Swedish expression: Life on a stick

The expression ‘life on a stick’ – (livet på en pinne)- is used in Swedish to describe a care-free, wonderful life. In the mind of the modern Swede, it conjures up images of, for example, lying on the beach, or floating in the lake, or partying and eating favourite food, or chilling with a beer in the sunset.

The expression is epitomised in a song released by a TV personality called Edward Blom with the name ‘Livet på en pinne’. It includes lyrics such as:

Livet på en pinne
Göra var dag till en fest
Ta varje liten chans du får och njut
Minut för minut, livet på en pinne
Nåt för varje sinne
Ja, låt ditt välbehag få blomma ut’

This translates roughly as:

Life on a stick, make every day a party, take every little opportunity you have to enjoy, minute for minute, life on a stick, something for every sense, yes let your contentment blossom.

So, where does this expression ‘life on a stick’ come from?

There are a few different theories, including a traveling hobo with his possessions in a cloth hung on a stick, and a hygrometer measuring humidity and expansion of a stick. The expression dates from the 1800’s and probably has a more rural origin.

One theory is that the expression relates to birds sitting on a branch in a tree, living a seemingly unfettered life. Another theory is to do with hens.

In the 1800’s in the countryside, many people kept hens and each farm had a hen house. The hen house was stuffed full with hay and sticks and the birds sat there and had a comfortable and carefree existence. While the farmers and their other animals toiled hard, the hens simply enjoyed their life on a stick.

When watching the Swedes is a disappointment

I love watching the Swedes. That is, in fact, what this whole blog is based on. Usually I’m struck with admiration and curiosity, sometimes outrage and anger. But right now, disappointment is the biggest emotion I’m feeling.

Sweden is an amazing country that has handled the corona pandemic in a very different way from the rest of the world. This is culturally not so surprising as Sweden is a country that often deviates from the norm. Instead of draconian lock downs, Sweden’s approach is based on personal responsibility, solidarity and common sense.

So why my disappointment? Well, a couple of reasons.

The instructions about social distancing are very clear. Avoid crowds and stand or sit 2 meters away from the nearest person. And yet, many Swedes are not doing this. On outside restaurants and cafe terraces, people are packed together like sardines. In parks and squares, people are squeezed onto shared picnic blankets. What is it about social distancing that people don’t understand? Be sociable yes, but be physically distanced. It’s so easy that it’s ridiculous to not follow it.

The second source for my disappointment is the lack of perseverance that seems to be prevailing. After a few weeks of self control, it looks like many Swedes have tired of it. They think that the worst is over. They couldn’t be more wrong. Now is not the time to relax. Cases are increasing, not decreasing. Now is the time to persevere, to work from home if possible, to keep washing hands and keep your distance. Even if the sun is shining and the weather is warmer.

I am sure my disappointment is temporary. But I would like to say to everybody in Sweden – be happy things are more relaxed here but do follow the instructions of the authorities. It’s that simple. If we all do it, it will all be over sooner. And then we can all sit in the sun in the park.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching the Swedes – from a comfortable distance.

Swedish expression: to make soup from a nail

In Swedish there is an expression ‘att koka soppa på en spik’ (to make soup from a nail). This is used to mean that somebody has the ability to accomplish or produce something through minimal means; to produce something with no or very little available material. It can be used to describe inventiveness and perseverance.

Where does the expression come from?

It originates in a traditional Swedish fairy tale about a tramp who tricks a miserly old woman into giving him soup. The tramp has only a saucepan and a nail which he begins to boil to make soup. He then asks the old woman for some herbs to add flavour. By gradually asking for more and more ingredients, he succeeds in the end to make an edible soup from the nail.

The fairy tale exists in many European countries and has actually been dramatized in film and theatre. If you’re interested in reading the Swedish version, here it is: http://www.berattarverkstan.se/net/soup.htm

When the name fits…

Sometimes in the sporting world, the name of the sportsperson really suits the sport. I think this is kinda funny. Here’s a list of some sportspeople, Swedish and other, and their highly relevant names:

Johanna Skottheim – Swedish Biathlon skier (with skis and a gun). Skott means shot in Swedish.

Sara Sjöström – Swedish swimmer. Sjöström means lake stream

Timo Boll – German table tennis player. Boll means ball in Swedish.

Josh Beaver – Australian swimmer

Zhu Ting – A Chinese football player – pronounced ‘shoo-ting’

Nathan Leeper – an American high jumper

Jeffrey Float – an American swimmer

Anna Smashnova – a Russian tennis player

Tiger Woods – an American golfer – wood is a type of golf club

Usain Bolt – fastest man in the world, a bolt of lightning from Jamaica.

Pernilla Wiberg- Swedish Alpine skier. ’Berg’ means mountain in Swedish.

Can you think of any more to add to the list?

12 Swedish films – a must see list

I remember the first Swedish film I ever saw. I was living in London, and there was a film festival in a cinema on the South Bank. I’d never heard of the film, but had heard of the author who’s book it was based on – Astrid Lindgren. The film was called ‘Ronja, the robber’s daughter’, and it was a dramatic romp set in the Viking era. I loved it.

Since then, I’ve seen many Swedish films, of varying quality, from Christmas romcoms to Bergman. The Swedish film industry is alive and kicking, and many films are released in the Swedish language every year. Sweden even has its own center of film-making lovingly nick-named Trollywood.

If you’re self-isolated at home and you’d like to watch a Swedish film, here are some that I think are good, in no particular order:

1. ‘Monica Z’ – drama about Swedish jazz legend Monica Zetterlund, played amazingly by singer Edda Magnusson.

2. ‘Border’ (Gräns) – dark drama about a border guard who can smell fear

3. ‘As it is in heaven’ (Så som i himmelen) – drama about a famous conductor who retires to a remote village and takes over the local choir. Drama ensues.

4. ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (Män som hatar kvinnor) – a action thriller about legendary anti-hero Lisbet Salander and a twisted murder mystery plot. Starring Noomi Rapace.

5. ‘House of Angels’ (Änglagård) – a comedy drama about a modern young woman who inherits a house from her mother in a small rural village. But she is not welcomed by all.

6. ‘The Dalecarlians’ (Masjävlarna) – a comedy drama about a woman who visits her hometown to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. An urban-rural clash takes centre stage. Starring ‘The Bridge’s Sofia Helin.

7. ‘Fanny and Alexander’ – a long Bergman film about a wealthy family in Uppsala. A classic Christmas saga and probably the only Bergman film that everybody likes.

8. ‘Let the Right One in’ (Låt den rätte kommer in) – a drama horror film about a vampire child living in a dark Stockholm suburb

9. ’My life as a dog’ (Mitt liv som hund) – a drama about a young boy and his odd way of dealing with life’s set backs.

10. ’The Hunters’ (Jägarna) – a drama thriller about a wicked group of hunters in the north of Sweden.

11. ’A man called Ove’ (en man som heter Ove) – a drama comedy based on the best-selling novel about the adventures of a grumpy, old man in a Swedish small town.

12. ‘Show me Love’ (Fucking Åmål) – a drama comedy love story between two young girls in the conservative town of Åmål.

There are of course lots more Swedish films to see. If you’d like to check out more, go to: http://www.svenskfilmdatabas.se

Trump’s obsession with Sweden

In his recent statement, Trump yet again criticized Sweden. This time it was about Sweden’s approach to the corona pandemic. Not only was his statement bizarre, but it was factually wrong. But, hey, who’s surprised?

What’s more intriguing is Trump’s interest in Sweden. This isn’t the first time he’s negatively commented on what’s happening in this relatively small country. From making false claims about everything from immigrants and refugees, to riots and rappers, the man seems obsessed. He even tried to interfere in Sweden’s legal system and accused the Swedish Prime Minister or ‘letting the USA’s African American community down’ when he didn’t get his way.

So why the obsessive focus on Sweden?

Film-maker Ami Horowitz, who made a documentary about Sweden, believes Trump periodically brings up the country in his speeches and tweets because it represents a “liberal bastion that in a lot ways is very different from the United States … Democratic socialism, open immigration policy, high taxes, welfare state, there’s no question Sweden is a paradigm of things the president doesn’t like.

Although he claims to have a friendly relationship with Sweden, the country is a thorn in the President’s side. In other words, a constant reminder that there are other ways to run a country. It scares him. Sweden consistently trumps USA in research on quality of life, equality, opportunity, happiness, safety, entrepreneurship, education levels…..oh the list is long. This must really trample on Trump’s toes. In 2019, Sweden was ranked ‘the most reputable country’ in the world. USA came in at number 17. Ooh, that must sting someone with an enormous ego.

Part of Sweden’s reputability comes from the quality of its politicians. Here, we have a long line of Prime Ministers who behave in a dignified manner. While the USA is important to Sweden, Trump really isn’t. Like most politicians, he is temporary. His days are numbered. But Sweden’s positive relationship with America will continue long after the country has said goodbye to their presidential man child. And hopefully their next leader will be one who respects differences rather than one who fears them.

The Swedish Easter egg

In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.

For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.

This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.

Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.

Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!

Happy Easter!

What is Sweden’s ‘Tranquil Week’ ?

There is an irony to the fact that we are socially distancing, quarantining and home working specifically during this week. In Swedish, this week is called ‘Stilla Veckan’ – which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’.

‘Stilla Veckan’ is a term in the Swedish church calendar to describe the week leading up to Easter – the last week of Lent. In English, we call it Holy Week.

Every day in ‘Stilla Veckan’ has a name. Holy Saturday is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish, which translates as Easter Eve. Do you know what the Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to Easter are called?

The Sunday before Easter is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday in English. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.

The Monday before Easter is called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday. It can also be called ‘Svart Måndag’, (Black Monday), ’Bullmåndag’ (Bun Monday), ’Fläskmåndag’ (Pork Monday) and ’Korvmåndag’ (Sausage Monday). It is called a predictable Holy Monday in English.

The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). This is called Holy Tuesday in English.

Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally used to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins in Ash Wednesday. At some point in history, they were moved colloquially to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, and probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.

The Wednesday before Easter is, unsurprisingly, called Holy Wednesday in English. However, in Swedish it had the fascinating name ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued sound during Easter weekend.

The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.

And finally, the Friday before Holy Saturday is called Good Friday in English. This is derived from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.

The Swedish King and the British Queen

Both Sweden and the UK have reigning monarchs. The UK’s has Queen Elisabeth II and Sweden has King Carl Gustaf XVI. Like most of the European monarchs, they are related to each other. King Carl Gustaf is a descendent of the UK’s Queen Victoria, making him and Queen Elisabeth third cousins.

The other evening, they both gave a speech to their respective nations in regards to the corona pandemic. And they were like chalk and cheese.

I first watched the Swedish King’s speech. This bumbling, friendly man stumbled his way through his speech. Heavily dependent on his paper notes, he sounded a bit robotic to me. A friend of mine said it was like watching a trained chimp. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Swedish King. He seems like a nice man. But as a father of the nation in times of crisis, he missed the mark for me.

Then I watched the British Queen. This imperturbable woman, looking straight into that camera, embodied calm and credibility. In her typical restrained manner, her speech had depth and meaning, and her words were truly comforting in a crisis – from the nation’s mother.

I reflected over the two speeches, and why my reaction was so different. Part of it was definitely influenced by the delivery of the speech. The Queen used an auto prompt which enabled her to look into the camera, straight into the living rooms of her subjects. The King also looked into the camera but read from paper notes, meaning he frequently lost vital connection with his audience. The Queen spoke fluently, the King, who has dyslexia, struggled through his speech. The Queen looked dignified and prepared. The King looked like a stunned uncle who has unexpectedly been called upon to deliver a speech at a funeral.

However, I think the main difference for me lies in the cultural value of language. Even though I can speak Swedish, King Carl Gustaf’s words did not resonate with me. I understood him but was not moved by him. His words hit me in the brain, but not the heart. In comparison, English is my mother tongue, my native language. I have a more emotional relationship to English. When words of gravitas are spoken in my native language, I experience them with depth and fullness.

This really surprises me. I’ve been in Sweden over 25 years, I speak Swedish on a daily basis, and many of my relationships are in Swedish only. Yet in times of crisis and seriousness, words in my first language cut through Swedish like a knife through butter. It goes to show the mark that our first language leaves on us – our language of feeling. This is the language that indelibly forms our emotional cultural identity.

The colourful Swedish Easter tree

With Easter approaching, Swedes start pimping their homes. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.

The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.

What’s the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?

Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were more pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?