Swedish water – in rich supply

Yesterday, 22 March was World Water Day. It was inaugurated in 1993 to focus on the importance of fresh water.

According to the UN, World Water Day ‘’celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water. It is about taking action to tackle the global water crisis and support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.’’

Sweden contributes to this work via its Stockholm International Water Institute and, under normal circumstances, the annual World Water Week is held in the Swedish capital city. During the week, the organisation awards water prizes to researchers and institutes who work to improve water quality, accessibility and sanitation around the world.

Sweden itself is blessed with water. About 9% of the country is covered with water. Sweden is the EU country that has the most lakes – in fact, 40% of the EU’s lakes are located in Sweden. Lake Vänern, at 5655 square km, is the EU’s largest. Interestingly, Sweden’s total coastline including archipelago, is 48000 km, which is slightly more than a lap around the globe.

Much of Sweden’s freshwater is potable. Most Swedes have the privilege of uninterrupted access to drinking water, with occasional problems in rural areas during summer months. Even the water in the toilet is drinking water, not that anyone drinks from that particular vessel!

Swedish icons 11: Warner Oland

The name Warner Oland might not be familiar to many people. However, he was actually one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and biggest stars during the 1930’s. In his career he appeared in over 100 films. Today, his roles would be considered politically incorrect, but at the time they were made, they reflected the way white film makers saw minority groups.

Warner Oland was born in the northern Swedish county of Västerbotten in 1879. In 1892, he emigrated with his family to the USA where he anglified his Swedish name – Johan Verner Öhlund.

After leaving school, he quickly got into acting and the theater. He was the first person to translate Strindberg and Ibsen and present it to the American audience. He started his career in silent movies, and had a small part in the very first talkie ever made – The Jazz Singer, and later played opposite Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

However, he is most famous for his depiction of a certain character – the iconic Chinese detective Charlie Chan. In over 16 films, Werner played this legendary character and, because of it, he became a huge star and box office success.

During the 1930’s Hollywood did not cast Asian actors in leading roles. This is why Warner Oland was given the job – his appearance reflecting the idea at the time of what Chinese people looked like. A bit of make-up, a false mustache and the stereotypical image was complete. He played other Asian characters such as super villain Fu Manchu.

Later on, the character of Charlie Chan became very controversial. When author Earl Derr Biggers created the character, he wanted to show an alternative to the evil Chinamen, which was the prevailing representation at the time. Charlie Chan was intended to be accommodating and unthreatening to combat xenophobia.

Werner Oland died in Stockholm in 1938 of pneumonia. He also had long-standing problems with alcoholism and ill health. He was married to a wealthy Bostonian, the artist Edith Gardener Shearn. Among their many houses was a historic farmhouse in Southborough Massachusetts. Here, Werner Oland is buried in the town cemetery.

He is probably the most famous, and anonymous, Swedish film star of all time.

Swedish icons 10: Monica Zetterlund

Born 1937 in the small town of Hagfors, Monica Zetterlund was Sweden’s most prominent jazz singer throughout time. She was also a celebrated cabaret artist and actor.

She started her career as a teenager singing in her father’s band, and gradually gained fame touring in Sweden, Europe and the USA. She sung mostly in Swedish, but did release a few albums in English. The most famous album was Waltz for Debby that she recorded with the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As a singer, she was frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and she performed with Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.

As an actor, she participated in many popular theatre and cabaret productions and acted in many successful films. Her most famous role was in The Emigrants where she played an award-winning role of Ulrika, the fiercely independent village whore. A biographic film of her life, called Monica Z, was released in 2013 and is, in fact, one of the best Swedish films I’ve ever seen.

Throughout her life, she was plagued with severe back pain and developed scoliosis. She walked with a cane and often sat down on stage, and towards the end of her life she was in a wheelchair. She died tragically in 2005 in a fire in her apartment in Stockholm, caused by her smoking in bed.

In Stockholm, there is a park near her home called Monica Zetterlund’s Park. Here there is a sound installation, where you can sit on a bench and listen to her sultry tones.

Below is a sample of her music:

Swedish Press Freedom – the first in the world

In several countries, I would not be allowed to freely write what I want in this blog. Many nations are fighting for press freedom and against censorship – some of them not very far away. Thankfully, Sweden has solved this issue of media independence. Everyone is free to express themselves in writing, provided they do not publicly defame another person or commit an illegal act.

Obviously, Sweden didn’t always have freedom of the press. In the early days of print, Swedes fought many battles against censorship and limitations on the printed word. However, things changed when, on 2 December 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to write freedom of the press into the constitution. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act also allowed public access to information, which made it legal to publish and read public documents.

The Act that applies today actually came into effect in 1949. Today, laws cover press ethics, disputes, freedom of expression over digital media and protection of the individual and of whistleblowers.

Compared with other countries in the EU, Sweden is the 3rd best country in terms of media independence, preceded by Finland and Denmark. Sweden holds the 4th position on a global scale, the number one country being Norway.

According to Reporters without Borders, one reason that Sweden isn’t ranked higher is that over 50% of local media is owned only by five major companies. These control the editorial line and job security.

Additionally, one third of Swedish journalists claim they self censor due to threats and harassment from trolls, violent groups, heads of overseas states and security forces. Very few perpetrators are sentenced.

Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

St Patrick’s Day – Irish in Sweden

Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day! I hope you remembered to wear something green, even if you didn’t leave your living room. Normally St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Sweden, like many places around the world, with noisy, boozy parties. This year of course was different. Public gatherings in Sweden are limited to 8 people, which makes a somewhat subdued party, not up to the standards of a real St Patrick’s Day bash.

The relationship between Sweden and Ireland is a good one. According to Sweden’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 2892 Irish people living in Sweden. Ireland has an embassy on Blasieholmen in Stockholm. Sweden has a consulate in Dublin, and honorary consulates in Limerick and Galway. There is a Swedish-Irish society that was founded in 1949 by a group of Swedish friends interested in Ireland. According to their website, ‘the society has been building friendships between the two countries, promoting Irish culture in Sweden and has gradually also become a hub for Irish and Swedish-Irish in Sweden. We organise events throughout the year and membership is open to everyone who shares our interests!’

For the purposes of doing business, there is a Swedish-Irish Chamber of Commerce. This is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to building a professional community to promote and strengthen commercial collaboration, development and exchange between Swedish and Irish businesses.

Classic Irish pubs in Stockholm include The Liffey, The Auld Dub and O’Connells. In Gothenburg there’s the Dubliner and the Irish Embassy, and Malmö has Fagan’s and The Shamrock. Normally these places would be packed to bursting, and rocking to the sound of the fiddle on St Patrick’s Day. Hopefully next year will see a return to normal.

Swedish expressions: Bang on the beetroot

There’s an expression in Swedish that I’ve often wondered about where it comes from. The expression – ‘pang på rödbetan‘ – bang on the beetroot. It’s a weird idiomatic expression that in its earlier meaning, referred to getting straight down to penetrative sex without any foreplay. However, today it is used to describe any situation in which we get straight down to it, for example in a meeting, in a discussion, in a conflict.

The ‘pang på’ is easy to understand as it means straight forward or slap-bang. But where does the beetroot come from?

Well, according to a common theory, it originated from the word ‘robota’ in Polish. This word came with temporary labourers to southern Sweden in the 1800’s and was Swedified by the locals. The expression ‘pang på rödbeta’ was used in Sweden’s southern Skåne region already in the 1900’s. So what does the word ‘robota’ mean? Well, it is defined as hard work, repetitive work and routine work.

So ‘pang på robata’ – getting straight down to hard work.

Interestingly, the word ‘robata’ is also the origin of the word ‘robot’ – something that does repetitive, routine work.

The most common names in Sweden

According to svenskanamn.se, here are the most common names for men and for women in Sweden. If you’re living in Sweden, chances are you’re called one of these names – if not, you’ve definitely met one!

Most common names for men in order of frequency: Erik, Karl, Lars, Anders and Johan

Most common names for women in order of frequency: Maria, Anna, Margareta, Elisabeth, Eva.

The website also lists the most common surnames: Andersson, Johansson, Karlsson, Nilsson, Eriksson.

So technically, Erik and Maria Andersson are the most common names in Sweden.

Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.

Swedish icons 7: Evert Taube

If you are not familiar with the name Evert Taube, you should check him out. A more legendary name is hard to find in a Sweden. Born in 1890 in Gothenburg, he was a writer, musician, composer and singer. He is one of the most respected musicians and foremost troubadours in the folk ballad tradition of the 20th century.

He was most known for his idyllic folk songs about the Swedish countryside, the sea, the archipelago and the flora and fauna of the country. He is so engrained in the national psyche that there is no Midsummer celebration in Sweden without the playing of Taube’s songs. He is the soundtrack of summer.

Evert Taube didn’t restrict himself to pastoral romanticism however, he also wrote famous songs about Latin America and the Mediterranean as well as anti-war and anti-fascism anthems. Many of his songs have been translated and recorded in other languages. He had four children, one of whom is the popular Swedish crooner Sven-Bertil Taube, today 86 years old, and an icon in his own right.

Evert Taube died in Stockholm in 1976 aged 85. In 1990, he was immortalized when a statue was raised in his honour on Evert Taube’s Terrace in central Stockholm. There he sits, holding his faithful lute in his hand. A second statue of him stands discretely in the corner of Järntorget Square in the Old Town.

My favourite Taube ballad below is performed beautifully by Roxette’s singer Marie Fredriksson. The song called ‘Så Skimrande Var Aldrig Havet’ translates loosely as ‘The Sea Was Never So Shimmering’ and is about the magic of a first kiss.