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.
In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.
For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.
This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.
Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.
Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!
In the wake of covid-19, the National Agency of Public Health has provided the Swedish population with recommendations and advice. However, it seems that these very words ‘recommendation’ (rekommendation) and ‘advice’ (råd) are causing problems for many people.
How do you understand the word ‘recommendation’? Maybe it’s a friend who is making a suggestion to you? Or a family member who is promoting a certain behaviour? Or a respected critic who is letting you know what restaurant you should eat at? For most of us, the words ‘recommendation’ and ‘advice’ imply a suggestion that we can decide to listen to or not, act on or not. This is how we understand it.
But it doesn’t always mean this and this is where linguistic confusion is arising. As I understand it in Swedish, when ‘recommendation’ or ‘advice’ is used by a government authority it is not something to be taken as a suggestion – it is a serious instruction that has to be followed. It is the strongest action an authority can take. The next step is a law change decided by the parliament.
So when the Swedish Agency for Public Health recommends that we stand 2 meters apart, it is not a recommendation as we might understand it, it is a strict instruction, and does not include a high level of individual choice. It is the step before criminalising something.
In his press briefing today, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said ‘allmänna råd från myndigheter är ingen lösa tips. Det förväntas att (alla) som omfattas av råden följer dem. Inte ibland, utan varje dag och varje minut.’ This translates roughly as ’general advice from an authority is not just a tip. Everybody who is covered by this advice is expected to follow it. Not just sometimes, but every day and every minute.’
This confusion between colloquial terminology and governmental terminology can explain a lot of the behaviour and attitudes we see around us. People are not defying the authorities, they just think that recommendations are elective.
But the bottom line is this – we do not have a choice, even though we might interpret it so. We are obliged to all follow the instructions we are provided with. Zealously.
If we do this, we avoid criminalization and curfew and hopefully can together quickly crush corona.
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?
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:
Being afraid of conflict but still whingeing
Being politically correct, but harbouring other opinions under the surface
Binge drinking at the weekends
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
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
Wearing matching tracksuits
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.