When the politicians listen

When students graduate from Sixth Form College in Sweden, they go on a procession around the city. Part of the route takes them through Sergels Torg, a heavily-trafficked square in the centre of Stockholm. Politicians decided at the weekend that the students would not be allowed to go through this area this year.

And there was a public outcry. The students started a Facebook group and demonstrated against the decision. And today, the decision was rescinded. The students can go through Sergels Torg as they have always done.

On the tv, they interviewed the 19-year old student who had started the protest. They asked him how he felt. He answered

‘I think this shows that politicians listen. And that we really can influence them and make a difference.’

What a fantastic lesson for a 19-year old boy to learn on the day of his graduation.

Stockholm A-Z: Exercise

E is for exercise

This weekend was the Stockholm Marathon. It was a fantastic spectacle of sporty Swedes and other foreigners stamping the 40 plus kilometers around Stockholm. Thousands of people lined the streets cheering, singing and dancing. The sunny summer weather had brought them out in droves.

Standing on the side of the road, cheering on my partner, I was impressed by the amazing effort that all the runners were investing.

I was also struck by the main difference between the Stockholm Marathon and the London Marathon – fun runners in funny costumes. The London Marathon is full of them. People dressed as chickens, as donuts and as marshmallows run the route, usually for charity. In the Stockholm Marathon, the concept of the fun runner in funny costumes is not very common. During the time I watched, I saw a few funny hats, a robber and a bumble bee. Otherwise, it looked very serious. The participants were focused runners, not fun runners.

And this, for me, reflects a crucial part of Swedish culture. People here take their exercise very seriously.

Stockholm is an exercise-friendly city. Every morning, lunchtime and evening, hundreds of joggers run along the many waterside pathways. Cyclists take over the city this time of year and perilously navigate the cycle tracks and roads. Strollers, speedwalkers, stickwalkers,skaters,skateboarders are all out on the streets. Canoists bob around the canals in colourful kajaks. People play kubb and boule in the parks. Every neighbourhood has at least one gym – and they are all packed. Swimming pools, squash courts, yoga studios abound.

In Stockholm, it feels like everybody exercises in some way. And I guess it pays off.

Visitors often remark that Stockholm is populated with so many good-looking people, of all ages. And they wonder why it can be so.

I hate to admit it, but could it be something to do with exercise?

Why do Swedes drink so much?

‘Why do Swedes drink so much?’ was a question I recently received in an informal survey on Facebook.

And it’s a revealing question. A common stereotype that other nationalities have of Swedes is that they get rip-roaring drunk – frequently. And it’s easy to understand why this stereotype exists.

Anyone who’s been involved in a Swedish celebration of any kind has experienced the close presence of alcohol. At Midsummer, people get drunk. At crayfish parties, people get slaughtered. At Christmas, the snaps comes out and people end up hammered. In seaside destinations abroad, it’s not uncommon when you see a gang of drunken youngsters that they are Swedish. The beer you buy in pubs might be expensive but it is so strong it’ll make you cross-eyed after three glasses. So it’s easy to form the impression that Swedes are hardened drinkers.

In today’s newspaper, the results of a recent study were published. Swedish consumption of wine has increased 60% in the last ten years. This is easy to measure since all wine is purchased in Sweden through one company – the state-owned monopoly Systembolaget.

In the newspaper article, Swedish citizens were asked why they thought this increase has happened. In other words, why do Swedes drink so much?

Citizen 1: ‘Because we have adapted a more cosmopolitan drinking style. It is no longer shameful to have a glass of wine on a Tuesday after work.’

Citizen 2: ‘Because we are doing so well in Sweden. Everybody is better off so we can treat ourselves a little more.’

Citizen 3: ‘Because of the introduction of the ‘Bag in Box’ wine. It’s so easy to drink a lot without knowing how much you are drinking. It’s easier to tap a glass of wine than to open another bottle’

I’m sure it is to do with all of these things. Interestingly, I think we are witnessing a cultural rebellion. Society is shifting from the collective to the individual. The old days when the government controlled alcohol consumption for the sake of public health is disappearing. It is being replaced by individual responsibility and individual choice. And the initial reaction is overconsumption.

So, there are lots of reasons why Swedes drink so much.

Now my question is, why do the Brits drink even more?

Stockholm A-Z: Djurgården

D is for Djurgården

For me, it’s easy to forget about the island of Djurgården. It feels so far away. But actually, it’s not very far at all. A 10 minute bike ride or a 20 minute run and you are there.

Djurgården is the ‘pleasure island’ for Stockholmers. Located in Stockholm’s harbour, it hosts museums, galleries, gardens, a zoo, a funfair, a market, cafés, restaurants, a theatre, hotels. The list goes on.

When I first moved to Sweden, I used to think it was stupid to have so many museums concentrated in one area. I used to find it tedious to have to go out to the same destination every time I wanted to go to one of these museums.

But I have changed my mind. I think Djurgården is amazing.

It is one of Stockholm’s truly unique features. Going to Djurgården is like visiting a sanctuary, away from the stresses of urban life, where it is all about focusing on recreation.

The existence of Djurgården is deeply engrained in the Stockholmers’ minds, and strongly rooted in history. As far back as the 1200’s, the island was a royal hunting ground. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the focus shifted from royal hunting to recreation for the public. The 16th century historian Olas Magni describes ‘sculling girls conveying lads and maidens out to play and disport themselves.’

But the true rise of Djurgården happened in the late 1800’s, when a horse-drawn omnibus line was created linking the city to the island. And in 1897 the great Stockholm Exhibition took place there.

This put Djurgården firmly on the map where it still remains today as one of the Stockholmers’ most favourite places to disport themselves.

In the garden of (Sw)Eden

Runny nose? Itchy eyes? Headache? I think I can easily diagnose what is wrong with you.

Summer is here. The sun is high. The air is warm. The burgeoning trees are in full bloom and the air is heady with pollen. You are probably, like me, one of the 10% of the world’s population that suffers from pollen allergy. In Sweden, there are tens of thousands of people who are allergic. It’s raging wild. It’s like a national epidemic. They innoculated us against swine flu. Why not this?

According to statistics I saw the other day, Sweden has the highest rate of pollen allergy per capita than most other countries in the world. Why is this? Various theories abound.

Some say that Swedes are simply too clean. They are so squeaky clean that they cannot deal with bacteria and other alien elements, such as pollen, in their environment.

Others say that Swedes are soft. The long winter indoors doesn’t equip them for the amount of pollen that explodes in their eyes and nostrils this time of the year.

Others claim it is the nature of the flora in Sweden that makes the residents more susceptible. Birch, widely present in Sweden is, apparently, a nasty old pollen producer.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. It is one of life’s ironies.

After a long winter, the beautiful Swedish summer finally arrives. But many people can’t be outside because of the poisonous pollen.

I guess it’s just to squirt in the eye drops, pop the allergy pill, step out into the park and accept that even paradise – the garden of (Sw)Eden – had a snake.