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.

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!

Plastic Sweden

Today, July 3rd, is International Plastic Bag Free Day. Plastic pollution is a man-made global catastrophe. Around 500 billion plastic bags are used on a global scale – most of them littering the planet and having a negative effect on the environment, wildlife and human health. Plastic bags can take up to 500 years before they decay properly.

A staggering 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. At least 8 million tons of this ends up in the sea every year. Scientists estimate that more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating in our oceans.

International Plastic Bag Free Day was introduced to encourage people to choose paper over plastic, to go on plastic bag scavenging outings and to recycle.

In Sweden, in May 2020, a tax was added to plastic bags in shops. After 8 months, the statistics showed a reduced consumption from 83 bags per person to 55. The EU goal is to reduce this number to 40 by 2025.

In November this year, Sweden will introduce additional tax to plastics intended for one-time use, such as food containers and mugs. In 2024, there will also be a total ban on cups and containers that contain more than 10% plastic.

So, think about anything small you can do to help today. Take a bag with you to the shop. Take a mug to your local cafe. Don’t put your fruit and veg in a plastic bag at the supermarket. Cook at home, don’t buy take away. Reuse. Recycle.

Something surprising about Swedish Midsummer

These days, Midsummer Day is a flexible holiday practically celebrated on a Saturday sometime between 20 and 26 June. This means that Midsummer Eve, one of the biggest festivities in the Swedish calendar, is always on a Friday. In the case of 2021, that’s tomorrow.

Bit did you know that this has only been since 1953? Prior to 1952, Midsummer Day was always celebrated today – the 24th June – coinciding with John the Baptist’s birthday. This was regardless of the day of the week it landed on. So today’s strong association with Midsummer being a long weekend is actually only around 70 years old

John the Baptist was a person who foresaw the birth of Jesus. He is considered a prophet in several of the world’s religions. He was a prolific preacher whose severed head was notoriously presented on a silver platter to Salome. His birthday has been celebrated since 300 AD on June 24 in many countries around the world.

An interesting fact is that Midsummer Day is still associated with John the Baptist in the other Scandinavian countries. For example, in Finland it is not called Midsummer but Juhannus. In Iceland, it is Jònsmessa. And in Denmark and Norway – Sankt Hans.

11 hacks for surviving Swedish midsummer

With Midsummer’s Eve arriving on Friday , 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, like last, it is important to wash hands regularly, avoid totally new contacts 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 June waters is a common activity at Midsummer and this year it seems like the water is warm. 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 still in the pandemic.

Glad Midsommar!

Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!

Swedish pizza – with cabbage! 


If you want a cultural food experience in Sweden – order a pizza. When you do, you will also experience a very strange bedfellow.

In Sweden, pizza is served with complimentary salad, in both restaurants and take aways. This salad is called creatively –  ‘pizza salad’ and is made of cabbage. It is a kind of coleslaw with white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and oil. It’s fresh, crispy and a bit weird. 

This odd combination is as far as I know only offered in the Nordic countries and its origin is a bit unclear.

One theory is that when the first pizzerias opened in Sweden, the traditional tomato salad wasn’t an option due to the climate in the winter. So, subsequently the pizza baker decided to use a more available, local vegetable – the cabbage – inspired by the Croatian salad ‘kupus salata’. 

Whatever it’s origin, the pizza salad is so ingrained in the Swedish mentality, it’s become a cultural ‘classic’.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine a pizza without cabbage salad in Sweden. 

How to be a parent in Sweden

Back in the days when we could fly, we all used to find ourselves sharing airport space with lots of other people. This led to me developing a specific skill. Wherever I was in the world, I could always identify the Swedish families. It wasn’t to do with language or looks or fashion style. No, it was to do with parenting.

If there was a child, or children, sprinting around the airport without the supervision of an adult – they were without a doubt Swedish. If kids were screaming at top volume without parental intervention – Swedish. If restaurant queues were building up because a kid couldn’t decide what to eat – invariably Swedish. In an airport, the Swedish parenting style was on show for everybody to see.

Swedish parenting is child-centric and comparatively free. It can be perceived as permissive and hands-off. Most parents adopt a communicative style with their children, which can seem to the untrained eye that this means there are no boundaries and no consequences. Children are from an early age involved in decisions that affect them, which is in contrast to a more authoritative and punitive style of parenting found in other countries. This leads to a population where self expression and independence is important

Here are 5 typical parenting behaviours in Sweden:

1) Egalitarian parenting. In Sweden, parents get 480 days of paid parental leave to share and, in heterosexual relationships, 90 of those are non-transferable days for fathers only. This is intended to achieve a more equal division of child-rearing responsibilities. This often extends into the division of duties in the home. So both men an women cook, clean, change nappies and stay home with sick children. For Swedes, it’s a no brainier.

2) Cosiness and cuddling. Friday evenings are reserved for family time. Called ‘fredagsmys’, or Friday coziness, it is when families curl up under a blanket, light candles and watch a film or series together—all while eating tacos, pizza, crisps and sweets. It is not unusual for kids to sleep in their parents’ bed until they reach double digits.

3) Right to Day Care. Every child in Sweden has a right to attend day care from one year old. Day care is subsidised and cheap. At Day Care, the kids spend most of their time playing—academia usually begins in earnest around 6 years old. The other reason for organised child care is so that parents can quickly return to the tax-paying workforce – and collectively finance child care and rest of the welfare state.

4) No spanking. Hitting a child is unthinkable – and illegal – in Sweden. Sweden was the first country in the world to ban spanking and all corporal punishment in 1979. As mentioned before, Swedes apply communicative style of parenting and discipline their children by talking and reasoning with them.

5) Go outside. Outdoorsiness starts early with parents leaving their children outside to sleep in their prams in sub zero temperatures. The crisp air is thought to be good for them. In schools, kids go outside and play every day—regardless of the weather. Some day care solutions are set outdoors with kids spending all day every day in the woods. In the summer, it’s not unusual to see naked kids on the beaches, reflecting Sweden’s relaxed attitude to nudity. Sports and being outdoors are highly prioritised in Sweden. Fresh air, and getting dirty, are considered healthy.

So back to those Swedish kids in the airport. Sure, they justifiably could be seen as unruly, disrespectful and unsupervised. But in equal measure, their behaviour can be a result of a flexible, free parental style that encourages independence and self sufficiency from an early age.

Sex working in Sweden

Today, June 2, is International Sex Workers’ Day. It is celebrated today because on 2 June, 1975, 100 sex workers occupied the Sant-Nizier Church in Lyon, France to express anger about their exploitative living conditions and work culture. The Church was brutally raided by the police forces on 10 June. This action became a national movement and the day is now recognised in Europe and worldwide.

In 1999, Sweden was unique in the world with the introduction of a ‘Sex Purchase Act’. The act makes it illegal to purchase sex but not to sell it. Under this law, it is the customer that is the criminal but not the sex worker, who is considered to already be in a vulnerable position. The law is based on the principle that prostitution is an act of violence against women. The ‘Swedish Model’ has been duplicated and adapted in the other Scandinavian countries as well as Canada, Ireland and France.

The Swedish Sex Purchase Act stands as a complete opposite to the laws in Germany and the Netherlands where the purchasing of sex services is legalized. Proponents of the Swedish law would at this is why Germany and the Netherlands have become European hotspots for sex tourism and trafficking.

However, many organisations, including Amnesty International, WHO and Human Rights Watch oppose the Swedish model. They suggest instead that legalization improves the sex worker’s access to health care, their ability to report crime and ability to organize themselves in, for example, unions. They also claim that the sex worker is not always a victim of the situation and that the Swedish law forces them into risky behavior and contributes to their poverty.

Despite the criticism, the Swedish law stands strong and does not look like it will be changed anytime soon. It seems that most Swedes agree with the law, based on the belief that nobody has the right to buy another person’s body.

What do you think?

Swedish hits 2: Lovefool

This series is about hits that you may not even know are Swedish and ones that are so Swedish, they almost smell of meatballs and aquavit. In the first post, we talked about Waterloo by Abba. This time we focus on Lovefool by The Cardigans.

This song, written by Peter Svensson and Nina Persson, was released in 1996 and marked the international breakthrough for this Swedish rock band. It was a massive hit in the UK and USA and was featured in the film Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Tne Cardigans also appeared in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where they performed Lovefool at a graduation party.

The album which contained Lovefool sold platinum within three weeks in Japan, and gold in the US. The Cardigans were a very successful band selling over 18 million albums. They still tour occasionally today. They had several other hits such as Erase/Rewind and My Favourite Game but nothing achieved the huge global success of Lovefool.

Swedish museums

Today, 18 May, is Museum Day. While most are still closed down due to the pandemic, some are open with restricted hours and pre-booking. In total there are around 170 museums in Sweden, many with free entrance. Stockholm has over 100 museums, making it one of the most museum-dense cities in the world. According to statistics from Sweden’s Museums, here were the top 5 most-visited in Sweden in 2019.

1. Vasa Museum – the restoration project of a large galleon that sunk in Stockholm’s harbour in 1628. Amazing place, and my personal favourite.

2. Skansen – Stockholm’s open air museum depicting Sweden’s historical architecture and culture. Has also a zoo and a large stage for outdoor concerts.

3. National Museum – Sweden’s art and design museum, situated opposite the Royal Palace.

4. Nordic Museum – museum about how people in the nordics have lived, eaten, dressed throughout the centuries

5. Natural History Museum – biology and geology museum with a popular 760 meter dome shaped cinema screen.

All of the above are in Stockholm. Outside the capital, the most visited museums were Frilufts Museum in Linköping, Malmö Museum in Malmö, Wadköping in Örebro, Dunkers in Helsingborg and Gotland Museum on the island of Gotland.

There seems to be a museum for most things in Sweden. Some unusual examples are the Matchstick Museum, the Abba Museum, the Spirit Museum, the Lenin Spa Museum, the Newsagent Museum, the Thermos Flask Museum, the Amber Museum, the Leather Museum, the Cannibal Museum and the Video Game Museum.

Whatever your preference there is a museum to suit everybody in Sweden. Once the doors are open again, I strongly recommend a visit to at least one of them!