Doug Lansky has been living abroad and traveling for nearly 20 years in more than 120 countries. He is the author of 10 books, including two for Lonely Planet and three for Rough Guides. He has also hosted a Travel Channel show, served as a correspondent for Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler show, edited Scandinavian Airlines’ inflight magazine and contributed to numerous publications. He is also a frequent keynote speaker. He currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden. You can learn more about him at DougLansky.com.
Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?
A: That most people aren’t blond and everyone is tired of hearing your imitation of the Swedish chef on the Muppets.
Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?
A: That you’re not supposed to be outgoing with your neighbors. Most people here practically hide from them. I think I made some Swedes nervous with my initial greetings. At least, that was the case when we moved into an apartment in central Stockholm. Now that I live in a house in the suburbs, that’s not quite the case.
I remember one incident at that apartment when I saw a handwritten note on the entry door saying “we’re having a moving-in party.” I was on my way back from a trip abroad, so I was a bit too tired to read all the fine print. But I noticed the date (that day) and name (our new neighbor). Then I took two steps and bumped into that new neighbor — I had introduced myself to him before. We were the same age. “That’s cool,” I said, “you’re having a party. What time?”
He said, “7 p.m.”
“Great,” I said, and walked up to my door. I chatted a bit with my wife and then said, “So are we going to the moving-in party tonight?”
“I don’t think we’re invited,” my wife said.
“I just saw him in the hallway 10 minutes ago. He said to come at 7 p.m.,” I assured her. So we went. We were the first to arrive and among the last to leave. We had a great time.
The following afternoon, my wife and I bumped into him again. “Great party,” I said. “But strange that more of our neighbors didn’t show up. Quite rude of them, actually.”
“Why do you say that?” asked my wife.
“Because of the nice invite on the door,” I said, pointing to it.
“Did you actually read it?” my wife asked. I walked over and read it more carefully. The fine print said: “We’re having a party. Please tell us if we’re making too much noise and we’ll turn it down.”
My face turned red. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have a moving-in party and not invite their new neighbors. As my wife says, “It’s typically Swedish.”
Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?
A: Yes. I’ve learned to spend more time in supermarkets, preferably with a local who can point out those classic food items that their generation grew up eating and how to prepare all those unusual vegetables.
Q: Which tourist attraction in Sweden is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?
A: Skansen and Grona Lund. Skansen is some old historical transplanted and recreated Swedish houses and buildings combined with a rather small zoo. Grona Lund is a small amusement park with a surprising number of rides for such a tiny footprint — not much by Six Flags or Universal Studios standards. My kids loved both. But if you’re over age 14, I’d suggest the Fotografiska (Stockholm’s contemporary photography center) or Vasa Museum (a maritime museum). Better yet, just rent a kayak and paddle around the city.
Q: No one should visit Sweden without tasting _______.
A: The summer classic of herring, potatoes, sour cream and chopped red onion on crisp bread and (for dessert) Swedish strawberries with whipped cream. By any international standards, it’s not much of a meal, but on a nice summer day’s picnic by the water, Swedes think this stuff is paradise. Unexpectedly, I’ve actually come to appreciate it.
Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?
A: It really takes time to get to know people here; many have their network of childhood/high school friends nearby, and it makes me miss mine. As an expat you have — well, it’s not really carte blanche — an excuse to be a little extra outgoing and friendly, and many Swedes appreciate it.