When in Sweden ...
At Auckland's Torbay Primary School in the late 70s, we were shown a film strip about life in Sweden. My only enduring memory of it is of smart little blond children frantically skiing to school and adeptly planting their skis in the snow outside their classrooms.
Who knew that my future son would one day be parking his ice hockey stick outside his classroom in a town the size of Gisborne just south of Stockholm?
In 2009, after six years in New Zealand, my Swedish husband was chomping at the bit to get back to Europe and, luckily for him, I felt up for the adventure of moving to Sweden.
The financial aspects of settling in were heady: a 1 per cent interest rate on our mortgage, immediate maternity leave, generous child support, free healthcare for our son, more for our money at the supermarket (including carbon foot-printing Kenyan runner beans, Chilean apples and Italian kiwifruit), a tax refund for home owners, 50 per cent off labour on home renovations and three years of free Swedish language classes for me.
It has also been relatively easy for me to set up a modest business from home, but as you would expect, the GST rate is 25 per cent and the income tax collector packs a mighty punch.
A stack of Rumpole of the Bailey paperbacks nursed me through the initial culture shock I experienced. When we made our first entrance at the local playgroup, I smiled at everyone and said "Hej!" (as, I thought, you do), I couldn't understand why we were effectively blanked. A kind young Irish mother sitting noticeably alone made a bee-line for us to explain Swedish stranger protocol.
In our five years here, we have made some lovely Swedish friends and have a good family network, but it is interesting to hear some of them express their irritation over the Swedish reserve.
Many a blog is dedicated to the subject, the more charitable ones concluding that Swedes simply don't like small talk or that they are just trying to respect other people's personal space. An Australian ex-pat captured it well here. Like him, I always have something to say at the Swedish equivalent of that great New Zealand institution: the supermarket check-out, even if it isn't whole-heartedly reciprocated.
Could a respect for personal space explain how our local primary school is surprisingly successful at enforcing its "no throwing snow" rule? "We are calm" also features high on the list of school rules and there is an emphasis on uniformity, evident in the children's artwork displayed in the school hallways.
There is also a lot to praise at school. Our son's class of 19 eight year olds (regarded as a large class!) has two teachers and an extra support person for our son, who has special needs. Children who speak a different language at home have access to a few hours weekly tuition in that language. The principal has an open-door policy.
There are no financial contributions expected of families, even for stationery. The cooked lunches seem popular. And although the school lacks a library, the children hoof it to the local municipal library two-by-two. The library's excellent English language fiction section has introduced me to some great new writers and any book or DVD you care to request can be added to the catalogue free of charge.
Other grounds for a good life here include our proximity to Stockholm, the coastline, forests and European holiday destinations. Perhaps one of the greatest draw cards for me, being something of a homebody, is that Scandinavians do "cosy" so well: the interiors, the lighting, the comfort food, the glögg, and the central heating alone certainly beats huddling around the bar heater in Torbay.
For all this, I must confess to welling up big time recently when Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home appeared on my iPod: There's a woman with her hands trembling - haere mai...