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OPINION: The countryside has the best possibilities for creating a new life in Sweden

Life in rural Sweden may have its drawbacks, but the countryside is more welcoming towards immigrants than many people think, writes Ariz Kader in this opinion piece.

OPINION: The countryside has the best possibilities for creating a new life in Sweden
Life in the Swedish countryside is starkly different to life in the city, writes Ariz Kader. Photo: Private

On July 27th, I wrote a short Twitter thread documenting my experiences as an immigrant to Sweden. The thread contrasted my experiences growing up in an immigrant-heavy suburb of Stockholm with my current life in the Swedish countryside and included my thoughts on what this could mean for integration into either community. As the thread seemed to gain a lot of traction online and was widely discussed, the staff at The Local have been kind enough to ask me to write a version of the thread for their publication. Some of the text has been altered for clarity’s sake.

I lived in Stockholm for about 14 years in my childhood and teenage years, and in retrospect, I can’t think of a more segregated experience. Echoing a lot of my friends of the same generation (first generation of immigrants) – to a certain extent – it feels as if the generation that were born here in the suburbs speak Swedish less fluently than we did. To me, this seems natural as it reflects the concentration of non-native speakers creating their own dialect, rather than learning established ones from native speakers.

Schools in these areas also suffered growing up. Many teachers preferred not to be assigned there and kids from troubled backgrounds made teaching difficult for everyone. This was the case in my school as well.

In Sweden, there is a pedagogical culture of parent involvement in teaching with parents being involved heavily in school meetings, collaborating with teachers, and actively participating in other activities. With few Swedes around, teachers who worked in our schools later told me that immigrant parents simply didn’t pick up these cultural habits.

Shops in these areas also reflected both the kinds of communities that exist with immigrant food shops, cafes, and clothing shops mirroring the diverse background of residents, but you typically also got fewer general stores because those businesses didn’t think it was worth the investment to set up shop. This resulted in immigrant suburbs with a good variety of ethnic foods and clothes, but generally not much else, and so limiting the ability of people to have access to jobs locally.

All in all, these areas have a pretty heavy “us vs them” mentality, with immigrants believing the state isn’t doing enough to promote good services and investment, while businesses and services refuse to invest because of a real or perceived unsafe environment.

As a kid growing up there, there was an extreme sense of hopelessness. Society was perceived as being against immigrants in general. My first clear memory/experience of speaking to a Swede my age from a non-immigrant background is from when I was 12.

The stark cultural differences between Swedish families and immigrant families also created huge hurdles for understanding and feeling welcome. In my family, if we had unexpected guests, we would simply cook more food. In many Swedish families, though of course not all, you were expected to go home to eat or even stay in your friend’s room while the family had dinner.

Many Swedish cities are heavily segregated. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

Moving back to Sweden after spending a decade abroad, I settled down in the countryside, and it genuinely felt like I had moved to another country entirely to the one I remember from my childhood years. When we moved in, every single neighbour came to welcome us. We were invited to dinner at everyone’s house.

I get questions and comments about my background that may be perceived as a bit naive or even offensive without context, but when you get to know my neighbours, you understand it comes from a genuine desire to know more about where I come from; it’s never a wish to offend.

In the city, I often feel prejudices seem to be held to oneself with the effect being obvious segregation with people in affluent suburbs being “anti-racist” while never setting foot in an immigrant-heavy area. In the country, prejudices are there, but are open to change with a conversation.

‘In northern Sweden we lock our door to shut out the friendly people’

There are drawbacks, of course. There is little to no access to my traditional foods, nor is there a community of immigrants that might speak my language. My kids will also have a harder time learning my language despite my effort to teach them. But since we live in this country, and since it is their home, I consider that a small price to pay for them growing up as an equal and appreciated part of their community, and not some outsider who will never truly fit in.

This probably boils down to the larger question of what becoming a part of a new country really means. How much do we keep of where we came from if we want to successfully live where we have decided to settle down?

But, in case you really do want to live and be part of the place you decide to call home, I honestly believe the countryside has the best possibilities for creating that new life, and not turning you into a third, fourth, or even fifth generation “immigrant”.

Ariz Kader is a research assistant at Uppsala University’s Peace and Conflict Research Institute. Follow him on Twitter HERE.

Ariz Kader. Photo: Private

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

Hygge, the Danish art of getting cosy, has taken the world by storm. But the Swedish equivalent is refreshingly different, says David Crouch 

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

It is around six years since the Danish word hygge entered many of our languages. Hygge, pronounced hue-guh and generally translated as the art of cosiness, exploded almost overnight to become a global lifestyle phenomenon.

Hygge dovetailed with mindfulness and fed into other popular trends such as healthy eating, and even adult colouring books. “The Little Book of Hygge” became a publishing sensation and has been translated into 15 languages. In time for Christmas, its author has just issued a second book, “My Hygge Home”, one of dozens already on the market. This is the season of peak hygge, of candles, log fires, cups of cocoa and comforting music.

There is nothing wrong with new ways to relax, and certainly no harm in identifying them with Scandinavia. But as a guide to living your life, there are some problems with hygge. 

First, the original meaning of the word is too broad and subtle to enable a clear grasp of the concept among non-Danes. This probably helps to explain its appeal – hygge is an empty bottle into which you can pour whatever liquid you like.

Patrick Kingsley, who wrote a book about Denmark several years before the hygge hype, was “surprised to hear people describe all sorts of things” as hygge. Danes, he said, would use the word when talking about a bicycle, a table, or even an afternoon stroll. 

So it is hardly surprising that, outside Denmark, hygge is applied rather indiscriminately. Last week the New York Times devoted an entire article to achieving hygge while riding the city’s subway, of all places. “A train, after all, is basically a large sled that travels underground, in the dark,” it said, trying too hard to find a hint of Nordicness on the overcrowded railway.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day – hyggeracisme

Hygge has become an exotic and mysterious word to describe more or less anything you want. It is as if someone decided that the English word “nice” had a magical meaning that contained the secret to true happiness, and then the whole non-English speaking world made great efforts to achieve the perfect feeling of “nice”. 

A second problem with hygge is that, in Denmark itself, it seems to operate like a badge of Danishness that can only be enjoyed by Danes themselves – a kind of cultural border that outsiders cannot cross. You can walk down a Danish street in the dark, one journalist was told, look through the windows and spot who is Danish and who is foreign just by whether their lighting is hygge or not.

When writer Helen Russell spent a year in Denmark, she was intrigued by hygge and asked a lifestyle coach about it. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just something that all Danes know about,” she was told. How could an immigrant to Denmark get properly hygge, Russell asked? “You can’t. It’s impossible,” was the unhelpful reply. It can’t be a coincidence that the far-right Danish Peoples Party has put a clear emphasis on hygge, as if immigration is a threat to hygge and therefore to Danishness itself. 

READ ALSO: It’s official – Hygge is now an English word

Outside Denmark, this exclusivity has taken on another aspect: where are all the children? Where amid the hygge hype are the bits of lego on the floor, the mess of discarded clothes, toys and half-eaten food, the bleeping iPads and noisy TVs? “Hygge is about a charmed existence in which children are sinisterly absent,” noted the design critic for the Financial Times. It’s as if the Pied Piper of hygge has spirited them away so you can get truly cosy. 

But there is a bigger problem with hygge. It is largely an invention, the work of some clever marketing executives. After spotting a feature about hygge on the BBC website, two of London’s biggest publishers realised this was “a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions”. They set out to find people who could write books for them on the subject, and so two bestsellers were born, spawning a host of imitations. 

Sweden has a different word that means roughly the same thing: mys (the noun) and mysig (the adjective). There have even been some half-hearted attempts to sell mys to a foreign audience in the same way as hygge. But the real meaning of mys in Swedish society is rather different, it seems to me. The reason for this, I think, is that mys has become so firmly identified with Friday nights, or fredagsmys – the “Friday cosy”. 

Fredagsmys is a collective sigh of relief that the working / school week is over, and now it is time for the whole family to come together in front of some trashy TV with a plate of easy finger-food. The word first appeared in the 1990s, entered the dictionary in 2006, and became a semi-official national anthem three years later with this joyous ad for potato crisps:

In this portrayal, mys is radically different to hygge. It is a celebration of the ordinary, witty and multi-cultural, featuring green-haired goths and a mixed-race family with small children. Food is central to fredagsmys, and what is the typical food of choice? Mexican, of course! Not a herring in sight.

Why Mexican? It seems nobody is really sure, but tacofredag now has roots in Swedish society. Tacos, tortillas, and all the accompanying spices and sauces take up a whole aisle of the typical Swedish supermarket. Swedes are accustomed to eating bread with various bits and pieces on top, according to a specialist in Swedish food culture, while the Swedish tradition of smörgåsbord (open sandwiches) makes a buffet meal seem natural. The fussiness of tacos is even reminiscent of a kräftskiva crayfish party.

There is no cultural exclusivity here. On the contrary, fredagsmys food could equally be Italian, North American, Middle-Eastern, British or French. And children are absolutely central to a good Friday cosy. 

With Swedish mys, everybody is welcome. Get cosy and relax, but do it by mixing and getting messy, rather than retreating into pure, perfect, rarified isolation. There is a time and a place for hygge. But the Swedish version is more real, more fun, and more inclusive.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University

 
 
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