Moving to Sweden, I’ve learned a few particular Swedish words & concepts so incredibly useful that I’m shocked more English speakers haven’t adopted yet. Lagom‘s star is on the rise and mysig‘s Danish social cousin hygge is getting it’s day in the sun, but the Swedish culture has produced a wealth of words the value of which goes much deeper than a mere definition.
Soon we’ll be marking the anniversary of five full months living here, and I’m slowly getting better at the language. I can (usually) be trusted to get the right thing at the store, and can even read entire books so long as they’ve been written for very small children. Luckily I have a few of those around, so I feel a little less conspicuous checking out a big bag of board books at the library.
Along the way a few words have struck me as something we need to
steal adopt in the English language, asap.
It’s Like Hygge, But For Introverts
For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid the marketing barrage, hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) is a concept defined by the Danish as that warm & fuzzy feeling of togetherness you get when your group just clicks- topped with a dash of mindfulness, wellness, and a good thick layer of indulgence to complete your buzzword bingo card.
And the internet has eaten it up like a big tin full of butter cookies.
In fact (and likely in a bid to protect it from marketers and internet lifestyle gurus running it into the ground), Danes are applying for “hygge” to be given World Heritage status by UNESCO. That’ll put it in the same status as other intangible cultural heritages and traditions such as Belgium’s beer culture and the ancient Indian practice of yoga.
But despite the huge hygge hype, the Danish social ritual is just that – social. However, it’s easy breezy to mysa like a Swede whether in a group or just on your own.
Making Magically Mysig Moments
Mysa (mee-sah; the verb form) is described as that pleasant and warm atmosphere that makes your heart glow with a quiet contented joy, as if you are unwrapping a small chocolate made of your happiest childhood memory.
In the winter mys might take the form of wool socks warmed by the fire, snuggled up in a blanket quietly sipping from a steaming mug, and being surrounded by the ever-present glow of soft candlelight while the snow softly falls outside.
Springtime mysa looks like flowers and bonfires, picnics and barbecues – plus lots of time off work to enjoy the holidays and warmer weather with family.
A mysig summer might be going with family to a summer cottage, hiking or cycling or berry-picking in Sweden’s countryside, or sailing it’s archipelago. It’s lots of outdoor living under brilliant blue skies and days that never truly end.
We haven’t been here yet for autumn, but I’m told it’s arguably Sweden’s best season (which believe me, after this spring is really saying a lot because it’s been absolutely lovely). I’m looking forward to mushroom season, scarves and mittens, and the excitement that slowly builds into the twinkly Christmas season.
There’s even Fredagsmys (Friday coziness) – the tradition of a cozy family night watching TV together, cuddled up on the couch after a taco dinner. (Double Swedish points if you put diced bananas on those tacos – it’s super yummy!)
Mysig is about simply enjoying the moment and perhaps even making a memory or two – even if it’s in your own unique way.
The world’s best coffee break
Sweden is heaven for a gal with an unabashedly deep coffee addiction and a sweet tooth particularly primed for pastries. It seems like everywhere you go in Stockholm, there’s a chance to have a cozy little fika close by.
More than a ‘quick cup of coffee’ at work, at its heart a fika appears to be an excuse to carve some time out of a busy day to enjoy simple pleasures (topped with a little indulgence).
Get yourself some sweet adventuring gear from the Shop and support GEEKBOLD. Win-win!
While the internet abounds with time management gurus and career coaches extolling the benefits of ‘self care’ and interspersing ‘deep work’ with regular breaks as if it’s a new phenomenon, in Sweden it feels like it’s practically a cultural mandate.
It’s hard to argue that life can’t be improved by including a strong hot cup of espresso and breaking bread with friends in the form of fikabröd (literally ‘bread for fika’, usually a pastry or muffin) or a full on smörgås (sandwich, often open faced and still a mystery to me of how to eat it. Knife and fork? Attempt the impossible and try to fold it? Live with the shame and mayo-mouth of just diving straight in? Baffling!).
The Swedes have even combined the two as the much-celebrated smörgåstorta (literally sandwhich cake), an efficient feature of mid-afternoon celebrations feeding hungry, happy guests all over the country.
Of course fruit is always an option for anyone a bit more health conscience and kids can join in with some juice or milk in place of anything caffeinated.
And although the fika invitations I’ve gotten have usually been for mid morning or mid afternoon, I have yet found a time when Swedes won’t drink coffee if it’s available- morning, noon or evening. Full strength too! The disbelieving stock boy who helps me hunt down decaf talks pityingly to me like I’m his senile auntie.
My favorite fika treat to pair with my cuppa have been a vanilla-almond pastry called a princesswiener, a decadent triple chocolate muffin, and of course the ever present kanelbulle (cinnamon roll). Where in the US they’re most often found topped with a royal icing glaze, here in Sweden you’ll find them liberally sprinkled with pearled sugar for a more satisfying (and less messy!) crunch to each delicious bite. Calories- what are those?
Not Too Much, Not too Little – Just Right
A Goldie Lox balance between what you want and what you actually need. It’s not a call for austerity, but a holistic approach to moderation. Take enough for yourself, but leave a fair share for everyone else to enjoy too.
Simple living, sustainability, work/life balance – these concepts feel like they’d fall under the umbrella of lagom to me, an American struggling to find sanity after decades of being taught bigger is better and to super-size everything because it’s such a great deal. It doesn’t help that I come from a family with major hoarding problems.
But more just breeds more. A bigger house and yard means higher bills, more stuff breaking down, more to mow. Extra cheese on my burger means extra hours exercising it off. Keeping up is wearing me down.
And judging by the rising trend of intentional downsizing and growing industry focusing on decluttering, I’m not the only one interested in a less stressful and more sustainable lifestyle.
What makes lagom such an interesting notion is not that it’s a quick-fix, but a long term mindset that everyone deserves to live their life well. You, your neighbor, the guy at the grocery checkout More breaks during the workday (like, say – a fika?), decluttering, simplifying, and finding other little ways to de-stress your life and boost productivity.
And so I’m personally trying to practice more lagom in my life. Keeping the things that spark joy Kondo-style and tossing anything that just leads to more stress. Doing my best to save my time, money, energy, and physical space for that which supports a lifestyle in which I am able to build relationships and care for my family better.
It’s not easy and I’ve got a long (long) way to go, but already I’ve made some huge strides and that’s enough to make me feel finally free and happy.
The Right to Roam
In Sweden you can walk, hike, bike, swim, ski, forage and camp on any land that’s not a private garden, farm, reserve, or obnoxiously close to someone’s house or animals.
This Freedom to Roam is considered a fundamental right as well as a responsibility to take care and preserve nature and wildlife for the future enjoyment of everyone.
Yes, you are welcome to hunt for kantarella (chanterelle mushrooms) and pick wild berries even on land owned by someone else, just so long as you don’t damage anything that would keep someone else (or even future you!) from sharing in the fun. And don’t forget to tidy up behind you!
As the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says: “Don’t disturb – Don’t destroy.”
Oh, Swedish wordjamming – I love you so much that I’ve coined the English “wordjamming” for you.
Mobildagis (mobil = mobile phone & dagis = daycare) is a wonderful example of this common Swedish habit smushing words (or parts of words) together when they need a new one. In fact some Swedes will get downright indignant if you use the uncompounded versions, telling you you’re wasting time using the long version.
Just make sure no one grabs the wrong phone at the end of the night, or they won’t be able to text you the next day about the great time they had.
To Not Have the Energy
Back when we were first considering moving here to Sweden I got all sorts of well-meaning advice about how gruff and unfriendly Swedes were, but that has not been my experience at all.
As a card-carrying introvert myself, I feel like in Sweden I’m among like-minded people in a way that feels increasingly socially unacceptable in America. It seems like there’s been more respect for my personal space than I sometimes got back home.
Or at least no strangers have tried to have a 20 minute conversation with me about their grand kids while we’re waiting in a checkout line.
While I’m often willing to help out or chat, I’m also constantly exhausted by days filled-to-bursting with the constant clamor and chaos small children create by just existing. Add to that the noise of the modern American life: the great backlog of media you have to stay current on or risk a spoiler at the watercooler, gadgets and games to stay on-trend, keeping up with the constant treadmill of multiple social media channels, and all with the steady grind of advertising behind it?
Ya’ll, I don’t have the energy.
And thanks to the Swedish, I now have a response for when I’m being told to bring an elaborate dish to yet another children’s class party and up springs that bone deep feeling of “nooooooo”.
“Orkar inte. I just don’t have the energy,” I can say as I drop off a tray of store-bought cupcakes instead, and you are welcome to try it as well. It’s not a no because we don’t want to or because we don’t care. It’s an acknowledgement that everyone is dealing with the ups and downs of our own lives as best we can, and that no one can rightly complain if you need to shift some things to the backburner for a bit.
If they do, just eat their cupcake.
Literally: Sun Cat
Simple enough: a spot of sunlight reflecting off a surface such as a watch or phone screen, often right into someone’s eyes.
According to Hunter I have fantastic aim with these- especially if he’s driving.
A person who gets anxious even thinking about putting down their phone to spend some time real facetime with the world. (From “no mobile fobi” or ‘no mobile phone phobia’)
Literally an “ugly parker,” like those jerks who take 2-3 spaces to park their cars or trucks.
Something that’s ungooglable – a rarity in this day and age.
Swedish for a turtle or tortoise, it literally translates in English to “shield toad”. 🐢
You will never convenience me this word didn’t come about because of a drunken midnight story told by vikings around a fire.
Although this is simply the Swedish word for weather, I like to think Anakin might’ve been hedging his bets so if the whole Sith Lord thing hadn’t panned out he could still get a job as a Swedish TV meteorologist.
“Don’t underestimate the power of this cold front.”
Did you find any new favorites? Have one that should’ve made the list?
Tell me in the comments below!
Please note this article is for general edutainment purposes and not meant to be taken as a sweeping characterization of all people living in Sweden. This country has proved to be wonderfully diverse and I wouldn’t want anyone reading this post to get any other impression than that people are just people, the whole world over. That’s what makes travel so fascinating!