While climates in the Scandic countries (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark) can be harsh, it’s proven to have some of the happiest people in the world. As an American, there have been a few notable things that have struck me about Scandinavia upon my first few visits. It’s hard to recall now, as four years have passed since I first came to Sweden. Many things are becoming a more regular part of my life, but looking back, these were five first impressions about Scandinavia that struck me the most.
Keep the Sabbath holy. Sundays in Norway mean everything is closed. Traditionally, Sunday has been a day recognized in the Christian tradition as the Sabbath, or a day of rest, meant as a day for “God.” Yet, a majority of Norwegians and arguably most of the its Nordic counterparts, are agnostic, if not atheist. Therefore, in Norway, this day is really meant for outdoor activities. Since most of these countries spend the majority of the year wearing thick jackets, it is important to take advantage of nice weather when it happens. Norway hardly lacks in beautiful landscapes or clean air and Norwegians are quite active with their year-round sports.
If you want to attempt some shopping on Sunday in Norway, try petrol stations, flower shops or grocery stores that are smaller than 100m2. Keep in mind, hours are limited, selection is poor, and prices tend to be higher.
This is actually quite common in many other places in Europe still today. A girl from Germany told me she grew up accustomed to everything being closed on Sundays as well.
Red Days, Christianity, and Scandinavia. Sweden and the Nordic countries as a whole, take many Christian red days (public holidays). However, it is a safe bet that Christian holidays here are not ever about Christ. Easter isn’t about mourning Jesus’ death, rather it’s about painting eggs and eating candy. Christmas isn’t about celebrating the birth of Jesus, it’s about drinking schnapps and watching Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) on TV. Sweden also celebrates the evening or day before the actual holiday, like Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. Thus, I was a bit disappointed when I found that nothing happening on December 25th.
There are other Christian holidays like, trettondedag jul (Epiphany), which is the thirteen days after Christmas where people get a day to take down the decorations. Though I don’t understand the significance, I’m always grateful for another day off. Coming up soon is Ascension Day, which originally was to acknowledge the day Christ went back to Heaven…and still has yet to return.
Cohabitation and Sex Before Marriage. I was raised in what I would consider a conservative, Christian, American home. My parents have always valued purity before marriage and having children after being wed. Despite my departure from their religious beliefs, I grew up amongst many whom avoided mixing their dating and relationship escapades with their personal/family lives. I felt a really awkward upon my first visit to Sweden when I was allowed to knowingly share a room with my then boyfriend.
While people do move-in (cohabitate) in the states, many will wait to have children until after marriage. This article shares, “Young unmarried parents are statistically more likely to be poor, have emotional or behavioral problems and are less likely to do well in school.” This type of media casts a dark shadow to those who are unwed with children in the states.
When religious reasons failed, my parents started to mention the marriage failure rate for couples that move-in together before marriage. I grew up honestly believing a woman would get a successful career and good husband only if, she waited. My parents were as surprised as I’d been when they found out that my boyfriend’s parents had waited two kids and 15 years before finally tying the knot.
This is rather unheard of where I’m from. For those of you wondering, I am not from some small town in the Midwest either. Having lived in Sweden for a while now, I believe that sex and cohabitation do not ruin marriage.
However, when I came back in 2011, I remember wondering how all the young mothers managed to support their children and still maintain a job?
Now enters, the social system.
Everyone is included. The Swedish social system. In American culture, mothers are allowed to take time off during the months before and after childbirth, but they will not normally receive any paid compensation. My sister worked up until the days before she was due and returned promptly 90 days after birth. This is normal in the states, but in Sweden, it’s an entirely different ballgame.
Everyone is taken care of with the social system. Prenatal care and giving birth is basically free. This sort of makes me feel reluctant to have a child anywhere else, even if I am not in love with Scandinavia. Sweden also provides maternity and paternity leave, with a total of 480 paid leave days per child. It is rather discouraging to read this about the high costs in America.
In early April, I sliced off the tip of my ring finger cutting a sweet potato. I had to go to ER and have gone back twice a week to have my bandages changed. 4 hours, a few shots, and some antibiotics later, the bill I received a month later was in the sum of 450 SEK (54 USD).
There will never be a potato famine in Scandinavia. A stark feature to every holiday bord (table) is the potato. While I have seen the potato mashed, boiled, smashed, baked and fried, in Sweden it is most popularly featured: boiled with the skin.
With at least 11 varieties of potato at the market, one can easily get lost.
On a visit to Norway, I found a bag of potatoes buried in the back of the vegetable bin. Upon opening the bag, I saw that they’d started sprouting. It immediately became clear. With the cold, dry, long winters and days with lengthy or short amounts of daylight, it is not easy cultivating a variety of produce in this country. But, potatoes will probably never be scarce because it seems they can grow for themselves in the harshest of conditions and the weather here is not warm. I’ll just wait until conditions get bad before I resort to eating them.
All in all, every country I have visited (and keep in mind, I still feel there have been too few) have always been an anthropological experience. Despite the horrible weather, that I just cannot get used to, people do seem be able to achieve a real work-life balance. With higher salaries and high taxes to match, I feel too much goes to the social system, but no one is left out of healthcare. I do question if Scandinavians are really that happy (many people spend their long holidays in warmer, southern parts of the world or just generally dreaming of warmer days), but it seems Scandinavian countries still rank among the happiest countries in the world.