“Where’s the chamber pot?” I asked my husband at 2 am.
“You’re kidding me,” he mumbled. Wish I was, my dear, wish that I was.
If you ever wanted to know what life was like before modern conveniences, then look no further than your nearest Swedish stuga. Stuga is Swedish for “cabin or cottage, ” and they are generally pretty rustic—mostly because they were constructed sometime in the 1800s and electricity and running water were later additions.
Your classic Swedish stuga has low ceilings—people were shorter 100+ years ago—a wood burning stove in one or all of the corners, and if you have a fancy stuga, you’ll have more than one room with big heavy wooden doors. For whatever reason, my daughter thinks opening and closing stuga doors is the funnest thing ever and it keeps her busy for at least an hour.
Many of our Swedish friends have mentioned spending their Easter holidays and summer vacations “at the stuga,” and we always thought it was a second summer home. Many of them have inherited them from their parents and stugor (the plural form) are rich sources of childhood memories.
If you’re from the US, you’ve probably never experienced this blend of cabin/camping. Swedish stugor are a step above camping but not quite like the modern cabins you’ll find in the Maine or Wisconsin wilderness.
Spending time in a Swedish stuga is like stepping back into time. Once the iron key turns the lock, you are opening a time capsule. It’s easy to imagine life as a maid when there is not hot water on the tap, and you need to boil water for every round of dishes you need to wash.
Here’s a breakdown of how your time spent in a stuga:
1. Unpack your items and load up a dorm-sized refrigerator with as many groceries as possible
2. Start preparing coffee
3. Start preparing your next meal
4. Eat your meal
5. Boil water to clean up after the meal you just ate
6. Make more coffee
7. Dry and put the dishes away
8. Sweep the floor
(Unlike every other abode in Sweden, you are not expected to remove your shoes when entering a Swedish stuga. As a result, dirt and leaves are constantly tracked into the kitchen area.)
9. Leave the house for vacation-related activities like boating, swimming, fishing, etc.
10. Start preparing your next meal
11. Repeat steps 4-9 for 1-3 weeks
As you can see, most of your time is spent around preparing and cleaning up after meals. All of those modern conveniences like microwaves, dishwashers, and washing machines that save time are back in your modern house. You know, the one you joyfully left behind in search of a new adventure. Without all of those devices, you’re essentially taking on the role of an 1800s maid. In fact, that’s why Swedish families had maids. All of those tasks take up a lot of your day! But now we do it and call it a vacation.
Despite the moderate-to-hard labor, it’s easy to see why families love stuga life so much.
Stugor are located in one of four places:
1. On a lake
2. On the sea/ocean which may or may not be on an island
3. On a farmstead
4. In the woods
In all instances, the scenery is quiet, serene, and picturesque.
So…where do I poop? The woods? A chamber pot?
One thing that nobody really tells you about stuga life is the bathroom situation. Remember, this is 1800s living and they didn’t have bathrooms back then. So, where do you poop?
This is when stuga living is closer to camping than staying in a rustic cabin. I grew up camping in Maine, USA where we needed a flashlight to walk through the woods to trek to the building with toilets and showers. No biggie—I’ve used an outhouse before. Or so I thought…
We have had the pleasure of being invited to our Swedish friends’ stugor and have experienced the full gamut of outhouses. We’ve stayed in outhouses with electricity (really fancy and quite nice in the cold winter months), double hole outhouses—for when you need to poop but want to take a friend along for conversation, and the nonexistent-outhouse—a full bathroom located in another building.
Usually, the indication that the outhouse is in use is when the exterior lock is unlocked (pay attention to that signal) or if the door is left open.
Pro tip: Ask your Swedish hosts what the signal is and save yourself a potential embarrassing walk-in later on.
For the stuga we rented for our family vacation, we had the nonexistent-outhouse situation. We rented a two-room stuga with “access to a full bathroom in the house 30 meters away.” Fortunately, the sun doesn’t set until late at night during Swedish summers, so we didn’t need any flashlights to find our way. The bathroom was a full bathroom with a really hot shower, so the short walk across the grass wasn’t as much of an imposition as I had feared.
The downside of having a toilet in a separate building is that if you’re sleeping in a cot in the attic, as I was—accessible only by steep and shallow steps suitable for a submarine—you might not want to navigate down those death-stairs, out creaky doors, and walk the 30 m across the grass in the middle of the night just to pee out the little bit of water you should not have drunk at 10 pm. Now I understood why chamber pots were so popular before indoor plumbing became a thing. Where is a chamber pot when you really need one?!?
Stuga life means being outside…a lot
Stugor are small and you really don’t want multiple people (and potentially whiny kids) to be cramped in tight quarters with no WiFi, TV, or indoor plumbing, so you end up eating a lot of your meals outside. This is really great if the weather cooperates but we didn’t let a bit of snow slow us down when we stayed at our friends’ stuga in late February. Slap on another pair of snow pants because we’re eating lunch outside. (See pictures above and below.)
Not only is eating outside fun and different from what you normally do, but it also means that you eat differently. We ate a lot more grilled foods than we normally would because of our cooking and eating situation. Grilling also results in fewer dishes so, let’s grill every night!
Our summer stuga vacation was sunny skies and beautiful sunsets. After dinner, we took evening walks on dirt roads into the woods and peeked into old barns and farmhouses. We saw large beetles and it seemed like there was always a deer or wild rabbit in the fields behind the house. We even lucked out and saw a double rainbow over the meadow after a light rain shower.
The perks of roughing it
After staying in Swedish friends’ stugor and renting one for our family, I understand why stuga life is so attractive for so many families.
Stuga life is remarkably different from what you experience on a daily basis. Everyone unplugs because WiFi is a bit of a ridiculous luxury when you don’t even have access to a flushing toilet.
When you stay at a hotel, you often have all of the modern amenities that make a vacation truly relaxing but you are also still very much plugged in. There’s WiFi everywhere, TVs in every room, and it’s harder to get your kids to run around without their shoes on.
After a few days of stuga living, my kids didn’t want to put on their shoes again. We rode bikes, saw the local pigs, cows, and alpaca. (Maybe not what you’d expect in Sweden, but there ya go.) We spent more time outside, because the stuga was a bit small and the outside was so nice.
Families head off to their stugor to get away from the hustle, bustle, and the pull of modern life. So what if you spend an inordinate amount of time boiling water to wash dishes? Instead, we had a lot of time for talking, laughing, telling stories, playing games, and relaxing.
In reality, stuga life is pretty great.
If you’re not comfortable camping, then I can’t recommend a vacation at a Swedish stuga. Just like camping, I ignored my own advice and overpacked. But, if you’re feeling adventurous and can “rough it” for a short time, then you’ll love the family memories you make living a simpler, slower lifestyle.
You’ll also return to your house with a much greater appreciation than you’ve ever felt before. The first trip you’ll make when you walk through your front door will probably be to your warm, clean, and cozy bathroom. Taking a hot shower has never felt so good. Flushing toilets! OMG, I’m in heaven!
A stuga vacation will be one that you’ll remember and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s how we end up spending many of our future family vacations.
Until then, you can borrow some Swedish stuga living without ever hopping on a plane simply by eating your next meal outside and turning off your phone. I’ll probably skip the chamber pot as long as I have a functioning toilet, though, thanks.
Read more about Swedish summers here.