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.
Today, 17 May, is National Day in Norway. Known as ‘Syttende mai’, it is the day on which Norwegians celebrate the signing of their constitution in 1814. The constitution was signed in an attempt to declare independence and avoid ratification with Sweden. But it failed. Norway was forced into an unwilling union with Sweden and ruled under the same monarch with two capitals – Stockholm and Christiania (Oslo). It wasn’t until 1905 that Norway finally gained independence and the forced union with Sweden was peacefully dissolved.
Since then, Norway is fiercely and proudly their own. 17 May is a huge, patriotic party consisting of concerts, parades and parties.
Today, the relationship between Sweden and Norway is very friendly. The Kings of each country are second cousins. Free trade and transportation exists across the seamless border. The main rivalry between the countries appears to come in the competitive world of cross country skiing, where Norwegian athletes dominate.
As a hangover from the times when Sweden saw Norway as their country cousins, there are a lot of jokes mocking Norwegians. In all of these jokes, Norwegians come off as stupid and simple. When I looked further into it, I discovered that the same exists the other way round. In many Norwegian jokes, known as ‘svenskevitser’, Swedes are depicted as stupid or as spectacular failures. It is not untypical that these kinds of jokes exist between neighbouring countries – English jokes about the Irish, Welsh and Scottish being another example.
Equivalent to the ‘Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman’ jokes, Norway also has its ‘the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian’ jokes. In these jokes, the Dane is usually drunk, the Swede stupid and the Norwegian smart. Here’s an example:
‘ A Swede, a Norwegian and a Dane were arrested in France during the French revolution. They each got to choose which way they would die. The Norwegian chose the guillotine, because he saw it as the latest fashion. His head went under, but the blade stopped 1 inch from his neck. The French saw this as a sign from God or something and decided to let him go. The same thing happened to the Dane who ran off into the nearest tavern to celebrate. Then they asked the Swede how he wanted to die. “I think I’ll die by hanging, that guillotine doesn’t work anyway,” he said.’
So, regardless of who might be considered stupid, today is a day to celebrate Norway! May you have a long and prosperous existence, and may you continue to live in peaceful, slightly ridiculing, co-existence with your neighbours.
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.
Sweden isn’t only an urban country of towns and cities, it also has an amazing countryside and wildlife. Wild animals that roam the Swedish countryside include wolves, brown bears, lynx, deer, wolverines, reindeer and moose.
Every year, a wonderful wildlife event happens. Called ‘the great moose migration’, the Swedish moose walk the same path to get to their summer grazing pastures.
If you are interested, you can watch this event unfold as it happens. Part of the concept known as slow TV, the Swedish National TV is currently broadcasting the migration around the clock. It is slow, it is snowy and it is spectacular at times.
Please note: the moose is the national animal of Sweden. Called ‘älg’ in Swedish, there is frequent debate about whether it is translated as moose or elk. The answer is that it is both! It is called ‘moose’ in American English and ‘elk’ in British English. In North America, there is an animal called an elk, but it is a different animal, known also as a wapiti. The North American elk looks like this, and is a kind of deer:
The North American moose/ European elk/ Swedish ‘älg’ looks like this:
The ‘älg’ has the same Latin name as the British elk, and the North American moose (alces).
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.