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 immigrant as burden. A Swedish masterclass in scapegoating.

The leader of the Swedish Moderate party aims to win the next election. To do this, he is taking further steps to the right to appeal to the conservative and nationalistic trend that is currently sweeping the country. It is his only way to grab the power he so desperately craves. This little man, with big ambition. In his most recent speech, he said that ‘immigration has become a burden for Sweden’.

What he really means is that immigrants have become a burden. Human beings. He isn’t talking about immigrants like his three adopted daughters from China. Oh no, they are raised as ‘proper Swedes’.

He isn’t either talking about white, privileged European immigrants like myself. Oh no, he’s referring to dark-skinned people, many who have had to fight for their survival, and who come to this country with nothing. According to him, it is these people of colour that are dragging the country down.

That is what he means. Make no mistake.

Racism, nationalism and fear are rapidly on the rise in Sweden, fueled by the lies of politicians like this man. His facts are wrong and his rhetoric exaggerated. Immigration is actually at an all time low in Sweden. The country currently has the strictest immigration laws it has ever had. But still this man and these ideas are gaining traction.

His party, and his right-wing lackies, supported by the media, have succeeded in associating Sweden’s current ills with immigrants: economic imbalance, crime, security. ‘Immigrant as criminal’ is not a new argument, it is a successful argument that echoes from our not-so-distant European history. It doesn’t seem to matter that it’s misleading and incorrect.

We humans seem to always want a scapegoat. This concept comes from the Bible’s Leviticus, in which a goat is designated to be cast out into the desert to carry away the sins of the community. Scapegoating can be traced as far back as the 24th century BC. We think we are so advanced in Sweden but we are not. We still fall for the lies of charismatic politicians and we still look for easy scapegoats. Blaming all the immigrants is the predictable option. A casebook example.

On Facebook, there is a group called ‘Nysvenskar i Sverige’ (New Swedes in Sweden). I urge you to join it. It is a refreshing counterbalance to the veiled xenophobia in main stream media and politics. The group is full of people who have moved to Sweden and who are telling their stories. Each person demonstrates how they are an asset to this country, and far from a burden on society. They work, they pay taxes to the Swedish state and they contribute. They end their texts with ‘I am not a burden’.

There are also Swedish-born people in the group. One person called Anna writes this:

I am plus 40 and was born in Sweden to Swedish parents. I have previously been unemployed for 6 months, I have been on sick leave due to cancer, several times. I have used the health care system to its max. I have three kids, all in state subsidized school. We receive parental benefit. Need I go on? NO!

I do not have to prove that I am a burden on society. Why should I also have to prove I am an asset? No. A handful of people have the need to call people a burden. We are ALL a ‘burden’ more than once in our lives. It is the blend of everything that makes us people. Nationality has nothing to do with how you are as a human. Those who think otherwise should educate themselves and go out into the world. Sincerely, A Human. Who happened to be born in Sweden.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Please share this post. Please join the FB group. Please make your voice heard.

Swedish Americans and American Swedes

Happy 4th July – Independence Day in the USA! Since 1776, Americans have been celebrating this day as the day they gained independence from Great Britain. Since 1938, it has been a paid public holiday. This got me thinking about the relationship between Sweden and the USA.

According to Statistics Sweden, there are approximately 49,000 American citizens living in Sweden. I know 6 of them – Lynn, Alex, Ruthie, Scott, Brian and Chris. The majority of Americans in Sweden live in the bigger cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg. There are various groups and societies to bring Americans together, such as the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce and The American Women’s Club.

Sweden and America have a long political relationship, with Sweden being the second country, after France, to officially acknowledge America’s independence in the 1700’s. Since then, the relationship has been smooth, with a couple of hiccups during the presidencies of Olof Palme and later Donald Trump. Today, the USA is Sweden’s third largest trade partner, and American-owned companies make up the largest number of foreign companies in Sweden.

Many Americans have family ties to Sweden due to the mass emigration of Swedes to the USA in 1885-1912. In fact, this is such a significant part of Sweden’s history that there is a tv program called ‘Allt för Sverige’ which helps Americans trace their Swedish Ancestry.

At the end of the 19th century 1.3 million Swedes fled famine and persecution in Sweden for a new life in the USA. This was a third of the population at the time. These Swedish Americans were mostly of Lutheran faith and settled primarily in the Mid West.

Prior to this, in 1638, the first Swedish settlers founded New Sweden, around Delaware. It only lasted 17 years before being absorbed into New Netherland and ceased to be a Swedish colony.

In 1639, Swedish settler Jonas Bronck settled a colony around the area of today’s New York. The settlement grew and flourished, and today is called The Bronx – after its original Swedish founder.

According the American Community survey, Swedish Americans and descendants make up around 2% of the US population today. Around 56,000 people still speak Swedish in their homes.

Some famous Americans of Swedish descent include: Emma Stone, Scarlet Johansson, Candice Bergen, Val Kilmer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Uma Thurman, Peggy Lee, Steven Soderbergh and George W Bush.

Not many Americans have reached such fame in Sweden, however. One is Don Cherry, the jazz musician from Oklahoma who fathered artists Neneh and Eagle Eye Cherry. Another is Armand Duplantis from Louisiana, the American-Swedish pole vaulting world champion. A third one is LaGaylia Frazier, a singer and tv personality from Miami.

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 7: Wake Me Up

Sweden is one of the world’s largest exporters of pop music and has a huge industry of songwriters and musicians. Today we look at the infectious dance hit Wake Me Up by legendary Swedish producer, songwriter and DJ – Avicii.

Written by Avicii et al, Wake Me Up was released in 2013 and was the highest charting dance track of the decade. It peaked at number 1 in 22 countries and was in the top 10 in many more. This thumping dance song was the first ever dance/electronic song to sell over 4 million copies in the USA. The vocals on the track are written and sung by American soul singer Aloe Blacc.

In 2014, the song passed 200 million streams on Spotify, making it the most streamed song ever at that time. To date, the song’s YouTube video has been watched almost 2 billion times!

Avicii, whose real name was Tim Bergling suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2018. He left a legacy of many hit songs such as Hey Brother, Without You and Addicted to You. As such he is the fifth most successful artist from Sweden in terms of record sales.

In May 2021, Stockholm’s Globe Arena changed its name and is now officially called the Avicii Arena. This isn’t only a tribute to Avicii but also a symbol for an initiative that works to prevent mental illness among young people throughout the country. Avicii Arena will be the beacon of hope and meeting place for the initiative. Hopefully it will help to wake us all up.

Swedish icons 21: Lasse-Maja, a legendary criminal

In my local park, there is a little urban zoo where you can see goats, sheep, rabbits, hens and two portly pigs. The hog is called Lasse and the sow is called Maja. They are named after a man called Lasse-Maja – a legendary name in Swedish culture.

It struck me, however, that I’ve only really heard his name – I didn’t really know who he was. So I researched him. And I was met by a story that was fascinating and tragic in equal measure.

Lars Larsson, later Molin, was born in 1785, and went on to become one of Sweden’s most notorious criminals. He wrote a sensational autobiography about his escapades in 1833 and this book was extremely popular because it contained adventure and, not least, explicit sex scenes. It still continues to fascinate Swedes, with the latest publication coming out in 2016.

So, why the nickname Lasse-Maja? Lasse is a man’s name, and Maja is a female name. Well, he was given this gender-combined name because he periodically lived as a woman. He often dressed as a man when he committed his crimes, as it was more comfortable. However, he lived long periods as a woman and supported himself as a maid, housekeeper and prostitute. By today’s terms, he probably would have identified as transgender. His book is one of the few 19th Century works to describe the transgender experience, which added to its mystique and popularity. In this article, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ for ease.

Lasse-Maja’s life was one of poverty and misery. He was a serial liar and petty thief who was arrested over 30 times and frequently escaped. He became notorious amongst citizens and was written about in newspapers. However, in 1812 he stole silver from a church in Järfälla, just outside of Stockholm. He was captured, sentenced to life and shipped off to the fortress prison on the west coast island of Marstrand. He even managed to escape from this military building on one occasion, but was later caught and returned.

Lasse-Maja was an inventive and guileful person and quickly gained a position of privilege in the prison. He made sure that his reputation spread to the outside world, and convinced the authorities to arrange for tourists to visit him and hear his elaborate stories. His celebrity became so large that he was even given an audience by Crown Prince Oscar.

In 1839 he was pardoned, probably because of the popularity of his book. He traveled the country telling his stories and died in Arboga in 1845, where he is buried today. Several books and films depict his life, and in the fortress prison there is a plaque to commemorate him. He also has a walking trail, a skerry, a tv show, a pre-school and a hotel named after him.

Lasse-Maja would probably never have been remembered in Swedish culture if it wasn’t for the autobiography, the female clothing and his skill for self promotion. Popular culture depicts him as a happy-go-lucky, cheeky, lovable rogue. However, Lasse-Maja was no Robin Hood – the truth is that his life was extremely tough and without much joy. He lived a life of crime, deceit and despair.

Today, it is hard to really know Lasse-Maja’s truth. He was a first class liar, manipulator and fabulator. However, one thing is certain; Lasse-Maja holds the position of the most famous transperson in Swedish history.

Swedish icons 20: Julia Caesar

The legendary actress Julia Caesar was born in 1885 in Stockholm. And yes, that was her real name – Julia Maria Vilhelmina Caesar.

From a young age, she became typecast in the roles she was given, and frequently played the opinionated but loveable, old woman – often in comedies. They could be a mother in law, a cook, a nosy neighbour or a housekeeper – but they were always a battleax who were outspoken and candid. They weren’t always two dimensional characters, however. In many cases, she depicted strong feminist views and railed against the patriarchy.

You might not have heard of Julia Caesar, but she was a very popular and prolific actor with a career that spanned over 60 decades. In fact, she holds the record for the Swedish actress who has appeared in most films – 136 of them. In addition to this, she played many classic theatre roles and performed in reviews and cabaret.

Julia Caesar was enormously loved and had a huge following – she was an institution in Swedish theatre and film. In the Stockholm park area of Tanto, where she frequently performed in the outdoor theatre, there is a street named after her.

She died in Stockholm in 1971, aged 86. Privately, she lived a discrete life together with opera singer Frida Falk. Although Frida died 23 years prior to Julia Caesar, they are buried together in Caesar’s family grave in the cemetery of Bromma Church.

Swedish icons 19: Nils Dardel

Nils von Dardel was born in 1888 in Bettna, Södermannland. He is considered one of Sweden’s most important post impressionist artists and his painting ‘Vattenfall’ is the most expensive modernistic Swedish painting ever to be sold at auction.

Born into a wealthy, cultural elite, Nils Dardel was able to spend his life as a nomad. On his travels around Europe, USA, Peru, Mexico, Asia, he painted people from varying backgrounds and all types of situations. He lived a self-destructive hedonistic lifestyle, which is apparent in several of his works , especially those from his pre-war burlesque Paris era.

His paintings are often very colourful and depict eccentricity and ambiguous sexuality. One of his famous paintings is ‘The Dying Dandy’ which today hangs in Stockholm’s Modern Museum, and is perhaps one of the most recognisable pieces of art from Sweden. Some of his other paintings are today on display around Sweden as well as in Paris, Oslo and Hamburg.

For 12 years, Nils Dardel was married to painter and author Thora Dardel although, given his hectic and bohemian lifestyle, he had affairs with both men and women. Together, they had one child – Ingrid – also herself an artist. She, in turn, became mother to two contemporary and acclaimed artists Henry Unger and Nils Ekwall.

Nils Dardel died of a heart attack in 1953 in the artist hotel The Beaux Arts on 44th Street in New York. He is buried on the island of Ekerö outside Stockholm.

Chinese in Sweden

Today, 20 April is Chinese Language Day. The day was inaugurated by the UN to celebrate the linguistic diversity of the organisation. The date was chosen to pay tribute to Cangjie, a mythical figure who is presumed to have invented the Chinese alphabet 5,000 years ago. According to legend, he had four eyes and the gods and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet after his invention.

The first documented Chinese person in Sweden arrived on a Swedish East Indian Company boat in 1786. His name was ‘Afock’ and he was considered so ‘exotic’ that he was given an audience with the King. According to Sweden’s Statistical Bureau, there are 45,868 Chinese-born people registered as living in Sweden today.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s/80’s that immigration from China to Europe became common, and many of those who initially arrived supported themselves by opening restaurants. The first Chinese restaurant in Sweden, called ‘The Chinese Wall’, opened however in 1959 in Gothenburg.

Today, there are many Chinese restaurants and several Chinese shops and supermarkets. Unlike many other cities, such as London, San Francisco, Singapore, New York, Stockholm does not have a ‘Chinatown’. Many Chinese people who move to Sweden now come to study, and continue to work, often in the IT and Tech sectors.

A few Chinese-inspired pieces of architecture exist in Sweden. Three in Stockholm are The China Theatre, built 1928, the Chinese Pavilion in Haga Park and the UNESCO listed Chinese Palace built in 1753 in the grounds of Drottningholm Palace.

Perhaps the most bizarre piece of architecture is Dragon Gate, a monstrous compound built by the motorway outside the small town of Älvkarleby. This is intended to be a cultural meeting place for Swedes and Chinese and includes a temple, a museum, a copy of the Terra-cotta Army, monuments, restaurant, hotel, kungfu school and a huge square. It has been an economic failure since its opening and today is closed.

A recent survey carried out by the Swedish Institute looked at Chinese attitudes to Swedes and Sweden. The survey focused on Chinese people living in China, and not those who emigrated. Various perceptions were that Swedes are obedient, relaxed, lazy and introvert. Sweden was perceived as rich, beautiful and clean but expensive, with high taxes and a depressing climate.

Interestingly, many Chinese confuse Sweden with Athens! The probable explanation is that Sweden in Madarin is Ruidian and Athens is Yadian.

Swedish icons 22: Carina Ari

Carina Ari was born Maria Karina Viktoria Jansson in Stockholm in 1897. She went on to become one of Sweden’s most successful dancers and choreographers throughout history. For most Swedes, she may be unknown, but she certainly made a lasting mark on Swedish and international cultural life.

Carina Ari started dancing at a young age to support her infirm mother, who died when Ari was 16. Shortly afterwards, she was employed as a dancer at the Royal Theatre and within two years was promoted to solo dancer. During the 1920’s, she danced and choreographed many acclaimed performances in Stockholm, Copenhagen and in Paris for a variety of institutions and companies. In Paris, she was the prima ballerina at the controversial and experimental Swedish Ballet. In 1924, she toured Europe with her highly successful Scènes dansées. In 1927, she choreographed a much talked-about performance for the French President Loubet at the Élysée Palace. In 1930, she was appointed Director of Ballet at the Algiers Opera, where she created for many years before returning to the Opera Comique in Paris. During her active years, she was the darling of dance, a somewhat controversial prima donna and a sought-after choreographer. Married to French composer Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, they were a power couple on the cultural scene.

In the late 1930’s, mid divorce, Ari was holidaying in the south of France when she met, and fell in love with, a Dutch businessman. When the Second World War approached, they moved to Argentina, where they married and lived the rest of their lives. Upon his death, she inherited a great fortune and was able to maintain a residence in Stockholm and studio in Paris, both of which she frequently visited. In Argentina, she became a grand old dame, living a life of culture, entertainment and fine dining. She frequently visited the Teatro Colón and watched their dance performances. Although considered one of the best opera houses in the world, she was apparently vocally critical of the quality of their dancers.

As part of her legacy, the Carina Ari Foundation gives financial support to young, promising dancers and to older dancers who have fallen on hard times. On Holländargatan in Stockholm is the Carina Ari Library, which is the largest library of dance in Northern Europe. Additionally, the Carina Ari Medal is occasionally awarded to people who have contributed to the art of dance in Sweden.

However, her legacy is not only in dance. Carina Ari was also an accomplished sculptor. She specialized in portrait busts and some of her works are displayed at Sweden’s National Museum. Her bust of Birgit Nilsson is at the Opera House in Stockholm and her bust of Dag Hammarskjöld is located in New York in the square that bears his name.

Carina Ari died in 1970 in Buenos Aries after complications from breaking her leg, and is buried with her husband in Haarlem in the Netherlands.