Five things you never get used to in Sweden

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.

Five things you never get used to in Sweden

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.


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.