“I was studying in Russia at the time and really got into them,” she explains.
“In the 1990s I think about 80 percent of the music on Russian radio was Swedish, but I didn't realize it at first. I loved all of those bands – Ace of Base, E-type. I just really loved the music,” Antonova laughs.
“Later on my love for Roxette grew and I wanted to learn more, so I started listening to their solo projects in Swedish. That ended up in me wanting to learn the Swedish language, so that's how the whole Swedish thing started you could say.”
“A lot of people today don't even know who they are though. I took some tourists from London on a trip about two months ago and when I explained why I came here, they asked what Roxette was! I had to explain they're a Swedish band, and named some songs, but they had no idea. That was surprising,” she laments.
Aside from flying the flag for arguably Sweden's greatest post-Abba pop export, Antonova is also a guide for tour company Triple, taking tourists around not only the usual Stockholm points of interest like the Old Town, but also Norrmalm and less trodden paths in the capital.
“I've known a lot about Stockholm for a while and thought it'd be a good idea to let others know about it. It started in Moscow where there's a school that arranged some tours to Scandinavia, and I got involved as a guide and helped. It was quite natural for me to be a guide – hopefully I'm good at it – so when I found Triple I realized it was a very good chance for me to let other people see Stockholm through different eyes,” she recalls.
“It's also a chance for them to find out about Stockholm from a person who maybe even knows a bit more about the city than a local. I never use any information from foreign travel guides. I try to find odd facts people wouldn't know about – things I read in a scientific piece about Stockholm for example, or a history book.”
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The Moscow native goes through periods of feeling like a tourist herself. Dividing life between her home city and the Swedish capital means there is a constant process of adaptation that has both its positive and negative sides.
“I've found that in only three months away from one country, you actually come back as a tourist. So I'm half Swedish and half Russian in my mentality – and after three months in Sweden I come back to Russia and so many things have changed, small details. It could be a simple as a new museum or a new festival – you come back as a tourist, and you have to get used to it again. For about one month I'm a tourist in either country, then I adjust, then it's time to go back to the next place.”
“Today there's not as much change, but in particular about 10 years ago when the internet was advancing, smartphones were coming out, technology was moving quickly. In Sweden it was much faster than Russia. Coming to Sweden was like coming to the future, then back to the past in Russia, then back to the future again!” she adds.
Providing tours in Stockholm. Photo: Private
At the same time, the regular movement helps keep her engaged and curious about Stockholm – to the benefit of the people who go on her tours, as well as her Swedish husband.
“When you live somewhere you sometimes get a bit blind and take things for granted. When you move to a different country you're always a bit more like a tourist. So now I take my husband to all these places I've discovered that I really love in Sweden. I often say to him 'you don't know about this? It's in your home country'.”
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Helping others explore Sweden is something the Russian has been doing for more than a decade now, and along with taking tours she also has several guidebooks under her belt:
“Travelling around Sweden gave me so many facts and so much info that I got the idea to write a book and tell people about places they would never have found on the internet or in other travel guides.”
“At that time about a decade ago especially, you had some books and a few blogs, but they were mostly about obvious touristy things, nobody knew much about the other places. So I tried to write about a different Sweden, and that ended up in travel guides about Sweden, on on Stockholm, then a different one about Norway,” she continues.
Midsummer in Sweden. Photo: Private
The guide feels it is important to keep her tours evolving, not only in order to create unique experiences for customers, but also to keep her keen and avoid the feeling of going through the motions.
“In the beginning most tourists wanted to do the secret places in the Old Town tour for example, and it started to become a bit repetitive for me. So I work to add something new – if I get tired of it that's not good. I look for more to add to it, and that's a challenge. The tour is a living one – you never get the same one twice, because I'd get too tired of it to do that, so I try to add new things.”
In her opinion it is also important to pay attention to the parts of the tour customers are enjoying, and be flexible enough to adapt.
“I try to see what people are most interested in during the tour and switch it up. If they're more interested in myths and legends for instance, and are supposed to be on a standard tour about the sites, I'll take away some of the sites and add more of the myths, or add a different angle to the sites with less facts and more odd stories about them,” she reveals.
“When you see their reaction, they're so pleased. That's a great part of it, I love to see the reactions on the tours.”
Teaching Swedish classes. Photo: Private
As if constantly coming up with fresh ways to guide newcomers through Stockholm isn't enough, Antonova also dedicates part of her time to teaching Swedish to Russians. After years of teaching, she has learned that while grammar and rules are important, having the confidence to use the language is the real key.
“In Russia when you learn a language you're not really learning it. You learn a lot of grammar but often struggle with speaking. Many people come from Russia after 10 or 11 years of English in school but can't ask for something in a cafe or hotel. They can tell you all the facts they've learned about London, but have difficulties with really speaking, and conversations,” she notes.
“When I started to learn Swedish I kept that in mind, and today when I teach Swedish I try to make sure people start really speaking. Rules are good, but not the most important thing when you have to communicate with people.”
Though geographically not so far apart, the Russian finds Swedes and people from her home country to be quite different both socially and culturally, and believes it is important to understand those norms.
“It's not just Brits and Americans who find the Swedes to be withdrawn. Triple has been a good exception actually, the people I've met there and through there are very open and really want to share what they know. They're quite different from your average Swede. So people coming to Stockholm as a tourist and meeting locals through Triple maybe shouldn't think that everyone is like that!” she points out.
“If you're thinking of moving to Sweden and are not from Scandinavia, I'd say you should prepare for the Swedish mentality. I'd recommend learning as much as possible about that – the Swedish way of life, and their culture. Traditions are very important here.”
Using a semla bun as an example in class. Photo: Private
Antonova has no shortage of plans for the future, with a number of new tours in the pipeline, including some catered to the nationality of those taking them.
“I'm always planning new tours, all the time. I want to do more specific ones. For example tours in Stockholm that have a connection to the person's home place – Stockholm for the Germans, or the French places in Stockholm, and so on.”
“I also want to do specific tours about royal Stockholm and the places connected to them. And women in Stockholm, plus prisons and medieval scandals. Those are things that fascinate me that I'd love to introduce, so I really hope people like it.”
In closing she has some advice for anyone thinking of Sweden, or indeed for those who have already done so: try to focus on the positive side of your new home.
“There will come a time for everyone when you compare your new country with your old country. The old country that probably felt like the worst of the two places in the beginning starts to feel like the better one. Ninety percent of people go through that process when they move – it doesn't really matter where, Sweden, Denmark, France. You have that phase regardless,” she muses.
“I would recommend people do their best to see mostly positive things in their new country. Don't compare your new country with your last one, or your home country, or wherever. Every town, every city or village has something positive to give to you – there must have been a good reason for you to move to Sweden after all. Regardless of whether it was for work, your private life, maybe even the political situation there. There's some reason you moved, and it's still there, so that's something that can help you solve the problem.”