It's overcast. A wet mist slides down over you. Buses are sprayed with dirty, crusty snow. And yet many are happy at the onset of winter. There's less guilt for staying indoors, and all that magical snow to look forward to, softening edges in the country and spreading street light in cities. November is when people get serious about Sunday walks. Kids skid around on the artificial ice in the parks. Sawdusted paths through suburban woods are gridlocked. Please keep to the right.
Winter is when it is legitimate to be melancholy. The culture accommodates gloom. Come spring, people will shrug off that dark woollen cape and embrace joy.
All Souls' Day, another of the many religious holidays, is for lighting candles in cemeteries. Newspaper obituary notices often include a verse and an illustration indicating the deceased's main hobby: cats, fishing, classic cars, etc. A matter-of-fact, science-loving people, Swedes are not normally bothered with the afterlife. Seventy percent are cremated at death.
Early winter is dinner-party season. Here are the rules: Arrive exactly on time. With flowers or wine. Remove shoes if it's muddy outside. (Forgot your indoor shoes? Oh-oh.) Don't drink faster than the host. Leave before midnight, by taxi or designated driver: drinking and driving is uncool. A single glass of wine will put you over the limit.
If Swedes are traditional when entertaining, they're casual and innovative at work. And they like to work in groups. Teamwork means getting people with common interests to work together. In other countries, such as the US, goals are decided in advance and teams work towards them, using conflict if necessary. Like the Japanese, Swedes like to see how far they can get by agreeing. One of the major labour market achievements of the last century was an implicit pact between unions and employers to get along without surrendering their own interests.
Swedes like to think of themselves as a compassionate people with a durable engagement in world affairs and a tolerance towards immigrants. Yes, there have been attacks on mosque construction projects and yes, it's demonstrably hard for people with unfamiliar-sounding names to get jobs they're qualified for. But Sweden is also consistently good at foreign aid, up there with the Netherlands and Norway. No anti-immigrant party is represented in the Riksdag, although many people grumble about the influx of refugees.
Others are proud: Sweden has received more applications from Iraqi refugees than any other European country. The small city of Södertälje, close to Stockholm, has taken in more refugees from the Iraq conflict than the US and Canada combined. Södertälje is also home to the largest group of Assyrians in Europe.
Protected by mountains and seas, Sweden was homogeneous until the 20th century. The 21st is a new story.
Will the coming winter be another fertile one for the calicivirus, producing a form of gastroenteritis descriptively called ‘winter vomiting sickness'? Let's hope not.
The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.