At 11.21 pm on 28 February 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot by a lone assailant. He was killed in cold blood on the street after visiting a cinema with his wife. A second shot injured her. Lying in a pool of blood, in the cold Swedish winter, Olof Palme died.
The assassination of Olof Palme (to the left above) has caused headlines around the world. Theories abounded on who had assassinated this very popular and very hated politician. During the last 34 years, the police have investigated the case and failed to identify the murderer. The unsolved case of Olof Palme has gaped like an open wound in Swedish society.
However, today the prosecutors responsible for the investigation announced that they know who the assassin is. In making this claim, they have ended the decades-long mystery. No conclusive evidence was provided, no DNA and no weapon, but prosecutors believe they have the man. They have pointed to Stig Engström, a graphic designer working at a nearby company, pictured to the right above. Stig Engström committed suicide in 2000, so cannot be charged. Therefore the case is closed after 34 years!
Finally, the mystery can be resolved. Or can it? with any lack of clear evidence, it is a very frustrating finale to a very drawn out drama. For a country searching for an answer, this will probably not give them it. And as Stig Engström took his story to the grave, I guess we will actually never know the truth.
Today is Sweden’s National Day. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005. Prior to that, the 6th June was known as Swedish Flag Day to commemorate that Sweden has its own flag – a celebration introduced in 1916 after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905.
Swedes celebrate National Day on 6 June in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king (6 June 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution (6 June 1809).
Normally, the King and Queen of Sweden take part in a televised ceremony at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum, on National Day. The yellow and blue Swedish flag is run up the mast, and children in traditional peasant costume present the royal couple with bouquets of summer flowers.
Otherwise, it’s a bit of a weird day, National Day. It’s celebrated with organised events in parks and squares. Buses fly the flag on their rooves, people hang up the flag on poles and people gather in large crowds to wave the flag. Other than this, many people don’t really know what to do. There is no collective memory around the 6th June, such as independence or winning a war, to pull people together. No sense of achievement. Or historical pride. So, the day is usually appreciated as a day off work to, for example, meet friends, or play golf, or day drink or sunbathe or go to Ikea.
One interesting event that happens on this day is the Citizen Ceremony. All new citizens up and down the country are invited to their town hall to participate in a ceremony to welcome them to Sweden as new Swedes. Usually, the mayor proceeds over the event and it’s followed by the most Swedish thing of all – Fika (coffee and cinnamon buns). When I participated 9 years ago, Crown Princess Victoria was actually there also. It did feel very official, with participants from all over the world dressed in their best clothes such as elegant saris, busutis and kanzus. Personally, I wore a blue jacket with a yellow handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.
Due to the current pandemic, lots of celebrations are cancelled this year. As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. This is what they write:
‘Sweden live: National Day @ home
Make yourself comfortable and join us as we celebrate Sweden’s National Day. In this 24-hour livestream Swedish artists will play for you from their living rooms, chefs will cook with you, museums will dazzle you with their exhibits – and you might also get the chance to spot some moose… Enjoy! Here’s the link!
It’s funny how some names just don’t translate well. Years ago when I was living in London, I had a Swedish friend called Lasse visiting. At a party I introduced him to another person. ‘Oh’ she said ‘Lasse! That’s a really funny name! It’s the name of a film star dog!’ My friend Lasse looked unamused. He responded by saying ‘Well, what about your name Pippa? In Swedish that means fuck’!
In Swedish, there are some unusable names – because they simply don’t work in an international environment. Many names that are fine in Swedish, are just not in English. Let’s take a look at ten of the ‘worst’ Swedish names.
Titti – there are 1028 women called Titti in Sweden. They have an average age of 53. The most well-known one is a radio host called Titti Schultz. The last Titti to be registered in Sweden was born in 2014.
Jerker – this name works fine in Swedish. Not so much in English. Its masturbatory connotation makes it somewhat tasteless. In Sweden, there are 2705 men called Jerker in Sweden, with an average age of 49. Since 2010 nobody has been registered with this name.
Fanny – this name also exists in English and is considered by many to be inappropriate. Meaning vagina in British English and backside in American English, it’s probably best to avoid it as a name. In Sweden there are 10703 women called Fanny. The Bergman film Fanny and Alexander made the name popular again in the 80’s, so the average age of the name Fanny is actually 25.
Pekka – about 8% of Sweden’s population are Finnish, and of course they give their children names of Finnish origin. Pekka is such a name. Currently there are 2308 Pekkas in Sweden. The name is unfortunate because, to the English-speaking ear, it is suspiciously close to ‘pecker’ which is a slang word for penis.
Lo – a lovely name in Swedish sounds like ‘loo’ in English. To Brits, this means toilet. 2717 females are called Lo, and 1207 males. They average an age of 8, which means their name-related problems are ahead of them.
Sigge – a popular name for boys today. 2161 males have the name, averaging the age of 8. In Swedish, it’s quite a cute name but internationally it sounds like ‘ciggie’ – which means cigarette.
Birger – the name works in Swedish as it has the pronunciation of ‘biryer’. But in English it’s unfortunately pronounced Burger. There are 30,000 men with this name in Sweden, averaging the age of 66. In 2019, 11 new baby Birgers were however registered.
Simon – while we are on the subject of pronunciation, the name Simon becomes relevant. No problem pronounced the English way, but in Swedish the ‘i’ sounds like a ‘ea’. So the name is pronounced seamon, which is rather regrettable.
Odd – an old Nordic name which is beautiful in Swedish. But in English it means strange and weird. Maybe not what we want our newborn to be associated with. That said, there are 1373 of them in Sweden.
Birk – pronounced ‘birrck’ in Swedish, it’s probably also easy for Scots to say. However, English people would say ‘berk’. This is unfortunately a slang word for idiot or dickhead. There are 562 males called Birk averaging an age of 11, and it’s growing in popularity. It is an old Nordic name meaning ‘trading place’.
For those of you who have bought into the myth that Sweden is doing nothing to combat the epidemic, here is a photo of downtown Stockholm. It was taken today by a friend of mine at 11.00am. The normally bustling streets of the capital are deserted. It is admittedly a ‘bridge day’ between a public holiday and a weekend, but even so, the streets are usually much busier than this.
This is a testimony to the fact that most Swedes are taking it seriously.
I moved to Sweden in October 1994, and was due to return to the UK to visit family the following May. May 13th in fact. Exactly 25 years ago today.
I arrived at Arlanda airport in Stockholm to be informed that the plane was delayed due to bad weather. The weather was high winds and snow. SNOW! On May 13th! When I finally arrived in the UK, I arrived to a London basking in sunshine and its citizens walking around in T-shirts and shorts. As you can understand, I questioned my choice of moving to Sweden at that point.
Since then May 13th 1995 has held the shittiest weather record for me. Until today that is – May 13th 2020.
Last night it snowed. Tonight it is forecast to snow and be minus degrees. Today’s weather is a freezing drizzle. It’s even worse further north in the country. This sucks for May.
However maybe there is a positive side to this. I’m not sure what nature was saying 25 years ago, but today the message seems clear. The streets are mostly deserted and the cafe terraces are abandoned. This is surely nature’s way of telling us to stay the hell at home.
I have recently been reminiscing a lot about my University days. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the self isolation that makes us dig deeper, and further back. Old faces and forgotten names have popped into my head – Ginger Bill, Gertie the Goth, Posh Sarah, and her with the dislocating knees. Something Peacock, I believe.
Anyway, I was actually in touch with an old friend yesterday – Bob from Yorkshire – a person I probably haven’t physically met since 1988. Concerned about the state of affairs in the UK, he mentioned that he follows my writing and enjoys reading about Sweden. He found it ‘reassuring’ to know that ‘some places in the world still hold a candle, however small, to a more egalitarian future’.
In fact, never has this comment been more relevant than today – May 1st. In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of class equality, labourers and the working classes since then.
Usually, around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives – most commonly from the political left. However, these are corona times and all demonstrations and large gatherings are banned.
So this year will be different. Instead of seeing the politicians on the streets, they are coming onto our screens. For example, at 11am, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, will be broadcasting his May 1st speech to the nation over Facebook and You Tube. As a Social Democrat, he will apparently talk about what kind of society Sweden should be. I’m sure it’s going to be right up Bob’s alley.
So let’s celebrate together, separately. Remember to stay home, avoid crowds and wash your hands. This is a day for solidarity. As a wise man once said, we might not be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.
Tomorrow, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.
On this evening, Swedes normally gather to celebrate together. The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Essential celebrations include lighting a large bonfire, listing to choirs singing traditional spring songs and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season.
Walpurgis bonfires are an impressive thing to see and are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis, cattle was put out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators.
This year however is very different from normal, thanks to Covid-19. Official celebrations have been cancelled and informal gatherings have been banned. Some of the official celebrations are being still carried out, without large groups of revellers, and are being broadcast via social media. This is a great opportunity for anyone to participate in a bit of classic Swedish culture and tradition.
The expression ‘life on a stick’ – (livet på en pinne)- is used in Swedish to describe a care-free, wonderful life. In the mind of the modern Swede, it conjures up images of, for example, lying on the beach, or floating in the lake, or partying and eating favourite food, or chilling with a beer in the sunset.
The expression is epitomised in a song released by a TV personality called Edward Blom with the name ‘Livet på en pinne’. It includes lyrics such as:
‘Livet på en pinne Göra var dag till en fest Ta varje liten chans du får och njut Minut för minut, livet på en pinne Nåt för varje sinne Ja, låt ditt välbehag få blomma ut’
This translates roughly as:
Life on a stick, make every day a party, take every little opportunity you have to enjoy, minute for minute, life on a stick, something for every sense, yes let your contentment blossom.
So, where does this expression ‘life on a stick’ come from?
There are a few different theories, including a traveling hobo with his possessions in a cloth hung on a stick, and a hygrometer measuring humidity and expansion of a stick. The expression dates from the 1800’s and probably has a more rural origin.
One theory is that the expression relates to birds sitting on a branch in a tree, living a seemingly unfettered life. Another theory is to do with hens.
In the 1800’s in the countryside, many people kept hens and each farm had a hen house. The hen house was stuffed full with hay and sticks and the birds sat there and had a comfortable and carefree existence. While the farmers and their other animals toiled hard, the hens simply enjoyed their life on a stick.
I love watching the Swedes. That is, in fact, what this whole blog is based on. Usually I’m struck with admiration and curiosity, sometimes outrage and anger. But right now, disappointment is the biggest emotion I’m feeling.
Sweden is an amazing country that has handled the corona pandemic in a very different way from the rest of the world. This is culturally not so surprising as Sweden is a country that often deviates from the norm. Instead of draconian lock downs, Sweden’s approach is based on personal responsibility, solidarity and common sense.
So why my disappointment? Well, a couple of reasons.
The instructions about social distancing are very clear. Avoid crowds and stand or sit 2 meters away from the nearest person. And yet, many Swedes are not doing this. On outside restaurants and cafe terraces, people are packed together like sardines. In parks and squares, people are squeezed onto shared picnic blankets. What is it about social distancing that people don’t understand? Be sociable yes, but be physically distanced. It’s so easy that it’s ridiculous to not follow it.
The second source for my disappointment is the lack of perseverance that seems to be prevailing. After a few weeks of self control, it looks like many Swedes have tired of it. They think that the worst is over. They couldn’t be more wrong. Now is not the time to relax. Cases are increasing, not decreasing. Now is the time to persevere, to work from home if possible, to keep washing hands and keep your distance. Even if the sun is shining and the weather is warmer.
I am sure my disappointment is temporary. But I would like to say to everybody in Sweden – be happy things are more relaxed here but do follow the instructions of the authorities. It’s that simple. If we all do it, it will all be over sooner. And then we can all sit in the sun in the park.
In the meantime, I’ll be watching the Swedes – from a comfortable distance.
I remember the first Swedish film I ever saw. I was living in London, and there was a film festival in a cinema on the South Bank. I’d never heard of the film, but had heard of the author who’s book it was based on – Astrid Lindgren. The film was called ‘Ronja, the robber’s daughter’, and it was a dramatic romp set in the Viking era. I loved it.
Since then, I’ve seen many Swedish films, of varying quality, from Christmas romcoms to Bergman. The Swedish film industry is alive and kicking, and many films are released in the Swedish language every year. Sweden even has its own center of film-making lovingly nick-named Trollywood.
If you’re self-isolated at home and you’d like to watch a Swedish film, here are some that I think are good, in no particular order:
1. ‘Monica Z’ – drama about Swedish jazz legend Monica Zetterlund, played amazingly by singer Edda Magnusson.
2. ‘Border’ (Gräns) – dark drama about a border guard who can smell fear
3. ‘As it is in heaven’ (Så som i himmelen) – drama about a famous conductor who retires to a remote village and takes over the local choir. Drama ensues.
4. ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (Män som hatar kvinnor) – a action thriller about legendary anti-hero Lisbet Salander and a twisted murder mystery plot. Starring Noomi Rapace.
5. ‘House of Angels’ (Änglagård) – a comedy drama about a modern young woman who inherits a house from her mother in a small rural village. But she is not welcomed by all.
6. ‘The Dalecarlians’ (Masjävlarna) – a comedy drama about a woman who visits her hometown to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. An urban-rural clash takes centre stage. Starring ‘The Bridge’s Sofia Helin.
7. ‘Fanny and Alexander’ – a long Bergman film about a wealthy family in Uppsala. A classic Christmas saga and probably the only Bergman film that everybody likes.
8. ‘Let the Right One in’ (Låt den rätte kommer in) – a drama horror film about a vampire child living in a dark Stockholm suburb
9. ’My life as a dog’ (Mitt liv som hund) – a drama about a young boy and his odd way of dealing with life’s set backs.
10. ’The Hunters’ (Jägarna) – a drama thriller about a wicked group of hunters in the north of Sweden.
11. ’A man called Ove’ (en man som heter Ove) – a drama comedy based on the best-selling novel about the adventures of a grumpy, old man in a Swedish small town.
12. ‘Show me Love’ (Fucking Åmål) – a drama comedy love story between two young girls in the conservative town of Åmål.