Here I am, well not actually but I have been just recently, driving along a winding country road, admiring the view, the lush greenery, the fierce, by Scandinavian standards, sun that blazes down from a clear blue sky and heats the air to an amazing 22 degrees Centigrade; the Scandinavians certainly consider this to be the best day of summer so far; in Saint Lucia, I would be shivering – definitely too cold for a sea bathe. But do you know what? There is not a single wrecked car, rusting auto relic, abandoned vehicle, or roadside workshop with broken-down cars double or even triple parked to hinder traffic anywhere, just miles and miles of unspoiled scenery. It is so serene. There is not even a pothole anywhere. The roads are a dream to drive on. You see, in times of financial chaos, the Scandinavians invest in infrastructure, which creates jobs and prepares the nation for a jump-start once the economy improves – it works!
I suppose Scandinavia, being probably one of the world’s most technologically advanced regions, suffers from the same hi-tech stresses and strains that beset competitive, cutthroat economies around the globe. But strangely, nobody seems to be in a rush. I’ve been driving all week, and I think I have been overtaken once, perhaps twice.
Speed limitations are posted everywhere. On the major highways, it’s 90 kilometers per hour, but on other roads the limits vary numerous times in a matter of a mile from 70 to 50, to 80, to 40; and all the while motorists are under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras. And there’s no excuse for not obeying the posted speed limits because the cameras are on huge poles by the roadside and well signposted so that no motorist could ever plead ignorance of their existence. If you transgress, then a letter arrives by post informing you that your car was caught on camera at a certain time and place and would you like to confirm you were driving the car at the time? If you’re feeling stroppy and don’t feel like owning up, you will then be called for an interview with the police and be shown the photograph of the incident. You might want to gamble on the photo not showing your face, but be warned, you have just entered a long and difficult process that might end up costing you more than the original fine would have done. And the amazing thing is that this system works in this country of 9.7 million people living on 173,732 square miles of land that stretches 978 miles from north to south.
Very rarely do people drink and drive, not only because the punishments meted out are severe, but also because people are educated: Let me explain. When our kids were born, they, like all children in Sweden, were given a social security number that will follow them through life. Once registered, automatically they became members of the Barnens Trafikklubb, or Kiddies’ Traffic Club, which provided them on a regular basis with games and information about traffic. Our granddaughter, just fifteen, has recently gained her license to drive a moped after passing a practical and theory test just like all the other kids in her class at school. The other day I went t the tax office to let them know I was in the country. Within minutes, literally minutes, I was re-registered, my old social security number, here called the ‘Personnummer’ was reinstated, and I was back on the register: health service, social security, pension, you name it – all in a matter of minutes.
I, like many others, am apt to believe in the equality of ‘man’ – man being everyone, male and females, in this case – but equal does not mean ‘the same’. People are different in Scandinavia. First of all, they are polite; they don’t use ‘their culture’ to excuse loutish behaviour. People stand in line and wait their turn. Perhaps this makes them boring, I don’t know, but it sure as heck makes shopping easy.
Shopping? The displays are fantastic; the choices are unreal; so much to choose from. And the prices are unbelievable. At a guess, I would say that a trolley-full of food costs less than half of what we would pay in Saint Lucia, which is truly amazing when you consider that Scandinavia is one of the world’s most expensive regions: wages are high, standards are high, taxes are high but still lower than when I left a quarter of a century ago, yet food is cheap. I was discussing this with a former university colleague, and he maintained that competition is the key: Since Sweden entered the European Union and had to allow all the continental mega-businesses to join the fray, prices have dropped dramatically,
Oh, and by the way, the VAT in Sweden is a whopping 25% except on foodstuff and other specified goods, which are taxed at 12% VAT.