It’s fatty Tuesday – Swedish style!

Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.

While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’. I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post.

The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns. Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter.

I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.

The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.

Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. This year, the gross-sounding fermented Baltic herring semla was revealed.

But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.

And give it to me NOOOOWWW!!!

6 reasons why Swedes take Eurovision so seriously

We are in the middle of the Eurovision qualification rounds (known colloquially as ‘Mello’) in Sweden – three weeks in, three weeks to go. This extended selection period occupies every Saturday night for 6 weeks, and results in the song and artist who will represent the country in the big final in Israel.

People gather up and down the country to have ‘Mello’ parties. Social media and traditional media are full of comments about the bad quality of the contestants this year (and every year). People are raging that the wrong songs are voted to move on in the league table.

Nobody, and I mean nobody takes their Eurovision (ESC) more seriously than the Swedes.

But why is that? Here are a few theories:

Brightening up the winter blues. Mello comes during the deepest, darkest, dreariest time of the year. The glittery colourfulness of Mello brightens up February and early March, when nothing much else happens.

Reliving the glory days. ABBA’s legacy is a constant reminder to Swedes that they once reached long-lasting global fame and it all started at ESC. Every year is a hunt for the next big thing, when the international light will shine once more on this little country in the north.

Organized ‘religion‘. Sweden is, relatively speaking, not a religious country. So the human need for organising ourselves into a collective manifests itself in other ways. Hockey and football become a form of organized religion. And ‘Mello’ is another variation on the same theme. Ask Swedes why they like Mello and many use the word ‘folk fest’ – a ‘national party for the people.’

Swedish traditions. Sweden is a country that is good at holding on to traditions – crayfish parties, snaps songs, semla cream buns, Easter trees – to name just a few. Therefore it is easy for this society to absorb, and structure, new traditions. Halloween is now a thing here. So is Valentine’s Day. So Mello becomes another tradition and slots nicely into the national calendar.

Vicarious extrovertism. Swedes are not generally known for being outgoing and extroverted, although there are of course exceptions. This means that Mello becomes so attractive, as it’s an opportunity for Swedes to live vicariously through the ‘crazy’ performers who dance around in sequins and funny outfits. It’s also an opportunity to push your own boundaries and wear a glittery hat or a pink feather boa. And all under organised, acceptable conditions.

Love of music. Because some Swedes actually like the music.

Which theory is most accurate do you think? Do you have another theory?

Sweden’s Greasy New Year’s Day

January 1st is the day in Sweden when most pizzas are sold. Whether laziness, apathy or hangover cravings lie behind it, a pizza is ordered every second on New Year’s Day.

Fast food pizza company Onlinepizza has released statistics on the most sold pizzas in Sweden during 2018. Apart from personally designed toppings, the winner at almost 20% is the Kebab pizza – a dubious Swedish classic. Consisting of cheese, tomato and sliced kebab meat, the popular pizza is a real fat bomb. You can see it pictured above.

In second place is the Vesuvio with smoked ham, in third place comes the pineapple-strewn Hawaii pizza. Fourth is the hammy Capricciosa and fifth is the humble Margarita.

The top 20 list also includes the gross-sounding Gyros pizza, consisting of Greek giros meat and tsatsiki. There’s also a frightful pizza with taco sauce, ham and jalapeños called an Azteca.

Are you eating a pizza today? If so, what type have you ordered?

Swedes and their alcohol – a Swedish odyssey?

When visiting Sweden, people are often struck by the system for purchasing alcohol. In bars and restaurants everything goes as expected but if you want to buy a bottle of, for example, wine or whisky then this is done in the state-owned alcohol shops known as Systembolaget. These shops have restricted opening hours closing at 6 or 7pm on weekdays and 2 or 3pm on Saturdays. On Sundays and Public Holidays they are closed.

Sweden’s alcohol monopoly started in the 1800’s and the national company Systembolaget was formed in 1955.

Systembolaget has a retail network of circa 426 stores, around 25 in Stockholm. The company has an interesting mandate from the Swedish state – to help limit the medical and social harm caused by alcohol and thereby improve public health. This explains why access to alcohol is restricted through the number of stores, opening hours and retail rules, and why the corporation is aims not to maximise its profit. In other words, the alcohol monopoly is highly socio-political -its foremost aim is to stop people consuming alcohol, or at least to consume it responsibly.

Although strange for many visitors, it’s a concept that seems to work – Swedes consume on average 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per person annually, less than many other countries.

However, it is at times like Christmas that the restricted opening times become more obvious. This year, the shops are closed for 4 days from yesterday at 3pm. Up and down the country, long queues were reported. I saw this with my own eyes, and had a weird recollection of old pictures from the Second World War or Soviet Russia. People seemed to be in a good mood while they waited, though it meant waiting for almost an hour outside some branches.

I guess it’s the price you pay for lack of forward planning. Anyway, I hope everybody got what they wanted and that they have a boozy, woozy, snoozy Christmas worth queuing for.

Swedish ways to die #1 In the lift

There is one thing that unites us all. We all die. That said, there are many ways in which we can shuffle off this mortal coil. Just like our lives are unique, so probably are our deaths.

Living in Sweden, I am often struck by the many ways one can die. Perhaps not specific to this country, but at least very cultural.

Here’s the first way: ‘the careless accident in the lift’ – a tragic way to pop your clogs.

Many Swedish lifts don’t have inner doors. As the lift descends, the floors slide by visibly. If you have a large article with you, for example, a wheely bin, it can fasten on the edge of the lift. The bin gets stuck, the lift keeps descending and voila, you are crushed to death or decapitated. A very Swedish way to die.

Below, you see a sign on the door to the lift in my apartment building. It says ‘warning – risk of crushing. It is dangerous to transport goods in lifts without inner doors or gates.’

Sweden Pride

This year EuroPride comes to Sweden, being held in double cities Stockholm and Gothenburg. The whole concept of LGBT Pride has taken strong root in Sweden, and many towns up and down the country hold their own celebration. For example, today is Springpride in the midland city of Eskilstuna.

Currently there are 73 Pride festivals in Sweden during the year. From Arctic Pride way up in the north to Malmö Pride in the south, it is possible to celebrate throughout the year.

Swedes seem to have embraced the concept of Pride with open arms. There is, of course, a commercial benefit but the main reason seems to be that LGBT Pride resonates well with the societal Swedish values of equality, tolerance and acceptance. However, like everything, it has its opponents. Right wing groups occasionally organize counter demonstrations or, as in Eskilstuna yesterday, decide to put up homophobic, anti-Pride propaganda. Thankfully, these groups are small and as long as the majority of Swedes continue to stand up for Pride, they have little impact.

If you’d like to know where a Pride is near you, go to http://www.svenskapride.se which collects all the National events in one place.

Sweden’s history of LGBT rights is a comparatively progressive story. Changes didn’t happen automatically however. Thanks to the hard work of campaigners, lobbyists, and politicians, society can enjoy one of the most egalitarian legislations in the world. According to wiki:

‘ Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1944 and the age of consent was equalized in 1972. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1979. Sweden also became the first country in the world to allow transgender persons to change their legal gender post-surgery in 1972 whilst transvestism was declassified as an illness. Transgenderism was declassified as a mental illness in 2008 and legislation allowing gender change legally without hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery was passed in 2013. After allowing same-sex couples to register for partnership in 1995, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage countrywide in 2009. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression has been banned since 1987. Also, since 2003, gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, and lesbian couples have had equal access to IVF and assisted insemination since 2005. Sweden has been recognized as one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe and in the world, with recent polls indicating that a large majority of Swedes support LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.’

Sweden’s Easter tree – wiping, witching or whipping?

In Sweden, they don’t only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees.

This Easter tree, known as ‘påskris’, is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch) installed in a vase with coloured feathers attached to the ends. People often hang painted eggs and other decorations such as chickens in their installation. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country at this time of year: outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, in gardens, in the middle of roundabouts.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena – but where does it originate?

Wiping: Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Witching: Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

Whipping: But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. Swedish people, in the 1600’s, used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?