Adjusting to life in Sweden


The dictionary definition for this is “very strange; bizarre; unusual; unexpected, or not natural”. I often get called weird – usually by friends that say it almost as a compliment. And I take it as such. I like to be different; to be weird. It means I am not like everyone else, right?


This one is more difficult. We hear the word “foreigner” and immediately have this preconceived picture of what that may be. I am South African – we all look like foreigners to someone, as we have people from all over the globe. For me, the term “foreigner” has always been a way to refer to tourists. Listening to news, you can argue this term refers to people not belonging in your country. Then you move to Sweden and it all makes sense. I’m not saying every Swede conforms to the stereotypical “Swedish” look, but I know for a fact it is clear that I am a foreigner. I look different, I sound different and I think different.

Frances Mayes – “Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign. ”

We all live in this little cocoon. Your own little world. As we step into new places – new jobs, new cities, new countries – we expand our understanding of just how different we all are. You think you have it all figured out. The way we do it is how it is done everywhere. Then you realise that on this other side of the globe they do things completely opposite to what you are used to – and it works.

We can call it strange…

Depending on where you are from you might find them driving on the “wrong” side of the road or using the metric system – and this will be weird for you. Personally, these don’t matter much to me. Yes it is different, but this is a fact we have been familiar with for very long. I’ve mentioned some habits that you form here in Sweden in my previous post, 70 Days in Sweden. When I just arrived, most of these things seemed ludicrous. It is extremely antisocial to be stuck on your phone – staring at it as you walk to the bus, ride the bus, get off the bus… you get my point. Now, it makes sense. The bus is one of those places you have to “kill time” – it is literally a means to an end.

There are a lot of things that us as foreigners might find strange. Most Swedes I’ve come across in a public setting are not too keen on talking to strangers. However, this is not a set-in-stone rule – stuck in the same crowded bus where the door doesn’t want to close, and the lady next to you might jokingly comment on it (you probably might not understand her, but you will know she is joking, as she is laughing). Swedes don’t necessarily apologise for bumping into someone, especially on public transport. It’s crowded, and you have limited time to get on or off…

Then there is the concept of being cashless. As a born and bred South African this one threw me. If you don’t have cash back home, you might struggle at some shops. You don’t have coins for the car guard and you need to return the 20 bucks you owe your friend for the drinks they paid for last weekend. In Sweden there is “Swish” and a lot of stores actually specify they are cash free. It’s different. It is also difficult to do without a Swedish bank account that I can use for internet banking and Swish (which I still need to figure out).

But is it so different?

After the initial “what?” moments, you start seeing the similarities. You realise that the person next to you at the bus stop probably won’t look up at you, but if you would ask them for directions or to help you find the right bus, they will help you with incredible sincerity. I was standing at a very busy terminal this weekend; everyone scurrying past each other on their phones, headphones in their ears. This guy came rushing past the crowd, tripped and fell. Everyone around him suddenly stopped, came out of their ‘bubbles’ and helped him up and out of the street. They helped him straighten out and pick his things up, and then everyone continued again with their day.

For me, a very common question is “but how do you find the food?” – personally I don’t find it much different that in South Africa. Meat is expensive, alcohol is extremely expensive (comparing to back home) and “organic” is a big thing. Lactose free milk, ecological veggies and soda’s are quite expensive (which at least in my case is getting me to scale down on those super unhealthy treats). In restaurants, even fast food places, normal water is usually free. So, I find it… healthy. But not in a “ugh, which green smoothie are you drinking again today?” way – more wholesome. The foods you like or even love in a less serious-illness-causing form.

So is it difficult to settle in Sweden?

Short answer: no.

I don’t find it difficult at all – I suppose it depends on your affinity to change. You can buy the same sort of things at your local stores that you can find anywhere else – you just need to explore the different stores a bit to find your favourite. Most public signs are given in English, or in the few cases it is not, you can usually deduce what it tells you. Trains will typically give announcements in Swedish and English, and if not you can ask anyone around you and they will try to explain.

That being said, there are some things you have to keep an open mind to. I know every site you read and person you ask will refer to Sweden as being perfectly “English-friendly”. If you come from a native English-speaking country (so UK, USA, Canada, Australia… you get the picture), you might find that you want to disagree with this. Although navigating won’t be a nightmare, keep in mind that Swedes aren’t all native English-speakers. This is a second language, and most people will be completely proficient. I have found some older people that cannot speak to or understand you at all – they will smile and politely make you realise that they can’t help you. In general though, the Swedes will try and figure out what you are saying even if it takes a bit longer. This just leaves the challenge of shopping with all labels being printed in Swedish. Tip: Google translate has a function where you take a photo of the text, and then select all text to be translated. This will help that you don’t buy too many wrong items. Worst case, just ask a shop assistant – they are unbelievably helpful!

The weather is something to get used to, but they have a saying about that: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. So I am still in the process of figuring out the clothing issue, but in general the weather isn’t that bad. It’s cold. And wet (well, at least here in Gothenburg). And it gets dark early. I think the trick is to just find a way to see those in a positive light – personally I love the rain, and the sun is usually too bright for my eyes, so it is just the cold I have to get used to.

At the end of the day, remember that you are a foreigner. You are allowed to not get the whole recycling thing yet, to forget your umbrella and get completely drenched and to take the tram in the wrong direction. You are even allowed to complain about the bad weather. I mean, I’ve been freezing for weeks and the locals are now pointing out that it is getting colder. It is part of the fun. Just don’t let anything get you down, and if does meet up with a friend for a drink (even if it is over Skype).

Let me know if you had any similar experiences and how you are dealing with settling in your new city.

Take care,


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