A Slice of Sweden

Having lived here less than two months, I feel in no way qualified to offer any accurate or in-depth insights into Swedish people or culture. There is so much I have not and will not have access to during my four months here. But I do want to try to explain what it has been like living in a new and different cultural environment for the first time. And since I don’t feel equipped to offer a long-winded treatise on the ways of the Swedish, what I will offer instead are some fragments. Unfinished, not fully formed, a part but not by any means the entirety of the complex whole. The following are some snippets of class notes, thoughts, and random moments from my time here so far that will hopefully give you at least a rudimentary understanding of my encounters with Swedish culture so far.

(A quote from my Swedish Language and Culture teacher on our first day): “The Swedes like to think of themselves as a morose group of loners.”

(From my DIS regional representative during pre-departure orientation): “Talking to a Swede is like trying to get the last bit of ketchup out of a glass bottle. It’s hard at first, but when you hit it just right, it’ll all come pouring out.”

Parks in the winter have a very Twilight Zone-esque quality to them. Mothers and fathers push their children on the swings in the complete and chilly darkness of the evening. Sounds of laughter, running, and bouncing balls reverberate under the artificial glow of the temporary suns lighting up the basketball court.  

 (Positive Psychology Class Notes):

  • World Happiness Report 2019 – Sweden = 7th happiest country in the world. Scandinavia v highly represented in top 10.
  • Welfare state = compulsory/comprehensive social insurance system designed to ensure a quality environment from womb to tomb
    • High taxes, but pays off bc you get everything you need at a high quality from the government
  • Parliament has 8 parties. Work together to form majorities and get things done.
  • 420 days of paid parental leave; can be split between parents, one of the best systems in the world
    • Interviews with fathers: address common themes of them wanting to be able to bond with their children just as much as mothers can, the sense of responsibility they feel to share equally in the duties of childcare, a team mentality as opposed to mostly the woman’s problem

The Swedish love black clothing. Emma and I, she with her mustard-colored coat and I with my neon-blue Jansport backpack, stick out like sore thumbs wherever we go. Whenever I travel with my class we appear to me as a flock of slightly too loud, too brightly-colored birds. If you want to dress like a Swede, dress like you’re going to a really stylish funeral.

(Swedish Language and Culture Notes):

  • Lagom: Essential component of the cultural zeitgeist of Sweden.
    •  Basically translates to “not too much, not too little.” A cultural practice emphasizing the virtue of moderation in almost every aspect of life (eating, drinking, social interaction, activity, etc.).
    • Often thought of in conjunction with the Law of Jante, which criticizes exceptionalism and excessive personal ambition, emphasizing humbleness, conformity, and collectivism. Younger people = more individualistic, beginning to break away from these old ideals bc not in line with success in business/competition on an international stage
    • (Lagom has also turned into a running joke within my friend group. Anytime someone is being overly-dramatic or annoying, you hit em with a “lagom, dude.” Our Swedish friend Dennis thinks it’s hilarious)

(After talking to a priest about life in Sweden during a tour of our local church): I am struck by the faith the Swedish people have in their government to provide the services they need. The thought of government as a competent, fair, uncorrupt entity that has the best interests of its people at heart is something quite foreign to me at the moment.

A woman plops down next to me on the tunnelbana. She sets her bag down and it falls against my leg. She turns to me wide-eyed and says, ferloat (“I’m sorry,” but a more intense “I’m sorry” than an “excuse me” type of “I’m sorry”). You’d think she had just wacked me over the head with the bag instead of it gently slumping against me.

(The tbana is often completely silent, and I appreciate the fact that I am guaranteed a peaceful commute. No one will try to talk to me, or even make eye contact with me. And no one is better at looking at nothing than a Swedish person on the tbana).   

“Do you wanna fika after class?” Fika is essentially a coffee break but so much more than that. It’s a cultural practice, an institution, the first and only Swedish word I ever really understood. It’s taking a break in your day, finding the time to sit and visit with the people around you. It’s so important that many workplaces have fika built into the day. It’s a time of rest, of recharge, a little pocket of conversation and relaxation to get you through the day. And it means coffee and a kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) in the middle of the day. My most authentic fika happened ironically not in Sweden, but on a trip to Norway with my friends. We lingered in a café for almost three hours, long after our pastries had been devoured, caught up in our jokes and conversation.  

Though I haven’t yet seen the summer here, I think Stockholm is a city meant to be seen under the shroud of twilight. Purple-pink sunsets fading into a deep blue. Boat lights swaying and twinkling on choppy water. I almost can’t imagine this place drenched in sun. Equally as beautiful, I’m sure, but in a different way.  

3 thoughts on “A Slice of Sweden

  1. Beautifully written! Can really picture being on the tbana and it’s just so wildly different from the Madrid metro lol miss you love u !


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