Not even just the pizza: 10 things that surprise Italians about Sweden

Not even just the pizza: 10 things that surprise Italians about Sweden
Oh, pizza is just ONE of many things that Italians find strange or amusing about Sweden. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT
Italy and Sweden are two countries located on peninsulas at the polar opposite sides of the European continent and are also quite different from each other. Alex Maxia writes about the things that many Italians find surprising when they come to Sweden.

Welcome to the cashless society

In Italy you almost feel guilty when paying by card and sometimes even apologise to the shop owner for the inconvenience of them having to pay the commission fee for using the card reader. In Sweden it’s the complete opposite. Many cafes and shops display endast kort (card only) and will not accept cash, or even if they do they would rather you pay by card or Swedish mobile payment app Swish

Curry, kebab or tacos – on a pizza?!

Many Italians have heard a lot about British cooking and the eyebrow-raising Carbonara with cream, but Sweden brings the Italian cuisine abroad experience to a whole new level.

The moment you walk into a Swedish pizza place and look at the menu you first see ordinary pizzas, perhaps with some exotic ingredients such as pineapple – not entirely approved yet still tolerable. When you keep scrolling down you find unusual combinations such as Taco Pizza (minced meet, taco sauce, sweetcorn and tortillas) or Kebab Pizza – literally an entire kebab on your pizza with slices of meat, jalapenos and kebab sauce. Perhaps the most off-putting is the extremely popular Curry Pizza, often served with extra banana slices.

So can you find good pizza at all in Sweden? Yes. In the big cities you find pizzerias, often run by Italian expats, which only have the classics, however they tend to be more expensive. For many Italians, it is still a price worth paying to avoid surprises.

How much did you say that espresso was?

The price of an espresso coffee in Sweden is what Italians would overdramatically call un furto (a robbery). The 30 cent overcharge at Italian airports alone is considered by many Italians to be “morally questionable”, so you can imagine the reaction when asked to pay 35 kronor (3.42 euros) for a single espresso.

If you know where to go, you can find some Italian espresso bars where a good espresso can cost only 15 kronor, but there are not many places nor are they easy to find.

Waiting in line

The best comparison is at the gate for a domestic flight at Stockholm airport versus the one in Rome. In Sweden there tends to be an orderly line that might be very long but that everyone seems to respect. You tend to understand who stands in front of you and who is behind you; this differs greatly from many lines in Italy which look more like a mass of people desperately pushing to get in front. 

Noise levels

Even during rush hour, Stockholm is considerably quieter compared to non-rush hour Rome. This is partly due to there being fewer cars and more people on bicycles and public transport (even if it’s cold!) but it is also the style of driving and the amount of socially acceptable beeping that makes a whole lot of difference.

People forming an orderly queue to a festival in Sweden in 2013. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Talking to strangers

Perhaps the hardest thing to get used to for an Italian is that small talk is very rare in Sweden and often frowned upon unless there is a purpose for initiating the conversation. If you start talking to a stranger in Sweden their immediate thought would be “what does this person want from me? Are they trying to sell me something?”.

The exception to the rule is Gothenburg which is famous in Sweden for people being open and friendly to strangers; even starting a spontaneous conversation on a tram is not unusual there. Could it be because many Italians moved there in the 50s to work for Volvo?

A trusting society

People in Sweden tend to trust each other a lot more than in Italy. Even in the very busy central station in Stockholm you find pastries and coffee on display at a kiosk at a considerable distance from the cashier’s gaze, yet there is no real concern that someone would grab a pastry and walk out without paying for it. This also applies to forgetting something on public transport, you often tend to find it at the lost-and-found office the day after, even if you forgot your wallet or a bag with your computer in it. 

Tobacco

You tend to see fewer people smoking on the streets in Sweden and it is illegal to smoke in restaurants and bars (even outdoors). This comes as quite a shock to many Italians who especially in summer enjoy smoking a cigarette on the open-air dance floor, while in Sweden you would need to go to the designated smoking area outside the venue, leaving your drink inside.

On the other hand many people in Sweden use snus which is a nicotine-rich pouch that you put under your lip and keep there for a while. Many in Sweden are addicted to it and you cannot buy snus in Italy or in any other EU country. The prospect of switching to a snus+coffee combination as opposed to sigarette+espresso is something many Italians find odd. Then again, winters are cold and fixing the nicotine addiction indoors is somewhat efficient if you look at it that way.

A man puts ‘snus’, the Swedish tobacco, underneath his lip. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Trust in authorities

Many Swedes have a deep sense of trust in the authorities and the government. They feel that those who work there are experts or the politicians have been elected to make decisions, so it is up to them to think of the best solutions. This might be due to the fact that corruption is not seen as a problem in Sweden (at least in general, which is not to say it is not a problem at all) and the rare times something pops up everyone vividly remembers it, like the Toblerone scandal – more than two decades ago. 

Unfortunately this cannot be said for Italy, which over the past decade has had much bigger scandals such as the Bunga Bunga saga or cases of politicians receiving bribes from the Mafia. Therefore, Italians tend to be more critical towards the government and authorities in general, as there is a sense of mistrust because of the many corruption cases that have been exposed. When the mistrust is not due to corruption, a preconceived bias of incompetence kicks in; this is partly due to suspected nepotism in hiring the people working there in the first place. That’s why many in Italy also listen to their gut feeling and that of their family, beyond what the authorities say. 

Swedish-Italian pop culture

Once you familiarise yourself with the language and popular culture, you find that quite a few Swedish celebrities actually have some Italian in them. The queen of Swedish pop, Veronica Maggio, was born in Uppsala to an Italian father and included a few words in Italian in some of her most prominent hits.

The Ingrosso family in Stockholm brought to the spotlight TV star and influencer Bianca, her younger brother Benjamin, who is a singer-songwriter, and their cousin Sebastian Ingrosso, who is part of the Swedish House Mafia trio. Other notable musicians are pop singer Oscar Zia, born in southern Sweden to Italian parents and world famous DJ, Alesso (full name Alessandro Renato Rodolfo Lindblad).

So what have we learned from going through ten things that surprise Italians about life in Sweden? Though they are located on polar opposite sides of the continent there is a two-way fascination of Italians who move to Sweden and Swedes who do the opposite both in search for something they do not have at home. After all, they say opposites attract each other.


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