Parental Guidance Advised

I knew that Swedish parents were hands on before moving here. I had seen it often enough while observing families during our summer vacations to Småland.  Frolicking with their kids at the beach and holding their little berry stained hands while strolling through the forest. But it’s easy to play with one’s kids by the lakeside on a sunny summer’s day while on holiday.  I wondered if they got their hands as dirty during, say, weekday winters. Well, now I know. They do.

My first clue was the ubiquitous gåbuss, which literally means walk-bus in English. One of the parents on our street approached me shortly after the school year started asking if I wanted to join our street’s gåbuss. It works like this: there are five families on our small street with kids who go to the same school. One parent from each family walks everyone’s children each day. Which means that you only have to walk your child to school once a week. Or once every other week if you have one of those awesome Swedish men who love child-care duties. This idea is so sublime in its simplicity that I caught myself wondering what the catch was. But there is no catch and everyone does it. Every morning, starting at 7:30 am, I watch wave after wave of gåbuss gangs streaming past my kitchen window. Each gaggle of kids is led by a sleepy parent – one representing each street in our neighbourhood. Imagine only scrambling to get to work on time one out of every ten days. Genius.

The gåbuss - why go it alone?
The gåbuss – why go it alone?

But this is merely a highly efficient means of organizing the mundane time demands of daily life. Where Swedish parents really show their grit is during extra curricular activities. Yes, Canadian parents volunteer coach their kids’ sports teams and carpool to matches too. But Swedish parents take things to a different level.  Take my daughter’s local ski club for example. It’s a hill owned by our local municipality so it’s a low frills kind of place. I volunteered to coach weekly and was feeling rather smug about the commitment I made to my kid. Then came the first race. A call went out to all parents asking for participation. Aside from the usual tasks like handing out race bibs and gatekeeping, these parents were expected to go above and beyond the call of duty. Among other volunteer parent positions to fill that day were the following: lift attendant, slope maintenance, parking lot attendants, and time keepers. I met one parent who told me that she had worked on snow making duty until 3 am the night before! This would be unimaginable in North America due to liability fears alone, not to mention that few parents would be willing to sign up for any of these jobs to begin with.

Ever dream of being a liftie?
Ever dream of being a liftie?

I haven’t been here long enough to judge whether or not Swedish parents are better.

But one thing’s for sure – they are definitely better organized.

The Brighter Side of Darkness

Given that today is the winter solstice – the shortest and darkest day of the year – I feel compelled to make a couple of brief follow up comments about my last post.

There have been some inspiring moments this week, allowing a few chinks of light to shine through.

The photo at the top of this post is of a rose bush in our front yard, taken after a light snowfall this week. The roses were planted by my husband’s paternal grandmother approximately 70 years ago and are still in bloom, even on the darkest day of this year.

And an event that moved me to tears: the Lucia procession at a tiny, magnificent church built in 1623, located around the corner from my home. Images simply don’t do it justice, but I’m including a couple anyway to try and show you what Swedish children do this time of year to embrace the darkness and infuse it with serenity and beauty.

Lucia queen
The Lucia Queen – her candles are real

One last thing: Swedes do NOT have the highest suicide rate in the world. Several people brought this up after my last post about the darkness. It is simply a myth. There is no link whatsoever between levels of darkness and suicide. Sweden doesn’t even rank in the top ten. It does not even have the highest suicide rate in Western Europe.

For more facts on this topic, click here and here.

It Only Feels Like Midnight

It’s confession time. I’m somewhat afraid of the dark.

Ever since early childhood, I’ve had to turn on all the lights before entering a basement. Waking before the crack of dawn has always made me a bit anxious too because it takes me back to my teens when I had to rise regularly at 4 am to crisscross the state of Vermont for ski races. And I’ve never really been a night person either. I usually feel sleepy a few hours after darkness descends and feel like going home to bed. For someone who has never been totally comfortable with the dark, I’ve certainly picked a humdinger of a place to live.

Continue reading It Only Feels Like Midnight

Nature on Tap

It was a hot, sunny day eight years ago, sometime in the weeks following the birth of my first child. We were visiting Sweden and pulled off the highway en route from Stockholm to Oskarshamn to visit my newborn’s grandparents. He was wailing in the back seat and we were tired and sweaty. My husband made an abrupt exit.

“What are you doing?” I asked, impatient to get to our destination.

“We’re going for a dip”, he replied casually.

Continue reading Nature on Tap

Top Dogs

With all that high-fiber cracker bread, omega-rich herring and wholesome New Nordic cuisine focus on foraging ingredients from the wild, you probably imagined that Swedes have one of the healthiest diets in the world. I did at first too. Turns out we were both wrong.

The markets might be bursting with plums, wild mushrooms and lingonberries, but what your typical Swede is probably longing for right at this very moment is a hot dog. After 2 months in situ, I now understand how deeply embedded hot dog culture is in the psyche of this otherwise gastronomically healthy nation.

Continue reading Top Dogs

Education – Swedish-style

While vacationing here two years ago, I got my first hint that something had gone haywire with the Swedish education system. At the time, I stumbled upon an article highlighting Sweden’s free fall in the 2012 OECD PISA rankings. Of the 65 participating countries, it had experienced the greatest single fall over a 10-year period in mathematics rankings, with a similar trend in reading and science. The Economist produced an especially good info-graphic representation of the results where Sweden’s decline is so sharp it practically looks vertical. The national angst, accusations and hand wringing soon followed.

At the time, I noted it with interest but took the news with a grain of salt. Yes, the test results were low but in the real world, the Swedish economy is robust, innovation is high and Swedish youth are among the happiest in the world. Critics of comparative tests note that the results can also be misleading because they fail to account for social and cultural assets that contribute tremendously to quality of life and productivity. The top-ranking countries are found predominantly in East Asia, where intensive 8-hour school days are followed by evening and weekend cram schools. Strong in mathematics, yes. Well balanced, not so much.

Continue reading Education – Swedish-style