Fitting In In Sweden
By Susan Farewell
More than once, friends have told me they felt like outsiders—even voyeurs—when traveling in Sweden. I've heard some of them complain that they found Swedes hard to get to know. As I am part Swedish and have many friends and family there, hearing this always bothers me. Especially because more than the scenery, the food, the history, it’s the Swedes themselves that I feel make the country such a pleasure to visit.
So how do you NOT feel like an outsider when visiting?
Below, I have provided some recommendations that--if followed--will change how you see Sweden and how the Swedes see you.
• Don’t go with a large group. I can say this about many places, but no where do I recommend it more than in Sweden. When you travel with the herd, it’s “you” and “them.” No mixing. Just like cliques in middle school. If you’ve taken a cruise to the Baltic capitals, do yourselves a favor and break away from your fellow passengers the moment the gangplank hits the cobblestones.
• Take trains. Swedes routinely travel by train and while your fellow passengers may not exactly be chit-chatting as you charge through the Larsson scenery, you’re much likelier to exchange smiles or have shared moments than if you’re cut off in a rented car. You can find fares and schedules and purchase Eurail passes at RailEurope.com.
• Stop asking for American breakfasts. I’ve spotted more than one American looking truly perplexed at a breakfast buffet in Sweden. Indeed, tubed caviar does seem a bit odd. And pickled herring? But in general, Swedish products produced locally including a mix of home-baked breads and Knäckebröd (Wasa crackers), cheeses, oatmeal, milk, yogurt, fine sausages, hams, honey, and homemade muesli make up amazing breakfast buffets in hotels everywhere.
• Speak English at a normal speed. Most of the Swedes you meet--especially those under the age of 60--understand English. In fact, they may have a better English vocabulary than you do, as they start studying the language in elementary school. So no need to talk in staccato.
• Don’t talk so loud. Whenever I’m in Sweden, if there’s an American within range, I’ll often hear her before I see her. While not all Americans talk loudly, in general, Americans talk louder than Swedes when in public. If you don’t want to stand out, lower your voice.
• Respect queues. When in Sweden, do as the Swedes. Play by the rules. You don’t cut lines here. Wait your turn.
• Be active. Swedes are forever hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing and just walking. By getting out and joining them, you’ll inevitably meet some. Whether it’s kayaking through the bridges in Stockholm, hiking on an island in the archipelago, or biking throughout the cities, the opportunities abound.
• Stay in a summer cottage. Just about every Swede has a summer house (or access to one). And by summer house, this means a rustic simple escape usually near the water (either on an island or along the Baltic shore) or in the mountains. They’ll spend a good chunk of the summer at these small homes fishing, swimming, boating, hiking and just plain relaxing with friends and family.
Luckily you don’t have to know a Swede to dip into the experience as there are bed and breakfasts in beautiful places all around the country. Our favorite is a hostel on Finnhamn in the archipelago. You reach the island by ferry from Stockholm and stay in very simple summer cottages (pictured here: no electricity or plumbing --bathrooms/showers are in the main building). It’s you and many summering Swedes soaking up rays, swimming, hiking, boating and breaking up the days with hearty meals served outdoors.
And specifically in Stockholm:
• Spend some time in Södermalm. As far as Medieval Old Towns go, Gamla Stan is as ideal as you’ll ever find—every square centimeter perfectly preserved or restored. While you certainly should not miss exploring its narrow streets, allow plenty of time to discover Södermalm, a “borough” in central Stockholm. Originally an agricultural and then a working class district, you’ll find wood cottages here that date back to the 17th century and many 18th-century buildings. “Söder” as it is customarily shortened to, is home to a more alternative, bohemian culture. Lots of great restaurants and cafes. It also offers the best views of Stockholm’s skyline from atop its sheer cliffs.
• Stay in a boutique hotel. For me, part of the Swedish experience is staying in a boutique hotel which offers maximum comfort, style and efficiency. It’s also where I’m likely to find more Swedes than tourists. Tops on my list is the Hotel Skeppsholmen, a 300-year-old building on an island in the middle of the city. This is a cake-and-eat-it-too location: you feel like you’re in the quiet of the countryside, yet you are within sight of (and steps from) downtown Stockholm.
Another favorite is the Nobis Hotel on Norrmalmstorg (in the classic Swedish version of the game “Monopoly,” Norrmalmstorg is their Boardwalk). It’s made of up two magnificent 19th-century stone buildings, one of which was dramatically thrust into the international news limelight in 1973, when a bank robber held four people hostage in a drama that lasted 6 days. The “Normalmstorg Drama” gave birth to the expression "Stockholm Syndrome" which relates to the bond that develops between a hostage and his abductor.
Today, I would not mind being held hostage in this exquisite downtown beauty--especially in the company of some fun-loving Swedes.
Contact us to help plan your trip to Sweden and elsewhere in Scandinavia. We can handle all the details including air, hotels, restaurants, guided tour and train tickets.
Photo Credits: From top to bottom, Henrik Trygg/Imagebank.Sweden.se; Melker Dahlstrand/Imagebank.Sweden.se; others by Susan Farewell.