There were a couple of sticking points over whether Sweden would join the EU. One was the right to continue to sell ‘snus’ – Swedish mouth tobacco – and the other was the right to retain state-run alcohol shops. The rest of Europe is indifferent to the ‘snus’ habit, but people find it strangely restricting that in Sweden you can only buy your alcohol from the state-owned shop.
In the old days that would be at a high counter, whispering your sins to the frowning sales person, peering at the rows of bottles behind glass cases and trying to remember the code number for the particular bottle you wanted. Then hurriedly taking it away in a plain brown paper bag, stuffed guiltily into your shopping bag. Now the alcohol shops are like any other, shelves of their wares displayed for self-service and paid for on the way out at a till. Except that these shops aren’t open evenings and weekends after Saturday afternoon, never promote alcohol, or make special offers to tempt people to buy more.
There is no doubt that this system – and it is a system, the shop’s name is ‘System Bolaget’, known colloquially as ‘the system’ – results in you drinking less. Spontaneous drinking, if you haven’t stocked up, just can’t happen. Usually, when you feel like a bottle of wine, the shop is already shut. Or if it’s open, you can’t be bothered to slog up the hill to the shop, inevitably never situated conveniently round the corner.
Imagine, then, if you will, Saturday 23rd December. On this day in Kiruna, the alcohol shop is open until 2pm, and then it is shut. Until 27th December. This is a curiously enlivening thought.
It’s Christmas, and although Swedes don’t drink more than many other European nations, like everywhere else here in Kiruna they really don’t want to run dry over Christmas, especially with all those relatives up from Stockholm camped out in the spare room.
So does the threatened closure of the only source of alcohol in the town lead to a shop full of tense angry shoppers, pushing each other out of the way in their rush to reach the till before closing? Does it make your average Kiruna resident bad tempered? Let’s see.
Stepping through the till gates people pause, look around hopefully to see who they might know. They will likely know someone. Or maybe most people. They’ll certainly know the staff – ‘how’s it going? busy yet? Happy Christmas!’
Someone asks a staff member about a particular type of Rioja, and decides, in the end, to have the Merlot. Or maybe, what about the selection of Californian reds this year?
But will it go well with the ham? It will? Not the way she cooks it!! Did you see what they wrote about him in the paper? Such a shame. You’re looking good though, wild nail colour!
Neighbours, brought closer together than they normally manage across their front yards, chat happily between the long shelves of lagers, leaning on their trollies and idly sifting through the enormous range of bottled beers. In the end they select the old favourites – it’ll be Finnish lager as usual – while asking after a parent’s recent heart attack, or explaining how they bought their son’s new dog.
Hemvändare – ‘home returners’ for Christmas – bump into one another, joyfully, while negotiating their way around the shelves of medium priced red wine.
Hello there! Great to see you again, how’s it all going? Norrköping? No, Västerås. Accountancy! hah! So sorry to hear that, how awful for you. Divorce goes through next month. Oh he’s at school now, plays in the junior football league. This one’s terrific – have you tried the white?
Brought together by a common purpose, people display concern, cooperation, helpfulness, amusement, curiosity, tact, and seasonal cheerfulness. So, while it may be true, in the words of Ian Anderson, that the Christmas spirit is ‘not what you drink’, you can still find it here, in the state alcohol shop, just before it closes for Christmas.
Who’d have thought it?
Pass us that bottle will you?