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OPINION & ANALYSIS

The small ways you adapt to Sweden without even noticing

How do you know when you've adapted to a new country? It's more about an accumulation of little things than any list of criteria or 'breakthrough' moment, writes The Local's Catherine Edwards.

The small ways you adapt to Sweden without even noticing
After spending some time in Sweden, you might realize your behaviour and habits have changed. File photo: Roine Magnusson/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Have you ever tried on a piece of clothing, maybe a hat or glasses, which felt strange at first? Maybe it was heavy, or obscured your vision a bit. But then, after wearing it for a few hours, you forgot you even had it on – possibly leading to strange looks in public if it was an especially funky accessory. 

That's the closest metaphor I can think of for the process of adapting to a new culture, although it takes months or years for things to feel natural after moving countries.

Sweden's government is currently mulling the introduction of language and civics tests for foreign residents applying for citizenship. This change, proposed back in the January government deal, means prospective citizens would need to answer enough questions to show they can speak the Swedish language and demonstrate a “fundamental understanding of [Swedish] society”.

I've written about feeling at home in Sweden before, and thought about it a lot; it's one of my favourite topics to chat with fellow international residents about. Some still don't see Sweden as home even after years living here, while for others there's a big watershed moment, such as attending the annual ceremony for new citizens on National Day.

But more often than not, the process of adapting to a new culture doesn't feel like a straightforward path with milestones to tick off, or a curriculum that you could study section by section. It's more likely slowly absorbing dozens of tiny, almost immeasurable things, until you don't notice that you're no longer noticing them.

These things are personal to everyone. Sometimes it's nothing specifically 'Swedish', but you start to feel more at home in a new place once you can get to work and your favourite bar without the help of Google Maps; your feet take you there automatically. Or simply having a favourite bar, especially one where you start to recognize regulars or know which chairs are wobbly, might be the thing that makes you feel you've found your place.

READ ALSO: The questions you need to ask before moving to Sweden

Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

I always recommend that homesick friends try to build a routine as soon as possible, even if it's just taking the same walk every weekend or getting coffee from the same spot. Many social psychologists believe (and have the research to back it up) that physical proximity is one of or the most crucial factors in whether two individuals will form a strong relationship: it's called the 'proximity principle'. I think this can be true of relationships with places and cultures too; spend enough time at your chosen spots, and they'll often take on their own special meaning to you. 

And just as getting to know another person means learning their quirks and habits good or bad, and working out how best to deal with them, it's a similar process getting to know a new culture and society. 

During my first summer in Sweden, I was surprised to keep coming across rows of Swedish people crammed into the small patch of sunlight on a pavement, faces upturned, eyes closed and smiling. I call it the Swedish sun face. Last July, I found myself zig-zagging across roads to be in the sun as much as possible, barely registering that I was doing it until a bemused visitor from home asked why. 

I also catch myself inhaling an 'ah!' to signal that I'm listening in a conversation, even if we're speaking English (if you're not familiar with this linguistic tic, there's background here). And Sweden has taught me to live with the seasons: mysa in winter and embrace friluftsliv all summer, including in weather that would have sent me scurrying back inside when I lived in the UK or Italy.

Not all these adjustments are necessarily improvements. In June, I spent a week in Berlin, a city I lived in before moving to Stockholm and have returned to several times since. This time, there was something different; it felt noisier. Getting the S-Bahn back to my hotel one evening, I got off at the station not far from where I used to live, and was surprised by how noisy it was, not due to any shouting or loud music, but just the buzz of dozens of conversations on a crowded train and platform.

I'd missed this background noise and liveliness, but I'd forgotten I'd missed it until I was back in its midst. I used to find it amusing when Swedish friends would talk about the value of a sommarstuga (summer house) to 'escape the city', when the city in question was the relatively sedate Stockholm, but the longer I live here, the more I find myself adapting to the Swedish norms of a quieter, slower pace of life, for better or worse (or both).

READ ALSO: My Swedish habits that foreigners just don't get

Photo: Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se

There are things about Sweden that I love and wouldn't change for the world, and there are things that if I had the chance, I'd change in a heartbeat. That's going to be true of anywhere, whether you're a local or not. So for me, the sign of adaptation isn't necessarily accepting each and every one of those things as 'better', in order to prove you've converted to Swedishness. It's when you no longer feel like you're running up against a wall when you face the parts of Swedish life you're less used to.

Instead, you know what to expect and how you're going to react to it, whether it's internal eye-rolls and calming deep breathing as you brace for the Saturday 2.45pm rush at Systembolaget, or even better, having adjusted your own habits so you're better prepared in advance and never have to face that dreaded queue. 

It's about being frustrated when no-one answers your work calls for the whole month of July, but being able to balance that with an understanding that people do need vacation, even four whole weeks of it, and that you'll probably be taking your own before long. And it's about the small moments when you realize that you may never feel fully 'Swedish', but that in many ways you've already adapted with or without a conscious effort.

Was there a moment when you realized you'd adapted to Sweden? Members can log in to comment below.

Member comments

  1. Not sure if I’ve adapted, but on a recent visit back to my home country (Australia), I actually felt homesick for my adopted hometown, Umeå. I think that’s a pretty great sign of adaptation to come :).

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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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