My friends in southern Sweden regularly ask me what it is like up here. How do we deal with the six months of darkness? How do we cope with the legendarily unfriendly and xenophobic northern Swedes? When will we move down south to be with all the normal people?
I tell them to come up and visit and see for themselves. Not many have taken us up on the offer. I think for many southern denizens the map of Sweden north of Uppsala may as well be tagged “Here be dragons (and polar bears stranded on ice floes)”.
However, I spent a few months in southern Sweden a decade or so ago and I’ve recently had to fly down to Stockholm and Malmö for work reasons. My girlfriend and I even embarked on Swedish road trips before our kids arrived 18 months ago. I know Sweden. I know north and south. And you know what? I prefer it up north. And here’s why.
The Northern Lights can be seen from northern Sweden but less frequently in the south
Last winter was a bad one up here – it was far too warm and wet. It was like the winters the south of Sweden has most of the time. Drab, dull and damp, much the same as the winters I endured when living in the UK. Northern winters are usually bright, snowy and dry. Most years we don’t have any rain from December through to April or May. No rain – imagine that. We get less precipitation than Miami, Istanbul, Madrid and Sydney. It’s not even that much darker than Stockholm up here in the depths of winter – the presence of snow makes it seem a good deal lighter too. And by the end of February the days are significantly brighter and sunnier. What’s more, the winter landscape in the north is regularly illuminated by displays of the Northern Lights. The summers up here with the midnight sun are, of course, spectacular too.
I enjoy Swedish radio, especially P3 which plays mostly excellent music. But the accents of the southern presenters are almost unlistenable. They’re so nasal they sound as though they have no mouths. They don’t speak, they honk – it’s really quite a dreadful sound. And what on earth do southerners do with words such “sju” and “sjö and “sjukhus”? “Sju” is pronounced “shoe” by most of my northern friends – this is a much more pleasant sound than the southern coughing, whistling and spluttering that mars many words that have the misfortune of beginning with “s”.
Are people friendlier in northern Sweden?
Ah, those taciturn northern xenophobes of southern lore. All complete balderdash of course. The northern Swedes I’ve met have been unfailingly friendly and welcoming. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, the northern Swedes are almost too friendly – they think little of entering your house with only the most cursory tap on the front door. When I’ve been down south, the frostiness of the locals has been palpable. Perhaps, though, that’s a big city thing – I’ve not spent much time in the rural south, so can’t offer any comparisons. What I can be certain of, however, is that even in big towns up here (yes, there are some), most people are very friendly.
We live on a lake. In the summer our two girls can paddle in the shallows. My girlfriend can indulge her love of open water swimming and swim out a kilometre or so to an island. We have access to all the usual summer pursuits. In winter, it’s even better with snowmobiling, snowshoeing, dog-sledding, nordic and alpine skiing and ice-fishing all either right on our doorstep or within a 15-minute drive. Down south, they probably have umbrella-opening championships in December.
A cross-country skier in Umeå, northern Sweden
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can get a certain type of southern Swede angrier than a foreigner praising the friendliness of the northern Swedes. In my experience many southerners find the northern Swedes’ openness positively embarrassing. “They’re just peasants, they don’t know how to behave – don’t tar all Swedes with the same brush,” was the gist of one fulminating e-mail I received a year or so ago. The poor chap didn’t seem to understand that I liked this openness. But it’s telling – southern Swedes find the north mildly embarrassing. This embarrassment is indicative, I think, of a lack of confidence in southern Swedes. They know that Swedes are supposed to be cool but they’re scared that their square northern brethren will give the game away. The northern Swedes, on the other hand, couldn’t care less what the south thinks. They are not in the least bit bothered that they’re seen as the cardigan-wearing, slightly balding uncles to the cool southern Swedes’ beard-toting hipsters. And that is another reason why I prefer to live up here. Southern Sweden thinks it’s the bee’s knees. Northern Sweden knows it is.