Going abroad for one semester is a new, exciting chapter in life. Coming to Sweden, there are probably a lot of new things that seem to be strange for us exchange students at the first sight. But automatically, we get used to these unique cultural aspects after a while. There are quite a few experiences that surprised and amused me in a positive manner. I can only tell about this from a German perspective, but I’m sure that every exchange student has at least experienced one of these typical Swedish phenomenons. Here are 10 musings about the Swedish way of life – from a foreign perspective.
Probably the first thing in every exchange students mind, when thinking about Sweden. Fika is the Swedish coffee break, which is aaaalways a good idea! Being lazy? – Have a fika! Sun is shining? – Get your sunglasses and have a fika! Having a group meeting? First, let’s have a fika! It is a holy procedure in the Swedish society – mostly held twice a day. If you want to talk to a professor and you just arrive in fika-time, this means you have to wait till fika is over. What a bad timing! By the way: The best thing about fika is not the coffee or tea itself. It is the Swedish sweets: kanelbullar, punschrullar, chokladbollar and much more. As I can probably stand in for every exchange student here on campus, my coffee consumption has drastically increased since living in the country of fika-lovers. And not only the coffee, but also the sweets. It’s hard to resist. For sure we’ll go back to our home countries with a bit more weight on the hips. But who cares? Meanwhile we might at least go as crazy for fika as you Swedish guys. So, what to do when we are home again? One thing is for sure: I will launch fika in my home country!
It’s lagom, baby! Next to fika, it’s the second word in every exchange student’s vocabulary. What people have taught us in Sweden: Lagom is a little word with a big meaning. There is no direct translation into English or other languages. Lagom is a typical Swedish idea or feeling, and is used when something has exactly the right amount. Not too little, not too much. Just right. Essentially this word can be used in every occasion. “How are you?” – “Lagom!”. “How is the weather?” – “Lagom!”. Though I was talking to some Swedish students, who told me that lagom can not only be a good thing, but also seen as boring. Something is not special, not extraordinary – it is just in the middle and seen as the standard and average. But honestly: Lagom is great! Representing the exchange community: We love this word and it makes Sweden special. The motto in life? – Live, laugh, love, lagom!
Talking about lagom, which represents the Swedish ideals of fairness and equality, this leads us to point 3 of Swedish phenomenons: Equality, or more exactly, gender equality. It’s one of the most important values in Swedish society and therefore plays a big role in the educational system. The welfare system focuses on a fair work-life balance for both mother and father. And, addressing us exchange students again: Did you know, that Sweden has one of the world’s highest representation of women in parliament? However, I was very surprised about the shared-bathroom-situation in nearly every public place in Sweden. It might be different in every country but, speaking from my point of view, I’m not used to shared bathrooms back home. Being an acquired taste in the beginning, I realized that this concept features a big advantage (especially for the girls among us): No waiting in line in front of girl’s toilets anymore!!! Yeeeeah! But on the other hand: You can’t deny that often shared bathrooms are a gross disaster, right? But even if separated, our urge to go might be withheld by the cleaning situation in general.
Milk (or the struggle of doing groceries)!
Speaking about the daily business in bathrooms, the next phenomenon is drinks. Or more precisely: Milk. Not too long ago I wanted to buy lactose free milk. But how did it end up? After staring at the refrigerated section for about 5 minutes – being confused by normal Mjölk, Mellanmjölk, Filmjölk and much more – I’ve finally picked a milk carton with the word “laktosfri” on it. At least it looked like one, so what should be wrong about it? Too bad when I opened the box at home and put some of the substance in my coffee: The “milk” turned out to be yoghurt. What the hell? Talking to other exchange students who experienced this mishap, this seems to be a typical beginner mistake. At least now we know about the differences between Mjölk and Filmjölk. Fil is something like yoghurt, but a bit less thick. But, honestly, Sweden: Why do you use the same package design for both milk and yoghurt? They completely look the same for us exchange students. So far, it has been one of the most confusing experiences in Sweden. A hint for every prospective foreign student: Learn some basic vocabularies before doing groceries. But if we do everything right, we should be masters in Swedish groceries at the end of our stay.
The typical exchange student in Sweden will probably not care too much about the milk problem. More important is the liquid feast that we buy in Systembolaget. During the first week in Sweden, this had become even more important than the grocery store. Latest before the first party started, every one of us had heard about Systembolaget. (For every future Sweden traveler: You’ll only get low alcoholic beer in usual grocery stores. “Real” beer, wine and other beverages are sold in so-called “Systembolaget”). The crazy part about it: Opening hours are usually between 10:00 and 18:00; on Saturdays only till 15:00 o’clock. This was the most shocking part for all of us, as in many other countries you can just go to the supermarket and buy hard liquor nearly 24/7. Compared to this, in Sweden you absolutely have to plan your party in advance. We have all missed out on the opening hours at least once on Saturday, so by now we are aware of the deadline. The good thing about it: If you’re running out of alcohol while having pre-party, there’s no chance for a spontaneous shopping. Less drinks means lower chances of being hungover the next day (haha, not necessarily). However, if you ever should experience a hangover, you should stick to these advices!
So, where to go after the purchase in Systembolaget? Sure, there’s just one answer: Clubbing! It’s a lot of fun here in Sweden, but another new experience for most exchange students, as the closing hour in clubs is generally at 2 am! Back at my home, this is the time where people just start to party. Mostly there’s no closing hour – which means you can basically party till the sun is rising and the birds start singing. But well, I have to admit (and I might speak for most foreign students): I don’t mind having pre-party at 8 pm and coming home at 2 am. You will admit that the next day is not completely lost. Instead of spending all day long with Netflix & Chill (which – I agree – is still a nice activity on the day after), it is much easier to get your ass out of bed.
No fika, no milk, no Systembolaget and no party without money. I experience Sweden as being the country of credit cards. Probably you are the most cashless society on earth. The first bus ride in Sweden was very surprisingly. The bus driver refused my cash – “I only take credit card!” What a shocking moment! Personally, I’m probably from one of the most antiquated countries when it comes to payment. Believe it or not – but in Germany still over 50 percent of the society still prefers to pay in cash. Only about 6 percent still regularly use the credit card. Though, paying by credit card is a lot faster and simpler, but at the same time people might find it a lot easier to lose track of their finances in my opinion. By the way: Sweden was the first European country which adopted cash in 1661. So why getting rid of your notes and coins? Anyway, the fast use of credit cards shortens the waiting line at the supermarket.
If you’re ever in the situation of paying cash in grocery stores, I experienced one of the most practical things: Coin machines! Not only can you put your coins in the machine at the cashier, but you also get your small money back out of the machine. If you are Swedish, reading this article right now, you might laugh at this point – haha, exchange students being impressed by coin machines. But, seriously: Yes, I am, as we don’t use these machines back home. Some foreign students might share this feeling with me: Standing in line at the checkout for hours, waiting for the cashier to get the change in coins. This can take sooooo long. So, I appreciate the Swedish way of payment. Mostly using credit cards and if it ever comes to the use of coins, make a much faster paying process.
Not only are paying processes fast and on time in Sweden, but also Swedes themselves. One of the first sentences that we exchange students got to hear on the arrival day: “Always be punctual! Better be 5 minutes early and don’t be a minute late. This might seem rude!” Oops, I still have to work on my sense of time. Though punctuality is not only a stereotype of the Swedish society. Also, Germans are known for being punctual. But come on…who can always be on time?! At home, we take it the other way around – not being 5 minutes early, but rather 5 minutes late. However, the Swedish sense of punctuality might seem strict at the first sight. And yes, it’s true: Teachers start their lesson exactly on time. But during class time, there’s always at least a 15-minute-break. As my current teacher keeps saying: “I think we all need some minutes for getting a coffee and checking our social media accounts.” How satisfying! He knows what students really need!
Talking about teaching brings me to the final musing about Sweden: I’m impressed by Swedes English skills! Seriously! For sure, if you should ever travel to Germany or other countries in Europe, people will only stare at you if you talk to them in English. The fact that kids adopt English in grundskolor at an early age and that mainly every TV channel is in English, makes it so easy to adopt it as a second language. And even almost every movie in cinema is shown in English (with Swedish subtitles).
In general, I think as an exchange student you can’t pick a better country for an experience abroad. Despite all the little difficulties in the beginning, we got used to all the typical Swedish things that might have felt strange in the beginning. Not only knowing about the difference between Mellanmjölk and Filmjölk right now; we also know about fika, Systembolaget and Swedish punctuality. And shit always happens at least once. We’ll never ever have yoghurt in the coffee again. Still, one thing I’m missing out on is to try Surströmming – although I’m not sure if this is really worth the experience. 😉
Photo: Martin Lindow