On April 6th, the Swedish Tourist Association launched "The Swedish Number" an actual phone number people from all over the world can dial to speak with a random Swedish person. The marketing gimmick is meant to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the country's abolishment of censorship and to educate foreigners about the Scandinavian country and the people who live there. So far, over 17,000 people from across the globe have called the hotline, expecting to speak to Swedish people who, without any training or instructions, have agreed to talk to strangers about their homeland. This afternoon, I called the number as well.
Much to my surprise, I found myself on the phone not with a Swedish citizen but with Daniel Ddida, a 25-year-old student who's originally from Butaleja, Uganda. Ddida has been living in Sweden for the past year and a half while studying environmental engineering at the KTH Royal Institute in Stockholm. He signed up to answer calls for the Swedish Number because he thought it would be important to give callers an outsider's perspective on the Scandinavian country. "It's different to hear about Sweden from a Swedish person than someone from another country," he told me. After nearly thirty minutes on the phone with him, I agreed.
I called expecting to speak to a Swedish person
We spoke about his passion for the environment and how Sweden's environmental profile — the country has continually ranked as the most sustainable in the world for years now — drew him to study there. He told me about his travels to Lund, Malmo, and Gothenburg in the south, and how he'd like to travel up north to see the midnight sun. Ddida talked about his love of fika, the country's habitual daily coffee break, and kanelbullar, Sweden's answer to cinnamon buns. The waterways that flow through Stockholm — the city is often called the Venice of the North — have created a city-wide "feeling of calm," he says. The whole country is beautiful, according to Ddida, although much, much colder than his home Uganda, where it's summer all around.
Life in Sweden, Ddida says, is much different than in Uganda. The character of the people is different. He's noticed that Swedish people are very reserved if they don't know you personally. "They can hold back a little bit until they get to know you a bit more," he says. "Ugandan people... you could be seated in a public transportation bus, and you've never met the fourteen people in there, but within a minute you've already kicked up a conversation with everybody like you've known each other for ages."
I was the third person Ddiba had spoken to through the hotline. The first was a woman from Turkey who wanted to practice speaking Swedish with him. He chatted with her for a bit, but was forced to confess that his Swedish was in fact very poor and so they said their goodbyes. Then he got a call from a student living in Australia, who coincidentally was originally from Turkey too.
Swedish people are very reserved if they don't know you personally, Ddida says.
While I only called The Swedish Number once and Ddida was the only person I spoke with, in a strange way I felt like I got a better sense of Sweden — a country I've never visited — than I would ever had speaking to an actual Swedish person. I got to see Sweden close up through the eyes of an outsider. Ddida was my surrogate, sunken deep into a culture deeply different from his own and fascinated by it.
If you had to choose to hear about a place from someone who sees it as ordinary or someone who thinks it's extraordinary, which would you choose? After talking to Ddida I'm keen on the latter. If want to call Sweden yourself, the number's +46 771 793 336. If you talk to Ddida, tell him I say hi.