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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Why I swim in Sweden’s icy cold waters every New Year

A cold-water dip to start the new year might just give us the resilience to deal with whatever the pandemic has coming in 2022, writes Local contributor, Chiara Milford. 

Why I swim in Sweden's icy cold waters every New Year
The Local contributor Chiara Milford emerged from the icy waters by the Tantolunden pier in Södermalm. Photo: private

Everyone has their New Year’s traditions. In Colombia you might fill your pockets with lentils and run around the block in yellow underwear. In the Philippines you might hang 12 round fruits above your door.

In Sweden, you’ll get drunk and watch Dinner for One

Being a third culture kid, I came up with my own while living in Scandinavia: a very cold swim. 

Come January 1st you’ll find me at the pier in Tantolunden, Södermalm, or the nearest open body of water. 

The dog keeps warm with a towel. Photo: Chiara Milford

The dog shivers on the beach where I’ve wrapped him in a towel to keep him out of the cold. I rest my hand gently on top of the water and ask for permission to go in (a Coast Salish tradition I picked up in Canada). 

Being half-Finnish I must curse the Swedes to generate enough sisu (a Finnish word for reckless bravery) to go in. According to some fucking good science, swearing also increases your threshold for pain.  

Slowly, feet first, I lower myself into water that was ice less than a week ago. 

My body screams, ‘what are you doing to me?!’ gasping for air that just won’t stay in my lungs. And I frantically splash towards the ladder to get out again. 

Photo: Chiara Milford

Every time I go cold water swimming I question my sanity. 

But rather than wrap myself in the dog-warmed towel, I immediately want to go in again. It’s addictive. Like a shot of the strongest espresso direct to the bloodstream.

The next time is easier. My body knows what’s coming. By this point, my blood has rushed to my vital organs and left my extremities numb to the cold. 

My mind goes into what can only be described as a meditative trance. I can hear the soft tinkles of raindrops on the surface of the water, the traffic on the bridge, my heartbeat thumping rapidly. I have stopped thinking. 

I only get out when my muscles start to feel like they’re turning to stone. 

Photo: Chiara Milford

When I clamber onto the jetty I’m dizzy with endorphins. My legs are bright pink and blotchy. I feel high; mighty enough to win an arm-wrestling contest with Thor. 

First comes the cortisol, a stress hormone released from your adrenal glands. That’s the initial panic shock response; gasping for air, questioning the terrible life decisions that led me to this point. 

Then there’s a surge of beta-endorphins which provide pain relief and a sense of euphoria. This is what makes you feel high. 

Other than having the place almost entirely to yourself, there are innumerable benefits to the cold water plunge. 

For some, it’s helped with everything from chronic fatigue to depression. For others, like my grandmother, it’s a sign of madness. 

Cold water swimming kicks your immune system into gear. And, contrary to popular belief, immersing yourself in cold water can actually increase your libido. 

It has a long tradition in northern countries. In Eastern Europe and Russia, winter swimming is how they celebrate Epiphany. In the UK, where I grew up, swimming in the sea is a way to ring in the new year and freeze-out the hangover. In the Nordics, it’s part of sauna bathing rituals. 

There are over 97,500 lakes in Sweden. We’re blessed with unrestricted access to the long Swedish coastline all year round with Allemansrätten (‘the right to roam’) – probably my favourite thing about the country. There’s also a chance that you’ll find a sauna nearby.

The more you subject yourself to cold water swimming, the more your body learns to adapt. Your heart rate calms down, you panic less and you can control your breathing. 

After the initial shock, you adapt. 

If we need anything for this coming pandemic year, it’s the resilience to adapt, breathe, and keep going. 

Tips for cold-water swimming in Sweden: 

  • Wear a hat. 

And not just a swimming cap. Heat leaves your body quickest from your head (as my Finnish mother always told me) so it’s best to insulate with a sturdy woollen hat. 

  • Don’t go in alone. 

If none of your friends are delusional enough to join you, make sure to swim in a place where other people are around. Even if you’re the most confident swimmer in the world, our bodies can react in surprising ways on contact with cold water, so it’s good to make sure help is nearby. 

  • Don’t be drunk. 

A quick dunk in Sweden’s frigid water will sober you up enough to kill you. Alcohol in the blood might serve up some Dutch courage and make you feel warmer but this means you won’t realise how cold you actually are. It also reduces your body’s ability to cope with stress and increases the risk of hypothermia. 

  • Don’t jump in. 

Although tempting to get it over with, this is how people die. Your body needs to acclimatise to the cold gradually. If you dive bomb, there’s a chance your body could go into cold shock and you could drown. I’ll sometimes only dip up to my knees first, before running out again, and then gradually going deeper and deeper until I’m immersed.   

  • Have an exit strategy. 

It’s important to bring enough warm clothes to wrap up after you’ve dried off, but it’s just as important to make sure that you can get out. Don’t swim anywhere with strong currents. Make sure there’s a ladder or a shallow beach nearby. And when you’re done, don’t immediately jump under a warm shower. Though tempting, it’s better to generate your own heat by running or walking or jumping or doing any form of brief exercise. Shivering is just your body’s way of warming itself up.  

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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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