One year ago I was visiting my friend Rudy in Stockholm, the northernmost point in Europe I’ve been to date. It struck me from the first minutes there that not only the weather, the infrastructure or the architecture will leave the biggest mark upon me, as I would have expected, but rather the people, their way of being and the things I later found out they believe in.
The first thing you notice – the obvious one – is the physical aspect. For some, it is the blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes that awe them; instead, I was electrified by their big smiles and happy faces. While my nose was freezing underneath my thick scarf, their faces seemed to radiate warmth and friendliness. It made me feel secure, in a way in which a traveller is rarely accustomed to feel, especially when that traveller is a girl who wanders by alone.
Rudy’s host was the first Swede I interacted with, and took the time to explain to me the reasons behind everyone’s genuine happiness. In short, the Swedes are not poor. They work hard and have high salaries (even for the European average, and even after huge taxes are applied), thus high life standards. And when they are out of possibilities (unemployment, sickness, retirement),, they get all the help they need to live a decent life from the state, which, for most Eastern Europeans like me, would represent a plenteous life. I got the idea of an efficient socialism, where “all for one and one for all” means more than the motto of Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Compared to the young capitalism from the country I live in, where everyone is for himself, the thought of living in and contributing to a community which doesn’t forget to also give back seemed very appealing.
Moreover, the Swedes seemed not to lack the civic sense, and I had the chance to see people volunteering in Skansen – they dressed and acted as Swedish people from various ages to illustrate the social and historical evolution of their country along the years. I had a few talks with these volunteers who tried to explain tome their culture and tradition.
This did not only show me the Swedes love their past and embrace it with all the good and bad in it, but also that they know how to offer a fun and interactive experience to all of us visiting their country. And boy, did I have a good time in their fun-to-be-in museums!
While visiting the Swedish National Museum, I also learnt something new about this people. The Swedes are more relaxed, more open-minded, don’t judge others as harsh as most of us, Eastern Europeans, and generally have less preconceptions. I say this because, as I was walking around the museum close to a group of Serbians (or another ex-Yugoslavic people), I entered a room where a group of locals was having a drawing lesson. Their muse – who was standing in the middle of the room completely naked – seemed like a Latin-American middle-aged woman (somewhere between her 40s and 50s). Though she had a beautiful long black hair, her body showed the signs of her age (hanging skin, prominent tummy), but she seemed ok with it and with exposing it in front of all museum visitors. The group of Serbians were a bit shocked because of the sight (or maybe, just as me, because of its unexpectedness), but they soon started laughing at it – and by their looks I assumed they were making jokes and sexist remarks. All other museum visitors who walked in that room with us and looked more or less Scandinavian (tall-blond-blue eyed) seemed more accustomed to the sight and less intrigued than us.
Last, but not least, I sensed that the Swedes value their life more than us and take greater care of its quality. You could see this from the menus in the restaurant (veggies, green stuff and healthy-ish food) and from their culture of sports (including a lot of walking, running and cycling).
In a week’s time, I learnt to appreciate the characteristics that differentiate the Swedes (and all the other Scandinavian people) from the Europeans and, more precisely, from Eastern Europeans. They’re true aliens, dude, I’m telling ya’! And it’ll be a long ride for us to become ones too!