Swedish must reads 4: ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

As the autumn darkness envelops us, what better than snuggling under a blanket with a good book? Over 10 posts, I will give you a recommendation of a Swedish book, translated into English, that is well worth a read. The fourth recommendation is ’The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ from 2005.

The first book in the Millenium series by Stieg Larsson is called ‘Men who hate women’ in Swedish. It is a psychological thriller that follows journalist Mikael Blomqvist and brilliant but deeply troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander. A real turn-pager, the book was an enormous success when it was posthumously published. It has been turned into a Swedish film featuring Noomi Rapace, and a Hollywood film, starring amongst others Daniel Craig.

Swedish must reads 3 – ’City of my Dreams’

As the autumn darkness envelops us, what better than snuggling under a blanket with a good book? Over 10 posts, I will give you a recommendation of a Swedish book, translated into English, that is well worth a read. The third recommendation is ’City of my Dreams’, written in 1960 by Per Anders Fogelström.

City of My Dreams is a classic Swedish novel that follows a group of working-class people in Stockholm between 1860 and 1880. It is the first novel in a series of five and gives a unique insight into the tough lives faced by people living in that era. A magnificent, gripping saga.

Historical day in Stockholm – the Golden Bridge

In the center of Stockholm, a large building project is starting to take shape. The Slussen Project started 5 years ago and is an enormous feat of engineering that aims to replace a current structure connecting the southern island of Södermalm to the Old Town. The current concrete structure has been in place since the 1930’s and is literally crumbling. The entire structure needs to be demolished and constructed from scratch.

Ever since 1642, there has been a lock between Södermalm and the Old Town in Stockholm. It has been rebuilt four times. This is the fifth, and it is not without controversy.

Today, an important milestone in the project was reached. An enormous new bridge, known colloquially as the Golden Bridge (although it is in fact ockra), was inaugurated by the Swedish King. The bridge connects the two parts of the city, but divides the residents of Stockholm. Some think it’s very effective and attractive, others think it is a monstrous metal clump.

It really doesn’t matter what people think, the Golden Bridge (correct name Slussbron) is now in place and opens tomorrow at 5am for traffic. Then, the demolishing of the rest of the old structure will begin. The whole project is due to be completed in 2025, assuming no delays.

In the meantime, Stockholmers can walk, cycle and drive over the Golden Bridge knowing they are an integral part of the city’s urban history.

Swedish expression with no English equivalent?

Talking to friends last night the expression ‘en katt bland hermelinerna’ arose. This literally translates as ‘a cat among the ermines’, an ermine being a type of stoat or weasel.

The phrase originated in a couplet by Swedish performer Karl Gerhard in 1955. Karl Gerhard is one of Sweden’s historical entertainers who wrote songs and couplets as well as a large number of sketches, dialogues and monologues. During the Second World War, he wrote humorous pieces with strong anti-fascist statements criticising the Swedish government’s apathy towards Nazi Germany.

So, he coined the comical expression ‘en katt bland hermelinerna’. It’s not the same as our ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ which means somebody is causing chaos and panic. The expression refers to a person who has insinuated themselves into an environment where they do not belong, because they are not from the same social class. In other words, someone who isn’t fancy enough for the rest of the people in their company.

As far as I am aware, there is no expression for this in English. But I hope I’m wrong. Can any of you readers help me out here? Do you know of an English equivalent?

Digital Stockholm Pride

Today is typically the day that the LGBT Pride parade takes place in Stockholm. Up to 500,000 fill the streets making it the largest event in Scandinavia. However, this year it has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead it is being carried out digitally, with an opening speech by Crown Princess Victoria. If you are interested, you can view the live stream here: http://www.stockholmpride.org

It runs 12.00-14.00.

The whole concept of LGBT Pride has taken strong root in Sweden. LGBT Pride resonates well with the societal Swedish values of equality, tolerance and acceptance.

Sweden’s history of LGBT rights is a comparatively progressive story. Changes didn’t happen automatically however. Thanks to the hard work of campaigners, lobbyists, and politicians, society can enjoy one of the most egalitarian legislations in the world.

According to wiki: ‘ Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1944 and the age of consent was equalized in 1972. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1979. Sweden also became the first country in the world to allow transgender persons to change their legal gender post-surgery in 1972 whilst transvestism was declassified as an illness. Transgenderism was declassified as a mental illness in 2008 and legislation allowing gender change legally without hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery was passed in 2013.

After allowing same-sex couples to register for partnership in 1995, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage countrywide in 2009. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression has been banned since 1987. Also, since 2003, gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, and lesbian couples have had equal access to IVF and assisted insemination since 2005.

Sweden has been recognized as one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe and in the world, with recent polls indicating that a large majority of Swedes support LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.’

So, enjoy Pride today!

Fun with flags – Sweden

Anyone who’s watched ‘Big Bang Theory’ has seen character Sheldon Cooper’s banal video series ‘Fun with Flags’. Nerdy it might be, but it inspired me to do a Swedish version. So here goes…

The Swedish flag is a well-known yellow cross on a blue background. It is modelled on the Danish flag – the Dannebrogen – which is thought to be the oldest official flag in the world. The cross represents Christianity and forms the basis of all the Nordic flags. The Swedish flag was initiated in the early 1500’s and the yellow is said to represent gold and blue represent the sea. Sweden depicted itself as a wealthy sea-faring realm.

Within Sweden, there are 25 counties and each county has its official flag, some even have an unofficial but well-used flag. An example of this is the southern-most county of Skåne. The unofficial flag is the most commonly used. It depicts a yellow cross on a red background, a combination of Sweden and Denmark. The official flag has actually a red background and a coronated griffin.

Sweden’s islands of Gotland and Öland have their own flags. Gotland’s flag depicts a sheep and Öland’s flag depicts a deer. Öland also has a flag that is a yellow cross on a green background.

There are so many flags in Sweden. Counties, regions, cities, towns all have their own flag, it’s impossible to describe them all. So, as my final flag, I will reference one of my favourites. The Sami population of Arctic Sweden have their own flag. Firmly embedded in Sami mythology it is colourful and beautiful.

If you are interested in reading more about all the Swedish flags that exist, go to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_flags_of_Sweden for more information.

A surprising Swedish statistic

In Sweden, there is a population of ten million, with two million residing in the greater Stockholm region. Of the overall population, around half of the citizens live in flats.

In a recent survey of flat dwellers in Stockholm, 80% said that they don’t know the name of any of their neighbours. That figure is surprisingly high. I have lived in my flat since October and I can rattle off the first names of at least five of the neighbours. 80% surprises me. And I wonder if this is typically Swedish? If you asked the same question in London or New York or Madrid would you get the same result?

One aspect that might affect this lack of neighbourly knowledge is the type of flat that people live in.

In Sweden, flats are typically either rental flats or resident-owned flats.

Resident-owned flats. When you buy a flat in Sweden, you also buy a percentage of the building which you own together with your neighbours. In these resident-owned flats, the building is run as a private cooperative, governed by an elected tenant board. This means that you are forced to work together with your neighbours to operate and maintain the building. For example, once a year there is a ‘shareholder annual meeting’ and twice a year there might be clean-up parties for the communal spaces. This means you meet and interact with your neighbours. In Sweden, resident-owned flats make up about 21% of the total housing stock.

Rental flats. In rental accommodation, a private company owns the building and takes care of all the communal areas such as gardens, laundry room and stairwells. This means tenants in theory have to never interact with their neighbours. Rental accommodation is about 28% of the total housing stock.

Finding a flat is extremely difficult in Sweden’s cities. To buy is expensive and waiting lists for rentals can be over 10 years. This creates another market for ‘second hand’ rental, where people sub-let their apartments out to others. This creates even further anonymity as the renter is often only there for short periods. In this case, there is probably no necessity to get to know the neighbours. In research from Sweden’s Ministry of Housing, an estimated 200,000 people live in this form of housing in Stockholm.

So, on reflection, maybe it isn’t so unexpected that 80% say they do not know the name of a neighbour in their building.

Statistics aside, one can wonder what impact this has on local communities and Swedish society as a whole. While this encourages the Swedish qualities of privacy, respect and integrity, it surely also contributes to loneliness, unfriendliness and alienation?

Sources: HSB, The Local, SCB, Boverket

Swedish Summer Talks

Every summer in Sweden, there is a wonderful tradition. This tradition began in 1959.

Every day for 6 weeks or so, at 1pm, there is a summer talk on Swedish radio channel 1. This might sound mundane, but it is, in fact, an integral part of the Swedish summer.

Each day, a different person is responsible for the talk. This person shares their life stories, perspectives, life lessons, experiences and sometimes their tragedies. They play music of their choice. It is 90 minutes of pure relaxation, with a big dash of voyeurism. Some of the talkers are celebrities, some are politicians, or authors or activists, or influencers, or actors or philosophers or soldiers or priests or even ordinary people.

The talks are in Swedish, although the speakers can originate from outside of Sweden. It is considered an honour to be asked to hold a talk. I would love to do one. I’d share by life story and my perspectives on Swedish culture from my outside perspective. Oh and I’d play music by Kate Bush and The Smiths! What a self indulgent treat!

This year so far we have heard State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell share his story. We also heard climate activist Greta Thunberg. She actually did her talk twice – both in Swedish and English. It is a really inspiring, and somewhat frightening talk about the climate crisis we are in. If you’d like to listen to it, and I urge you to do so, here is the link:

So listen and enjoy a piece of Swedish summer tradition.

11 hacks for surviving Swedish midsummer

With Midsummer arriving tomorrow, it is time to start planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers. As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself.

This year it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance from others. Apart from these guidelines, here are a few more hacks to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.

Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way in corona times is to stand 1-2 meters away, look directly in their eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. You might even give a small wave or touch elbow to elbow. If you are feeling adventurous, follow up your ‘Hej’ with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.

Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the strawberry dessert has even been put on the table.

Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.

If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of skinny dipping when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.

Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. This year, the activities are hopefully adapted to corona. To survive these activities, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.

Protect yourself. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. It remains to be seen, however, if this year people are keeping their distance. If you don’t keep your distance, and don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.

Throw in the thermals. It looks like it might be super sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. One of the warmest ever! But it is good to be prepared. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.

Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill and new potatoes. Remember to use hand disinfectant before you attack the buffet.

Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time.

Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.

Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…

That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.

Glad Midsommar!

Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!