Stockholm stay

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As a young family we lived in Stockholm for several months late in 1974. It was not easy and ridiculously expensive to get yesterday’s English newspaper. There was no English TV channel, and back then there was no fax, email or internet, only telex. We were completely cut off from British news for those months.


It was odd because when we moved back there were only two things that we appeared to have missed. People were inexplicably talking of ‘doing a Stonehouse’ and we learned that both Lord Lucan and John Stonehouse had disappeared while we were in Sweden. The other oddity was that people kept saying ‘Not like that, like this’ with weird hand movements that meant nothing to us. Other than those cultural references it was as if we had not been away.

Swedish TV did show The Brothers English TV series with Swedish subtitles; they called it Arvingarna or The Heirs. The only thing we understood on Swedish television per se was the recurrence of the word Snö in the weather report. There was a general election going on back home (which confirmed Harold Wilson’s second term) and, judging by the video content, there was often news comment on it. However it also kept showing polluted northern towns with long dirty terraces, chimneys billowing smoke and steam engines – it didn’t look a lot like Byfleet in Surrey! There was a popular belief in Sweden that all their pollution came from our British Midlands.

Ice hockey

We enjoyed our stay in Stockholm, watching ice hockey matches, walking in the forests… but Jane bore the brunt of the stay, keeping two young children entertained, mostly indoors; it was around minus-5C outside. We were in a third-floor apartment and because all the other flats were at +30C we could turn off our heating and it was still too warm for our liking.

Once it got down to -10 to -15C outside, the cold was a dry cold and much better, but at -5 it was damp and unhealthy. We soon found we had no resistance to any Swedish ailments. Jane, who has seldom been unwell in the 55+ years I have known her, contracted gastritis and then bronchitis. This meant we had to negotiate the Swedish health service.

One day I got home to find her very unwell. I had no idea what to do when this happened in Sweden. So, I knocked on a neighbour’s door. They answered it completely traumatised as this sort of approach was unheard of in Stockholm. People kept very much to themselves. A lovely lady from the factory babysat for us and she confessed she knew no-one on her floor, in her building or on her street. I began to understand why Stockholmers had one of the world’s highest drink, drug and suicide rates of that time.

My neighbour asked, ‘Does she have fever’. I confirmed she did and she asked, ‘How much fever?’ I said I had no idea, pressing with no success for how to contact a doctor. I went back to our apartment and phoned someone from the factory who asked, ‘Does she have fever?’ and ‘How much fever?’ I brushed that off and was told of a mobile doctor who I could phone. I phoned, and the receptionist inevitably asked, ‘Does she have fever’ and ‘How much fever?’ I grumpily said ‘Look she has a high fever. Its actual degree is irrelevant.’ She despatched the doctor who earned my undying gratitude when he just looked at Jane and saw she had a fever and got on with his diagnosis – gastritis.


So, when towards the end of our stay she had bronchitis I wasn’t going through all of that again and took her and the kids to the Södersjukhuset, the largest hospital in Stockholm. Its name means literally the southern hospital. It had a prominent site in the city, commanding the skyline.Visiting it proved just as fraught.

ASIDE: The Swedish for seven is ‘sju’, quite difficult for a Brit to say (look it up). I was taught a tongue-twister to try to fix it in my mind – ‘Sju tusen, sju hundra sjutiosju sjösjuk sjömän’, meaning seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven seasick seamen. This served only to highlight many times that I couldn’t quite get it right.

It’s like the French word ’fauteuil’ for armchair. My French grandchildren always laugh at my pronunciation no matter how hard I try, but I get my own back by getting them to try to say ’squirrel’ – try it on any French person you know.

At the hospital a guy sat up high behind a large counter looking more like a magistrate than a receptionist. He asked me for Jane’s försäkringskort, the Swedith equivalent of a National Insurance Card (there was no EHIC card then). I explained we did not have one and he then asked for her passport, which we had not thought to bring with us. I blustered that I didn’t realise we needed a passport to be treated when so evidently unwell. He stepped down from his Dickensian overseer’s chair and wandered off.

In a switch from the tradition I had now learned, he didn’t ask for her temperature but handed me a thermometer making clear we needed to record Jane’s temperature. The device was in a plastic bag, so I asked if I should unwrap it, No. I mimed putting it in my mouth and he mimed that it should be applied up the rear. As we had the kids with us, I found a side room for Jane to comply. While we did this, he had fabricated a försäkringskort for her with a number generated based around her birth date. I wondered if he had factored in her temperature too. So ‘Fru Denton’ was now in the system and we saw a doctor.

While Jane was still recuperating, I thought Benylin might help. So, I went to a Stockholm pharmacy, but they rather stuffily refused to supply it unless on prescription. I called by to see the factory nurse whose English was quite vague, and asked if she could give me a prescription. She picked up the phone and before I knew it two big guys were crowding me. She had thought I was after drugs! A few days later I flew back to the UK for meetings and an overnight, walked into the first chemist and got Benylin without any problems and returned with it in my luggage. Drug running?

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