Life in Sweden

The Swedes

How are the Swedes? Just like almost anywhere, there are variations, nuances, regional specificities and sub-cultures. Yet, looking at a map of Sweden, it becomes obvious that it is a pretty long country. Sweden is 1572 kilometers from north to south. If you would flip the whole country around its southern tip it would reach Genoa by the Mediterranean Sea! With such a vast country, there obviously are some regional differences in Sweden. Not only in terms of climate, but also as variations in culture, habits and dialects.

Most historical episodes took place in the south and what is today central Sweden. Even now, the north remains very sparsely populated. Roughly speaking, culture in the north tends to have a bit of a down-to-earth feeling to it. The further south you go, the closer it becomes between cities and the more continental it feels.

Life in Sweden

A typical Swedish mid-size town

In Sweden, society has long played a very central role in peoples’ lives. In course of the 20th century people have learned to rely more and more on a strong state. From kindergarten to elderly care, the institutions take care of you. It is a secular state where the role of the church has become slim. The strong family of rural Sweden is history by now. Most young people leave their family early on and start living their own lives.

Culture is rich in Sweden. There is an abundance of associations of almost any kind: photo clubs, choirs, pet clubs, painting associations, fitness clubs and so on. Perhaps it is because of the very generous rights of organization, or perhaps it is just deeply rooted in Swedish culture. People in Sweden love meeting new people and to learn new skills. Music is another example. With world famous artists such as Abba, Roxette, Europe, Avicii and Zara Larsson the question is – why Sweden? It might be because of the wide availability of public music schools, or just a reflection of the love for music and a deep interest in culture.

Worshipping nature

Swedes enjoy nature all year round. “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothes”.

Most of Sweden is nature. A long coast ranges from the border with Norway in the west, all the way around the southernmost point. From there the coast continues all the way to northern Sweden and the border with Finland, a few archipelagos on the way. Forests cover a large part of the territory and impressive mountains mark the area between Sweden and Norway. In such a setting it feels obvious to love nature – it is all around you.

There is a right of common access, “allemansrätten”, in Sweden. It means that anybody has the right to move freely anywhere in the nature. If you just avoid crossing peoples’ gardens you can spend your day (or night) anywhere you like. It is an agreement of mutual respect. It means leaving no traces, no litter and making no harm. A full respect for nature.

Naturally, sports like orienteering, cross-country skiing and jogging are all very popular. During winter some Swedes enjoy putting on their special long-range skates to spend long hours in the sunshine on a frozen lake. Health is by the way something many Swedes take seriously. People of all ages take part in various fitness activities. It is not a rare sight to see pensioners at the gym, for example.

Winter Swedes, Summer Swedes

Winter in Sweden, gloomy sometimes

Talking about winter: the difference between summer and winter is huge in Sweden. Summer nights are so bright that you can read a book in the middle of the night. Winter days on the other hand are so short they almost go unnoticed. These seasonal changes reflect so well in the mood of the people that it sometimes makes you believe there are two different Swedish peoples: the winter Swedes and the summer Swedes.

Too credulous?

Midnight summer light

Abroad, Swedes have got a reputation of being too credulous sometimes. And yes, there is often a general idea among Swedes that most people actually mean well. There is a belief in people. Trust is widespread, although modern city life has made people more and more precautious. At the same time, trust is fragile, and you can rarely fool somebody twice. It is just like that with the Swedes – having trust does not mean being foolish, it just might appear so at first glance.

Swedes avoid open conflict as far as possible. It can get to extremes where two parties with completely opposite views try to agree that “everything is fine”. Nevertheless, Swedes love debates of all kinds and are not afraid to discuss even the most controversial issues. Does it sound contradictory to you? It maybe is.


The “midsommarstång” at midsummer

Although being a very secular country, traditions hold a firm grip on Sweden. The four “Advent” Sundays leading up to Christmas are marked in churches. A common event, not only for believers, is Saint Lucia’s Day, which is celebrated 13 December. It is a major feast day which is celebrated with a procession of white-dressed girls and boys, led by a girl in a white dress and a crown with candles on the head. On Christmas evening Swedes love watching Donald Duck at 15. A foreigner will have difficulty to understand what Disney has to do with Swedish Christmas. It began in 1960 when TV started to become common. Somehow it became a loved tradition, often accompanied with ginger cookies and other pastry.

In Sweden, like in many other countries Walpurgis Night is celebrated on 30 April with large fires. Most Swedes regard it as a welcoming of the spring and a good occasion to get together.

Swedes celebrate Easter as a chance to gather with family and friends, just like in most of the Christian world.

A very Swedish tradition is midsummer which takes place sometime between 19 and 26 June and marks the middle of the summer. At this occasion Swedes raise a huge pole decorated with branches and flowers. Dance takes place around this “midsommarstång”, as the pole is called, and people enjoy food, drink and each other’s good company.

Swedish cuisine

The proximity to the sea has had an impact on Swedish cuisine. The traditional Christmas and Easter tables both contain herring in various flavors as well as lightly salted salmon with accompanying sauces. In northern Sweden, the fermented Baltic herring is a delicacy (try it with care).

Yet, meat dishes and game are as much part of Swedish food tradition as fish. Anybody who has visited IKEA anywhere in the world has understood that Swedes love meatballs with mashed potatoes, sauce and lingonberry jam. The mix of salt and sweet is by the way rare in most cuisines. “Falukorv”, a kind of thick sausage is another kind of popular everyday dish. Vegetarian food is widespread and loved.

Swedes are not huge bread consumers but enjoy a piece of hard rye bread (“knäckebröd”) at lunch. For breakfast this same bread, or a softer kind of whole meal bread, is often consumed with cod roe caviar from a tube.

Traditionally Swedes have consumed “brännvin”, a strong liquor made from potatoes and grains. Beer has been consumed since ancient times and nowadays craft breweries are to be found almost anywhere. Swedes were happy to add wine to their drinking habits as well.

In fact, Swedes have traditionally been curious about trying new kinds of food. Sweden has become a very multicultural place over the last few decades. Influences from Thai, Tex-Mex, Japanese, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine have become commonplace.

Last but not least, Swedes are fond of “fika”. To fika means to have coffee. It might be coffee of any kind, but it almost always comes with something sweet – a cake or cookies, sometimes plenty of it. It always takes place in the company of good friends or co-workers and never in a rush.

Written by Henrik from Sweden