Winter clothing in the Nordics

A lot of people ask me how it is to survive a real Winter. They would be surprised that, even though, Winters here are for real, one tends to feel a lot more comfortable.

Firstly, the construction is done properly. Double or tripled glazed windows are common, and not a luxury. Losses of energy are minimized, with 2 or 3 doors, rugs, and a lot of wood! There is no such thing as a cold freezing floor on tiles… The heating system is very efficient, regardless of what kind of energy you use (luckily, the cost is also half of what one pays in Portugal).

Secondly, you wear decent clothes. Not in amount (I know some Portuguese were already wearing jackets in September, when it was still 25 ºC!), but in quality. From my experience, 3 pieces are enough; 4 if it is extremely cold or you plan to spend a long time outside. The most important is the absence of weak zones – zones where the cold/wind can catch you off guard and freeze you! A good pair of wool socks and a nice pair of insulated rubber boots are the starting point for you to keep your body comfortable. Body extremities feel the cold more, and if you are like me, you know how important it is to keep feet and hands warm. A decent pair of gloves, with several layers of protection, and a hat with earmuffs, are amongst the most important items to keep you warm. If it is extremely cold, you might want to consider an inner layer of thermal underwear, made from wool, specially if you are not going to do sports. Finally, a warm jacket, water and windproof, and the same for the pants. You can survive several hours outside in the cold – I’ve tested it =)

It also helps the fact that we always have a hot sauna to turn to, wherever we are!

After spending some time here, you will soon find that you have more gloves than handbags, more hunting socks than stockings, and so on… Your hallway is filled up with different kinds of jackets, and at least, 4 different types of gloves. A good thing is that an umbrella is a rarely used item in Sweden, and I’m glad it is that way. I’d rather get snowflakes on my hair, than raindrops…

Come to the Arctic – if you dare!

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Icing season

It can be so short that you almost miss it! That’s what happens in a country like Sweden, where there are 8 different seasons, according to the Sami people. It might seem too much, but there are so many changes between the different seasons, that 4 are not enough to describe the weather throughout the year.

I was looking forward to this icing season, since I practically missed it last year. Unfortunately, the same happened this year. A few days with ice on the landscape, and then the snow kicked in… Don’t get me wrong – I love the snow! – but I have enough time to enjoy it, since it will stay here for the next months! I was just hoping that I could enjoy a few weeks with only ice, to make a nice photo album. On the other side, I’m quite happy since it started snowing: I don’t have to walk on baby steps anymore! Besides, it is a lot nicer to drive on top of a nice layer of snow =)

As for the part of being darker and darker every day… Honestly, with all this snow, I hardly notice it! Plus, in a month, the days start to grow again! Meanwhile, it’s ski time – everyday =D

Swedes – passion for coffee?

There seems to be a passion/obsession for coffee in the Nordic countries. In fact, Finns, Norwegians, Danes, and even Icelanders, drink even more coffee than Swedes!

Why is coffee so popular here? First of all, thanks to fika, the popular coffee break in Sweden, and secondly, thanks to the cold weather. Who does not fancy a cup of coffee when it is so damn cold?

Well, I don’t even like coffee, but I like everything that tastes coffee. In other words, you will never see me drinking a cup of coffee, but you will see me delighting with a coffee ice cream, or tasting a delicious cappuccino!

So, what do I know about coffee? Well, I come from one of the world’s best-known coffee brewers. With more than 3 centuries of experience in brewing coffee, it is not surprising that Portuguese coffee is amongst the favourites. The famous Italian expresso machines, imported to Portugal around 1920s, were responsible for the great quality and intense taste on our coffee.

In Sweden, only recently, coffee machines started improving. There are not so many coffeeshops where you can drink a “normal/decent” coffee. A coffee in Sweden, will always be a bucket of coffee, mostly black, without foam. It doesn’t even smell nice… Whenever my parents come here, they have to endure a long coffee fast, or rely on my Dolce Gusto. They refuse to pay 20-30 SEK for something that reminds them of everything but coffee.

However, Swedes seem to love their coffee. Why bother? I’m just wondering if they have tasted real coffee in Southern Europe (France, Italy, Portugal, Croatia…). If I was a coffee drinker, and I had done so, I don’t think I could drink this coffee anymore…

Holidays in the North II

Yes, there are more countries in the world, but I have to take advantage of my location, so, what are the closest countries to visit (and luckily for me, that I hadn’t been on yet)? And, needless to say, that I can take my car to 🙂

I started in Finland, since I wanted to revisit some places from 15 years ago, and visit new places too. Then, I took the ferry to Estonia, drove to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, where I finally took the ferry to Sweden again, and drove the long way home (around 1500 km). Apart from Sweden and Finland, Poland was the only country I knew. However, 3 good reasons drew me to Poland: visiting the only remaining old forest in Europe (Bialowieza), visiting Gdansk (it had already been on my plans for 2 times), and taking the ferry from Sweden (shortcutting my trip in 1000 km).

I was very impressed with the 3 Baltic States. It’s difficult to say which one I loved the most. The weather was great all the time (25-28 ºC), which also helped a lot. The diversity of landscapes and cultural sites, in such small countries, is huge. National parks, medieval castles and fortresses, beautiful but small capitals, coastal resorts from the turn of the century… And, possibly, one of the best collections of Soviet Relics (I was already in the Balkans).

For those who wonder about the driving conditions in less organized/developed countries (in comparison with Sweden), me and my car survived 5000 km of:

  • being overtaken on both sides of the lane (sometimes even at the same time);
  • people not stopping on the red light (if cars were not coming);
  • lack of traffic lights on peak hours;
  • too many gravel roads (and asphalt with potholes);

And many more challenges! So, I absolutely recommend this trip!

Skål! – Drinking in Sweden

In Europe, along with Norway, Finland, and Iceland, Sweden is the only country with a state-owned alcohol monopoly. It was created to minimize alcohol-related problems, in a region where people drink more than average. In this way, selling alcohol only at one place, and placing heavy taxes on it, has a huge impact on consumption patterns.

In fact, I once read, that thanks to this system, the alcohol consumption had been reduced by 50%! In Sweden, during the week, no one drinks, and if you do it, you might get frowned upon. However, on the weekends, Swedes make up for the lack of drinking during the week. Though, they know how to behave, and they will never drink and drive, something that is still common in Southern Europe…

If you are in Sweden, you can only buy alcohol in bars or restaurants (but not taking it with you), or on these stated-owned shops. And you must be over 20.

Believe it or not, I’ve only been once to one. I don’t like drinking, so why would I visit Systembolaget? Because I was curious and wanted to check how much variety one can find there (I found some famous Portuguese wines!).

It is certainly an advantage not being a drinker in Sweden, where a beer can cost as much as 7€, while less than 2€ in Portugal. That is one of the reasons why so many Swedes like to go to Southern Europe on holidays!

Berry-picking in Sweden

Some say berry picking is a national sport in Sweden. Due to the Allemansrätten (Right of Public Access), anyone can pick berries (and mushrooms) in Sweden, provided they are not on a National Park or Nature Reserve. Surprisingly, you can even pick and sell them, and the “landowner” cannot do much about it (only regret that he should have picked them earlier). Most of the people pick the berries for themselves, because they love to bake cakes or make jam, or simply, just eat the delicious berries. Personally, I use most of my berries to make icecream!

The season is quite short, depending on how long the Summer starts, and if you are on the mountains or closer to the coast (earlier), but the time spans, more or less, from July until September.

From my experience, the most common ones are the blueberries. Any portion of forest will contain blueberries. A simple box of 125 gr costs 25/30 SEK, and yet, it takes around half an hour to fill a box with 5 times as much!

Lingonberries are also quite common but no so widely spread as the blueberries. They are easy to pick, because the berries are attached in groups of 10 or 20.

The raspberries are sweeter than blueberries and more difficult to find. It’s common to see some bushes completely depleted, because someone else has already gone there! I find most of them close to the coast, even on beaches, since they like sun and a sandy soil. Unlike raspberries in Portugal, which have huge and pointy thorns, making berry-picking a dangerous adventure, Swedish raspberries have not developed these advanced survival skills!

The wild strawberries are amongst the tastiest fruits I’ve ever tried. Before coming to Sweden, I had only seen them in Bosnia. We could easily buy them on the roadside, for literally nothing! I could never forget that taste… Luckily, I found them in Sweden, though only on Luleå’s archipelago. Like raspberries, they need some sandy soil and plenty of sun to blossom. Tip: they like Iron enriched soils, and there is an island where strawberries just pop out everywhere you look!

Finally, the “berry” on the cake is the famous cloudberry, those heavenly orange berries. Unfortunately, I never picked them. However, I tasted some desserts with them, and maybe I wished I hadn’t… Those berries are something to die for, but very difficult to find, only on some mountain areas. I went a couple of times to the mountains this Summer, but I haven’t seen them.

So, berry-picking is basically a nice Summer activity, that you can easily combine with hiking (though sometimes I regret carrying 1 extra kg on berries!). Then, it’s just freezing the remaining of the berries, so that you can have them available during the Winter =)

Rental houses in Sweden

Most of the Swedes choose to buy a house, over renting it. Over time, it is much cheaper to own a house. And depending on where you live, this gap might be quite reduced. However, renting a place, sounds more appealing if you are not sure whether you are staying in the same place or not. Plus, you don’t have to worry about maintenance, since your landlord will be responsible for it 🙂

What I really like about the rental houses in Sweden is how the whole thing works. Very organized, or it wouldn’t be Sweden.

  1. You get used to the fact that you no longer wash and dry your clothes inside. It might be weird in the beginning, but soon you will notice the benefits of using a drying room, instead of leaving the clothes for 2 days on a rack! You have to book the laundry time that best suits you.
  2. You won’t need to go too far to dispose of your garbage. Probably, just around the corner. Batteries, cardboxes, metal, glass, and even bulbs and electrical appliances can also be left there.
  3. Sometimes there is a communal sauna that you can book and use for free!
  4. There is a communal shed for people to keep the bikes.
  5. There is a parking space (at least, one) for every house, either a garage or a carport with engine heater.
  6. There is an organization/person always around that ensures everything runs on track, including ploughing the snow!

The drawback of the rental system is the famous queuing time, reaching some 15 years in places like Stockholm, but even in smaller villages inland, can take 6 months/1 year, due to the recent emmigrants/refugees influx.

There are also housing facilities for students and for elderly people, which is a concept I would like to see in Portugal. Old people who are still able to live on their own, but have special needs (doctor, medication, wheelchair ramps…) don’t need to worry about that. They can apply to one of these houses, and make sure there will be a health center and a pharmacy nearby. The same with students: they can rent a small room with kitchen and toilet (20 sqm), but still ensure they can live on their own.

The 3 Summers Theory…

…or: how to take full advantage of the best weather.

In Sweden, Summers are shorter and milder than in lower latitudes. However, with the climate changes, nothing is as it used to be, even in areas where the sun would shine for months in a row (Southern Europe). It is now possible to have 2 or 3 seasons in a day!

When you live in a country like Sweden, you want to take advantage of the best seasons – Summer and Winter – since those are the times where you can do more activities outside. During Spring, the snow starts melting, and you can no longer enjoy skiing, but not yet hiking. The Autumn is a bit friendlier, since you cannot ski yet, but there are still good opportunities for hiking, biking…

If you take this into account, and if you enjoy good weather, you will see that the best times to go on holiday (if you have no kids, and thus, are not subject to school times), are the Spring and the Autumn. You can have a first Summer, in Southern Europe, between March and April, and recharge your vitamin D levels. Then, enjoy the nice Swedish Summer, between June and August (still possible to do while you work, since the day lasts 18-24h). Finally, when the days start decreasing (Sep/Oct), you can get ready for another Summer, pretty much anywhere in Europe. This enables you to benefit from lower prices and get away from the high season crowds =)

Weird food habits in Sweden

Some time ago, I wrote a post about my favourite foods in Sweden. Now it’s time to unveil some weird habits of these adorable people!

I just came back from the supermarket, so I guess I am truly inspired!

1. First of all, in Sweden, potatoes are considered vegetables. The biggest advantage is saying one eats a lot of vegetables, even if only french fries! Even though I went enough times to the supermarket, I still run to the Grönsaker (=green stuff), before I acknowledge I have to go to the other side, if I really want to buy green stuff! Potatoes are yellow… I know, this is an old debate, because potatoes are a vegetable, botanically, but considered a carbohydrate, nutritionally, so the place where you will find it at the supermarket, depends on the country.

Before leaving the potatoes business, do you know there is a whole aisle with different kinds of potatoes? That is not so difficult to understand if we take into account the long Winters in Sweden, which in the past, prevented people from having fresh vegetables for great part of the year.

2. A lot of food comes in tubes. Which is not bad, just not normal, for most of us! In fact, it makes it much more practical to take it on a picnic (instead of carrying a glass jar), and makes the food last longer. Thumbs up for this Swedish idea!

3. The passion Swedes have developed for candies! And this one I cannot understand. Maybe because I never really liked them, even as a kid. And maybe because I tend to associate loving candies with being a kid. Right before the cashier, you will find one or two aisles with all types of candy you can imagine. It’s more or less like going inside Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with candy instead of chocolate. It’s really insane this passion – last time I flew, I had an old couple sitting by my side, eating bags of these marshmallows. And they were excited as kids, trying to match the car colours between them!

4. Amongst candies, the top choice is Läkerol, a liquorice candy that you will find anywhere in Sweden. I was offered some, on my first week here, and I still don’t feel ready to try them again!

5. Last, but not the least: the size of the containers and packages! If you buy cheese, you will be able to find easily 1, 2 and 5 kg packages (I don’t think we can find more than 1 kg in Portugal). But that’s nothing! You find pickled vegetables in 10 kg containers, and rice in 25 kg bags! Surprised? It’s nothing more than carrying a bag of cement! And rice is not even that popular in Sweden… I guess they should sell 50 kg bags in Portugal!