Book recommendation – how to adapt to Swedish culture

I have just finished reading Mustafa Panshiri’s 2021 book ‘7 Råd Till Mustafa’. If you understand Swedish, I strongly recommend you read it.

Mustafa Panshiri came to Sweden as a child from Afghanistan. In his book, he cleverly weaves his own experience of integration with seven pieces of advice he wishes he would have been given. This makes the book not only interesting to read, but very practical and useful. He has an non ‘Western-centric’ perspective which I found fascinating to read about and reflect over.

Aimed at readers who want to understand Swedish culture, and integrate into society, the book is also relevant to Swedes. Panshiri includes sections with advice to ‘Svenssons’.

Integration is a complex issue and Mustafa Panshiri does not claim to solve all of the problems. However, with this book, and his endless youth outreach work, he will clearly make a difference.

The book can be bought on line and at good book shops.

Sweden’s ‘Britt Summer’

Currently, many places in Sweden are experiencing warmer summer-like temperatures. The sun is shining, the air is warm but the leaves on the trees are golden brown. Known in English as Indian Summer, this brief, warm spell in the autumn is, in Swedish, called a ‘Britt Summer.’ It has nothing to do with Britain as you might assume but something completely different.

To be an official Britt Summer, the warm spell has to roughly coincide with the 7th October. This date is known as Birgitta Day, or Britt Day in the Swedish calendar – hence the name. The day celebrates the canonisation of Swedish Saint Birgitta. Legend has it that Saint Birgitta thought the temperature in Sweden was too cold so she prayed for the citizens of the country. And the Lord answered her prayer by providing everybody with a few extra days of summer!

These warm, sunny days are very welcome – the last throws of summer, before we are plunged into darkness and winter takes us in its grasp.

Interestingly, and oddly, Britt Summer is also known as ‘Fattigmanssommar’ (Poor man’s Summer) and Grävlingsommar (Badger Summer).

If anyone knows the reason why, please share it with us!

Provocative Swedish artist is killed

On Sunday, Lars Vilks, a controversial Swedish artist was killed in a car crash on a motorway in Sweden. Police are investigating the death for suspicious circumstances. It seems as if a tire exploded causing his car to break the central barrier and crash head on into an oncoming lorry. In the vehicle with him were two policemen – his protection.

Lars Vilks had 24-hour police protection as he was living under a fatwa issued by al Qaida. The price on his head was 100,000 USD and an extra 150, 000 if the perpetrator slit his throat.

The fatwa was a response to a series of drawings that Lars Vilks produced in 2007 in a local art show. His pictures depicted the prophet Muhammad, something that is considered blasphemous in anti-iconic Islamic tradition. To create double impact, Vilks depicted the prophet as a so-called ‘roundabout dog’ – a type of street art in Sweden. Depicting the prophet as a dog was deemed extra offensive. It caused such a local and international response that some newspapers in Sweden printed some of his drawings in articles about freedom of speech – causing even more fury.

The whole Lars Vilks case generated huge debate around issues of freedom of speech, respect, art, censorship, religious influence and terror. Throughout the years, he was the victim of many attacks and murder attempts, including bombing and arson.

The catalyst for Vilks’ work was the ‘Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy’ which began after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons in 2005. Most of the pictures showed Muhammad. The newspaper announced that this was a debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship. Muslim groups in Denmark complained, and the issue eventually led to protests around the world, including violent demonstrations, deaths and riots in some Muslim countries.

Vilks saw the specific response to his cartoons as part of the artwork itself. All of the consequences, all the reactions, all of the outrage and all of the violence was an integral part of the art, and a political comment. By that definition, even this blog has become a part of the artwork.

One can, however, wonder if he thought it was worth it in the end.

Lars Vilks was 75 when he died, and he produced a great deal of other work during the decades. He was always conceptual and often controversial and the debate he contributed to will continue long after his death.

Swedish attitudes to birth control

Today, 26 September, is World Contraception Day, which hopes to spread the word and raise awareness about contraception and safe sex. The aim is to help each new generation of adults make informed decisions until every pregnancy in the world is a planned one.

Contraception is Sweden is widely accepted, as there is little or no religious or social stigma around the subject of birth control. Over 90% of women have used some form of contraception in their life time. Common forms of ‘female’ birth control are the pill, the coil and hormone rings. The condom is also very commonly used.

Like in many other countries, the pill was seen as a vehicle for sexual liberation of women in the 1960’s. However, today, it is used less frequently in Sweden than in other neighboring countries as emphasis has been placed more on its negative side effects. Approximately one third of women in Sweden regularly use this type of contraception.

Contraceptive counseling is free in Sweden, although contraceptives themselves are not. You need a prescription, except for condoms and emergency contraception, such as the morning after pill, which are sold over the counter.

Controlling unwanted childbirth has been successful in Sweden, although there is still work to be done. According to the Swedish Statistics Center, 512 children were born to teenage mothers in 2020. Compare this to 6,198 children born to the same age group in 1973.

Swedish astrology

The earliest astrology can trace its roots to 19th Century BC. Beginning in Mesopotamia, it later spread to Greece and Rome, and eventually Central and Northern Europe.

Western astrology has twelve signs, reflecting the month in which you were born. In English, these signs are named after the original Greek words. But not the Swedish names. Like much else in the Swedish language, the words for these signs are very literal. They are also in the definite form.

Aquarius – Vattumannen (the Water Man)

Pisces – Fiskarna (the Fish)

Aries – Väduren (the Ram)

Taurus – Oxen (the Oxe)

Cancer – Kräftan (the Crab)

Leo – Lejonet (the Lion)

Virgo – Jungfrun (the Maiden / virgin)

Libra – Vågen (the Scale)

Scorpio – Skorpionen (the Scorpion)

Sagittarius – Skytten (the Archer)

Capricorn – Stenbocken (the Goat/Ibex)

Where??! Ten hard-to-pronounce place names in Sweden

Learning Swedish is tough for many because of the tricky pronunciation. Some words are very long, making them real tongue twisters. The same can be said for some place names – not necessarily long, but hard to say. Here are ten difficult-to-pronounce place names in Sweden:

1) Hjo. This small town positioned on the West Bank of Lake Vättern is actually pronounced something like ‘you’.

2) Ystad. This south coast town is a tricky one. It’s the ‘y’ sound that makes this one hard as it’s a vowel sound that we don’t have in English, and many other languages. It’s pronounced ‘ee’ but with the lips rounded.

3) Kristianstad. It might look straightforward to pronounce this town in county Skåne, but it’s not. It is pronounced something like ‘Krischansta’.

4) Jönköping. You have to know something about Swedish pronunciation to say the name of this town in county Småland. ’J’ is pronounced ‘Y’. ‘K’ is often pronounced as ‘Sh’ and ‘ö’ is pronounced like ‘er’ (as in her but without the ‘r’ sound). That makes this place name ‘Yernsherping’.

5) Örnsköldsvik. This is a town in the north of Sweden and is a tongue twister. Swedes often refer to it as ‘Övik’, just to avoid saying the full name. It is pronounced something like ‘ern-sherld-sveek’

6) Växjö. This is a town deep in the forests of county Småland. Pronounced ‘Veck-sher’ (kind of) it’s quite a tricky one.

7) Göteborg. The large west coast city of Gothenburg is a hard one to say in Swedish, which is probably why the name was changed to a more easily-pronounced English name. It is pronounced something like ‘yer-te-borry’.

8) Åmål. Once you grasp the ‘å’ sound, this one becomes easier. ‘Å’ is pronounced like the English ‘or’ but without the ‘r’ sound. So this town on the banks of Lake Vänern is pronounced ‘ormorl’

9) Skellefteå. This town in the northern county of Västerbotten is pronounced ‘Shell-efte-or’ (without the ‘r’ sound on the end).

10) Hamrångefjärden. This small village is outside the town of Gävle (also difficult to say). It is amongst the longest place names in Sweden, together with Skummeslövsstrand, Skinnskatteberg, Guldsmedshyttan, and Hälleviksstrand. (Try saying those!). Hamrångefjärden is pronounced something like ‘Ham-wrong-e-fyare-den’.

Sweden: the spiritual magic of ‘joiking’

We have all experienced moments of beauty in our lives. One of mine is something I experienced on a trip to the North of Sweden in an town called Hemavan.

The resort we stayed at had a restaurant at the bottom of a ski slope. One day when we were in there, a Sami man climbed up onto the small stage and began to sing an enchanting song. He was dressed in traditional blue and red Sami dress, and through the large windows behind him we could see reindeer high up in the snowy landscape.

It is a beautiful, serene image that is forever etched in my mind.

A contributing factor to the impact this had on me is how the man was singing. In fact, he wasn’t singing, he was ‘joiking ’. What, you might wonder, is joiking ?

Joiking is not a song as such, but a melodic sound that is integral to Sami culture. It is used to express relationships to people and nature. Traditionally, joiks have no lyrics, consisting of chanting, not unlike that found in some Northern American Indigenous cultures. They can also include mimicry of animal sounds.

Like in the restaurant, joiks are often performed for entertainment. However, they can also have a spiritual function. In past times, a noaidi (Sami shaman) could perform joik whilst beating on a Sami drum with bones to contact the spiritual world.

In Sami culture, most people are given their own melody, like a signature tune. This leads to the Sami saying that they are “joiking someone” rather than “joiking about someone”. Most joik melodies are about people, but also animals and places can have their own joiks. Animal joiks are often about wolves, reindeer, or birds such as ducks.

During the Christianization of the Sami from the 1700s onwards, joiking was considered sinful and was banned. But it survived and today is included as a frequent part of Swedish cultural events. Most recently, a Sami artist was televised joiking in a celebration of Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday in July.

If you’d like to experience some traditional and modern joiking, check out the links below. You will be captured by its melancholy and immediately transported to the mountains and plains of northern Sweden.

Swedish expression: Lazy Dog

I was listening to a presentation the other day and the presenter kept saying that he would provide users with a ‘lazy dog’. In Swedish, the expression makes sense, but in English it makes no sense – it means literally a dog that is lazy.

The Swedish word ‘lathund’ or ‘lazy dog’, is the word for a quick reference guide, or a cheat sheet. If you need support to follow a process, for example, you can follow a ‘lazy dog’. It is designed to make life easier and for things to go faster.

The word ‘lazy dog’ has been around in the Swedish language since the 1600’s. However, at that time it was used as an insult to a lazy person – ‘you lazy dog’. In the 1800’s, it changed to its current meaning – but its implication is the same. A person who uses a ‘lathund’ is a person looking for quick fixes and short cuts – in other words ‘lazy’.

After snaps cometh headache

This time of the year is the traditional crayfish party in Sweden. These small red crustaceans are usually eaten with Västerbottens cheese pie. Of course, crayfish parties don’t have to involve alcohol, but the traditional approach is to wash it all down with copious amounts of snaps and beer.

Throughout the years, I’ve been to my fair share of crayfish parties. I was at one last night. The bon ami, the snaps songs, the silly paper hats and the noisy, messy slurping make it, for me, one of the best festivities in the Swedish calendar.

One thing is certain though. The day after a crayfish party, one feels a little….delicate. After snaps cometh headache.

A snaps is a small glass of ‘burnt wine’ – or brännvin in Swedish. Brännvin is a spirit distilled from potatoes or grain with a high alcohol contented at least 37.5%. So it is not the same as a shot! It can be plain and colourless, or flavoured with herbs and spices. Brännvin includes vodka and akvavit, but akvavit is always flavoured with caraway and dill.

Brännvin has been in Sweden since around the late 1400’s and is an integral part of Swedish custom. It has been given many different names throughout history. Some synonyms are: ‘eldvatten’ (fire water), ‘jodlarsaft’ (yodel juice), ‘hojtarolja’ (shouting oil), ‘polarvätska’ (polar liquid), and ’spånken’ (originating in the Latin and Greek word for mushroom – spongia).

If you’re ever here, you should try it. But take it carefully!

Sweden’s Baltic Island of Öland

This summer holiday I was on the Baltic island of Öland for the first time. It is a fascinating place linked to the Swedish mainland by a 6 km long bridge. Interestingly, the name Öland translates as ‘Island Land’ – Ö being the Swedish word for island.

Öland lies outside the town of Kalmar in South East Sweden. The island is long, thin and mostly flat. This makes it windy and the landscape in the south of the island is barren. Made of limestone, the island is home to some unique flora and fauna that is found only on Öland. In the centre of the island is a large, open steppe called Alvaret. This vast, protected area is on the UNESCO Word Heritage List.

People have lived on Öland since 8000 BC, and the island has several Stone Age archeological sites as well as Viking settlements. The original settlers migrated across the ice bridge that connected the island with the mainland.

For a long time, the island was a royal hunting ground – which is reflected in the Öland coat of arms depicting a crown and a deer.

Today around 27,000 people live there permanently. During the summer months, the population multiplies drastically, with Swedish and foreign tourists descending on the island. This includes the Swedish Royal Family who have their summer residence on Öland. The island is a summer paradise, with its many long white sandy beaches.

The regional capital is a small town called Borgholm, and here there is a majestic ruin called Borgholm Castle. Dating back to the 16th Century, the castle stands on the site of an older fortress from the 1200’s. It is an impressive building with its panoramic view over the sea and any potential invaders.

Öland offers a unique insight into Swedish history and culture. It took me over 20 years to visit, but I hope to return again soon!