Last weekend I traveled by train, plane and automobile to go and visit a friend in the beautiful city of Stockholm.
Aside from its cheesy pop music, vodka and of course world famous meatballs, Sweden is one of those countries I didn’t really know an awful lot about, and although I love to travel, for some reason the land of Ikea had never been terribly high on my “must visit” list – this I now know was an error of judgement. I had been warned that the people were sensationally hot and the sky-high cost of a gin and tonic was likely to give my bank account frostbite (I can now confirm both these facts are correct) but what I wasn’t prepared for is their totally different outlook on life.
Wandering around Stockholm at 5 pm on a sunny Friday afternoon I quickly discovered that the Nordic way of life runs at an entirely different pace to that of the UK. In London, come the end of the working week, the majority of people race out of their offices and straight to the local pub where they usually emerge several hours later to stagger home to bed and spend their Saturday morning in recovery before an afternoon trawling around the hectic high street shops. Each to their own, I’m not judging and I too have been known to have very similar weekends, however I couldn’t help but admire the Swede’s lack of manic consumption and the value they place on getting the most out of their free time, be it a walk in the fresh air, a family meal or simply accepting life for what it is.
With more than 80% of the Swedish population living within five miles of a national park, nature reserve or conservation area they are an outdoorsy bunch. They may only have three months of proper daylight each year which constitutes as summer but they get out there and enjoy the outdoors come rain or shine. Swedes have a saying, which roughly translates as: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. I was told by my friend, that unlike us Brits who tend to hibernate in the winter, the Swede’s embrace it – instead of going inside when it’s cold, they put on another jumper and get right back out there. Little ones get to grips with the sub-zero temperatures from an early age, with babies being left outside in their buggies to nap, as their parents believe that exposure to fresh air is healthier than being stuck inside and helps build up the immune system to ward off diseases. Even when the temperature drops to -15°C the prams are wrapped with blankets, but the children remain outside. When they are five years old, they attend Saturday “nature school” where they are taught about foraging and map reading. It is a proven fact that spending time in natural surroundings reduces stress, boosts mental health and even lowers blood pressure so getting up and out there seems rather essential for our well being. We may not all have the luxury of having a nature reserve on our doorsteps, but in the UK we are lucky enough to have some great outdoor spaces and amazing parks to explore. I feel it’s time to stop with the excuses and as autumn approaches layer up, ditch the weekly booze fueled weekends and get outside more.
Globalization may have brought sushi to Sweden along with many other international restaurants to choose cuisine from, but the Swedes’ are really all about home grown food – their love of seasonal, local and organically grown food would make Mother Earth proud. It’s totally normal to spot a family in the woods on a Sunday afternoon with plastic buckets picking wild berries and mushrooms to add to one of the many classical national dishes that involve foraged finds, such as nettle soup, blueberry pie and of course the perfect accompaniment to meatballs – lingonberries. Many cafes and restaurants also grow their own ingredients and on strolling around the capitals city’s centre, I realised I didn’t recognize one coffee shop as they were all standalone cafes. Yes familiarity can be comforting, but not when it’s a Starbucks or Costa Coffee on every street corner. In Stockholm, there were one of a kind coffee shops, serving freshly brewed coffee, just squeezed juice and organic cinnamon rolls. People of all ages spilled onto the pavement to enjoy “fika” (a coffee / tea break involving a snack which is something of a social institution in Sweden). Fika is a common practice at workplaces in Sweden where it constitutes at least one break a day and is considered an important social event where employees can gather to discuss private and professional matters. These breaks are actively encouraged by senior management who believe in the bonding of their colleagues. In a recent survey it was found that 85% of us Brits chat socially to colleagues for an average three minutes a day whilst stood by the water cooler, it’s a pretty different office life to our Swedish counterparts!