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SWEDISH HABITS

Twelve things about Sweden that make me smile

The Local's Nordic editor Richard Orange runs through some of the things about life in Sweden that warm his heart.

Twelve things about Sweden that make me smile
What about Sweden makes you smile? Photo: Werner Nystrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Pontoons or bryggor 

Any pond or lake in Sweden bigger than a football pitch will have its own pontoon and whenever I see one, its wooden platform leading my eye out invitingly towards the deeper water, it always brings an involuntary smile to my face. 

Swimming in fresh water is one of life’s simple pleasures, and Sweden’s bryggor do celebrate that, but they also demonstrate how Swedes work collectively. Bryggor are almost always well-maintained, but are rarely owned by anyone. Despite this, they’re always free to use. This is not how things work back in my home country of the UK, and it’s a fantastic thing. 

The pontoon at Richard Orange’s local lake. Photo: Mia Orange

Overloaded box bikes

I suspect some in Sweden would dismiss lådcyklar or box bikes, as a marker of the country’s smug, left-of-centre middle class. But even after owning my own battered and ancient example for nigh on a decade, seeing one can still make me break out into a smile. 

To amuse me, they need to be overloaded. It could be a gaggle of kids of different ages without a seatbelt in sight, a towering piece of furniture, a joyful-looking 20-something, or an enormous dog. 

To me, there’s something wonderfully free about box bikes. A life with fewer cars, slightly chaotic, a little bit hippy but still very sensible. 

A cargo bike, although not quite overloaded enough to qualify. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

A well-tooled utility belt 

Sweden is a country of engineers and practical people and nothing exemplifies this more than the utility belts, often incorporated into work trousers, worn by the legions of prosperous-looking electricians, carpenters, builders and other workmen or entreprenörer – down where I live in Skåne anyway.

They will have, at the very least, a screwdriver, a hammer, a Mora knife, an extendable ruler, and a carpenter’s pencil, all neatly organised and at the ready. 

For me, it’s evidence of the fact that even after years of growing inequality, Sweden’s blue collar workers still enjoy comparatively higher wages than their counterparts in many other countries in Europe, or in the US or Australia. It’s a sign of the dignity and professionalism of the country’s manual workers, and that can only be a good thing. 

Sun worshippers 

They start to appear at some point in March or April. People standing absolutely still on the pavement or sitting with their back against a wall, eyes closed, just enjoying the sensation of warm sun on their faces. 

Even for someone from cloudy, overcast Britain, this is quite strange behaviour, so it must seem wildly foreign to someone from a sunny country like Italy or Spain. 

While Sweden’s winters can be cold, grey and depressing, it can seem worth it, almost anyway, when everything and everyone springs back into life in the spring. For me, it’s the sunworshippers, rather than the first spring flowers, that mark the moment this quickening has begun. 

Valstugor or “election cabins”

The highlight of every election year for me is visiting the makeshift villages of valstugor, or election cabins, that spring up in town and city squares across the country.

Anyone can just wander up and just start chatting to the political activists about whatever political issue they want to talk about, local, regional or national, and very often the parties’ most senior local politicians will be there. 

I’ve witnessed the local head of the far-right Sweden Democrats passionately debating an overexcited crowd of youths with immigrant backgrounds, the head of the local Moderates brutally disown his party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate, and Social Democrats discuss how pessimistic they feel ahead of the coming vote. 

For me, it’s a sign of the openness of Swedish society and of how impressively healthy and alive the country’s democracy is at a local level. I always walk away from spending my lunch break touring the cabins beaming. 

Valstugor or ‘election cabins’ for the Sweden Democrats and Christian Democrats ahead of Sweden’s 2022 election. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Raggarbilar 

There’s nothing like witnessing a gleaming 1965 Pontiac Bonneville convertible cruising along a Swedish country road to put a smile on your face. I’m not a car enthusiast, but I appreciate passion when I see it, and the sheer incongruity of seeing American cars from the 1950s and 1960s cars on the roads of Sweden always amuses me.

Sweden’s raggare subculture, which is based around an obsession with 1950s American culture and cars, is fascinating. It’s almost entirely based in the countryside, so you only really encounter it when you leave the big cities.

I like to try and get a look at who the person is who has devoted so much of their spare time to renovating and maintaining their beautiful vehicle. 

READ ALSO: Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South? 

Power Big Meet in Västerås, the world’s largest meet for vintage American cars. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

The mayor on a bike 

Since foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death 2003 while shopping in upmarket NK department store, Sweden’s leading national politicians have tended to travel with security. 

But the same is not the case at a regional and local level, and here in Malmö you’ll often see the mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh going from place to place completely unsupervised on her bicycle. 

As with valstugor, for me it’s a sign of the openness of Swedish democracy. 

Toddlers in winter overalls 

Det finns inget dåligt väder – bara dåliga kläder. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” If you’ve spent a winter in Sweden as a foreigner, you’ve almost certainly heard this Swedish saying over and over again.

It’s true, and particularly true of the gangs of toddlers you’ll see out in the snow in parks and preschool playgrounds across the country, wearing the winter overalls that look almost like little space suits. 

You may be spending the dark Swedish winter largely cooped up in well-heated apartments, but it’s heartening to see that they, at least, are not. And that always makes me smile. 

Coffee mornings (or afternoons for that matter) 

The local village café near where we are building our summer house has a little sign on the wall informing the clientele of its frukostklubben, or “breakfast club”, explaining who were the first locals to attend and which table they sit at. 

If you get there for its 8am opening, you’ll soon see the guy who runs the local plumbing firm, an electrician, and perhaps the odd farmer, take their place at the table and begin gabbling on about local matters, discussing politics, all in the distinctive mellow rural accent of southeastern Skåne. 

These sorts of gatherings happen across the country. You’ll see a bunch of old ladies in their 80s and 90s meeting over cakes and coffee in the more traditional types of konditori, and it gladdens the heart. 

Killjoy festive news stories 

Whenever it’s time for a Swedish celebration, such as Christmas, Easter, Valborg, New Year, I’m always on the look out for the killjoy festive news stories that are a grand, if little recognised, Swedish media tradition. 

READ ALSO: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news? 

“Why Christmas is a dangerous time for your pets”, “The particle pollution caused by Valborg bonfires”, “How Sweden’s Christmas herring are dying out”. Whether they come up with a totally new angle or refresh an old classic, no festive period ever passes without a little injection of misery from Sweden’s newspapers and broadcasters. 

For me, it says something about the Swedish reluctance to ever really enjoy anything absolutely and without reserve, a hangover perhaps from the country’s Lutheran heritage. 

“Alarm on chemicals in Swedish crayfish.” A typically miserable headline for a Swedish festive story. Photo: Screenshot

Rapeseed

This might perhaps be something limited to people who live in Skåne, but the wide fields of bright yellow rapeseed flowers you come across when driving around Sweden in the early summer always blow me away. You come over the crest of a hill and there it is. If you throw in a whitewashed medieval church, and a few wind turbines rotating majestically on the horizon, it can be a breathtaking sight.  

A field of rapeseed in Skåne, southern Sweden. Photo: Jerker Andersson/imagebank.sweden.se

The kulturtant, or “culture lady”

Once you develop an eye for them, Sweden’s kulturtantar, or “culture ladies”, are instantly recognisable and everywhere, with their baggy patterned clothes in rough cotton or home-knitted wool, brightly coloured arty looking glasses, and chunky jewellery. 

They are gently ridiculed in Sweden as another manifestation of the smug, liberal middle classes, but they are also celebrated as the core audience that keeps Sweden’s cultural world alive. It’s the kulturtantar who buy the theatre tickets, go to the literature readings, and visit the art galleries in Sweden’s cities and towns. 

In a country that I sometimes find a bit too practically minded, I’m glad they exist, and a lot of my friends, though still in their 40s, are well on the way to kulturtant status. 

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SWEDISH HABITS

Three Scandinavian lifestyle trends that are actually worth trying (and three that aren’t)

There seems to be a never-ending stream of 'Scandinavian lifestyle trends' in international glossy magazines, but only some of them are worth pursuing, while others are all hype and little reward.

Three Scandinavian lifestyle trends that are actually worth trying (and three that aren't)

Fika 

Fika is not in any way as much of a ritual as the international hype has made it out to be. Yes, you can go to a cafe with friends and call it a fika, but at work, Swedes are far more likely to grab a quick cup of coffee at their desk than sit down for a meditative pastry session.

That said, you’d be a fool never to avail yourself of Sweden’s excellent spread of cakes and biscuits, and the idea of taking a break-that’s-actually-a-break from work is a good way of connecting with colleagues and allowing your brain to slow down before picking up pace again.

And until you’ve sunk your teeth into a freshly made cinnamon or cardamom bun, still soft and warm from the oven, with a cup of black coffee on the side, have you ever truly known happiness? Fika is one Scandinavian lifestyle trend I can without hesitation get behind.

Friluftsliv

How do you get Norwegians, Swedes and Danes into a fight? Ask them who invented friluftsliv.

Scandinavians are well known for their love of the outdoors, all year round. Come wind, rain, snow or sunshine, they tend to make the most of getting out and about. The typical saying that exemplifies this approach to outdoor life is “there is no bad weather, just bad clothes”.

I’m loath to say this, but the cliché is true. Dressing up warm can make even a cold winter day seem hyggelig

Adding utepils into the mix – because Norwegians believe they invented enjoying a beer outdoors – makes it even better.

Friluftsliv is so ubiquitous in Scandinavia it’s even got a sub-section of several other lifestyle trends. Let the parent who has never thought of leaving their baby outside in the pram cast the first stone! And if giving “having a dip in the sea or a lake” a swanky new name like “wild swimming” is what urbanites need to make it feel cool enough to make up for their failed sourdough, who am I to stop them?

After all, until you’ve sunk your entire body into a freezing pool of water, teeth chattering as the Scandinavians among you extol the virtues of vinterbadning, have you ever truly known despair? Er… on second thought, maybe stick to engaging in friluftsliv in summer.

Hygge

I know, I know, the hygge hype is not only overblown, but so overdone that it’s hard to pretend it even qualifies as a “trend” any more.

In fact, I worry The Local Denmark’s editor will never speak to me again if I include it in this list.

But is it really such a bad thing to just have… a nice time? Letting your friends know you found it hyggeligt to see them, and making an effort to mark a pleasant moment, are those small things that may not seem like much, but make your everyday life that little bit more enjoyable.

There’s an almost-equivalent in Swedish: mys (and the Dutch have gezellig, they just aren’t as good at nation branding). It’s often less about open fireplaces and hot cocoa, and more about a bastardisation of tacos, but having a quietly nice time at home is… nice. Hyggeligt, even.

Hoogah, higgle, hygge or whatever your name is: I’m a fan.

Candles! Mysigt! Photo: Maskot/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Friday/Saturday sweets

Lördagsgodis, a sweet tradition with a sour past, is Swedes’ way of ritualising the ancient art of eating candy on Saturdays (or fredagsslik in Denmark, where they do it on a Friday). The health rationale behind it is to minimise consumption to one day of the week, protecting your teeth from repeated exposure to sugar, but I suspect the tradition has become so popular that in the end it actually has the opposite effect.

Social convention dictates that it has to be bought from the supermarkets’ pick ‘n’ mix section – a potluck adventure where you never know how many strange children’s hands grabbed those hard and stale svampar, lakritsbåtar or rischoklad before they made it into your mouth.

Skip this lifestyle trend, you’re an adult. Grab a kanelbulle or a romsnegle instead.

Gökotta

The most surprising Scandinavian lifestyle trend to hit international magazines in 2023 was the Swedish practice of waking up early on Ascension Day to go and sit in the forest to hear a cuckoo. You could tell that at this stage, they were really starting to scrape the barrel. 

We admit to a degree of culpability as we covered gökotta in one of our Swedish Word of the Day articles.

It’s not completely untrue. There is indeed an old tradition in Sweden of having an early morning picnic, usually around the time of Ascension Day, which used to be referred to – and still is – as gökotta, the wee hours of the morning when only the cuckoo is awake. 

But it’s more likely to be organised by rural community groups, if at all, than individual Swedes, most of whom have never heard of it.

I mean no offence to bird-watchers or early-morning people, but you don’t have to bother with this one. Nobody else does.

Lagom

In practical terms, lagom makes perfect sense. Why would you want the water to be too warm or too cold when you could have it just right? If you’ve already broken into the bear’s house anyway, why settle for subpar porridge when it could be heated to the perfect temperature?

But do we really want lagom to also be a way of life?

Lagom at its worst is also a society where there’s no room for individuality, although by arguing that I realise I’m also committing the offence of treating lagom as much more than what it actually is: a neutral word frequently used by Swedes to describe “not too much, not too little”.

And frankly, is Sweden even a lagom country? Melodifestivalen, crayfish parties or Stureplan on a Friday night beg to differ. 

So by all means, use lagom in conversation. But as a lifestyle trend? It’s time to ditch it.

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