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
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!
Midsummer’s Eve is possibly the biggest public celebration in Sweden, and it’s happening this week on Friday. Swedes gather to eat, drink and be merry together.
So, what are the origins of Midsummer and why is it celebrated? Well, according to authors Po Tidholm and Agneta Lilja, the origins of Midsummer date back as far as the 6th century:
‘In agrarian times, Midsummer celebrations in Sweden were held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas people dressed up as ‘green men’, clad in ferns. They also decorated their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raised tall, leafy maypoles to dance around, probably as early as the 1500s.
Midsummer was primarily an occasion for young people, but it was also celebrated in the industrial communities of central Sweden, where all mill employees were given a feast of pickled herring, beer and schnapps. It was not until the 1900s, however, that this became the most Swedish of all traditional festivities.
Ever since the 6th century AD, Midsummer bonfires have been lit around Europe. In Sweden, they were mainly found in the southern part of the country. Young people also liked to visit holy springs, where they drank the healing water and amused themselves with games and dancing. These visits were a reminder of how John the Baptist baptised Christ in the River Jordan.
Midsummer Night is the lightest of the year and was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams, to quench their thirst. You could also discover treasures, for example by studying how moonbeams fell.
Also that night, it was said, water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers. Many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.’
There is still an element of magic in the otherwise well-organised Midsummer celebrations of today. One example is the erection of a large phallic flower-clad maypole, and the dancing around of said pole. This is an ancient fertility rite. Related to this, is the association of love to the festivities of Midsummer. In fact many Swedish babies are made around this weekend.
Another example is the gathering of 7 types of summer flower to place under your pillow at night. It is said if you do this, then your future husband will appear to you in your dreams.
And then there’s the light. On Midsummer’s Eve is doesn’t really get dark. Depending on where you are in Sweden, it ranges from a dim glow in the south to full on daylight in the north. In Stockholm, where I live, it is a magical dusky twilight that conjures up associations of witchcraft, druids and paganism.
So while today’s Midsummer might be a well-orchestrated gathering of friends and family, there is still some magic to be found if you look hard enough.
It is well known that Sweden has taken a different approach to the pandemic, one that didn’t involve totally locking down society and enforcing quarantine and curfew. Instead, the Swedish way relied on the responsibility of the population to go about life, with some restrictions and be careful. Time will tell if this was the right choice in the long run.
In the short run, we see that Sweden has a relatively high incidence of death from Covid-19. It is of course hard to compare figures, because it depends on what and how you are counting. Sweden cross checks against the death register and counts every death, in every location. Not just in hospitals, or in intensive care units. Because the virus got into care homes, the vast majority of deaths is unfortunately found in the over 80 age group.
It seems like Sweden is now paying a price for the more relaxed corona strategy. With countries around the world slowly opening up, they have released lists of approved countries from where tourists are allowed. Sweden is not on many of these lists. Swedes are perceived as plague-carrying high risk tourists.
Sweden’s neighbours Finland, Norway and Denmark have opened up for travel after their lockdowns. But the borders to Sweden remain closed. Sweden has become the social pariah of Scandinavia. Norway released an interesting decision this week. No traveling to Sweden, except to the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. However, domestic travel is allowed in Sweden, so the popular holiday island of Gotland will be packed with Swedes, mostly from Stockholm, crammed in together with Norwegian tourists. Not sure how Norway was thinking on that one.
Of course, as time goes on, Swedish tourists will be welcome again around the world. As Sweden’s death toll reduces, and the virus ebbs out, borders will open again. It’s just an usual situation right now for Swedes to find themselves unpopular.
So, staycation is the melody of summer 2020. My plans include a socially-distanced trip to lake Vättern, and a road trip up north. I’m also going to explore my hometown of Stockholm more.
If you’re staying in Sweden, what do you plan to do?
Usually at this time of the year, a common sight on the streets of Sweden is students on trucks, as seen in these pictures. Dressed in traditional white caps, and bolstered with alcohol, the students jump up and down to the booming music from loud speakers concealed in the vehicle. They scream and shout and spray beer on each other and sometimes unsuspecting pedestrians.
They are celebrating the end of their school career. Most of them are 19 years old and have just graduated from Sixth Form College/High School. Every year the media reports accidents and injuries, which is not entirely unexpected. And trucks have been banned from certain roads and areas in the towns.
In Sweden, graduating or doing ‘studenten’, as it’s called in Swedish, is a major rite of passage into adult life. The youngsters finish their last day at school, come running out of the building to be greeted by waiting parents and families. They then climb aboard their trucks for their lap of honour. After that they go around to each other’s homes where each family usually arranges a reception to honour the newly-graduated student.
This year though is a bit different. Due to COVID 19, the trucks are banned. Parties are cancelled. Parents are not allowed to gather in large groups. It is a necessary action to try to stem a pandemic, but highly disappointing for the affected youths.
However, people are finding other solutions. Trucks may be banned but cars aren’t. The streets are full of young people screaming around in cars, flying their flags and cheering themselves on. Boats float around the city waterways with groups of less than 50 graduates, drinking sparkling wine and dancing to their booming music. The parks are full of picnicking revelers, huddled on shared blankets but socially distanced from other groups.
Proof that people will always find a way. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
At 11.21 pm on 28 February 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot by a lone assailant. He was killed in cold blood on the street after visiting a cinema with his wife. A second shot injured her. Lying in a pool of blood, in the cold Swedish winter, Olof Palme died.
The assassination of Olof Palme (to the left above) has caused headlines around the world. Theories abounded on who had assassinated this very popular and very hated politician. During the last 34 years, the police have investigated the case and failed to identify the murderer. The unsolved case of Olof Palme has gaped like an open wound in Swedish society.
However, today the prosecutors responsible for the investigation announced that they know who the assassin is. In making this claim, they have ended the decades-long mystery. No conclusive evidence was provided, no DNA and no weapon, but prosecutors believe they have the man. They have pointed to Stig Engström, a graphic designer working at a nearby company, pictured to the right above. Stig Engström committed suicide in 2000, so cannot be charged. Therefore the case is closed after 34 years!
Finally, the mystery can be resolved. Or can it? with any lack of clear evidence, it is a very frustrating finale to a very drawn out drama. For a country searching for an answer, this will probably not give them it. And as Stig Engström took his story to the grave, I guess we will actually never know the truth.
Today is Sweden’s National Day. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005. Prior to that, the 6th June was known as Swedish Flag Day to commemorate that Sweden has its own flag – a celebration introduced in 1916 after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905.
Swedes celebrate National Day on 6 June in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king (6 June 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution (6 June 1809).
Normally, the King and Queen of Sweden take part in a televised ceremony at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum, on National Day. The yellow and blue Swedish flag is run up the mast, and children in traditional peasant costume present the royal couple with bouquets of summer flowers.
Otherwise, it’s a bit of a weird day, National Day. It’s celebrated with organised events in parks and squares. Buses fly the flag on their rooves, people hang up the flag on poles and people gather in large crowds to wave the flag. Other than this, many people don’t really know what to do. There is no collective memory around the 6th June, such as independence or winning a war, to pull people together. No sense of achievement. Or historical pride. So, the day is usually appreciated as a day off work to, for example, meet friends, or play golf, or day drink or sunbathe or go to Ikea.
One interesting event that happens on this day is the Citizen Ceremony. All new citizens up and down the country are invited to their town hall to participate in a ceremony to welcome them to Sweden as new Swedes. Usually, the mayor proceeds over the event and it’s followed by the most Swedish thing of all – Fika (coffee and cinnamon buns). When I participated 9 years ago, Crown Princess Victoria was actually there also. It did feel very official, with participants from all over the world dressed in their best clothes such as elegant saris, busutis and kanzus. Personally, I wore a blue jacket with a yellow handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.
Due to the current pandemic, lots of celebrations are cancelled this year. As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. This is what they write:
‘Sweden live: National Day @ home
Make yourself comfortable and join us as we celebrate Sweden’s National Day. In this 24-hour livestream Swedish artists will play for you from their living rooms, chefs will cook with you, museums will dazzle you with their exhibits – and you might also get the chance to spot some moose… Enjoy! Here’s the link!
It’s funny how some names just don’t translate well. Years ago when I was living in London, I had a Swedish friend called Lasse visiting. At a party I introduced him to another person. ‘Oh’ she said ‘Lasse! That’s a really funny name! It’s the name of a film star dog!’ My friend Lasse looked unamused. He responded by saying ‘Well, what about your name Pippa? In Swedish that means fuck’!
In Swedish, there are some unusable names – because they simply don’t work in an international environment. Many names that are fine in Swedish, are just not in English. Let’s take a look at ten of the ‘worst’ Swedish names.
Titti – there are 1028 women called Titti in Sweden. They have an average age of 53. The most well-known one is a radio host called Titti Schultz. The last Titti to be registered in Sweden was born in 2014.
Jerker – this name works fine in Swedish. Not so much in English. Its masturbatory connotation makes it somewhat tasteless. In Sweden, there are 2705 men called Jerker in Sweden, with an average age of 49. Since 2010 nobody has been registered with this name.
Fanny – this name also exists in English and is considered by many to be inappropriate. Meaning vagina in British English and backside in American English, it’s probably best to avoid it as a name. In Sweden there are 10703 women called Fanny. The Bergman film Fanny and Alexander made the name popular again in the 80’s, so the average age of the name Fanny is actually 25.
Pekka – about 8% of Sweden’s population are Finnish, and of course they give their children names of Finnish origin. Pekka is such a name. Currently there are 2308 Pekkas in Sweden. The name is unfortunate because, to the English-speaking ear, it is suspiciously close to ‘pecker’ which is a slang word for penis.
Lo – a lovely name in Swedish sounds like ‘loo’ in English. To Brits, this means toilet. 2717 females are called Lo, and 1207 males. They average an age of 8, which means their name-related problems are ahead of them.
Sigge – a popular name for boys today. 2161 males have the name, averaging the age of 8. In Swedish, it’s quite a cute name but internationally it sounds like ‘ciggie’ – which means cigarette.
Birger – the name works in Swedish as it has the pronunciation of ‘biryer’. But in English it’s unfortunately pronounced Burger. There are 30,000 men with this name in Sweden, averaging the age of 66. In 2019, 11 new baby Birgers were however registered.
Simon – while we are on the subject of pronunciation, the name Simon becomes relevant. No problem pronounced the English way, but in Swedish the ‘i’ sounds like a ‘ea’. So the name is pronounced seamon, which is rather regrettable.
Odd – an old Nordic name which is beautiful in Swedish. But in English it means strange and weird. Maybe not what we want our newborn to be associated with. That said, there are 1373 of them in Sweden.
Birk – pronounced ‘birrck’ in Swedish, it’s probably also easy for Scots to say. However, English people would say ‘berk’. This is unfortunately a slang word for idiot or dickhead. There are 562 males called Birk averaging an age of 11, and it’s growing in popularity. It is an old Nordic name meaning ‘trading place’.
For those of you who have bought into the myth that Sweden is doing nothing to combat the epidemic, here is a photo of downtown Stockholm. It was taken today by a friend of mine at 11.00am. The normally bustling streets of the capital are deserted. It is admittedly a ‘bridge day’ between a public holiday and a weekend, but even so, the streets are usually much busier than this.
This is a testimony to the fact that most Swedes are taking it seriously.
Today, 17 May, is National Day in Norway. Known as ‘Syttende mai’, it is the day on which Norwegians celebrate the signing of their constitution in 1814. The constitution was signed in an attempt to declare independence and avoid ratification with Sweden. But it failed. Norway was forced into an unwilling union with Sweden and ruled under the same monarch with two capitals – Stockholm and Christiania (Oslo). It wasn’t until 1905 that Norway finally gained independence and the forced union with Sweden was peacefully dissolved.
Since then, Norway is fiercely and proudly their own. 17 May is a huge, patriotic party consisting of concerts, parades and parties.
Today, the relationship between Sweden and Norway is very friendly. The Kings of each country are second cousins. Free trade and transportation exists across the seamless border. The main rivalry between the countries appears to come in the competitive world of cross country skiing, where Norwegian athletes dominate.
As a hangover from the times when Sweden saw Norway as their country cousins, there are a lot of jokes mocking Norwegians. In all of these jokes, Norwegians come off as stupid and simple. When I looked further into it, I discovered that the same exists the other way round. In many Norwegian jokes, known as ‘svenskevitser’, Swedes are depicted as stupid or as spectacular failures. It is not untypical that these kinds of jokes exist between neighbouring countries – English jokes about the Irish, Welsh and Scottish being another example.
Equivalent to the ‘Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman’ jokes, Norway also has its ‘the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian’ jokes. In these jokes, the Dane is usually drunk, the Swede stupid and the Norwegian smart. Here’s an example:
‘ A Swede, a Norwegian and a Dane were arrested in France during the French revolution. They each got to choose which way they would die. The Norwegian chose the guillotine, because he saw it as the latest fashion. His head went under, but the blade stopped 1 inch from his neck. The French saw this as a sign from God or something and decided to let him go. The same thing happened to the Dane who ran off into the nearest tavern to celebrate. Then they asked the Swede how he wanted to die. “I think I’ll die by hanging, that guillotine doesn’t work anyway,” he said.’
So, regardless of who might be considered stupid, today is a day to celebrate Norway! May you have a long and prosperous existence, and may you continue to live in peaceful, slightly ridiculing, co-existence with your neighbours.