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NORTHERN SWEDEN DISPATCHES
'Why bother with a <i>bastu</i> when you can pop into your local shop'

'Why bother with a bastu when you can pop into your local shop'

Published: 13 Nov 2012 16:34 GMT+01:00
Updated: 13 Nov 2012 16:34 GMT+01:00

As temperatures plunge in northern Sweden, ex-Londoner Paul Connolly discovers that wearing shorts and t-shirts while everyone else pulls on their hats and gloves betrays a past spent in more temperate climes.

Winter started in northern Sweden on August 13th. No, really, it did. That is if you take as a barometer the first sighting of a woolly hat and gloves on a dog-walker.

There I was, in t-shirt and shorts, driving into town for some more barbeque coal, when I saw the man, all snuggled up in a thick jacket and the aforementioned winter accessories, walking his dog.

I actually did a cartoonish double take as I drove past him and nearly sideswiped a cyclist. I checked the in-car thermometer. 15 degrees Celsius. What’s going on?

Three weeks later, as September heralded a wet and mild autumn, a delivery driver backed his lorry into our drive to drop off a freezer. He hopped out, replete with ear muffs and gloves and just stared at me, still in my shorts and t-shirt, his eyes goggling as if I’d come to greet him in a rubber gimp suit.

After he recovered from his shock, we chatted briefly.

“You are from England? Why did you come here?”

I told him that I loved the natural beauty and that, in winter, the complete lack of rain was a real treat for someone who grew up with dank, permanently damp winters.

“But it’s already so cold. I much prefer the rain to all the snow we get,” he shivered.

He helped me lug the freezer into our cellar and as we walked back up the external steps he noticed that our house backed onto a 3km-wide lake.

“Wow,” he cooed, “what a great view.”

Then his countenance darkened, he endured a kind of weird internal spasm, rubbed his puffa jacket-clad arms.

“But in winter, the wind across that lake – soooo coooold," he said.

And then he practically sprinted back to the womb-like safety of his van. As I walked to the front door I checked our wall-mounted thermometer – it was ten degrees Celsius.

These were not isolated incidents. Our lovely neighbours, Randy and Irene, have been wearing huge jackets since the beginning of September and I’ve already developed a reputation in the village for being slightly eccentric because I wear shorts when it’s not at least 25 degrees.

Try walking into a northern supermarket after September has arrived and you’re soon shedding clothes quicker than a Z-list starlet in a reality show. Why bother having a bastu in your house when you could pop into your local ICA? These places are boiling.

We had some neighbours around for dinner at the end of September.

The women refused to go to the toilet because the radiator in the bathroom wasn’t working. The rest of the house was toasty but they still couldn’t bear the idea of a porcelain interaction that was undertaken at less than Caribbean temperatures.

They were even offered the use of tea towels to place on the toilet seat. They wouldn’t have it and sat there looking increasingly uncomfortable as the night wore on. On reflection, it was probably unkind of me to switch on our interior waterfall halfway through the evening.

I am genuinely perplexed – why are the northern Swedes such wimps when it comes to the cold? If they’re swaddled up in winter clothes when it’s 15 degrees out, what do they wear when it’s -30? Do they all hollow out moose and stagger around the local ICA like some animal version of Night of the Living Dead? They live in a very cold climate – surely they must be used to dealing with frigid temperatures.

However, I do have a theory. Every northern Swedish house is like an oven in the winter. I know that’s partially to do with the heat-retaining properties of wooden houses. But it’s also because they don’t like having windows open – they abhor drafts.

The English, on the other hand, like a little airflow even if it means sacrificing a little warmth. Swedish friends think English houses are freezing in winter – we (well, my girlfriend Donna and I) think they live in airless, hot boxes.

So, if you leave your stuffy, overheated house and encounter a temperature significantly lower, you’re going to think it’s really cold and start togging up as if you were trekking to the North Pole rather than taking Fido out for a wee.

But why are the houses so hot in the first place? I think it’s related to the shoe-removing fetish, that I only recently found out was mainly due to snobbery. Apparently, and apologies if everyone already knows this, three or four generations ago wearing outdoor/working shoes in the house was a sign of poverty – you were so poor you couldn’t afford nice fluffy slippers.

Similarly, back in the middle of the twentieth century, only wealthy people could afford to heat their whole house in the winter. I know, from anecdotal evidence, that some northern Swedish families used to all sleep in the same room to keep warm in the winter.

Consequently, as the wealth has been spread, having a really, really, really warm house has become a sign of prosperity. And the warmer your house is, the colder the outside world seems, so the earlier in the year you start wearing winter clothing. It makes sense to me, anyway.

Me, I’m going to deal with visits to my neighbours’ suffocatingly hot houses over the coming holiday season the only way I know how. In a manoeuvre I’m going to call the “reverse Superman”, once I’m in their houses I’ll peel off my thick winter layer to reveal – you guessed it – a t-shirt and shorts.

Paul Connolly

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

18:03 November 13, 2012 by skogsbo
I thought the shoe removing was just a desire not to walk $hit from outside right around the inside of the house?

You must be the only Londoner who doesn't moan when a single snow flake lands in London, you would think the city had been teleported to Alaska the way Southern England moans and goes into a media frenzy about even slightly cooler weather.
20:35 November 13, 2012 by dizzymoe33
I enjoy the cooler weather, I don't do well when it is extremely hot out. I guess my ancestors came from the North. I don't mind removing my shoes we have that policy at our home as well.
21:13 November 13, 2012 by Robert vernon
The swedes are hopelessly soft.
22:53 November 13, 2012 by Rishonim
I heard the tradition for removing shoes was only practiced by the proletariat as they could not afford the service of a cleaning person.
07:15 November 14, 2012 by PaulConnolly
Skogsbo, I think that whole trailing stuff round the house has been adopted as an extra reason for shoe removal. I've read in at least two separate books and been told by my village's oldest resident that it had always been a sign of poverty to have to wear your outdoor clothes indoors, hence the shoe removal. But it's not really a hardship to have to remove your shoes. I quite like the tradition and it means I now own my first ever pair of slippers.

Also, most Londoners love the snow. But, as it, until recently, has only snowed infrequently dahn sarf, the authorities have generally been unwilling to risk spending cash on equipment/supplies they might not need. Then, of course, when it does snow all hell breaks loose.

Robert - have you ever watched an ice hockey match? Perhaps not.

Very wry, Rishonim.....
07:51 November 14, 2012 by skogsbo
curious about the shoes, will ask the sambas folk's, they consider themselves old and wise, I'll put it too the test.

In London I don't think it is the equipment, it's just general media hype combined with the fact that it's easy news too, the "colder than... " insert somewhere normal cold headline, "temps plummet across the country to -7c" even though this will probably be in a remote Scottish glen, just as northern as Southern Sweden!

I think in some respects Swedes just make the most of creature comforts, why be cold if you don't have to be. Go to the UK in winter and you see hundreds of kids and parents freezing, babies with no hats or gloves etc.. Perhaps they just like the concept of pulling out their cosy winter woolies from deep store (well 2-3months in summer) and putting them back on. I would suggest any fool can be cold.
08:08 November 14, 2012 by PaulConnolly
skogsbo, you're right about the media hype. A right load of old nonsense. But that's newspapers for you.

But the travel chaos is definitely down to authorities not having the right equipment/supplies. Up here, there are three villagers with snow ploughs to help people out if it gets too bad. Because they know it probably will get bad. There's not the same certainty in the UK. Mind you, given the UK's rainfall, you'd think, by now, they would have erected a giant umbrella over the whole country.

With you on the futility of being cold when you don't have to be. But is 15c cold? Perhaps I just don't feel the cold that much.
09:01 November 14, 2012 by skogsbo
Perhaps its relative to their houses, with thermostats at 25c or the temp on the Thai holidays. Or they just like being very cosy.

For me 18/19 indoors is fine, over 20 is warm and beyond too warm.
10:00 November 14, 2012 by GraceBee
I love the mooses stumbling around ICA!! SOO funny.

I think you are right. I looked at my thermostat this morning. It is set at 23 celsius. Is that very warm then?
10:28 November 14, 2012 by skogsbo
23 is warm, but depending where your thermostat is doesn't mean the place is that warm, or even close.
12:00 November 14, 2012 by GraceBee
He is right tho. I get all snuggled up if the temp goes below 10 degrees. If I could I wouldn't go out all winter, lol, so mebbe we are getting too soft?
18:34 November 14, 2012 by Spuds MacKenzie
It's not just northern Swedes that are weather wimps: it's the same in Uppsala & Stockholm! Every year I see people here bundled up in their ski hats, gloves and scarfs in early September. And the busses turn the heat on FULL BLAST in late Summer as well!

I'm originally from Pennsylvania in the northeast USA and we have identical weather back home a here, yet in the U.S. no one breaks out their winter clothes until, you know, Winter!
20:46 November 14, 2012 by jarvtrask
When friends of ours came from the North of Sweden to stay with us in the Pennines, they were freezing. Our houses tend to be about 18 degrees...this was cold enough for them to keep their jackets on. Even walking on the moors in temperatures above freezing, they were cold....it was, they said, the damp that they found hard to get used to. That's Yorkshire for you.

If the shoe removal thing is about class rather than trailing grit over pine floors, I shall not feel guilt in future for keeping my boots on.
09:30 November 15, 2012 by PaulConnolly
Jarvtrask, I think the dampness in England is a very good point. It does make it feel colder. But that makes the northern Swedes' attitude towards their climate even more puzzling - the air is much, much drier up here than even in southern Sweden, never mind the UK. So, it should feel much less cold.

I even mentioned the cold issue to some neighbours the other day over dinner. They just didn't get it. When I mildly ribbed them about being wimps, they just stared at me rather blankly. Then one of them piped up - "But it IS cold here."

I guess it's what you're used to...
22:34 November 15, 2012 by Ian C. Purdie - Sydney
Paul Connolly wouldn't survive in my neck of the woods. Hot starts at >30C and cold is
18:06 November 16, 2012 by Talkingdog
Although dampness may conduct the chill dry air does not retain heat in a comfortable way either. I do not understand how people can sleep in their hot air tight bedrooms either. Married to a Swede ?(whispers) You can sneak up in the night and crack that bed room window ;) Ever noticed how Swedes do not really take to sleeping outside or late night chats over coffee or drinks under stars? Any ideas why that would be?

About shoes in the house. I remember my grandmother telling me she did not like "that boy" when a Swedish exchange student had the audacity to remove his shoes and walk around our home in his stockings. Now I am the the brunt of many a lifted brow, family gossip and irritation as I do not remove my shoes. It ruins my outfit, I protest, and makes me shorter than all the rest. I do bring extra shoes that are all clean and nice, but- I think conformity is part of the issue.

Cheers for an interesting post Paul!
00:51 November 17, 2012 by jonathanlindell
And if your home is already too hot for your visitors, it's a good idea to also light candles in every room - including the bathroom!
12:05 November 17, 2012 by PaulConnolly
Talkingdog, all good points but I wouldn't sit out late at night under the stars in the summer either. But that's because of the mossies…..

Jonathan, I know - let's turn a hot house into a greenhouse. Next dinner party - bring a tomato plant!
12:46 November 17, 2012 by GraceBee
I have now turned down my thermostat to 21c. Trying not to feel cold lol.
14:25 November 19, 2012 by spongepaddy
Not to mention the hilarious sitting-outside-cafes thing, with blankets wrapped around them. Blankets! Wimps.
18:03 November 19, 2012 by jeffi_in_denmark
There is nothing funnier, to a Canadian, than seeing all the people running around in Denmark and southern Sweden in Canada Goose parkas. We use those when we work outside, spend long hours at one time outside. We do not use them when it is still warm enough to rain :-)
14:34 November 22, 2012 by grymagnusson
At some point we all run out of those 'look at those silly old Swedes' stories and become the subjects of our own, or leave.
12:09 November 24, 2012 by SalamanderClub
Love it! As a South African married to a Swede, we struggle to find an indoor temperature that suits us both. Why not wear some extra clothes indoors in winter, I ask? No, that's uncivilised, it seems!

And guess what? Now when I visit my family in Cape Town in the southern winter, I am sooo cold. Why can't you guys get indoor heating, I ask. This is just uncivilised!

Great that we don't have anything more serious to disagree about ...
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