Swedish expression – ‘to sit with your beard in the letter box’

As weird as this saying is, it’s quite a common one used by Swedes. Obviously describing a troublesome, embarrassing situation, it would equate in English to something like ‘to be caught with your hand in the cookie jar’ or ‘caught with your trousers down’. In other words, to find yourself in a difficult situation of your own making.

But where does the expression come from?

One common theory is that it is from a 1959 book called Bitter Pills. The Swedish translator translated the English ‘who will get hurt’ to ‘who will sit with their beard in the letterbox’. Rather an odd translation one might think but actually it was rather a clever one.

The translator based his expression on a nautical saying at that time – ‘to fasten with your beard in the block’. Apparently a block is a wheel that mooring lines run through on a boat. I guess it would be very unfortunate for a sailor to get their beard caught in it while wrestling with a wild boat. The theory is that the translator wanted to modernize the expression, and use a bit of humour. So block became letter box. The expression can also be ‘to fasten with your beard in the letter box’.

When Sweden lays down the law

The international spotlight has been shone on Sweden’s judicial system in recent weeks. An American rapper is currently being held in custody on suspected physical assault. The President of the USA has intervened and tried to get the rapper released on bail – to no avail. Consequently, Sweden has been accused of corruption and racism.

I thought in this blog, I’d quickly clarify a few things about Sweden’s legal system so that you understand the holding of the rapper is fully compliant with the law.

The Swedish system. Sweden has a civil law system based on Romano-Germanic law. Sweden’s criminal courts have three levels: The Supreme Court of Sweden (Högsta Domstolen), 6 courts of appeals (hovrätter)and 53 district courts (tingsrätter).

The Constitution of Sweden prohibits capital punishment, [1], corporal punishment [2], and “torture or medical influence aimed at extorting or suppressing statements.”[3] Searches and seizures are restricted under Article 6 of the Constitution of Sweden.

When somebody is arrested, police and prosecutors are responsible for conducting initial investigations to determine whether an individual should be prosecuted for a crime – and which crime. Prosecution is mandatory if guilt has been established through the investigation period.

A defendant is entitled to counsel as soon as reasonable suspicion is established during the investigation stage. The defense attorney may ask the prosecutor to conduct specific investigations on the defendant’s behalf.

Any witness may be interrogated for up to six hours. In some jurisdictions such as Gothenburg, the local municipal council hires lay individuals to attend and document interrogations.

No bail system. There is no bail system in Sweden, where somebody can pay a bond to avoid pre-trial detention. Bail is more common in the Anglo-American judicial systems and not the European continental systems. In Sweden, individuals are often detained while awaiting trial, although they can be released without detention and have their travel restricted by court order. If there is a risk of fleeing the country, suspects can legally be kept in police custody by court order until investigations are complete. This is common praxis when it relates to foreign citizens with no residence in Sweden.

Once the initial investigations are complete, a court of law decides what the individual should be charged with, and the trial proceedings commence.

Independent Court of Law. In Sweden, and Finland, the legal system is totally independent and free of influence from political leaders. Members of the government or cabinet may not dictate or interfere with the daily workings of a government agency, court of law or similar. While this is common practice in other countries, in Sweden, this so-called ‘ministerstyre’ is illegal.

When Donald Trump called Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, the Swede explained that the Swedish judicial system, prosecutors and courts are totally autonomous. Everybody is equal in the eyes of the law and that the Swedish government will not and can not try to influence the legal process.

Let’s see what happens. If the rapper has been held in custody incorrectly or if he is charged with a crime that does not warrant incarceration then he has a right to claim compensation.

Swedish politics week – important or irrelevant?


Once a year, there is a summer politics week in Sweden. The week is happening now, and takes place in a park called Almedalen on the Baltic island of Gotland, and attracts heavy media coverage. Every day of the week belongs to a specific party that has a seat in the parliament. This year there are 8 parties.

The Alemdalen politics week started when legendary Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme spoke publicly. It was at the end of the 60s and there was an audience of a few hundred people.

Now Almedalen politics week attracts thousands of participants and is intended to involve the man on the street in politics and to protect the strong Swedish value of democracy and free speech. The idea is that at Almedalen politics week, we meet each other in debate. And in debate and discussion, we influence each other and our environment.

The Almedalen week has been heavily criticized, and just seeing social media can explain why. The event has become a popular opportunity for companies and organizations to meet and network with each other. In a parallel existence, some people go to Almedalen only for this purpose and not to participate in any political activities. Social media is awash with images of participants mingling, drinking rose wine, partying, dancing and taking drunken groupies.

Live and let live I say. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s choices. I just wonder how far away from the original concept of democracy politics week will go.

And how long before your average Swede sees it as elitist, excluding and irrelevant?

11 hacks for surviving Swedish Midsummer

With Midsummer rapidly approaching on Friday this week, 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. And follow this simple survival guide 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 is as follows, shake hands and look direct in eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. If you are feeling adventurous, follow it up 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 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 icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. 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. To survive this, 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. If you 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 sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. 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.

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. Glad Midsommar!

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

In Sweden, parents curl. In the UK, they fly helicopters.


Recently somebody was telling me about one of his employees whose mother rang him to discuss her daughter’s salary. Another friend mentioned a man who brought his father to a job interview. I personally know a mother who does her 30-year old son’s laundry, cleaning, decorating and food shopping, even though he has his own apartment. And a 29-year old who asks his mother what he likes and should eat when they’re out at a restaurant. Teachers constantly witness about parents who demand them to increase their child’s grades. And a wave of protecting children from ‘hurt feelings’ is viral in Swedish schools, as though hurt feelings are the worst thing that can happen.

These are all clear examples of overprotective adults who don’t see that they are doing their offspring any favours in life by disempowering them by overhelping.

In Swedish, because it is so common, there is a word for these type of parents. They are known as ‘curling parents’ – a reference to the sport of ice curling. Just like in the icy sport, curling parents smooth the way for their children. They sweep away any obstacles and make life easier. They think they are taking their role as a parent seriously. Life is so difficult anyway that they should try to cushion the blows for their children. But what they’re really doing is robbing their children of the chance to develop essential life skills and feel a sense of personal responsibility and achievement.

This is of course not unique to Sweden – but rather more related to the anxious parenting style of the Baby Boomers and GenX around the world. In English-speaking countries, they are called helicopter parents, because they hover noisily over their children and look for difficulties ahead. Psychologists tell us that this form of parenting has coincided with an increased societal perception of child endangerment which has led to a base of paranoia. The age of the mobile phone has also contributed massively, one researcher referring to it as ‘the world’s largest umbilical chord’.

It is a difficult balance to strike, isn’t it? On the one hand, parents should love, guide and protect their children. On the other hand, they should equip their children to be independent, self-sufficient and capable adults.

Curling is not the solution. Links between overprotective parents and long-term mental problems in their children have been seen. Adult children of curling parents are often unable to regulate their own behavior.

Former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, drawing from her experiences seeing students come in academically prepared but not prepared to fend for themselves, wrote a book called ‘How to Raise an Adult’, in which she urges parents to avoid “overhelping” their children.

So I urge all parents in Sweden and beyond to take a long look at themselves. Are you overbearing, overprotective and over-controlling? Do you oversee every aspect of your child’s life? Are you providing yourself with happiness and security at the expense of your children?

Are you raising an independent, capable adult?

Diverse Sweden Part 2: Swedish Muslims

diversity

Sweden is a fairly diverse country – ethnically, religiously and culturally. About 25% of the population is born abroad or has both parents born outside of Sweden. Extend that to one parent and the number increases to around a third of the Swedish population.

I am a true believer in cultural diversity. So, I am continuing a series of posts that will shine the light on various religious and ethnic groups that exist amongst people with Swedish citizenship. My hope is that it will dispel some of those stereotypes of Swedes that exist and that it will broaden your mind regarding what it means to be Swedish.

Part 2…..Islam

Happy-Eid-Al-Fitr-Wishes-Picture

This week on Wednesday 5th of June is the great Islamic festival of Eid Al Fitr. This is a three day festivity consisting of celebration, good food, prayer, gifts to the children and charity to the needy. The festival marks the end of Ramadan, the month in which followers are taught the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.  During Ramadan, practicing muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours from dawn to sunset. You can imagine the challenge of this in Sweden, when we almost have daylight 24 hours of the day. In Stockholm, the fast lasts 20 hours per day which must be really exhausting. In the north of Sweden, where the sun never sets, muslims have solved this by fasting according to the daylight schedule of Mecca, or other chosen location. The idea of the fast is to bring practicing muslims closer to God.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, about 25% of the world’s popluation. Muslims make up approximately 8% of the Swedish population, according to research from the Pew Center. This makes them the second-largest immigrant group in Sweden after the Finns. About 90% of muslims in the world are Sunni muslims, with the rest following Shia islam.

Islam is a religion which appreciates practice. There are five basic religious acts in Islam, collectively known as ‘The Pillars of Islam’ which are considered obligatory for all believers. The Quran presents them as a framework for worship and a sign of commitment to the faith. They are:

  • Shahada, the creed
  • Salah, daily prayer
  • Zakat, alms giving
  • Rawm, fasting during Ramadan
  • Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca

Other than the fasting of Ramadan, the practice most noticeable to non-Muslims is probably the one of prayer. Performing prayers five times a day is compulsory but flexibility in the timing specifics is allowed depending on circumstances. Many companies in Sweden have prayer rooms to accommodate this.

First-generation muslims in Sweden most often originate from Irak, Iran, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Two growing groups are from Syria and Somalia. Since the 1960’s, about 3500 people in Sweden have converted to Islam. There are nine purpose-built mosques in Sweden, with the notable ones in the main cities. In Stockholm, the mosque is on the residential island of Södermalm. From this location, the Islamic Association of Sweden is run. This is an umbrella organisation encompassing, amongst other things, the Muslim Council of Sweden, Muslim Youth Organisation and Muslim Relief.

The first muslims actually emigrated to Sweden during the Viking era but it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 1960’s that a large number arrived from Turkey seeking employment. Another wave in the 80’s brought muslim refugees from the war-torn Balkan region. Most of the muslims who arrive in Sweden today are fleeing dictatorship and armed conflict, and are seeking refuge in another country. Today, a great number of people who follow Islam were born in Sweden, conditioned in Swedish values and society and educated though the Swedish school system.

Like many places around the western world, there are conflicts in Sweden between the original Christian-based society and the Islam society. Some of the conflicts originate in religious difference, fuelled by extremist thinking on both sides. However, most of the conflict comes from an ethno-racist perspective or a concern about the impact of immigration on the structure and values of Swedish society. The Swedish governments of the past have not necessarily succeeded in the integration of the two parties and many people today witness ‘two Swedens’ operating in parallel to each other.

There is no doubt that muslims are well and truly a part of Sweden and Swedish culture. How we choose to move forward to one Sweden is for us all to decide.

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Why fascists should be allowed no platform in Sweden

The trouble with being empathetic‘, somebody once said, ‘is that you also feel sorry for assholes.’

But I have had enough! I have had enough!

I’m sick of being liberal and accepting and allowing. I’m done with it. Although far from everybody, Sweden and Europe is full of assholes.

Yesterday in Sweden, a left wing politician was physically attacked by members of the nazi party on the street. This is only one of many anti democratic incidents we are witnessing in our society.

After the EU election, it is abundantly clear that a climate of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism is being stoked in Europe and Sweden.

There are many examples. In Sweden, like in many other countries, the main nationalistic party (called SD) gained ground. White supremists demonstrate openly on the streets of Sweden. Last week, in Sweden, RFSL (The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Rights) said they would not participate in Sweden’s politics week due to threats from a nazi party.

Enough!

The democratic dilemma

As liberals, we have a dilemma on how to handle this spiraling situation. As self-identified beacons of democracy, we believe that freedom of speech should apply to everybody – even if their ideas are heinous. Banning opinion is, in itself, a fascistic move. Or is it?

I am a democrat. I believe in freedom of speech. But for me the solution is simple. The fascist opinion is not like any other opinion. It is filled with violence and hatred and should be allowed no platform in an open society.

No platform for fascists

When I say that there should be no platform for fascists, I mean that pro-democratic legislation should be stricter. I mean far right supremist groups should be criminalized in Sweden. I mean fascist meetings should be shut down, their attempts to rally and march should be prevented, counter-picketed and blocked.

It is not just because what they say is offensive. It is not a question of whether I like or agree with what they have to say. It is because hate speech does not end as speech. It is a call to violence, a tool to organize attacks on vulnerable communities.

When fascists get a platform, violence against minorities goes up. This we know. This we are seeing.

Fascism is a disease

Fascism is a disease in Swedish society. It aims to destroy our democracy and concentrate power in the hands of a “racially superior” minority. To succeed, it requires the destruction of freedom of speech. It requires destroying mass organizations of working people and unions. It requires the dismantling of free press, as SD has suggested the privatisation of public service radio. It uses an army of internet trolls. Fascism uses the blinkered limitations of liberalism to destroy itself.

Today’s fascists in Sweden and Europe try to re-brand themselves as something less threatening than their past incarnations. They are “alt-right” and pretend to be champions of free speech. They are not. They wear suits and smile into the camera. They claim they are anti-establishment and present themselves as scapegoats. They pander to the sick and the elderly by offering them more money. They pretend they aren’t racists or homophobes, just champions of white people and Swedish culture and “values”. They try to keep their real ideas and aims in the dark.

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech is not absolute. When thugs disrupt Pride parades that is not free speech. When fascists demonstrate during the May 1st celebrations, it is not free speech – it is intimidation and an attempt to incite violence. We have a right and a duty to prevent it, through the law, superior numbers and organization.

Unfortunately, racism cannot be defeated by logical argument. Racism, and fascism, grows by an appeal to the irrational, fear and hatred. It has to be smashed.

You might think I’m a drama queen who is making a mountain out of a mole hill. But I have had enough! I’m sick of allowing undemocratic people access to our democracy.

We cannot under-estimate the threat fascism poses in Sweden, our communities, schools and workplaces. Pro-democrats must make it a top priority to expose it and organize to stomp it out wherever we find it. We must unite in saying – not here, not on our watch, not in Sweden.

Sweden, that means: no platform for fascists.