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.

Sweden’s romance with Germany

Sweden has many connections with Germany throughout its long history. As a nod to the growing German readership I have, I thought I would list a few of those connections.

German language influence

The Swedish language belongs to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages. Many words in Swedish are similar in German. I remember when I was on a trip to Hamburg, I could understand a lot of what was written in the German paper Der Spiegel. This was not because I speak any German, but because I speak Swedish. In fact the word ‘spiegel’, meaning mirror, is ‘spegel’ in Swedish. A friend of mine, originally from Rostock in Germany, learned Swedish very quickly. When I asked her how she had done it, she responded rather matter-of-factly that ‘Swedish is just German light’.

German merchants

In Stockholm’s Old Town there is an imposing church whose large Gothic spire dominates the skyline. This church is called ‘Tyska kyrkan’ – the German Church. During the 1500’s there were a lot of German merchants trading and living in Stockholm. In fact, they made up about half of the population. The King wanted to attract and keep as many Germans as possible, so he gave them attractive tax breaks and, in 1571, awarded them the right to start their own parish and place of worship. The church that we see today was finished in 1886, after restoration after a large fire. The German Church today holds services in German, and still serves Stockholm’s much smaller German population. Sweden today has still a lot of German merchants, in the form of large retail chains. Big players include the food chain Lidl, shoe shop Deichmann, home electronics retailer MediaMarkt and DIY store Bauhaus.

German Queens

Sweden’s current queen, Queen Silvia, originates from Heidelberg. Her German accent resonates clearly when she speaks Swedish. But she’s not the only connection the Swedish Royal House has with Germany. In fact, the King’s mother was also German – Princess Sibylla – from Gotha. And both his grandmothers. And, well, throughout history the Swedish Royal House has been peppered with German aristocracy and royalty. According to Wikipedia, 22 of Sweden’s monarchs were of German descent. So, one could probably say that the Swedish royals are more German than anything else.

German tourists

Sweden is an extremely popular destination for German tourists who are attracted by the forests, lakes, open spaces, cute red cottages and fresh air. German tourists spend approximately 3,000,000 hotel nights in Sweden according to the Swedish Tourism Institute. Sweden’s three main cities are popular destinations, as well as Skåne, which is the closest county to Germany. Due to the fame of writer Astrid Lindgren, her birthplace village of Vimmerby in Småland is also very well visited. Sweden’s attractiveness is also thanks to a long-running German tv show. Since 2003, the show ‘Inga Lindström’ has entertained Germans with an idyllic, romantic image of Sweden. The program is a series of stories set in Sweden, where the characters speak German, but have Swedish-sounding names, and the attractive Sweden that is depicted makes German tourists want to flock here in droves.

German sausages

Although food trucks are a standing feature in Sweden’s current street food culture, the original fast food place was, and is, the sausage kiosk. One can not underestimate how much Swedes love their hot dogs and they eat them late at night, for a quick lunch, at sport events, in cars, at weddings, barbecues, communal cleaning days, shopping excursions. You name it. The sausage is ever-present. Evidence exists that sausage-like foods were eaten by the Vikings, but it was in Frankfurt, Germany that the sausage was really developed as a snack. This food culture arrived in Sweden, via USA, in the 1800’s and has remained a firm favourite ever since. Even Sweden’s own patented sausage, the Falukorv, apparently came into existence by German immigrants training the Swedes in how to make them. Sweden’s leading hot dog brand is called Sibylla. Named after the current King’s German mother, this was said to be an honour and not born out of ridicule.

So, there you have it. Germany and Sweden have very close ties linguistically, socially, politically, in royalty, in business, in tourism and, even on the street corners.

How Sweden exposed the Chernobyl catastrophe

If you haven’t seen the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’, do so. Probably one of the best series ever made, it depicts the events of the nuclear disaster that happened in the Soviet Union in 1986 killing up to an estimated 200,000 people (ref Greenpeace). It’s a vivid reminder of the perils of nuclear energy, and highly relevant to the growing debate in Sweden about the expansion of this form of energy production.

The series is directed by Swede Johan Renck, and stars many Swedish actors such as Stellan Skarsgård. However, what I didn’t know was how important Sweden’s involvement was in the discovery of the disaster.

Here’s how, taken from the European Parliament news page:

The alarm sounded at Forsmark, Sweden’s second largest nuclear power plant, when one of the employees passed one of the radiation monitors on his way back from the restroom. When it showed high levels of radiation coming from his shoes, staff at first worried an accident had taken place at the power plant. However, a thorough scan discovered that the real source of the radiation was some 1,100 kilometres away in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.

The early detection by the Forsmark plant, one hour north of Stockholm, played a crucial role in forcing Soviet authorities to open up about the disaster that happened in Chernobyl in April 1986.

Thanks to the power plant’s early detection, they could inform the Swedish authorities at an early stage, who then told the world about the radioactive pollution coming from the disaster in the Soviet Union.

Today, most harmful materials have decayed. But some harmful materials, such as Caesium and Plutonium, will remain in the environment over a longer period of hundreds, even thousands, of years, though at lower levels.’

Sweden was affected in other ways by the radioactive cloud that blew from Ukraine across the Baltic. Still today, people in the north of Sweden are dying of cancer brought on by exposure. As recently as 2017, hunters found a pack of wild boar containing more than 10 times the safe level of radiation.

In Norway, the levels of radioactivity have reduced over time but there are still exceptions. Most recently in 2018, values detected in meat and milk suddenly doubled. The reason turned out to be an unusually widespread crop of mushrooms that year. Fungi have the ability to absorb a lot of radioactivity, up to 1,000 times more than plants. Those yearly variations mean that there will be a need for control for many years to come.

Thanks to its geographical location, Sweden played an important role in the revealing of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. But it also paid a high price, the effects of which will still be felt for generations to come.

Today, Sweden has 8 nuclear power plants producing about 40% of the country’s energy. This is despite a national referendum that voted to phase nuclear energy out by 2010. In 2015, decisions were made to phase out four older plants by 2020.

The constant question is can a disaster like Chernobyl happen again? And are we willing to take that risk?

One thing is for certain, the Chernobyl disaster showed us all that pollution has no borders.

Where do the names of Swedish weekdays come from?

norse-god-iconsThe things you think about on a Monday afternoon. Sitting quietly, I started to reflect over where the Swedish words for the days of the week come from. After a little research, I found that all of them stem from Norse mythology. Additionally all, but one, are named after the Gods and Goddesses of that period.

Do you know which day is not named after a Norse God or Goddess?

  • Måndag – Monday – named after the Norse God ‘Måne’, which means moon.
  • Tisdag – Tuesday- named after the Norse God ‘Tyr’, a God of War
  • Onsdag – Wednesday – named after the Norse God ‘Oden’, the King God of Wisdom, War and Death
  • Torsdag – Thursday – named after the Norse God ‘Thor’, the God of Thunder
  • Fredag – Friday – named after the Norse Goddess ‘Freya’ or ‘Frigg’, the Goddess of Love and Fertility (also by the way Oden’s wife)
  • Lördag – Saturday – named not after a god, but after the Norse tradition of bathing – called ‘att löga sig’
  • Söndag – Sunday – named after the Nordic Goddess of the Sun – ‘Sol’ or ‘Sunna’.

If you’re interested in knowing how to pronounce the Swedish days of the week, check out this little film, and put your dancing shoes on!

Sweden’s most horrifying and thought-provoking monument

On the main square in the western Swedish town of Karlstad, there is a statue. A striking statue. A significant statue. A statue that was once voted the ugliest statue in the country.

The statue represents a strident woman holding a broken sword, with her left foot placed firmly on the decapitated head of a ghoulish soldier. It’s fairly gruesome. And it certainly has impact. But the message might surprise you.

Raised in 1955, the statue is actually a peace monument which commemorates the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905. Previously, the two countries were unified under the same monarch, and their separation could have led to bitter and bloody conflicts but it didn’t. It was carried out peacefully and paved the way for long-term cooperation between the two neighboring nations.

The statue has many nicknames amongst the town’s locals – ‘the old bitch with the wash paddle”, ”horror woman’ and ‘monument of horrors’.

Even if you find the statue unnerving, there’s no denying that it’s inscription is poignant. Using clever Swedish alliteration, the message reads:

Feuds feed folk hatred, peace promotes people’s understanding”

If you’re ever in the area, the monument is worth a look. She is a powerful representation of a significant moment in the history of Sweden and of Scandinavia.

Wondering about Sweden in the middle of the night

It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. One of those nights with a million thoughts churning around in my mind. Outside, the city of Stockholm is quiet. Daylight is starting to slowly break. As I lie here, a question about Sweden pops into my head. Something I’ve never thought of before.

Where does the English name ‘Sweden’ come from?

I should be sleeping, but I decide to google for the answer and I am catapulted into the world of historical research, language theory and ethno-cultural writing. And now I have the explanation and hopefully I can sleep.

Would you like to know? Here’s what I found:

The English name for Sweden was loaned from Dutch in the 17th century to refer to Sweden as an emerging power. Before Sweden’s imperial expansion, Early Modern English used Swedeland.

The Old English name of Sweden was Sweoland or Sweorice, land or realm of the Sweonas – the Germanic tribes of the Sviar. The name of the Sviar itself is derived from a proto-Norse Swihoniz, presumably a self-designation containing the Germanic reflexive ‘swe’ – one’s own, self”.

The modern English name Sweden

was loaned from Dutch. It is based on Zweden, the Dutch name of Sweden, and in origin the dative plural of Zwede. It has been in use in English from about 1600, first recorded in Scottish Swethin, Swadne.

So there you go. Perhaps I can now zleep. Zzzzzzz.