Germans tend to think everything would be the same in Sweden – but better. They watch to many love movies taking place in beautiful Bullerby-settings. So they are extremely surprised when I tell them about all the differences. One of them is how to interact with strangers. Or not to interact at all. At least in Stockholm.
As I come from the Rhineland (Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bonn) the difference tends to be double as much as if I would have been grown up in Northern Germany. “Rheinländer” are called to be the Italians of Germany.
If he wants to hear it or not.
We don’t care.
Everytime I left the house I last lived in in Düsseldorf I met at least one of my eight neighbours on the stairways. Sometimes even more, as they were already talking there for a while. Older ones sometimes tend to wait until they hear steps on the stairs and then they “accidentally” have to leave their apartment, too.
In Stockholm I never met any neighbor. Ever. As most people here look through the door viewer to check if anybody else might be using the stairways. They even close a half-opened door again to avoid – whatever. I have no idea what exactly they try to avoid. Maybe they only get a special amount of “Hej”s when they are born and have to save some for the future?
Many original Swedes told me that they also do it. So I only meet others when living in a very international area with lots of non-scandinavian migrants.
Some days ago I it drove me crazy not to know any face around me. So I hunted an old lady. She was on her way to our house. Her legs were shorter than mine. Bad luck for her. I shouted “Hej!” She tried to run inside, ignoring my outburst. I decided her to be ready for confrontation with a strange German. So I repeated my “Hej!”. Without turning her face she answered “Hej”. And ran for her life.
It often happend that my tenants to be did not own a printer for our contract. I proposed to asked a neighbour to use his printer.
“Oh, I don’t know who is living there.”
“Did you move in here recently?”
“No, I live here since seven years.”
AND THEN YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS?!
That happened several times.
Importance of respecting each others privacy in Sweden
In Sweden it is very important to respect each others privacy. That has many positive sides, too. You don’t have to fight for your space. Nobody is ever getting on your nerves. But also nobody will ever disturb you by ringing the door bell and asking you to borrow sugar/use the printer/watch the dog/buy something in the supermarket or get married.
When I spent time in Germany some weeks ago I was still in my Swedish mode. I use to change that mentally when landing. German mode: expressive, talking, looking in other peoples eyes. Swedish mode: polite, quiet, making place for others. At least I try that. Might still be seen as an awfully loud person by Swedish natives. But luckily they would be to polite to tell me that.
After landing in Düsseldorf an unknown pensioner approached me and complained about his lost suitcase. As I’m not wearing a Lufthansa-id anymore I wondered why he chose me. Then I reminded me to be in Germany again. He did not choose me. I was just the first person passing him that could be used to get rid of his anger.
In my Swedish mode I felt stressed. And fled to the toilets. There I ran into a joking group of elderly women. Who also included me directly into their fun. I never spent as much time in a toilet cabin before.
But that’s Düsseldorf:
You leave the house and when ready talking to the neighbours, you talk at the subway station. Then you talk in the subway with someone. Then you buy some food and the cashier makes a comment (E.g. “Do you also love that salad? Me, too.!”).
Discretion? We don’t know that word in Düsseldorf
And people tell you everything. Really everything. Especially elderly women. Example? Me sitting at a bus station. Elderly woman arrived, watched me for a while until I gave in and asked her why.
“Oh”, she said, “You can be very happy!”
“In your age men are not impotent yet.”
“It’s not funny to become older! I tell you..”
And then she told me. About the impotency of her husband. How she betrays him with a younger man. And gave me lot of sexual advice.
Things like this happen to me all the time. Maybe I look like “Ask Miss E.”. Or maybe it’s just Düsseldorf.
The stressful sides of the Rhineland-mode
It surely has disadvantages, too. If you are in a very bad mood for example. In that mood where you would like to kill anybody who starts talking to you. Ever tried to avoid contact to strangers in the Rhineland?
You may try to build a wall between you and the others in the subway by unfolding a huge newspaper. But I promise you: there will be this one person reading the other side of your newspaper. And this person will surely say something as: “Oh my, God. Isn’t that awful with the plane crash in Kuala Lumpur?!”
If you manage to ignore that voice behind your newspaper for more than four stations: Congrats, you are my hero!
We all tend to enjoy the social habits we grew up with
Swedes are very friendly and patient when you ask them for a way or need some other help. And when you have a hobby where they can get to know you in their social speed, it’s great. But in everyday life it feels as if they were coated with Teflon.
I’m at home 90% of my time and not in an office, where the behaviour in public could be compensated a bit by meeting colleagues. That’s why coming from Stockholm to Düsseldorf always is like diving into a huge bowl of Mousse au Chocolat for me. Headfirst. My heart becomes warm. And the batteries of my soul load again. After one or two weeks I have inhalated enough warmth to live in the worlds most beautiful city for a while again.
So, beside some important objectives as the good health system that force me to always keep one foot in Germany, these social habits are the most powerful reason why I probably never will be able to live in Stockholm 100% of my time.
That’s sad. I always dreamt about living here completely. And I gave it at real try now. Maybe it’s like with this special type of person you passionately fall in love with: you can’t with. And you can’t without. And then you discover you don’t have to decide. You just live the balance that’s right in each moment.
So, Stockholm, my love, after 25 years of increasing long part-time-living I will go on with this balancing act between Germany and Sweden, spending as much time as possible with you. Somehow. For sure.