The Swedish Number

Image: Julien, via Flickr

Halima Ali finds out what Sweden is really like — by calling those who live there

“Hi, what’s your name?” I ask. “I don’t have a name today,” he says sternly.

This is awkward. It’s not how I expected my phone call to The Swedish Number would go. I thought I’d speak to a chirpy Swede extolling the joys of Ikea and ABBA. Instead I feel as though I’m an irritant.

I’m tempted to hang up, but I’ve called several times and found the lines to be busy; this is the first time I’ve got through.

My attempts at communication are part of a new scheme by the Swedish Tourist Association, which has launched a phone number connecting international callers with random Swedes to mark the 250th anniversary of Sweden’s abolition of censorship.

The country’s newest ambassadors are not vetted or trained, they simply download the app and register their phone number.

Eventually, after tentatively asking several more questions, my phone pal begins to open up a little, although he maintains the stern tone. I ask him where he lives (Stockholm) and what he does for a living (he’s studying for a PhD, after which he’ll become an engineer).

So where has he received phone calls from? “Mainly the US,” he tells me. And what do people ask? “The Americans ask if it’s true that we have Sharia law here.” I feel awkward again.

When I ask for a fun fact about Swedish people he replies, “We are very cold. Like the British. Everyone is selfish, thinking only about themselves.” This, surprisingly, makes me feel less uncomfortable.
He asks me some questions about where I live, what the big issues are in the UK at the moment and we mull over the benefits and disadvantages of Brexit.

“Have a great life!” he replies as I say goodbye and we laugh.

My second call is answered by Matilda, who’s happy to give her name. Great start, I think; this will surely go better than my first conversation.

“Where do you live?” I ask. “In a small village about 20 miles from Stockholm,” she answers slowly and carefully. Matilda’s tone is timid and shy, but with some encouragement she explains she signed up to the scheme because she thought it would be fun.

Then I find out that Matilda is only 16 years old and I go into a blind panic as I wonder what to ask now. What common ground can I find with a teenager? And do her parents know she’s talking to a complete stranger from the UK?

I mumble something about bands. She doesn’t understand what I’m asking. “Your favourite singers?” I re-phrase. “One Direction, Justin Bieber” she says. I thank her for speaking to me and hang up.

Since its launch in April 2016, The Swedish Number has received more than 160,000 calls, with the majority of callers from the US, followed by the UK, the Netherlands, China, Turkey, Germany and Australia. The idea is certainly a brave move for the Tourist Association, given that you could be speaking to anybody from Sweden who could say just about anything to you, but that’s the fun of it. There’s plenty of PR spin in travel, but this is about as honest and real an interaction as you’ll get.

This blog was published on CountrybyCountry


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