Sweden is quiet. The first thing I notice as we walk around the city of Stockholm is the calm streets, and in its suburbs, an occasional utter silence. When we moved on to the small town of Almhult, peaceful quiet seeps into the moments whispering about a life of calm, a lagom life. That is, until the electric train, one of many throughout the day, comes through like a dragon seemingly chasing sound. But the train comes and goes before I could even turn up the volume on my podcast. It is almost as quickly forgotten.
Lagom is the Swedish way of life. In her book The Lagom life, author Elisabeth Carlsson states that lagom means “not too much, not too little, just the right amount.” It is a mindset of “good enough.” There is no direct translation of the word from Swedish to English, but it seems to be about moderation in all things married to contentment with what one has.
Most of the people we met in Sweden were relaxed and non-confrontational. They seem to value peace and getting along.
The art of having just the right amount of things is a part of lagom and it reminded me of our life in a bus in Australia.
Fika is part of lagom. It literally translates “to have coffee” but it means much more than that. It is a time to sit with friends or co-workers, have coffee or other beverage as preferred, a pastry, and talk as friends.
In the workplace, everyone will often gather in a conference room around 10 AM and 3 PM. Being too busy to join doesn’t earn any extra points with the boss or co-workers (neither does working overtime). Twice a day teams sit and chat for 10-30 minutes, with no agenda. They talk about ideas and things they have learned or what is happening in their lives as friends would.
Maybe fika is one of their secrets to progress. Personally, what I’ve experienced in the USA corporate world is that the teams that played together were not only more fun, but we made progress together. When the workplace became too busy to even enjoy a coffee together, the environment disintegrated. While correlation doesn’t prove causation it is worth exploring.
Work & Lagom
The Swedish Annual Leave Act specifies that every employee, no matter what age or position, is entitled to 25 vacation days each year and they can take them all at once. This is in addition to holidays and personal time (like taking a day to move). Sweden also provides generous prenatal leave. In the past, it was not uncommon for a town to pretty much shut down in the summer while everyone went to their cottage in the woods for a month to enjoy nature in peace.
Locals have also told me that Swedes’ work culture rarely requires them to work more than 40 hours a week.
Lagom is slowing down to do things at a peaceful pace, actually taking time off to rest and recharge.
The result of too much time off?
Sweden is one of Europe’s most productive countries (according to Workstatus). Not only is Sweden home to H&M and IKEA, but the tech startup in Stockholm per capita is second only to Silicon Valley.
Surveys taken by World Population Review list Sweden as one of the top seven happiest countries in the world.
Homes of Red
As we travel through the small towns it seems that every other home is red with white trim. The barns similarly are red with black trim. I wondered if this sort of conformity was part of lagom. What I found out is that this tradition started a few hundred years ago in a copper mine in Falun, Sweden.
The Falun mine produced red iron ocher or hematite as a waste product in the process of refining ore. They discovered serendipitously that wood left in the waste pile did not decompose. Thus began the tradition of mixing the red iron ocher with oil to preserve their wooden homes (source Swedish Freak history). The red ocher is a practical solution to solve the issue of decomposition. It is good enough and it is beautiful.
In the Scandinavian countries, Summer Solstice is celebrated as a major holiday. We arrived just in time to take part in the celebrations.
What began as a Viking celebration to the gods of fertility and light eventually merged with the Catholic celebration of St. John the Baptist. Today it is considered a non-religious holiday. Crowds still dance around the Maypole that is decorated with greenery and flowers, but they do so as a way to spend time together as a community and have fun. The worship of Oden and Thor is no longer even considered and the practice of human and animal sacrifice is long gone. St. John the Baptist is not referenced either.
Summer Solstice is a celebration for community
Summer Solstice in Stolkholm Sweden has 12.5 more hours of sunlight than the Winter Solstice. In a country that experiences long nights over the winter months the extra sunlight alone is something to celebrate. Mostly however it seems to fit into their psyche of lagom, slow down and spend time together.
In the morning we waded through the fields in our yard to collect flowers and make wreath headbands to wear then set off to join the local celebrations. At the celebration, a group of traditionally dressed locals performed traditional dances. Everyone gathered around the Maypole in circles and followed the host’s instructions for each dance. All of them laughed and skipped around the pole. They were sure to include the fun frog dance at each celebration.
After watching the community celebrations we joined some friends for a feast and time of games. Trin thoroughly enjoyed the sill (herring). Each time the Schnapps was passed around we raised our glasses together and exclaimed, “Skål !”
Life in Sweden
We were in Sweden to visit family and house sit. It gave us the opportunity to live in a country home for over a month rather than just pass through and sightsee. We are doing normal tasks and activities – mowing the lawn, fixing things around the house, going for walks in the woods nearby, and cycling to the local lake for a quick dip in chilly waters on a hot day. We quickly settled into daily routines.
There is something magical about the forest in Sweden. Large granite boulders rest on the forest floor as if some giants playing marbles left their game ages ago. Time has covered them with thick layers of moss smoothing out edges and softening the hard surfaces. The earthy smell of peat and the fragrance of Chanterelle come and go in pleasant whiffs. Conifers standing tall among the forgotten boulders absorb light and sound. Moisture glimmers in the few rays that pierce through the branches like tiny stars in daylight hours.
Each time we entered the woods the beauty of it filled us. Another forest of broad leaf deciduous trees diffused the light through thin bright green leaves. Their fallen leaves added color to the green moss below our feet. Each forest held its own mysteries. It seems we are not the only ones affected. Legends of Trolls and gnomes abound.
Forestry Facts: Sweden has 95,700 lakes and 69% of its land mass is covered by forest. Sweden is the second largest exporter of pulp, but its forests are growing faster than they are felled and have been for the entire 20th century and onwards. (from Sweden’s forestry and sustainability)
During our walks, we found large patches of blåbär (translates literally to blue berry). They are closely related to and look just like the American blueberries on the outside. However the American Blueberry is white inside while the Swedish blåbär is burgundy red inside, and the juice is purple. As much as 17% of Sweden’s land area is covered with blueberries. We had no trouble finding all the berries we could eat during our summer holiday in Sweden.
While exploring the woods one day we were excited to come upon a patch of Chanterelle (kantarell in Swedish) mushrooms. We filled our bags and marked the GPS coordinates before heading back home. At home, we flipped open the laptop and searched YouTube for tutorials on foraging Chanterelle. A local here had given us a few of these mushrooms previously so we thought we knew what they should look like but we wanted to be sure. Getting sick or seeing hallucinations were not on our agenda for the evening.
Finally sure that we had picked the right mushroom we breathed in the earthy apricot scent of the Chanterelle and added them to our pasta dinner.
The Chanterelle is highly prized in Sweden, even more than truffles are elsewhere. Swedes are also secretive about where they find them in the woods. We were thrilled to find a few patches in the woods on our tracks and they were delectable.
There is something about foraging our own food that makes it taste so much better. Besides the fact that it most likely has escaped all unnatural fertilization or chemical spray we also worked for it. Not only is it healthier, but it comes with a fun sense of accomplishment.
Taking out the trash
Taking out the trash can be daunting at first. When I opened the two trash bins I found eight separate compartments to separate the trash into. Batteries and light bulbs hang on the side of the bin in their own bags. That’s ten categories, but that’s not all. We also set aside some trash to be burned and the cans and bottles that would be taken separately to the grocery store for credit on each can.
The plus side is that Sweden sends less than 1% of its trash to landfills. They recycle what they can, compost organic matter, and then burn much of the rest to produce energy for the country. It was worth the time to figure out the complicated bins, but soon it became natural.
In addition to being fueled by trash, 75% of electricity production in Sweden comes from hydroelectric and nuclear power. Another 17% comes from wind power. (data points from Sweden.se)
Of course, we had to visit IKEA. Almhult is the home of IKEA. It was as expected, similar to every other IKEA we have been in and we enjoyed it just as much. You can also stay in the Ikea Hotel, which, as one might expect, is totally decked out with Ikea products (“you eat your food using an Allen wrench,” Trin says. This is not true). Elsewhere in Almhult, you can visit the Ikea Museum, and drive by gigantic statues of the iconic Allen key and the Ikea shopping cart.
“Happiness is not reaching your goal. Happiness is being on the way” -Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA
Costs in Sweden
Having an occasional housesit can dramatically bring yearly costs of travel down. On average we have done about one house sit a year. We prefer at least a month. Our longest sit was in Panama and lasted 2.5 months (the perfect place for me to recover from surgery). Our shortest sit was in Australia, but we found two very close together that when combined gave us a month. Anything shorter than that doesn’t seem to be worth the travel costs to get there for us.
This house sit was unique. Generally, we look after the pets, feed them, make sure they are well, and give them all the pets and snuggles they want. We also look after the home to make sure nothing goes wrong and that it is kept clean and plants watered. This sit however was family and Trin tried to fix everything he could around the house for his sister. He spent many of the days in the barn out back fixing lawn mowers and other machinery, installing a door, fixing others, and any other various fun things around that house that could help them out.
Transportation costs include public transportation (bus and train) and gas fill-up for the car we had access to.
According to World Population Review Sweden has a slightly higher crime index than the United States. Yet at no time have we felt unsafe (nor do we feel unsafe in the USA). Maybe peace in the home really is about what we choose to focus on and who we choose to listen to.
Land of the Midnight Sun
As Marj, Trin’s sister, set a plate of cookies on the table a breeze rustled the leaves on the tree above us. One tiny apple fell next to my teacup. We spread out the dominos to play Mexican Train. The sun would still be up past 9 PM, we could be out here all day enjoying the scent of pine from the woods nearby and laughing as we talked and placed our trains on the table well into the night.