Swedish expression: Cake on cake

The Swedish expression ‘kaka på kaka’ or ’tårta på tårta’ is translated as ‘cake on cake’. It is quite a commonly-used expression – but what does it mean?

Swedes use ‘kaka på kaka’ to describe something that is an unnecessary addition that becomes a bit too much, or even over the top. For example, ‘buying another television when we already have two is a bit cake on cake.

It can also mean an unnecessary repetition. In English – superfluous – ‘when you gave that example in your presentation, it was a cake on cake’.

The saying itself is an example of tautology – a concept in language where we unnecessarily repeat a word and it adds no meaning, eg chai tea (chai means tea), or salsa sauce (salsa means sauce) or naan bread (naan is bread). So the expression ‘cake on cake’ feeds into this concept by emphasising that one of the cakes is unnecessary.

The original meaning of the saying was related to overindulgence. So cake on cake meant basically you can’t get too much of a good thing – bring on the cake!! Over the years, and with the influence of Swedish moderation, it changed to mean too much that is not necessary.

Do you believe in Swedish sin?

Yesterday, a new book was published by author Rickard Gramfors. The book, entitled ‘Do you believe in Swedish sin?’ looks at Swedish exploitation and cult films. The book includes ‘350 outrageous, sexy, violent, fun movie posters from the Fifties to the early Eighties. Swedish films of all kinds, whacky co-productions, exported Swedish babes, and international films using the words Sweden, Schweden, Svezia, Suède as selling points; if it was “Swedish” – it was sexy!’

I have put my order in.

This international concept of Swedish sin still lingers around today, and influences some foreigners’ perception of Swedish women. Where does it come from?

Maybe unsurprisingly, it originates in the prudish conservative USA. In a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1960, he claimed that “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide” in Sweden were due to welfare policy excess. This was a rhetorical way to attack Swedish people and politics at the same time. However, the world quickly forgot the link to welfare policy – but the sin reference remains.

He was basing his opinion on the scandalous Swedish fifties art films like ”One Summer of Happiness” and ”Summer with Monika”, birth-control pills, sexual education publications and condom vending machines. Swedish nudity was prevalent in most of the films throughout the 60’s and 70’s thus cementing the idea of Swedish sin.

In 1971, the Swedish sex education film ‘Language of Love’ was released in London to massive protest. One anti-film sign read ‘Sweden – more pornography, more suicides, more alcoholism and more gonorrhoea every year’.

Place on top of these scandalous films, young women who were self-determined, educated, liberated and sexually-active, and the stereotype becomes fixed.

The interesting thing about stereotypes is that they remain for a very long time. This is why the notion still exists today even though Swedish film today is far from exploitative.

Additionally, stereotypes often have little to do with reality. The reality was of course something else in Sweden at that time. The country was not riddled with promiscuous, drunken people. For example, Sweden had the world’s most restrictive alcohol laws and was struggling with the oppressive inheritance of Lutheran thinking.

So, did Swedish ‘sin’ ever actually exist? Or was it a politically motivated attack aimed at undermining social democracy? Or was it just a marketing trick to sell films and magazines?

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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.

Why is May 1st celebrated in Sweden?

In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of labourers and the working classes since then.

But why specifically May 1st?

The answer is found in a massacre in the USA. On 1 May 1886, laborers in Chicago went out on strike for an 8 hour working day. On 4 May 1886, Chicago police and the demonstrators clashed and 11 people died. The event is called the Haymarket massacre. Seven of the demonstrators were sentenced to death, despite lack of evidence. To commemorate the massacre, the socialist organization suggested that 1 May should become day of demonstrations every year.

Around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives. Since the demonstrations are most commonly from the political left, the streets are awash with bright red flags and banners. However, this year, like 2020, is different. As large public gatherings are banned, the speeches are instead broadcast from a studio over Facebook and YouTube.

Contrary to the stereotype, not everybody in Sweden supports left wing political groups. Many Swedes lean towards the centre or the right. For them, today is just a day off work – an opportunity to perhaps nurse hangovers from the festivities of the previous evening or to relax, watch Netflix, go for a walk and enjoy the day.

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.

60 years ago – a momentous Swedish event

On this day, 60 years ago in 1961, something amazing happened in Stockholm’s harbour. This event would cast the Swedish people back 333 years and come to change the face of tourism in Scandinavia.

In 1626, a grand battleship was commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf. He was expanding his realm into the Baltic and wanted a battleship that would be beautiful, awe inspiring and armed to the teeth. When she was completed she was richly decorated, with bronze cannons and was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. He called the ship the Vasa, after his grandfather.

However beautiful she was, the flagship Vasa was dangerously unstable, with too much weight in the upper structure of the hull. Despite her obvious lack of stability, she was sent on her maiden voyage in 1628, and after only a couple of minutes afloat, she sank to the bottom of the harbour. The King was of course livid, and after a long process, blame fell upon the ship’s designer Henrik Hybertsson. As he had been dead for a year, he couldn’t defend himself, and instead became a historic scapegoat. King Gustav II Adolf himself died 4 years later at the Battle of Lützen.

The Vasa’s bronze canons were salvaged in the 1700’s after which she was forgotten, left to her watery grave. But then, in 1956, her exact location was identified and 5 years later, on April 25th, she was raised to the surface.

The Vasa ship is the only 1600’s galleon in the world that has been salvaged in such good condition. The cold, dark, brackish waters of the Baltic meant that the wood did not rot, and the ship’s huge hull was almost completely preserved. Today, the fully-restored ship and its other contents, are displayed in an enormous museum in central Stockholm. It is the world’s best preserved 17th century ship and Scandinavia’s most visited museum. On the roof of the museum, the masts indicate how high the ship was on its day of launch.

When traveling is allowed again, and museums are reopened, you must visit Stockholm. When you’re here, your top cultural priority should be the Vasa Museum. You will be blown away by the sheer dimension of this boat and you too will be thrown back to a time when Sweden was a great military power to be reckoned with.

For more information, go to http://www.vasamuseet.se

Infidelity, despair and revenge – Swedish style

They say that revenge is best served cold, and nothing is colder than what the ‘Cuckold of Skeppsbron’ did in Stockholm.

As you walk along the road of Skeppsbron, you have the harbour and Baltic Sea on one side, and the historical houses of the Old Town on the other. When you approach number 44, take a look above the door and you’ll see a stone face sporting an exaggerated expression of despair. And below the grimace, if you look carefully, you’ll spot a carving of a vulva.

Legend has it that the face belongs to a wealthy merchant called Carl Smitt, who owned the building. He discovered that his wife had been cheating on him. In revenge, he had her genitalia sculpted and mounted on the wall, so that all the world would know her betrayal. Above her privates, he installed his own tormented face.

Wanting to add to her shame, he had the sculpture of his face designed so that on rainy days, the water would fall from his eyes like tears, splashing his wife’s genitalia below.

So revenge isn’t just best served cold. It’s also served in stone and lasts over many centuries.

Shakespeare in Sweden

Today 23 April is the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The literary giant died this day in 1616, aged 52. Shakespeare was world-famous for his many plays and sonnets – one of his most noted works being based in Denmark. But what about Sweden’s relationship to the Bard of Avon?

The Swedes were initiated into the poetic musings of Shakespeare in 1592, but he didn’t gain popularity until some 150 years later. The first translation into Swedish came in 1813 and was of the macabre Macbeth. Today, Shakespeare is the second-most frequently produced playwright in Sweden. Not surprisingly August Strindberg is in first place. Romeo and Juliet seems to be the most popular play to produce, followed by Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

Three of my most memorable theatre experiences in Sweden were in fact Shakespeare. The first was at Drottningholm Palace Theatre outside of Stockholm. This amazing theatre, built in 1766 is the world’s oldest preserved theatre. Still in its original condition, with its original mechanical stage, it is a wonder to behold. In the lush gardens of the theatre I watched a performance of Macbeth – around Midsummer time. The Scandinavian blue lit background and the (luckily) balmy weather contributed to a magical evening.

The second experience was Richard III, starring the charismatic actor Rikard Wolff. The play was performed at Stockholm’s Stadsteater where we, the audience, sat in a rotating auditorium, like a fairground ride. As the play progressed, we spun around to witness scenes that were gruesome and beautiful in equal measure.

The most memorable, however, was when I was visiting the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lappland. The year I was there, they had built a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre completely in ice, on the edge of the Torneå river. Like the original, it was open to the heavens. There I sat, wrapped in thermal clothes in minus temperatures, on a block of ice covered in reindeer skin, and watched a performance of Hamlet in Sami. As the play progressed, the sky shifted colour and fat flakes of snow fell down onto the proceedings. It was one of the most remarkable and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. During the interval, we retreated to the ice bar, and drank vodka shots from ice glasses. A few months later and the theatre ceased to exist – it melted back into the river.

What is your most memorable experience of a Shakespeare performance?

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.