If you have followed the blog, you will know that we spent Christmas in Sweden. Just to give you a bit of intercultural background, Christmas is to Swedes what Thanksgiving is to Americans, New Year (or spring Festival) to Japanese or Chinese, or Diwali to Indians. Even though most people are no longer practicing religion actively, the holiday is a huge thing. It is actually much deeper ingrained into the Swedish psyche than Christianity, despite the country having been officially Christian for more than 1000 years. Christmas, as it is celebrated in Sweden, had been celebrated in much the same way for more than two thousand years before that.
So just like the US during Thanksgiving, Bangkok during Songkran, or Greece during Easter, the stores are closed, the hospitals are run by a bare-bones staff, restaurants open only after the holidays, and everything is centered about staying with the family and enjoying traditional activities. Before the country was Christian, this involved feasting by eating lots of pork and getting drunk.
The feast was actually preceded by starving and the reason the pig was slaughtered was that the male pig had done his job and the female pig was pregnant, so he was now a liability. And it is dark for at least 16 of the days 24 hours.
Well, that was a bit of a digression. The kids enjoyed the abundance. We all did, a little too much. I had to buy new trousers and they still did not fit. The kids are growing vertically, and I should not be growing horizontally. But that is what happens during Christmas.
I used to fly a lot, but this time it felt even more strange. We popped into a plane in Tokyo, suddenly had to go through security and passport control in Beijing, and then - boom - we landed in Sweden. Where my cousin met us with a big welcome sign. Going back was pretty much the same feeling. Travel has changed a lot since travel stopped equal walking.
When my great grandfather went to his twice-annual military exercise meets (he was a professional soldier), he first had to walk for 50 kilometers, and then take the steam boat for half a day. His father would have had to walk, because 200 years ago there was no regular steam boat traffic in that part of the world.
To him, and to everyone born before him, travel was linear. The difference between going somewhere and being somewhere was not that great. Many travelers, especially those with the wanderlust gene (if there is one), prefer that mode of travel. When you are voyaging slowly, the road is literally the journey. For us, the journey is the airplane.
Enough of digressions already. What have we learned about traveling in Sweden?
Lesson #1: Google Has No Concept Of Time
Huh? Well, when there are major holidays, the opening hours of many stores are different than usual. IKEA, the Swedish furniture superchain, closes its Swedish stores during two days every year: New Years Day and Midsummer Day. But while Google shows you a customized page with the opening times of the store you were looking at, they are not clever enough to figure out if there are exceptions to the normal opening times.
Lesson #2: There Is A Hamburger Chain With A Social Conscience (And Vegan Burgers)
When the Swedish McDonalds franchise started to establish itself in the north of the country, they expected people to eat with their hands. In that part of the country, people feel very strongly that you should eat food with a knife and fork. McDonalds did not provide knives and forks. Their local competitor did, and by also providing better hamburgers, they outcompeted the megachain.
They have morphed since then, but their hamburgers are still a lot better than at McDonalds. And they have both vegan and vegetarian alternatives. Actually, the vegan alternative is better than many other hamburgers. Their cheese fries is to die for. And if you buy a kids meal your child does not get a piece of plastic from China, they get a picture book. Quite fun at that.
And all energy they use is renewably produced, and all their stores are carbon neutral. Like, wow.
Lesson #3: People Do Not Ask If Stores Take Cards, They Ask If They Take Cash
Sweden is probably the country in the world that has done the most to get rid of coins and bills. You can use your credit (or debit) card for everything. And there are no fees. You do not even have to type your pin for transactions less than 50 SEK (approx 5 USD).
Lesson #4: The Winter Is Not Cold In A Fleece-Lined Overall
My kids loved playing outside. To the tune of four to five hours a day - basically as long as it was light. Sweden in winter is dark and cold, but unless it rains it is a dry cold which does not feel cold. Especially not if you have an overall with warm fleece lining. Swedish childrens overalls are impregnated to be water-resistant. The biggest disadvantage is that they are really expensive, because they are expected to be inherited between siblings as kids grow out of them. That is not very easy to do when you have triplets.
Lesson #5: Plan For Bad Weather
Swedish houses are very comfortable in winter. You might expect that houses in a country as dark and cold as Sweden would be miserably cold and dark; but they are well lit and heated. Cozy, even, which perhaps should not come as a surprise given that most people spend most of their time cooped up indoors.
Kids can go out and play and they do, but when the playground equipment is icey and so slippery they may fall off, and the ground is so muddy they get dirty all through those overalls with fleece lining, you want to find a different alternative. Sitting inside and watching TV may not be so bad, but your kids will want to play other ways too. That is when it is a great idea not to stay in a hotel, but actually have a house of your own.
Lesson #6: Swedish People Have A Different Concept Of Distance
You could comfortably fit all of Tokyo, including the surrounding cities, in the area occupied by greater Stockholm. But while Tokyo has more than 30 million inhabitants, there are only about 1.5 million people living in Stockholm. Everything is roomier.
But while people in Tokyo view it as a day trip - and maybe even would stay overnight - to go from one end of their megacity to another, people in Sweden do it to buy a kebab or pick up their laundry. Swedis people think in miles, but their miles are ten kilometers.
Lesson #7: Driving Is Different
Unless you plan to stay in the center of a big city and never go outside the city boundaries, you need a car. If you are used to driving on the right, the actual driving is not too difficult. With three exceptions: When it is dark, when the roads are slippery, and when there are other cars on the road. Or pedestrians.
Pedestrians in the Swedish countryside tend to wear reflective vests and are easily visible. In cities however, people walk around in black clothes and shoes, which makes them extremely hard to see when they cross the street between crosswalks at night. Makes them invisible but they still have absolute preference.
Meeting other cars even with the lights dipped also makes you feel like deer and makes it impossible to see anything for a little while. When you meet lots of cars and more cars are coming up behind you shining their lights in your rear mirror. Even more scary when they start changing lanes just as you were planning to. You learn new ways of using the side mirrors!
Lesson #8: Everything Is Expensive
When I lived in Sweden, many years ago, I had a decent salary. Not all that high, but decent. Well, I think that even with taxes lower now than they were then, we could not make a living on that salary. The price of a lunch has doubled, too. But to be fair, it seemed quality has gone up as well. The food I remember seem to be a thing of the past.
Quality has improved in stores too. There are a lot of things made locally in the stores (try apple juice from the Roslagen area, sold in the same boxes as box wine, and differentiated according to the type of apples used in making them). And the cheeses have improved, which means some are amazing. And, different from everything else in the stores, really cheap. Comparatively speaking.
This was the last, or at least the latest, in a series of blog posts about our trip. I have written before about beating jetlag with your toddlers, traveling with toddlers, traveling with infants, traveling with a child with fever, people who complain about your kids when flying, and our night flight experiences. And I will probably write more.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.