Moving to Sweden two years ago, to live with my partner, I learnt that summer is to Sweden what winter is to Delhi—short, long-awaited and much missed. After spending 30 years in Delhi, I have fond memories of the city’s winters. During my first winter in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, I couldn’t help but compare the two. In fact, I realised that the land of cold and dark winters, as it is known in common parlance, had a lot to teach me about the season.
In Delhi, come winter, the air would turn crisp and chilly, and the sunshine warm and soft. All the stocked-away winter clothes were brought out. It was finally time to enjoy the outdoors. At home, weekends meant that meals were moved out to the verandah to soak up the winter sun. When in the mood to splurge, weekend brunches with friends were planned at one of the many alfresco cafés near Hauz Khas. During office breaks, a cup of chai and steaming hot Maggi from roadside tea stalls was always a winner. The occasional family gathering at Lodhi Gardens or the India Gate lawns had us all sprawled on the grass until the sun disappeared behind the clouds.
Winter was the perfect time to indulge in piping hot samosas, jalebis, kachoris and pakoras from street stalls across the city, and mouth-watering kebabs, parathas and daulat-ki-chaat, best had in Old Delhi. The weather was just right to revel in the city’s heritage—walk the narrow gallis of Chandni Chowk, explore Mehrauli’s monuments, listen to qawwalis at Nizammudin Dargah, or just enjoy the calm at Humayun’s Tomb.
Even as winter turned the mornings misty and dreamy, on some days the smog reduced visibility to an arm’s length, making the drive to work a challenge. With houses better equipped for the hot summers, I’d find myself covered from head to toe, feeling rather immobile and needing a push to get out of the warm razai. I still remember how getting ready for school in the wee hours of morning seemed like torture.
When I first arrived in Gothenburg, in the summer of 2016, I fell swiftly in love with the good life of the Nordics. Fresh air, open spaces, ease of navigation, and nature right in the heart of the city—Gothenburg had everything I missed in Delhi. I explored the city on foot and cycle, visiting churches, art galleries and museums, and went hiking in the woods to pick berries and mushrooms. Sunny days oft had the city’s parks, beaches and lakesides run over with sunbathers, with the sun setting past 10 p.m.
By October, as fall set in, I added on a layer of warm clothing and stepped out to capture the landscape awash in fiery reds, yellows and oranges. The weather was just right to enjoy Swedish staples, meatballs with mashed potatoes and fish soup with freshly baked bread.
Then came the winter. “How do you cope with the cold?” my friends and relatives would ask me when I visited Delhi. Truth be told, winter in Sweden turned out to be an experience just as memorable as its glorious summer.
With the land and its people attuned to the extreme weather, it almost seemed easy. To begin with, the heating and insulation was perfect. Stepping into any indoor space had me quickly shedding the layers down to light and comfortable clothing. Small practical details, such as pegs under bar counters to hang your jacket and muffler while you enjoy a drink, were taken care of. I found video calls with family in Delhi most amusing—while I lounged comfortably in shorts, with the wind and rain lashing outside, they would be huddled up in layers of woollens in far warmer climes. The timeliness of public transport—bus, tram and boat—allowed me to clock myself so as to not wait in the cold. The “formidable” season of Sweden was turning out to be way more comfortable than an average winter day in Delhi.
The outdoor winter gear was impeccable. I bought a warm coat and thick stoles to add on to my Delhi winter wardrobe. The locals were well-equipped to enjoy the outdoors—hiking and cycling, and running, despite wind and rain. I was amazed when a Swedish friend parked his six-month old baby outdoors in the pram in -4°C. “Babies sleep better in the outdoors,” he quipped.
Towards the end of November, the days became shorter, and the city started to light up—traditionally for Advent (the arrival of Christmas, four weeks prior to the day), as well as to keep the darkness at bay. Julmarknader (Christmas markets) sprung up in the central square, in the in the charming, old neighbourhood of Haga and in the many slotts (castles) around the city. These made for good places to pick up woollens, traditional baked goodies, varieties of cheese and smoked meat. Churches rang with concerts and choirs, and squares with impromptu music. An evening in Liseberg, one of Europe’s biggest amusement parks, had us transported to a Christmas wonderland. Every year from November 16, the amusement park is decorated with millions of twinkling lights and hosts the biggest julmarknad in Gothenburg. The countdown to Christmas had begun.
The sun became an infrequent visitor, and on the days it did shine I found myself stopping in my tracks just to feel its warmth on my face. Soon after, came the magical first snow—powdery flakes falling softly, settling on the red-tiled sloping roofs. Snowy evenings called for lighting the fireplace and roasting marshmallows to dip in hot chocolate, amidst the chatter of friends.
As schools closed down, families started to bake together. A memory I still savour is of a traditional Advent fika (a Swedish coffee break, enjoyed with sweets) at a Swedish neighbour’s house, or ‘a glögg party,’ as it became during Christmas. The table was full of fresh, home-baked goodies. I was introduced to crispy pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) in the shape of reindeers and Christmas trees, soft lussekatter (saffron-flavoured buns shaped like curled up cats with raisins for eyes), and the drink of the season, glögg (mulled wine with blanched almonds and raisins). These shared space with the quintessential fika suspects— black coffee, kanelbulle (cinnamon buns) and chokladbollar (chocolate balls).
Saint Lucia Day, celebrated on or around December 13, is a traditional Swedish custom. I excitedly bought tickets to watch the Lucia in the neo-gothic Oscar Fredrik Church, my favourite church in the city. It was a beautiful candlelight procession with young boys and girls clad in white robes, walking down the aisle singing. The prayers could be heard much before they entered, and the Lucia Princess, leading the procession was a vision to behold.
By then, daylight hours in the city had reduced to six, with the sun setting by 3.30 p.m. The promise of brighter days ahead came with the winter solstice on December 21.
Finally, it was Christmas. In Sweden, December 24 is the highlight of the festival and celebrated as an intimate family affair. In contrast, the julbord, or Christmas buffet, on offer in several restaurants from mid-November, is usually enjoyed with friends and colleagues. After the ‘glögg party’, it is this meal that I remember the most. The julbord is all about traditional Swedish food. It begins with a cold spread of cured meats—salmon, shrimp, ham, pork, elk, reindeer, liver pâté-—along with varieties of pickled herring, bread and cheese. Swedish meatballs, sausages, pork ribs, Janssons frestelse (creamy potato casserole) are the few warm dishes that follow, served with cabbage, potatoes and beets.
In February, not long after the festive lights had dimmed, I found out that Sweden has a winter break called sportlov or sports holiday—about a week off so that people can go ski. My first ski lessons were in Ulricehamn Ski Centre, an hour’s drive from Göteborg, where four-year-olds zipped past me. Not surprising, as they are introduced to the sport just as they start walking. Ice-skating on frozen lakes is the other big draw. While I walked rather tentatively on the frozen Delsjön lake, keenly aware of the large body of water under me, I saw children skating and enjoying pulka (snow sledge) rides without a care in the world. School curriculums in Sweden include teaching life skills, such as climbing safely out of thin ice, if you fall through. No wonder.
Before I knew it, spring had come knocking. As the sight of fresh sprigs of grass and flower buds warmed my heart, I realised I had survived the notorious Nordic winter unscathed, and was ready to welcome many more.
There are no direct flights from India to Gothenburg. They require at least one stop at a Middle Eastern or European gateway city such as Dubai, Istanbul, Paris or Amsterdam. Indians need a Schengen tourist visa to go to Sweden. Application forms and travel documents can be submitted at a VFS centre. Processing time is 12 working days (vfsglobal.se/india/index.html; single-entry visa Rs6,084).
Nidhi Dhingra travels with a curious mind, a sketchpad and her taste buds; finding treasures wherever she goes. She weighs life with friends made and experiences gained. Blue skies and open landscapes make her heart sing like nothing else can.