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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Are these the 50 most ‘Swedish’ things in existence? (part one)

Quick-cook macaroni and ketchup, always knowing the week number, Queuing tickets, and soaking in every tiny ray of sun in spring: These are some of the objects, foods, and behaviours our readers (and other foreigners) consider the most Swedish in existence (part one in a series of two).

Are these the 50 most ‘Swedish’ things in existence? (part one)
Queuing tickets at a primary health care centre in Stockholm. For many this queuing system is quintessentially Swedish. Photo: Gunnar Lundmark/SvD/TT

You don’t have to be living in Sweden long before you start puzzling at some of the things that pass for normal, so, half in jest we asked The Local’s readers for what they think are the most “Swedish” things in existence.

We got so many responses that we’ve divided our article into two parts. This is the first, which covers the most Swedish objects in existence and the most Swedish clothes. 

Enjoy!  

The nummerlapp, the bit of paper with a number on it you get queueing in Swedish shops, was quite rightly brought up several times. Few things better symbolise the Swedish love of queuing and also the wish to avoid unnecessary interaction with strangers. One foreigner described their bewilderment at being forced to present a nummerlapp even when they were the only person in the shop

I’d also argue that the change machines which allow shops assistants to give you your change without any human interaction are also a very Swedish part of the retail system (although presumably they will soon disappear along with cash). 

The osthyvel, the cheese slicer which takes pride of place at every Swedish breakfast table, got several mentions. (Although I’m afraid it’s actually Norwegian. Sorry, Sweden.) 

Wooden butter knives are perhaps second only to the osthyvel, (although woe betides the foreigner who keeps it on their own plate). 

I’d also propose the provsticka, the testing spike Swedes use to get the perfect softness to their potatoes, which somehow sums up the Swedish love of doing even the simplest things properly. 

Wooden butter knives got several mentions. Leif R Jansson / SCANPIX / Kod 10020

The Kånken backpack from the outdoor clothing company Fjällräven. “National backpack, it is like they handed over everyone for free,” says one reader. 

Kubb, a game a bit like skittles or boules but with players throwing rounded sticks rather than balls, was mentioned as peculiarly Swedish. It certainly doesn’t exist to the same extent anywhere else, although apparently it only really took off in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s when sets began to be sold commercially.  

The passive-aggressive laundry note was also named, summing up as it does the importance Swedes put on everyone following the rules of behaviour which make the communal sharing of facilities work so well in the country, and also their discomfort at confronting those that do not do so face-to-face. Perhaps the Swedish tvättstuga, or laundry room, should also be on the list. 

A house in Alvesta with falu rödfärg paint. Photo: Emma-Sofia Olsson / SvD/TT

Falu red paint, or falu rödfärg, rightly got a mention, as in much of the Swedish countryside there appears to be an unofficial ban on painting your house any other colour (which in itself says a lot about Swedish conformity). 

Ikea blue bags (which are actually called Frakta, apparently) are essential to almost any operation done by Swedes, from doing the laundry, to having a picnic, to taking a trip to the summer stuga. Everything just gets stuffed into these brilliant and sturdy bags. 

One respondent suggested flags and real candles on the Christmas tree. It’s not something we’ve ever witnessed, but it’s odd enough to go in. 

Another proposed saunas, while worrying that they aren’t actually Swedish. But the bastu certainly is, and a lot of people have them in their houses (although this phenomenon may have peaked in the 1990s, as many of the home saunas I know of are broken and used for storage).

There aren’t that many activities that are more Swedish than leaping from a sauna into a lake or the sea, however. I’d add bryggor, the pontoons that you get at so many Swedish lakes and islands, which are what you leap from.

Classic 1950s American cars are clearly American, not Swedish. But they are enough of a feature of rural culture here to get a mention. 

Fika, the Swedish cake and coffee ritual, got put forward several times. Fika is normally built into the daily calendar with the same seriousness as a business meeting, and is crucial to getting to know colleagues and making time for catching up with friends. 

Coffee has shot up in pice by 30 percent in Sweden over the past 12 months.

Coffee has shot up in price by 30 percent in Sweden over the past 12 months. Photo: Helena Wahlman/Imagebank Sweden

One person named super-easy bureaucracy, and it is certainly the case that dealing with the Swedish Tax Agency in Sweden feels almost pleasant for those who’ve waited on the phone for hours to get information from the British or US equivalents. 

Another mentioned 6-effing-weeks-of-vacation, which it has to be said is a definite draw to Swedish life, at least compared to the US, where many are lucky if they get two. 

THE MOST SWEDISH CLOTHES

One person mentioned socks. As it’s good manners in Sweden to leave your shoes at the door, Swedes put an unusual amount of effort into their socks, frequently wearing brightly coloured, and brightly patterned pairs. 

That’s very often the only colour you’ll see. By far the most common observation was that Swedes favour uncoloured clothes. Check out the catalogue for a very Swedish brand like Arket, Acne, Nudie, or Tiger, and you’ll see a lot of clothes in cream, beige, white, black, or brown. Not a primary colour in sight. 

For women, one person claimed chunky white trainers worn with short dresses or cut off trousers as a very Swedish style, another suggested long, calf or ankle-length cardigans with rolled-up sleeves

One person brought up Capri trousers on men, and we would agree that Swedish men do seem to have a predilection for showing off their ankles, either with trousers that are a bit too short, or with knee-length shorts. 

Another suggested “skinny jeans and chinos that show way too much when men sit on the bus”, although I feel that skinny jeans and chinos, which were obligatory in Sweden four or five years ago, seem to have become less common. 

Another reader mentioned North Face jackets, although, at least in Malmö, I’d argue the Fjällräven Greenland is the go-to uniform. 

Blundstone boots (actually Australian) also got a mention, and it’s certainly the case that Chelsea-style elasticated boots are common. 

Others pointed to Stan Smith Adidas tennis shoes, as the go-to footwear for Swedes. 

It’s almost certain in a list like this, that we missed some of even more Swedish things out. Is there anything else that should be here? Please tell us in the comments below. 

In tomorrow’s edition, we have most Swedish food and most Swedish habits

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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Are these the 50 most ‘Swedish’ things in existence? (part two)

Quick-cook macaroni and ketchup, always knowing the week number, Queuing tickets, and soaking in every tiny ray of sun in spring: These are some of the objects, foods, and behaviours our readers (and other foreigners) consider the most Swedish in existence (part two in a series of two).

Are these the 50 most ‘Swedish’ things in existence? (part two)

You don’t have to be living in Sweden long before you start puzzling at some of the things that pass for normal, so, half in jest we asked The Local’s readers for what they think are the most “Swedish” things in existence.

We got so many responses that we’ve divided our article into two parts. This is the second part in a two-part series. You can read the first part, on Swedish “objects” and “clothes” here

THE MOST SWEDISH FOODS

It’s fair to say that many of the foods people came up with did not give the most flattering picture of Swedish cuisine. 

The most common suggestion for an uber-Swedish dish was quick-cook macaroni with tomato ketchup. This perhaps reflects the horror some other nationalities feel upon witnessing it. (As it happens, Swedes are world-class ketchup consumers, each of them wolfing down 2.7kg of the tangy red gloop a year, behind only Finland and Canada, and way ahead of the US.) 

Other unflattering food suggestions included “bearnaise with everything” (largely true), Kebab pizza (yum, and also, if you’re Italian, an aberration), and Flygande Jakob (vile). 

Pasta with heaps of ketchup. Photo: Antti Nissinen/Flickr

On a more general level, several people simply cited “salt“. For them, the most Swedish thing was to load already salty foods with even more salt. Could this be the result of a country that before the advent of refrigeration lived off salted fish, meat and vegetables for much of the year?     

On the borderline of the questionable foodstuffs category came various types of food in tubes, such as skinkost and räkost (processed cheese with bits of ham or prawn blended into it), and Kalles caviar (objectively delicious).  

I’d personally also put korv, Swedish sausage, in the questionable category. While arguably the national snack food, I find the classic Swedish varmkorv hot dog sausage of considerably poorer quality than their German equivalent. Thank God for falafel rolls. 

I’d make an exception for a tunnbrodsrulle, the flatbread common in northern Sweden which is often used to make a sort of hot dog wrap, with potato, a sausage, crispy fried onions, ketchup and mustard. It justly got a mention.

Salty liquorice (sweets flavoured with ammonium chloride) which came up a lot, is certainly beloved of Swedes, but disliked by many, perhaps most, others.

Also on the borderline was potatisgratäng i en påse, or “potatoes au gratin in a bag”, the supermarket packets of sliced potatoes in a creamy sauce which can be simply poured into a tray and shoved in the oven. 

But Swedish food can also be fresh and delicious, and its cake and pastry-making is often up there with some of the best baking countries. 

The suggestions reflected this, with some readers putting forward truly delicious (and extremely Swedish) treats. 

The ingredients for Janssons Frestelse Photo: Janerik Henriksson / TT

Obviously, many people mentioned the Swedish staples such as meatballs with lingonberry, Janssons Frestelse, and pickled herring (which is served whenever there’s a celebration, so Easter, Midsummer, Christmas). 

Other delicious Swedish foods mentioned included smörgåstårta, a type of savoury sandwich cake, in which layers of white bread are stuffed with prawn, tuna, liver pâté and ham, sometimes all in the same cake. I think it’s fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. 

Dill, the go-to herb the love of which Swedes share with Russia and much of eastern Europe, obviously got tipped.  

As did boiled potatoes, which are often flavoured with it. If they do not seem like something particularly Swedish to you, then you have yet to be initiated into the Swedish secrets of how to cook them properly (prodding them with a provsticka, to get the perfect softness, and then steaming them dry in the pan). You have also probably never tasted the first chestnut-flavoured potatoes of the summer. 

A kladdkaka. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

On the sweet side, the obvious Swedish favourites like kanelbulle cinnamon rolls, got mentioned. 

But there was also nyponsoppa, the rose-hip soup Swedes see as a cure-all for any sneeze or sniffle, ostkaka med saftsås, the Swedish baked cheesecake, and rabarberpaj med vaniljsås, the Swedish rhubarb crumble that is a common summer treat. 

Semla buns, the fluffy buns stuffed with almond paste that are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday but now seem to be eaten throughout the spring, also got a mention. 

I’m not certain if kladdkaka from ICA, the sticky, semi-chewy chocolate cake you buy frozen from all Swedish supermarkets, should be classed as delicious or questionable, but it’s certainly very Swedish. It’s the lagom, “not great, but good enough” option for every late-remembered birthday or office leaving do celebration. It was mentioned by at least one respondent, as was daimtårta, a similarly trashy-but-nice cake made with crushed-up Daim bars. 

MOST SWEDISH HABITS OR PHENOMENA 

One respondent mentioned “sunning yourself in February by closing your eyes and leaning against a wall or in the middle of a park“. There is something very Swedish in the way people will cross the road to walk for a few seconds through a tiny patch of sun.  

On a similar theme, several respondents suggested “eating outside“, noting that their Swedish colleagues would take pack lunches out into the nearest park to eat even in spring when the weather is quite chilly. The same goes for the restaurant terraces, which have sprung up over the last decade, which are often busy from April to October. 

Another respondent wrote “being outside every day, no matter what“, which as a person from rainy Britain, I’d disagree with.

In my experience, Swedes tend not to go for a walk or send their kids out to play if it’s raining, whereas Brits very much would (otherwise we’d get no fresh air at all). 

Respondents had a different response to Swedish unsociability, with one noting approvingly “the very Swedish ability not to notice others”, saying that as a disabled woman, it was empowering that no one offered to help her, while another bemoaned the lack of chit-chat with strangers. 

Other Swedish habits that came up were an obsession with the ability to light the most perfect fire when camping, which I would argue is part of a larger cultural phenomenon.

An unusually large proportion of Swedish conversation seems to revolve around detailed instructions on how to perform certain tasks properly, such as insulating a roof, freeing a car trapped in snow, or growing asparagus. 

Another reader mentioned “never carrying cash“, which reflects Sweden’s lead in the shift towards a cashless society. 

Being able to walk on those icy, unsalted sidewalks without slipping and falling“, came up, and this is certainly something Swedes (particularly those living north of about Kalmar) can do effortlessly, and which many foreigners never learn. 

There were other examples cited of Swedes’ easy way with extreme cold, with one pointing out how Swedes use nature as a refrigerator or freezer, sticking food or beer outside their kitchen window or on the porch. On the same theme, one mentioned cycling on five-metre-thick snow. 

Is snus, Swedish sucking tobacco, a food or a habit? It’s certainly so universal that you will witness even the smart-suited chief executives of Swedish companies jamming their finger into their lip to secure one of the tobacco bags. 

Make sure to brush up on your snapsvisor or Swedish drinking songs if you want to fit in at Midsummer. Photo: Janus Langhorn/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedish alcohol habits also came in, with several readers putting forward the snaps and singing as extremely Swedish, perhaps this is down to what another reader described as the Swedish dual personality, “drunk and not-drunk”. 

One observant reader noted that in Sweden there is often no music in restaurants, shopping centres, or cafés. To the extent this is true (and it’s not always), this seems to be a result of the importance in Sweden of not imposing oneself on others. 

One person pointed out that pretty much everything closes in July. Swedes value their holidays and the sense of solidarity means that few begrudge a summer break even to bureaucrats, nurses, and shop and café staff. At least in the last two weeks of the month, you’ll struggle to get much government admin done, and you might find your favourite neighbourhood café shuts its doors. 

Several people brought up the Swedish habit of watching Kalle Anka at Christmas, which I think is only the most prominent example of the Swedish love of doing apparently lame things in very large numbers or to a strict routine

Somehow linked to this is the Swedish love of special days for special foods, such as Taco Friday, Lördagsgodis (Saturday sweets), or days like Kanelbullens dag, all of which got mentioned

MOST SWEDISH THINGS TO SAY 

One person argued that the most Swedish thing to say was “ah”, with the sound then repeated “100 times when listening to a person talking to you”.
 
The same person suggested Näämen!”, an expression of surprise, as the most Swedish phrase/word imaginable.  Then there’s “jahaaa” to signify a realisation. 
 
Another mentioned the Swedish breathing-in noise for yes Swedes make (north of about Uppsala) to signify agreement. See The Local’s viral video here
 
For me, the word tyvärr, meaning “unfortunately”, is the most Swedish of words, used as it is to tell someone they can’t do something, while avoiding a direct conflict by pointing to some external rule or circumstance.  
 
It’s almost certain in a list like this, that we missed out some of even more Swedish things. Is there anything else that should be here? Please tell us in the comments below. 
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