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Sweden 101, part 1 (aka frequently asked questions)

May 30, 2014 | No comments


Something I have learnt while living abroad is that few people actually know that much about Sweden (except those that are Swedish). It makes sense, Sweden is a tiny little country (about the size of California) with not that many people and we tend to stay out of the spotlight. My national pride, however, forces me to rectify some of the misconceptions that I have encountered about my beloved home country.

Q: Have you ever seen a Polar Bear?
A: Yes, at the zoo. There are no Polar Bears in Sweden. They don’t walk down the streets during the winter months. We have a range of other bears, and they hibernate during the winter. I think the latest estimate is that there are about 3000 bears in Sweden of which I have seen one.

Q: I though all Swedes are blond and have blue eyes?
A: That is wrong. Historically, Scandinavians were typically tall and with blue eyes and light coloured hair and skin tone, but that isn’t true anymore. Modern Sweden is a melting pot of different cultures and heritages. About a fifth of the population has foreign background, and we have one of the highest percentages of immigrants in Europe.

Q: Talking about Scandinavian; are you Nordic or Scandinavian?
A: Both. Nordic usually refers to the Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland) and people native to those countries. Nordic is a geographical distinction, and the word is derived from Norden, which means the “the north” or “the northern lands” in the Scandinavian languages. Scandinavia, on the other hand, is a cultural, historical, and linguistic region and only includes Sweden and Norway, plus Denmark depending on who you ask. Although all the Nordic countries have similarities, and their languages are considered somewhat interconnected (except Finish – Finish is weird, but they also speak Swedish), there is a stronger common heritage and language between the Scandinavians. To make it even more complicated, technically only Sweden and Norway (and part of Finland) are located on the Scandinavian Peninsula.

Q: Sweden used to be part of Norway, right?
A: Norway used to be part of Sweden. So did Finland, Denmark and part of the Baltic region. Not many people know that Sweden was one of the great European powers during parts of the 17th and 18th centuries (the so called Swedish Empire 1611-1718) and that during that time, Sweden was the third largest country in Europe by land area. Before that, Sweden was part of the Kalmar union between 1397 and 1523. Finland was part of Sweden from around 1300 to 1809 and Norway has been in union with Sweden multiple times, the latest being between 1814 and 1905.

Q: But Sweden and Norway are basically the same country?
A: No. The languages are similar enough that we can communicate without problems (although some words have the opposite meaning which can cause some confusion) but the countries take pride in their differences. Yes, both are monarchies. We drive on the same side of the road. The voting age is the same. We’re both members of the UN. But Sweden has almost twice the population than Norway. The percent of National Parliament seats held by women in Norway are three times that in Sweden. The average voter turnout is higher in Sweden. The GDP is higher in Sweden, but the GDP per capita is higher in Norway. The unemployment rate is higher in Sweden. In Sweden, most of the population is rural, whereas in Norway, most of the population is urban. Sweden is mostly flat, whereas Norway is mostly mountains. Sweden’s area is larger, but Norway’s coastline is almost eight times as long as the Swedish. Sweden has no oil or natural gas reserves. The list goes on and on.

The last few questions deal with a pet peeve of mine: the Swedes versus the Swiss.

Q: Where in Sweden are the Swiss Alps located?
A: The Swiss Alps are in Switzerland. That’s a different country. They are not even close (there are multiple countries separating Sweden and Switzerland). The most famous areas for skiing in Sweden are probably Åre and Sälen (the latter one being the largest alpine skiing area in northern Europe).

Q: Sweden? Oh, you’re famous for your banking system, right?
A: No, you’re thinking of Switzerland. UBS and Credit Suisse are both Swiss banks that are globally known. Only a few Swedish banks are known in Europe. Did you know that if you google Swedish Banks, most of the hits will be about Swiss banks?

Q: But Sweden is famous for chocolate?
A: Yes, and no. You’re probably thinking of Swiss chocolate, like Lindt. Marabou would be the most famous Swedish chocolate (and it is amazing).

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