A Pedacito Of A South African Adjusting To Swedish Culture
Updated: Jun 2
I moved to the other end of the planet when I was 28. Literally to the other end of the planet. A ”love refugee”, I fluttered off on my wings of love from South Africa to Sweden.
South Africa, 5th on the list of sunniest places on earth, to Sweden, where December offers an average of 26 hours of sunshine for the entire month.
Twenty-six hours of sunshine for the entire month.
That’s less than an hour of sunshine per day.
Whereas the long-term lack of sun for the greater part of the year has done my skin a lot of good (I have fewer wrinkles than many of my South African friends for example), it has played a significant role in the introverted and melancholic personality of the typical Swede.
Blessed with plenty of forests, lakes, and open spaces, the average Swede would rather walk, eat, and holiday alone. Privacy, peace, and quiet are deeply valued and have fuelled the substantial and lucrative yoga, meditation, and mindfulness sector. Not till ten years into my time in Stockholm did I even consider a spa weekend nor a yoga retreat.
My untamed, African restlessness kicked and screamed at The Big Calm. Surely they need more energy, not less? I remember being told by an American friend that ”it’s never cool to lose your cool in Sweden”. Oh, how right she was!
Whereas most countries will assist the person making the biggest noise first, in Sweden, the offending loud voice will simply be ignored and told to take a number and wait their turn. It’s not chance that makes Swedes good diplomats and mediators. Its culture.
Chit chat is not valued at all in this nordic country. Empty, pointless banter is to be avoided at all costs. This often includes saying ”good morning”, ”excuse me” or apologizing for inadvertently bumping into you or stepping on your toe.
Looking at a stranger in the eye is frowned upon unless you’re hitting on them at a social gathering and it’s never considered weird to have moments of total silence at dinner parties.
Used to chatting to anything on two legs from the petrol pump attendant, the guard at the gate, the parking meter guy, or the barman, it took me years not to feel offended when my friendliness was not reciprocated. It’s not personal though. It’s just culture.
The ability to be on time is a clear tell-tale sign separating the Swedes from the non-Swedes. Being late is not acceptable. Being ten minutes early, even to a dinner party, is. There is no such thing as ”fashionably late”. I can’t count the number of times I have greeted my guests in wet hair and a towel. It got so bad, that I eventually threatened my Swedish friends that I’d leave them out in the cold if they knocked on my door early.
These days, I’ve managed to get them to accept that a dinner invitation is not an appointment with their accountant or their lawyer. They’re not paying a per-minute rate to socialize! In contrast, South Africans are well-known for arriving late to social engagements, sometimes even an hour late if the invite is to braai (now there’s a word that you need to Google).
Finding a day and time to meet for a coffee with a Swede can be a challenge. It’s not rare to be penciled in for three weeks ahead for a ”spontaneous” meet-up. Swedes like to plan in advance, often have full calendars where rest and downtime are reserved (very healthy actually) and most holidays are booked and paid for at the very least a year in advance.
Being structured, organized, and on top of things is a way to the dream of peace and quiet. Unfortunately for me, as a die-hard Queen of Spontaneity, this has often meant a half-empty calendar and many Saturday nights in front of a TV.
Despite the perfect weather in South Africa and the relatively cheap cost of manual labor, most people don’t grow their own food. In contrast, Swedes enjoy nursing their own vegetable gardens from early springtime and harvesting their own produce.
The growing season is short (because of the lack of sun you see), so the enjoyment season is intense. Some of my best moments have been spent eating homemade apple pie or drinking homemade elderflower juice. I’ve picked berries in the forest, tasted wild raspberries, and plucked apples in late autumn.
I’ve learned to enjoy traditional food like pickled herring, pea soup, and deer steak with black wineberry jam (tastes better than it sounds!). Swedes enjoy the fruits of their own labor and have a knack for enjoying the simplicity of nature and its gifts.
I remember the look of disbelief from my sister when I mentioned that I’d been given a homemade apple pie as a gift for my birthday. In South Africa, the pie would’ve been bought from a shop, thrown into a bag, and not been given a second thought. The idea is to talk and socialize rather than eat.
All in all, Swedes have high expectations of themselves and what they offer. Little is left to chance and one is expected to deliver and to deliver well. There are no free rides which I guess is fair enough. It makes for a mature and capable society and a country that works. Having lived here for almost 3 decades,
I’ve finally become wiser and more deliberate; the edges of my solar-powered soul have merged with the somewhat gloomy Swedish yin psyche. We still don’t agree on most things, but we’re learning to find peace in our differences.
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