With my hair freshly conditioned, I was ready to take on the latter part of the week with the resolute decision to blend into the local culture. With this objective set firmly in my mind, I decided to head to the Central Tax Office to register myself and get a ‘personnummer‘, not unlike the NI number over in the UK but in a friendlier format since it is composed of 12 numbers of which the first 8 represent your date of birth e.g. 19730321 for someone born on March 21st, 1973.
And so, as 4 p.m. came on Thursday, I headed to Kista T-Bana, the local underground station (although it is set some 15m above street level) and hopped on the tube. As the underground stations passed by, all with names more complicated than the previous one, I started counting how many people the personnummer system was intended for. Four single digits after a date of birth only allowed for 104 people per day, that is not many, is it now? 365 days per year would impose a maximum of 3,650,000 new babies per year. Considering there are a little over 9 million Swedes (source US Census Bureau) of which only 4,576,420 are women of which 1,427,878 are between 15 and 40 (assuming this to be an accurate age range during which women can indeed bear a child), each woman would have to give birth to 2.55 children on average per year. Since pregnancy takes 9 months (0.75 years), a woman would need to have 1.91 babies per pregnancy and non-stop pregnancies by all means. In other words, lest Swedes should incessantly produce twins, the Tax Office, when planning their numbering system, has planned for a generous baby margin.
Mathematically reassured by a potentially flawed and inaccurate calculation, I got off at T-Centralen and walked into Skatteverket, the office for taxes and all things related to personnummer. I was greeted by a friendly attendant who waved his iPhone in my direction asking me what my business was and typing on the trendy touch screen. Once I told him the purpose of my visit, he tapped a bit more, and suddenly a ticket printed out one of those antiquated number-giving printers seen mainly in bank queues and supermarkets at the dairy, fish, or meat section. Ah, and bakery aussi. A slick 2-point O phone mashed with a vintage printer, welcome to Sweden indeed, where design meets geekery.
A handful of minutes later, perhaps 10 or 20, I was called to a desk where a middle-aged lady greeted me, asked me for my papers, and went through a checklist of items that was no longer than a single-sided page. Being from the European Union does have its benefits. She eyed suspiciously my National ID card, xeroxed it, and gave it back not without adding that it was possible the authorities would deem it necessary to see my passport rather than this dubious, chip-less piece of plastic. I was tempted to reply that yes I got her point as the color design was poor – surely the designer back in France must have been color-blind – but still the card was no fish. But I was afraid she wouldn’t quite grasp the fish ‘n chip joke, not that anyone would anyway.
With one administrative hurdle down, all I had to do now was to wait for Skatteverket to send in my shiny new number. And do not dismiss it as a mere formality. Oh no, the personnummer is your gold pass to life in Sweden, a token of trust from the administration, a numerical honor bestowed upon you by the civil servants of his Royal Highness of Sweden. Without it, you are defenseless. With it, you are fully suited to ward off the dragons and demons that await you when you try to open bank accounts, sign up for a library card, or ask for Swedish language courses.
In the meantime, as I walked out of the the offices into the pitch-dark night, blessings of Stockholm’s northerly location, colleagues and I arranged to meet for drinks in a local bar at Odenplan. A few metro stops and a change later, we settled down at a table in an underground bar where we enjoyed local drinks: a refreshing pint of… Murphy’s. One can’t get any more Swedish, can they? To recap, I drank Swedish cider in the UK, and I now drink Irish stout in Sweden, what on Earth will I down in Dublin? San Migüel (to pronounce it English style)?
A few pints later, the bill settled, our merry little gang spilled out on the streets and rode back home in Stockholm’s amazing public transport system (bear in mind I am comparing with Ipswich and London neither of which are famously known for outstanding achievements in that area). An hour or so and one wrong change later, I was back in the comfort of my home. The concept of heating was taking on yet again its full meaning.
Friday came and went. It was topped by an evening out with fellow colleagues in a Sushi bar in bustling Sodermälm followed by coffee and dessert in Slussen. This, if anything, is something quite extraordinary. One can have coffee and cakes at 9 p.m. on a Friday evening. Not something one could achieve in Sleepy Suffolk.