At first when I called The Swedish Number – a phone line launched by the Swedish Tourist Association on Wednesday to connect anyone with a random Swede – things didn't sound promising. "Sweden is asleep right now, so you might end up in someone’s voicemail," an automated voice said.
But after several rings a real, live Swede picked up. She turned out to be Cecilia Dalman Eek, a politician from Gothenburg in west Sweden and press secretary for the Social Democratic Party, the country's largest political party. She said she'd taken about 10 calls on Saturday and "had a ball" talking with people phoning her from Dusseldorf in Germany, Mexico and New York. Below are excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited and condensed.
Q: Why did you volunteer to take calls on The Swedish Number?
A: Because I think it’s a great idea, to show that Sweden is an open and freedom-loving country. We do not use censorship, and The Swedish Number was started on the day when Sweden abolished censorship [in 1766], so we are a totally censor-free society, and that means that anyone can call us and we are free to answer anything. We are a very hospitable people, and I would very much like to be part of this, so I joined.
Q: What should Americans know about Sweden?
A: [Most of the Americans] asked about the weather. They wanted to know if winters in Sweden are really cold. So I can tell them that winter in Sweden, in the southern part of Sweden, it’s more like the winter in New York, really. It’s not very heavy. But the winter in the northern part of Sweden is a whole different matter. It’s north of the polar circle, so that’s a whole different matter, of course. But I think that [what] Americans should know about Sweden is that it’s a free, open society where we take care of each other and welcome people to come and join.
Q: What's your favorite Swedish food?
A: I think I would have to go with meatballs. (Laughs.) It’s very classical. We had it only yesterday, and I liked it a lot, with lingonberry jam and mashed potatoes.
Q: I’m actually one-quarter Swedish. People in my family came in the late 19th century to America. But I haven’t been to my ancestral homeland yet. If I were to make the trip there, what do I need to see and do?
A: If you know the parts that you ancestors were originally from, I think you should visit that parts. And I’m quite sure that you would find that people in Sweden are very, very friendly to people who come from America or other countries that Swedes have migrated to. It was a large portion of the Swedish population that migrated because of very poor conditions. Sweden is a rich country now, and we can afford a strong welfare system, we can afford a lot in our society, but that’s not the way it was when the people of your family and earlier than that migrated. It was a really poor country. And we are all happy to welcome those who come back to us. So I’m quite sure you would get a very warm welcome.
I think you should see my city, Gothenburg. It’s a modern, climate-smart, small but very modern and very cool city. I would very much welcome you if you would come to Gothenburg. I would think that you should see our archipelagos. You would love that. Yeah, it’s really nice. I have a very small summer house, a cottage, that goes to the sea, where I am now, and we love the sea, we love to be out in the boats, in our archipelagos. And of course if you want to go to Stockholm, it’s also a very, very nice city with much water, also very friendly people.
Q: What do you think about American politics?
A: I went to Washington and to New York together with my children when they were both in their late teens. They had a lot of preconceptions, a lot of ideas about Americans that they got from American politics, that they got from the rather warped representation of American politics in Sweden.
We had to go there just to get to know people, to see some ordinary, everyday people, talk to them and to make my boys understand that American people are a lot smarter than the idea that you get from trying to make an opinion about American politics. I think it’s making politics look really bad. When I look at what Donald Trump is doing right now and the level of the debate, I am appalled, really. This is a degrading of politics in a way that clouds every issue and makes it impossible to understand what kind of stance the candidates really do have on important issues, because it is a mockery of politics. Sounds rather harsh.
I know that there are lots of people who are very much engaged in working, in registering, in canvassing, in trying to get people to have a better idea of the future, and trying to fight for a better America on both sides, I am quite sure – and I know, because I have met a lot of people doing that. But the candidates, as it is now, I think that it is not a level of debate that is good for making people taking politics serious.
Q: What about Hillary Clinton or any of the other candidates?
A: I think that Hillary Clinton is doing a good job. I am a Social Democrat myself, so of course I am very much close in my values to Hillary Clinton’s, and I would love to have a woman president, and I hope that she gets to be that first woman president. She is facing opposition that is not really fighting fair. They don’t fight on the issues, and I think that is not really good for Mrs. Clinton.
Q: What do you not like about your country?
A: Oooh, it can be very chilly and windy, wet and cold in the winter, and dark – I don’t like that a lot. But when spring comes, on the other hand, it’s absolutely fabulous. When the heat and the sun and the warmth comes back, I like the contrast. But I don’t like the damp, cold winters.
Q: What do you love about Sweden, besides what you’ve already told me?
A: I love that Sweden is a very modern country. Swedes love to try out new things. We are a very individualistic country. I love that people are brave and dare to take on huge challenges, and I love that we are a country of solidarity. I love that about Sweden.