I was one of those kids who believed in Santa Claus for too long. I read a lot of fantasy and Sci-Fi growing up, too, so I had certain (socially awkward) beliefs about the presence of magic in our everyday lives. Then there was the part where I would pray to certain saints for help depending on what they were in charge of in the Catholic Church. St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, was a particular favorite of a forgetful, 14-year-old me.
As time went on, however, the importance of those superstitions faded. I still harbor some residual faith in magical beings and say an “Our Father” every time I take off or land in a plane, but that’s about it.
It was only when I moved to Austria that superstitions became a source of interest again—and this time, because the superstitions seemed so strange. Then, of course, I had to check the Austrian superstitions against the Swedish ones, and there were more than a few similarities.
For example, it’s very dangerous for a girl to sit on the pavement or on steps when it’s cold outside. The cold will penetrate your you-know-what, and you’ll get a life-threatening urinary tract infection. When you get a cold, it’s important to eat—no, not citrus fruits, but garlic; this remedy is usually taken raw, sliced, and mixed with yogurt.
My all-time favorite, although I think this is an Austria-only superstition, is definitely the Topfen Treatment. Topfen (also known as Quark, Weißkäse, or Kesella) is a lot like cottage cheese, and in Austria, it’s a common filling for desserts. When my friend, Elaine, got carpal tunnel syndrome in Vienna, her doctor told her that surgery was unnecessary because all she needed to do was let her wrist rest in a good amount of quark, as the cheese would “draw the inflammation out.” Right.
The first time I encountered a superstition in Sweden, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that there was a lot of laughter going on with the serving of a cake, and my boyfriend’s mother was violently shaking her dish until the slice of cake fell on its side. Now I know that—of course!—if your slice of cake falls over, you’ll never get married, which is just the way Malena wants it.
Then I learned in my Swedish for Immigrants class that people don’t really cross their fingers to wish you luck here. They hold their thumbs. If you see someone waving their clenched fist at you—don’t be alarmed. They’re just wishing you good luck.
Then there’s the magic surrounding Midsummer’s Eve, which definitely falls under the label of “magic I’m totally willing to believe in.” According to legend, if you pick seven kinds of flowers in complete silence on Midsummer’s Eve and sleep with them under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future husband. (This one is hetero-woman specific, sorry!)
I was really excited to try this out, so I picked my flowers in silence and slept with them under my pillow. Unfortunately, I got confused by the fact that we were celebrating Midsummer on Midsummer’s Eve, so I picked my flowers on Midsummer’s Eve’s Eve… it’s confusing. You understand why this was an easy mistake to make. (Right? Right?) In any case, my sleep was dreamless. I guess I’ll just have to make up my own mind!
Another one I love in weather-obsessed Sweden: if it rains on your wedding, you’ll have a long and happy marriage. I won’t say anything against this one because it rained (very briefly) on our friends’ wedding day, and of course I want it to stand as an omen of good luck. What I will say, however, is that if rain on your wedding day is a serious objective, getting married in Sweden is a great idea.
This guy is not threatening you or asking you to join his movement. He’s wishing you good luck, obviously! Photo: Artbandito (CC BY-NC-ND)
The more you know, the more dangerous it gets. Apparently stepping on manholes with an “A” on them is bad luck, and now I try to skip over them, even though I don’t know how or why they would possibly give me bad luck. What’s more, there’s kind of a lot of them once you’re paying attention. Leaving your keys on the table is also bad luck, a belief that supposedly dates back to ye good olde days in Sweden, when prostitutes would signal their availability by leaving the keys to their rooms on the bar.
At times, these little tips come in handy. Instead of having to be paralyzed when you meet a black cat on the road, you can just say “tvi-tvi-tvi” over your shoulder instead and keep on marching on. Instead of just knocking on wood, you can add a little chant: “peppar, peppar, ta i trä!”
I tried to read more about superstitions, but I quickly ran out of English-language texts, and the Swedish sources used so many words that were not in the dictionary that I had to give up. I imagine it’s like how I vaguely know the difference between a sprite, a dryad, a gnome, an elf, and a troll from children’s books and nursery tales. It’s these pieces of cultural information that I’m still missing more than a year into living in Sweden, and this kind of cultural literacy that is just as difficult to attain (if not harder) than language skills.
Being an expat—it’s a journey of a million teeny-tiny steps, and without knowing my destination, I can tell you that it’s one hell of an interesting trip.
A final message from the one and only Stevie Wonder: