My Essential Guide to Sweden

In 2020, I was approached by the publishers behind the respected Culture Smart series to see if I would write a book about Swedish culture. I accepted and, finally, it is here! I am proud to join their staff of authors! Available soon to buy on Amazon, or via me. Just pm me if you’d like a copy. Today’s a good day!!!

Chinese in Sweden

Today, 20 April is Chinese Language Day. The day was inaugurated by the UN to celebrate the linguistic diversity of the organisation. The date was chosen to pay tribute to Cangjie, a mythical figure who is presumed to have invented the Chinese alphabet 5,000 years ago. According to legend, he had four eyes and the gods and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet after his invention.

The first documented Chinese person in Sweden arrived on a Swedish East Indian Company boat in 1786. His name was ‘Afock’ and he was considered so ‘exotic’ that he was given an audience with the King. According to Sweden’s Statistical Bureau, there are 45,868 Chinese-born people registered as living in Sweden today.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s/80’s that immigration from China to Europe became common, and many of those who initially arrived supported themselves by opening restaurants. The first Chinese restaurant in Sweden, called ‘The Chinese Wall’, opened however in 1959 in Gothenburg.

Today, there are many Chinese restaurants and several Chinese shops and supermarkets. Unlike many other cities, such as London, San Francisco, Singapore, New York, Stockholm does not have a ‘Chinatown’. Many Chinese people who move to Sweden now come to study, and continue to work, often in the IT and Tech sectors.

A few Chinese-inspired pieces of architecture exist in Sweden. Three in Stockholm are The China Theatre, built 1928, the Chinese Pavilion in Haga Park and the UNESCO listed Chinese Palace built in 1753 in the grounds of Drottningholm Palace.

Perhaps the most bizarre piece of architecture is Dragon Gate, a monstrous compound built by the motorway outside the small town of Älvkarleby. This is intended to be a cultural meeting place for Swedes and Chinese and includes a temple, a museum, a copy of the Terra-cotta Army, monuments, restaurant, hotel, kungfu school and a huge square. It has been an economic failure since its opening and today is closed.

A recent survey carried out by the Swedish Institute looked at Chinese attitudes to Swedes and Sweden. The survey focused on Chinese people living in China, and not those who emigrated. Various perceptions were that Swedes are obedient, relaxed, lazy and introvert. Sweden was perceived as rich, beautiful and clean but expensive, with high taxes and a depressing climate.

Interestingly, many Chinese confuse Sweden with Athens! The probable explanation is that Sweden in Madarin is Ruidian and Athens is Yadian.

Sweden’s Patrik Day

Today, 16 April, is Patrikdag – Patrik Day in Sweden. Not to be confused with the Irish St Patrick’s Day and nothing to do with partying, drinking and dancing.

No, this day is to with agriculture, and crops. In Sweden’s old agrarian society, spring was an intensive time. It was important to sow at the right moment in order to have a successful harvest. In the southern-most county of Skåne farming calendar, Patrik Day was marked as being the last day to sow. If it was too cold, and the ground too hard, then the tradition was to sow inside the barn. In other more northern parts, this was the absolute last day to begin ploughing the fields.

The name Patrik comes from the Swedish tradition of giving each day a name. Yesterday was Olivia, tomorrow is Elias. And today is Patrik Day.

‘Long’ Friday in Sweden

Today is called Long Friday in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’. It commemorates the long day and the long suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, according to Christian teachings. It is a public holiday, and for many years, everything was closed in Sweden making the day long and boring for many people. Now, most things are open, even the middle of a flaming, raging pandemic.

Good Friday is a day of cooking, shopping and going for walks. Some people attend church services. Tomorrow, Easter Saturday, is the normal day of celebration when Swedes gather to eat from a bulging smörgåsbord. Typical food includes variations of salmon, egg, herring and lamb. Dark Easter beer is consumed and snaps is knocked back.

In English, this day used to be called Long Friday also, but at some point in history it changed to Good Friday. Good in this context means Holy. According to the Daily Mash this is ‘still stupid. You don’t get much worse days than being flogged, nailed to a cross, then stabbed. And that includes your annual performance review. It’s like calling funerals ‘Happy Burying Nana Day’.

Swedish icons 14: The Swedish Chef

I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning the Swedish chef. He was probably my second introduction to the Swedish culture when he appeared on the Muppet Show in 1975. Abba winning Eurovision in 1974 was my first. And in my ears when the members of Abba spoke – they sounded just like the Swedish chef!

The Swedish chef character is a puppet that was invented by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The puppet’s live hands where performed by Oz, while Henson controlled the head and did the classic voice. The gobbledygook that the character spoke was supposed to be Swedish, and had the occasional English word thrown in. It was basically gibberish and sounded like ‘hurdy gurdy’ and ‘bork, bork, bork’. He was known for his ridiculous cooking methods, his accident prone nature and the fact that he almost always tried to cook living animals that, in the end, attacked him.

As a kid, I thought that the Swedish chef was hilarious. I don’t know if my love affair with Sweden began there but I certainly found him entertaining and intriguing. To date, he has been seen in over 100 countries, and in some places he might be all they know about Sweden. Interestingly in Germany, he’s known as the Danish Chef.

Real-life Swedish chef Lars Bäckman claims that he is the inspiration for the character. Allegedly he performed catastrophic screen test in the USA in the 70’s which Henson saw and imitated. Bäckman’s claim has however never been corroborated by the Muppet Show.

So, does he sound like a Swede? Well, most Swedes would say absolutely not. To them, he sounds more Norwegian. I can say that in all the years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve only heard a handful of people speak in the ‘hurdy gurdy’ style of the Swedish chef when speaking English. It is so unusual that it is almost a shock when you encounter it. So, the answer is no – the Swedish chef is not accurate, but he is a comedy icon in his own way.

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.

The Swedish hot wall – a murderous treat

I’ve written previously about the cream bun called a semla that is eaten around this time of year in Sweden. Traditionally consumed on Shrove Tuesday, this is a sweet, wheat bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste. And it is de-lish-us.

However, there is a way to eat it that I have never got on board with. A traditional method called the ‘hetvägg’, which translates literally a ‘hot wall.’ This is when the semla is placed into a bowl of warm milk, and eaten with a spoon. The result is a sugary, creamy slop.

The ‘hetvägg’ has a long history, going way back to the 1700’s when a warm, wedge-shaped spiced bun was served in a bowl of warm milk. This was eaten around Europe. In fact, the name ‘hetvägg’ has nothing to do with ‘hot wall’, but comes from the German for ‘hot wedge’ – “heisse wecke”. The top of today’s semla is often wedge-shaped as a historical nod to the original bun.

It is said that King Adolf Fredrik died from eating too many ‘hetvägg’ in 1771, but in fact it was a heart attack. Granted, he was a gluttonous man, and eating ‘hetvägg’ was indeed part of his questionable diet. After his death, there was a call to ban the sugary treat, as it was rumoured to have murdered the king.

The ‘hetvägg’ wasn’t banned and today it is still a popular way to consume the semla. I personally prefer mine dry and fluffy. But, hey, as they say in Swedish – ‘taste is like the backside – divided!’

The Swedish hot wall – a murderous treat

I’ve written previously about the cream bun called a semla that is eaten around this time of year in Sweden. Traditionally consumed on Shrove Tuesday, this is a sweet, wheat bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste. And it is de-lish-us.

However, there is a way to eat it that I have never got on board with. A traditional method called the ‘hetvägg’, which translates literally a ‘hot wall.’ This is when the semla is placed into a bowl of warm milk, and eaten with a spoon. The result is a sugary, creamy slop.

The ‘hetvägg’ has a long history, going way back to the 1700’s when a warm, wedge-shaped spiced bun was served in a bowl of warm milk. This was eaten around Europe. In fact, the name ‘hetvägg’ has nothing to do with ‘hot wall’, but comes from the German for ‘hot wedge’ – “heisse wecke”. The top of today’s semla is often wedge-shaped as a historical nod to the original bun.

It is said that King Adolf Fredrik died from eating too many ‘hetvägg’ in 1771, but in fact it was a heart attack. Granted, he was a gluttonous man, and eating ‘hetvägg’ was indeed part of his questionable diet. After his death, there was a call to ban the sugary treat, as it was rumoured to have murdered the king.

The ‘hetvägg’ wasn’t banned and today it is still a popular way to consume the semla. I personally prefer mine dry and fluffy. But, hey, as they say in Swedish – ‘taste is like the backside – divided!’