I spent my tenth birthday in Sweden. I haven't been back since, but I would go in a heartbeat, and stay with Johan and Ulla and get to know my little Swedish relations, who are now all bigger than I am. (Little Lars, the first baby I really got attached to, is now 18. Meep.) We landed in Norway on that trip, spent some time in Norway first and then went on to Sweden. (Then Finland, then back to Sweden, then Denmark, and then back to Norway. But that's not vital to this story.) And we were just off the train in Stockholm for the first time, having dinner at Johan and Ulla's apartment, and Mom and Grandma were on and on about Norway, how wonderful it was, how it was the most beautiful country they'd ever seen. Well, I didn't know Johan all that well then, and it just did not seem like a good idea to me to be praising a neighboring country to the high heavens while sitting at his dinner table. So after Grandma repeated, "Norway is the most beautiful country I've ever seen!" for about the third time, I smiled as winningly as I could at Johan and Ulla, and I said, "Of course, we haven't seen much of Sweden yet."
Johan, being Johan, laughed and said, "You have brought me a little Swedish diplomat." Well...yah. I don't have a great reputation for tact, but that's generally deliberate. It's like a gentleman not accidentally giving offense: I do that. From what I've seen, Swedes pride themselves on that. It's something of a general Scandinavian self-perception (this is one of the reasons why "Finlandia" resonates with me), that they are now a region that fixes problems with talk and deliberation. The other bit of it is that they are sometimes so darned obvious about it -- like me, at 9 -- that it makes me laugh. And when they think something is important, they're willing to be bulldogs about it, even when it would no longer be considered socially inappropriate in a lot of American circles, and I found that fascinating and appealing as a kid.
When I was 9-turning-10, my impression of Sweden was that the people were a good deal more closed-off than Norwegians, more inward. Now I'm not sure that what I saw wasn't the difference between a big city and a mid-sized city. Stockholm's population is something like three times Oslo's, and I've seen the difference that can make with myself and the Bay Area vs. Minneapolis. There are ways in which I can keep open body language and eye contact here that I just couldn't in the Bay Area, and I'm sure some of that is local culture, but I don't think local culture is independent of population.
We spent a fair amount of our time in Sweden on family farms and estates, and they were lovely, and they felt very familiar. They felt very much like my family's farms here, but some of the history had gotten stuck in the place -- it wasn't really just in people the way it is here.
I guess the main thing that's coming out about Sweden when I write about it (in fiction, I mean) is that it's very much in the middle, and for the most part it always has been. The obvious bits are Germany and Russia, and that balance has shaped Sweden for sure. But I also think that being between the Saami and mainland Europe is a bigger factor than is immediately obvious. Even now, even in the 21st century, some of Sweden is populated by nomadic reindeer herders. That can't really help but affect how your country sees itself.
I was raised on tales of stubborn, heroic Norway, and when I got older I found the stories of brave little Finland myself. It's fairly easy for Sweden to fall between the cracks in family lore: going along to get along is not the sort of stance we enshrine in story and song. But individual Swedes have done a great deal more than that, and Raoul Wallenberg did not arise out of nothing. One of my family's dear friends in Sweden, Liesel, is not ethnically Swedish. Ethnically she's Austrian Jewish. She was 10 years old when they brought her across in the hold of a fishing boat. I'm not sure that Sweden as a nation could have done anything truly substantial to save her original parents from the death camps. Not selling iron to the Nazis might have been a start. But I do know that thousands of Swedes very quietly said, no, not this child, not on my watch, and while their government let German troops use the railways and the communications lines in their invasion of Norway, they made room in their families for kids who otherwise -- no melodrama, just fact -- would have been dead. And that makes a country, too. Certainly it made Liesel a loyal Swede.
That last paragraph assumes something that probably isn't true for most of you: a childhood spent listening to an endless discussion of whether Sweden should have fought, whether anything would have been better if they had. My family's personal ties are stronger to Sweden. Ideologically, though, it's Norway all the way. History is extremely personal for my family -- I've said, haven't I? that when I was small and people talked about the bad word you were not to repeat, I was confident that I knew that word, and that it was Quisling. The arguments about Sweden always ended with, "Well, it might have been better or it might have been worse, but this way we have Liesel." I think that kind of ambivalence, that kind of conflict, is good. It's real. It's...better world-building, is I guess what I want to say, and I already told you it'd be a personal skew on the subject.
One more thing: my great-grandpa absolutely did not want to go back to Sweden. Would not have gone if you'd paid him. He told my dad that the only way to get him back to Sweden would be hogtied and thrown in a sack. We never did find out why.