When you’ve moved to a new country, learning how to vacation like the locals can be a lot like going from playing baseball to playing cricket, or from American football to rugby, or – to use a good Swedish comparison – ice hockey to innebandy (floorball). The game is similar, but the turf is unfamiliar, some of the equipment is new to you, the terminology is a bit foreign, and occasionally you find yourself going in the opposite direction as everyone else.
This has certainly been our experience from the moment we arrived in Sweden late last July. Flying in from Spain along with seemingly half of the Swedish population, I realized that we were already quite literally at cross purposes with Swedish holiday makers. Since my husband is Spanish and we had just lived in Spain for nearly four years, the chances that we're going to vacation in Spain anytime soon are almost nil.
Then there was our first experience in a Swedish hotel. Our very late arrival meant that we carried our two sleeping children, two cats and mountains of luggage from the car to the hotel room in absolute anonymity. The following morning, I realized that the peace of the previous night had belied the fact that the hotel was full of Swedes. I knew they were Swedes for the same reason they must have known we were not: they, unlike us, were almost universally quiet, reserved and physically distant.
I have since come to realize that my first impressions were only partly sweeping cultural generalizations. While Swedes can certainly be all the things I initially observed, they are quite capable of being the opposite. In contrast, my family’s combination of Spanish and American characteristics possibly renders us incapable of conducting ourselves in a quiet, reserved and physically distant fashion, especially while our children are so young. This sets us up for some interesting cultural assimilation challenges in Sweden, including our ability to act more like native Swedes than foreign tourists when we vacation here.
Learning to vacation like the locals comes with very specific challenges. Photo: Victoria Martínez
Fortunately, we have been in what I would call pre-season training for our first summer holidays in Sweden. Every outing, day trip and weekend away is serving to prepare us for what lies ahead. Like any team new to a competition, we’ve had our share of successes and failures in this process.
Our first big test, a multi-day excursion to Gothenburg for Christmas at Liseberg amusement park was a mixed bag. Planning was easy (we booked a package) and preparation was thorough (I am methodical about these things). Travel was as good as can be expected with two preschoolers wide awake in the back seat for significantly more than ten minutes. Our expectations of everything we went to see and do were met or exceeded. So far, so good. Except that during our time at Liseberg, I couldn’t help but notice that our children were the only ones not meticulously dressed in full winter attire and my husband and I appeared to be the only parents loudly calling and frantically chasing after their children.
In retrospect, I prefer to judge myself less harshly than I did that day. Rather than criticize myself for miscalculating weather conditions when dressing the children, I like to think that the other parents put their young children in bulky snow pants and winter boots not due to weather, but rather to impede their movements. This would helpfully explain why my children were the only ones bolting at every possible opportunity; and that, in turn, would justify why my husband and I were forced to draw attention to ourselves by running after them while shouting in a combination of Spanish and English. Lesson learned: When traveling in Sweden in winter, always dress your children in their full complement of winter clothing, even if the weather doesn’t seem to call for it, if only to save face.
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Always dress your children in full winter clothing, even if the weather doesn't call for it. Photo: Victoria Martínez
I’m happy to say that we redeemed ourselves during our most recent trip to Halmstad where, over the course of three days, the children and their winter gear were rarely parted. Although I’m sure our family and friends in other parts of the world found the resulting pictures of our well-bundled children at the beach somewhat incongruous, I can report that we had no escape attempts followed by parental running and shouting. As a result, I do believe we passed most of that trip virtually unnoticed.
Conversely, we are unlikely ever to live down our one epic failure: having to be rescued after we got lost in the snowy woods on a freezing cold winter day while out for what was meant to be a short, easy and fun hike. Or, as I like to spin it: That time we made the regional news for our pioneering use of location technology.
All in all, I think we’re making progress. What worries me is that if trying to vacation like Swedes is anything like trying to compete at innebandy against Swedes (said to be the best in the world for the simple reason that they know the rules better than anyone else), we’re in serious trouble.
Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.
Read more from her family column on The Local here.