was driving around a “place where there are thousands of them” from dusk till dawn.  Not a hoof in sight.  So that mythical Swedish creature depicted on their road signs remains a mythical creature to me.

Now I could not wait to introduce Peanut and BlueBeretDad to Sweden, its quirks and oddities and kanelbullar.

During the first week of the visit Peanut and I were staying in Örebro with my lovely friend Tess and her even lovelier black Labrador Nova and apart from the flying vomit incident, Peanut waking up at 5am each morning (even the dog was exhausted) ready to demolish Tess’ flat and an occasional tantrum or two we had a very relaxing time.  We pottered about the garden, went to see an outdoor art exhibition on a top of a hill, visited family and friends and ate tons of Swedish pastries.

Art Exhibition SAM_1764

In the meantime, BlueBeretDad decided that sunshine and warmth were not what a man needed and flew over to the very top of Sweden to ski Somewhere Around the Arctic Circle.  Rumour has it, he was helicoptered up to the top of a mountain, skied down, was helicoptered back up, skied down,  the helicopter (bored out of its rotor by that time) picked BlueBeretDad up and off they flew back to where they came from.  BlueBeretDad, with his blue nose and blue toes and not a single bone broken, had the time of his life. Or so he says.

We met up in Stockholm to then have some proper family time.  The sun was very generous, our rented apartment was fairly central and in the vicinity of two supermarkets and the city was clearly keen to impress.

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Sweden is a very child friendly place, with its excellent and cheap childcare (there is another post in the making about it so watch this space), helpful underground attendants and friendly shop assistants and waitresses not minding a 1 year old man groping them and shouting “Maaah”.  Boobs – the shop assistant.  Bum – the waitress in a very busy cafe.

And so between wheeling Peanut around the old town (Gamla Stan), admiring the giant square building that is the official residence of His Majesty King of Sweden aka The Royal Palace, and despairing over the fact that I would need a whole new wardrobe and 100 bottles of hair bleach to elevate myself to the level of the Stockholm fashionistas I was busy scribbling down some useful tips for anyone who would love to visit the peaceful country of Sweden and Stockholm in particular.  Here are some observations:

  • The vast majority of Swedes love children apart from that grumpy woman on the train between Orebro and Stockholm who snarled and left for another carriage only because Peanut decided that practicing his “Aaaa” in a clear operatic voice was the way to kill some time (and a few ear drums to boot).  However, for any child-tired parent there is an oasis in Stockholm city centre – Nelly’s café famous for having banned buggies and children under a certain age.
  • Avoid surströmming, especially getting it on your clothes – I guess the best way of describing this local delicacy is a rotten herring swimming in a can.  It tastes mainly of salt, the smell will make you wretch and if you happen to get any of the “brine” on your clothes you might as well burn them as airing them and binning them will not stop the stink from following you until you die.  It is a Swedish edible answer to skunks.
  • Devour as many dammsugare (hoovers in direct translation) as you can.  They are what you see on the photo below: an unidentified biscuit crumb mass mixed with lots of fat and rolled in kryptonite flavoured marzipan coating, dipped in chocolate. Delicious.
  • dammsugareWhen in Sweden you have to have pizza with banana on – it is a bit like the Eurovision song contest. You pretend you don’t care and there are better ways of entertaining a whole continent on a Saturday night.  Well, there aren’t and once you’ve tried it you’ll love it. Unless you won’t.  Then maybe you should have some surströmming .

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  • If you visit Stockholm with a family, renting an apartment is probably the most cost effective option. We stayed in Gärdet, only a five minute ride on the underground to the city centre.
  • Swedish toddlers don’t drink formula milk – they drink välling (which could be described as drinkable cereal with vitamins).  Peanut loves it.  It is easy to prepare (4.25 tablespoons per 200ml cold water, shake, shake, shake some more. Pop into the microwave for 40 seconds. Ready.) For parents with a global conscience – most formula in Sweden is manufactured by Nestle.  Most välling is not.  Just warning you.

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  • Swedes make great quality children’s shoes. Peanut took his first ever wobbly step in Stockholm and is a proud owner of level 1 Kavat shoes, sporting Scandi chic at nursery and breaking a few toddler hearts.
  • For an alcohol deprived parent – please note it down carefully.  When in Sweden, you can’t just nip out to the supermarket to get a bottle of red, or white, or rose, or lager, or vodka/gin you name it.  So if you plan on boozing after the kids go to bed you have to plan it with a military precision.  The only place selling “proper” alcohol is a chain of state run shops called System Bolaget cleverly disguised in most shopping centres behind a very modest green and yellow sign.  Just look out for any long queues with customers having a mad and thirsty look about them.  And organise your visit as the shops are only open between 10am and 6pm Monday to Friday and 10am-1pm on Saturday.
  • While you are recovering from the hangover and empty wallet from the night before your kids can either run about Kulturhuset with their excellent facilities or go on a scientific adventure at Tom Tits Experiment (about an hour drive from Stockholm and yes, you can open this link on a work computer) while you are hitting your head repeatedly with a hammer.  It will hurt less than listening to an overexcited mob of children.
Entrance to Kulturhuset

Entrance to Kulturhuset

And this is it.  We had an amazing time.  Stockholm is beautiful with its green spaces, immaculate buildings, picture perfect views over boats and ferries and more boats,  various museums, hordes of dads wheeling their offspring out and about and wonderful May weather, and some more boats and a ferry.

SAM_1814

High on pastries and all that sun we landed back in Edinburgh on a Friday night.

On Saturday we woke up to the pounding sound of rain that didn’t stop until Sunday.

Good to be back.