First Impressions of Sweden – The Newbie Guide to Sweden

What’s it like to relocate from Ottawa, Canada to Lund, Sweden during a pandemic? To be honest, it was one of the most pleasant journeys I’ve ever made.

With nine suitcases, four carry-on bags, four personal bags and one car seat, my family and I took three planes, one train and one taxi ride. By the end of it, we were so confused with having transited four countries with four different languages and four different currencies, we were just glad to be in Lund!

The journey

Our life in suitcases: moving to Sweden! 

The journey itself went super smooth. We had so much help from all airport employees since there were so few travellers and they all wanted to help. We got to stretch out on every leg of the journey and there were more than enough seats in the terminals and on the train.

There were handwashing stations everywhere, and 95% of the travellers and staff were wearing masks.

It was the best time to travel in the worst time in history.

We have now been in Lund for four weeks now and here are some personal observations:

Covid-19?

Bus sign to tell passengers to physically distance

What?! Where?! Well, let’s just say I feel like I’m living in a different dimension here. Compared to where I have just come from (Canada), things seem very relaxed here. I know there have been restrictions and recommendations for citizens to physically distance and work-from-home, but to be totally honest unless I think about it, sometimes I forget there is a pandemic raging across the globe.

I can count the number of people on my one hand who I’ve seen wearing a mask. There are some reduced hours of service in some stores and many have hand sanitizer at the counter or entrance-ways. Boarding at the front of busses is not allowed anymore. Some tables in cafes are ‘out of use’ to allow spacing and more distancing.

As a family rule, we continue to wear our masks on public transport. Instinctively, whenever we meet someone, I tend to hide my hands behind my back so I won’t have to shake hands. I try to stand further back when talking to someone and I’ve got my kids trained to wash their hands all the time, whenever possible.

Still, reading all the news back in Canada and around the world, I have to remind myself that just because Sweden has taken a different approach doesn’t mean the virus doesn’t exist here.

I feel strange yet more normal, guilty yet less stressed.

Pace of life

Beautiful street in Lund

Maybe it’s the long daylight hours, maybe because it’s summer or maybe that’s just the way it is here. But life seems steadier, less hurried and overall just more even-keeled. I think it has a lot to do with the cycling culture here. When bikes outnumber vehicles, the pace of traffic is less hectic and chaotic. Motorists must give way to pedestrians and cyclists.

Cycle paths are EVERYWHERE and often not part of the road that cars are on, so I can cycle freely and not worry. I’m not also shouting at my kids to stay closer to the curb and pay attention to the cars sharing the lane. It is mainly flat here in Skåne, so it is truly a pleasure to bike here. Not as a form of exercise (although I can tell it’s already helping my heart, health and general mood), but as a form of transportation. 

Bikes

Bike riding just on the outskirts of Lund amongst the beautiful fields

Big sturdy bike locks are a MUST here. Six days after we bought my son a brand new bike, it got stolen. In broad daylight, two thieves cut the lock and rode it away. There was a witness but she was unable to stop them. This was the day before my son’s birthday too! We filed a police report but I’m doubtful it will be recovered. 

Lund is notorious for bike thefts apparently. There are a lot of bikes to choose from that’s for sure, but a new shiny bike with a small lock is an easy target. Lesson learned. We bought him another bike, a second-hand one that definitely looks second-hand. Plus we got a bigger, sturdier lock. 

Swedish

Family with the LUND sign

Living in another language is exhausting. I haven’t started to dream in Swedish yet, but from the moment I step outside, I am bombarded with Swedish signage and conversation. Total immersion is great, but it is exhausting. I understand maybe 5% of what people say, but that’s mainly due to contextual-understanding and not actually understanding the individual words they are saying.

At the stores, I always choose to go to a human cashier (as opposed to the self-scan option) just to get some practice of trying to converse in Swedish.

A few days ago, we bought some picnic food at the grocery store and I wanted to ask the cashier for a knife so we could cut our cheese. Instead of saying “har du en kniv?“, I totally messed it up and ended up saying something along the lines of “I have a knife.” When she clearly didn’t understand me, I just kept repeating the word “kniv” to get my main point across. My husband thought she was about to press the emergency button to summon the security guards on me. Lucky I’m so innocent looking. 

Biggest disadvantage to not knowing Swedish: not being able to navigate the automatic telephone menus when you call a company or store.

Tip: press 0 first, if that doesn’t work press 1, then 2, then 3… eventually you’ll get a human.   

Calendar and Schedules

In Sweden, they number each week of the year. For example, today we are in Week 30 and Christmas is Week 52. After you get your head around which week is what month/date, I think it’s a practical and efficient way of scheduling.

Things

Things are built to last here. There is little evidence of cutting corners when it comes to construction or building materials. Green alternatives are the norm, not the exception.

Aesthetically-pleasing designs create a feel-good environment which makes people happier and calmer. I think Sweden hits some of those winning points: thoughtful urban planning & entwining nature with man-made structures & simple, functional furniture = life that is easy to navigate and pleasant to inhabit.

Personal number

Getting your personnummer (PN) is essential. We were lucky and received our PNs within 2 weeks after applying. Basically, it’s your identity in Sweden and after you have your PN, you exist here and will be able to access all other services. The best thing is, all your information is in one central database. No more filling out multiple forms for various things.

Want to sign your kids up for summer camp or register for a night course? Want to get a library card or get a points reward card from the local Coop? Are you moving and want to inform all government authorities so they know? Just give them your PN and nothing else. Too easy.

Kids

Sweden is made for kids. We have found free summer activities all over Skåne for kids, from board game clubs to outdoor concerts. We literally live within a couple of minutes to a dozen playgrounds. The selection is mind-boggling.

Personal space

People respect each other’s “bubble” and won’t enter that sacred sphere. I guess physical distancing was already happening here before it was mandatory around the world.

Silence is ok

In day to day interactions with locals and friends we’ve made, there can be moments of complete silence within a conversation and that is absolutely ok and not at all weird. It may feel uncomfortable at first but if you learn to embrace the silence, you shall be rewarded with a more meaningful conversation and not just fluffy words to fill the airspace.

Dairy products

Sour Yoghurt in coffee: Be Warned!!!

Buying milk is not so simple. First of all, the dairy fridge in the grocery store is humongous. I have to budget at least 15 minutes of shopping time to standing in front of the dizzying array of dairy products just to decipher everything.

All I normally want is regular cow’s milk, so it should be pretty simple, right? Well, don’t do what we did and purchase sour yoghurt for your morning coffee. But if you do, you’ll never make the same mistake twice!

Public transport

A city that has good, reliable public transport is a city worth living in. Public transport is excellent here. We never have to wait more than 10 minutes for a train or connecting bus. Allowing citizens to move freely and easily creates a sense of freedom and ease so that we can focus on the more important things, like buying the right kind of milk.

Fika

Fika is serious business. Sure, everyone has hectic schedules with kids, work and the usual obligations of life. But never, ever mess with fika. It is like an institutional right to have coffee and cake every afternoon. A kind of national pause in the day to reset and regroup with friends.

Candy

Candy store in Lund, marvelling at all the selection!

Oh my goodness. The variety of candy here is unbelievable. The shapes, smells, colours, textures, flavours, it’s all really overwhelming. There are dedicated candy aisles in the grocery stores usually right near the cash.

There are two candy stores in Lund that we know of so far, called Sweet and Hemmakväll, and they are side by side. We went into one and my kids went into a hypnotic state of absolute CRAZY. They couldn’t believe such a place could even exist. Funnily enough, they didn’t ask to get any. I guess just being in such proximity to so much sugar was enough to get a sugar high.

Cheese

So. Much. Freakin’. Good. Cheese. All at affordable prices. That is all.

I can say that I am still going through the honeymoon stage of transitioning to a new country. Everything is new, interesting and different (in a good way).

I know there will be lows and annoyances as I continue to discover more about Swedish culture and life, but for now, life is pretty sweet.


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Bonnie Thornington on Github
Bonnie Thornington

Hej! My name is Bonnie and I’m a Chinese-Canadian who has lived/visited over 60 countries, most recently travelling with my family on our 42-foot sailboat for the past year from Canada down to the Bahamas. I love music, yoga, swimming in oceans and lakes and will try anything at least once. I am excited to be moving to Lund and look forward to immersing myself in Swedish culture – especially fika and lagom! Hope you enjoy my posts as I recount my experiences of relocating and settling into Swedish life during a pandemic!

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