Have yourself a Merry Gay Swedish Christmas

With gay men being hunted down and ‘punished’ in Uganda, Tanzania, Russia and many other countries around the world, it is easy to blame religion for the persecution.

And the evidence to back this up is fairly compelling. Countries that have a strong foot in religion are often countries that have strong anti-LGBT policies and attitudes. Not always, but often. Fanatical interpretation of the scripture can be one explanation, as can the crushing concept of sin, and the devouring need to uphold traditional ‘family structures and values’. For example, in a recent comment, the Pope said a lot can be done for LGBT people through psychiatry.

Sweden is a country that separates the church from politics. It is a country where almost 90% of the population identify as atheist or agnostic. It is a place where religious morality does not usually dictate the behaviours and choices of individual citizens. Of course there is organized religion in Sweden, there are churches and there are priests. Of course there are minority religions in Sweden such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Of course there are casual believers, devout followers and extremists. But compared to many other organized religions in the world, the Swedish Church is very liberal.

This was manifested in the recent service at a church in Stockholm, a service called Gay Jul (Gay Christmas). The slogan for the event was ‘come in as you are, come out as you want to be’. As I sat in attendance at this service, I witnessed a welcoming space, filled with members of the LGBT community, the church decorated in rainbow flags, and the words ‘Gay Jul’ emblazoned on the pulpit. I was moved by the openness of the church to welcome the minority group that is so often demonized and persecuted by the Faithful. It was an escape, and embrace, a sanctuary.

However, I was also struck by a sadness as I sat there in that echoing church. I realized the experience was a uniquely Swedish one, occurring in a small city in a small outpost of Europe and an unlikely sight in other churches, mosques, temples and tabernacles around the world.

In that church, amongst the rainbow flags, we were far far away from Uganda, and Tanzania, and Russia.

The relief of Swedish Advent

 

So it’s the first of Advent this weekend and this year it comes as a major relief for those of us in Stockholm.

You see at Advent, Swedes decorate their houses, apartments and windows with lights. From ceilings, illuminated stars are hung. On window ledges, electric advent candles are placed. On tables, four candles are positioned and one is lit every Sunday up until Christmas. Small candles, often red, are dotted about the home.

Some years, there is already deepish snow at the first of Advent, but this year in Stockholm, there isn’t. So it is very, very, very dark. The collective advent decoration is a definite reprieve from this darkness as light is spread into these murky places.

The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which means ‘arrival’ and is traditionally the start of the period where we wait for the arrival of nativity, or Christmas. Some religions also see it as waiting for the second coming of Christ. But in this secular society that is Sweden, the waiting is probably for the snow to come, the cold to hit, the water to freeze to ice and for winter to clasp its fingers firmly around us.

Do Swedes have no heart?

Working recently in India, one question I received was ‘why don’t Swedes greet us with heart?’ This was referring to when Indians visit colleagues in Sweden, or when they start working together in new constellations.

It is an interesting perception, and maybe not a new one. The experience of Swedes as cold, unfriendly and disengaged seems common, and genuinely baffles a lot of non-Swedish people.

Firstly, I would like to say that in general this is not true. It is just a perception. Many of the Swedes I know are kind, generous and affectionate. However, I do have a few theories as to why this perception prevails.

Expressiveness – how much it is appropriate to express emotion is something that we are trained in from childhood. Some cultures train their children to use their entire bodies when they communicate, others train their children to be more reserved. Generally Swedes are trained to be emotionally inexpressive. What they mean is clearly in their words, and not so much their bodies or faces. And this can lead more physically expressive cultures to presume they are cold. So it is important to understand that lack of expression should not be confused with lack of feeling.

Importance of relationships. Swedes do have many close friendships and family ties. However, this doesn’t necessarily extend to neighbors or colleagues. While in other cultures, strong close relationships with colleagues are essential for getting the job done, in Sweden isn’t the case. Relationships help, but they are not essential for carrying out the task. This means Swedes can go to work and be friendly towards each other, but don’t necessarily need to make friends or show a great deal if interest in each others private lives. This can be frustrating for people who come from strongly relationship-oriented cultures.

Independence. Swedish culture is amongst the most individualistic cultures in the world. In Swedish society, this manifests itself in the attitude that every able-bodied person can take care of themselves. This means that the Swedish attitude is generally if you want help you will ask for it. And you usually get it. The fact that help is rarely offered was a hard lesson for me to learn when moving to ‘unhelpful’ Sweden.

The peach and the coconut. Some cultures are like peaches – soft on the outside, easy to get into, open in communication, overtly friendly. Other cultures are like coconuts – hard shelled, difficult to get into and less open to people outside the group. Typically, but not exclusively, Swedish culture is ‘coconutty’ and Indian is peachy. This can mean it’s a challenge for people from peachy cultures to break into Swedish society and easy for them to form the perception that Swedes are cold and unwelcoming. My experience tells me, however, that once you break through the shell, the friendships that you make are very close and lasting. It is easy to assume when you meet a Swede that he or she is shy or introvert. This might be the case, but not necessarily. He or she might just be a coconut.

Spectacular Swedish serenity on All Saints’ Day

I remember walking around Stockholm when I had recently moved here. It was a pitch black Saturday evening in November, cold and crisp. As I approached a majestic church, I noticed that it was shimmering from the grave yard. This yellow and white light slowly flickered and cast shadows on the gravestones and the church wall. As if drawn by a magic spell, I walked up to the church and looked over the wall. The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and serene at the same time. Hundreds of candles were spread around the cemetery, decorating each of the graves. In the memory grove a bright blazing blanket of candles lit up the area. It was as if the spirits of the dead had come out to play.

In Sweden, the first Saturday in November is All Saints’ Day (the Sunday after All Saints’ Day is called All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead).

Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light and to pay respect to the dead. It is a much more elegant and atmospheric tradition than the typical Halloween parties that otherwise have become very popular in Sweden.

It is a truly beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us. So head for your nearest cemetery this weekend and, if you happen to be in Stockholm, go to the Forest graveyard (Skogskyrkogården) for a specifically spectacular experience (pictured below).

Why is Sweden….according to Google

A quick Google search punching in the words ‘why is Sweden..’ led to a very telling autocorrect.

why is sweden

  • Why is Sweden so hot?
  • Why is Sweden so rich?
  • Why is Sweden so good at hockey?
  • Why is Sweden so good at sports?
  • Why is Sweden so cold?
  • Why is Sweden so innovative?
  • Why is Sweden so good at CS?
  • Why is Sweden so good?
  • Why is Sweden called Sweden?

So, if this represents the most common searches for Sweden, it certainly seems positive! Sweden is hot, rich, good at all sorts of things and innovative! I only wish I knew what CS is –  Christmas shopping? Classic socialism? Counting suicides? Consuming spirits? Well, whatever it is, they are apparently very good at it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dark side of Sweden

Sweden is my spiritual country.

Moving here has shaped me into the person I am today. When I moved here, I fell in love immediately with this modern country in the north. I was impressed by Sweden’s strong belief in equality, democracy, human rights, acceptance and tolerance – and it moulded me. Like Sweden, I believe in an open society where everybody is of equal value and has the right to live how they want. I believe in humanity where people respect each other. I believe in a social contract where we take care of the weaker members of society when they need it, and they take care of me if I need it. For me, this is Sweden. This is what it means to be Swedish. Swedes should be so proud of this legacy.

But is this Sweden still there? 20 years ago, it clearly was. But today? Is this Sweden just a Utopia? Just a distant memory of something good? Is my open Sweden actually shutting down?

Cold winds are sweeping over Europe yet again. Sweden is no exception. The Sweden Democrats – a right wing conservative nationalistic party, dressed in sharp suits, is spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of Sweden’s citizens. And they are gaining ground. Approximately 20% of the population now support them.

These 20% are willing to vote for a party that is openly xenophobic and clearly sexist. Members of this party have, in recent memory, stated that gays are animals, that Jews are not Swedes, that women should have their abortion rights restricted. I don’t understand why they think this is ok.

These 20% are willing to vote for a party that have a shaky understanding of Economics, whose budget lacks 30 billion Swedish crowns to cover all of their election promises and who have no policy for the environment – as it’s ‘not that important’. I don’t understand why they think this is an acceptable future for the country.

These 20% buy into the idea that this party is anti-establishment. The ‘gang of four’ men who run the party are former university students who earn salaries in the millions and furnish their homes with designer furniture. They may come from humble backgrounds, as do many Swedes, but today they are elites. I don’t understand why their supporters don’t see this.

These 20% are willing to vote for a party they do not know much about. Nobody knows what their actions will be. Many of their voters are dissatisfied with the current state of Sweden, and they want a change. This may well be justified. However, they are willing to throw everything out, and place their bets on a dark horse. They clearly don’t feel threatened. But they probably should.

Have these 20% always been there? Was the Sweden I moved to just a lie? Was the openness and tolerance just bullshit? Was it just a neat and well-orchestrated fantasy that in fact had fear of foreigners, sexism and homophobia lurking just beneath the surface? Lurking and waiting and ready to leap out. That is a frightening thought.

I don’t believe these 20% are all racists, I really don’t. But they are willing to allow nationalists to take power in Sweden. I don’t believe they’re all stupid. But they are willing to disregard glaring faults in SD’s policies. I do believe many are disenchanted. And they are willing to gamble the safety of their country and fellow citizens just to prove a point. They are willing to literally throw many people to the sharks.

After this article, I expect to be trolled. I often am. These trolls will abuse me, they will tell me to go home yet again and they will say I am a bleeding-heart liberal.

And they are so wrong.

I am already home. Sweden is my home. And my heart is not bleeding, it is breaking.

Please do not vote SD in the coming election.

Swedish expressions – take it piano

If a Swede says to you ‘ta det piano’ – take it piano – what they mean is take it easy, go slow often to avoid any mistakes. They can also say ‘it’s piano’ which means everything is cool, calm, ok.

Researching the origin of this expression led me, not surprisingly, to the world of music.

The word ‘piano’ has two meanings – firstly the string instrument with its variety of keys.

Secondly, it is a musical term for ‘weak’ or ‘soft’. In sheet music, the letter ‘p’ indicates piano and tells the musician to play their instrument softly. Double ‘pp’ means pianissimo and indicates to play very softly.

The term ‘piano’ originates in Italian and has been in use in Sweden since the 1600’s.