A Chinese journalist tells me there are people in her country who go to Ikea, not to buy anything, but as a leisure activity. Surrounded by blond wood bookcases, they stretch out and go to sleep on the stylish couches, or imagine themselves magically transplanted from their lives of toil in the factories of the Pearl River Delta on to the stage set of a perfectly designed make-believe Swedish home. After just a few days in the Swedish capital, I knew the feeling. Of course Stockholm is expensive: a glass of wine costs nearly £10 – but that aside, I kept imagining how immeasurably better life would be if our cities were more like the Swedish capital and our politics run by Swedes, in other words, if we all lived the Swedish dream.
The Chinese woman and I were among journalists, academics, economists, experts, politicians, and lobbyists from all over the world who had travelled to the Scandinavian city for an EU sponsored conference on poverty and democracy. Chi-Yuk Choi had recently risked her life to report on an appalling trade in corpses in rural China. Others had powerful witness accounts of police brutality in the favelas of Rio or the torture of albino children in Tanzania. One reporter from Ghana had to cover his face in case he would be recognised at home and bumped off for courageously exposing yet another shocking tale of human exploitation, prostitution and misery.
It seemed almost cruel to stage such an event in a paradise so civilised most people have a boat for their endlessly long, paid summer holidays. The Djurgarden, an island in the centre of Stockholm, was filled with fathers on year-long parental leave pushing buggies of happy children. True, the Swedish days are short, but everyone lights candles, casting a soothing glow over their dream homes and stylish bars or cafes.
It was a climatic shock to travel to Scandinavia directly from eastern Sicily, parts of which until November still enjoy warm temperatures and are thus overrun by cruise-ship American-Italians in sneakers and Bermuda shorts, visiting the many Roman and Greek ruins or clogging the narrow streets en masse shouting "Hey Marleen, look at these Godfather T shirts!". Syracuse, with its wealth of ancient heritage, is big enough to retain its authenticity despite the influx. But then, the city's patron is Saint Lucia, a martyr who is widely venerated each winter with candle-lit processions – in Sweden.
A criminal reality check
On our last night in Stockholm, the illusion of perfection was reassuringly shattered. The crime rates are hardly worthy of the Cosa Nostra, but Johann (from Johannesburg) had his laptop bag stolen from under his nose in the lobby of our achingly hip design hotel.