Pontoons or piers
Any pond or lake in Sweden bigger than a football pitch will have its own pontoon and whenever I see one, its wooden platform leading my eye out invitingly towards the deeper water, it always brings an involuntary smile to my face.
Swimming in fresh water is one of life’s simple pleasures, and Sweden’s piers do celebrate that, but they also demonstrate how Swedes work collectively. Piers are almost always well-maintained, but are rarely owned by anyone. Despite this, they’re always free to use. This is not how things work back in my home country of the UK, and it’s a fantastic thing.
The pontoon at Richard Orange’s local lake. Photo: Mia Orange
Overloaded box bikes
I suspect some in Sweden would dismiss box bikes or box bikes, as a marker of the country’s smug, left-of-centre middle class. But even after owning my own battered and ancient example for nigh on a decade, seeing one can still make me break out into a smile.
To amuse me, they need to be overloaded. It could be a gaggle of kids of different ages without a seatbelt in sight, a towering piece of furniture, a joyful-looking 20-something, or an enormous dog.
To me, there’s something wonderfully free about box bikes. A life with fewer cars, slightly chaotic, a little bit hippy but still very sensible.
A cargo bike, although not quite overloaded enough to qualify. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se
A well-tooled utility belt
Sweden is a country of engineers and practical people and nothing exemplifies this more than the utility belts, often incorporated into work trousers, worn by the legions of prosperous-looking electricians, carpenters, builders and other workmen or entrepreneurs – down where I live in Skåne anyway.
They will have, at the very least, a screwdriver, a hammer, a Mora knife, an extendable ruler, and a carpenter’s pencil, all neatly organised and at the ready.
For me, it’s evidence of the fact that even after years of growing inequality, Sweden’s blue collar workers still enjoy comparatively higher wages than their counterparts in many other countries in Europe, or in the US or Australia. It’s a sign of the dignity and professionalism of the country’s manual workers, and that can only be a good thing.
They start to appear at some point in March or April. People standing absolutely still on the pavement or sitting with their back against a wall, eyes closed, just enjoying the sensation of warm sun on their faces.
Even for someone from cloudy, overcast Britain, this is quite strange behaviour, so it must seem wildly foreign to someone from a sunny country like Italy or Spain.
While Sweden’s winters can be cold, grey and depressing, it can seem worth it, almost anyway, when everything and everyone springs back into life in the spring. For me, it’s the sunworshippers, rather than the first spring flowers, that mark the moment this quickening has begun.
Valstugor or “election cabins”
The highlight of every election year for me is visiting the makeshift villages of vestugoror election cabins, that spring up in town and city squares across the country.
Anyone can just wander up and just start chatting to the political activists about whatever political issue they want to talk about, local, regional or national, and very often the parties’ most senior local politicians will be there.
I’ve witnessed the local head of the far-right Sweden Democrats passionately debating an overexcited crowd of youths with immigrant backgrounds, the head of the local Moderates brutally disown his party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate, and Social Democrats discuss how pessimistic they feel ahead of the coming vote.
For me, it’s a sign of the openness of Swedish society and of how impressively healthy and alive the country’s democracy is at a local level. I always walk away from spending my lunch break touring the cabins beaming.
Valstugor or ‘election cabins’ for the Sweden Democrats and Christian Democrats ahead of Sweden’s 2022 election. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
There’s nothing like witnessing a gleaming 1965 Pontiac Bonneville convertible cruising along a Swedish country road to put a smile on your face. I’m not a car enthusiast, but I appreciate passion when I see it, and the sheer incongruity of seeing American cars from the 1950s and 1960s cars on the roads of Sweden always amuses me.
Sweden’s ragger subculture, which is based around an obsession with 1950s American culture and cars, is fascinating. It’s almost entirely based in the countryside, so you only really encounter it when you leave the big cities.
I like to try and get a look at who the person is who has devoted so much of their spare time to renovating and maintaining their beautiful vehicle.
READ ALSO: Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South?
Power Big Meet in Västerås, the world’s largest meet for vintage American cars. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
The mayor on a bike
Since foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death 2003 while shopping in upmarket NK department store, Sweden’s leading national politicians have tended to travel with security.
But the same is not the case at a regional and local level, and here in Malmö you’ll often see the mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh going from place to place completely unsupervised on her bicycle.
As with vestugor, for me it’s a sign of the openness of Swedish democracy.
Toddlers in winter overalls
There is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothes. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” If you’ve spent a winter in Sweden as a foreigner, you’ve almost certainly heard this Swedish saying over and over again.
It’s true, and particularly true of the gangs of toddlers you’ll see out in the snow in parks and preschool playgrounds across the country, wearing the winter overalls that look almost like little space suits.
You may be spending the dark Swedish winter largely cooped up in well-heated apartments, but it’s heartening to see that they, at least, are not. And that always makes me smile.
Coffee mornings (or afternoons for that matter)
The local village café near where we are building our summer house has a little sign on the wall informing the clientele of its the breakfast club, or “breakfast club”, explaining who were the first locals to attend and which table they sit at.
If you get there for its 8am opening, you’ll soon see the guy who runs the local plumbing firm, an electrician, and perhaps the odd farmer, take their place at the table and begin gabbling on about local matters, discussing politics, all in the distinctive mellow rural accent of southeastern Skåne.
These sorts of gatherings happen across the country. You’ll see a bunch of old ladies in their 80s and 90s meeting over cakes and coffee in the more traditional types of confectioneryand it gladdens the heart.
Killjoy festive news stories
Whenever it’s time for a Swedish celebration, such as Christmas, Easter, Valborg, New Year, I’m always on the look out for the killjoy festive news stories that are a grand, if little recognised, Swedish media tradition.
READ ALSO: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?
“Why Christmas is a dangerous time for your pets”, “The particle pollution caused by Valborg bonfires”, “How Sweden’s Christmas herring are dying out”. Whether they come up with a totally new angle or refresh an old classic, no festive period ever passes without a little injection of misery from Sweden’s newspapers and broadcasters.
For me, it says something about the Swedish reluctance to ever really enjoy anything absolutely and without reserve, a hangover perhaps from the country’s Lutheran heritage.
“Alarm on chemicals in Swedish crayfish.” A typically miserable headline for a Swedish festive story. Photo: Screenshot
This might perhaps be something limited to people who live in Skåne, but the wide fields of bright yellow rapeseed flowers you come across when driving around Sweden in the early summer always blow me away. You come over the crest of a hill and there it is. If you throw in a whitewashed medieval church, and a few wind turbines rotating majestically on the horizon, it can be a breathtaking sight.
A field of rapeseed in Skåne, southern Sweden. Photo: Jerker Andersson/imagebank.sweden.se
The cultural auntor “culture lady”
Once you develop an eye for them, Sweden’s cultural auntsor “culture ladies”, are instantly recognisable and everywhere, with their baggy patterned clothes in rough cotton or home-knitted wool, brightly coloured arty looking glasses, and chunky jewellery.
They are gently ridiculed in Sweden as another manifestation of the smug, liberal middle classes, but they are also celebrated as the core audience that keeps Sweden’s cultural world alive. It’s the cultural aunts who buy the theatre tickets, go to the literature readings, and visit the art galleries in Sweden’s cities and towns.
In a country that I sometimes find a bit too practically minded, I’m glad they exist, and a lot of my friends, though still in their 40s, are well on the way to cultural aunt status.
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