Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.
While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’. I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post.
The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns. Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter.
I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.
The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.
Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. This year, the gross-sounding fermented Baltic herring semla was revealed.
But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.
And give it to me NOOOOWWW!!!
Today, the world’s longest cross country ski race takes place in Sweden. Called Vasaloppet, it entails participants skiing 90 kilometers from start to finish. It’s an extremely popular international race, which can take up to 12 hours to complete, and which is broadcast live on tv. When tickets to participate are released, they sell out in 15 minutes – it’s that popular.
The first Vasalopp was in 1922 and it takes place annually, the first Sunday in March and it is a first sign of spring. It’s an amazing sight to watch, as more than 15000 mad, happy skiers glide along, the swishing sound of ski on snow filling the air.
For the elite athletes, 12 hours to complete the race is of course unthinkable. They go considerably faster. The person who has completed the race fastest is Jörgen Brink, who in 2012 won the race in just over 3 hours 40 minutes, roughly 25 km per hour.
So why is this race called the Vasalopp? Well, it takes its name from a Swedish king. The race commemorates the escape to Norway, through the forest, of King Gustav Vasa in 1521. Legend has it that he carried out the gruelling journey on skis, but experts believe he more likely completed this escape on snow shoes.
Nevertheless, out of this legend sprung the race which is so popular today.
Modern day skiers don’t see the experience as an escape, they see it as a challenge and for many of them it’s a rite of passage.
Years ago I sang a solo at a concert. It was the first time I ever sang solo, and I was nervous. Thankfully I didn’t die and actually it went ok. After the show, a friend came up to me and said ‘har du fått blodad tand?’ – ‘have you got a bloody tooth?’
So, what does this expression mean? Well, it’s not ‘bloody’ in the sense of ‘damn’. It’s more in the sense of ‘covered in blood’.
To understand this, we need to go to the animal kingdom. Many animals are herbivores in the early stages of their lives. The saying refers to the moment when an animal eats a bloody prey for the first time. After that, all they want is meat and blood. They develop a taste for it and don’t want anything else.
During the Middle Ages the metaphor moved into the Swedish language to mean that somebody wants to do something more often after trying it once. They have been inspired often by a success and want to continue.
In English, we can say ‘he has tasted blood’. Another translation that closely matches the meaning would be ‘to have your appetite whetted’ for something (whetted is an old English word for sharpened).
So, have you got a bloody tooth for something? If so, what?
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In Sweden, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting somebody Finnish or of Finnish heritage. Almost everybody knows somebody with a Finnish connection. In fact, there are so many Finns living in Sweden that they have their own commemorative day. And today is that day.
Today, 24th February is ‘Sverigefinnarnas’ Day, (Sweden Finns Day) – the day that celebrates the roughly half million people who live in Sweden and have Finnish as their mother tongue.
So why are there so many Finns in Sweden?
There has been a long history of emigration between the two countries, especially in the border regions of the north. However, a larger emigration happened when 70,000 young Finnish children were evacuated to Sweden during WW2. 15,000 are believed to have stayed and an unknown number to have returned as adults.
Then, in the 1950s and 1960s the migration from Finland to Sweden was considerable, chiefly due to economic differences between the countries. Sweden had the industry, the jobs and the housing. This caused some alarm in Finland with most of the emigrants in their most productive age — although many of them returned to Finland in the following decades.
In the year 2000, the Sweden Finns were recognised as an official national minority group in Sweden. In fact, the Sweden Finns are the largest national minority group in Sweden. Other large minority groups come from former Yugoslavia, Irak, Syria and Poland – although these do not have official national minority group status.
In 2007, a flag was designed which combines the Swedish and the Finnish colours.
If you’re in Sweden today, you may well see this flag flying proudly around the country.
We’ve all been there. Those embarrassing moments when the belly rumbles and we have to race to the toilet to evacuate as quickly as possible. An all round unpleasant, and undignified, experience.
Well, February in Sweden is synonymous with sickness and right now there’s a stomach flu flying around the country. So last night at dinner, conversation moved onto sickness and landed on a colloquial Swedish word for diarrhoea.
The discussion was about where this word comes from. So, true to form, I researched it.
And I have the answer.
The word in question is the Swedish word ‘rännskita‘. One theory was that it originated from the word ‘takränna’ which is a gutter, and would reflect the speed at which the water runs down the drainpipe. But actually that’s not it.
The word is a combination of the old Swedish word ‘ränna’ which means ‘to run’ (often quickly) and the word ‘skita’ which means to shit. It’s directly translatable to the English ‘ to have the runs’.
Although it sounds like a new word, it actually entered the Swedish language in 1587! I guess it was a problem back then.
So there you go. Another fascinating foray into the Swedish language with ‘Watching the Swedes’.
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Around this time of the year, schools In Sweden have a week’s holiday. Called ‘Sportlov‘, it’s a traditional time for a winter sport break.
This tradition was introduced in the early years of WW2 as a way to save energy. Heating up schools cost money and, due to rationing, councils were instructed to drastically reduce their heating expenses. So shutting the schools seemed like a good idea.
To give the pupils something meaningful to do while the school was shut, the authorities organised various activities, many focused on being outdoors and exercising.
Serendipitously, experts realised, during the 1950’s, that infection spread less widely at this time of the year if schools were closed for a week. So the winter sport break became cemented as an official disease control method.
Nowadays, many families head off to the mountains to go skiing, some head off to the Alps for the same purpose. Others may fly away to the sunny beaches of the world.
For those of us left in town, it’s sheer bliss.
The gym is empty. The streets are spacious. There is hardly anybody on the buses and tube, traffic is significantly thinner and less noisy and it’s easy to get a seat at lunch time.
And the fact that there are hardly any children in town means something great for the rest of us.
We don’t get infected with diabolical kid bacteria that would knock us out until mid March.