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Friluftsliv, or the reason I moved to Sweden

Friluftsliv, or the reason I moved to Sweden
View from the sauna on Brännö. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen
Friluftsliv is a Scandinavian concept translating roughly as 'life in the open air'. Never had I come across the term before moving to Sweden. It was only years later, when my Dutch existence felt like a distant past, that I realised that this Scandinavian concept amounted, more or less, to my impetus to drift.

The word friluftsliv has, as far as can be retraced, its origins with the Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen in his poem På vidderne (On the heights), published in the year 1859.

The epos follows a young man who leaves home for the mountains, planning to return with reindeer pelts for both his mother and the girl next door with whom he hopes to spend his life. Well into the journey, however, he crosses the path of a stranger who urges him to burn all his bridges and remain in the wilderness.

In a stanza midway through the poem, Ibsen introduces friluftsliv:

In the lonely seter-corner,
My abundant catch I take
There’s a hearth, and a table,
And friluftsliv for my thoughts.

Amsterdam had gradually closed in on me. There seemed to be no escape. No escape from the endless traffic, halting deafeningly on the junction outside my window, a collision only just or not at all averted. No escape from my job at the newspaper office where I, as one of the youngest and worst-contracted employees, couldn’t say ‘yes’ zealously enough to all the left over assignments that senior editors threw my way.

No escape from my lifelong past in Amsterdam, through which my calendar seemed to fill itself without conscious accord. Dinner with my mother, my father, my sisters, my high-school friends that I had shamefully neglected, an hour spent at the gym, another doing groceries, maniacally following the news and there you go: a new Monday presented itself.

Was this all?

What eventually proved decisive is impossible to retrace. The only thing I know is that, several months after quitting my semi-permanent job in the spring of 2016, I had reduced my possessions to two suitcases and was on my way to Sweden, where I would become an independent Scandinavia correspondent and a pursuer of a life lived well, though I had no idea what would amount to such a life.

The notion of the flight from the city appears nearly as old as the city itself.

Following the industrial revolution, arriving in Sweden in the late nineteenth century, came a large-scale migration from the desolate countryside to the up and coming Swedish urban tracts. For the former agrarians this meant a movement from outside to in, from a rural existence to one behind an assembly line.

It was around that time, says friluftsliv-researcher and former lecturer at the technical university of Luleå Hans Gelter, that the first camping sites and stugor, the simple, wooden cottages, appeared. Exhausted labourers and their families were permitted to spend several days here, outside town, only to resume their mind-numbing jobs with new vigour straight thereafter.

That same period saw the arrival of the first Norwegian and Swedish national outdoor organisations. The Norwegian Tourist Association was established in the late 1800s and, several years later, the Swedish cross-country skiing club, subsequently christened Friluftsfrämjandet, or ‘the furtherance of friluftsliv‘.


A hut along the hiking trail Kungsleden, in Swedish Lappland in 1964. Photo: Gunnar Lantz/Svenska Dagbladet/TT

This Swedish outdoor organisation was meant as an antidote to the long, monotonous days the population of labourers had been condemned to.

Public health had worsened considerably, in tandem with the increased urbanisation. ‘Come skiing with us and become strong and harmonious!’ was Friluftfrämjandets credo. The association organised trips to the fjäll, the spacious highlands in the north of Scandinavia, where wilderness, physical movement and mountain air would heal all ailments of city-life.

I made the mistake of trying to heal these city maladies in, well, the city.

My job required the proximity of interviewees and the possibility to abruptly hop on a train to wherever news was in the making. I glanced at a map and picked Gothenburg, a town on Sweden’s west coast. It was purportedly the greenest city in the world, it had excellent public transport connections with the Scandinavian capitals and it was surrounded by forests, lakes and sea.

Gothenburg life started in a one-room condo in a quiet residential area, right outside the city centre. Although I could distinguish tree-lined hills in the distance, my field of vision was still dominated by the concrete blocks of monochrome middleclass apartments. The grayness of the buildings coalesced effortlessly into the grayness of the sky.

On arrival I had tried to fit this new home in my idealisation of Swedish society, hinging on the heritage of Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson. ‘How egalitarian!’, was my initial thought, but a couple of months later I had to admit this wasn’t exactly what I had envisaged.

Half a century after Ibsen introduced the term friluftsliv the word resurfaced; this time it was the Norwegian explorer and scientist Fridtjof Nansen who, in 1921, at a gathering organised by the Norwegian tourist organisation, gave the term his own interpretation, boiling it down to ‘a simple life in nature’.

The adventurer differentiated true friluftsliv from tourism, its more superficial twin. The latter, he reckoned, was just a fleeting encounter with the wilderness and mostly a perpetuation of the frenzied lives we generally live.

“An important aspect of outdoor activities,” Nansen told the Norwegian youth at the tourist association, “should be friluftsliv: the chance to distance oneself from the masses, from the ongoing race… and to get out into nature, in the openness. This can’t be reached by following the crowds… However alluring this may be; this is no friluftsliv. It is merely a continuation of the life the young have lived all winter.”

He ended his speech with the conclusion that “city life in the end is counter-natural and by no means our original destination”.

In Nansen’s romantic reading the wilderness was our ‘original destination’, our true haven, and a life in the open air the only manner to find our way back home.


Hikers in the fjäll in 1993. Photo: Jan Collisöö/TT

My Swedish apartment turned out to be drearier than anticipated.

I felt confined between its four walls, between the drab buildings, and had a hard time accepting that there were countless people living directly below and above me yet I didn’t know any of them. Whoever ventured out into the hallway held their eyes fixated on the ground. Or even better, if you wanted to go out but heard someone in the corridor, you’d wait breathlessly behind your door until all murmurs had subdued.

There came a point that I spent hardly any time at home. I basically lived in libraries, in cafes, in the university; in public spaces. My sense of restlessness and lack of meaning had altered since my move away from Amsterdam; but, in one form or another, were still very much around.

From time to time, I travelled to Gothenburg’s southern archipelago to get a periodic injection of stillness. ‘Recharging your batteries’, someone else might have called this, though I deemed myself far beyond this stage. I didn’t want to recharge; I wanted to live a different life. I wanted to feel, I wanted a horizon, I wanted to do away with this dormant dread and I wanted an environment that would support these desires instead of smothering every tide of equanimity with so-called civilisation: fumes and concrete, flickering billboards, mid-season sales and troops of marching screen-gazers.

How different life was in the archipelago. I left my city armour behind in the harbour of Saltholmen and with boarding the ferry arrived a silence. I would find a seat on the outside upper deck and I would smell the ocean, see into the distance, feel the ripples of the waves.

Why, I thought on one of those archipelago days, would I continue to escape? I might as well just move there.


A view from the ferry to Brännö, in Gothenburg’s southern archipelago. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

For Norway the word friluftsliv has always been related to its national identity.

The country gained its autonomy only in 1905 after having been ruled for centuries, first by Denmark, later by Sweden. Once independent the Norwegian people needed a culture of their own.

“They were looking for a national pride, and found it in the mountains,” Gelter explains. Friluftsliv became the attribute that made Norwegians Norwegian.

Meanwhile Friluftsfrämjandet expanded from being a cross-country association for labourers to a kind of boy scouts for all, regardless of age, sex or background.

In the mid-80s, the organisation initiated something unprecedented: the so-called i ur och skur-förskola, the ‘come sun come rain’-preschools, for children between the age of one and five. Nature is its primary classroom. The outdoor preschools became an instantaneous success. The first one opened its metaphorical doors in 1985, by the year 2000 the nature-schools added up to over a hundred. Now, twenty years onwards, that amount has nearly doubled.

I visit one in Majorna, a gentrified working class neighbourhood in Gothenburg with charming, pastel-coloured wooden houses. It’s raining — rule rather than exception on Sweden’s west coast — and all children are covered in water-resistant overalls.

A couple of kids are climbing the rocks behind the school’s modestly small building. Several toddlers have settled themselves comfortably in a puddle and are carrying out an experiment: does a leaf float? Does a branch? A stone? The smallest, mostly one-year-olds, are taking a midday nap; outside, of course, lined up in strollers and wrapped in blankets.

“We usually eat lunch inside,” the preschool’s rector Andrea Hedenskog says. “And we go there to change diapers. But the rest of the day we are outside.”


An ‘I-ur-och-skur-preschool’ (not the one mentioned in the story). Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Because even in the middle of town nature is never too far off.

Slottsskogen, considered a ‘city forest’, lies a stone-throw’s distance away, and the preschool’s building borders on a large garden, part of which is wild, with high grasses, rocks and a slinging rope. The remaining plot has been cultivated by the educators and their pupils, now featuring a kitchen garden and an insect hotel.

I wonder what the benefits are of spending the days in the open air. “Well, how much time do you have?,” Hedenskog replies.

It’s a world apart from the regular förskola where she used to work, she tells me. “For a start: colds are much less common.” The kids absorb more daylight and breathe more fresh air, their mobility is notably better developed than that of children who only play on even surfaces, and, according to Hedenskog, they don’t suffer as much from the ‘this is mine!-syndrome’ as children in regular schools. “Out in nature kids don’t have the same desire to protect their possessions or territory. There’s not one branch: there are a thousand, so plenty for each and every one.”

Add to that the fact that these preschool pupils acquaint themselves with a variety of animals and plants, with fluctuating weather conditions, with the changing of the seasons and with being outside comfortably regardless of these external circumstances. They develop a wonder for the wild from their first birthday onwards.

An open air’s life has been included in politics, too – though the state seems to be driven primarily by pragmatism.

“Since the new millennium, costs created by stress within the labor force have weighed heavily on the state’s budget,” the nature conservation authority’s homepage reads. “Increasing numbers of employees are home on sick-leave or decide to enter early retirement, as a consequence of excessive (experienced) work pressure and burn-out symptoms”.

Consequently, a policy proposal concerning public health names ‘an increase in physical activity’ as an important remedy, and friluftsliv as one of its most desirable and low-budget forms.

The people’s happiness seems to be secondary to costs. Creating good conditions for friluftsliv is a relatively cheap way for society to invest in public health.


Kungsleden, in northern Sweden, in the 1960s. Photo: Gunnar Lantz/Svenska Dagbladet/TT

Thus the state, as the population’s caretaker, makes the wilderness as accessible as is reasonably possible. This means Sweden might lose some of its wilderness – but always with the higher cause in mind. There are hiking and cycling trails, signs, wind shelters and public fireplaces, stacks of ready-to-use fire wood.

And the Swedes use it happily and abundantly; according to statistics agency Statistics Sweden, 58 percent of the population ventures out into nature at least once a month. You are not a true Swede if you don’t pile yourself, your family and all your outdoor gear into a Volvo, drive to the forest, and grill sausages on a public barbecue.

Post-modern friluftsliv, is how Gelter designates this form of outdoors life. Nowadays, he says, everything has to be motorised. Just being outside is not enough; it must be easy, fast, and, preferably, give a rush of adrenaline. We go by car, snowmobile or motorboat, drink our thermos coffees and are back home by noon.

For purists, though, this is not real friluftsliv; it’s merely a form of nature consumption. “Friluftsliv is not about consuming experiences, places or resources,” Gelter says. Modern man often utilises nature for his own specific purposes: as escape, as therapy, as a sanctuary, as medicine, as an arena for the latest activity or equipment.

According to Gelter, true friluftsliv requires a regular and lasting immersion in the outdoors, the ‘spiritual experience of a deep-felt connection with nature’; the serenity that can only be perceived when living in tandem with the wild for a while.

Everyone is connected to nature, whether we choose to cultivate this connection or not. In our noisy and volatile city lives, however, this fact is easily forgotten. Something is missing, something is amiss, but how can we know what is lacking if we never knew it in the first place?

At the end of his article on the philosophy of open air life, Gelter writes: “In our urban settings we try to fulfill this harmonisation of the different human needs by artificial means such as drugs, alcohol, consumption, over training, etc., but we create frustration, diseases of boredom, belongingness and meaninglessness.”

“The quality of life we seek, will not however be found in civilised urban culture but in our basic biological functions, our natural ecological habitat, in nature as an unstructured fractal and complex environment, in our true home.”


The author on Brännö in summer. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

In the early months of 2018, after having lived in the city for a year and a half, I find my home on the southern archipelago island of Brännö. Life here is slow; it has, to be precise, a walking pace. Cars are not allowed, so I stroll or cycle. A handful of road signs point out that the maximum speed is 20 km/h.

Brännö has no concrete, no high-rises, no sale or shops – except for the subsidised island supermarket, doubling as a post office, where they know my name in no time and remind me, in the narrow aisles between shelves of canned food, whenever I’ve received mail.

The landscape is open. The soft boulders are covered with grasses, mosses, and birch trees, grown into the direction of the ocean breeze. To the west of the island there’s a nature reserve, reached by a small bridge, where I come a few times a week to hike, to sit down on a rock and to look out over the contours of the archipelago. In late summer I pick buckthorn and aronia berries. My hands turn purple for weeks on end.

Friluftsliv is an evolving concept, its interpretation depending on the zeitgeist and your social context. For some, it’s fika by a bonfire on a Sunday morning, or a ride with a snowmobile; for others it’s the lifelong approach of and encounter with the wild; to the search of the wilderness within ourselves; to our place in this all.

For me it’s the silence of the island. The reed land outside my house that changes with the weather. The daily walks, the going off-road, the scrambling over rocks, coming to a halt on a boulder and then just sitting there, without having to do or accomplish anything.

It’s the collective sweating in the public sauna as if we were one body. The weightlessness of the dip in the sea and, the being able to sit outside, dripping, looking out over the water towards the horizon. The knowing that it’s cold without feeling cold, as your body is still glowing from the sauna heat. The feeling that all is well, that this is exactly where you needed to be.


Member comments

  1. Thank you for this fascinating article, the delightful photographs, and the great links into literature, history, and educational philosophy. This was great timing as we gear up to get outside in a cold New England winter and think about what to pack for a year in Uppsala next winter. Thanks again!

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