The relief of Swedish advent

Image  A practical Swedish electric advent calender to light up the darkness 

So it’s the first of Advent this weekend and this year it comes as a major relief for those of us in Stockholm.

You see at Advent, Swedes decorate their houses, apartments and windows with lights. From ceilings, illuminated stars are hung. On window ledges, electric advent candles are placed. On tables, four candles are positioned and one is lit every Sunday up until Christmas. Small candles, often red, are dotted about the home.

Some years, there is already snow at the first of Advent, but this year in Stockholm, there isn’t. So it is very, very, very dark. The collective advent decoration is a definite reprieve from this darkness as light is spread into these murky places.

The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which means ‘arrival’ and is traditionally the start of the period where we wait for the nativity, or Christmas. Some religions also see it as waiting for the second coming of Christ. But in this secular society that is Sweden, the waiting is probably for the snow to come, the cold to hit, the water to freeze to ice and for winter to clasp its fingers firmly around us.

Swedish November silence


One of the stereotypes of Swedes is that they are a silent, uncommunicative tribe. I find this to be untrue in my experience but on the bus today heading into work, I experienced a beautiful traquil moment. The bus was full of people but it was so, so wonderfully silent. It was beautiful, almost meditative.

You know the kind of Monday morning commuter silence. The silence before the storm. The aftermath of the weekend silence. The medititave, insular, reflective silence that occurs at the beginning of a new work week. We all sat there, basking in this quietness, watching the winter Stockholm flow past the windows. The driver didn’t need to stop at any of the bus stops as nobody wanted on, and we, for a moment, glided along in our shared introverted tranquility.

Outside the bus, the crisp wintry Stockholm citiscape whooshed past. The sun hovering over the calm waters of the harbour, reflected a soft yellow off the tall pinacles in the closed-for-the season fairground.  Stockholmers walked briskly along the pavements to generate some heat, or stood still wrapped in layers of winter clothing drinking steaming hot coffee from paper mugs. We rolled along past the burnt orange buildings of the Old Town, the Royal Palace shimmering in the distance, and continued silently over the bridge next to to the Parliament building and the offices of Power. There’s no snow yet, but the brightness of the morning and the coldness of the air seemed like a minor miracle.

And then the driver stopped to let on a passenger. A young woman wearing a wolly hat with a fur bobble on the top. She was talking on the phone. Loudly.

‘…and he said why do you have to spend so much money on clothes, like, who cares!? All I bought was a new pair of high heels and he gets all annoyed, like, you know what I mean, it’s nothing to do with him how I spend my money, you know, but he still gets pissed off anyway, like, I mean, whatever…..’

And just like that, the spell was broken. The shared Swedish November silence was gone and was replaced by the invasive tyrrany of the city.

IKEA – part of the problem or the solution?


IKEA, the ultimate representative of Swedishness abroad, is currently in hot water. In their customer magazine, IKEA LIVE, they often present articles on people, the reason being to inspire and motivate their members to shop. The idea is that readers don’t just buy a piece of furniture, they buy a ‘Lifestyle’. In 26 countries, the latest IKEA magazine portrays a lesbian couple, Clara and Kirsty, in their home. In terms of representing the Swedish values of equality and tolerance, so far so good.

However, this report on Clara and Kirsty has been removed from the IKEA magazine that is circulated in Russia. IKEA defend their action by stating that they do not want to break the Russian anti-gay propaganda law, a law that has been criticised by the UN for breaking international Human Rights laws. IKEA also says ‘our job is to sell furniture in Russia’.

Many voices, including mine, have been raised in criticism of this action.

Who is it who can take a stand against discriminatory laws?
Who is it who can protect human rights?
Who is it who can lead by example?

In this economically-driven globalized world, it is the large, international corporations who can! IKEA can! If they wanted to. They are concerned that breaking the law may get them sued. I wonder how likely that actually is and even if being sued led to them being forced to remove the article portraying gay lifestyle, that in itself would be taking a stand.

But here is the real twist. Just because IKEA is Swedish do we expect them to represent Swedish values in general? Respect. Honesty. Egalitarianism. Solidarity. The bottom line is that IKEA is a business run purely for profit. Their job is to earn money for their shareholders by ‘selling furniture in Russia’. And, however cynical that may be, are we really surprised at their behaviour?

IKEA like many companies have a policy for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In the light of these latest actions, their policy is a mockery:

‘The IKEA vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. This includes doing what we can to help create a world where we take better care of the environment, the earth’s resources, and each other. We know this continuous improvement is a never-ending job, and that we are sometimes part of the problem. But we work hard to be part of the solution’.

Clearly in this case, IKEA is part of the problem. I would like to understand what they are doing to be a part of the solution.

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Do we have to respect other cultures?

colour and culture fooditerranean

Somebody wrote the following question on Facebook today – ‘to what degree do I have to respect other cultures?’ and it got me thinking.

Since I work with diversity and intercultural competence, you would think my answer would be clear for me – a resounding ‘YES!’ but it’s actually not that straightforward. I think, in fact, the answer depends on what we mean by ‘respect’. If by respect, we mean to accept and acknowledge that other cultures exist within the boundaries of what seems good and right to them, then the answer is ‘yes!’ If disrespect comes from an ethocentric perspective, a sentiment of right/wrong, good/bad, then I don’t think that’s ok. The ethnocentric always thinks their way is best and that other perspectives, or world views, are in some way faulty. This borders on the racist. So how can we balance the acceptance of other cultures with the discomfort we experience when reading or witnessing actions that are unacceptable to us?

It’s not easy but I think that we should accept other cultures, and that we should genuinely repect there are many different ways to view and to be in this world. But, that in no way means that I have to like everything that others do, especially if it compromises what I value or what I perceive as ethical. Intercultural competence is about accepting differences but also about being authentic in your own cultural beliefs without being xenophobic.

So let’s not mix up respect and liking. In my mind, they’re two different things.

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The top 5 most disgusting Swedish foods

Swedish cuisine in later years has acheived critical aclaim and is considered trendy, healthy and modern by many foodies around the world. But, like every kitchen, the Swedish kitchen has some real humdingers lurking behind the trendy facade of smoked slmon, creme fraiche and fresh dill. Here, in reverse order, is my list of the 5 most revolting foods that Sweden has produced. Yuck!!

messmor_350g_original_front 5: Messmör – Soft whey butter

Translated as soft whey butter, this disgusting sandwich topping and comes in two delightful choices: goat milk-based and cow milk-based. Whey is pressed out from cheese and then boiled until it caramlises and gets an unappetising brown colour. It looks nasty and tastes revolting.

blodspoppa 4. Blodsoppa – Blood soup

Blood soup is a soup made of stock and goose blood which is thickened and flavoured with syrup, wine, cognac, vinegar, cloves, ginger and pepper. It is traditionally eaten with a roast goose dinner and it dates back to the Renaissance period. Historically, probably it was a useful source of iron, but in modern Sweden it just feels babaric and, well a little vampire-like. Maybe this is how Swedes get through the long, dark nights without biting each other’s necks?

palt 3. Palt – Potato and pork dumplings

Palt is a kind of gross potato dumpling stuffed with boiled pork. The dumpling is boiled in very salty water. It is normally eaten with butter and lingonberry jam and Swedes drink milk when they eat it just in case it doesn’t already slink down the throat. It is similar to another dish that Swedes eat called ‘body cakes’ which are just as nasty as they sound.

surströmming 2. Surströmming – fermented Baltic herring

This offensive dish consists of herring that is caught just prior to spawning and packed into a tin of brine to ferment. The fermentation starts from an enzyme in the spine of the fish, together with bacteria. Hydrogen sulphide is produced in the tin. Sounds appetizing? The salt in the brine allows the bacteria responsible for rotting to thrive. This bacteria prospers and decomposes the fish, making it sour. When the tin is opened, the contents release a strong and sometimes overwhelming odour which smells like human excrement. The dish is ordinarily eaten outdoors as the reek will fill out an entire building if eaten indoors. The fish is usually eaten on crispbread, or rolled in thin bread, with potatoes and sour cream. This way of preparing food was historically a process of preserving food in order to survive through the winter. But in modern-day Sweden, it is so unnecessary – now we have fridges!!!

lutefisk-akta 1. Lutfisk – Sodium Hydroxide fish

Imagine your mouth full of jelly. Wobbly, quivering jelly. Now add a creamy sauce to that consistency. Slush it round in the mouth. Now add the flavour of fish! And there you have it! Lutfisk! This revolting food is a dish consisting of dried whitefish prepared with lye (deadly sodium hydroxide) and a sequence of particular treatments. The first treatment is to soak the dried stockfish in cold water for five to six days. The saturated stockfish is then soaked in cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and produces a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic and therefore poisonous. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water is needed. Eventually, the lutfisk is ready to be boiled and then served with a creamy spiced white sauce and potatoes. This has to be the most vile thing I have ever eaten, it is truly repugnant. The good news is however that Lutfisk is a Christmas dish, so it only ever gets dumped infront of you once a year! Thank Santa for small mercies!

Swedish English confusion


A friend sent me the above tweet today, which is very funny if you can speak English and Swedish. It made me think of other situations where the mixing of the two languages has caused hilarity or humour. One example I recall is when a friend said to me:

‘We’ll have to do it the day after julafton.’

I was very confused and asked her to repeat.

‘We’ll have to do it the day after julafton.’

I was still very confused. You see, her pronunciation of the Swedish word for Christmas Eve – julafton – was not quite correct and I also was pre-programmed into listening to English and not Swedish – so this is what I heard:

‘We’ll have to do it the day after you laughed on…’

Understand my confusion…??

Throwing cakes in Swedish politics

jimmie cake

Yesterday evening I happened to be on Nytorget, a square in Stockholm, at the same time as the extreme right wing party, Sweden Democrats, were having a rally. Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the party, which is gaining favour in Sweden, was signing his newly-released book and a queue of people were standing there to get their copies signed. There was a large group of anti-fascist demonstrators there chanting and protesting their opposition. The whole thing was monitored by armies of police and, despite this, one demonstrator managed to squeeze past security and throw a cake into Jimmie Åkesson’s face. Now, while I in no way condone the thowing of the cake, in fact I think it’s undemocratic and counter-productive, it is a sign of anger and frustration at the politics the Sweden Democrats are trying to enforce in Sweden.

On the way home, I walked past the now-deserted location of the demonstration and saw a lot of trampled flyers on the floor. I picked one up to read what message was being preached by this party. And I was struck by the excellent rhetoric, the smart marketing and the smooth packaging. I don’t care to repeat the message here as I don’t accept it, but needless to say the PR included in the flyer complained about the cost of immigration and appealed to the major concerned groups in society – to the sick, to the elderly, to families and those scared about crime and national security. At the same time, the material promotes ‘safety and tradition’ and the maintenance of the fallacious Swedish identity.

The effective rhetoric is remniscent of a time in the not-so-distance past and the success of the 1930’s Nazi party. Hitler was a clever rhetorician and had the ability to appeal to the masses and exploit their fears in order to gain power and introduce a disgusting politics. All over Europe today, other right-wing rhetoricians are manipulating the citizens and gaining power to implement cynical policies in their respective countries. And they are on the rise in Sweden.

For those of us who are against their xenophobic, homophobic and mysogynistic agenda, we can take a stand by exercising our freedom of speech and our democratic vote. Throwing cakes is not a way to win this argument, it just fuels the sympathy for them. The way to win is in dialogue, debate and discussion – with our parents, our colleagues, our children.

The illusion of the collective Swede

welfare state

Is the notion of the collective Swede just an illusion?

Sweden is famous around the world for its welfare state – the system of tax that provides for the country’s citizens from the cradle to the grave. This system was introduced by politicians from Sweden’s social democratic history and I think that it’s great that it exists. Many assume that the Welfare state is the product of collective thinking and solidarity. Maybe it is. But I’d like to offer an alternative perspective.  

In collective-oriented societies, individuals operate within the context of what is best for the group, even if that means surpressing their individual needs. In exchange for this, they receive loyalty and support from the other members of the group.  

In Sweden, it would be easy to look at the welfare state and relate it to the above definition of a collective. In Sweden, citizens comply to the tax laws and in exchange they are taken care of in times of need.

But let’s look at the welfare state through the lens of individualism instead. According to research, Swedes are amongt the most individualistic countries in the world. Individualistic from the perspective of self-development, self-expression, right to live life the way I want to, self actualization,, freedom to make individual choices about my life. Amongst Swedes, it is very important to have individual choice, to the point that some people feel violated if they experience another person has in some way limited their choices, however minor that might seem.

 So what about the Welfare state? In Sweden, the strong individualistic drive of the citizens created a system in which they don’t have to take responsibility for the group. Once tax is paid, the state takes care of the unemployed, the sick, the elderly so the citizens don’t have to, and consequently people can go about their lives fulfilling their individual dreams and satisfying their individual needs.

When you look at it this way, Sweden’s Welfare state is not an exercise in social solidarity. It’s an exercise in pure individualism.

So is the notion of the collective Swede just an illusion?

Street begging in Sweden – what to do about it?


Did you know that Sweden is one of the few countries in the EU where begging is not illegal? A so-called ‘begging crackdown’ came into force in 2011 which criminalized the activity. Beggars on the streets of Swedish towns are becoming more and more common and I, amongst others, have a difficult time deciding what to think about this. On the one hand, we’ve all heard about the gangs of beggars and the organization of donation gathering as a source of income for the gang leaders. On the other hand, there is the individual person sitting on the street freezing in the November rain.

A good friend of mine made a very helpful comment recently that enabled me to reflect over my feelings and I wanted to share that with you. This is what he initially wrote on FB, which created quite a debate (I have loosely translated it into English):

‘There she sat, in the rain. Outside Coop. With her cup and her threadbare clothes. And I stepped out of my car and searched impatiently in my wallet amongst my gold ten krona coins to pay for a trolley. Have to swap this cash, I thought. This wallet’s so heavy with all this loose change. So…..impractical. That’s what I thought. When I walked past her. Without looking. In the rain. Because you know that it’s organized crime. I’m not going to contribute to that. No. So I went shopping, as you do on a Friday. A little bit of Brie from the deli counter, which melts in the mouth. And some other nibbly bits to eat in front of the open fire this evening as the rain beats against the window pain. Have a cosy Friday. The woman at the till was happy to receive all my change, I got a 100 krona bill in exchange. I throw my items into my bag and walk out to the carpark. And there she sits. I stop. I think. I question myself. What kind of person am I? I take the bill out of my wallet and put it in her cup. Where it belongs. I’ve got enough, unlike her. And she still doesn’t.’ (Calle Mikelsens)

This comment on Facebook caused a debate about begging in Sweden and whether Swedish people should accept it or ignore it. In order to explain his point of view, my friend Calle, added another comment which changed my perspective on the issue. This is what he wrote:

‘My reason is clear. I believe in the meeting between people. That I can do what I can but at the same time understand my limitations. Sometimes ten kronor or a hundred krona bill can make a big difference. I don’t want to limit myself by thinking globally but I want to instead do something. We can’t solve poverty with charity. We solve it through political action and taking a stand. But we can, along the way, help those who are at risk of falling. And feel anger every time we put money into the collection tins. I am, despite my naivity, not convinced that a political shift will eradicate world starvation. That requires a larger movement. But I feel that there is a wind of opposition sweeping over the world despite the greed and the grabbing. I have to do what I can on my small scale. That’s where I have to begin…’

So, it’s all about each of us making a choice. Do we want to look at the global perspective, in which the individual often gets lost? Or do we want to look at the local perspective, and understand that what we choose to do, or not to do, can have an impact on another person’s life?

Sweden versus Switzerland


How many times hasn’t Sweden been confused for Switzerland? Many Swedes relate stories of the mix ups that they’ve encountered in their lives. Well it seems that the same happens to Swiss people.

Apparently this is so serious that the Swiss Embassy in China have started a campaign, where entrants can win a trip to Sweden and to Switzerland. All they have to do is send in humorous explanations of how Sweden and Switzerland differ.

In the pictures that follow the campaign, Switzerland is represented by money, cheese fondue and the tennis champion Roger Federer.

And what about Sweden, then? Pictures of a dad carrying a child in a babybjörn, an elk, meatballs and a gay couple are chosen to represent this country in the North.

Apparently, the campaign has had a huge impact in China, and as far as I know a winner has not yet been announced.

So, what’s your input? – What do you think is the biggest difference between Sweden and Switzerland?