'How leaving Sweden showed me my home country in a new light'

Anna Bokedal
Anna Bokedal - [email protected]
'How leaving Sweden showed me my home country in a new light'
Anna Bokedal has written a book about her move from Sweden to Scotland. Photo: Private"

Gothenburg-born writer Anna Bokedal reflects on seeing Sweden with new eyes after years of living in Scotland.


We are back in Sweden. It is summer and holiday and this time we have a rental car.

We drive through the Swedish countryside and everything is so nice. Solemn forests, happy fields, little red cottages and shimmering lakes, peacefully glaring cows and bicycling holiday-makers.

We sing Swedish summer evergreens as we drive on. Everything is well-ordered and well looked-after. We had almost forgotten. The colours, the smells, the sun. It is beautiful. It is home.

A few years earlier we quit our jobs, sold our house and moved with our children across the sea, from Gothenburg to Aberdeen in Scotland, as my husband took on a new job there.

It has been said that when you move countries, typically you experience four phases. The first phase is a tourist phase, when differences are eccentric and charming as you discover all that's new. Then the shock strikes, but with some luck and hard work you slowly start to adapt, and eventually settle as bi-cultural.

The winter sun descending on the granite city of Aberdeen. Photo: Alan Jamieson/

Today we are tourists in Sweden. We stop at a shop and enthusiastically run around among the shelves. Messmör, falukorv, filmjölk. Why is everything so good, even the quality of foods? Is that what happens when you don't share your island with 60 million others?

READ ALSO: You'll never truly be Swedish without trying these weird foods

We go to Sweden almost every summer. Only once do I go back in the winter and despite having talked widely about Sweden not being very cold because I never before felt it, I am now hit by the cold, but it is a different, friendlier cold than the Scottish. I look with envy at some Swedish children, who have their safe universe inside their winter overalls and waterproof mittens.

To us, the material standard in Sweden is strikingly high. Everyone stays in houses that appear to come straight out of an interior design magazine. People work on their houses, take a tour with their boat and we are invited to numerous barbecues with fantastic food, nice company and endless sun. On holiday, we only see the best bits and Sweden turns into a dreamland, a utopia. It can't possibly be true.

We learn, however, that disposing of an empty tin of fiskbullar nowadays is an arduous task requiring special expertise. A medium-sized town may only have one cash machine which no one really knows where it is, and without Swish you quickly become a monetary nuisance to others. 

It is easy to find information on bus connections, but so complicated to buy the ticket that we need help. Without the latest technology and a fee-free debit card, life in Sweden has become trying.  

READ ALSO: The reverse culture shock you experience when leaving Sweden

Swish, the fast-growing mobile phone money transfer app. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Everyone looks the same in Sweden, say our children. All shapes and sizes, but it is the same style, the same brands. Sweden is a paradox. Despite the Law of Jante stopping us from standing out, a Swedish favourite word is "world leading". Hundreds of years of Lutheranism and generations of daughters having had to fend for themselves all summer in the fäbod watching cattle have taught us as a people to be independent and think for ourselves, but in comparison to Britain, "tolerance" seems to have a narrower scope.

What I like most about Sweden is our friends. Dear friends, super friends, friends for life. I love you. When I hear new or temporary Swedes say it is hard to make friends with Swedes, I get concerned. Maybe you just don't appreciate sitting quietly with others and be friends despite not saying anything? Maybe Sweden has recently become colder? Maybe we make our best friends as younger adults, wherever we are?

I can see that there are many things that can cause a culture shock when coming to Sweden. Living abroad has taught me that all those issues are not all that matter. "Problem" or an "interesting twist" is a glass half empty or half full, and observing, reflecting and having a good laugh help as we work towards adaptation.

Home is where your heart is. I think that, like a squid, I now have multiple hearts.

Anna Bokedal from Gothenburg is a lecturer in Swedish at the University of Aberdeen and mother of five. Follow her on Instagram here. She moved to Scotland in 2007 and her book Kanske måla dörren blå ('maybe paint the door blue', published by LYS Förlag and available now in Swedish) tells her story of leaky roofs, coal fires and school uniforms, Swedish gräddtårta as finger food at a Scottish wedding, learning to read in English, buying a house and maybe painting the door blue.


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