I Was Mistaken for a Local in Sweden
Swedes Are Stereotypically Tall With Fair Hair
Spoiler Alert: I am a Brit not a Swede. I do not have blonde hair and I am not tall and willowy.
With those details out of the way, perhaps you can understand how unnerving it was to visit Sweden for the first time and be mistaken for a Swedish native. Flattering, yes, but disconcerting too. I seemed to have succeeded in blending in so well that people approached me to ask for directions. Or they would address me in Swedish in a way that assumed I was a local and fluent in the language.
This is the story of what happened when I was mistaken for a local in Stockholm.
Main Hall at Stockholm Central Train Station
Stockholm Central Railway Station
I stood in the large plaza of Stockholm train station. There were hundreds of people there. They were milling about aimlessly as they waited for their trains to arrive. Many of them were tourists and nearly all of them looked a little nervous, bewildered or lost. They were foreigners in a strange land and they were having difficulty making sense of their surroundings. They desperately searched the dense timetables for a symbol they recognized, for a currency they could relate to or even a few words in a language they could understand.
Out of thin air a middle-aged couple materialized beside me. The man approached me gingerly. He spoke very slowly, making sure he enunciated every syllable clearly and distinctly. He said “Do - you - speak - English?”
Do I speak English? Of course, I do. It seemed a bizarre question to be asked. I have spoken English all my life, as have my parents and their parents before them. But he had caught me off guard and I was no longer certain how to answer. I hesitated and then replied calmly and reassuringly. “Yes. I speak English,” I said.
The relief that appeared on his wife’s face was unexpected. She could not quite believe it was possible to find someone English-speaking in this strange place. Her unnatural silence was punctured. She needed to voice her troubles. Her inner-most soul babbled out. She told me how difficult it was to buy tickets, how impossible it was to find the right platform, the exit, the lift, how awkward to engage a porter, to exchange money. Her list of complaints went on and on and on.
I had arrived here just the day before, but I had bought a map and a phrasebook and I felt comfortable and at home. I had met nothing but kindness and courtesy and I did not recognize the hardships she described. I pretended her English was too quick and too fluent for me. I showed her how to use the ticket machine and wished the pair goodbye.
How do you react when someone asks you for directions?
Gamla Stan Old Town Stockholm
Fluent in a Foreign Language
I was sightseeing in Gamla Stan, the old part of Stockholm. The narrow medieval streets shaded me from the strong afternoon sun. Through a tiny window, I saw an artist creating delicate watercolors in sepia tones. I entered the studio and the artist greeted me warmly.
Although most of his visitors would be tourists, he did not waste any time with English words, but immediately chatted away in Swedish. I was embarrassed to admit I did not speak any Swedish and he was equally uncomfortable at his mistake as he had thought I was a local.
The Vasa Ship Which Sank Off Stockholm in 1628
Waiting for the Ferry at Stockholm’s Maritime Museum
As the evening shadows lengthened, I waited for the water ferry to take me from the Vasa Museum back to the City. There was a huddle of tourists waiting with me at the ferry halt. Across the water, at the far end of the bay, I could see the little boat making a turn towards us. As it steamed towards us, I made small talk to an elderly American. I enthused about the museum. I waxed lyrical about the weather. I was ecstatic about the scenery. The unassuming woman hung upon my every word. Her head nodded warmly in agreement with my views, but her mouth gaped like a goldfish as she became too emotional to speak. Her wonder silenced her tongue and her eyes brimmed with pent-up emotion.
Eventually she could no longer hide her excitement. “Oh my!” she said. And there was great sadness and a wishful longing evident in her words. “How I wish I could speak Swedish the way you can speak English!” Surprised, I stopped mid-flow, for she had clearly mistaken me for a Swede. I had no wish to destroy her fantasy, so I said nothing, but silently added, me too.
How to Blend in With the Locals
I am a well-seasoned traveler and so had automatically done several things to prepare for my visit. The key way to blend in is to be prepared.
Prepare for the obvious and prepare for the unexpected.
The video below gives an American’s viewpoint on how to prepare for travelling to Sweden.
Sweden vs America - What to Know Before You Visit Sweden
Be a Traveler Not a Tourist - Go Prepared
1. Understand the currency before you travel. Do some research online so you have an idea of the cost of travel and of eating out.
2. Never leave your base without knowing where you are. Carry a map or your cellphone. Write down the address of your hotel, then, even if you cannot pronounce it, you can show someone the address if you need help.
3. Learn a few words of Swedish. Most young Swedes speak excellent English, but they will appreciate your effort to communicate.
4. Swallow your pride and make full use of the local tourist bureau. They will help you book train tickets etc. and navigate timetables. It is their job to be helpful and they will not mind if you ask the dumbest of questions.