Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Sweden and the Swedesh

By: Claire Duffy

1.  The day after Midsummer, Stockholm is a bit like London at the beginning of 28 Days Later

They take summer very seriously here.  The whole country pretty much shuts down for the month of July and everyone flocks to the arhcipelago to spend a month frolicking in the Baltic naked (at least, I’m fairly sure that’s what they do).  At the end of June there are actual speedboat traffic jams at the locks leading from Lake Mälaren to the sea, and ex pats and tourists wandering around scratching their heads thinking, “I could have sworn there were some Swedes here yesterday… ?”

2. They aren’t as unfriendly as they think

The stereotype of the reserved Swede who won’t invite anyone to their birthday party until they have known them at least a decade isn’t entirely unfounded, but I’ve found that, on a casual/acquaintance basis, they are astonishingly kind.  I once vented to a work colleague about some trouble I was having organising an electricity account in my name because I didn’t yet have a personnummer, and he instantly phoned the electricity company and chewed them out on my behalf.  I haven’t ever seen him on a social basis, but I can switch on my TV.

3.  They are quite tall and blond and beautiful

Not all of them, it has to be said: Stockholm is about as multi cultural as most European capital cities, but those that are ethnically Swedish (is that a thing?) are pleasingly predictably ridiculously tall and blond.  I once thought I’d met Alexander Skarsgård and spent at least 20 minutes chatting to this guy trying desperately to seem cool and nonchalant and not at all starstruck, and then I mentioned something about L.A. and he said he’d never been and I took a second look and realised that he was in fact a random tall blond dude who’d probably never torn a V dealer’s head off in his life.

4.  When they raise a glass and shout skål, everyone must make eye contact with everyone else at the table before drinking

This is normal.  Don’t get all freaked out and paranoid and demand to know why everyone is staring at you.

5.  If you don’t see a queue at the cashier or help desk, don’t assume that no one is waiting for help

The line is, in fact, invisible: all the people waiting have a little number ticket, and if you boldly mosey straight up to the empty desk and ask a question, they will shame you to the depths of your very soul.  It will be silent, it will be subtle, but you will seriously consider chopping a pinky toe off to offer in penance.

6.  Nakedness isn’t necessarily sexual

This is the distinction that can be confusing for outsiders: after puberty, we tend to associate wearing one’s birthday suit with sexy times, but in Sweden, if you’re naked, it simply means that you don’t have any clothes on.  I’m of the opinion that this is why they are so much more comfortable with it: if it’s not primarily sexual, then there’s nothing especially private or awkward about it.  Friends will sauna together; people will skinny dip in the middle of the city in daylight; I have a neighbour, a woman around my age, who has waved to me, having apparently just stepped out of the shower, as I peeked out the window to see if the snow was settling.

7.  Half-the hour means half to the hour, not half past

If you arrange a meeting for ‘half six’, don’t be surprised by an irritated phone call at 5:45 asking where you are.  ”Half six” is 5:30.  Also, they don’t like it when people are not on time.  You might have to remove another toe.

8.  They have actual holiday days for pastries

It’s brilliant.  In other countries, we celebrate military victories and saints’ days and politicians’ birthdays: in Sweden, they celebrate cinnamon buns, and waffles and saffron pastries.  Be careful not to confuse an American friend by telling him about how they celebrate “buns” and have him wonder if they honour first the right one, and then the left one.

9. When you enter someone’s home  (and even some offices)  take off your shoes

For the love of Thor, take off your shoes.  Even if it appears that people inside are wearing shoes: they are not.  They are wearing slippers that might look like shoes but never have, nor ever will, touch a pavement.  If you take a step over the threshold with footwear that has seen the light of day upon your feet, you will be shamed.  Soon you will not need shoes at all, for you will have no toes left.

10.  The quality of life is almost absurd

When you live in a world where it is very hard to lose your job (seriously, it takes about a year to sack someone here unless they’ve set the office on fire or something) and even if you did you would still have healthcare and free education up to PHD level, you have the time and energy to prioritise family and leisure time (see no. 1), to devote to fitness and cultural interests, to be calm and reasonable and genuinely prize equality and fairness even at the expense of short term profit or benefit.

I went to a spa yesterday with some girlfriends.  To me, a spa day is a rare treat, but I was aware of being surrounded by groups of teenagers, couples, guy friends, solo people, all cheerfully steaming or bubbling the cares of the week away on a random Sunday.  I thought to myself, these people have it figured out.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingClaire Duffy is a British expat living in Sweden. Blog description: Professional day dreamer living in Sweden for no particular reason.
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Contest Comments » There are 9 comments

Pristine wrote 10 years ago:

Very interesting! Have never traveled to Sweden before, but there are lots of Swedish people living here in Verbier.

Sara C. Snider wrote 10 years ago:

As a fellow expat in Sweden, I love this post. I literally laughed out loud on the holidays for pastries, because it's true and so wonderfully silly. And earlier this year I made the mistake of going into Stockholm the day after midsummer and yeah, I was expecting tumbleweeds to roll by. Great post, Claire, and is a nice glimpse into Sweden and the lovely Swedish people. :)

Margot Kinberg wrote 10 years ago:

This is really interesting, Claire! I love the inside look at what life in Sweden is like.

Evelyne Holingue wrote 10 years ago:

Although I went to Sweden twice, I visited in the late 80s. So I was interested to get an insider look at what Sweden looks like in 2013. Since Claire is from abroad she also sees this country through her own experiences. She highlights some ways of life in Sweden that Swedish people have stopped noticing. I knew a few things about this country but discovered with interest and surprise #5 #7 and #8. Also, as a blogger I like posts which brush a portrait of a city and a country in a quick and fun way. It is not enough to fully understand a new place but offers a glimpse that can only make readers want to explore more. Someday. On their own. Thanks, Claire for this cool blog post.

Joanna wrote 10 years ago:

Oh boy! Count me in. Holidays for St Strawberry Danish, people who know how to queue without duffing each other up at the customer help desk, and the possiblilty to kick my shoes of several times per day? Sounds like heaven! As always on Claire's blog, fun, clear and engaging writing. Now excuse me, I'm off to buy an invisible swimming costume...

Verina Kranak wrote 10 years ago:

I am lucky to still have all my toes, going through some of those faux pas myself. Thanks for starting to dispell the 'all Swedes are cold' stereotype.

Matthew wrote 10 years ago:

A fascinating collection of vignettes of Swedish life that are streets ahead of those bland airline magazine profiles of places. Certainly I can get behind the days for celebrating cakes; especially after a particularly Damascene moment with a Hallongrotta. Thanks!

Sheila Wujek wrote 10 years ago:

I love the Swedish way of life although I'm sure they have their problems as well. What I wouldn't give to have an invisible line-up at our stores over here, it would be much more civilized and stop the line cutting, line-up rage you see here at the holidays. *sigh* As for tall Swedes, I already feel like I live in the land of the Giants, I'm not sure my neck could take much more craning.

Sarah Shumate wrote 10 years ago:

You are so funny, Claire! I love this article! After reading number 8, I'm positive I was born in the wrong country. Pastries are their own food group in my diet. :o)

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