Tomas, the British author and communicator who shares his Becoming Swedish project and talks about the potential perks of coming to Sweden without knowing anyone
Hello Tomas! Can you tell us about when you decided to move to Sweden?
It is quite difficult to pinpoint exactly the time I decided to move to Sweden, it was quite a long process. I actually married my Swedish wife in 2014, and at that point I was living in Brussels, in Belgium. Moving to Sweden was always a long-term goal, but the timing never seemed to work and with difficulties finding work in Sweden, it always was a little bit on the back burner. Then, 2016 rolled around and the stars aligned so to say. I was working in the European Parliament with a British member of parliament during the Brexit vote. Around the time it was decided that the UK was going to leave the EU, I also applied and was accepted for a job here in Stockholm. To add to the situation, we discovered that we were expecting our first child. So, the decision to actually move to Sweden was in the summer of 2016, we thought it was a good place to raise a child and I had a work offer. As a British person, living outside of the UK in the EU was beginning to be more administratively complicated. I was looking for my home in the EU and citizenship in another EU country to make it easier to be able to stay, work and move around freely.
You had a few years when you knew you were moving to Sweden but did not end up doing it until a little later.
Exactly, and also during that period, there was a lot of trips to visit family here in Sweden, but also spending every Easter in Sweden, for quite a few years, in the south of Sweden, in Skåne. In fact, there was one period when I was living in Brussels and had too much vacation to take one year, so I decided to take a whole month in Sweden. I came to Stockholm in the middle of the winter, and I took my very first Swedish class. I think it was that month, living in Sweden…I mean, I had been here for long weekends and visiting family, but having that one month of seeing the snow, commuting into the city, just getting more of a sense of what it felt like to live here. That was really when the switch flipped in my head and I said to myself “this is the place where I want to live”.
You got that real life, everyday feeling.
Exactly. When I eventually moved to Stockholm, I had seen the fairy-tale, “Skansen version” of Sweden, but also the everyday life of what it is like to trudge through the snow in the dark hours of the morning and cram yourself in on the commuter train with all the other commuters and figure out how much English you can speak, and how much Swedish you have to learn and get more of a sense of what it is like to live here. I was very happy with that picture.
That was a smart strategy, to try one of the worst months ever, to see if you still liked it!
I think I really realized how defined the seasons are here. I grew up in the UK, and we usually say that the only way we know it is summer is that the rain is warmer. Whereas in Sweden you really have cold, snowy winters. Then suddenly, you are thrust into spring with everything turning green over night, and then these long, light summers and a beautiful orange autumn. And then back into winter. It feels very defined.
Very strong contrasts. What would you say was different about moving to Sweden than what you expected?
How clear and straight-forward and organized the process was in Sweden and how much information is available in other languages. From an administrative perspective, it was quite clear to me what was expected of me and what I needed, the key to everything: the personal number. I had my wife as a guide to understand the Swedish authorities better, but one thing that struck me was how interesting it was to speak to other people who had moved to Sweden, because quite often, Swedes will not know these things themselves, because they have never gone through it.
You are describing a process that was a little easier?
Yes, just to give you a little contrast, when I moved to Belgium, my experience of registering at a municipality was spending many, many hours in a physical line at the local municipality office, often not getting to speak to a person, and in fact never ever getting to speak to a person in English. In Sweden, registering at the Tax office as an EU citizen, filling out the form and getting an ID number within a relatively short period and then being able to use that number to unlock things. That was quite comforting, because there are a lot of things to think about when you move to a country. Making the administration as easy as possible so you can focus on all the other things you need to do is a big game changer for me.
Do you wish there was something you would have known before, that could have prepared yourself even better?
I really think I should have learned more Swedish before I came to Sweden. I think my impression from going to Sweden as a tourist was that everyone speaks English. I had very limited Swedish at that time and I could speak English to everybody. It gave me a false impression of how important it is to know Swedish when you move to Sweden. Because Swedesare very international, and there are a lot of things administration-wise and out in the public that you can manage to do in English. But the level below that, in terms of meeting friends, joining associations and trying to integrate further, that really requires a different level of Swedish than what I had. I probably should have learned a little more before moving here.
Used a little of that preparation time to learn the language as well?
Yes, and I think, this point about associations and meeting people is something that I keep coming back to. I moved here from Belgium, where the culture is very continental: going for drinks after work or restaurants in the evening and meeting friends. Whereas, I realized that Sweden, and meeting Swedes, seems to be more organized. It seems as any sport, interest or hobby has an association for that, and it has a board and an annual meeting and a group of people collectively around it. I think joining an association in Sweden is an easier way to meet people and find friends and cut through that integration level that I was missing when I first moved here.
Maybe once you are in these circles, or associations, you can speak English to people, but to find them you need to do some research in Swedish to be able to understand what is out there.
Absolutely. I have an old British Mini Cooper and found a club for people owning Mini Coopers. Not only a club, but the oldest Mini Cooper club in the world, in fact! The Swedes love organizing so much that they even organized a Mini Cooper club before one even existed in England. It took a little Swedish to find this club. We meet and talk about English cars, sometimes in English, sometimes in Swedish. When you have a shared interest, people are much more accommodating and friendly than you think they might be.
It sounds like your advice is to socialize and meet people in clubs and associations rather than randomly at work or in the pub?
This is actually a piece of advice that I got from an Austrian friend of mine, who also moved from Brussels. He never considered himself a singer, but he was convinced one evening to go sing with a choir. Sweden has many, many choirs.
Yes, we love choirs
Yes. He said it was one of the best integration processes that he could think of. Not only was he meeting people, they were quite literally singing in harmony, doing something together. It doesn’t matter which language they were singing in or where they came from, and he found that to be a powerful process. Of course, they go for food afterwards or meet with their children in the park in the weekends. He gave me that advice, and that is when I started looking for organized interests of my own.
In Sweden we have a very long and strong culture of forming these associations so there are tons out there (called föreningar*), and it is fairly easy to start one on your own, and sometimes there is even some funding to get for this. Would you say joining an association is a general advice for moving to a new context or is it specific for the Swedish context?
Probably one of the biggest cultural difference in this respect, I would put down to the fact that British people love to talk to anybody. I remember my wife taking a bus in the north of England once, and somebody sat down next to her on the bus and started talking to her. As a Stockholmer, this was a big cultural shock to her. I think, in the UK, this ability to just start up a conversation with anybody, means that sometimes it is easier to create friendships or have social interactions outside of organized life. But I also realize that I am making this comparison at a time where I have made the decision to move out from the city, and I have had a child. Probably I am not having those nights in the pub anymore in the way that I might have had in the UK or in Belgium. But for me, organized associations has been a good path. There is only one caveat; obviously every organization has an annual meeting or a general meeting. And the first time I went to one organisation, they had their annual meeting. Suddenly I heard a lot of Swedish that I didn’t understand, because it was formal Swedish, that is only used in these circumstances. But that can be a little off-putting.
I would add to that point that this is Swedish that a lot of Swedeswould not understand either. If anyone out there would ever experience this, take comfort in knowing that most Swedeswould feel the same way. What would you say is your favourite thing about Sweden?
One thing I really appreciate is this connection to nature. To want to be in the woods, or to swim in the lakes, and to have some peace and freedom but also kind of a more basic type of living wherever possible. There is a lot of space and woodland in this country. Now, I am living in the north of Stockholm, and even here in the Stockholm county, I can go ten minutes in one direction and be in the middle of the forest, and ten minutes in the other direction and be in a lake. This kind of fascination and vicinity to be close to nature is something that surprised me and that I really love. Also, the concept of summer houses. In the UK, if someone has a summer house you would presume that they are very rich. But in Sweden, it’s not that uncommon that people have a summer house or know someone who has one. And I like that.
So; nature and the connection to nature and that it’s available.
And I think, also the sports and activities connected to that. Take skiing for instance. Last year I was able to try cross country skiing for the first time. I could go to Fritidsbanken and they would lend me the equipment I needed for free. Then, I went with some friends and found a trail in the woods. For me, skiing has always been a sport that has been inaccessible and expensive, but here I could do it for free right there in the Swedish nature. I think there are lots of instances where sport and recreation linked with nature is a lot more accessible and affordable.
Have you made any mistakes in Sweden that you would like to tell us about?
When I first moved here, I had this support network already, which was fantastic to have. But when I compare to when I moved to Belgium, and did not have any friends, no job, it thrust me into having to make new friends and contacts much more quickly. I am extremely grateful for having the help and support I had when I moved to Sweden, but perhaps that made me a little lazy. I probably should have gotten more out there in the first months and experienced more alternative perspectives to Sweden.
In some regard, it might even help people if you don’t have a network. Of course, it might also be more difficult, and things might take longer, but you are more motivated to meet new people and experience things from your own perspective.
Absolutely, I definitely reflected on that.
What you are describing is using a skill to experience a new country on your own. Do you think this is an important skill to have as a newcomer in Sweden?
I think there is a lot of information out there, and there is a lot of possibilities when you move to Sweden, but of course you need to have that skill to dig around and do some research to find what is out there for you. Whether it’s social, cultural or looking for work or Swedish classes. The information exists, but of course it’s not going to be right in front of you. A lot of it is online so you can research before the move.
After I had lived in the country for two years, I realized I was only one year from being able to out in my citizenship application. That was quite important to me, to make it easier to live and work here, but I think two years in it also became culturally important for me. I wanted to become a Swedish citizen. I asked my wife over the dinner table one evening, “if I am to become a Swedish citizen, is there a deeper level that I should understand? Are there cultural traits or cult films that every Swedeknows how to quote? Or places a lot of Swedish people have visited on their school trips?”. So, we started to put together what I call my Becoming Swedish Bucketlist. Eventually, I put this list on Twitter and it grew and grew and grew, until the point when I decided that I would try to do everything on this list before I applied for my Swedish citizenship and to do each thing on the list with a different Swedish person each time. What was so fascinating about the conversations on Twitter around this list was that everyone hade a different perception of what it means to become Swedish. I could meet five people that would live in the same building and have five different opinions and suddenly I would speak to someone in the other side of the country and they would have totally different opinions. That became my becoming Swedish journey, to understand from as many different perspectives as possible what it means to become a Swedish citizen.
How can we learn more about this?
I decided to document the process. For almost every item on the list I made a video, so, it started off as a video a series and then it became a book! It is available in English and Swedish, and in English it is called Fear and Falukorv*. On the road to #BecomingSwedish. Falukorv is a Swedish sausage that comes from the town Falun in Dalarna. In the book, I decided to map how much each of the items on the bucket list took me outside my comfort zone. Falukorv was the item that took me furthest away from my comfort zone, because it is made of meat and I don’t eat meat. Just to make things more uncomfortable, I ate Falukorv on the radio in Dalarna, speaking Swedish to a live audience on the radio. But, spoiler alert to the book, at the last minute I decided to eat a very tasty vegan alternative to Falukorv.
Wow, so it is like a scale of this feeling of discomfort as a newcomer in a new country!
One of the things on the list was learning how to complain about the weather. And as a British person, growing up with a lot of rain, I was already quite trained in this. Another thing was to learn not to brag, to not talk about yourself too much. Then, somebody I spoke to said that Swedish people do seem to be modest, but if you take Zlatan for example, who is not modest, and speaks loudly in public and talks about himself very much and is in fact one of the most famous Swedes in the world.
And extremely successful.
Yeah. There are cultural perceptions and then there are realities. It’s not to say that if you come to a country you need to fit into a reality that you think exists, because chances are it is much more complicated.
Maybe you could compare it to learning a language. You can’t really play around with varieties of the language until you understand the general grammatical rules and systems. When you have understood a general culture, then it is easier to play around with what you can and can’t do, and then there is always room for creativity and new ideas and ways of acting and thinking.
I am still learning Swedish and at home we use a mixture of English and Swedish.
Yes, and it becomes a form of language that makes sense.
You have already given a few pieces of advice, can you think of any other advice to give to someone who wants to move to Sweden?
I think my biggest advice around the language is of course to learn either before you come or when you arrive, but also to play a lot with the language. In the beginning, I was so afraid of making mistakes. Particularly as a native English speaker, when people hear my accent, people naturally switch to speaking English. Be stubborn about keeping to speaking Swedish, even if it’s more difficult, it helps a lot. My other advice is to build your own picture of Sweden by speaking to people. I think Sweden is portrayed internationally as both heaven and hell, in more extreme ways than the country actually is. Sweden is not an extreme country in any sense of the word. Things are just done more slowly, with moderation and a cool head. The quicker you can build a picture of the country yourself…I think that helps a lot.
You speak a little Swedish. Do you know the word Smultronställe?
I understand that it is a secret place, a special place that holds a place in your heart.
Do you have a place like this in Sweden?
There is a certain spot, standing next to the wild bears in Skansen in Stockholm. Ever since our daughter was born, we have bought a yearly pass to Skansen, because it is a great place to bring children and a great place to learn about Swedish history. If you are in the park early, you can rush through the park and be by the bears long before the tourists. So our special place is, with my daughter, with an early morning snack, having a quiet peaceful time just watching the bears.
Do you have a favourite Swedish word?
I quite enjoy Swedish words that are borrowed and changed from English. I see a word and think “what is that?” and then I read it out and I realize it is a word spelled in Swedish that has been taken from English. And also the false friends that exist between Swedish and English. I remember a conversation with my wife at about 10 o’clock in the morning where I told her I was very full, not realizing that in Swedish I was telling her I was very drunk.
Do you have a favourite Swedish food?
I really like the Swedish take on tacos. It seems strange to say that…
It’s a big thing here, Swedish tacos.
…yeah. We eat something fresh and communal, easy and comforting on a Friday night. It is the ritual of the food, rather than the taste. I think that can be said about a lot of Swedish traditions; it’s not so important why you do something, but the how you do it.
We have a playlist on Spotify called The Moving to Sweden Playlist. Do you have a favourite Swedish song to add to it?
I particularly like to listen to the rapper Timbuktu from Malmö. Mostly because I find it interesting to listen to the lyrics because it is so fast and it is so complicated. Trying to read it at the same time and trying to keep up is almost like a challenge. Also, I like the accent and the dialect from Skåne. I like the song The båtten is nådd.
You are getting a little Swenglish in there! That was my last question, do you have anything you would like to add?
For anyone who is interesting in following or recreating my becoming Swedish experiences, my book Fear and Falukorv is available in English and Swedish in all the normal places where you would buy a book.
That could be a challenge, to read the book in English first and then when you have learned a little Swedish, try it in Swedish too. Thank you so much!
* Föreningar means associations and are usually formed and run by members of sports teams, art or culture groups as well as other non profit organisations.
* Falukorv is a very typical Swedish sausage (the Swedish word for sausage is korv) from the city of Falun.
Make sure to listen to Tomas’ add to our playlist!