In the beginning, you think it’s going to be easy. Someone greets you with a casual ‘hey’ and you feel right at home. You think you could definitely get used to all these coffee breaks your colleagues enjoy throughout the day and the fact that education is free. You could possibly even get used to those weird letters with dots on top of them that you’re not quite sure how to pronounce. But after a while, you begin to realise that being an Aussie expat in Sweden is far more challenging than you expected…
1. It’s difficult to get supplies
Vegemite and Tim Tams are only available from The English Shop. Not only do you have to suffer the catastrophic revelation that Vegemite is not stocked in supermarket shelves around the country, you have to suffer the indignancy of purchasing it from your colonial overlords. Those very same British imperialists who seem to think that Marmite is a perfectly adequate substitute for your favourite breakfast spread. It’s not.
Then there’s the fruit and veggies, which of course are mostly imported. Prepare yourself for tasteless tomatoes. And forget about smashed avo on toast, you’ll have to save that for when your holidays back home, because the chances of finding a good avo in Sweden are about 1 in 10. Seriously.
2. Making friends has never been harder
Then there’s the fact that you can’t smile at a stranger without being labelled a nutter. If you smile at a passerby they’ll think that they know you. Once they figure out that you weren’t in fact the friend of their sister’s cousin whom they met at a wedding three weeks earlier, they’ll immediately assume you’re either mentally unstable or stalking them. Possibly both.
Speaking of which, you can be stalked really easily. In Sweden, anyone who knows your name can Google you and find out details such as your address, phone number and – perhaps most frightening of all – your age. It’s all publicly available online on sites such as hitta.se (hitta in Swedish means “to find”).
On the plus side, the accessibility of information does mean that you can find out whether that cute personal trainer is single, what type of car he owns and what his annual income is. But don’t think that knowledge will help you get to know him – you’re in for a long and painful process my friend. Gone are the times when you can click instantly with someone after a drunken conversation about social justice at a friend’s housewarming party. This year, InterNations members voted Australia the seventh best country to be an expat. Sweden came in towards the back of the pack at #42 and it’s quite normal for people to tell you it took them two years before they were invited to a colleague’s place outside of working hours. So if you’re looking for a lively social life, you’ve well and truly moved to the wrong place.
3. You become the designated creepy crawly eliminator
If there’s one good thing about moving to Sweden, it’s that you won’t die from being bitten by a redback spider; there aren’t any life-threatening insects, reptiles or marine wildlife in Sweden. The downside is that people will expect you to kill every insect that you do encounter. Having grown up in Australia, it’s assumed that you’re used to spiders living inside every nook and cranny of your home, so you won’t be at all fazed when you see a giant eight-legged monster crawling across the ceiling or lurking on the shower curtain. You’ll find yourself leading the way during hikes through the forest and being given the task of disposing of every critter that finds its way into your apartment.
4. You’ll struggle to learn the lingo
No matter how good your intentions or how high your motivation, as soon as anyone finds out you’re a native English speaker, your conversation will switch to English. If a Swede detects even a hint of difficulty as you fumble to remember whether you mean gå or åka, they’ll start to show off their impressive English skills to make things easier for you, the considerate people that they are. So despite your best efforts, you’ll often be thwarted by the Swedes themselves. If you’re having difficulty, try staying with a Swedish family for a while. I spent a year au pairing for a Swedish family, and I picked it up super fast. If you rely on work colleagues and supermarket checkout staff, your Swedish will probably remain pretty limited. And no matter how good you do get, you’ll have to face the fact that your Swedish will never be as good as a Swede’s English. Sigh.
5. Social media becomes your worst enemy during winter
One positive thing about moving to Sweden is that your chances of getting skin cancer are drastically diminished because there’s no sun for half the year and there’s about a one-week period where it’s comfortable enough to sunbathe.
Okay, all jokes aside, the winters can be tough in Sweden for us Aussies born and bred in the sun. Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD for short – is the real deal. When you come from the land down under, where the sun is nearly always shining, experiencing sunset at 3pm for months on end is soul-crushing, to say the least. Do plenty of exercise outdoors, start taking vitamin D tablets in September and invest in a SAD lamp. And for god’s sake don’t check social media for about four months after New Year or you’ll find yourself booking the next flight home.
Even in the warmer months you’ll find yourself getting homesick from time to time. We Aussies love to travel and we end up in far-flung corners of the globe for all sorts of reasons. You’ll meet plenty of us over here. But there will be times when you see a picture of your mates having BBQs or hanging out at the beach that’ll cause a painful pang in your chest area. You’ll cope with your affliction by sipping Jacob’s Creek while pointing out Australian actors in all the movies and Netflix shows that you watch, while pretending that you couldn’t care two hoots about them.
6. There are no bottle-os
When you do go to buy your Jacob’s Creek make sure you do it early. The only place you can buy alcohol with a higher concentration than 3.5% is at the government-run monopoly Systembolaget and it’s always closed. Alright, not always, just at those times when you really need to stock up on booze. Like the weekends. Or Friday night. No popping on down to the bottle-o to grab an extra case of beer at eight o’clock when your best mate decides he doesn’t want to be deso driver anymore. Instead, you’ll have to master the art of planning ahead for your weekend gatherings.
Despite all of these challenges, some more easily overcome than others, the hardest one is undoubtedly the last. Against your better instincts and despite all of the country’s shortcomings, you might just find yourself realising that Sweden isn’t so bad after all. You’ll enjoy all the red days (public holidays) you get every May and June and your five week summer vacation. You’ll get into winter sports like cross-country skiing and snowboarding. You might decide to start a family and take advantage of the generous childcare and parental leave benefits. You’ll start communicating with your colleagues in Swedish and host crayfish parties. You won’t find yourself working overtime as often as you did back home. You’ll still whinge and complain every time you reach Systembolaget 5 minutes after it closed and wondering why your Swedish colleagues don’t talk to you that much, but you’ll learn to deal with these things with time. And eventually you’ll find yourself asking the million-dollar question: could Sweden be a better place to live than Australia?
Are you an Australian expat abroad? What challenges do you face in the country you currently call home?