One year in Gothenburg

There’s an old saying which states that time really flies when you’re enjoying yourself. After living for about one year in Gothenburg in the south-west of Sweden, I have to admit that I came to realize how very true this is. Before I even realized, it turned out that my first year in Sweden is already over, which means that I had a really great time here.

Why Gothenburg, why Sweden?

When I decided last year to move to Sweden after finishing my PhD project at IMEC, many people were surprised by my choice to move to Sweden. “You know how cold it is there in the North?” was one of the comments I heard so many times from my friends in Belgium. Truth is, it is not really that much colder here than it is in Belgium, as Gothenburg is located in the South of Sweden at the west coast. I guess in winter and summer it might be about 2 or 3 degrees colder on average, while in spring and fall the climate is pretty much comparable to Belgium.

Obviously, the real reason for moving here had nothing to do with the climate, but was actually the fact that I could get a new professional challenge at Chalmers University of Technology, where I’m currently working as a post-doctoral researcher in the exciting field of magneto-plasmonics. In our everyday work, we investigate the interaction of magnetic nanoparticles with light, looking at the possibilities to control the polarization state of light by means of magnetic fields, or to try and use light to change the magnetization state of these nanoparticles. This might lead to very new applications in optical chips, magnetic memories and different types of sensors. The work I do here is very closely related to the things I was investigating before, although the magnetic part of the work takes things up to a higher level, opening up many more possibilities for future applications.

When deciding whether or not I wanted to move here, I thing the main drive was that I could go and get some international experience, which is very valuable in our line of work. On top of that, being single at the time, I also saw no reason to not accept this new challenge, because I realized I would probably never take such a step if I wouldn’t have done it at that point. And at this moment, I cannot say that I regretted it for a single minute…

Another important reason for me was that I really liked Gothenburg when I visited it two years ago for a conference at Chalmers that was hosted by my current boss. Although Gothenburg with its 500.000 inhabitants is the second largest city of the country (after the capital Stockholm) it still has a small-town feel. This is something I particularly like in a place, as everything feels very relaxed, while there are always a lot of things going on. On top of that, there is a lot of green in the city and everything is nearby so one can easily get around with public transportation or by bike.

And obviously, being into metal and hardrock music, Scandinavia is a nice place to be at 😉

What did I learn about Sweden?

Obviously, being immersed into a new culture, I learned quite a lot of things about the Swedish life style, and some of them I think are worth mentioning here…

Everything is very strictly organized

I would say this can both be seen as something good or bad. What I mean with this statement is that the government is pretty rigid in the services they offer to the inhabitants, so it makes it quite easy to move here (at least as an EU-citizen), although you’ll be meeting with the people from Skatteverket (the government institution that takes care of taxes, but also health insurance and other documents such as you ID-card) a lot in the first few weeks. They provide you with a personal number, which is something that you’ll need for almost everything, and then I really mean everything. Some examples: when you want a bank account, internet connection, mobile phone contract and many more.

Some more examples are to be found in the tax and pension systems. After working here for only about 3 months, the government told me that I could retire the first of May 2049, a letter that is worth keeping I guess 😉 When I got my tax declaration from last year, I only needed to confirm online, through the app or by SMS that I agreed on the data supplied by the tax agency. After doing so, I got my refund only a few days later, so it turns out that it doesn’t really have to be that complicated. Also, in terms of pension, I received a statement about how much I would be getting from 65 to 70 and how much I would get for all the years after that. Not only was I pleasantly surprised with the amount (as it only related to a half year of working here), but also by the fact that they actually tell you upfront what to expect. I guess the Belgian government is not really in a position to make any promises in this respect, assuming it would still exist by the time I retire.

One example of where I don’t like all these strict rules: Swedish festivals. Being Belgian, my first festival experience here was really a big surprise, as we are used to festival where almost anyone can consume a beer wherever and whenever he/she wants. Not in Sweden of course! First of all, you need to be 18+ before you can go to the bar, and obviously security will check your ID in case of doubt 😉 Secondly, you’ll be drinking your beer in a separated drinking-zone. It’s not surprising that at the end of a festival day most people will be sitting there and watching the shows from a distance.

The same thing applies when you just go to a pub, each and everyone of them will have security guards at night, which in many cases to me seems like an over-kill.

Fika

The habit of enjoying Fika is something really important in the Swedish society. Fika is when people meet up to enjoy some pastries and coffee, which happens both at the workplace or just on a day off when you can go to one of the many bars in the city. Coffee is something very important to the Swedes anyhow, as they are the second largest coffee consumers per capita after the finnish. Luckily I love coffee so I’m helping them to become first, varsågod!

Did IKEA explode in your house?

A simple answer: Yes! I don’t think it is possible to find any house in Sweden where there is no IKEA items to be found.

Systembolaget

Well, this is exactly what it says: the company of the system, the only place where one can go to buy alcoholic beverages (apart from bars that is ;-)). You find many of them spread all over the country. As a belgian this is also something strange to see, as we are used to being able to buy alcohol in almost any store (supermarket, gas station, night shops). Needless to say that Friday afternoon and Saturday are top selling days here, and you can expect a pretty big queue on those days. I must say that originally it felt kind of strange to have to go to the government stores, but in the end the concept is actually very nice. Although you pay a lot for your drinks, the selection they offer is so broad that it makes up for it. I really tried some Belgian beers that I never even saw in Belgium before, and obviously they were nice!

Take a number

It doesn’t really matter where you go, you are pretty likely to find a queueing system where you have to pick a number and wait your turn. By itself this is not really that odd, but you get surprised by the number of places where you need to get one…

The high tax rate

I must say that actually in Sweden I never have the feeling that I’m paying too much taxes. I would even say that it is no surprise that Belgian politicians often mention the Scandinavian countries or Sweden in specific when debating about taxing systems. The key lies in the fact that the income tax (including social security) is not extremely high (at about 30% on average), and even if you get a raise which takes you to a higher tax level, the higher rate is only applied to the part that is above the limit of the tax level. On the other hand you pay more taxes on consumption, with the standard V.A.T. rate being 25%, and the taxes on alcohol being ridiculously high.

Last but not least

The Swedes are in my opinion a very open society, who welcome newcomers very easily. With nearly everybody being fluent in English, it is really easy to move in and to meet new people. As soon as people realize that you’re not fluent in Swedish, they will talk to you in English. This is something positive at first, but when trying to learn the language then it can also be kind of a burden.

I guess that’s all for now, up to an other exciting year in Sweden!