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 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 blog.

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. 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.

All delicious I’m sure, 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!!!

A literal Swedish Christmas

Swedish is often a very literal language. Yesterday, the 26th December, is a good example of that.

In the UK, the 26th December is known as ‘Boxing Day’. In many countries it’s St Stephen’s day – in Finland, it’s ‘Stefani Day’. In Ireland it’s ‘Wren’s Day’. In South Africa, it’s the ‘Day of Goodwill’.

And in Sweden? Well, here comes the literalness.

It’s called ‘Second Christmas Day’.

Is Sweden functional but unfriendly?

Sweden is used to being at the top of most indexes relating to quality of life, equality, life experience. But not always, as the latest results from the Expat Insider 2017 survey might suggest. The survey looks at masses of elements related to the expat and relocation situation and views the world through expat eyes. The research surveys 65 countries and, in fairness, Sweden has improved from position 42 to 20 overall since 2016. Sweden scores well in travel and transport, safety and security, health and well-being.

So where does Sweden do badly? One of the elements that the survey looks at is ‘ease of settling in’. Here, Sweden doesn’t fare so well. For ‘feeling welcome’ Sweden ranks 51 out of 65 countries, for ‘friendliness’ 56, ‘language’ 15 and, wait for it, for ‘finding friends’ Sweden places 65! Last place. Interestingly Norway and Denmark are 63 and 64 respectively.

What could this tell us about Sweden? Or at least the expat’s experience of the country? Is Sweden seen as a healthy, systematic, safe but cold place? A functioning but unfriendly society?

I have to say that it is not my experience. I have found Swedes to be open and welcoming and I have a lot of great Swedish friends. Friends for life. So why does this survey suggest otherwise? What makes my experience so different from the people in this research? Does it depend on who you meet? Or on how open you are yourself? Is it different if you are single or in a couple? Are the big cities different from the smaller towns? I have no answer, but it is interesting to reflect over.

If you want to read the whole report, here it is:

https://cms-internationsgmbh.netdna-ssl.com/cdn/file/2017-09/Expat_Insider_2017_The_InterNations_Survey.pdf

Sweden’s badass king

Today, 30th November is an important day in Swedish history.

And it all revolves around a stoical King, whose statue can be seen in Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park.

Today, Sweden is a peaceful country and hasn’t been at war for over 200 years. But it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, Sweden was a great power, a military giant with a much larger territory than it has today. And the King of the statue – Charles XII – had a lot to do with it. If you see the statue, he is pointing his finger east. And there is a good explanation for this.

Charles (Karl) was king in Sweden 1697-1718 and a bit of a badass. Apparently never registering physical pain, in the space of a few years, he transformed the small nation of Sweden into a formidable power, crushing his enemies under him. And then he lost it all. At this time, Sweden covered modern day Norway, Finland and other Baltic regions such as Lavonia.

Charles ascended to the throne age 15 and his youth was subsequently exploited by neighbours Denmark, Poland and Lithuania who decided to snatch land from him. In retaliation, he quashed Denmark’s invasion of Sweden and put an ally on the throne. Then, he responded to Russia’s attempt to occupy Livonia and Estonia, and won a sweeping victory at the battle of Narva, under the cover of a blizzard.

After later defeating Poland and Lithuania, he then turned his sights again on Russia. Like his statue, he pointed East. This was a mistake. Up until now, it seems like he just retaliated but this time he waged a war. Hubris perhaps? It was to be his downfall.

Unfortunately for Charles, Peter the Great had regrouped and, in a grueling cold battle, the Russians beat the shit out of the Swedes. Rather like what happens on the ice hockey rink today. Charles fled to the Ottoman Empire but made himself unpopular there so fled back to Sweden, riding across Europe on horseback in just 14 days. Obviously not on the same horse.

Back in Sweden, he saw his nation crumble. Russia took Finland. Denmark took other Baltic regions.

On Nov 30th, 1718 he was shot and killed in modern day Norway, thus marking the short period of Sweden as a great European power. The ‘Swedish empire’ crumbled and territory was taken.

In modern day democratic, peaceful Sweden, Charles XII is sometimes criticized as a blood thirsty tyrant. His war-mongering contradicts strongly with the Swedish Brand of today. But history is history. Rewritten, retold and reinterpreted.

Whatever Charles was, there is no doubt he was a hard core ass kicker. On a historical website I found, the writer describes Charles XII in the following way:

‘Charles was pretty badass.  He completely abstained from alcohol and sex and was pretty much uncomfortable doing anything other than leading his troops to victory or being stoic as fuck.  He lived fast, died young and when he went down he took the entire fucking country of Sweden with him.  What more can you ask for from a historical badass?’

Sweden’s insatiable appetite for Eurovision

Sweden must be the country that can call itself Eurovision fan number 1.

So insatiable is the thirst for ‘schlager’, as it is called in Swedish, that the journey towards the May 2018 final began today.

Today, it was announced in a live press conference who will be participating in ‘Melodifestivalen’ – the competition to choose Sweden’s representative. So insatiable is the thirst for ‘schlager’ that there are 28 contestants! 28!

According to the papers, the artists are a mixture of ‘new-comers, classic singers, comebacks, former winners, favourites and LGBT surprises!’ Also, oddly, a parody band and a fat tv cook.

So insatiable is Sweden’s thirst for ‘schlager’ that these 28 contestants start competing with each other in February – in 6 live televised competitions! February Saturday nights in Sweden are ruined for the uninitiated.

The weeks leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest are then filled with Eurovision trivia. So insatiable. Interviews with Sweden’s chosen representative, behind the scenes programs and analysis of every single one of the other countries’ songs grace our televisions. Then finally, once we are already saturated, the two semi finals come. God forbid Sweden doesn’t qualify. Then finally, the final comes. And Sweden usually lands somewhere in the top 10. Then comes the analysis.

Finally sometime at the beginning of June, we are released from the jaws of Eurovision. The summer comes and is filled with ‘schlager’ tours and festivals. And in November, it all kicks off again.

That’s life in the insatiable ‘schlager’ country of Sweden.

5 things that are wrong with Sweden

When you’ve lived in a foreign country as long as I have, you become blind to the differences that were so obvious when you first moved here. That’s a natural development I guess. Call it emersion, or integration, or adaptation, or assimilation. Or in my case, Swedification.

However, there are still some differences in Sweden that I notice on a regular basis. Things so deeply ingrained in me from my cultural background that they still feel wrong in Sweden. Here are my top 5:

1) Front doors open the wrong way. Doors open outwards, instead of inwards. That means if you are visiting someone, ring their doorbell and stand on the landing, there is a big risk that you get smacked in the face as they open the door outwards, towards you. It’s just wrong!

2) Plumbing is often on the outside of the walls. Especially in bathrooms, and around radiators, ugly pipes are not hidden behind the plaster in the wall. They run up and down and side to side along the outside of the wall, visible to everybody. So ugly, and just wrong!

3) Driving. Swedes drive on the right side of the road. It’s just wrong.

4) The ‘tunnelbana’. On the underground (tunnelbana) in Stockholm, most people don’t wait for passengers to get off the train before trying to get on. As soon as the doors open, people pile in. At the same time people are trying to get out. The resulting caffuffle in the door opening is so unnecessary and just wrong!

5) Celebrating the Eves, instead of the Days. I’ll never get used to it. Especially at Christmas. Santa coming in the afternoon on Christmas Eve instead of the night between the Eve and the Day, is just wrong!

I know what you’re thinking. How unimportant all of this is.

And you’re not wrong.

I’m happy to live in a place where the only things that seem off to me are so minor. When it comes to values, structures, systems, behaviours, lifestyle and attitudes so much about Sweden is, for me, just right.

Non-binary Swedish and English

For a while now the non-binary pronoun ‘hen’ has been used in the Swedish language. ‘Hen’ is used to refer to somebody who does not relate or feel represented by the established pronouns for he (han) and she (hon). Initially met with ridicule by some people in Sweden, the ‘hen’ pronoun is slowly starting to gain in usage amongst Swedes and in ordinary vernacular.

I have long assumed that non-binary pronouns do not exist in English apart from the neutralizing use of ‘they’. Imagine my surprise when I read an article today in the Huffington Post which proved me wrong. The article talked about the queering of language. The guide to English non-binary pronouns are presented in the table.

It’ll certainly take some getting used to to add new pronouns into the vocabulary. However, language is one of our greatest tools for celebrating diversity and increasing inclusiveness.

For that alone, I think it’s worth the effort.