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STOCKHOLM

A New Yorker’s guide to surviving the first few months in Stockholm

Opinion: Moving to a new city is anything but easy, and in Stockholm there is a particular set of challenges from alcohol restrictions to making friends, writes New York native Madeline Tersigni, who shares the highs and lows of her time in Stockholm as well as her tips for fellow first-timers navigating the city and its culture.

A New Yorker's guide to surviving the first few months in Stockholm
Surviving your first Swedish summer can be hard. Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

I would describe myself as a well-travelled individual. I have been studying abroad for the last three years in Rome and during my time there I visited countless places across Europe, including Stockholm. With prior experience moving abroad and travelling, I wasn't expecting to experience culture shock when I moved to Sweden. 

But a new start anywhere usually means some sort of some growing pains, and this turned out to be especially true in a culture so vastly different from the ones I've lived in in the past (even if I didn't appreciate the extent of the differences straight away). That transition from tourist to resident can be a difficult one, especially in the Venice of the North, but there are also positive surprises in store for newbies. There are several things I wished I'd known before about the best and worst parts of adapting to life in Stockholm.  

WORST: It's hard to make friends 

Swedes are a charming, fun-loving and extremely kind group of people… once you've finally tapped away at their hardened shells. Trying to start up a conversation with a Swedish person isn't at all easy; it takes time, effort and a lot of icebreakers on your part. Expect to do most of the work during the beginning of any relationship with a Swede, but once you've gained their trust, everything becomes a whole lot easier.

Without a circle of friends it can get lonely here. Luckily, in Stockholm there's always something going on around the city so you can fill the time and maybe meet new people. The Local provides a list of events across the country for English-speakers each month, and websites like Meetup.com can help you connect with other people over a shared hobby, from coding to canoeing. Otherwise, your best option would be to try a pub; a few drinks can be useful in helping people loosen up and become more open to making friends. 

Making friends can be a bit difficult when moving to Sweden. Photo: Ulf Lundin/imagebank.sweden.se

BEST: The silence 

Whether or not this is a perk probably depends who you're speaking to. For someone who's grown up in New York, in a loud Italian/Irish household, I've never known quiet. Moving to Rome was no different; noise was just a part of my daily life and I never expected that to change. Stockholm was still a major city after all, right?

Well, Stockholm might be a bustling city but sometimes it doesn't act like it. Going to bed on my first night here without the background noises of sirens, loud music or people speaking right outside my door was almost eerie. The silence was deafening in the way that it is in a horror movie.

But over the time I've spent here, I've come to appreciate being able to be alone with my own thoughts, without having to put headphones in and blast music to block out everything else. There's something so serene about walking around by yourself and not being bombarded with noise. And you can sleep at night with out of fear of something waking you up. Enjoy the quiet, I know I'm going to try to… at least until my family visits next year. 

Just sit back and enjoy the silence. Photo: Werner Nystrand/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

WORST: Alcohol regulations

Now, I think Sweden is great, one of the best countries I've lived in. The government does a lot of things right when it comes to healthcare, parental leave, conservation, you name it. But no matter how hard I try, I can't get on board with the restrictive policies around alcohol sales. I know the laws are there to reduce alcoholism and that most Swedes are surprisingly positive to the state monopoly, but it seems that the main thing it accomplishes is making people angry, namely me. 

I don't understand why drinks with a high alcohol volume can't be sold in supermarkets or convenience stores. The Systembolaget stores close exceptionally early (especially to someone coming from the city that never sleeps) and staff in grocery stores still check ID if you're buying the low-alcohol beer, so why not just put everything in one place?

READ ALSO: Understanding Sweden's state-run alcohol monopoly

Then there's the fact that an underage person cannot be there while another person is buying alcohol. There have been too many instances where I didn't have my ID with me and my boyfriend was no longer allowed to buy what he wanted. I understand that I'm a baby-faced individual (on my way here, one airport employee asked if I was an unaccompanied minor) but the products are for him, not me!

And don't get me started on the prices; there's no reason beer should be that expensive. So I don't have many tips for dealing with this, as the best advice is just to try to accept that this is how things work here, plan your alcohol consumption in advance and get to Systembolaget early. But please Sweden, take pity on me. I am a college student. Making alcohol more expensive doesn't stop me from drinking, it just makes me sad and broke. 

Make sure to get to liquor stores early. Photo: Faramarz Gosheh/imagebank.sweden.se

BEST: Everyone speaks English 

This might seem like a shallow thing to say, but it really is such an advantage that Stockholmers speak such a high level of English. It's comforting to know that almost anyone can communicate with me. Have a problem navigating the subway? You can ask a stranger. Can't read a sign, directions, an emergency? You're covered. There has not been one instance in the entire summer where I have not been able to speak with someone.

Obviously, anyone planning to stay long-term should try to learn Swedish in order to feel more at home and have more options when applying for jobs. But for the first couple of months, the language barrier is not something you have to worry about, and that's not something you can say about many places. There are many English-language shows on TV too, and so many Swedish shows will have English phrases thrown in here and there. Nothing surprised me more than watching a show with my boyfriend and having my subtitles stop all together because the characters just decided to say things in English. So don't worry, you'll survive. 

You can survive knowing English alone for a bit in Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Trygg/imagebank.sweden.se

BEST/WORST: The nudity 

To me this is both a positive and negative aspect of living in Sweden. It's wonderful to have a group of people so comfortable with their bodies that they don't mind exposing themselves while swimming in lakes or in public saunas. Women are able to breastfeed openly while going about their days, and no one seems bothered, which I am in full support of. 

However, maybe it's just the prudish American side of me, but I just can't embrace the public nudity myself. If others want to get naked for an outdoor swim, do what's best for you. But it's going to take a long time for me to jump in on the fun. I recently went swimming with my friends and the amount of stares I received in the locker room when I didn't take my bathing suit off to shower was crazy. Sorry Swedes, it's just not my thing yet. Ask me again in a few years. 

Being naked in public is no biggie for Swedes, but Americans are not as progressive yet in that respect. Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

BEST: A welcoming city

It's so refreshing to be in a European city that mirrors New York in its diversity. New York is called the melting pot for a reason; different cultures from all over the world are the very foundation of the city and so when I initially moved to Rome, I was disappointed at the difference I experienced in that respect. Most Italian cities felt more wary of foreigners (at least in my opinion) and I expected Stockholm, as another European capital, to be no different. But it was.

That's not to say there's no segregation at all, but living in Stockholm you meet people from all different places and backgrounds and can see the clear representation of their culture in the restaurants, events and stores around Stockholm.

Sweden is also very inclusive in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, and I was so happy watching the Pride parade in Stockholm this year, which definitely held its own in comparison to NYC Pride. And my little feminist heart soared this summer seeing all of the support from both the men and women in Sweden during the Women's World Cup. I had never before witnessed little boys wearing women's football players' shirts before; it was brilliant. All in all, Stockholm is one of the most welcoming cities I've personally experienced.

Pride Parade. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘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. 

But the most common recurring story reflect Sweden’s longstanding 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.
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