World Book Day – and my book on Sweden

Today is UNESCO World Book Day, to celebrate books and promote reading. The 23 April is a significant day as it commemorates the death of many famous writers such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

Every year a World Book Capital is nominated. The first one, in 2001, was Madrid, Spain. This year it is Guadalajara in Mexico.

So today is a good day to buy a book, or to gift one. If you know anybody who is interested in learning about Sweden, or planning on visiting Sweden, then my guide book is a good match! I published it in 2021.

You can buy it on Amazon, Bokus, Akademibokhandeln and Adlibris amongst other online stores. Sweden, by Neil Shipley, published by Kuperard 2021. You can also buy it straight from the publisher at http://www.culturesmartbooks.co.uk

I still have a few copies left, so if you’d like to buy a signed copy, just let me know!

Terror on the streets of Stockholm 

5 years ago today, Sweden experienced a hateful terrorist attack. Today, flowers have been placed along the city street where it occurred. My thoughts go to those who were murdered, and their families and friends.

If you would like to read my post from that attack 5 years ago – here it is again….

At 2.30pm yesterday, a masked man stole a delivery truck from outside of a restaurant. The delivery man tried to stop the thief by standing in front of his truck.  However, the thief pushed over the driver, picked up speed and proceeded to drive zig zag down Stockholm’s main pedestrian shopping street, ploughing into people as he went. The truck’s final destination was one of Sweden’s largest department stores, into which it smashed in a billowing cloud of smoke. 

Like everybody else I was really shaken up by this act of violence.  I, and my nearest and dearest, were all in safety and my phone rang and beeped frenetically as we contacted and reassured each other. 

Stories reached me about friends being locked into their offices or hiding out in shops and restaurants. The streets were awash with armed police, and the whole city was shut down within 20 minutes – trains, buses and the underground were all stopped and roads were cordoned off as residents and tourists were rapidly ushered out of the city center. 

In the midst of the chaos, Stockholmers reached out to each other in support. People opened their homes to provide sanctuary to each other, cafes provided food and beverages, social media was flooded with people offering to help and offering protection. In this emergency, love prevailed – which was moving and heart-warming. I myself was in a gym, and the doors were locked. The staff went straight to action providing us with support and offering food and drink and unscheduled training classes for those who wanted a distraction. 

The latest news at time of writing this blog is that 4 people and 1 dog were killed, and 15 seriously injured. The driver has been arrested.  Another person is in custody believed to have some connection to the driver. Border control has been tightened up and there are still disturbances in local traffic. 

Stockholm now joins the long line of cities such as London, Berlin, St Petersburg, Paris and Nice, who have suffered under terrorist attack. 

No matter who is responsible for this act of violence, be it an organisation or an individual, we must never give into them.  The nature of terrorism is to spread fear by using intentionally indiscriminate acts of violence. It’s its indiscriminate approach that makes it difficult to predict and we are often powerless to influence it. Therefore we should do what we do best – not bow down to it but stand up and keep going. It is by living our lives in our open, democratic societies that we win.

I sincerely hope that Stockholm does not become a fearful, suspicious, closed city. This place that I love is a target because of its freedom and that is a freedom we should protect by continuing to live our lives. 

Terror will never win. It is designed to exploit our human fear. It is the ultimate act of intimidation. We must not let it win. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Yesterday, we showed love to each other. Let’s continue to do that. We do not need more hate. 

We must prevail. 

Great Swedish Women -Part 5 – The Legend 

Since March 8th was International Women’s Day, I  am republishing my series on Great Swedish Women, past and present. I hope you want to join me in celebrating them.

Part 5 – the vengeful Viking Blenda.

In the county of Småland in Southern Sweden, there is a legend about a brave Viking woman named Blenda.

According to legend, the menfolk of Småland were at war in Norway, leaving the women and children alone and defenceless. The Danes learned of this and chose this moment to invade and attack the region.  Blenda was a woman of noble descent and she decided to rally the hundreds of women from Albo, Konga, Kinnevald, Norrvidinge and Uppvidinge. The women armies assembled on the Brávellir, which according to Smålandish tradition is located in Värend.

The women approached the Danes and told them how much they were impressed with Danish men. They invited the men to a banquet and provided them with food and drink. After a long evening, the Danish warriors fell asleep and the women killed every single one of them with axes and staffs.

When the king returned, he bestowed new rights on the women. They acquired equal inheritance with their brothers and husbands, the right always to wear a belt around their waists as a sign of eternal vigilance and the right to beat the drum at weddings and to wear armour.

There have been various disputes about the validity of this legend, if and when it happened. One theory is that it happened around the year 500. At this time, female soldiers existed in Sweden. Called Shieldmaidens, three hundred are known to have fought during the great Battle of Bråvalla in 750. If you’ve seen the successful series ‘Vikings’, you will be familiar with these women.

Blenda is perhaps the first known woman in a long line of strong Swedish women who defend themselves from aggressors and contribute to better equal rights between the sexes.

My book on Sweden – the Essential Guide!

My book is doing really well, which I’m very proud of. You can buy it on Amazon, Bokus, Akademibokhandeln and Adlibris amongst other online stores. Sweden, by Neil Shipley, published by Kuperard 2021.

I still have a few copies left, so if you’d like to buy a signed copy, just let me know!

Sweden’s Baltic Island of Öland

This summer holiday I was on the Baltic island of Öland for the first time. It is a fascinating place linked to the Swedish mainland by a 6 km long bridge. Interestingly, the name Öland translates as ‘Island Land’ – Ö being the Swedish word for island.

Öland lies outside the town of Kalmar in South East Sweden. The island is long, thin and mostly flat. This makes it windy and the landscape in the south of the island is barren. Made of limestone, the island is home to some unique flora and fauna that is found only on Öland. In the centre of the island is a large, open steppe called Alvaret. This vast, protected area is on the UNESCO Word Heritage List.

People have lived on Öland since 8000 BC, and the island has several Stone Age archeological sites as well as Viking settlements. The original settlers migrated across the ice bridge that connected the island with the mainland.

For a long time, the island was a royal hunting ground – which is reflected in the Öland coat of arms depicting a crown and a deer.

Today around 27,000 people live there permanently. During the summer months, the population multiplies drastically, with Swedish and foreign tourists descending on the island. This includes the Swedish Royal Family who have their summer residence on Öland. The island is a summer paradise, with its many long white sandy beaches.

The regional capital is a small town called Borgholm, and here there is a majestic ruin called Borgholm Castle. Dating back to the 16th Century, the castle stands on the site of an older fortress from the 1200’s. It is an impressive building with its panoramic view over the sea and any potential invaders.

Öland offers a unique insight into Swedish history and culture. It took me over 20 years to visit, but I hope to return again soon!

Swedish National Day – a new king, an old king and a new constitution

On 6 June 1523, Gustav Vasa was crowned king. He was one of the few survivors of the Stockholm Bloodbath, in which his father and 80 other nobles were murdered, Game of Thrones style. He ruled the country until 1560. During his reign, he released Sweden from the Kalmar Union consisting of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. He also turned Sweden from a catholic country into a Protestant one, with the monarch and not the pope as head of the church.

The 6 June is another significant day in Swedish history – on 6 June 1809 the country signed a new constitution. This lay the foundation for Sweden’s current status as an independent democracy. and was in place until 1974. The constitution returned political power to the parliament after King Gustav IV Adolph was deposed in a military coup in 1809. He was the last Swedish monarch to rule over Finland. After him, the crown passed not to his children but to his uncle, Charles VIII. Charles had no legitimate heir, which set into motion the quest for a successor. This was found the following year in the person of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the first monarch of the present royal family.

For these two reasons, Sweden celebrates its National Day today – June 6th. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005.

Normally, the day is celebrated with various events up and down the country but this year much is cancelled, due to the ongoing pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.

As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. It can be seen at facebook.com/swedense from 10.00 CET. Check it out!

Chinese in Sweden

Today, 20 April is Chinese Language Day. The day was inaugurated by the UN to celebrate the linguistic diversity of the organisation. The date was chosen to pay tribute to Cangjie, a mythical figure who is presumed to have invented the Chinese alphabet 5,000 years ago. According to legend, he had four eyes and the gods and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet after his invention.

The first documented Chinese person in Sweden arrived on a Swedish East Indian Company boat in 1786. His name was ‘Afock’ and he was considered so ‘exotic’ that he was given an audience with the King. According to Sweden’s Statistical Bureau, there are 45,868 Chinese-born people registered as living in Sweden today.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s/80’s that immigration from China to Europe became common, and many of those who initially arrived supported themselves by opening restaurants. The first Chinese restaurant in Sweden, called ‘The Chinese Wall’, opened however in 1959 in Gothenburg.

Today, there are many Chinese restaurants and several Chinese shops and supermarkets. Unlike many other cities, such as London, San Francisco, Singapore, New York, Stockholm does not have a ‘Chinatown’. Many Chinese people who move to Sweden now come to study, and continue to work, often in the IT and Tech sectors.

A few Chinese-inspired pieces of architecture exist in Sweden. Three in Stockholm are The China Theatre, built 1928, the Chinese Pavilion in Haga Park and the UNESCO listed Chinese Palace built in 1753 in the grounds of Drottningholm Palace.

Perhaps the most bizarre piece of architecture is Dragon Gate, a monstrous compound built by the motorway outside the small town of Älvkarleby. This is intended to be a cultural meeting place for Swedes and Chinese and includes a temple, a museum, a copy of the Terra-cotta Army, monuments, restaurant, hotel, kungfu school and a huge square. It has been an economic failure since its opening and today is closed.

A recent survey carried out by the Swedish Institute looked at Chinese attitudes to Swedes and Sweden. The survey focused on Chinese people living in China, and not those who emigrated. Various perceptions were that Swedes are obedient, relaxed, lazy and introvert. Sweden was perceived as rich, beautiful and clean but expensive, with high taxes and a depressing climate.

Interestingly, many Chinese confuse Sweden with Athens! The probable explanation is that Sweden in Madarin is Ruidian and Athens is Yadian.

Swedish icons 12: Queen Christina

Great Britain has its strident Queen Elisabeth I, France has its flamboyant Marie Antoinette and Russia has its legendary Catherine the Great. For Sweden, there is one Queen to measure up against them in icon status – the notorious Queen Christina.

Born 1626, Christina was the Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, although the country was governed by a regency council until she reached the age of 18.

She is known to have been an independent, outspoken and untraditional woman, and as such has ignited the imagination of novelists, play-writes and film makers throughout history.

Christina’s father was Gustav II Adolph, one of Sweden’s warrior kings, a military commander credited with the rise of Sweden as a great European power. He wanted Christina to be raised in the same way a boy would be – so Christina was an unorthodox and controversial person already at an early age. She studied 10 hours per day, could hunt and fight, was knowledgeable in politics and could speak seven languages other than Swedish.

This learned young woman who was ‘masculine’ and ‘rough around the edges’, was a great sponsor of the arts. Wanting to turn Stockholm into a centre of learning and culture, she attracted many great minds to her court. This was, however, very expensive and eventually the dream died – gaining her a reputation for being wasteful and extravagant in the process.

She was also a peace maker, negotiating peace that ended the 30 Year War. Under her reign, Sweden settled New Sweden in the USA, which is today in the area of Joe Biden’s hometown Delaware.

However, she is mostly remembered for three main things. Firstly, her refusal to marry. Secondly, her unprecedented abdication in 1654. And thirdly, her scandalous conversion to Catholicism.

Christina expressed a distaste for marriage and felt pressure to provide an heir. She realised that if she married she would effectively hand power to her husband. She is quoted as saying ‘I am unsuited for marriage.’ In today’s terms, she would have been defined as lesbian, and she had several mistresses – the most important one being Ebba Sparre, who she called ‘La Belle Comtesse.’

She gave up the throne partly because of her refusal to marry, but mostly due to her increasing unpopularity and pending religious conversion. After her abdication, she shook off the shackles of court protocol and dressed more frequently in male clothes. Historians often describe Christina as unattractive and androgynous in her physical appearance. Whether this is true, or whether her ‘ugly’ appearance was exaggerated in order to undermine her position is unknown. After her cousin took over the throne, Christina quickly left Sweden and ultimately settled in Italy. Although she made several attempts to regain power in Europe, she never succeeded and eventually died in Rome aged 62.

Queen Christina’s funeral was held at St Peters Basilica, reflecting her provenance, prominence and influence. She is one of only three women to buried in the Vatican. That alone is enough to earn her icon status.

Swedish must reads 7: ’Popular Music from Vittula’

Over 10 posts, I will give you a recommendation of a Swedish book, translated into English, that is well worth a read. The sixth recommendation is ’Popular Music from Vittula’ from 2000, written by Mikael Niemi.

This brilliant book is set in the very north of Sweden during the 60’s and 70’s and is a young boy’s coming of age story. Based on the author’s own childhood, we get to experience a distant time in a remote region of Sweden influenced by communism, alcoholism, machoism, and rock and roll.

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.