Sweden’s ‘Vasalopp’ – the world’s longest cross-country ski race.

Today, the world’s longest cross country ski race takes place in Sweden. It was, this year, touch and go if it would actually happen, as there wasn’t much snow on the ground. But at 8.00 this morning the race began.

Called Vasaloppet, the race entails participants skiing 90 kilometers from start to finish. It’s an extremely popular international event, which can take up to 12 hours to complete, and which is broadcast live on tv. When tickets to participate are released, they sell out in 15 minutes – it’s that popular.

The first Vasalopp was in 1922 and it takes place annually, the first Sunday in March and it is a first sign of spring. It’s an amazing sight to watch, as more than 15000 mad, happy skiers glide along, the swishing sound of ski on snow filling the air. For the elite athletes, 12 hours to complete the race is of course unthinkable. They go considerably faster. The person who has completed the race fastest is Jörgen Brink, who in 2012 won the race in just over 3 hours 40 minutes, roughly 25 km per hour.

So why is this race called the Vasalopp? Well, it takes its name from a Swedish king. The race commemorates the escape to Norway, through the forest, of King Gustav Vasa in 1521. Legend has it that he carried out the gruelling journey on skis, but experts believe he more likely completed this escape on snow shoes. Nevertheless, out of this legend sprung the race which is so popular today.

Modern day skiers don’t see the experience as an escape, they see it as a challenge and for many of them it’s a rite of passage. And as you sit watching the TV comfortably from the sofa, under a duvet, with tea and toast, you take vicarious pleasure in this long, amazing Swedish race.

The month the world shrank

The existence and the spreading of the Corona virus in the last few weeks cannot have passed anybody by. In the earlier stages of the virus, flights were cancelled in and out of China, then we were advised to avoid other countries in South East Asia. Then Iran? And Italy? Should we also soon avoid Gothenburg?

The world went from a wide open planet of international travel to a closed place where we are advised to stay put. In under a month, the world shrank.

How might this impact Sweden and the Swedes? Well, business is certainly affected. Imports are stuck in China. Events are cancelled. Employees returning from affected areas are told to stay home for two weeks, in a corporately-imposed quarantine. And this might just be the beginning.

What about the Swedes themselves? Swedes are well-known for being travelers. The people of this small, cold nation set out all over the world in search of sun, warmth, light, and adventure. Will it be so easy to tell them to stop traveling? Some would say it is impossible. You can take away many things from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday. For some, it is almost perceived as a human right to travel to warmer climates. I would say how easy it is to get Swedes to stop traveling depends on how any possible travel ban is imposed.

In general, Swedes value rules. And, in general, they follow them: traffic rules, laws, deadlines and agreements. In comparative cultural research one of the frameworks that is often used is the contrast between rules/task and relationships. Simply put, some societies value rules over relationships, thinking that rules should be followed irrespective of the relationship between people. Others value relationships over rules, often seeing the rule more as a recommendation.

Consistently in research, Sweden comes out as oriented towards the rules-side of the spectrum. While this is of course a generalization, it suggests that Swedes tend to take to rules and regulations very easily, tend to prioritize them, and tend to value them. When Sweden legislated against smoking in restaurants, people’s behavior fell into line over night. It wasn’t the case in many other countries. In the EU, Sweden is one of the countries that has applied most of the EU legislation on a local level. When participating in tenant association meetings, Swedes rely heavily on the house charter to understand what is right and wrong behaviour. A customer of mine refused a friendly lunch (in my mind to build relationship) because the company had issued a decree against corruption. None of this might be the case in other countries where a higher premium is put on individual relationships and circumstances, rather than what it says in the rule book.

So will Swedes stop traveling? If it is legislated, yes. If it becomes an official ban, then most Swedes will probably follow it. The practical nature of the Swede will understand its importance. The logic of the solution will prevail. However, if it just comes as a suggestion, left to the whims of the individual, then most Swedes will probably keep traveling. They will avoid the worst areas, and reroute to somewhere they perceive as safer.

You can take a lot of things away from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday.

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. 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!!!

Sweden through the 2010’s – a retrospective

The Guardian newspaper describes the 2010’s as ‘The Age of Perpetual Crisis – a decade that disrupted everything but resolved nothing.’

Looking internationally it’s easy to see this. But is it the case in Sweden? Partially yes, but everything wasn’t bad.

Here’s a look back at the second decade of the century and a chance to remember some of the good and bad things that happened during 2010-2019 – in Sweden.

2010 – Crown Princess Victoria marries Daniel Westling, her former personal trainer. The last öre coin (50 öre) disappears from circulation. A suicide bomber blows himself up in central Stockholm – with no other casualties. Sweden accuses Julian Assange of rape, and issues an international arrest warrant.

2011 – Håkan Juholt replaces Mona Sahlin as leader of the Social Democrats, but it is very short-lived – he resigns a few months later. Over 50,000 people emigrate from Sweden – the largest ever exodus (as a percentage) in the country’s history.

2012 – Friends Arena opens in Solna and becomes Sweden’s national arena hosting 75,000 people. Loreen wins Eurovision with the popular song ‘Euphoria’ in Baku. Princess Estelle is born and thereby secures the future of the Swedish monarchy. Swedish Candy Crush Saga took the gaming world by storm.

2013 – Riots occur in Stockholm suburb Husby with at least 100 cars set on fire. A train derails outside Stockholm (Saltsjöbanan) and crashes into an apartment building. The man bun trend kicks off. The ABBA museum opens and quickly becomes a popular tourist attraction in Stockholm.

2014 – 80,000 refugees come to Sweden and one person sets fire to himself outside the Migration office in Karlstad. Suspected Russian u-boat in Stockholm’s archipelago. In a general election, sitting Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt loses to Stefan Löfven.

2015 – Måns Zelmerlöw wins Eurovision with ‘Heroes’. A rare earthquake occurs outside Gothenburg. Unrelated knife attacks in a school in Trollhättan and an IKEA in Västerås. Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander books, passes away. Passport control is introduced at Sweden’s bridge border to Denmark in an attempt to stem illegal immigration.

2016 – Swedish actress Alicia Wikander wins an Oscar for The Danish Girl. Singer Josefin Nilsson dies from the aftermath of domestic abuse. Sweden goes Pokemon crazy. A massive snow storm disables the capital. Henrik Stenson becomes the first male Swedish golfer to win the Open. The expensive and heavily-criticised New Karolinska hospital finally opens and receives its first patients.

2017 – Sweden’s population reaches 10,000,000. A terrorist attack on Stockholm’s main shopping street, Drottninggatan, kills 7 and scars the nation for ever. The MeToo movement sweeps over Sweden.

2018 – Sex scandal in the Swedish Academy with the consequence of many members resigning and no Nobel prize for literature being decided. Journalist Kim Wall is murdered in a submarine in Copenhagen. Using a mobile and driving at the same time becomes illegal. Swedish DJ Avicii commits suicide. Swedish legend Lill Babs dies. Massive forest fires devour Sweden.

2019 – 16 year old environmental activist Greta Thunberg sails the Atlantic, speaks at the UN and is named Person of the Year by Time magazine. The King makes symbolic changes to the Royal court. American rapper ASAP Rocky is arrested in Stockholm for assault. Sweden is rocked by a series of shootings and bombings throughout the country. Swedish Democrats become the second largest party in opinion polls. Swedes become more climate aware – the number of electric-driven cars increases and the amount of meat consumption decreases.

What sticks in your memory from the decade gone by?

Guardian article

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 19: Julklappsrim

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Julklappsrim‘ which translates as ‘Christmas present rhyme’

If you receive a gift at Christmas time,

You’ll find in Sweden that it comes with a rhyme.

The packets are wrapped, the present to hide

And a poem describes all the contents inside.

You see, Swedes write poems on the label

Sometimes direct, sometimes a fable.

They sit in a workshop creating their verse,

It needs to be brief, but not at all terse.

The poem is read, the packet ripped open

And you see what you got, still leaves you hopin’

For a phone or a trip or a book about crime,

Wrapped up with a Swedish Christmas rhyme.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 14: Lussekatt

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Lussekatt‘ which is a traditional saffron bun.

Generally, I love Swedish pastries but the lussekatt is not one of my favourites I’m sorry to say. However, the sight and smell of them screams Advent and Christmas in Sweden. The lussekatt, is a rich, spiced yeast-leavened sweet bun that is flavoured with saffron and contains raisins.

The buns are baked into many traditional shapes, of which the most common is a reversed S-shape. They are traditionally eaten during Advent, and especially on Saint Lucy’s Day, December 13. This could be the reason why it is called ‘lusse’ – a derivative of Lucy. However, there is a more sinister explanation.

In one theory, the lussekatt has its origins in Germany in the 1600’s. According to legend at that time, the devil used to appear as a cat, to torment children. To counteract this, people baked buns and colored them bright yellow to mimic the sun and scare away the devil. In West Sweden, the saffron buns were referred to as Devil’s buns and the theory is that the name Lussekatt, comes from the word Lucifer.

Whatever the origin, the lussekatt remains a clear favourite in Sweden to eat at Christmas with pepparkaka and washed down with glögg.

If you’d like to bake your own lussekatt, you can find a recipe here

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 11: Nubbe

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Nubbe‘ which is the colloquial word for an alcoholic shot known as snaps.

Nubbe, or snaps, is a really popular drink that Swedes enjoy at Christmas time. At its base, it is a strong spirit (30-38% alcohol content) called ‘brännvin’ which is distilled from potatoes or grain.

It can be plain and colourless, or flavoured with herbs and spices. Sometimes it can be sweet and infused with, for example blackcurrant, elderflower or raspberry. Others can be so bitter they make your toes curl – flavoured with for example aniseed, wort or wormwood. If it includes caraway or dill, it can according to EU patent protection be called akvavit.

A mouthful-size of ‘brännvin’ is called a snaps or a nubbe and it is drunk out of small glasses. Usually it is consumed when eating traditional food, and may also be accompanied by a ‘snapsvisa’ – a drinking song.

One popular drinking song at Christmas is called ‘Hej Tomtegubbar‘ which translates roughly as:

‘Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Our time is brief upon the earth, with many troubles and little mirth

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

After a few snapses, the party atmosphere usually begins – with more singing, speeches and maybe even some dancing. For Swedes, snaps is such an important tradition that it is drunk not only at Christmas but at most festive times – such as Easter, Midsummer and autumn’s crayfish party.

According to The Swedish alcohol monopoly, Swedes have been flavouring their ‘brännvin’ since the 1500’s and the word ‘Nubbe’ as a slang word for snaps turned up first in 1892.