21 ways to die in Swedish

Yesterday was the sombre funeral of Prince Philip in St George’s Chapel in Windsor, UK. In the House of Nobility in Stockholm, his coat of arms was also hung as he was a member of the noble Swedish Serafimer order.

All this got me thinking about the different ways you can describe somebody dying. In English, we have expressions like ‘bite the dust’, ‘pop your clogs’, ‘join the choir’, ‘go to meet your maker’, ‘kick the bucket’ and ‘shuffle off your mortal coil’. I wondered how many words or expressions there are in Swedish – and I found 21!

Att dö – to die

Att avlida – to die

Att gå ur tiden – literally to ’go out of time’

Att gå bort – to ’go away’

Att somna in – to ’sleep in’

Att trilla av pinn – to fall off the stick

Att stupa – to fall (often in battle)

Att gå i graven – to go to the grave

Att gå hädan – to go away

Att samlas till sina förfäder – to be gathered by your ancestors

Att ta ned skylten – to ‘take down the sign’

Att kola vippen – untranslatable, meaning to die

Att bita i gräset – to bite the grass

Att duka under – to go under

Att dra sitt sista andetag – to take your final breath

Att vinkla upp tofflorna – to point up your slippers

Att dra på sig träfracken – to put on your wooden suit

Att ge upp andan – to give up breathing

Att krepera – to die

Att lämna jordelivet – to leave this earthly life

Att kila vidare – to die, to ‘run onwards’

Can you think of any more expressions or words to add to this list?

Swedish circus

Today, 17 April, is World Circus Day. all around the world, the grand old art of circus is celebrated and promoted. Given lock downs and restrictions, I’m guessing most of these celebrations this year are either digital or outdoors.

Sweden has a long history of circus, the first one taking place in 1787. French circus leader Didier Guatier became a Swedish citizen in 1830 and was given permission to build a permanent circus building on Stockholm’s leisure island of Djurgården. This burned down and was rebuilt in 1892. The building still stands there and is today a theater called – Cirkus.

There were at least 10 different circus troupes that travelled around Sweden before and after the Second World War. Today, there are two or three.

However, over the last twenty years, research into circus art has increased in Sweden. Driven by renewed interest, contemporary circus artists in Sweden have seized the opportunity to push the boundaries of their practice. Sweden attracts international attention as an environment that combines academic research with hands-on experimentation. One such centre for this is Karavanen in Malmö.

Swedish icons 22: Carina Ari

Carina Ari was born Maria Karina Viktoria Jansson in Stockholm in 1897. She went on to become one of Sweden’s most successful dancers and choreographers throughout history. For most Swedes, she may be unknown, but she certainly made a lasting mark on Swedish and international cultural life.

Carina Ari started dancing at a young age to support her infirm mother, who died when Ari was 16. Shortly afterwards, she was employed as a dancer at the Royal Theatre and within two years was promoted to solo dancer. During the 1920’s, she danced and choreographed many acclaimed performances in Stockholm, Copenhagen and in Paris for a variety of institutions and companies. In Paris, she was the prima ballerina at the controversial and experimental Swedish Ballet. In 1924, she toured Europe with her highly successful Scènes dansées. In 1927, she choreographed a much talked-about performance for the French President Loubet at the Élysée Palace. In 1930, she was appointed Director of Ballet at the Algiers Opera, where she created for many years before returning to the Opera Comique in Paris. During her active years, she was the darling of dance, a somewhat controversial prima donna and a sought-after choreographer. Married to French composer Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, they were a power couple on the cultural scene.

In the late 1930’s, mid divorce, Ari was holidaying in the south of France when she met, and fell in love with, a Dutch businessman. When the Second World War approached, they moved to Argentina, where they married and lived the rest of their lives. Upon his death, she inherited a great fortune and was able to maintain a residence in Stockholm and studio in Paris, both of which she frequently visited. In Argentina, she became a grand old dame, living a life of culture, entertainment and fine dining. She frequently visited the Teatro Colón and watched their dance performances. Although considered one of the best opera houses in the world, she was apparently vocally critical of the quality of their dancers.

As part of her legacy, the Carina Ari Foundation gives financial support to young, promising dancers and to older dancers who have fallen on hard times. On Holländargatan in Stockholm is the Carina Ari Library, which is the largest library of dance in Northern Europe. Additionally, the Carina Ari Medal is occasionally awarded to people who have contributed to the art of dance in Sweden.

However, her legacy is not only in dance. Carina Ari was also an accomplished sculptor. She specialized in portrait busts and some of her works are displayed at Sweden’s National Museum. Her bust of Birgit Nilsson is at the Opera House in Stockholm and her bust of Dag Hammarskjöld is located in New York in the square that bears his name.

Carina Ari died in 1970 in Buenos Aries after complications from breaking her leg, and is buried with her husband in Haarlem in the Netherlands.

Gun salutes in the UK and Sweden

To mark the recent death of the UK’s Prince Philip, a 41-gun salute was held across Great Britain yesterday. For many, it seemed like an odd number. So, why 41?

In both the UK and Sweden, gun salutes mark special royal occasions and the number of rounds fired depends on the place and occasion. The basic salute in both countries is 21 rounds.

In the UK, however if fired from a royal park, an extra 20 rounds are added – making 41. At the Tower of London 62 rounds are fired on British royal anniversaries (the basic 21, plus a further 20 because the Tower is a Royal Palace and Fortress, plus another 21 for the City of London.)

The most shots have been given from the Tower when the late Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday (62 shots) coincided with the Queen’s official birthday (62 shots). This gave a total of an annoying 124 shots booming out over the city.

So, does Sweden always have 21 shots?

No, not always. When a Royal birth takes place and the infant is the firstborn to either the reigning monarch or to the heir to the throne, an extra 21 rounds (for a total of 42) are added to the normal salute. Additionally, 19-gun salutes are used for heads of government, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.

Another gun salute consists of two rapid gunshots only. This is used by the military and was fired to identify a Swedish ship entering a harbour or on the battle field to identify the Swedish troops. This signal is called the ‘Svensk Lösen’ – the Swedish Signal. This salute is today fired on special occasions, usually within the armed forces.

21-gun salutes in Sweden occur on:

  • 28 January – the King’s Name Day
  • 30 April – the King’s birthday
  • 6 June – Sweden’s National Day
  • 14 July – Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday
  • 8 August – Queen Silvia’s Name Day
  • 23 December – Queen Silvia’s birthday.

So, why is 21 standard?

Well, it originated in British maritime tradition. Historically, ships would fire 7 shots as they approached a foreign harbour. As ships usually had seven cannons on board, this was to show they had disarmed themselves and declare the vessel to be no threat on entry.

The military on land could store more gunpowder and therefore could reload their cannons more quickly. The tradition became that they would fire three shots for every one shot made at sea – hence 21 shots – as a sign of welcome and peace.

Interestingly in Sweden’s neighbouring country, Denmark, the gun salute given to majesties is 27. Could this be based on the same thinking? 3 x 9 shots?

Swedish icons 16: Olof Palme, Sweden’s most reviled politician

I had the weirdest of nightmares the other day involving the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. When I checked her out, I discovered oddly that the very day was the 8th anniversary of her death.

No British Prime Minister in history has been so reviled, and also loved, as Margaret Thatcher. My dad absolutely hated her. With a vengeance. He blamed her for single-handedly causing the economic and social depression that utterly destroyed the north of England, where I’m from.

It made me think about what Swedish politician has been so despised through history. Who in Sweden is the most reviled?

While Swedish Prime Ministers such as Carl Bildt, and Göran Persson were not always popular, probably topping the list is Social Democratic Olof Palme. He was a legendary Prime Minister who was loved by many. On the other hand, there were a lot of people who absolutely loathed him, his ‘arrogance’ and his ‘radical’ politics. He was Prime Minister for 17 years, in two different periods, up until his assassination in 1986. One person said about him – ‘He had a very special personality, he was so intense, so brilliant but his brilliancy was a problem for him as well because many people got hurt by his harsh words.

Palme was most controversial in his overseas politics than his domestic ones. This gave him many enemies. He was often alone among political leaders in the western world in expressing his stand against colonialism. He railed against the Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia, criticized Spanish dictator Franco, befriended Cuba’s Fidel Castro and crusaded against apartheid in South Africa. He was anti Vietnam war, and therefore perceived by many as anti-US, who love to use the classic rhetoric ‘you’re either with us, or against us’.

Just like Thatcher, what people thought of Palme depended on their political leanings. For many, Palme was a beacon of hope – a living manifestation of the social-democratic ideology. For others, he was a socialist, a meddler and a rabble-rouser. Thatcher and Palme, I’m sure, detested each other. They were politically very far apart – she hated both socialism and feminism – two things that he firmly believed in.

Palme’s murder is considered by many to be the end of Swedish innocence. Margaret Thatcher wrote ‘ He will be grievously missed, not only in Sweden but really the world over.″ She herself had escaped an IRA assassination attempt in 1984, and said that other world leaders ‘have to carry on taking risks for democracy and not be deflected.’

A lot of mystery surrounded Olof Palme’s assassination. 16 years later in 2020, the perpetrator was identified as graphic designer Stig Engström. However, many people do not believe this conclusion.

Olof Palme, loved or hated, meddler or mediator, peace-keeper or political activist, is buried in the churchyard at Adolf Fredrik Church in Stockholm.

International Romani Day-Roma in Sweden

Today, 8 April, is International Romani Day. It marks the first World Romani Congress that was held in London in 1971, making today the 50th occasion it has been celebrated. The day exists to shine a light on the ongoing persecution and abuse that the Roma population of the world has been forced to endure throughout history.

The Romani originate from northern India. They are dispersed, and their most concentrated populations are located in Europe, and Western Asia, since around 1007. Nobody really knows why the Roma left India in the first place, as no records were kept. However theories abound: from early persecution based on caste, to banishment from angering the king, and religious war.

The estimated 12 million Roma are consequently a nomadic people with no land to call their own. Their mobility and the fact that they lived in temporary camps contributed through the centuries to associations with poverty and accusations of high rates of crime. The discomfort that others felt about their presence led to perceptions of the Roma as antisocial, unsophisticated or even dangerous. Partly for this reason, discrimination against the Romani people has continued to the present day.

Romani have existed in Sweden since at least the 1500’s and today they are classed as one of Sweden’s five national minority groups (together with Jews, Sami, Swedish Finns and Tornedalers). Romani chib has the status of official minority language.

Over the centuries, the people of Sweden discriminated against, marginalised and excluded its Roma population. For 40 years, Sweden had a legal policy of enforced sterilization of people to avoid ‘unacceptable offspring’. Much suggests that Roma women were particularly subjected to this abuse, and mostly it was involuntary. Sweden removed this law in 1976. The Pew Research Poll of 2016 found that 42% of Swedes held strong anti-Roma views (compared to 82% in Italy, and 37% in Holland).

A Romani political activist in Sweden was Singoalla Millon, who died in 2020, and spent her entire life fighting for education, housing and acceptance. Another was Katarina Taikon who dedicated herself to improving conditions for Romani people in Sweden. She tried to convince the Swedish government to see the Romani as political refugees. She died in 1995. Today, the politician Soraya Post has worked as an EU politician defending the rights of the Romani and other minorities.

In 2012, the Swedish government introduced an 20-year equal opportunities strategy for Roma people. The strategy includes objectives and measures within several areas such as schooling, employment; housing, health, social care, culture and language. Of course, discrimination and marginalization are still very real in Sweden, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

The legendary philosopher who died in Sweden

Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.

When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.

This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.

Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.

Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.

Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.

He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.

Swedish icons 15: Anna Q Nilsson

In 1907, Anna Q Nilsson was named the most beautiful woman in America. Born in 1888 in Ystad, Southern Sweden, Anna Quirentia Nilsson emigrated to the USA and became one of the most famous actresses of her time.

Her era was the golden era of the silent movies. During her career, she appeared in almost 200 films, but she didn’t successfully make the transition into the talkies. Her most important films are considered to be Adam’s Rib, They Died with their Boots On, The Luck of the Irish and The Thirteenth Commandment. A qualified pilot, she was well known for being daring and she carried out her stunts herself. Consequently she was burned, broken and bruised throughout her career. She was also the first woman to smoke and wear trousers on camera.

She broke the record in fan mail, and was the first Swedish actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. She appeared opposite legendary actors such as John Barrymore, Loretta Young, Errol Flynn and a young Elisabeth Taylor.

Her final credited appearance was with Buster Keaton and other contemporaries playing themselves in cameo parts in the classic ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ After this, she appeared uncredited in movies such as Showboat, An American in Paris and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Her final movie appearance was in 1954.

Aged 85, Anna Q Nilsson died in 1974 in Sun City, California. When she died, tv channels in the US interrupted their broadcasting to make the announcement. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

‘Long’ Friday in Sweden

Today is called Long Friday in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’. It commemorates the long day and the long suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, according to Christian teachings. It is a public holiday, and for many years, everything was closed in Sweden making the day long and boring for many people. Now, most things are open, even the middle of a flaming, raging pandemic.

Good Friday is a day of cooking, shopping and going for walks. Some people attend church services. Tomorrow, Easter Saturday, is the normal day of celebration when Swedes gather to eat from a bulging smörgåsbord. Typical food includes variations of salmon, egg, herring and lamb. Dark Easter beer is consumed and snaps is knocked back.

In English, this day used to be called Long Friday also, but at some point in history it changed to Good Friday. Good in this context means Holy. According to the Daily Mash this is ‘still stupid. You don’t get much worse days than being flogged, nailed to a cross, then stabbed. And that includes your annual performance review. It’s like calling funerals ‘Happy Burying Nana Day’.

Swedish icons 14: The Swedish Chef

I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning the Swedish chef. He was probably my second introduction to the Swedish culture when he appeared on the Muppet Show in 1975. Abba winning Eurovision in 1974 was my first. And in my ears when the members of Abba spoke – they sounded just like the Swedish chef!

The Swedish chef character is a puppet that was invented by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The puppet’s live hands where performed by Oz, while Henson controlled the head and did the classic voice. The gobbledygook that the character spoke was supposed to be Swedish, and had the occasional English word thrown in. It was basically gibberish and sounded like ‘hurdy gurdy’ and ‘bork, bork, bork’. He was known for his ridiculous cooking methods, his accident prone nature and the fact that he almost always tried to cook living animals that, in the end, attacked him.

As a kid, I thought that the Swedish chef was hilarious. I don’t know if my love affair with Sweden began there but I certainly found him entertaining and intriguing. To date, he has been seen in over 100 countries, and in some places he might be all they know about Sweden. Interestingly in Germany, he’s known as the Danish Chef.

Real-life Swedish chef Lars Bäckman claims that he is the inspiration for the character. Allegedly he performed catastrophic screen test in the USA in the 70’s which Henson saw and imitated. Bäckman’s claim has however never been corroborated by the Muppet Show.

So, does he sound like a Swede? Well, most Swedes would say absolutely not. To them, he sounds more Norwegian. I can say that in all the years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve only heard a handful of people speak in the ‘hurdy gurdy’ style of the Swedish chef when speaking English. It is so unusual that it is almost a shock when you encounter it. So, the answer is no – the Swedish chef is not accurate, but he is a comedy icon in his own way.