60 years ago – a momentous Swedish event

On this day, 60 years ago in 1961, something amazing happened in Stockholm’s harbour. This event would cast the Swedish people back 333 years and come to change the face of tourism in Scandinavia.

In 1626, a grand battleship was commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf. He was expanding his realm into the Baltic and wanted a battleship that would be beautiful, awe inspiring and armed to the teeth. When she was completed she was richly decorated, with bronze cannons and was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. He called the ship the Vasa, after his grandfather.

However beautiful she was, the flagship Vasa was dangerously unstable, with too much weight in the upper structure of the hull. Despite her obvious lack of stability, she was sent on her maiden voyage in 1628, and after only a couple of minutes afloat, she sank to the bottom of the harbour. The King was of course livid, and after a long process, blame fell upon the ship’s designer Henrik Hybertsson. As he had been dead for a year, he couldn’t defend himself, and instead became a historic scapegoat. King Gustav II Adolf himself died 4 years later at the Battle of Lützen.

The Vasa’s bronze canons were salvaged in the 1700’s after which she was forgotten, left to her watery grave. But then, in 1956, her exact location was identified and 5 years later, on April 25th, she was raised to the surface.

The Vasa ship is the only 1600’s galleon in the world that has been salvaged in such good condition. The cold, dark, brackish waters of the Baltic meant that the wood did not rot, and the ship’s huge hull was almost completely preserved. Today, the fully-restored ship and its other contents, are displayed in an enormous museum in central Stockholm. It is the world’s best preserved 17th century ship and Scandinavia’s most visited museum. On the roof of the museum, the masts indicate how high the ship was on its day of launch.

When traveling is allowed again, and museums are reopened, you must visit Stockholm. When you’re here, your top cultural priority should be the Vasa Museum. You will be blown away by the sheer dimension of this boat and you too will be thrown back to a time when Sweden was a great military power to be reckoned with.

For more information, go to http://www.vasamuseet.se

Infidelity, despair and revenge – Swedish style

They say that revenge is best served cold, and nothing is colder than what the ‘Cuckold of Skeppsbron’ did in Stockholm.

As you walk along the road of Skeppsbron, you have the harbour and Baltic Sea on one side, and the historical houses of the Old Town on the other. When you approach number 44, take a look above the door and you’ll see a stone face sporting an exaggerated expression of despair. And below the grimace, if you look carefully, you’ll spot a carving of a vulva.

Legend has it that the face belongs to a wealthy merchant called Carl Smitt, who owned the building. He discovered that his wife had been cheating on him. In revenge, he had her genitalia sculpted and mounted on the wall, so that all the world would know her betrayal. Above her privates, he installed his own tormented face.

Wanting to add to her shame, he had the sculpture of his face designed so that on rainy days, the water would fall from his eyes like tears, splashing his wife’s genitalia below.

So revenge isn’t just best served cold. It’s also served in stone and lasts over many centuries.

The legendary philosopher who died in Sweden

Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.

When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.

This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.

Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.

Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.

Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.

He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.

The Nobel prizes. What is your legacy?

Today is Nobel Day when the winners of the five Nobel prizes are celebrated. This year is a digital ceremony and the usual concert and grand banquet have been cancelled to avoid crowding.


But how did the Nobel prizes come about? Well, the story goes like this. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, woke up one day to his own obituary in the newspaper. Mistakenly, the paper had declared him dead, when in fact it was his brother. As a title for the obituary, the newspaper had written a rather unflattering ‘The angel of death is dead‘. The journalist also wrote that Alfred Nobel had made it possible to kill more people than anyone who had ever lived.


Suddenly Alfred Nobel understood this is how he would be remembered and, to change it, he founded the Nobel Prizes. Now his name is synonymous with science, literature and peace.


It makes for an interesting reflection. If you could read your own obituary, would you be proud of what you read? Would you also change your behaviours to influence the memory of you? And, if that’s the case – why not get out there and do it now?

Historical day in Stockholm – the Golden Bridge

In the center of Stockholm, a large building project is starting to take shape. The Slussen Project started 5 years ago and is an enormous feat of engineering that aims to replace a current structure connecting the southern island of Södermalm to the Old Town. The current concrete structure has been in place since the 1930’s and is literally crumbling. The entire structure needs to be demolished and constructed from scratch.

Ever since 1642, there has been a lock between Södermalm and the Old Town in Stockholm. It has been rebuilt four times. This is the fifth, and it is not without controversy.

Today, an important milestone in the project was reached. An enormous new bridge, known colloquially as the Golden Bridge (although it is in fact ockra), was inaugurated by the Swedish King. The bridge connects the two parts of the city, but divides the residents of Stockholm. Some think it’s very effective and attractive, others think it is a monstrous metal clump.

It really doesn’t matter what people think, the Golden Bridge (correct name Slussbron) is now in place and opens tomorrow at 5am for traffic. Then, the demolishing of the rest of the old structure will begin. The whole project is due to be completed in 2025, assuming no delays.

In the meantime, Stockholmers can walk, cycle and drive over the Golden Bridge knowing they are an integral part of the city’s urban history.

Digital Stockholm Pride

Today is typically the day that the LGBT Pride parade takes place in Stockholm. Up to 500,000 fill the streets making it the largest event in Scandinavia. However, this year it has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead it is being carried out digitally, with an opening speech by Crown Princess Victoria. If you are interested, you can view the live stream here: http://www.stockholmpride.org

It runs 12.00-14.00.

The whole concept of LGBT Pride has taken strong root in Sweden. LGBT Pride resonates well with the societal Swedish values of equality, tolerance and acceptance.

Sweden’s history of LGBT rights is a comparatively progressive story. Changes didn’t happen automatically however. Thanks to the hard work of campaigners, lobbyists, and politicians, society can enjoy one of the most egalitarian legislations in the world.

According to wiki: ‘ Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1944 and the age of consent was equalized in 1972. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1979. Sweden also became the first country in the world to allow transgender persons to change their legal gender post-surgery in 1972 whilst transvestism was declassified as an illness. Transgenderism was declassified as a mental illness in 2008 and legislation allowing gender change legally without hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery was passed in 2013.

After allowing same-sex couples to register for partnership in 1995, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage countrywide in 2009. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression has been banned since 1987. Also, since 2003, gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, and lesbian couples have had equal access to IVF and assisted insemination since 2005.

Sweden has been recognized as one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe and in the world, with recent polls indicating that a large majority of Swedes support LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.’

So, enjoy Pride today!

A surprising Swedish statistic

In Sweden, there is a population of ten million, with two million residing in the greater Stockholm region. Of the overall population, around half of the citizens live in flats.

In a recent survey of flat dwellers in Stockholm, 80% said that they don’t know the name of any of their neighbours. That figure is surprisingly high. I have lived in my flat since October and I can rattle off the first names of at least five of the neighbours. 80% surprises me. And I wonder if this is typically Swedish? If you asked the same question in London or New York or Madrid would you get the same result?

One aspect that might affect this lack of neighbourly knowledge is the type of flat that people live in.

In Sweden, flats are typically either rental flats or resident-owned flats.

Resident-owned flats. When you buy a flat in Sweden, you also buy a percentage of the building which you own together with your neighbours. In these resident-owned flats, the building is run as a private cooperative, governed by an elected tenant board. This means that you are forced to work together with your neighbours to operate and maintain the building. For example, once a year there is a ‘shareholder annual meeting’ and twice a year there might be clean-up parties for the communal spaces. This means you meet and interact with your neighbours. In Sweden, resident-owned flats make up about 21% of the total housing stock.

Rental flats. In rental accommodation, a private company owns the building and takes care of all the communal areas such as gardens, laundry room and stairwells. This means tenants in theory have to never interact with their neighbours. Rental accommodation is about 28% of the total housing stock.

Finding a flat is extremely difficult in Sweden’s cities. To buy is expensive and waiting lists for rentals can be over 10 years. This creates another market for ‘second hand’ rental, where people sub-let their apartments out to others. This creates even further anonymity as the renter is often only there for short periods. In this case, there is probably no necessity to get to know the neighbours. In research from Sweden’s Ministry of Housing, an estimated 200,000 people live in this form of housing in Stockholm.

So, on reflection, maybe it isn’t so unexpected that 80% say they do not know the name of a neighbour in their building.

Statistics aside, one can wonder what impact this has on local communities and Swedish society as a whole. While this encourages the Swedish qualities of privacy, respect and integrity, it surely also contributes to loneliness, unfriendliness and alienation?

Sources: HSB, The Local, SCB, Boverket

Deserted Swedish streets

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.

Shitty Swedish Weather

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.

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….