Dear Mum and Dad,
Hope you're all still well, and not too cold. It's a bit of a strange year, but we're finding plenty to keep us busy before baby number two joins the ranks in a few short weeks. The summer is in full swing. It doesn't get dark until 11pm, and the blueberries, raspberries and wild strawberries are ripe for the picking. And we have been picking them, which Elsie loves. It won't be long before the mushrooms start popping up, we've had so much rain. I always look forward to chantarelle season. We're all happy and healthy but I can't help missing you all anyway. And meat pies, proper beef sausages, pizza shapes, Chang's crunchy noodles, Saladas... the list goes on. Let's hope it's not too long a wait. Love, Lily, Felix, Elsie and bump
Welcome to Sweden
The night my husband and I arrived in Sweden, after a month or so of backpacking in Europe, the lanterns strung between apartment buildings lit the narrow streets of Gothenburg with a warm, yellow glow.
"I live in a city with cobblestones," I whispered to Felix, barely able to contain my excitement.
That night, we ate "Swedish tacos" which are similar to the Tex-Mex style Australians enjoy, but with a twist: peanuts.
After our very recent travels through Germany, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, I was simultaneously surprised, comforted, and maybe a tiny bit disappointed by the familiarity of that first meal.
My initial flood of Swedish experiences continued along the taco route. Familiar, with the occasional surprise peanut.
Every now and then, I was confronted by something particularly wacky, like Swedish ostkaka, which translates directly to "cheesecake" in name only, and perhaps resembles junket with the texture of a frappe. Hard to describe, and even harder to stomach.
It's worth holding out for aggost, or "egg cheese", a much tastier junket-like dessert, though the name is somewhat more offputting.
But, a lot of the time, I felt unnervingly "at home" - a feeling no doubt contributed to by Sweden's incredible proficiency in English, either the world's best or second best in English as a second language, depending on who you ask.
In Sweden, 'I can't, I've got a washing time' is an acceptable, polite rejection to a dinner invitation, often on a Friday or Saturday evening when it's easiest - and saddest - to find an available laundry room slot.
This made it hard to learn Swedish. Swedes, having been forced to learn English from early childhood, all the way through to their equivalent of the HSC, were excited to finally have an outlet, and clumsy first attempts at pronouncing new vowels were met with an almost flawless response in English.
The cost of living is also very similar. After being warned by every European ever that I was moving to the world's most expensive country, I was pleasantly surprised to note the cost of living here is very similar to back home.
Hopping from one continent to the other, I never feel like we're going to "the cheap country", but rather "the country with fresher fruit and vegetables" or "the country with better housing insulation". I won't insult the reader by pointing out which is which.
Beer and coffee are more expensive in Sweden, but both are stronger. In Sweden, it's common to simply ask for a beer, or even a "stor stark" which translates directly to "big strong" in both name and character.
Swedes are often surprised when ordering in Australian bars when their request for "a beer, please," is met with a "sure, which one?".
Despite this, and Sweden's habit of drinking shots of brnnvin - a 38 per cent Swedish schnapps which translates directly to "burn wine" - at any and all traditional celebrations, Australians consume more pure alcohol per capita than their Swedish counterparts, at 9.3 to 8.7 litres per year.
This could have something to do with the state-owned monopoly, Systembolaget - literally, "The System Company" - which is the only bottle shop in the country and holds strict opening (and closing) times. High taxes are also applied at a rate directly connected to each beverage's alcoholic content.
Sweden's uncomfortable history with alcohol abuse and egalitarianism has resulted in a strange method of displaying wealth and disdain for the working class, shown by few - but extremely unpleasant - members of the financially elite.
While Australians are familiar with the age-old tradition of spraying champagne on things, Swedish alcohol-wasters have come up with a creative solution to the practice being banned in clubs and restaurants.
Vaskning, or "sinking," involves ordering two of whatever you're drinking - the more expensive, the better - and demanding the bartender empty one into the sink.
Upon first hearing of this insane practice, I was gobsmacked. It would have to be approximately the least Swedish-sounding idea I'd ever come across. I can only imagine an Australian trying this on in a country where alcohol-related displays of wealth are usually confined to shouting everyone a round of tequila shots.
On the topic of beverages, "tea or coffee?" is the classic Australian hot drink offering, but it's not unusual to watch a Swede absentmindedly fill a French press (a quarter coffee, the rest water) and hand out cups while stragglers finish their meal. Tea doesn't get a look in, and neither does sugar.
While Swedes drink around 8.2kg a year of coffee per capita, Australia pales in comparison with a mere 1.4kg. I suspect it has something to do with the strength of the brew as well as the number of cups.
This country has turned me into a double-shot kind of coffee drinker. But Sweden is embracing the flat white, proving Australia isn't entirely without coffee merit.
Rounding off the report on legal drugs, the Australian smoking population would be unsurprised to learn that Swedes pay less for cigarettes: around a third of what Australians do. Rollies are basically nonexistent.
Still, around 13 per cent of Australians smoke, compared with 11 per cent in Sweden.
But there's a catch. Swedes use snus, which is illegal to sell in Australia. Snus is a moist tobacco product usually packaged in small pillows made from teabag-like mesh which are tucked under the upper lip, where the nicotine dissolves in saliva and is absorbed through the skin above the gums. Heavy snus users often have small, burned-out pits or indents above their top gums.
It's not uncommon to find dried up snus pockets stuck to the underside of bar stools, on bedside tables, lining gutters, in the forks of tree-branches, matted into the coconut fibre mulch in shopping centre pot plants, in your toddler's hand, basically anywhere you'd find old gum. Not a nice experience during a pandemic.
A big difference between life in Australia and Sweden is the kind of buildings people live in. I have a friend or two who have lived in apartments in Australia, but the overwhelming majority live in houses. In fact, only around one in six Aussie households live in apartments, compared to around one in every two in Sweden.
Unless you're really quite wealthy in Sweden, you have a choice: live in a house, or in a city.
Apartment living has its perks: free water, elevation, landlord-funded white goods, decent insulation and low maintenance, but can be hard to adjust to after life in spacious Australian houses.
All apartment blocks are different, but communal laundry rooms with bookable time slots are a fairly universal truth.
In Sweden, "I can't, I've got a washing time" is an acceptable, polite rejection to a dinner invitation, often on a Friday or Saturday evening, when it's easiest - and saddest - to find an available slot.
But it's not the end of the washing cycle, but rather, the end of the pay cycle that seems to have the greatest collective effect on Swedish social life.
Lnehelg, or "salary weekend" in Sweden is a big deal. The vast majority of Swedes get paid on the 25th of every month, or the last business day before if it happens to fall on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday.
This sees two predictable trends throughout the country: big spending and hard partying on the weekend following, and a spooky quiet on the weekend preceding. Budgeting around a monthly salary is not everyone's strong suit.
Then there are the classic concepts most people who know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland are usually aware of, like parental leave and The Cold.
The latter isn't worth discussing, largely due to the traumatic nature of vitamin D deficiency on a national scale and the boringness of complaining about the weather.
Parental leave, on the other hand, is worth noting. As a heavily pregnant person with an 18-month-old and a husband enthusiastically taking years of paternity leave, it's relevant to my interests.
In Sweden, parents get 480 days of leave paid at around 80 per cent of their regular income, which they're free to divide between themselves as they see fit, so long as each parent takes at least 90 days.
This last condition means Swedish dads spend much more time as the at-home caregiver than their Aussie counterparts, inspiring the comical term "latte pappa".
On top of this, both parents may, if funds allow, take the first 18 months of their child's life off work, unpaid, before using any of the government funded leave, and without repercussion at work.
Not only that, but all employees on parental leave must be considered for the same promotions as their working colleague, and accrue holiday leave at 50 per cent of the regular rate.
When parents do decide to go back to work, their children are guaranteed a place in government subsidised daycare that costs between $150 and $250 a month.
This kind of social welfare and prioritising of citizens' quality of life is a big part of the reason the population's trust in government leadership remains fairly unruffled, despite the country's recent infamy for their controversial approach to our shared pandemic.
At the time of writing, Sweden, with under half the population of Australia, has seen almost 2500 deaths, most in aged facilities and in-home care.
Sweden's faith in national leadership is not unfounded but, as an Australian, my natural disdain for authority prevents me from embracing it to the full liberating extent that my Swedish peers seem to.
There's nothing like the suspension of international travel to make you reflect on the place you've ended up. Sweden has its fair share of ups and downs, a melting pot of ABBA, IKEA, rotting herring, poor epidemic handling and questionable dairy products. Five years later, it finally feels enough like home to not feel homesick, but rather ''country-with-fresher-fruit-and-vegetables''-sick.