The colourful Swedish Easter tree

With Easter approaching, Swedes start pimping their homes. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.

The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.

What’s the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?

Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were more pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?

’Svennigt’ – what’s that?

The word ‘’svennigt’ is a slang term to refer to the typical, middle of the road Swede. Derived from the common surname Svensson, ‘svennig’ describes the lifestyle preferences and attitudes of the mainstream Swede.

Depending on the intention, the word ‘’svennig’ can be used endearingly, or even proudly, to refer to the ‘typical Swede’ or the typical Swedish. It can also be used as an insult. I often hear the word, laced with contempt, to undermine or criticize other people’s behaviours and choices. There is a definite class element to the term, where ‘svennigt’ implies lack of sophistication.

In American English, the closest comparison is ‘Average Joe’. In British English, there’s no real equivalent but ‘Joe Bloggs’ comes closest. However, in both of these, there is no element of ridicule, and they aren’t used as an insult; they are used just to describe an average person in the population.

Since ‘svennigt’ can have many different interpretations, I went onto social media and carried out some informal research. I asked people what was ‘svennigt’ for them. My hope was to get closer to an understanding. While there were some overlaps, I received a lot of differing inputs – positive, negative, and neutral. Most of the people who answered were themselves Swedish. Here are some of the perspectives:

Barbecuing

Being afraid of conflict but still whingeing

Being politically correct, but harbouring other opinions under the surface

Binge drinking at the weekends

Bingolotto

Consensus

Eating pickled herring at every national celebration

Eating Salty licorice

Eating TexMex on a Friday evening

Going to ‘After work’ on Fridays

Going to Golden Hits nightclub

Going on holiday in a Caravan/ Trailer

Going to the Canary Islands

Having a ‘Poodle’ hair-do

Liking Swedish dance band music

Loving the singer Carola and wondering why she hasn’t succeeded internationally

Open society

Playing car bingo

Quoting and laughing at lines from Swedish film Sällskapsresan

Reading Camilla Läckberg, author of crime fiction

Saying the vague, non-committal words ‘Jaha’ and ‘Nja’ when you actually disagree

Shopping at Ullared

Sweet loaves of bread

Talking about the weather

Talking about what is ‘typically Swedish’

Taking Löfbergs Lila coffee och Kalles kaviar fish paste when you travel abroad

Watching Lets dance/Strictly Dancing

Watching Melody festival

Watching TV4

Wearing Crocs

Wearing matching tracksuits

Wearing clogs

Working 9-5 and saying ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ at the end of the week

Worrying what other people think

As you see, these descriptions are very wide-ranging. It seems hard to nail down one particular attribute, attitude or behaviour that makes somebody ‘svennig’; it depends very much on the perception. Being ‘svennig’ is in the eye of the beholder. That said, judging by the responses above, it seems like we are all a bit ‘svennig’ now and again.

Please share this article and feel free to add your perspective on it.

But it doesn’t apply to me, right?

Out walking today, I passed through one of Stockholm’s biggest building sites – the Slussen renovation. As I approached, I saw a guard in a reflective vest and holding a red flag. He was stopping pedestrians from getting through, as the construction company was blasting into the rock to make a service tunnel. And he waved at me and told me to wait.

It was going to take 10 minutes to safely blast, so I stepped to the side and stood in the sun to warm my face. And waited.

From behind me, a middle-aged man approaches the guard and asks what was happening. The guard informs him of the on-going blasting. ‘But I need to get through’ the man says. ‘You’ll have to wait’ says the guard. ‘I can’t wait, this is very inconvenient’, the man replies. ‘You have to’ says the guard. The man folds his arms, and scowls in silence.

A few minutes later a young woman arrives. She walks right past the waiting crowd that has now formed. She approaches the guard. ‘I have to get through’. ‘You have to wait’ says the guard. ‘No I can’t do that, let me through’ replies the woman. ‘It is not safe’ answers the guard, ‘they are blasting and it is dangerous to walk past’. ‘I’ll be quick’ says the woman. ‘No,’ responds the guard, ‘you have to wait’.

Two minutes later, a voice on the guard’s walkie-talkie allows us to continue through. The middle-aged man stomps off, the young woman doesn’t move – swiping her mobile.

It often seems to me that some people have a hard time accepting instructions. Even if there are signs, or barriers or even a guard with a red flag, they seem to think they are not affected by it. Because they are in a hurry or it is inconvenient. It’s like saying ‘Yes, I understand, but it doesn’t apply to me, right?’

Might these be the same type of people who, despite strong recommendations from the government, nevertheless squeeze into public transport, hang close together in restaurants and still plan to travel away for Easter?

Just wondering….

Sweden under attack

I put out a picture of my local cafe yesterday and got the reaction from a friend in Germany ‘what!? Are cafes still open?! Everything’s closed here!’ It seems like most places in the world are on lock down. But not in Sweden yet. The Swedish authorities have chosen another route, and are being attacked for it from the international community.

Media in the UK and USA are calling Sweden’s approach ‘Russian roulette’ with the lives of the population. One neighbouring country said Sweden is making its worst decision throughout history. Italian press have said it’s beyond comprehension why Sweden doesn’t follow the way that Italy has gone.

In Sweden there is no lock down, or curfew. It seems like the government want to protect the nation – without totally destroying the economy. Restaurants and cafes are open. Shops are open. Schools are open. However, sport and cultural events have been cancelled, theatres and cinemas are closed, as are sports centres, swimming pools, many work places, some museums, universities and colleges. Sweden’s largest gym chain was closed, and has now reopened. Meeting in groups of more 50 people is illegal.

I’m not here to defend or criticize Sweden’s approach. I am not a doctor or a virus expert, and I am certainly not an epidemiologist. However, as a citizen, I am obliged to follow the recommendations put forward by the authorities:

Work from home if you can, avoid large groups, stand two meters away from other people, socially distance yourself, limit your movement, wash your hands and crucially – stay home if you show the slightest symptom: cough, sniffle, temperature, sneezing.

It seems like many people are following these recommendations, but some are not. For me, it’s about individual responsibility for yourself and the collective. If we all follow the recommendations now, the quicker it will be over. Makes sense, right?

But some people still crowd into public transport, or sit on busy restaurant terraces. Some old folks, the most at-risk in our community, still mingle amongst people and still go shopping. The ski resorts are still open, but not the after ski. With Easter approaching, swarms of people will descend upon these resorts. God forbid that they should miss out on their holiday.

Experts believe this is of little consequence as the virus already exists in society and cannot be eradicated. They are focusing instead on flattening the curve and not on preventing the spread of the virus. They are ramping up health care services and trying to delay the inflow of patients needing care. It seems like it is a question of when, rather than if, we all get infected. The vast majority of people will not be affected with more than mild flu-like symptoms. The main concern at the moment is our elderly. They need to stay home, and many aren’t. How the Government will approach this is the next big question.

When all this is over, we can look back and judge. Whose approach was the best?

With the benefit of hindsight, we might see that Sweden did the right thing, lives were saved and the economy survived.

Or we might see that not enforcing a lock down was the most devastating decision Sweden ever made.

Swedish solidarity in times of crisis

My sister wrote in our family chat that this crisis brings the best and the worst out in people. It made me think. Truthfully, most of the news today is bad. But there are some moments of positivity shining through. We seem to be closing in on a potential vaccine. In Sweden, the situation is manageable – that enormous volume of people needing health care hasn’t happened yet. Most people seem to be taking their personal responsibility and staying tf home.

But most of the positive news is connected to the way in which people are behaving towards each other. When I thought solidarity was dead in Sweden, it seems like the crisis has proved me wrong. It warms the cockles of the heart. Here are a few examples:

Residents are putting notes on walls and through doors offering help to people who can’t go out because they are sick, quarantined or in a risk group. ‘If you need help walking the dog, buying food or going to the chemist, just call me on..’

In the town of Ystad, an elderly woman had her 96th birthday. A local school class didn’t want her to be alone, so they stood outside her balcony and serenaded her.

A movement has started up to support and show appreciation for health care staff. When in a cafe, you can buy a coffee, or sandwich etc. in advance. This is then given for free to a customer who comes in after you and is a healthcare worker. This is one I actually copied and did today at my local cafe.

A student took the initiative and enlisted hundreds of other students who want to volunteer to help in the health care system.

A bakery in the Swedish town of Karlstad decided they wanted to give everybody a laugh. So they designed a new cake. In the shape of a roll of toilet paper.

A loo roll cake at a cafe in Karlstad, Sweden

Do you know of any other acts of kindness in Sweden or wherever you are? Please share!

Surviving our VUCA world

A quote from Charles M Schultz in the comic strip Peanuts goes like this ‘Worrying won’t stop the bad stuff from happening, it just stops you from enjoying the good’. Here, he is referring to our personal ability to manage a VUCA world.

Have you heard of the acronym VUCA? It’s a very useful term right now.

Defined on Wiki, VUCA was first used in the leadership theories of Bennis and Nanus to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.

  • V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.
  • A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

VUCA often impacts how individuals and organisations make decisions, plan forward, manage risks, foster change and solve problems. Our ability to operate in a VUCA world is defined by our fear, comfort levels, optimism and by how much we try to control or avoid uncertainty.

More than ever, we are living in a VUCA world. None of us know how this corona virus epidemic will end. Here in Sweden, society seems to be shutting down and the economy is in the middle of a major crisis. A global recession seems inevitable.

So how do we get through it?

Our ability to get through this without emotional breakdown does not come from panic, rumour and phobia.

According to Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, it calls for a response which he calls VUCA 2.0: Vision, Understanding, Courage and Adaptability. From the government, from employers and from each individual. Thinking and acting in this way provides us with the stability and psychological safety we will need to get through to the other side.

So, how do you personally handle the concept of VUCA?

Watching the Swedes react to corona virus

As the corona virus sweeps across the world, it’s interesting to watch how people react. While the measures the Swedish government are making do not seem as extreme as many other countries, the behaviour of some people is. Panic buying seems to be the name of the game. Panic buying and hoarding. And it doesn’t seem unique to Sweden.

Social media is awash with images of empty supermarket shelves. People are hoarding certain obvious items – such as hand gel, pasta, eggs, rice, beans and flour. But also weird items. For example, in my local supermarket, cucumbers are totally gone! And the Italian red wine shelf was pumped dry at my local wine store!

But the item causing the most debate seems to be toilet paper. Apparently the loo roll shelves have been totally cleaned out. It seems Swedes, and many others around the world, are seriously worried about wiping their bums if they get the virus.

Currently in Sweden, there is no general quarantine or curfew, as in many other countries. However, many companies have temporarily closed and employees are being asked to work from home. Public gatherings of over 500 people are forbidden. At the time of writing this the borders are still open and so are the schools.

We do have to be vigilant and we do have to act responsibly. Washing hands regularly, avoiding people who show symptoms, coughing/sneezing into the fold of our arms and not participating in large gatherings of people are a few of the ways. ‘Social distancing’ is the term this has been given – a new word for the 2020 dictionary.

But wiping out the supermarket shelves? In general, it’s good to have enough food at home to last a couple of weeks I guess. But do we really need enough toilet paper and red wine to last 6 months?

Hoarding is a logical panic reaction to a crisis situation, and it’s interesting to see how quickly people succumb to herd mentality. But it’s also a selfish action. Draining the supermarket shelves means that there is nothing left to buy for lower income people (elderly, unemployed, studying, sick) who live day to day and do not have the economic means to bulk buy. So let’s remember the concept of solidarity next time we go shopping.

One thing I’ve observed so far from this crisis; how quickly self-interest and self-preservation takes over.