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Photo: Einar Aslaksen

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From Östersund to Trondheim – A great Scandinavian roadtrip

Scandinavia, Scandinavia, where art thou, Scandinavia? It’s easy to talk about Scandinavia as one unified region, but what’s life like on the border of two of its countries? We sent Einar Aslaksen and Johan Kellman Larsson on a road trip to find out.

Prince sang “Sometimes it snows in April” – but in the heart of Scandinavia the white stuff can even fall in May. It’s the beginning of the month in north Sweden and spring has suddenly stopped in its tracks. As if it had changed its mind. We leave Östersund in a violent blizzard. People look like exhausted cross country skiers as they lean into the wind battling their way forward along the self-illuminating streets. Have we already hit the Scandinavian nail on the head, before even reaching the first stop on our road trip towards Trondheim in Norway? The dramatic changes in the weather have set their stamp on the people who live at these latitudes for thousands of years. One consequence is that the population has become relatively weather fixated. 

Danish carpenter Martin Nielsenis used to working in all weathers. Brattlandsgården in Åre, Jämtland.

An hour later, as we head due west on Highway E14, we’re just outside the Swedish skiing metropolis Åre, we get a sense of exactly this. We’ve barely had time to say hello to Martin Nielsen before he says, “We had summer temperatures here two weeks ago. On a day like this, you miss the sunshine but it’s still pretty beautiful anyway.” 

The 42-year old Danish joiner looks towards the most famous mountain top in Scandinavia, Åreskutan, that peaks through the dark gray sky. 

A hunt for the Scandinavian soul

A bit later, we stamp the snow off our shoes in the hallway of Brattlandsgården, a youth hostel dating from the 19th century. Nielsen has been working here every day for the past few weeks, including replacing the windows. He laughs when I tell him that in our hunt for the Scandinavian soul, talking to him – a Dane who lives close to the border between Sweden and Norway – would make our job simple. Nielsen grew up in Roskilde, Denmark, then lived from time to time in Norway before settling here in Åre (with a Swedish wife) 15 years ago. So, which nation does he most closely identify with?

“I feel I’m Scandinavian. Nordic, in some way,” comes the response.

“Is it even possible to talk of a Scandinavian mentality?” I ask Nielsen. “I think so,” he says, adjusting the collar of his lumberjack shirt. He then starts talking in terms of “we” meaning not just Swedes, but Danes and Norwegians too. 

“We take ourselves a bit too seriously, perhaps. And we should learn to take things a bit easier. We get too stressed. Many people probably think there’s a difference between smaller and larger towns in Scandinavia, but I think this somewhat stressed mentality is pretty much the same wherever you go.”

In Sweden you shouldn’t stand out from the crowd

Even though Nielsen identifies himself as Scandinavian, he still has a soft spot for his mother country, Denmark, he explains. This comes out in sporting contexts, for example. 
“When it comes to the soccer World Cup, I support Denmark of course. Having said that, I have two teams to cheer on. If Denmark get knocked out, I can always put my hopes on Sweden.”

’How do you feel Norwegian or Swedish, what’s the difference, really?’

When I ask if he can also see any cultural differences between the Scandinavian countries, he starts talking about perhaps the most famous Scandinavian of modern times – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  
“He, if anyone, is a fantastic role model. I think there’s something incredibly admirable about people who succeed against the odds.”

At the same time, plenty of people are skeptical about Zlatan, I say, due to his equally well-documented in­defatigable self-confidence. 
“That nails the Swedish mentality in one – you shouldn’t stand out from the crowd. And if you do stand out, in the sense that you’re very good at something, you absolutely shouldn’t boast about it. That’s one way in which Denmark and Sweden differ. Showing off is not as controversial in Denmark, I don’t think. That’s one way that Denmark is closer to the continent.”

Heading towards Storlien

It’s still snowing heavily when we leave Åre and continue our journey westwards. Can we find more Scandinavians if we get closer to the Norwegian border? Our next stop is the classic Swedish ski resort of Storlien. When we turn off the country road, we can see the contours of the mountain tops, the untouched wilderness, the family-friendly slalom piste. From here, it’s only 10 minutes by car to the Norwegian border. 

And you notice it straightaway. On the surface, it’s now hard to tell which country we’re actually in. The local bar serves Norwegian beers. In the large food store car park, both Norwegian and Swedish flags flap in the ice cold mountain wind. The signs in the window promise “low prices” in Norwegian and both Norwegian and Swedish newspapers are on sale inside. That Swedish food stores close to the border are “Norwegianized” in this way is not purely a sign of welcoming Swedish hospitality. 

The little village of Storlien (registered population 48) is extremely dependent on this spiraling cross-border commerce. As we head down towards the village, we pass an enormous plot of land where a 10,000sq m shopping center is due to rise in spring 2020. When you check the statistics, it’s easy to understand why. Low Swedish food prices and the Norwegian sugar tax contributed to Norwegians shopping for the equivalent of €1.6 billion in Sweden last year. 

“The border is no more than a line on the map” 

Another sign we’re close to the border is that many of the people we meet in Storlien talk a kind of mix of Swedish and Norwegian – locals like Lena Flaten, who runs the popular Flammans Skafferi restaurant in the heart of the village. I ask her what the relationship between Norway and Sweden feels like so close to the border here.
“The border is no more than a line on the map. The vast majority of people who live in Storlien have come from somewhere else, which means they’re not that bothered about origins. We don’t differentiate between this nationality and that nationality here. It’s very borderless in this way.”

Lena Flaten founded Flammans Skafferi. The raw ingredients they use here are sourced from nearby forests and waters.

Flaten, 47, offers us coffee. She was born in Norway but moved to Sweden 20 years ago. She’s still a Norwegian citizen but when I ask her which country she most identifies with, it immediately gets complicated. 

The cozy Flammans Skafferi in Storlien.

“I feel I’m… I actually don’t know. How do you feel Norwegian or Swedish, what’s the difference, really?”

That’s probably not an unusual view. The historical, cultural and geographic closeness between Norway and Sweden makes the Öresund strait between Sweden and Denmark seem like a moat, especially this close to the border – the province of Jämtland, which includes Storlien, changed hands between Sweden and Norway 13 times in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, when I ask Flaten which country she supports in the skiing World Championships, her answer is more singular. 
“That’s impossible to answer, as I cry no matter whether Therese Johaug (Norway) or Stina Nilsson (Sweden) wins,” she smiles.

A better specimen of a Scandinavian-stamped mindset in a nutshell would be hard to find. When it comes to skiing, the countries are at war with each other as a rule. 

The Jante Law

Can you even talk about a kind of Scandinavian soul, or at least a collective mentality, I ask her. She quickly exhibits a similar line of thinking as Martin Nielsen. The one about that most infamous Scandinavian code of conduct – the unwritten Law of Jante. 

“We Scandinavians aren’t that good at boasting. We’re afraid to stand out, but I don’t think we should be. We should be proud of who we are. And praise each other, so we get better together. I’m only the messenger for this, it’s the farmer that has done the hard work,” Flaten says, pointing to a smoked and cured leg of lamb that she’s just cut a few slices off.  

‘I’d probably call myself Scandinavian for want of a better description’

“I prepare the meat to the best of my ability, but when I serve it, it’s the farmer I praise. If he, in turn, thinks I’ve done a good job, hopefully, he will return the compliment.” 

A borderless relationship

Everything Nielsen and Flaten say about the borderless relationship between Norway and Sweden in particular, is confirmed – literally – when we cross the border. You hardly notice you’ve done so. 

Det är ganska lätt att missa gränsskyltarna mellan Norge och Sverige.

The customs office is easy to miss altogether. There’s no sign of any border police and the wine red building could easily be mistaken for housing any local organization at all. A slope, coal black mountainsides on both sides of us and hey presto, we’re on Norwegian soil. Here in Meråker, the first Norwegian municipality you reach after crossing the border, we’ve arranged to meet two Norwegians, Lars Berg and Ole Fredrik Haarsaker. The latter says he’s one of the Norwegians that live closest to the Swedish border. Haarsaker runs a mountain cabin site, Teveltunet, a stone’s throw from the invisible border. He also brews his own beer here, 30,000 liters per year, that he markets as “Norwegian beer, made with Swedish water.”

When I ask the pair about the ties between Norway and Sweden, sport as a bonding power once again comes to mind. Berg tells us about the time Rosenborg, the Norwegian soccer team from Trondheim that was the most successful Scandinavian club for many years, met Malmö FF in the Scandinavian Royal League tournament in the mid 2000s.  
“Rosenborg won the match. And the headline in the [Swedish] Östersunds-Posten the day after was: ‘We won!’ That says a great deal,” says Berg. 

Berg takes us to Verksgården in Meråker, that he is involved in running. The house, which was built in 1929 and is now available for private hire, was originally used for business entertaining by the smelting works, which was the main employer in the village for many years. Every last detail in the beautiful timber house, from the furniture to the drapes, has been preserved from the year it was built. It’s like sleeping in a museum. 

Sweden, Norway and Denmark are becoming ‘as one.’

The following morning, we leave Meråker and drive on towards Trondheim. For the first time in two days, the weather is clear and dry. The sun shines through the windshield. In central Trondheim, we eat lunch at the popular Sellanraa Bok & Bar. A waiter tells us about a Swede who has opened a wine bar nearby. 
“I wouldn’t like to say I have adopted a Norwegian persona, but I’ve probably reached the point where I feel it’s easier to express myself when I speak Norwegian,” says Oskar Sköld in perfect sounding Norwegian. 

Sköld, 28, has lived in Norway all his adult life. “After the financial crash in 2009, I thought I might as well move to Norway,” he says, “as it was so difficult to find work in Sweden.” He’s been here ever since. 
“I don’t feel as though I have any specific cultural ties to Sweden any longer. Nor to Norway either, to tell the truth. And that’s also around about where this Scandinavian thing comes in – that Sweden, Norway and Denmark are becoming ‘as one.’ When you’ve lived in another country for ten years, borders start being rubbed out, or at least that’s the case with me. My brother has lived in Denmark for a long time and he feels the same way – that Sweden and Denmark are incredibly similar. I’d probably call myself Scandinavian for want of a better description.”

When I ask if he can name the similarities more specifically, he mentions the strong welfare states as common Scandinavian ground. 
“I feel that there’s a sense of tremendous gratitude. Even though there are also big challenges, people have things relatively good here. For the vast majority of Scandinavians, it’s self-evident to pay tax. It’s also brilliant that I as a Swede can do what I want here, even without being a Norwegian citizen. When I wanted to study, I had no problem getting financial support from the Norwegian state. And when I wanted to open my own wine bar, there were no obstacles.”

Is everyone used to it occasionally snowing in May?
“Of course. Everyone has grown up in the same remote, cold, windy place. There was actually snow on the ground when I came to work this morning.”

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