Sweden’s badass king

Today, 30th November is an important day in Swedish history.

And it all revolves around a stoical King, whose statue can be seen in Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park.

Today, Sweden is a peaceful country and hasn’t been at war for over 200 years. But it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, Sweden was a great power, a military giant with a much larger territory than it has today. And the King of the statue – Charles XII – had a lot to do with it. If you see the statue, he is pointing his finger east. And there is a good explanation for this.

Charles (Karl) was king in Sweden 1697-1718 and a bit of a badass. Apparently never registering physical pain, in the space of a few years, he transformed the small nation of Sweden into a formidable power, crushing his enemies under him. And then he lost it all. At this time, Sweden covered modern day Norway, Finland and other Baltic regions such as Lavonia.

Charles ascended to the throne age 15 and his youth was subsequently exploited by neighbours Denmark, Poland and Lithuania who decided to snatch land from him. In retaliation, he quashed Denmark’s invasion of Sweden and put an ally on the throne. Then, he responded to Russia’s attempt to occupy Livonia and Estonia, and won a sweeping victory at the battle of Narva, under the cover of a blizzard.

After later defeating Poland and Lithuania, he then turned his sights again on Russia. Like his statue, he pointed East. This was a mistake. Up until now, it seems like he just retaliated but this time he waged a war. Hubris perhaps? It was to be his downfall.

Unfortunately for Charles, Peter the Great had regrouped and, in a grueling cold battle, the Russians beat the shit out of the Swedes. Rather like what happens on the ice hockey rink today. Charles fled to the Ottoman Empire but made himself unpopular there so fled back to Sweden, riding across Europe on horseback in just 14 days. Obviously not on the same horse.

Back in Sweden, he saw his nation crumble. Russia took Finland. Denmark took other Baltic regions.

On Nov 30th, 1718 he was shot and killed in modern day Norway, thus marking the short period of Sweden as a great European power. The ‘Swedish empire’ crumbled and territory was taken.

In modern day democratic, peaceful Sweden, Charles XII is sometimes criticized as a blood thirsty tyrant. His war-mongering contradicts strongly with the Swedish Brand of today. But history is history. Rewritten, retold and reinterpreted.

Whatever Charles was, there is no doubt he was a hard core ass kicker. On a historical website I found, the writer describes Charles XII in the following way:

‘Charles was pretty badass.  He completely abstained from alcohol and sex and was pretty much uncomfortable doing anything other than leading his troops to victory or being stoic as fuck.  He lived fast, died young and when he went down he took the entire fucking country of Sweden with him.  What more can you ask for from a historical badass?’

Sweden’s insatiable appetite for Eurovision

Sweden must be the country that can call itself Eurovision fan number 1.

So insatiable is the thirst for ‘schlager’, as it is called in Swedish, that the journey towards the May 2018 final began today.

Today, it was announced in a live press conference who will be participating in ‘Melodifestivalen’ – the competition to choose Sweden’s representative. So insatiable is the thirst for ‘schlager’ that there are 28 contestants! 28!

According to the papers, the artists are a mixture of ‘new-comers, classic singers, comebacks, former winners, favourites and LGBT surprises!’ Also, oddly, a parody band and a fat tv cook.

So insatiable is Sweden’s thirst for ‘schlager’ that these 28 contestants start competing with each other in February – in 6 live televised competitions! February Saturday nights in Sweden are ruined for the uninitiated.

The weeks leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest are then filled with Eurovision trivia. So insatiable. Interviews with Sweden’s chosen representative, behind the scenes programs and analysis of every single one of the other countries’ songs grace our televisions. Then finally, once we are already saturated, the two semi finals come. God forbid Sweden doesn’t qualify. Then finally, the final comes. And Sweden usually lands somewhere in the top 10. Then comes the analysis.

Finally sometime at the beginning of June, we are released from the jaws of Eurovision. The summer comes and is filled with ‘schlager’ tours and festivals. And in November, it all kicks off again.

That’s life in the insatiable ‘schlager’ country of Sweden.

So that’s what ‘Dackefejden’ means

As recently as today, I heard the Swedish expression ‘sedan Dackefejden’ (since the Dacke feud). It is used, often ironically, to describe something very old. ‘I haven’t heard this song since ‘dackefejden’, for example. Or ‘that car looks like something from dackefejden’.

I became curious to learn about this Dacke feud that everybody’s referring to. So I checked it out.

It happened 1542-1543, and was the biggest peasant uprising in Nordic history. It happened in the rural county of Småland in southern Sweden and was against King Gustav Vasa. The leader of the uprising was peasant Nils Dacke, and he was angry that the king had raised taxes and forbidden the sale of cattle and butter to the neighboring county of Blekinge, which at the time belonged to Denmark. Additionally, the king had plundered all the silver from their churches and wanted them to renounce their catholic faith.

So they rebelled, and took control of large parts of Småland and Östergötland. Such was their control, that Nils Dacke celebrated Christmas in Kronberg Castle outside of the town of Växjö.

Of course king Gustav Vasa wasn’t too happy about this feud and made various attempts to undermine the leaders. He offered sanctuary for those who surrendered, he slandered Nils Dacke as a false and unreliable person. And in 1543, he attacked – totally defeating and quashing the rebellion.

Nils Dacke was killed by the king’s soldiers. The people of Småland were punished with high taxes, the insurgents were banished to Finland, the leaders were executed and the whole of Dacke’s family was completely eradicated. So it really seemed to be a bad idea to argue with King Gustav Vasa.

And you literally won’t have met a member of the Dacke family ‘sedan dackefejden’.

The democracy of snow

Today the first major snow storm of the winter hit Stockholm. Roads were closed off, buses were cancelled, the tube was chaotic. During all this mayhem, I was reminded of an old realisation I had years ago.

Normally, I find snow in the city irritating. Your shoes get ruined, you slip and slide unelegantly around, your face gets battered, your hair gets mushed. In general, very irritating. But today, my perspective changed. As the snow tumbled down, I realised that snow is all about democracy.

No matter how ugly something is, when it is covered with snow it is beautiful.
No matter how dirty something is, when it is covered with snow, it is clean.
Now matter how shabby something is, when it is covered with snow, it gets a new, fresh start.

The snow kind of evens everything out.

Now if that’s not democratic, I don’t know what is.

Surviving November in Sweden

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I’m looking out of my window into the blackness of the Swedish afternoon. It’s not even 4pm yet, and the weak rays of light that illuminated the day have long gone. It’s like somebody literally turned off the light on their way out.

This is November in Sweden – one of the darkest times of the year in Sweden. The night blanket roles in over the country mid afternoon and keeps its grip until mid morning the next day. Far up in the north of Sweden, the sun barely peeks over the horizon.

It can be a challenging time for those of us who live here – this period before the snow and the Christmas decorations light up the streets and windows.

Since language develops to describe our environments, it makes sense that in Swedish there are many words to describe the darkness.  Native Swedes can instinctively feel the difference between these words, but those of us who have Swedish as a second language have to resort to a dictionary to understand the nuances.

The word ‘svart’ is ‘black’ in Swedish. And there are several types of black – there’s ‘becksvart’ (pitch black), ‘korpsvart’ and ‘ramsvart’ (raven black) and there’s ‘kolsvart’ (coal black). I’m sure there are more, please let me know if you have any others.

But there are also lots of other words that describe the darkness. I’ve tried my best to translate some of these below.

  • Skymning – nightfall
  • Dunkel – dim
  • Skumrask – half dark
  • Sollös – without sun
  • Töcknig – misty darkness
  • Molndiger – cloudy darkness
  • Ljusfattig – poor light
  • Dyster – gloomy darkness
  • Grådaskig – dingy

With all these words in their vocabulary, some people complain about the darkness. And who can really blame them? It is a tough period to get through. The darkness can go a long way towards explaining the stereotypical Swedish melancholy.

So how to survive it? Maybe it’s about shifting perspective?

In the words of the well-used, and highly consoling Swedish expression:

‘Det är bättre att tända ett ljus än att förbanna mörkret.’

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness!

5 things that are wrong with Sweden

When you’ve lived in a foreign country as long as I have, you become blind to the differences that were so obvious when you first moved here. That’s a natural development I guess. Call it emersion, or integration, or adaptation, or assimilation. Or in my case, Swedification.

However, there are still some differences in Sweden that I notice on a regular basis. Things so deeply ingrained in me from my cultural background that they still feel wrong in Sweden. Here are my top 5:

1) Front doors open the wrong way. Doors open outwards, instead of inwards. That means if you are visiting someone, ring their doorbell and stand on the landing, there is a big risk that you get smacked in the face as they open the door outwards, towards you. It’s just wrong!

2) Plumbing is often on the outside of the walls. Especially in bathrooms, and around radiators, ugly pipes are not hidden behind the plaster in the wall. They run up and down and side to side along the outside of the wall, visible to everybody. So ugly, and just wrong!

3) Driving. Swedes drive on the right side of the road. It’s just wrong.

4) The ‘tunnelbana’. On the underground (tunnelbana) in Stockholm, most people don’t wait for passengers to get off the train before trying to get on. As soon as the doors open, people pile in. At the same time people are trying to get out. The resulting caffuffle in the door opening is so unnecessary and just wrong!

5) Celebrating the Eves, instead of the Days. I’ll never get used to it. Especially at Christmas. Santa coming in the afternoon on Christmas Eve instead of the night between the Eve and the Day, is just wrong!

I know what you’re thinking. How unimportant all of this is.

And you’re not wrong.

I’m happy to live in a place where the only things that seem off to me are so minor. When it comes to values, structures, systems, behaviours, lifestyle and attitudes so much about Sweden is, for me, just right.

Take a breath – and speak Swedish.

Probably ‘antiestablishmentarianism’ is one of the most notorious long English words that exist. However, in general we don’t have so many long words in the English language. This is because we use the space bar to separate words. Unlike Swedish.

In the Swedish language, grammar rules allow many words that would be separated in English to be arbitrarily conjoined, making it one veeeerrry long word. This can be mind boggling for the new language learner trying to get a grip on the linguistic acrobatics of the Swedish language.

Here are some of the longest co-joined words in Swedish. Take a breath. And speak Swedish…

1) nagellacksborttagningmedel – nail polish remover

2) diskrimineringsombudsmannen – ombudsman for discrimination

3) realisationsvinstbeskattning – capital gains tax

4) hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliofobi – fear of long words!

5) blodsockerprovtagningsmaskin- blood sampling equipment

6) användervänlighetsundersökning – enquiry into user-friendliness

7) trafikavspärrningsarbetsupgifter – traffic barrier tasks

8) eurovisionsschlagerfestivalsfinalsdeltagare – eurovision finalist

9) korttidsanställdasommarlovspraktikanter – summer job workers with short term contracts

10) mindervärdighetskomplex – inferiority complex (what one gets trying to pronounce these words!)

And finally… try this one out. According to the Guiness Book of Records the longest Swedish word is nordvästersjökustartilleriflygspaningssimulatoranläggningsmaterielunderhållsuppföljningssystemdiskussionsinläggsförberedelsearbeten.