Neil Shipley on Swedish culture – the strange, the special and the sublime
Author: Neil Shipley's watching the Swedes
Since 1994, I've been watching the Swedes. Not in a creepy, obsessive way, but like an adventurer in unknown territory who carefully observes his surroundings.
I run a training company with my American business partner in Stockholm. We hold seminars and workshops in Cultural Awareness and Communication.
For more info about this check out www.keytraining.se
Today is typically the day that the LGBT Pride parade takes place in Stockholm. Up to 500,000 fill the streets making it the largest event in Scandinavia. However, this year it has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead it is being carried out digitally, with an opening speech by Crown Princess Victoria. If you are interested, you can view the live stream here: http://www.stockholmpride.org
It runs 12.00-14.00.
The whole concept of LGBT Pride has taken strong root in Sweden. LGBT Pride resonates well with the societal Swedish values of equality, tolerance and acceptance.
Sweden’s history of LGBT rights is a comparatively progressive story. Changes didn’t happen automatically however. Thanks to the hard work of campaigners, lobbyists, and politicians, society can enjoy one of the most egalitarian legislations in the world.
According to wiki: ‘ Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1944 and the age of consent was equalized in 1972. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1979. Sweden also became the first country in the world to allow transgender persons to change their legal gender post-surgery in 1972 whilst transvestism was declassified as an illness. Transgenderism was declassified as a mental illness in 2008 and legislation allowing gender change legally without hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery was passed in 2013.
After allowing same-sex couples to register for partnership in 1995, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage countrywide in 2009. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression has been banned since 1987. Also, since 2003, gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, and lesbian couples have had equal access to IVF and assisted insemination since 2005.
Sweden has been recognized as one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe and in the world, with recent polls indicating that a large majority of Swedes support LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.’
Sweden is rich with history and historical places. One such place is the city of Örebro. This city is built on the Black River that flows into the Lake Hjälmaren, in the southern third of this long, narrow country. From Stockholm, it takes about 2 hours in a car.
Örebro became an official town in the 1200’s but a settlement pre-dates this by a few hundred years. The name Örebro means ’bridge over a gravel bank’. ’Öre’ is a deviation of ‘eyrr’ which is a old Norse word for gravel bank. At this point, the Black river was shallow and it made sense to build a bridge, so that passers-by didn’t have to wade through the water to cross it.
The position of Örebro in time became very strategic and was a junction between 7 different ancient roadways. These roadways are still preserved today. Because of the usefulness of this geographic position, King Magnus Eriksson built a fortress in 1350 in an attempt to defend the site. Over time, this site has been involved in a great many conflicts and wars. In 1573, the fortress was then transformed into a magnificent Renaissance castle, similar to the one that we see today. The Castle of Örebro is one of the city’s most famous and recognisable landmarks and it certainly is a proud building towering up in the middle of the city. For more information about the castle, go to http://www.orebroslott.se
Today, the Örebro area has about 160,000 residents, making it Sweden’s 7th largest city.
If you, like me, are on a road trip in this area of the country, it is well worth a stop over.
Anyone who’s watched ‘Big Bang Theory’ has seen character Sheldon Cooper’s banal video series ‘Fun with Flags’. Nerdy it might be, but it inspired me to do a Swedish version. So here goes…
The Swedish flag is a well-known yellow cross on a blue background. It is modelled on the Danish flag – the Dannebrogen – which is thought to be the oldest official flag in the world. The cross represents Christianity and forms the basis of all the Nordic flags. The Swedish flag was initiated in the early 1500’s and the yellow is said to represent gold and blue represent the sea. Sweden depicted itself as a wealthy sea-faring realm.
Within Sweden, there are 25 counties and each county has its official flag, some even have an unofficial but well-used flag. An example of this is the southern-most county of Skåne. The unofficial flag is the most commonly used. It depicts a yellow cross on a red background, a combination of Sweden and Denmark. The official flag has actually a red background and a coronated griffin.
Sweden’s islands of Gotland and Öland have their own flags. Gotland’s flag depicts a sheep and Öland’s flag depicts a deer. Öland also has a flag that is a yellow cross on a green background.
There are so many flags in Sweden. Counties, regions, cities, towns all have their own flag, it’s impossible to describe them all. So, as my final flag, I will reference one of my favourites. The Sami population of Arctic Sweden have their own flag. Firmly embedded in Sami mythology it is colourful and beautiful.
Many Swedes have a sweet tooth and the average Swede consumes around 40kg of sugar per year. This is, however, far less than the average American who consumes around 70kg per year. In the UK, the figure is surprisingly lower at 32kg.
The Swedish sweet tooth is reflected in the supermarket shelves stacked with candy and cakes and the freezers bulging with ice cream. A very popular type of sweet in Sweden is something called ‘lösgodis’. These are individual unwrapped sweets that you can pick and mix with a small shovel into a paper bag.
The popularity of these types of pick and mix sweets is huge. In 2019, Swedes purchased candy from the leading brand Cloetta, for 1.6 billion crowns in the months of April-May alone.
However, corona has had its impact, as in most areas of life. The idea of eating exposed, individual, potentially-fingered and spat on candy has reduced in popularity. In the month of April this year, consumption dropped by 70%. In June, the drop was 40% compared to the year before.
So does this mean Swedes have stopped eating sweet stuff? Probably not. Individually-wrapped candy has increased in consumption, after an initial drop. Ice cream remains very popular. In fact, Sweden is the country in Europe that eats the most ice cream after Finland. In a normal year, Swedes consume 12 litres of ice cream per person. And baked goods also remain popular. During the early days of the pandemic, sweet yeast was totally sold out everywhere, suggesting that Swedes were at home hungrily baking cinnamon buns and other sweet delights.
So it seems that the Swedes are still getting their sugar fix even if the ‘lösgodis’ counter remains intact for a while longer.
A question to my Swedish readers. What is your favourite ‘lösgodis’? I have to admit mine is the fudge cube.
I’ll never forget how I learned the Swedish word for money. New in Sweden, I went to see a performance of Cabaret at the National Theatre. The musical was in Swedish but I figured it would be ok as I knew the story line. It was fairly entertaining but, to be honest, a bit boring. Until the song ‘Money makes the world go round’ came on. In this song, there’s a line that goes ‘money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money’. The singers pranced around the stage and sang ‘pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar, pengar’. It was repeated so often that I never forgot the word ‘pengar’ ever again.
However ‘pengar’ is just the formal word for money in Swedish. Like the US has its ‘buck’ and the UK has its ‘quid’, Swedish also has a lot of colloquial words for the Swedish krona (crown). Here are some examples:
Deg – dough – possibly related to putting food on the table in olden days
Lax – literally a salmon – meaning a thousand crowns. In the early 1900’s, the 1000 crown bill was pink.
Röding – literally a char – meaning 500 crowns
Selma – an old word for 20 crowns. The name is taken from the portrait of author Selma Lagerlöf on the 20 crown note.
Pix – meaning crowns
Kosing – cash
Stålar – cash – refers to steel/metal that coins are made of
Kova – cash. The expression ‘kova raha’ was on 1700’s money. This is Finnish for ‘hard money’.
Pluring – cash. Possibly related to the Latin ‘plures’ meaning many. The word ‘pluring’ was originally used to refer to large amounts of money.
Bagis – a crown. From an older word ‘bagare’ which means baker. Referring probably to the original silver coins that were as white as flour.
Spänn – a crown. Probably borrowed from German ‘späne’ which is slang for money, or English ‘spend’.
Flis – money. Flis also means small wood chips, so it may have originated in Swedish to mean small values of money.
I’m sure there are a lot more words! Please feel free to add them here!
Marvel Comics recently released an advert for an upcoming event with the slogan ‘Knull is coming!’ The headline has caused raised eyebrows, and curiosity, in Sweden.
Knull is apparently a super villain in the Marvel universe. Knull is an all-powerful creature that kills other gods. He is immortal and self-healing. His name should imbue fear and dread. The problem is in Sweden, it is more likely to inspire ridicule.
The thing is that the word ‘Knull’ in Swedish means ‘fuck’.
So, ‘Knull is coming’ has a whole different meaning to the Swedes than the rest of the world.
I wonder who’s going to tell Marvel? Or maybe they already know – and don’t give a knull.
In Sweden, there is a population of ten million, with two million residing in the greater Stockholm region. Of the overall population, around half of the citizens live in flats.
In a recent survey of flat dwellers in Stockholm, 80% said that they don’t know the name of any of their neighbours. That figure is surprisingly high. I have lived in my flat since October and I can rattle off the first names of at least five of the neighbours. 80% surprises me. And I wonder if this is typically Swedish? If you asked the same question in London or New York or Madrid would you get the same result?
One aspect that might affect this lack of neighbourly knowledge is the type of flat that people live in.
In Sweden, flats are typically either rental flats or resident-owned flats.
Resident-owned flats. When you buy a flat in Sweden, you also buy a percentage of the building which you own together with your neighbours. In these resident-owned flats, the building is run as a private cooperative, governed by an elected tenant board. This means that you are forced to work together with your neighbours to operate and maintain the building. For example, once a year there is a ‘shareholder annual meeting’ and twice a year there might be clean-up parties for the communal spaces. This means you meet and interact with your neighbours. In Sweden, resident-owned flats make up about 21% of the total housing stock.
Rental flats. In rental accommodation, a private company owns the building and takes care of all the communal areas such as gardens, laundry room and stairwells. This means tenants in theory have to never interact with their neighbours. Rental accommodation is about 28% of the total housing stock.
Finding a flat is extremely difficult in Sweden’s cities. To buy is expensive and waiting lists for rentals can be over 10 years. This creates another market for ‘second hand’ rental, where people sub-let their apartments out to others. This creates even further anonymity as the renter is often only there for short periods. In this case, there is probably no necessity to get to know the neighbours. In research from Sweden’s Ministry of Housing, an estimated 200,000 people live in this form of housing in Stockholm.
So, on reflection, maybe it isn’t so unexpected that 80% say they do not know the name of a neighbour in their building.
Statistics aside, one can wonder what impact this has on local communities and Swedish society as a whole. While this encourages the Swedish qualities of privacy, respect and integrity, it surely also contributes to loneliness, unfriendliness and alienation?
Every summer in Sweden, there is a wonderful tradition. This tradition began in 1959.
Every day for 6 weeks or so, at 1pm, there is a summer talk on Swedish radio channel 1. This might sound mundane, but it is, in fact, an integral part of the Swedish summer.
Each day, a different person is responsible for the talk. This person shares their life stories, perspectives, life lessons, experiences and sometimes their tragedies. They play music of their choice. It is 90 minutes of pure relaxation, with a big dash of voyeurism. Some of the talkers are celebrities, some are politicians, or authors or activists, or influencers, or actors or philosophers or soldiers or priests or even ordinary people.
The talks are in Swedish, although the speakers can originate from outside of Sweden. It is considered an honour to be asked to hold a talk. I would love to do one. I’d share by life story and my perspectives on Swedish culture from my outside perspective. Oh and I’d play music by Kate Bush and The Smiths! What a self indulgent treat!
This year so far we have heard State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell share his story. We also heard climate activist Greta Thunberg. She actually did her talk twice – both in Swedish and English. It is a really inspiring, and somewhat frightening talk about the climate crisis we are in. If you’d like to listen to it, and I urge you to do so, here is the link:
So listen and enjoy a piece of Swedish summer tradition.
With Midsummer arriving tomorrow, it is time to start planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers. As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself.
This year it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance from others. Apart from these guidelines, here are a few more hacks to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.
Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way in corona times is to stand 1-2 meters away, look directly in their eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. You might even give a small wave or touch elbow to elbow. If you are feeling adventurous, follow up your ‘Hej’ with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.
Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the strawberry dessert has even been put on the table.
Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.
If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of skinny dipping when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.
Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. This year, the activities are hopefully adapted to corona. To survive these activities, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.
Protect yourself. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. It remains to be seen, however, if this year people are keeping their distance. If you don’t keep your distance, and don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.
Throw in the thermals. It looks like it might be super sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. One of the warmest ever! But it is good to be prepared. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.
Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill and new potatoes. Remember to use hand disinfectant before you attack the buffet.
Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time.
Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.
Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…
That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!