1. There are whole days specifically dedicated to pastry
This was probably my favourite surprise. Although I was disappointed to find out I’d just missed Cinnamon Bun Day (October 4th) when I arrived, I didn’t have long to wait before Gustav II Adolf Day, which has its own special cakes, and then Lucia Day, which celebrates saffron buns (oh, and Saint Lucia – but mostly the buns). Even on the days which don’t have a designated dessert, in Sweden there's always time for fika. What's not to love?
Mmmm… cinnamon rolls. Photo: Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se
2. The doors open outwards instead of inwards
This seems like it should be an easy quirk to get used to, and I'd never given much thought to the direction of doors before, but it resulted in a frantic 10 minutes when I thought I’d locked myself out of my new apartment. Actually, I was just trying to push a pull door. Apparently the reason they open outwards is for fire safety, or because of snow, or to save hallway-space… no one seems to have a conclusive answer, but there must be a lot of expats who get smacked in the face the first time they visit a Swedish house.
Will this door open outwards or inwards? Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT
3. The weather is really not that bad
Coming from the gloomy north of England, I'm used to the cold, but the thought of Swedish winter with temperatures regularly dropping to the minus-10s still made me nervous. As I encountered an increasing number of Swedes who seemed shocked that I'd moved here of my own free will at the end of October, I wondered what I'd let myself in for. But it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. The biggest difference is that there's much less rain than in perennially damp Manchester, where I'm from, so if you wrap up warm you can cope with the cold.
Stockholm's Old Town in winter. Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se
4. The customer service is great
We Brits like to think of ourselves as polite, but most of the time there’s a large dose of passive aggression behind every ‘sorry’, ‘fine’ and ‘can I help you?’. By contrast, the Swedes I’ve encountered have all seemed genuinely friendly and helpful, many of them apologizing profusely when I admit I haven't understood their Swedish.
When I rang a call centre to fix the wi-fi in my apartment, instead of grumpily putting me on hold, the man at the end of the phone said he was excited to ‘practise his (already perfect) English’ while he reset the router, and asked me how I was finding Stockholm so far. He even recommended a pastry shop in my new neighbourhood.
The customer service is surprisingly friendly. Photo: Miriam Preis/imagebank.sweden.se
5. Everyone is very, very tall
Most expats move to a new country hoping they’ll seamlessly blend in with the locals in a matter of weeks. This is a total impossibility for me, a petite, dark-haired Brit in a country of tall blondes – the world’s second tallest population, in fact. Not only am I instantly recognizable as a non-native, but many everyday tasks from clothes shopping to reaching high shelves are made much more difficult by the height difference.
Some very tall Swedes. Photo: Tove Freiij/imagebank.sweden.se
6. The housing shortage is real (but manageable)
Finding a long-term apartment was my biggest worry when moving to Stockholm, and sure enough, I had to send dozens of emails before getting invited to a single viewing. My flat-hunt took me to various corners of the city, and I discovered just how flexible the definitions of the words 'furnished' and 'central' can be. One landlady wanted me to fill out a detailed questionnaire about topics including 'weekly hours spent on telephone' and 'foods consumed weekly' before agreeing to a viewing, and although I saw several nice apartments, there was huge competition for anywhere close to acceptable.
However, after about a fortnight of looking, and with lots of help from friends and colleagues, I was able to find a spacious apartment, 15 minutes from work, at a price for which you couldn't rent more than a cupboard in London or Paris. The housing shortage is clearly an issue, but there are options out there and from my experience there are far fewer scams or exploitative landlords than in other European capitals.
How do you find an apartment in Stockholm? Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se
The bar in my hometown used to sell drinks for 10p, so the high price of alcohol in Sweden came as a bit of a shock. And then there's the fact that you can only buy alcohol from state-owned Systembolaget, which is closed in the evenings and on Sundays. It can feel like an inconvenience having to walk more than five minutes to be able to buy alcohol – and not having any options at all outside Systembolaget's opening hours – but on the other hand it does seem like a sensible approach to alcohol abuse.
The famous and infamous Systembolaget. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
8. People are really into exercise (even in winter)
In the UK, many people describe themselves as ‘runners’ even when the slightest dip or rise in temperature is enough to send them retreating under the duvet. Here, I’ve seen people jogging in deep snow, playing ice hockey on the city’s frozen lakes and generally not letting anything get in the way of their exercise routine. My colleagues have even started a daily mid-afternoon 'stretching session' in the office.
They're all really good at sport too – when I attempted ice-skating on the city's outdoor rink, thinking it would be a lovely Christmassy experience, I failed to take into account the fact that Swedes learn to skate before they can walk, and spent the entire time gingerly staying near the edge and trying to avoid being floored by a 6ft Swede or a pirouetting toddler.
Anyone for a tour on the ice? Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se
This article was written in February 2016.