Two months living in a new city may not suffice to feel like a local. But it sure is enough time to start understanding what makes a place and its people unique. Spending several weeks in Stockholm, allowed me to realize that many of the stereotypes you hear about Swedes are actually true, while I also came to learn so many things about the Scandinavians that I simply had no idea about…
Stockholm: the city and its people
If you hear men joking around and talking about hot girls where I come from, there’s a very big chance Swedish girls are involved in the conversation. In Portugal, Swedish girls are the epitome of sex-appeal. Once in Stockholm, I got to understand that this has become a thing for a reason. Swedes, male and female, are generally tall, thin and good looking. While genetics are what they are, the truth is that it’s not all about nature’s gift! Residents of Stockholm sure seem to be into fitness and taking care of themselves. The many stunning parks that make the urban space green and gorgeous, also serve as sports venues for people running and, sometimes, trekking with poles.
Trekking with poles is not the only thing that the people of Stockholm have in common with folks from Helsinki. In the capital of Sweden, you’ll also see an incredible number of hairdressing salons. The prices, though, are r-i-d-i-c-u-l-o-u-s! Students get to enjoy discounts that allow them to trim their hair for as little as 25 or 30 USD… but paying double that amount for a regular hair cut is scarily standard around Stockholm.
With such a crazy amount of hot people roaming around Stockholm, you’d guess the atmosphere is sexy and love inspiring, right? Well, it didn’t really feel that way to me. You barely see couples together on the streets and, if you do, public expression of love is rather minimal. I wasn’t expecting to see Scandinavians making out passionately like I’ve seen Latin American teenagers. But in such a liberal society, I wonder how come you do not see more public displays of affection?
Doggie love seems to be alive and well, though. Not only do Stockholmers seem to be dog people (probably the abundance of public parks makes things easier!), pets are also welcome in many spaces such as restaurants and hotels.
For a city with so much going on, Stockholm sure feels nice and calm. During the warmer months, the amount of people sitting around in the parks suggests that getting to work is certainly not a matter of life or death. There is a Swedish word and concept that keeps popping up whenever you read or discuss something about the Swedish lifestyle: lagom. Even though lagom lacks a direct translation to English, it could be understood as “enough” or “just right” and it applies to the amount of wealth and even social rights individuals get to enjoy. According to the concept of lagom, moderation is a virtue. You shouldn’t have too much of something if that is not needed. And everyone should get access to the same things. While this may beautifully apply to the Swedish welfare system (hello 480 days of maternity and paternity leave every time you give birth!), the sheer amount of luxury cars speeding up and down Stockholm’s large avenues makes you wonder…
Stockholm has a large concentration of tech oriented companies, they call it “the Silicon Valley of Europe” for a reason. So it’s no surprise sports vehicles had to be involved. But, seriously, when you no longer look at a Ferrari or Porsche passing by because it’s too “been there, done that”, you know that this lagom thing they all talk about is not the reality we all might have wished it was.
While poverty is certainly not in-your-face in Stockholm, there are beggars on every commercial street. Particularly sitting outside supermarkets. I started calling these people “the Ica Gypsies”, because Ica is one of the most present supermarket chains in the city and because those asking for change are always Roma people. Even though I come from a country with a considerable amount of people from Roma descent, it took me a trip to Sweden to learn that the term gypsy is actually considered derogatory. I believe in Portugal this is not the case. But in Sweden you’ve got to watch what you say, because you can very easily be deemed as racist. Political correctness runs deep in Swedish blood, and that isn’t always a safe thing.
Either way, Roma people who are mostly originally from Romania, take advantage of the European Union freedom of movement right and travel all the way to Sweden, looking for a better life. The truth is that, even in their own country of origin, these folks who were traditionally nomadic and didn’t necessarily have the same lifestyle as other residents of their country, are not well regarded. Even though, as European citizens, they are entitled to enter Sweden, they very rarely land jobs. And, without jobs, they do not become a part of the local welfare system that would otherwise provide for those who are unemployed. With not much else to do, members of the Roma community organize themselves in order to cover the supermarkets of the city, and beg outside. In a city where cash is almost obsolete and everyone tends to pay with a card for even the smallest purchases (if anything at all can be considered a small purchase when you pay in Swedish Kroner), I can picture that these guys have a very hard time collecting spare change. And that’s why, very often, people end up giving them empty bottles that can be exchanged for small amounts of cash when inserted in the supermarket’s recycling deposit machines. And, empty bottle by empty bottle, maybe these folks get to fill their glass.
Life is truly costly in Stockholm! A single ride on public transportation will set you back 36 SEK (over 4 USD). But at least entering the impeccably kept public buses, you’ll always get a HEJ (Hi) from the driver and, sometimes, even a TACK (Thanks) after you scan your card.
Things are very well organized in Sweden. Even doing laundry can make you feel like you were uncivilized until the fine day you first washed your dirty clothes in the capital of Scandinavia! Laundry facilities tend to be common for residents of a given building. To book your slot, you must choose a convenient timing and insert your key to save those hours for your homely chores. Impromptu laundry is not a thing… there’s a system in place!
Everything works, and it tends to work well! So much that sometimes you almost feel like everything is too perfect. Maybe it’s a silly feeling, but I am not used to not struggling even if a little bit. Even though I guess living in Stockholm and paying for life there is enough of a struggle as it is. In the little break we took over the two months we were living in Stockholm, we traveled to Italy for a week. When we landed in Bologna’s airport I went to the bathroom, and I had to visit 4 stalls before I was lucky enough to enter one that did have toilet paper. It was almost nonsensical… but that made me feel alive!
Talking about alive and kicking… turns out that ABBA fever is still burning in Sweden! Not only do they have a dedicated museum in the city, ABBA still plays on the radio all the time. I remember entering the supermarket one of our first days in Stockholm and “Mama Mia… here I go again! My my… How can I resist you?” was playing in the background. Yes, a very Swedish moment indeed!
ABBA songs actually made us think of how fluent in English people in Sweden truly are. Even back in the day when ABBA was writing hits! The fact that you can get around speaking English to just about anyone, sure makes exploring or moving to Stockholm easier. And I wonder if this English proficiency has anything to do with Sweden’s obsession with the USA! USA! USA!
American culture seems to be a big reference around here. So much, that I’m surprised we didn’t come across more Starbucks stores while in Stockholm…
Swedish Design and Home Decor
Swedish people have a pretty recognizable dressing style. While white sneakers are extremely common, combining them with white pants and a plain white shirt, is not that rare for girls either. If a bag is part of the outfit, chances are it’s by Fjällräven. It’s quite clear that Scandinavians have an obsession with white! Maybe it has to do with the fact that they get to enjoy very little sunlight during the colder months and, lighter colors make things look brighter over all.
In the rental apartment we stayed at, we enjoyed white walls, white couches, white curtains and… a white TV! I didn’t even know those existed!
The Swedish love for good design extends to food packaging too. Even supermarket white brands will have packaging details to make life prettier while simultaneously more convenient. (PS: I haven’t looked at a box of cereals the same way ever since…)
Swedish Food & Drinks
The foods you’ll come across in the regular supermarket, reflect the health conscious life-style most people in Stockholm live. You’ll see a lot of organic products (locally known as “eko”) and a wholesome variety of goodies, particularly for breakfast. Non sugary muesli, granola and porridge are favorites for the first meal of the day. For those who’d rather eat something savory, egg sandwiches with a squeeze of caviar from a tube are popular. This is not the expensive caviar stuff you see in the movies. This is kaviar with K, which is way Kooler! This fish tasting paste is as common in Swedish households as olive oil may be in Portugal, or chutney in India. It’s a given savory taste, you can squeeze it on those knackebrot flat Swedish breakfast breads, which do not go soggy no matter how long you keep them out in the open for!
But Sweden is not Queen when it comes to savory flavors. It’s not that she can’t manage, I just guess that she’s not trying. Swedish people have a sweet tooth that extends beyond their deliciously soft cinnamon and cardamom buns. Food that may appear to be on the salty side, tends to have a sweet after taste when in Sweden. This applies to everything, from fish dishes to snacks such as dill chips, salmon bagels and even sushi! One sweet element or the other will always be there, generally overpowering the savory side of things. The best example of this sweet & salty mix of flavors I experienced during our time in Stockholm, was an egg and caviar sandwich I had.. on raisin bread! Let me tell you that, caviar and raisins is probably an acquired taste!
Apart from coffee-break treats, going out for Swedish food in Stockholm is actually not such an easy task. Outside the historical and touristic area of Gamla Stan, you seldom find restaurants serving local favorites.
In such a big city as Stockholm, international food is very prevalent. Tapas places seem to be a trend, but they rarely serve Spanish tapas – nope, fajitas and quesadillas do not count! And, for us, the Indian dining scene was highly disappointing. Most of the Indian restaurants are actually not Indian owned and operated, and have adapted the otherwise savory and spicy flavors of the North Indian dishes they tend to serve, to also feature a sweet after taste. Sweet naan, anyone? You might as well go out for pancakes…
Sweets are a safe bet in Stockholm. The local bakeries serve exquisite sweet breads, Swedes sure seem to have a thing for sugar. I read that the average Swedish family of 4 eats 1.2 Kgs of sweets per week. That explains why the candy section at the supermarket is so big. We could only photograph it as a panorama:
When it comes to drinking, things aren’t as easy as buying candy. The only place where individuals can purchase alcoholic beverages in Sweden is Systembolaget, a government owner booze super store, that closes inconveniently early during weekends. Other than that, you can drink out in restaurants and bars and, during the summer, the trend seems to be tall glasses of rose wine, which ridiculously good looking people dressed in white sip in Parisian style cafes, with chairs facing the streets.
Stockholm was an enjoyable city to spend several weeks of our Summer. Its multicultural society made it easy for us to feel welcome. The perfectly manicured green spaces paired with the freshness of the air, inspired us to be active and stay healthy.
I wouldn’t be lying if I said that Stockholm left a sweet taste in our mouths.