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Five things you never get used to in Sweden

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Five things you never get used to in Sweden
18:09 CEST+02:00
The Local's northern Sweden reporter Paul Connolly truly loves his adopted home. But after three years of living in Scandinavia, he's convinced there are at least five Swedish habits and traditions he will never come to terms with.

1. Conformity, most of the time

You must fit in. Individuality is not usually prized. This is one of the oddest traits of Swedes for me, because their contribution to popular culture is so disproportionately huge relative to their small population.

Being a pop music superpower (Sweden is the third largest producer of pop music after the US and UK) shouldn't sit easily with a nation that frowns on those who drive flash cars or exhibit any flamboyance. Pop music and the arts in general are about expressing your creativity. How does this fit in with the country of 'lagom' (the Swedish word for 'just enough')?

This startling contradiction genuinely baffles me. I can usually explain the cultural tics of the Swedes but not this one.

I'm rather gregarious and opinionated (in case you hadn't noticed). But I just about get away with being a bit of a big mouth because I'm not Swedish and considered a rather exotic creature up here.

However, I do worry slightly about my twin daughters. They already stand out at dagis (kindergarten) by being so driven and utterly indifferent about what others think of them. They're much more effervescent than other children their age. When one of them embarks on a rampage around the local store they often attract glances of disbelief from the Swedes. Their children are so obedient and reserved compared to my twin tornados.

We really want to stay living here. But will our girls fit in? Or will their exuberance deter other children from becoming friends with them? Or, worse still, will their natural spark be extinguished by the need for conformity?


Paul Connolly is worried about his children's future in Sweden. Photo: TT/Gorm Kallestad

2. The food

Although I love northern Sweden, I can't even begin to defend northern Swedish cuisine.

Basic recipe: find a pot, plonk some meat and potatoes in it, smother it in cream and stick a pickled something on top.

I understand why Swedes rely so heavily on dairy products. A cuisine relies on the ingredients that are readily available, after all. But, seriously, it's time to move on. You no longer need to rely on seasonal produce.

Step away from the cream. Leave that cheese alone. Stop pickling everything. Embrace the tomato, try a little chilli, experiment with flavour.

3. Family time

We left behind career paths in London that demanded 12-hour days (at least) and utter dedication to work. We were defined by what we did for a living. Sweden could hardly be more different. Work here is seen as secondary to family.

This is, of course, how it should be. It's a much healthier way to live. Yet I just cannot get used to it. I become frustrated by the lack of urgency when it comes to tradesmen. I want my bathroom finished this year not next. I'd like you to answer my email today rather than next week (or not at all). Also, you take all of July off?

This is, obviously, my problem. The Swedes' attitude is to be lauded. Work should not become your life. Some day, I will become as relaxed in my approach to work. It might not be any time soon, though.


Swedes enjoying family time. Photo: Johan Wilner/TT

4. Systembolaget

At first I railed against the state monopoly on alcohol. Where we lived in London, I had a 30-second walk to buy a bottle of wine.

Here, it's a 40-minute drive to our nearest state-run booze shop, Systembolaget. It is closed every evening and on a Sunday.

It can be seriously inconvenient, especially if you have an unexpectedly boisterous gathering at home on a Saturday night and only a few beers in the fridge.

However, three years on, I think it's a very sensible approach to the moderation of the public's intake of an intoxicant. As a method of tackling a public health issue it makes perfect sense.

And the shops do have, up here at least, an excellent array of products. That said, I just know that I'll soon be cursing it on a Sunday afternoon when friends pop over and there's not a drop of booze in the house…


Products from a state-run Systembolaget store. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

5. Swedes know best

Swedes (like many Americans) think that the way they do things is the best way - their university degrees are better, their work practices are better, etc. 

Annoyingly, unlike Americans, Swedes' superiority complex is mostly warranted. After all, the Swedes are ahead of the curve on many issues.

But that doesn't mean that newcomers to the country cannot offer a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, many Swedes have no desire to consider an outsider's approach, or listen to new solutions to old problems.

I've made suggestions to a few organisations up here on how they might improve their services. I was met, with just one exception, with glazed eyes and a complete lack of interest. I've met many other ‘new Swedes' who have experienced exactly the same high level of indifference and have just given up.

The attitude from the local Swedes is very much, “Oh, we've always done it this way, and we're OK - why would we change?”

They just waddle along complacently, happy with their lot, not at all bothered that there is a whole world out there that might, just might, know how to do some things a little better than they do.

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