Food culture

Even though Swedish culture is very similar to Dutch, the small little differences are often the most interesting ones. For me, moving abroad has given me a lot more insight into a different culture than I would have ever had by just being a tourist. Sometimes small differences make me think. Not only about Sweden or the Netherlands, but I get curious how things work in other countries. One small difference between the Netherlands and Sweden is food. Obviously every country has their own typical dishes, but I also find it interesting to see what kind of role food plays within a culture.

As some of you might know, the Netherlands doesn’t really have a food culture. There aren’t many world famous dishes, apart from the cheese we make. And you will probably have a hard time finding a Dutch restaurant outside of the Netherlands (apart from some places on the Spanish Costa Brava and Costa del Sol, where a lot of Dutch tourist spend their holidays). Dutch food is only appreciated by Dutch people and is in general not that healthy either. A large part of the Dutch “kitchen” consists of deep fried meat (like bitterballen, kroketten and frikandellen) and french fries with mayonnaise. You can get this type of food in restaurants (mostly targeted to kids there) or at so called snack bars, but it’s never regarded as good or high class food.

Next to no national dishes, we Dutch people don’t really have a food culture. Food isn’t a big part of festivities and parties. There isn’t a typical dish we serve for christmas or easter for example. If something is typical for a festivity, it’s mostly candy or pastry. During the Sinterklaas celebration kids get a lot of specific candy like pepernoten, chocolate letters and marzipan. And for New Years Eve, we bake oliebollen. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Sweden on the other hand has true national dishes, of which the meatballs (köttbullar) is probably the most well known (made famous by IKEA). In most cities there are restaurants that serve husmanskost or food that you’d make at home. These dishes often contain some meat (balls, bacon, schnitzel, etc), lingonberry jam and potatoes. Also, food is a big part of festivities. Every christmas a julbord is served. This is most of the times a buffet with all sorts of food like meat balls, herring, salmon, ham, etc. The contents of the buffet tend to define if it was a good julbord or not. Forgotten dishes like Janssons Frestelse or the creative addition of  previously unknown dishes will render a julbord mediocre.

Christmas isn’t the only celebration that includes food. Typical Easter food (or påskmat) is egg, Janssons Frestelse, herring and ham, mostly served as (surprise, surprise) a buffet. It’s actually pretty close to a julbord, but with a bit more focus on eggs. For midsummer it’s typical to eat fresh cooked potatoes with soused herring and strawberries with whipped cream for desert. For Saint Lucy’s Day Swedes eat saffron buns and for Fettisdagen they eat semla, a pastry mostly filled with whipped cream. In general Swedes tend to be very religious about their food in combination with festivities. No christmas without julbord, no Fettisdagen without semla, no Easter without påskmat. Something the Dutch don’t really care about. As long as there is food on the table.

Next up: drinking culture!




One of the things that differ between Sweden and the Netherlands is the way that birthdays are celebrated. In the Netherlands, when it’s your birthday, you bring treats to the office (or school) to share with your colleagues. Mostly people bring cake or some pastry. And in some places your colleagues even buy you gifts. In Sweden, this is very different. First of all, people don’t tell others when their birthday is. Not even on the day of their birthday. Because of Facebook, this has changed a little, but birthdays at the office a more of a non-thing. So no cake by the birthday boy/girl. Sometimes, but only sometimes people at the office might spontaneously sing you a birthday song.

But there is more. In the Netherlands we congratulate people with the birthday of other family members. When I had just moved to Sweden, I asked one of my colleagues if he had any plans for the weekend. “I’m going up north to visit my parents, because my mother is celebrating her birthday this weekend.”. “Congratulations!”, I said, but he gave me a look as if he saw water burning. “Emh.. what?”, he responded. “It’s not my birthday, so you shouldn’t congratulate me..”. I had never thought about this, but in the Netherlands we congratulate people with the birthday of others. It’s rather normal and maybe even expected. “Thank you”, is the obvious reply. But this got me thinking a bit. In the Netherlands, we don’t only congratulate much, we over-congratulate. Often at parties, people congratulate other guests with the birthday of the person organizing the party; even to strangers: “Hi, I’m Wouter, congratulations!”. I’ve always felt quite uncomfortable with this. Not so much the congratulation part, but the fact that it’s customary to introduce yourself to everybody in the room. Some Dutch parties are celebrated by people sitting in a big circle in a living room and those often call for mandatory circular introductions. My introduction is often “Hi I’m Wouter”, accompanied by a weak hand wave to everybody after coming into the room, instead of shaking everybody’s hand.

On that note, circular parties are the worst. I truly hate them. As I wrote, people sit in a large circle in the living room. The host keeps asking people what they want to drink and keeps running back and forth to the kitchen to get beer, coffee or something else, together with cake. Since everybody sits in a circle, there is often only one person talking at a time and most often, it’s the same person. The most awkward and uncomfortable moment comes when the conversation drops dead and no one says anything anymore. The first person that can’t stand the awkward silence any longer will then try to restart the conversation by uttering “dus..” (so.. in English) and failing to do so, until someone else comes up with a forced question to any of the others in the circle, like “Hey Jan, I heard you went to Greece on holiday. How was your holiday?”.

Once I got invited to a birthday that I knew was going to be circular. Me and a friend drove there and in the car we discussed our shared hatred for parties like this. We agreed that when the awkward silence had come and someone would utter the highly anticipated “dus..” we would leave. And so we did. Attendance: 45 minutes.

Update: I forgot to mention how birthdays are celebrated in Sweden

On the other hand, birthdays in Sweden are mostly celebrated by having all guests in the living room and people sit or stand wherever they want. The host provides some food, cake, snacks and soft drinks, but everybody brings their own alcoholic drinks. The drinks are shared though. This is another difference and my guess is that this is mainly done because alcohol is pretty expensive. In the Netherlands, the host visits the supermarket and buys a few crates of beer (typically containing 24 bottles), but in Sweden, almost nobody buys whole crates at System Bolaget (the state-run liquor store), simply because it’s way too expensive. I quite clearly remember my first birthday party, where I showed up with a small gift, but forgot to bring (my own) beer. Luckily people understood that I was just a stupid foreigner and helped out by sharing.

The way Swedes deal with alcohol is a story by itself, so to be continued..

Avoiding confrontation

Looking at Swedish social interaction from a Dutch standpoint, Swedes sometimes seem somewhat more closed then I’m used to. After a while here, I noticed that Swedes often try to avoid confrontation. It’s not only avoiding confrontation with strangers, but it happens at work or even at home or with family and friends. I have many examples, but one situation I think, is a true gem that captures much of Swedish confrontation avoidance.

Imagine you’re in a supermarket, down in aisle 5 and you’re looking for lingonsylt, but you happen to be at the wrong side and half-way is another person standing, bent over inspecting different sorts of knäckebröd, blocking your safe passage to the other side. What do you do? If you’re Dutch, you will probably continue straight and kindly ask the person if you could pass. If you’re Swedish, it’s very likely that you turn back and use the next aisle that is not blocked, circling around the obstacle and approaching the lingonsylt from the other side.

I’ve seen this quite a few times and when asking people why they didn’t just go straight though, they didn’t even realize that they took a detour just to avoid having to ask someone to step aside. Very polite I would say. On the other hand, I don’t think that people actually mind being confronted and asked to step aside (or at least, I’ve never gotten any annoyed or frustrated reactions when I was being very Dutch and came dashing through the aisle).

Another interesting example is jumping queues. If I would jump the queue in a Dutch supermarket, most people behind me would complain to me and would kindly point out that the queue starts behind them. I don’t think you’ll get in a fight if you then ignore the comments, but some hard words might follow. In Sweden, this works differently. If you jump the queue, you’ll probably hear some people coughing a little louder then normally, but it usually ends there. No words, nothing. I’ve asked people why they wouldn’t confront the perpetrator with the fact that they jumped the queue and some answered something like “well, maybe that person is really in a hurry, has a sick child at home to take care of, or at least must have a good reason to do so, so I guess it’s ok“. Which in itself says something about how social and empathic a lot of Swedes are.

I must honestly confess that I sometimes take advantage of this and jump the queue, without feeling too guilty.


A difference between Dutch and Swedish is the way you use numbers. Swedish is similar to English, where the groups of ten come before single digits, like 23 is “twenty-three” (Swedish: tjugotre). However, in Dutch we switch things around: “twenty-three” becomes “drieëntwintig“, which means “three and twenty“. This is similar to the German dreiundzwanzig. 

Strange? It can be stranger.. Like the Danish number system.

The time, the clock..

An interesting detail in Swedish I bumped into last week is the fact that the word for clock is used for describing time. In English you would ask “what time is it?“, while in Swedish you would ask “vad är klockan?” (what is the clock?). “The clock” is also used when telling time: “klockan är 7” (the clock is 7 / it’s 7 o’clock). Interestingly enough, English uses the clock as a substitute for “hour” here as well, but that’s only used for whole hours; in Swedish you would say “klockan är kvart i 7” (the clock is quarter to 7), while in English you would say “it’s a quarter to 7“.

This is different in Dutch, where we use the word for hour when talking about whole hours; “het is 7 uur” (it’s 7 hour) and “het is kwart voor 7” (it’s a quarter to 7). Half hours in Swedish are similar to Dutch: “half 7” or “halv 7” means “half past 6” (although I’ve heard native English speakers using “half 7” as well). Where it gets complicated for me as a Dutch native is when using the minutes between a quarter past the hour and a quarter to the hour, where in Dutch, we use a somewhat strange construction. Twenty minutes past the hour (say twenty past 4) would be “tien voor half 5” (ten before half past 4) and “twenty to 5” would be “tien over half 5” (ten past half past 4), while Swedish follows the more English variant of “tjugo över 4” and “tjugo i 5“.

Using the clock for time looks like Swedish efficiency to me; when the clock is something abstract, we talk about time, otherwise, it’s an actual clock (“var är klockan?” / “where is the clock?“, “hur stor är klockan” / “how big is the clock“), but we just use one word.

Pro-tip: Swedish articles

Swedish has two indefinite articles: “en” for common nouns and “ett” for neuter nouns. Like en lampa” (a lamp) and “ett bord” (a table). Definite articles are mostly expressed by a suffix like “lampan” (the lamp) and bordet” (the table). In Dutch, we have a similar system, but there is only one indefinite article (“een”) and two definite articles (“de” for common nouns and “het” for neuter nouns). Unlike many latin or slavic languages, you can’t deduct the nouns gender just by looking at it; you just have to know. This is true for Dutch (as far as I know) and many Swedes will tell you the same thing, but in Swedish there is a rule that can help somewhat. Apparently about 90% of the nouns (don’t pin me on the exact number) that end in an “a” are common (and thus use “en” as the indefinite article). Exceptions I’ve found so fare are öra (ear) and öga (eye), but if you know more, please leave a comment.

As a native Dutch speaker, I sometimes try to take the lazy route and use the same gender as in Dutch, but unfortunately this doesn’t always work out well. For example the word for table is a common noun in Dutch (de tafel), while it’s a neuter noun in Swedish (bordet).

Somebody must have misunderstood somewhere

I’m not fluent in Swedish, so quite often I have to guess words when I try to speak. By knowing English and Dutch (and basic German) and given the fact that those languages all somewhat belong to the same group of languages, I have access to quite a large set of words to choose from to make a somewhat educated guess of what a particular word would be in Swedish. I noticed over the last couple of years that picking a Dutch word as a base for translation often leads to a more successful translation then when picking an English one. Since I mainly speak English at work and more then half of the time at home, I think in English, but I’ve often found myself saying “ah, that’s just like the Dutch word!” when asking people for a translation from English to Swedish.

But there are a few words that sound similar or might even be in the same area, but do have a different meaning in Dutch and Swedish. One typical example is the Swedish verb springa (to run), which is very similar to the Dutch (or German) verb springen (to jump). They both are a movement, but not the same one. I automatically translate to “to jump” instead of “to run”, which might lead to me jumping of a bridge instead of running across it.

Unfortunately I’m not a linguist, but I’m curious how this difference came to be. Somewhere, a long time ago, some viking must have mistaken the Dutch guy jumping off the bridge for him running off the bridge.

How the Vikings slaughtered the French

One of the more funny uses of foreign words in the Swedish I find is fåtölj, which means arm chair in English. The first time I saw this word written somewhere, I couldn’t figure out what it was, until I said it out loud. Then it’s obvious that the word comes from from the French word fauteuil, but has been completely butchered to make it into a Swedish looking word (complete with å and ö).