A surprising Swedish statistic

In Sweden, there is a population of ten million, with two million residing in the greater Stockholm region. Of the overall population, around half of the citizens live in flats.

In a recent survey of flat dwellers in Stockholm, 80% said that they don’t know the name of any of their neighbours. That figure is surprisingly high. I have lived in my flat since October and I can rattle off the first names of at least five of the neighbours. 80% surprises me. And I wonder if this is typically Swedish? If you asked the same question in London or New York or Madrid would you get the same result?

One aspect that might affect this lack of neighbourly knowledge is the type of flat that people live in.

In Sweden, flats are typically either rental flats or resident-owned flats.

Resident-owned flats. When you buy a flat in Sweden, you also buy a percentage of the building which you own together with your neighbours. In these resident-owned flats, the building is run as a private cooperative, governed by an elected tenant board. This means that you are forced to work together with your neighbours to operate and maintain the building. For example, once a year there is a ‘shareholder annual meeting’ and twice a year there might be clean-up parties for the communal spaces. This means you meet and interact with your neighbours. In Sweden, resident-owned flats make up about 21% of the total housing stock.

Rental flats. In rental accommodation, a private company owns the building and takes care of all the communal areas such as gardens, laundry room and stairwells. This means tenants in theory have to never interact with their neighbours. Rental accommodation is about 28% of the total housing stock.

Finding a flat is extremely difficult in Sweden’s cities. To buy is expensive and waiting lists for rentals can be over 10 years. This creates another market for ‘second hand’ rental, where people sub-let their apartments out to others. This creates even further anonymity as the renter is often only there for short periods. In this case, there is probably no necessity to get to know the neighbours. In research from Sweden’s Ministry of Housing, an estimated 200,000 people live in this form of housing in Stockholm.

So, on reflection, maybe it isn’t so unexpected that 80% say they do not know the name of a neighbour in their building.

Statistics aside, one can wonder what impact this has on local communities and Swedish society as a whole. While this encourages the Swedish qualities of privacy, respect and integrity, it surely also contributes to loneliness, unfriendliness and alienation?

Sources: HSB, The Local, SCB, Boverket

11 hacks for surviving Swedish midsummer

With Midsummer arriving tomorrow, it is time to start planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers. As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself.

This year it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance from others. Apart from these guidelines, here are a few more hacks to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.

Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way in corona times is to stand 1-2 meters away, look directly in their eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. You might even give a small wave or touch elbow to elbow. If you are feeling adventurous, follow up your ‘Hej’ with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.

Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the strawberry dessert has even been put on the table.

Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.

If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of skinny dipping when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.

Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. This year, the activities are hopefully adapted to corona. To survive these activities, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.

Protect yourself. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. It remains to be seen, however, if this year people are keeping their distance. If you don’t keep your distance, and don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.

Throw in the thermals. It looks like it might be super sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. One of the warmest ever! But it is good to be prepared. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.

Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill and new potatoes. Remember to use hand disinfectant before you attack the buffet.

Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time.

Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.

Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…

That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.

Glad Midsommar!

Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!

Sweden the pariah

It is well known that Sweden has taken a different approach to the pandemic, one that didn’t involve totally locking down society and enforcing quarantine and curfew. Instead, the Swedish way relied on the responsibility of the population to go about life, with some restrictions and be careful. Time will tell if this was the right choice in the long run.

In the short run, we see that Sweden has a relatively high incidence of death from Covid-19. It is of course hard to compare figures, because it depends on what and how you are counting. Sweden cross checks against the death register and counts every death, in every location. Not just in hospitals, or in intensive care units. Because the virus got into care homes, the vast majority of deaths is unfortunately found in the over 80 age group.

It seems like Sweden is now paying a price for the more relaxed corona strategy. With countries around the world slowly opening up, they have released lists of approved countries from where tourists are allowed. Sweden is not on many of these lists. Swedes are perceived as plague-carrying high risk tourists.

Sweden’s neighbours Finland, Norway and Denmark have opened up for travel after their lockdowns. But the borders to Sweden remain closed. Sweden has become the social pariah of Scandinavia. Norway released an interesting decision this week. No traveling to Sweden, except to the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. However, domestic travel is allowed in Sweden, so the popular holiday island of Gotland will be packed with Swedes, mostly from Stockholm, crammed in together with Norwegian tourists. Not sure how Norway was thinking on that one.

Of course, as time goes on, Swedish tourists will be welcome again around the world. As Sweden’s death toll reduces, and the virus ebbs out, borders will open again. It’s just an usual situation right now for Swedes to find themselves unpopular.

So, staycation is the melody of summer 2020. My plans include a socially-distanced trip to lake Vättern, and a road trip up north. I’m also going to explore my hometown of Stockholm more.

If you’re staying in Sweden, what do you plan to do?

Graduating in a pandemic – Swedish style

Usually at this time of the year, a common sight on the streets of Sweden is students on trucks, as seen in these pictures. Dressed in traditional white caps, and bolstered with alcohol, the students jump up and down to the booming music from loud speakers concealed in the vehicle. They scream and shout and spray beer on each other and sometimes unsuspecting pedestrians.

They are celebrating the end of their school career. Most of them are 19 years old and have just graduated from Sixth Form College/High School. Every year the media reports accidents and injuries, which is not entirely unexpected. And trucks have been banned from certain roads and areas in the towns.

In Sweden, graduating or doing ‘studenten’, as it’s called in Swedish, is a major rite of passage into adult life. The youngsters finish their last day at school, come running out of the building to be greeted by waiting parents and families. They then climb aboard their trucks for their lap of honour. After that they go around to each other’s homes where each family usually arranges a reception to honour the newly-graduated student.

This year though is a bit different. Due to COVID 19, the trucks are banned. Parties are cancelled. Parents are not allowed to gather in large groups. It is a necessary action to try to stem a pandemic, but highly disappointing for the affected youths.

However, people are finding other solutions. Trucks may be banned but cars aren’t. The streets are full of young people screaming around in cars, flying their flags and cheering themselves on. Boats float around the city waterways with groups of less than 50 graduates, drinking sparkling wine and dancing to their booming music. The parks are full of picnicking revelers, huddled on shared blankets but socially distanced from other groups.

Proof that people will always find a way. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Deserted Swedish streets

For those of you who have bought into the myth that Sweden is doing nothing to combat the epidemic, here is a photo of downtown Stockholm. It was taken today by a friend of mine at 11.00am. The normally bustling streets of the capital are deserted. It is admittedly a ‘bridge day’ between a public holiday and a weekend, but even so, the streets are usually much busier than this.

This is a testimony to the fact that most Swedes are taking it seriously.

Welcome the spring in Sweden – wherever you are.

Tomorrow, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.

On this evening, Swedes normally gather to celebrate together. The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Essential celebrations include lighting a large bonfire, listing to choirs singing traditional spring songs and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season.

Walpurgis bonfires are an impressive thing to see and are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis, cattle was put out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators.

This year however is very different from normal, thanks to Covid-19. Official celebrations have been cancelled and informal gatherings have been banned. Some of the official celebrations are being still carried out, without large groups of revellers, and are being broadcast via social media. This is a great opportunity for anyone to participate in a bit of classic Swedish culture and tradition.

If you are interested in witnessing this, go to http://www.confidencen.se/kalendarium

This is the site for events at Ulriksdal’s Palace. They will live stream their Walpurgis event tomorrow at 7pm. (Valborgsmässokonsert). The youtube link will be put up on this site just before 7.

I fully intend to watch it. Hope to see you there!

The Swedish Easter egg

In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.

For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.

This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.

Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.

Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!

Happy Easter!

The colourful Swedish Easter tree

With Easter approaching, Swedes start pimping their homes. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.

The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.

What’s the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?

Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were more pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?

Sweden’s ‘Vasalopp’ – the world’s longest cross-country ski race.

Today, the world’s longest cross country ski race takes place in Sweden. It was, this year, touch and go if it would actually happen, as there wasn’t much snow on the ground. But at 8.00 this morning the race began.

Called Vasaloppet, the race entails participants skiing 90 kilometers from start to finish. It’s an extremely popular international event, which can take up to 12 hours to complete, and which is broadcast live on tv. When tickets to participate are released, they sell out in 15 minutes – it’s that popular.

The first Vasalopp was in 1922 and it takes place annually, the first Sunday in March and it is a first sign of spring. It’s an amazing sight to watch, as more than 15000 mad, happy skiers glide along, the swishing sound of ski on snow filling the air. For the elite athletes, 12 hours to complete the race is of course unthinkable. They go considerably faster. The person who has completed the race fastest is Jörgen Brink, who in 2012 won the race in just over 3 hours 40 minutes, roughly 25 km per hour.

So why is this race called the Vasalopp? Well, it takes its name from a Swedish king. The race commemorates the escape to Norway, through the forest, of King Gustav Vasa in 1521. Legend has it that he carried out the gruelling journey on skis, but experts believe he more likely completed this escape on snow shoes. Nevertheless, out of this legend sprung the race which is so popular today.

Modern day skiers don’t see the experience as an escape, they see it as a challenge and for many of them it’s a rite of passage. And as you sit watching the TV comfortably from the sofa, under a duvet, with tea and toast, you take vicarious pleasure in this long, amazing Swedish race.

The month the world shrank

The existence and the spreading of the Corona virus in the last few weeks cannot have passed anybody by. In the earlier stages of the virus, flights were cancelled in and out of China, then we were advised to avoid other countries in South East Asia. Then Iran? And Italy? Should we also soon avoid Gothenburg?

The world went from a wide open planet of international travel to a closed place where we are advised to stay put. In under a month, the world shrank.

How might this impact Sweden and the Swedes? Well, business is certainly affected. Imports are stuck in China. Events are cancelled. Employees returning from affected areas are told to stay home for two weeks, in a corporately-imposed quarantine. And this might just be the beginning.

What about the Swedes themselves? Swedes are well-known for being travelers. The people of this small, cold nation set out all over the world in search of sun, warmth, light, and adventure. Will it be so easy to tell them to stop traveling? Some would say it is impossible. You can take away many things from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday. For some, it is almost perceived as a human right to travel to warmer climates. I would say how easy it is to get Swedes to stop traveling depends on how any possible travel ban is imposed.

In general, Swedes value rules. And, in general, they follow them: traffic rules, laws, deadlines and agreements. In comparative cultural research one of the frameworks that is often used is the contrast between rules/task and relationships. Simply put, some societies value rules over relationships, thinking that rules should be followed irrespective of the relationship between people. Others value relationships over rules, often seeing the rule more as a recommendation.

Consistently in research, Sweden comes out as oriented towards the rules-side of the spectrum. While this is of course a generalization, it suggests that Swedes tend to take to rules and regulations very easily, tend to prioritize them, and tend to value them. When Sweden legislated against smoking in restaurants, people’s behavior fell into line over night. It wasn’t the case in many other countries. In the EU, Sweden is one of the countries that has applied most of the EU legislation on a local level. When participating in tenant association meetings, Swedes rely heavily on the house charter to understand what is right and wrong behaviour. A customer of mine refused a friendly lunch (in my mind to build relationship) because the company had issued a decree against corruption. None of this might be the case in other countries where a higher premium is put on individual relationships and circumstances, rather than what it says in the rule book.

So will Swedes stop traveling? If it is legislated, yes. If it becomes an official ban, then most Swedes will probably follow it. The practical nature of the Swede will understand its importance. The logic of the solution will prevail. However, if it just comes as a suggestion, left to the whims of the individual, then most Swedes will probably keep traveling. They will avoid the worst areas, and reroute to somewhere they perceive as safer.

You can take a lot of things away from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday.