It wasn’t so much the formality of the skål that fazed me, nor was it the infamous rule of shoe.
After landing on Swedish soil, I seemed to navigate the maze of social quirks with surprising ease and honeymooned happily in my newfound home.
Nothing, then, prepared me for an embarrassing first encounter that sent a cacophony of cultural shock waves through me – experiencing the Eurovision Song Contest, Swedish-style.
At the time I knew very little about Saturday’s star line-up – those vying for the honour of representing Sweden this year. These were the days when Carola still loved Runar, when Magnus Carlsson wore far less make-up and when Kikki Danielsson was half the Eurovision heavyweight she is today.
I was, however, quick to observe that the continent’s indecent tribute to music was placed worryingly high on the Swedes’ social calendar. What’s more, they toasted the event with the kind of ceremony and anticipation usually reserved for a defining moment in history.
It’s Europe’s annual musical extravaganza – or a wealth of spectacular tuneless drivel – whichever way you look at it.
The butt of many a joke back home, Eurovision was one of those things I took great pleasure in mocking within the company of my fellow English countrymen. To take it seriously would be a heinous crime against humanity’s good taste. Surely?
Apparently not. Not in Sweden anyway. Here, the whole ridiculous stunt serves to unite the nation, gripped by the soaring temperatures of Eurovision fever every year.
Momentum is built up months in advance courtesy of Melodifestivalen, a colourfully camp cabaret and the country’s song-picking prelude to the main event.
Over a number of nail-biting weeks, artists parade their vocal wares and, egged on by the tabloids, partake in backstage backstabbing to varied degrees.
The songs and artists are narrowed down until the final victim, or rather the holy Swedish entry, is crowned.
Many a Melodifestivalen winner has been inducted into Sweden’s schlager Hall of Fame. The self-styled Eurovision music genre is typically characterized by an annoyingly repetitive melody and trivial lyrics of little or no meaning.
For some people schlager is simply a form of discordant torture. But for others, myself included, it is simply a way of life.
Oh dear. Having been brainwashed over the last few years of life in Sweden, the words Eurovision, schlager and Melodifestival are now a permanent part of everyday vocabulary.
Even worse, from innocent foot-tapping behind closed doors, the catchy schlager refrains and feel-good harmonies send me strutting straight to the dancefloor. Without fail.
Like a compulsive addition to semlor, it is has become somewhat of an unhealthy obsession; yes Sweden has successfully turned me into a Eurovision junkie.
Despite all of the above, over the course of the last month, and naturally one night in May, prime-time Saturday evenings are solely spent in the company of my sofa and SVT1.
I’ve since become somewhat of a Eurovision whizz, and freely admit to spending my free time swotting up on 50 years worth of statistics.
Sad, perhaps. But knowing your Eurovision provides you with a bumper-pack of benefits in Sweden. For instance, it’s an acceptable way of breaking the ice with the token group of icy Swedes, habitually found at house parties.
Test them with a touch of trivia and, more often than not, they will be impressed with your expertise in the art of Eurovision.
“Wasn’t it scandalous that the UK jury gave ABBA’s winning Waterloo nul points in 1974?” and nod convincingly.
“Isn’t it bizarre that Germany has only won the contest once, in 1982?”and look sincere.
“Just remind me again, who represented Sweden in 1968?”* and scroll to the bottom of this article.
Or you can even try stating the obvious. “Don’t you just love Johnny Logan?” and try not to laugh.
Later in the evening, I find it customary to treat guests to a live ‘n’ unplugged version the Carola classic, Fångad av en stormvind. (note: Eurovision winner in 1991 for Sweden).
Far from a sober performance, it never fails, however, to win a round of impromptu cheers from the same, now fully-thawed-out Swedes in the corner.
Ironically, the contest, notoriously rich in national stereotyping with its powerful political voting, can help to break down social barriers in Sweden.
Scrub up on your Eurovision history, arm yourself with a list of Melodifestivalen winners or learn the chorus of a schlager classic and you’re laughing.
As will be your Swedish peers, safe in the knowledge that you understand and appreciate the place of Eurovision in the scheme of Swedish culture.
*Claes-Göran Hederström represented Sweden at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest held in London. The song Det börjar verka kärlek, banne mej finished fifth out of the 17 countries taking part that year. The contest was held at the Royal Albert Hall and was broadcast around Europe in technicolour for the first time……blah blah…you get the message….