‘It’s every man for himself’: A foreigner’s survival guide to the Swedish winter

'It's every man for himself': A foreigner's survival guide to the Swedish winter
There's no bad weather, etc. Photo: Martina Holmberg/TT
The Swedish winter is not for the faint of heart. But Alison Allfrey from the UK explains how she learned to embrace the frozen north.

An expat posting to Sweden is perhaps like no other.

Here, images of swimming pools, cocktails, home help aplenty and frequent forays to tropical isles are redundant. More relevant are snowsuits, studded tyres, requisite muscles to dig out your drive with vim for up to six months – and a good dose of courage and humour.

Living on the same latitude as St Petersburg isn't for everybody, but the Swedish winter has a definition to it which is challenging and can be hugely rewarding.

Unlike endless months of fog, mud and dim light in England or perhaps the Netherlands, Sweden offers a very distinct proposition. It's whether you accept the challenge and whether you're going to be warm enough that count. As the Swedes say, “There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

So, armed with a really good winter coat or snowsuit, heavy duty boots, a resilient snow shovel and plenty of determination, the Swedish winter can work for you. What's more, Swedish houses are actually warm, unlike their draughty English counterparts. So as the days shorten, take heart, even if you're from a non-skiing nation.


It's true that non-Swedes may lack the innate balance which makes shuffling along ice-packed pavements without catastrophe hazardous and brings a wobble to the legs when stepping onto vast expanses of frozen lake ice. But all that incredible space, bracingly crisp air, pristine nature and Scandi determination to get outside, get fit and revel in the extreme dice thrown when Sweden was given its climate are so invigorating.

Where else do you see families, from babes encased in sheepskin rugs in prams to grannies being pushed on makeshift chairs with a skating blade on the back, out in force on the ice? Where else do octogenarians speed round cross-country ski tracks as if they could go on forever? Not to mention, the solitary man patiently twisting a massive corkscrew through the ice so he can fish the freezing waters below?

How ever cold it gets, there's always time for fika afterwards – reassuring vats of hot chocolate, pepparkakor and kanelbullar. Hot coffee. That fantastic aroma of cinnamon, cardamom and saffron lacing the air. The satisfaction of having got something out of the climate, rather than it insisting on dominating you.

Alison Allfrey moved to Sweden in 2012. Photo: Private

Admittedly the stakes rise as the force of winter hits, as the snowy existence has more of a direct impact on the individual than in Switzerland or Canada, where roads are pristine every morning, however the weather has vented its spleen.

Here it's every man for himself, with neighbours nodding sagely at each other over the morning dig out of their drives, the elderly teetering perilously along lethal pavements, Stockholmers competing for rare parking spaces as the weekly clear out of snow ensues.

But, in true Darwinist style, Sweden has adapted to its lot and there's every possible accessory to ease your path and every sporting temptation to seduce – one trip to XXL will reveal all.

Perhaps that's just it – the contrasts and extremes which make Sweden so different. There isn't really any middle ground and it's difficult to do such an extreme climate by halves.

Sometimes it feels as if the rest of the world has abandoned you, as you persist in a seemingly forgotten realm far above the southerly latitudes of warmer climes. On those really foggy days, the horizon seems to have vanished, as whirling snowstorms merge with a closed sky.

But waking up to a morning which seems to say, “try me, ski, skate, dog sled to your heart's content”, is like nothing else. It's an invitation to succumb to nature as it used to be. The frozen embrace of Sweden. 

Alison Allfrey is an avid linguist and traveller from the UK. So when she and her snow-loving husband were posted to Sweden in 2012 with their sons Tom and Ben, the stage was set for adventure. Her first book, SO SWEDEN – Living Differently, is now available in paperback and Kindle form on Amazon. 

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