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!

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!

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!!!

The Nordic invasion of English

Hooked on the drama series Vikings, I am ploughing through all six seasons. The story follows the saga of legendary Vikings, who invaded the UK and continental Europe around 850 AD. The Vikings are portrayed as blood-thirsty, fame-thirsty, plunder-thirsty warriors coming from what today is Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

The Vikings first point of landing in the UK was on the island of Lindisfarne, close to where I am originally from in north east England. The visit resulted in devastation for the undefended locals. For me, this story has led to a lifelong fascination.

The many Viking raids on the UK spanned over 300 years, which meant that they left more behind them than just destruction and conquest. They also left language.

A lot of the words used in mainstream English today stem from old Norse. Even more exist in local colloquial language in Yorkshire and along the east coast. Some of these words are recognizable in the modern day Nordic languages. Here are 15 examples:

Berserk – from berserkr – meaning ‘bear shirt’ and depicting a jacked-up warrior who went into battle wearing nothing but an animal skin.

Cake – from kaka – meaning cake, biscuit

Happy – from happ – meaning good luck

Hell – from Hel, Loki’s daughter and ruler of the underworld

Husband – from hus bondi – meaning house occupier

Lad – from ladd – meaning young man

Loan – from lán – meaning to lend

Plough – from plogr – meaning to till the earth

Ransack – from ransaka – meaning to search a house

Run – from renna – to run

Skin – from skinn – meaning animal hide

Slaughter – from slatra – meaning to butcher

Thursday – from torsdagr – meaning Thor’s day

Ugly – from uggligr – meaning dreadful

Window – from vindauga – meaning ‘wind eye’

Words like knife, egg, scales, call, get, give, race, take, seem are all originally from Old Norse. The Vikings certainly had a massive influence on the English language.

What other words do you know that stem from Old Norse?

The longest Swedish word

A Swedish word you often hear this time of year is ‘högsommartemperaturer’. You hear it on the tv, radio, and read it in the newspapers. Literally translated, it means ‘high summer temperatures’. It is used in weather forecasts to describe the hot sunny days and evenings that we experience this time of year.

This is also a great example of Swedish language structure. Putting separate words together, in this case ‘hög’, ‘sommar’ and ‘temperaturer’ to form a longer word. This is one of the reasons why Swedish words often seem inscrutable to the foreign eye. It also means that Swedish words can sometimes get very long.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest Swedish word is:

‘Nordösterssjökustartilleriflygspaningssimulatoranläggningsmaterielunderhållsuppföljningssystemdiskussionsinläggningsförberedelsearbetensplanering‘.

Scary to read, huh? Well, try saying it. It translates as something like “Coast artillery flight searching simulator area material maintaining follow-up system discussion preparation tasks planning of the Northern Baltic Sea”. Still doesn’t really make sense even when separated into individual words!

By the way, did you know that the fear of long words is called ‘hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia’? Now that’s ironic isn’t it?

Swedish expression: Between the bird cherry and the lilac.

Right now in Stockholm we are between the bird cherry and the lilac. This Swedish expression ‘Mellan hägg och syren’ is used to describe this short period between when these two bushes blossom. At the moment the bird cherry is blossoming, but not yet the lilac. The period reflects the early days of summer and for many Swedes it is the most delightful time of the year. A friend of mine nostalgically said yesterday that ‘it smells like end of school’.

So where does this expression come from? Well, the common theory is that it was first used by a cobbler who put a sign up in the window of his shop. He had decided to take a brief holiday, and the sign read ‘closed between the bird cherry and the lilac’.