It’s fatty Tuesday – Swedish style!

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!!!

Diverse Sweden Part 1: Swedish Sikhs

diversity

I remember when my parents visited me in Sweden and remarked in surprise that there were a lot of ‘dark-haired people’ here. Somehow, it didn’t match their stereotype of the Swede as being tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed Christians.

It’s interesting to see the response on people’s faces when they realise who is in fact Swedish. Sure, Alexander Skarsgård, PewDiePie and Robyn all fit the mould. But that Seinabo Sey, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neneh Cherry are Swedish is often met with a surprised gasp. Stereotypes really are hard to shift.

Sweden is a fairly diverse country – ethnically, religiously and culturally. About 25% of the population is born abroad or has both parents born outside of Sweden. Extend that to one parent and the number increases to around a third of the Swedish population.

I am a true believer in cultural diversity. So, to celebrate the plurality of this kingdom in the north, I am starting a series of posts that will shine the light on various religious and ethnic groups that exist amongst people with Swedish citizenship. My hope is that it will dispel some of those stereotypes of Swedes that exist and that it will broaden your mind regarding what it means to be Swedish.

First out…..Sikhism

sikh-men-sabres-min.jpg

Growing up in the multi-religious UK, as I did, I saw a lot of Sikhs. What distinguished them from others was the fact that some of them wore a turban (known as a ‘dastaar’). Sikh bus drivers, police officers, doctors all wore their dastaar together with their uniforms, and today they are exempt from wearing helmets when riding a motor bike. I remember it causing great debate in the media and the discussion revolving around the ‘ridiculousness’ of this head gear. What ethnic British people failed to realise, and many still do today, is that the Sikh dastaar is not just a means to keep the head warm. The dastaar is an integral part of the unique Sikh identity, representing piety, self-respect, honour and purity of mind. Under the dastaar, the Sikh keeps the hair uncut as respect to the Gurus and to God – the idea being that hair is part of God’s creation and therefore should be kept as God intended it.

In Sweden, Sikhism is a small minority of an estimated 4000 people but in the world there are 30 million Sikhs, mostly living in Punjab in India. Sikhism was founded in the 16th century by Guru Nanak and is based on his teachings and those of the 9 gurus who came after him. The Sikh religion is a hands-on religion – believing in doing good deeds rather than merely carrying out rituals. For a Sikh, the concepts of honesty, generosity and equality are strong corner stones. In Sweden, Sikhs have their places of worship – a Gurdwara – in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö – and anybody is welcome to these places of worship, regardless of religious belief. The Sikh religious scripture is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Interestingly, Sikhs consider the book a living Guru and it is therefore treated in the same respectful manner that a person would be.

Sikhs try to avoid 5 vices, in order to live better lives. These vices are something we could probably all think about avoiding: lust, greed, attachment to things of this world, anger and pride.

In a couple of weeks on 14th March, it is ‘Vaisakhi’ – the Sikh New Year. This year it will be year 551 (time begins at the birth of founder Guru Nanak).

Sikhs started to emigrate to Sweden in the 1970’s. Some came as job-seekers, others as refugees. The Sikh population is often referred to as an example of successful integration into Swedish society – as most Sikhs secured good employment and invested in the higher education of their children.

 

 

For more information about population statistics in Sweden, go to https://www.scb.se/en

For more information about Sikhs in Sweden, go to http://www.sikh.se

if you like this post, please share it in your media.

Also follow me on Instagram #watchingtheswedes

 

The most popular names in Sweden

Oliver was the most popular name for male newborns in the UK last year. And Olivia was the most popular female name. In London, it was Amelia and Mohammed and in Ireland it was Jack and Emily.

So what about Sweden in 2018? Just-released information from Sweden’s office of statistics give us the following answer.

The most popular top 5 names for male newborns were:

  1. William
  2. Liam
  3. Noah
  4. Lucas
  5. Oliver

In fact, there are 44010 males in Sweden with the name William. And 58 females!

And for newborn girls it was:

  1. Alice
  2. Maja
  3. Lilly
  4. Ella
  5. Wilma

Interestingly, there are 38957 females called Alice in Sweden. And 22 men!

The names Ture, Lias and Amir are the fastest climbing names in the list of boys’ names. And for girls, Hailey och Bianca. The names Sebastian, Neo, Simon, Emelie, Ellinor, Idun and Noomi have left the top 20 list.

If you want to see how many people have your name in Sweden, go to svenskanamn.alltforfaldrar.se

Remember to follow me on Instagram! watchingtheswedes

What exactly is a quisling?

Sweden might have a government soon. Months after the general election, an unconventional middle coalition seems to be forming, which includes former opposition parties from left and right. All of this is an attempt to keep an extreme right wing party out of the government. However, it’s not without its critics.

One party in particular – the right-oriented Center Party- have been strongly criticized for being turncoats and traitors. One disgruntled politician called the leader of the Center party a quisling. While we use this term in English, I was curious to check into where the word comes from and why it is such a serious insult.

According to Wiki, quisling is a term originating in Norway, which is used in all the Scandinavian languages and in English for a person who collaborates with an enemy occupying force – or more generally as a synonym for traitor. The word originates from the surname of the Norwegian war-time leader Vidkun Quisling who headed a domestic Nazi regime during the Second World War.

Interestingly, the use of the word quisling predates the war though. In 1933, the term was used to describe the followers of Quisling who was in the process of starting a national fascist party based on the German nazi model.

In 1940, Quisling attempted to seize power in Norway, as he wanted to collaborate with Hitler. His coup d’etat failed, and he and his followers were declared criminals. In the British Times the headline was ‘Quislings everywhere’, and the term became synonymous with traitor – a word to ‘carry the scorn of mankind throughout the centuries’, to quote Winston Churchill.

So there we have it. A word taken from a pitiful, slithering fascist who was a traitor to his country and collaborated with an enemy power. Sounds more like a description of Trump if you ask me.

It seems then definitely out of proportion that the word is currently being used to describe the leader of Sweden’s Center party.

Of course many people are disappointed, and she has had to make some difficult compromises. But there is one promise she has not backed down on, however difficult it might be – to never give fascists a position of power in Swedish politics. And though not ideal for her, she has moved to the middle to prevent this.

The irony then is in the fact that she is being called a quisling. She is not a quisling, she is in fact the complete opposite.

Swedes and their alcohol – a Swedish odyssey?

When visiting Sweden, people are often struck by the system for purchasing alcohol. In bars and restaurants everything goes as expected but if you want to buy a bottle of, for example, wine or whisky then this is done in the state-owned alcohol shops known as Systembolaget. These shops have restricted opening hours closing at 6 or 7pm on weekdays and 2 or 3pm on Saturdays. On Sundays and Public Holidays they are closed.

Sweden’s alcohol monopoly started in the 1800’s and the national company Systembolaget was formed in 1955.

Systembolaget has a retail network of circa 426 stores, around 25 in Stockholm. The company has an interesting mandate from the Swedish state – to help limit the medical and social harm caused by alcohol and thereby improve public health. This explains why access to alcohol is restricted through the number of stores, opening hours and retail rules, and why the corporation is aims not to maximise its profit. In other words, the alcohol monopoly is highly socio-political -its foremost aim is to stop people consuming alcohol, or at least to consume it responsibly.

Although strange for many visitors, it’s a concept that seems to work – Swedes consume on average 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per person annually, less than many other countries.

However, it is at times like Christmas that the restricted opening times become more obvious. This year, the shops are closed for 4 days from yesterday at 3pm. Up and down the country, long queues were reported. I saw this with my own eyes, and had a weird recollection of old pictures from the Second World War or Soviet Russia. People seemed to be in a good mood while they waited, though it meant waiting for almost an hour outside some branches.

I guess it’s the price you pay for lack of forward planning. Anyway, I hope everybody got what they wanted and that they have a boozy, woozy, snoozy Christmas worth queuing for.

Have yourself a Merry Gay Swedish Christmas

With gay men being hunted down and ‘punished’ in Uganda, Tanzania, Russia and many other countries around the world, it is easy to blame religion for the persecution.

And the evidence to back this up is fairly compelling. Countries that have a strong foot in religion are often countries that have strong anti-LGBT policies and attitudes. Not always, but often. Fanatical interpretation of the scripture can be one explanation, as can the crushing concept of sin, and the devouring need to uphold traditional ‘family structures and values’. For example, in a recent comment, the Pope said a lot can be done for LGBT people through psychiatry.

Sweden is a country that separates the church from politics. It is a country where almost 90% of the population identify as atheist or agnostic. It is a place where religious morality does not usually dictate the behaviours and choices of individual citizens. Of course there is organized religion in Sweden, there are churches and there are priests. Of course there are minority religions in Sweden such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Of course there are casual believers, devout followers and extremists. But compared to many other organized religions in the world, the Swedish Church is very liberal.

This was manifested in the recent service at a church in Stockholm, a service called Gay Jul (Gay Christmas). The slogan for the event was ‘come in as you are, come out as you want to be’. As I sat in attendance at this service, I witnessed a welcoming space, filled with members of the LGBT community, the church decorated in rainbow flags, and the words ‘Gay Jul’ emblazoned on the pulpit. I was moved by the openness of the church to welcome the minority group that is so often demonized and persecuted by the Faithful. It was an escape, and embrace, a sanctuary.

However, I was also struck by a sadness as I sat there in that echoing church. I realized the experience was a uniquely Swedish one, occurring in a small city in a small outpost of Europe and an unlikely sight in other churches, mosques, temples and tabernacles around the world.

In that church, amongst the rainbow flags, we were far far away from Uganda, and Tanzania, and Russia.

Do Swedes have no heart?

Working recently in India, one question I received was ‘why don’t Swedes greet us with heart?’ This was referring to when Indians visit colleagues in Sweden, or when they start working together in new constellations.

It is an interesting perception, and maybe not a new one. The experience of Swedes as cold, unfriendly and disengaged seems common, and genuinely baffles a lot of non-Swedish people.

Firstly, I would like to say that in general this is not true. It is just a perception. Many of the Swedes I know are kind, generous and affectionate. However, I do have a few theories as to why this perception prevails.

Expressiveness – how much it is appropriate to express emotion is something that we are trained in from childhood. Some cultures train their children to use their entire bodies when they communicate, others train their children to be more reserved. Generally Swedes are trained to be emotionally inexpressive. What they mean is clearly in their words, and not so much their bodies or faces. And this can lead more physically expressive cultures to presume they are cold. So it is important to understand that lack of expression should not be confused with lack of feeling.

Importance of relationships. Swedes do have many close friendships and family ties. However, this doesn’t necessarily extend to neighbors or colleagues. While in other cultures, strong close relationships with colleagues are essential for getting the job done, in Sweden isn’t the case. Relationships help, but they are not essential for carrying out the task. This means Swedes can go to work and be friendly towards each other, but don’t necessarily need to make friends or show a great deal if interest in each others private lives. This can be frustrating for people who come from strongly relationship-oriented cultures.

Independence. Swedish culture is amongst the most individualistic cultures in the world. In Swedish society, this manifests itself in the attitude that every able-bodied person can take care of themselves. This means that the Swedish attitude is generally if you want help you will ask for it. And you usually get it. The fact that help is rarely offered was a hard lesson for me to learn when moving to ‘unhelpful’ Sweden.

The peach and the coconut. Some cultures are like peaches – soft on the outside, easy to get into, open in communication, overtly friendly. Other cultures are like coconuts – hard shelled, difficult to get into and less open to people outside the group. Typically, but not exclusively, Swedish culture is ‘coconutty’ and Indian is peachy. This can mean it’s a challenge for people from peachy cultures to break into Swedish society and easy for them to form the perception that Swedes are cold and unwelcoming. My experience tells me, however, that once you break through the shell, the friendships that you make are very close and lasting. It is easy to assume when you meet a Swede that he or she is shy or introvert. This might be the case, but not necessarily. He or she might just be a coconut.