However much I have lived abroad and worked with people from all over the world, I am still painfully Swedish, especially when it comes to my relationship to weather. And I am not only talking about going for a walk in rain without grasping the absurdity such a stupid enterprise.
I am talking about the fact that right now, it is a beautiful afternoon in May – May, and I am upset I cannot leave the house. It is 13 degrees (Celsius) above zero, almost sunny, and I am missing out. (The reason, sleeping children.)
I happen to live with a Frenchman
This has put my ideas of what is perfectly rational, into new light. For example, one sunny Saturday in late September a few years ago, I was told that this very day would be the the perfect chance to clean our flat, as we would be able to spot the dirt better in the bright light. I was stunned. I still am, looking back. What madness!
To me, that very day was our last chance to soak up the last few sun rays before Stockholm entered an everlasting foggy darkness for the coming five, six, seven, eight months.
I ended up spending the day outside, as I believed was appropriate. By myself.
This was not the first time
Two months earlier, he spent a week complaining about the fact that the local park was not being used – when we were finally enjoying temperatures above 25. Such beautiful days, he claimed, were perfect for hanging out with your friends, perhaps having a picnic, playing games. Where was everyone?! I knew, of course, and I told him, that they had all escaped the city.
They were enjoying their summer navigating the archipelago in small, uncomfortable sailing boats, riding old, rusty bikes on dusty gravel roads in the countryside, picking berries in forests full of mosquitoes, swimming in freezing lakes, camping (mosquitoes again). He did not understand, he still does not fully understand.
Surely not all Swedes can enjoy such things
But that is not the point. I attempted to explain to him how I – and my co-patriots function, when it comes to weather, seasons and landscape.
Whether people enjoy the beach, the forest, or camping or not is irrelevant, the important question is whether it is possible or not.
From a non-Swedish point of view, the better the weather – the more possibilities to choose from. From a Swedish perspective though, this is an irrational, unproductive approach. Choosing is irrelevant. Instead, we determine what to do with our time according to a pyramid-like structure. At the very top, you find what is really rare – good weather, and the sort of activities that come with that. Mostly related to swimming, sunbathing, wearing as little as possible, leaving civilisation behind.
Further down, you have little colder, or wetter weather, occurring more often and suitable for many more activities, often in an urban setting.
At the bottom, many, too many days with bad weather, when there is not much else to do than stay at home and entertain yourself the best your can. Think screens. There is no coincidence Swedes have always been in the forefront when it comes to media and information technology. We have the highest number of internet users, and online proficiency, in the world. Because it is cold.
With that in mind, most Swedes choose the most appropriate activity for the day according the principle of making the most of it. We aim as high as possible in the pyramid. If today happens to be one of these very few days at the top when the weather is actually ok, it is unacceptable to stay inside – there will be so many other opportunities for that.
The bottom of the pyramid is very wide. You are not likely to complain that you did not get the chance to watch enough Netflix this year.
Believe me, there are many months of the year that will give you the chance to catch up on all important and unimportant TV series you follow.
The terror of being stuck at the bottom
We are so impregnated with this idea that I have, on many occasions, heard Swedes telling me they were experiencing panic attacks when having to stay inside, or in town, on a nice day, because of such mundane reasons as work, illness, waiting for a delivery. They describe the experience as being imprisoned.
Let’s not forget to blame Luther
On top of that, not exploring the highest point in the pyramid is considered somehow immoral. Your average, contemporary Swede subconsciously believes they do the nation a favour by strengthening their bodies and souls through exposing them to the elements. If asked, they would probably draw some short-cut to the ‘Vikings’, and with that justify their behaviour as perfectly normative and superior.
In fact, enjoying picnics in the wild, picking mushrooms and skinny dipping are not inherent phenomena to the Nordic way of living, but less than two centuries old. It is a result of the 19:th century doctrine of national romanticism, when the Swedish self-image was defined as natural landscape.
We do not identify ourselves with historical feats or defeats. We believe our soul stem from deep fir forests, blooming fields, clear lakes.
We must also remember that although claiming to be secularised to the teeth, most Swedes still carry some Lutheran luggage. This background in terms of values and relationship to work and leisure probably plays a significant role in adding this moralising aspect.
Relaxing inside is something you are allowed to do after having been outside, working our working out.
Even on late winter nights, you will see a bunch of completely mad Swedes going for a run.
The real art is to outsmart the circumstances
One of the most intriguing aspects of this, is the Nordic fascination for finding wormholes in this system. That is, constructing contexts where you can enjoy a higher position in the pyramid than normally made possible, according to the circumstances.
The (originally Finnish) sauna makes it possible for you to go swimming in extremely cold water during times where such activity would otherwise be impossible. The month of February can give some extremely beautiful, but cold days, reaching temperatures below -20 C in blazing sunshine. Such days are very popular for winter sports, and I have observed such pleasure taken in setting up a barbecue on lake ice, for skaters to snack on hot dogs.
For someone from a place where hot weather is abundant, such practice may seem unnecessary, too much effort, extravagant. Surely, it is more convenient to have your lunch at your kitchen table, or in a restaurant?
We are surprisingly sentimental
With weather conditions having such an impact on our experience, the Nordic way of enjoying the
environment has less to do with direct pleasure or beauty, and more with a subtle appreciation of phenomenological, or sensual qualities. You might wander about the point of swimming in a cold lake outdoors when there are heated indoor pools available. For a Swede, the prioritisation is easy.
The former experience is heavily poetic, almost spiritual in nature, perhaps starting with a silent walk through twilit forest of fragrant conifers, to reach silky black lake water gently brushing against granite rock still warm from the sun. We take enormous pleasure in paying attention to all these details. A public swimming pool is disappointing in comparison, lacking complexity and dimensions.
Painful planning ahead
Already in January, you will find Swedes sweating over unreliable long-term weather forecasts, to determine what is the most favourable allocation of their five weeks of holiday. The primary aim, of course, is to be working rainy days and not working on sunny days.
Looking forward to the Swedish summer is a painful exercise in calculated risk-taking. The winner enjoys as much sun as possible. The loser is missing out of the Swedish sun.
If you spent last year in Sweden, you know that not going abroad for the summer can be a cold and miserable experience. Thus, package holidays to Mediterranean beaches is a safe card. At the same time, there is nothing as depressing as returning from a week in say, Spain, and realising that the weather in Sweden has been good. It does not matter if the weather has been good in Spain too, what is important is that you have missed your fair share of precious Nordic sunshine.
Should you join the movement?
The Swedish outdoor culture may seem extreme to you, and you have all my sympathies. Like my husband, you may choose to stay inside and clean when it is sunny. Still, after a few years, like him, you will probably start craving fresh air more than anything else. If you would like to do it like a Swede, you might need to change your strategies, though, and learn how to find your opportunities when you least expect them. The key to this approach is rather straightforward:
Make sure you own and wear adequate clothing. Different seasons require different materials. Always pack a bag with more layers.
Hot drinks help before, after and during wormhole activities.
Do not expect fast-food pleasure. (If a Mediterranean beach is a burger, a swim in a Swedish lake is a delicate starter) Explore the outdoors with all your senses. Pay attention.
Maybe this sounds crazy after seeing such lack of spontaneity this country presents, but you need to be ready to change your plans, according to the weather.
I suspect that you worry your boss will think you are not hard-working enough, if you leave work a little earlier on a sunny Friday afternoon. It will be fine. Let’s go.
The most educational thing you could do, is to join a Swede for a stay in their summer house. Read more on my blog on what to expect.
Written by Sofi Tegsveden Devaux
After many years of international experience, Sofi now runs her own company, Bee Swedish, specialising in Swedish language, culture and communication. She believes that Swedish culture is much more complex than most newbies, oldies – and especially Swedes themselves, realize. Her work aims to create mutual understanding and bridges for collaboration through curiosity, a critical mind-set and a sense of humour. She hopes that her blog posts can provide some useful insights into the particularities of the Swedish mind.