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Sweden 101

Sweden 101

I’m in SWEDEN!!!

For those of you who know me personally, this won’t come as startling news, but for the next three months, I will be ensconced in the land of 10 o’clock Fika, regular coffee breaks, wonderful libraries, crispy thin waffles and beautiful summer days.  So, really, a writer’s paradise. 

Sweden is a beautiful, amazing place to be, but seems to go unnoticed by a lot of the world (barring the occasional presidential tweet) and is not without its own quirks and foibles.  So here are ten things you should know about Sweden!

We are NOT Switzerland.

Cuckoo clocks, nice wristwatches, the Alps, and gourmet chocolate? Yeah, not Sweden. That is actually Switzerland, a few letters and several hundred miles off. Fjords? Well that’s not really Sweden either, that’s Norway, they live next door. Beer and Lederhosen? That’s Germany. The Sound of Music is in Austria.

Up there, right up top.

No matter comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Sweden’, you are probably wrong. This is not necessarily your fault. Sweden, mostly, likes to keep to itself. We aren’t in many wars, we aren’t a manufacturing or tech hub, and our most notable pop culture contributions are ABBA and Swedish House Mafia.

So just to clear a few things up;

Sweden is one of four countries in ‘Scandinavia’ which is the chunk of countries in Northern Europe. Sweden is sandwiched between Norway and Finland. All three are separated from the rest of Europe by the Baltic sea. Sweden is the home of the Nobel Prize, Stockholm, Ikea, Abba, herring, and a lot more besides…


Yes, like the popular coffee house in NYC. Fika is a break in the middle of the day, usually featuring a small pastry and a cup of coffee, though tea or open-faced sandwiches are acceptable. The most important thing about Fika though? Is the people.

You don’t just sit at your desk, get a coffee refill, and eat snickers. You actually GET UP. Go to the coffee room (every business has one) or sit outside and actually TALK with other human beings for a while.

Not about work, of course, that is a serious faux pas. You don’t stand around playing games on your phone either. The phone goes away, the coffee cups come out and you just… breathe, take a mental break, stop, and refuel on both coffee and clarity. Studies have shown that people who take such breaks, whether they are marketed as ‘mindfulness’, ‘meditation’, or ‘awareness’, perform better and achieve greater results with less effort than those who don’t take these mental breaks.

The Swedes don’t need studies however, as Fika is followed with almost fanatical devotion. You DO NOT disrupt the sanctity that is Fika. You can practice for future Scandinavian vacations right now, but turning off your computers, going outside, having a cup of coffee, and just… be.

Summer!… maybe?

In the past few days that I have been here, the weather has gone from a chilly 54 F night with heavy skies and a light drizzle, to balmy 82 degree days with blue skies and the only clouds in sight are an innocent puffy white.  Summers in Sweden are a magical time… if they show up at all.

Two years ago summer consisted almost entirely of gray rainy days in the mid-sixties (if you were lucky).  The summer after that had record-high heat to the point that large chunks of Sweden actually caught fire.  And knowing which version of summer was coming this year?  You’d have a better chance of predicting the winning lotto numbers.

To give you an idea, my closet has everything from a parka and thermal long johns, to short shorts and bikinis – and yes, I have had to use both in the same week before.  

But it almost doesn’t matter.  Because, at the first breath of warmth, the chilly and ethereally beautiful countryside, caught in a moment of suspended animation worthy of a Robert Frost poem, will explode into a convergence of greens and yellows and purples as trees burst from hibernation, bushes begin their slow crawl over fences and across country lanes, and every wildflower from Uppsala to Malmo bursts into life in a way that makes your heart stop.

Libraries are LIFE

Every little hamlet from one end of Sweden to the other, BY LAW, must have a library accessible to them. Swedes are in the top ten for library use around the world and check out more books per head than almost any other nation on earth.

Libraries are more than just warehouses for books in Sweden. They are also cultural centers, meeting points, learning resources, and so much more.

If you want to know what’s going on in town, just check the bulletin board

More than Just Stockholm

Every time someone mentions that they have been to Sweden, I dread the answer to the inevitable follow up question – “Where in Sweden?”

Because the answer, almost inevitably, is ‘Stockholm’.  

Nothing against Stockholm or anything!  I mean, it’s a perfectly pleasant…. uh, tourist trap… if you like that sort of thing.  But saying you’ve been to Sweden, and just having seen Stockholm, is a bit like saying you’ve been to America, but only to NYC.  I mean, both sell overpriced monogrammed T-shirts to tourists, have overpriced hot-dogs, SEVERELY overpriced drinks, have a seedy underbelly, and a secret heartbeat which only locals will ever truly know.  But neither one is representative of a whole country!

Sweden is BIG guys.  Like, REALLY BIG.  It’s bigger from north to south than the entire United States Eastern Seaboard.  And within all of that bigness is a country that is just as interesting and diverse as America.  From the indigenous people of the northern region to the heavily Europeanized cities in the south, and the miles of countryside, farms, copper mines, fishing towns, and PEOPLE in between. 

I get it.  When touring a country it is sometimes easier to hit up the big towns.  Tourists do it all the time in the US, they hit up New York instead of New Hampshire, Las Vegas instead of Eureka, Miami Beach instead of Lake Worth.  But it doesn’t change the fact that, sometimes, the best way to get to know a place is to stick your finger on a map, look at what you’ve hit, and just go.

The Food

Almost like the inevitable ‘Stockholm’ response, anytime the question of Swedish food comes up, the thing that comes to most people’s minds is those bags of frozen Swedish Meatballs from Ikea. But, just like with Stockholm, there is so much more to Swedish Cuisine than meatballs.

Coastal sections of Sweden have a rich seafaring tradition, and even inland areas usually have a wide network of lakes and rivers easily accessible. Fresh and preserved fish feature heavily, along with shrimp and other shellfish. Local and seasonal produce is highly prioritized. With such a short growing season, fresh is best is more than just a marketing line. Rye grows more abundantly than wheat in this climate, so bread is traditionally dark and hearty, sliced thin and dense, or slow dried and crisp. Desserts feature spices like cardamom and almond, chocolate is common, and fresh fruit and cream are almost universal. All finished off with, of course, the ubiquitous cup of coffee.

You are Going to Be Outside

Summer is a rare and magical time.  This means, that at the first breath of wind that hits 60 F or above, you will be sitting outside.  Don’t argue with it, don’t try to fight it, just take the offered blanket that is already sitting outside on the chair, bundle yourself up as best you can, and have a drink.  

The winters here are long and gray.  So you can’t begrudge people’s willingness to brave the chill that still hangs in the air for just a glimpse of the sun.  

Good Luck Getting Anything Done

I’ve sung some praises, now a brief moment of lamentations. Swedes, as mentioned time and time again, are fiercely protective of their summer. With over a months paid vacation and a very brief window to enjoy it, if you have to engage in any form of official business in the summer time there is only one thing I have to say to you – Good Luck.

Wherever you are going and whatever you are trying to get done, someone is going to be on vacation, or out of the office, or taking an extended 3-4 day vacation surrounding one of the countries many summer time ‘Red Days’ (like a bank holiday). So long as you acknowledge that and plan accordingly, or, better yet, just accept that nothing is going to get done anyways and that you should give up now, you’ll be fine. After all, that’s what winter is for! Now go sit outside and have a little fika.

International People = International Food

Often times, when people arrive in Sweden they start looking around for ‘Swedish’ places. It’s always kind of funny to watch, because the Swedes just sort of stand there and blink. Swedish food isn’t something you go out for – you eat that at home, darn near every day. So when you go out to eat, well, you’re usually looking for something a little bit different.

Relatively open borders and peaceful relationships with our neighbors means that Sweden has had people moving in with almost the same regularity as at Ellis island. The upshot of which is that, even in the smallest of towns, you can usually find at least three types of Asian food, a handful of pizza joints, and a couple of middle eastern or kebab spots. Flavors which, while not traditionally Swedish, have certainly become loved by their new neighbors.

You Should Definitely Come Here

If you know how to do it, a Swedish summertime vacation can be one of the most enjoyable breaks from reality you can ever take.

*More on top tips for how to vacation in Sweden at a later date.  But right now, some cultural backdrop-

For further cultural reference and understanding, may I present, Swedishness.  Enjoy 🙂


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