In ten posts, I am recommending good Swedish reads to enjoy during the dark days and pandemic lock down. This is the tenth, and final, one, and it’s a classic – ‘Doctor Glas’- written in 1905 by Hjalmar Söderberg.
The gripping tale of a young doctor who falls in love with a married woman. The woman is wedded to a sadistic minister and divorce is out of the question. To free the woman he loves, and enact revenge on her husband, Dr Glas is faced with a terrible dilemma. Söderberg is considered an important figure in Swedish literary history, and wrote several novels. Another of his famous works is ‘The Serious Game’.
In ten posts, I am recommending great Swedish reads to enjoy during the dark days. This is the eighth one – ‘The People of Hemsö’ – written in 1887 by legendary Swedish author August Strindberg.
Carlsson is on his way to the island of Hemsö in the Stockholm archipelago to work at widow Flod’s farm. With Flod’s husband dead, the farm is falling part. Drama ensues. A classic tale of greed, jealousy, love, lust and lies.
Over 10 posts, I will give you a recommendation of a Swedish book, translated into English, that is well worth a read. The sixth recommendation is ’Popular Music from Vittula’ from 2000, written by Mikael Niemi.
This brilliant book is set in the very north of Sweden during the 60’s and 70’s and is a young boy’s coming of age story. Based on the author’s own childhood, we get to experience a distant time in a remote region of Sweden influenced by communism, alcoholism, machoism, and rock and roll.
I remember walking around Stockholm when I had recently moved here. It was a pitch black Saturday evening in November, cold and crisp. As I approached a majestic church, I noticed that it was shimmering from the grave yard. This yellow and white light slowly flickered and cast shadows on the gravestones and the church wall. As if drawn by a magic spell, I walked up to the church and looked over the wall.
The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and serene at the same time. Hundreds of candles were spread around the cemetery, decorating each of the graves. In the memory grove a bright blazing blanket of candles lit up the area. It was as if the spirits of the dead had come out to play.
In Sweden, the Saturday between 31 October and 6 November is All Saints’ Day (the Sunday after All Saints’ Day is called All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead). Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light and to pay respect to the dead.
It is a much more elegant and atmospheric tradition than the typical Halloween parties that otherwise have become very popular in Sweden. It is a truly beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us.
This year is a bit different however. The corona pandemic has led to restrictions and there is a recommendation to refrain from going to cemeteries this weekend. We should honour our dead, but try not to contribute to the spread of the virus at the same time. So if you plan to head to your nearest cemetery anyway, make sure to keep distance to the other visitors, and make the visit quick. Alternatively, light a candle in your own garden, or balcony this year.
In the center of Stockholm, a large building project is starting to take shape. The Slussen Project started 5 years ago and is an enormous feat of engineering that aims to replace a current structure connecting the southern island of Södermalm to the Old Town. The current concrete structure has been in place since the 1930’s and is literally crumbling. The entire structure needs to be demolished and constructed from scratch.
Ever since 1642, there has been a lock between Södermalm and the Old Town in Stockholm. It has been rebuilt four times. This is the fifth, and it is not without controversy.
Today, an important milestone in the project was reached. An enormous new bridge, known colloquially as the Golden Bridge (although it is in fact ockra), was inaugurated by the Swedish King. The bridge connects the two parts of the city, but divides the residents of Stockholm. Some think it’s very effective and attractive, others think it is a monstrous metal clump.
It really doesn’t matter what people think, the Golden Bridge (correct name Slussbron) is now in place and opens tomorrow at 5am for traffic. Then, the demolishing of the rest of the old structure will begin. The whole project is due to be completed in 2025, assuming no delays.
In the meantime, Stockholmers can walk, cycle and drive over the Golden Bridge knowing they are an integral part of the city’s urban history.
In English, we have the expression ‘cool as a cucumber’. It was first recorded in a poem by John Gay in 1732. The Swedish version of this is ‘cool/calm as a bowl of fermented milk’, or ‘lugn som en filbunke’ in Swedish.
What, you might be asking, is a filbunke? Well, according to the dictionary it is ‘milk that has fermented, unstirred, in small bowls. Has a pudding-like consistency. Traditionally made in small bowls from (unpasteurized and unhomogenized) raw milk, which normally contains some cream. The cream forms a yellowish layer of sour cream on top. Comes unflavoured and flavoured.’
We don’t have an equivalent dish in English as far as I know.
Although the dish has been around since the 1600’s, the expression ‘cool as a filbunke’ entered the Swedish language in 1845. Playwright Johan Jolin wrote in his play ‘A Comedy’ – ‘I’m cool, cool as a filbunke’. It was met with much hilarity. I guess he thought there was something chilled out about a bowl of fermented milk.
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.
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.