The next instalment in the Expat Interview Series! I’ve reached out to expats in different countries to hear why people might choose to move abroad, and how they do it. If you want to know more about moving to a particular country this is the place. If you’re interested in taking part, or want to see a certain place featured let me know!
Earlier this year I travelled to Sweden for a bloggers conference. It was my second time in the country and after spending more time in Stockholm and visiting Luleå in the north I fell in love with it! I was so excited to interview Clarissa from Researcher Gone Rogue about her experiences of living in Sweden, since it’s somewhere that seems to have so much to offer. But I’ll let Clarissa tell you what she thinks…
Tell us about yourself
I’m a 26-year-old Australian currently living in a small city called Karlstad in western Sweden. Travel is well and truly in my blood. My dad, who was born and raised in New Zealand, hitchhiked his way around the country as a teenager before moving to Australia at the age of 17. Some of my earliest memories are of him returning home from trips abroad with exotic souvenirs as gifts for my siblings and I.
When I was 4 years old, my family relocated to rural England and we lived in an old farmhouse just down the road from Hever Castle (the home of Henry VIII’s unlucky wife Anne Boleyn). Since then, I’ve travelled to many other places both with my family and on my own.
I haven’t yet taken a leaf out of my dad’s book and hitchhiked anywhere but I do have a passion for the adventurous. My most memorable travel experiences to date would be camping in the Sahara Desert (where I got electrocuted…but that’s a story for another time), freezing my toes off watching the Northern Lights in Iceland, riding on the back of motorcycles in Hanoi, hiking the roof of the world in the Norwegian fjords and passing reindeer by the roadside in Swedish Lappland. I’m endlessly curious and fascinated by the world around me and I love learning about the places I visit, whether it’s some quirky fact, a historical anecdote, or the etymology of a name.
What made you decide to move to Sweden?
Probably the first question that I get from anyone new I meet in Sweden is this: “why on earth would someone from Sydney decide to move to Sweden – and not even to Stockholm, but to somewhere like Karlstad?” I think what appealed to me about Sweden was that it was just so different and far away from Australia. The first time I moved to Sweden was to experience a different culture and learn a new language, and the second time was for love.
After finishing my Bachelor degree in Australia, I took a gap year, during which I travelled to the US and spent 5 months or so volunteering and backpacking around south-east Asia. When that year was up, I decided to take another and my mum suggested the idea of au pairing. It seemed like a fantastic way to really immerse myself in another culture and way of life while earning money to fund my travels. I was particularly keen on moving to Europe and to a non-English speaking country. So I created an account on some au pairing websites. I’d fallen in love with Sweden after watching Kay Pollak’s film As It Is In Heaven, so when a family in Sweden contacted me, I knew I had to work for them!
In 2012, I moved to the countryside in the Värmland region of Sweden, about half an hour away from the city of Karlstad. I stayed with my host family in Värmland for a year, taking care of their 5 children (!!!), cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and grocery shopping and picking up Swedish along the way. I met my current partner about 6 months after starting my au pairing stint but I needed to return to Australia once my au pair visa expired (after 12 months). So we did the long-distance relationship thing for a while but it wasn’t an ideal situation. In 2014, I decided to move back to Sweden so that we could be together.
Tell me about the cost of living in Sweden
Sweden is generally a very expensive place to live but salaries are also higher so everything sort of evens out. I’m lucky to live in a smaller city where the cost of living is a lot lower than it is in Stockholm.
My partner and I split the rent and bills evenly between us. Together, we pay around 7500 SEK a month for rent and electricity in a two-room apartment of 57 sqm. (that means that each month I pay the equivalent of around €375).
I spend around 2250 SEK (€225) a month on groceries and my partner pitches in the same amount. We are vegetarian, which is more expensive than being non-veggie. A loaf of bread at our local grocery store costs around 27 SEK (approx. €2.70).
In Karlstad, a single bus trip costs 25 SEK (€2.50) and the ticket is valid for an hour. So if you just need to pop into a store and pick something up, you can get a return trip without paying any extra.
Food and drink
A latte or cappucino at a café in central Karlstad costs around 30 SEK (€3), while tea costs 20-28 SEK (€2-€2.80). You can buy a pastry or cake for around 25-40 SEK (€2.50-€4).
A dinner out in Karlstad (a main meal with a glass of wine) will usually cost me 300-400 SEK (€30-40). Lunch is a lot cheaper, as most restaurants have lunch buffets, where you can help yourself to several dishes plus salad, bread and tea/coffee for a set price, generally around the 90 SEK (€9) mark.
You can expect to pay around 70-90 SEK (€7-€9) for a glass of wine and 60-70 SEK (€6-€7) for a beer. But if you go to a bar during happy hour (which usually ends around 10pm), wine will be around €6 and beer around €4.
How did you find the job seeking process?
When I moved to Sweden for the first time I had my au pair job already lined up, so I had no issues at all. It took me a matter of weeks corresponding with my host family and sorting all the details. But when I moved here for the second time, without a job lined up beforehand, I found it very difficult. I applied for many jobs but wasn’t successful with any of my applications. So I ended up starting my own company offering English language proofreading and editing services. Eventually, after about a year, I landed a full-time position as a university researcher. The job-seeking process definitely took a while!
Right now I’ve taken some time off from my job and am focusing on my passion for travel writing. I currently work on a freelance basis, writing travel pieces on Sweden and other places that I visit. At the moment I am working on building up my portfolio and finding some regular writing gigs to keep me financially sustained for the next few months while I decide if this is something that I can pursue full time or not.
Do you need a visa to live in Sweden?
You need either a work or residence permit to live and work in Sweden. When I moved here in 2012, I came on a 1-year au pair visa, which cost around €60. All I needed to do was complete some documentation and get my au pair family to complete a work contract that they sent to the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket).
When I moved here for the second time in 2014, my situation was different and I came on a common law spouse visa, which was a lot more time and effort (and cost more too at €150). I had to prove that my relationship with my partner was genuine by providing proof we’d lived together, photos of us with each other’s family members, flight tickets and itineraries from holidays we’d been on together, messages we’d sent each other and so on. It was worth it though, because this visa also allowed me to work and study in Sweden. I was granted temporary residency in Sweden and after two years I was able to extend this to permanent residency.
Aside from the minor frustrations of collecting documentation, I didn’t have many issues getting visas. But now that Sweden is processing a large number of migrants (Sweden has taken in more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe), the waiting times have most likely increased as the Migration Board has a lot more applications to handle.
What’s the social scene like? How easy is it to make friends?
While I made friends with international students and expats living in Sweden very quickly, it took me a long time to make friends with Swedish people. At first, I thought it was just me, but InterNations’ ‘Ease of Settling In’ index for 2016 actually revealed that Sweden is one of the worst-ranked places in the world in terms of finding friends! This is probably because the Swedes, while they are lovely people, can be slow to welcome newcomers into their friendship circles.
The most common piece of advice that I personally receive from other expats living here on improving my social life is to have kids. So you might want to try that. But if you’re like me and aren’t planning to start a family in the very near future, take some alternative advice. One thing I’d recommend is to get involved in your local community in some way, through meetups, networking events, interest groups, film clubs and so on. Swedes tend to be very active and outdoorsy so getting involved in running clubs or groups that go hiking or skiing is a good way to meet and connect with people. Swedes that I’ve met of all ages also love to travel and I’ve found that talking about travelling is a sure way to connect with people here. And for someone like me who doesn’t live in a place where there a lot of expats, Twitter has also been a godsend! I’ve landed freelance work, made contacts and new friends in Sweden simply by interacting on this platform.
What’s the best thing about living in Sweden/Karlstad?
I think the best thing about living in Sweden is that ancient history is everywhere. I love that you can be driving down a highway and pass a Viking burial ground, a rune stone or some Bronze Age rock carvings! The best thing about living in Karlstad more specifically is that in spite of it being a small city, it’s right in the middle of everything. You can easily reach Stockholm, Gothenburg and Oslo within a few hours. I’ve used it as a base to explore the rest of Scandinavia, from trips up north to Swedish Lappland to journeys west through the Norwegian fjords.
What’s the hardest thing about living in Sweden/Karlstad?
Those dark winter months for sure. I was born in Sydney and spent much of my life there. Even though Karlstad is definitely not northern Sweden, finding myself in a place where it gets dark at 3pm and can drop to -20 degrees celsius in Winter was still a big shock to the system. I definitely suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) my first two Winters in Sweden, so this year I’m taking Vitamin D tablets to try to combat it.
How is your new home different from your old one?
The climate is obviously radically different. Another difference is the way in which people interact with one another. In Sweden it’s weird to smile at strangers when you meet them on the street but in Australia this is quite a normal thing to do (so I got some strange looks from people for a while and had no idea what I’d done wrong!)
Coming from a big city like Sydney, rural Sweden and even a city like Karlstad with 90,000 inhabitants was also a big change. In Sydney, I would spend my free time having drinks with friends and checking out new cafés. Here, I’ve had to adjust my lifestyle and occupy my time with different activities such as walking, hiking, cycling and berry/mushroom picking. I didn’t do these things very much back home, but now I really enjoy them!
If we had just one day in Karlstad what should we not miss?
This depends on whether you’re visiting in Summer or Winter. One thing you can do regardless of the season is pay a visit to Rosteriet, the café next door to the Löfbergs coffee factory. Löfbergs is one of the biggest coffee roasters in the Nordics and at the café you can buy some bryggkafe (Swedish drip-filtered coffee) to take home with you.
In Winter, you should definitely go to an ice hockey match at the Löfbergs Lila Arena (yep, the coffee company sponsors the ice hockey arena!) The games are honestly something else; there are fiery explosions, pumping music and plenty of cheering fans. In Summer, jump on a bicycle (they’re free to rent from the main square) and cycle to the island of Hammarö, where you can have a picnic by the shores of western Europe’s largest lake, Vänern.
Can you share your best local/insider tip about where you live in Sweden?
You can go to the beach in Karlstad! In Summer, if you head to Skutberget or Bomstad (about 12kms south-west of Karlstad – you can get there by bus), you can swim and sunbathe on the shores of Lake Vänern. Another option is to do as the locals do. Just grab a towel and find a patch of grass by the Klara River. You won’t be the only one doing this. As soon as temperatures rise above 18 degrees celsius and the sun comes out, locals begin to strip off their clothes and occupy the riverbanks, parks and basically every grassy area around the city.
If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to live in Sweden what would it be?
Go outside. It’s very tempting to remain indoors a lot of the time, especially when it’s cold and dark outside in Winter. But you’ll feel so much better after being outdoors for half an hour or so and getting some fresh air.
Would you ever think about moving abroad to Sweden?