‘Swedes are great friends but terrible strangers’

After eight months of living in Stockholm, The Local's Editor Maddy Savage has embraced the city's nature, eaten her bodyweight in meatballs and made some wonderful friends. But she's not so impressed by the (lack of) kindness of strangers in her adopted city.

'Swedes are great friends but terrible strangers'
Ever been offered help on Stockholm's subway? Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/Image Bank Sweden
“Why on earth would you pick Stockholm over London?” Swedes never tire of quizzing me about my decision to relocate to the Swedish capital and I never tire of answering, because the question itself encompasses one of the things I love most about this country: modesty.
The idea that someone from London might choose to move to a nation where temperatures regularly dip well below freezing, entire apartments are the size of the average British bedroom and one beer costs the price of a whole bottle of wine in our supermarkets (yes, we can buy wine in supermarkets), is baffling to most Swedish people I meet.
But to me these issues seem trivial alongside the many fantastic things that you Swedes could spend way more time boasting about (if you were the boasting type).
For a start, there are all your amazing forests, parks and lakes. Stockholm is one of the world’s cleanest, greenest capitals and the chance to live in a global city where could I walk home from work along the waterfront or go hiking 15 minutes from my door was one of the biggest draws for me when accepting a job here.
The way Swedes prioritize leisure time and wellbeing is also a novelty. As a journalist I have to work long and flexible hours, but I am also encouraged to savour my time off – the Swedish way. By contrast, using the phrase “work-life balance” is akin to swearing at many British companies – especially in London – where there’s often an unspoken competition to be the last one in the office each night.

The Local's Maddy Savage has been living in Stockholm since September 2014. Photo: Benoit Derrier
And then there is Sweden’s world famous gender equality, which goes far beyond affordable daycare and paternity leave. I’m still surprised when I see women’s football leading a sports bulletin on television and proud to live in a country where there are four female party leaders in parliament. 
Sweden still has work to do to reduce the gender pay gap and achieve more balance in its boardrooms, but it remains streets ahead of most of the EU. 
Women also enjoy a huge amount of freedom in their private lives. While I’m only just starting to dip my toe into the dating scene, it’s clear from Swedish friends that sleeping with someone on the first night is far from taboo here. As one guy I quizzed put it: “How can we judge girls who are just behaving in the same way as us. Everyone gets a bit lonely sometimes”. A British male friend laughed out loud when I recounted the conversation. “There are girls you have sex with and girls you want to be your girlfriend,” he said.
So what sucks about Sweden? For me it can be summarized in one sentence. Swedes make warm and wonderful friends once you get to know them, but they are terrible strangers.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had doors slammed in my face. No one has ever offered to help me with a heavy bag on the underground (seven people stepped in the last time I visited London). I rarely get more than a “hej” out of my neighbours. An entire supermarket experience can take place in silence.
Some say this is down to a built-in independence and a desire not to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Others argue it’s to do with the harsh climate: “Why make small talk on a street corner when you’re freezing your butt off?” said one Swede I talked to at a party. Yet that doesn’t explain why the chattiest Swedish people I’ve met so far were up north in Umeå.
Whatever the reason, sorry Swedes, your lack of social interaction just makes you seem rude to many foreigners. And while there’s not space here to debate the nation’s immigration policies, I’m pretty sure this behaviour isn’t helping newcomers integrate into society. Well, that and your insistence on talking back in English every time we try to speak in your language.
There is one final problem I have with Sweden. Remember that “trivial” winter weather I mentioned earlier? Well, I wasn’t quite telling the truth. I adore the snow. I can embrace the cold. But the lack of light? Living through one of the darkest Novembers in Swedish history last year was hell on earth.
“You’ve got two options,” advised a fellow expat recently. “Find a ‘sambo’ to help get you through those short days next time, or just copy the Swedes – and book a flight to Thailand”.
A Swedish version of this article was originally published in Sweden's Metro newspaper.


Baby, it’s mörv outside: Sweden’s 13th month is here

The cold snap is over and now the month of mörv is back: darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done, says David Crouch.

Baby, it’s mörv outside: Sweden’s 13th month is here

It is a fact little known outside Scandinavia that the year consists not of twelve months, but thirteen. The thirteenth month is sandwiched between November and December, and is known as mörv. (No capital letter for the months in Sweden.)

Mörv expresses the feeling that November is bleak, dark, and seems to go on and on forever. Suddenly there is no daylight. That hour we lost at the end of October seems to have plunged us all into permanent night. What sunlight there is is weak, grey and miserable. You go to work in the dark, you go for lunch in the twilight, and you come home in the pitch black. Your Scandi outdoor life is over – unless you’re a masochist, or perhaps a duck. Every surface is permanently damp and will remain so for the next six months.

This year’s first mörv moment for me came a couple of weeks ago when we took our daughter to a popular playground. Because my wife and child took so long to get ready we underestimated how early it gets dark these days, we arrived with daylight fading fast. The other kids had gone home already, so everything was silent but for the splashing of Poppy’s boots in the mud. The wooden playthings were covered in a treacherous layer of slime. Ugh. Mörv.

Mörv is a word originally coined by Jan Berglin, cartoonist for Svenska Dagbladet. Mörv arrives when the nice part of autumn is over but proper winter is still somewhere in the distant future. Living in a country that has four well-defined seasons is a pleasure, but during mörv the joys of the old season are gone while those of the new have not yet begun.

No more can you harvest berries and mushrooms in forests burnished red and gold – it’s all turned to muck underfoot and the trees are bare. But nor can you go sledging or skiing, enjoy the crunch of snow and the crisp, sparkling air. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” goes the Swedish adage. Warning – this does not apply in mörv. You could dress from head to toe in sealskin but you still wouldn’t want to go outside.

Denmark has something similar, but there the month of November just repeats itself like groundhog day. A Danish poet summed it up very well. You haven’t read much Danish poetry? I have so you don’t have to. In a verse entitled “The year has 16 months”, Henrik Nordbrandt wrote:

“Året har 16 måneder: November
december, januar, februar, marts, april
maj, juni, juli, august, september
oktober, november, november, november, november.”

You get the picture. But in Swedish one word will do. Mörv.

This is the month of ghastly and unspecified viruses that flourish until the frost arrives to kill them off. It is the month of working like a dog to get everything done before Christmas. And to help you with this, in November there are no “röda dagar”, bank holidays or long weekends. In fact, Sweden moved the only national holiday – Alla helgons dag, or All Hallows Day – to a Saturday, just so you can work a full week either side.

Mörv is also the month when you can’t put off dull but necessary things any longer. That dental appointment you postponed because the weather was too nice. That itchy mole on your back that really should be seen by a doctor. That bit of DIY you never got around to. You are so busy with mörv that friends go unseen and your social life disintegrates.

This year, the weather tricked us by bringing southern Sweden a taste of winter a few weeks earlier than usual. For a fleeting moment the temperature dropped and we experienced that wonderful icy stillness that comes with a fresh snowfall after dark.

But even that sub-zero blast caught us unawares in the depth of our mörv-induced paralysis. Had you put winter wheels on the car? Of course not, it never freezes in November. Had you replenished your supply of grit and salt for the entrance to your home? Nej. Could you cope? Ingen chans. Knowing this, the kindly Stockholm authorities suggested we all stay at home and sit it out.

They knew it wouldn’t last. The deceitful cold snap is over and now mörv is back, darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done. Between now and Lucia, mörv. Between now and saffron and candles and fairylights and glögg, only mörv. (With maybe a little Advent baking if you like that kind of thing.)

Cheer up, it won’t last forever. And it could be worse: it could be February. Now that is a truly horrible month.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.