Clocks forward in Sweden

Tonight the clocks go forward in many countries, Sweden included. In English, we say ‘spring forward, fall back.’ It’s a handy way of remembering that the clocks go forward one hour in spring, and back one hour again in autumn.

This pun doesn’t work in Swedish though. Instead they use a metaphor of a barbecue, or garden furniture. In the spring you ‘ställa fram grillen’ (literally put forward the barbecue, also meaning put out the barbecue.) And in the autumn you ‘ställa tillbaka grillen’ (put the grill back, meaning put it away.)

The most common birds in Sweden

I woke up early this morning to the wonderful Spring sound of birds twittering outside the window. It made me think about how many birds are in Sweden, and what are the most common?

There are an estimated 140 million birds in Sweden, consisting of 275 different species, and numerous subspecies. The vast majority of these are migrating birds that nest in Sweden. Around 25 species pass through Sweden on their way to nesting sites on the Siberian tundra. Birds exist all over Sweden, from the southern-most coast of the country to the northern glaciers.

So what are the most common bird species? Interestingly, I’ve never heard of the first one on ornithologist Richard Ottvall’s list:

1) Lövsångaren – 16.4 million (Willow warbler)

2) Bofinken – 16.8 million (Chaffinch)

3) Rödhake – 7.6 million (Robin)

4) Kungsfågel – 6 million (Goldcrest)

5)Talgoxe – 5.2 million (Great tit)

6) Trädpiplärke – 4.8 million (Tree pipit)

7) Bergfink – 4.2 million (Brambling)

8) Taltrast – 2.8 million (Thrush)

9) Koltrast – 3.6 million (Blackbird)

In the winter, the Great Tit, the Pilfink (Sparrow) and the Gråsiska (Redpoll) are the most common. In my garden, the Domherre (Bullfinch), the Skata (Magpie), the Gulsparv (Yellowhammer) and the Kaja (Jackdaw) are frequent visitors. Maybe it’s one of them I can hear? Being close to the harbour, I also hear the hungry screech of the seagulls.

One thing this small piece of research has made me realise is how little I know about birds. We are outnumbered by them 14:1, and yet I pay little attention. Maybe I should buy a book and some binoculars and head out into the countryside?

Swedish icons 13: Max von Sydow

What words can be used to describe Swedish acting legend Max von Sydow’s career? Extensive? Impressive? Formidable? Whatever the word, there is no doubt that this man, whose career spanned 70 years, is a true Swedish icon.

In 1929, Carl Adolph von Sydow was born into an academic family in the university town of Lund. In early adult life, he moved to Stockholm to start studying at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. Here, he also took the name Max as people kept spelling his name incorrectly.

Max von Sydow’s career spanned theater, television, many genres and over 150 movies. To some he is known as an Ingemar Bergman actor, and especially known for playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal. In total, he starred in 11 Bergman films.

To others he’s known as the actor who played Karl Oskar in the epic Swedish film series The Emigrants about poor Swedes who emigrate from Småland, Sweden, to Minnesota in the mid-19th century.

To mention some other films, he starred in classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Exorcist, Flash Gordon, Pelle the Conqueror, Dune, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Quiller Memorandum, Minority Report, Never Say Never Again, Shutter Island, Robin Hood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Younger generations might remember him as the enigmatic Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Max von Sydow had a enormously successful international career. But it wasn’t always destined to be so. Early on, he was satisfied with his life in Sweden, and consequently turned down iconic roles such as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Dr No.

Towards the end of his life, Max von Sydow became a French citizen and had to relinquish his Swedish passport. He died in Provence and was survived by his wife and four sons.

Swedish icons 12: Queen Christina

Great Britain has its strident Queen Elisabeth I, France has its flamboyant Marie Antoinette and Russia has its legendary Catherine the Great. For Sweden, there is one Queen to measure up against them in icon status – the notorious Queen Christina.

Born 1626, Christina was the Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, although the country was governed by a regency council until she reached the age of 18.

She is known to have been an independent, outspoken and untraditional woman, and as such has ignited the imagination of novelists, play-writes and film makers throughout history.

Christina’s father was Gustav II Adolph, one of Sweden’s warrior kings, a military commander credited with the rise of Sweden as a great European power. He wanted Christina to be raised in the same way a boy would be – so Christina was an unorthodox and controversial person already at an early age. She studied 10 hours per day, could hunt and fight, was knowledgeable in politics and could speak seven languages other than Swedish.

This learned young woman who was ‘masculine’ and ‘rough around the edges’, was a great sponsor of the arts. Wanting to turn Stockholm into a centre of learning and culture, she attracted many great minds to her court. This was, however, very expensive and eventually the dream died – gaining her a reputation for being wasteful and extravagant in the process.

She was also a peace maker, negotiating peace that ended the 30 Year War. Under her reign, Sweden settled New Sweden in the USA, which is today in the area of Joe Biden’s hometown Delaware.

However, she is mostly remembered for three main things. Firstly, her refusal to marry. Secondly, her unprecedented abdication in 1654. And thirdly, her scandalous conversion to Catholicism.

Christina expressed a distaste for marriage and felt pressure to provide an heir. She realised that if she married she would effectively hand power to her husband. She is quoted as saying ‘I am unsuited for marriage.’ In today’s terms, she would have been defined as lesbian, and she had several mistresses – the most important one being Ebba Sparre, who she called ‘La Belle Comtesse.’

She gave up the throne partly because of her refusal to marry, but mostly due to her increasing unpopularity and pending religious conversion. After her abdication, she shook off the shackles of court protocol and dressed more frequently in male clothes. Historians often describe Christina as unattractive and androgynous in her physical appearance. Whether this is true, or whether her ‘ugly’ appearance was exaggerated in order to undermine her position is unknown. After her cousin took over the throne, Christina quickly left Sweden and ultimately settled in Italy. Although she made several attempts to regain power in Europe, she never succeeded and eventually died in Rome aged 62.

Queen Christina’s funeral was held at St Peters Basilica, reflecting her provenance, prominence and influence. She is one of only three women to buried in the Vatican. That alone is enough to earn her icon status.

Pakistan in Sweden

Today is Pakistan Day – a national holiday in Pakistan commemorating the Lahore Resolution passed on 24 March 1940 and the adoption of the first constitution of Pakistan. In Islamabad, the day is celebrated with much pomp and circumstance.

In Sweden, there are approximately 28,000 Pakistanis, making them one of the smallest immigrant groups in the country. In fact, according to Sweden’s statistical office, they are the thirtieth largest immigrant group. The majority of Pakistani immigrants came to the Nordic region in the 1970’s and 1980’s, seeking employment and a better standard of living. Most of them were also very highly educated.

Sweden has solid relations with Pakistan, and has an embassy in Islamabad, as well as honorary consulates in Karachi and Lahore. Several networks exist to build relations between Swedes and Pakistanis such as the Swedish Pakistani Friendship Society and the Pakistani Sweden Business Council.

Pakistani cuisine is well worth a taste. Influenced by the Arabic and Indian kitchens, Pakistani food is fragrant and spicy, with the all important roti bread as a staple. According to Trip Advisor, the best Pakistani restaurants in Stockholm are Punjabi Masala Grill, Chili Masala Grill and the geographically accurate-sounding Lilla Karachi.

In the northern town of Umeå, restaurant Malala is named after the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban on her way to school. Some years later, she won the Nobel prize for her education activism. 1% of the restaurant’s turnover and tips is donated to supporting education for poor girls in rural areas in Pakistan.

Swedish water – in rich supply

Yesterday, 22 March was World Water Day. It was inaugurated in 1993 to focus on the importance of fresh water.

According to the UN, World Water Day ‘’celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water. It is about taking action to tackle the global water crisis and support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.’’

Sweden contributes to this work via its Stockholm International Water Institute and, under normal circumstances, the annual World Water Week is held in the Swedish capital city. During the week, the organisation awards water prizes to researchers and institutes who work to improve water quality, accessibility and sanitation around the world.

Sweden itself is blessed with water. About 9% of the country is covered with water. Sweden is the EU country that has the most lakes – in fact, 40% of the EU’s lakes are located in Sweden. Lake Vänern, at 5655 square km, is the EU’s largest. Interestingly, Sweden’s total coastline including archipelago, is 48000 km, which is slightly more than a lap around the globe.

Much of Sweden’s freshwater is potable. Most Swedes have the privilege of uninterrupted access to drinking water, with occasional problems in rural areas during summer months. Even the water in the toilet is drinking water, not that anyone drinks from that particular vessel!

Swedish icons 10: Monica Zetterlund

Born 1937 in the small town of Hagfors, Monica Zetterlund was Sweden’s most prominent jazz singer throughout time. She was also a celebrated cabaret artist and actor.

She started her career as a teenager singing in her father’s band, and gradually gained fame touring in Sweden, Europe and the USA. She sung mostly in Swedish, but did release a few albums in English. The most famous album was Waltz for Debby that she recorded with the legendary Bill Evans Trio. As a singer, she was frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and she performed with Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.

As an actor, she participated in many popular theatre and cabaret productions and acted in many successful films. Her most famous role was in The Emigrants where she played an award-winning role of Ulrika, the fiercely independent village whore. A biographic film of her life, called Monica Z, was released in 2013 and is, in fact, one of the best Swedish films I’ve ever seen.

Throughout her life, she was plagued with severe back pain and developed scoliosis. She walked with a cane and often sat down on stage, and towards the end of her life she was in a wheelchair. She died tragically in 2005 in a fire in her apartment in Stockholm, caused by her smoking in bed.

In Stockholm, there is a park near her home called Monica Zetterlund’s Park. Here there is a sound installation, where you can sit on a bench and listen to her sultry tones.

Below is a sample of her music:

Swedish Press Freedom – the first in the world

In several countries, I would not be allowed to freely write what I want in this blog. Many nations are fighting for press freedom and against censorship – some of them not very far away. Thankfully, Sweden has solved this issue of media independence. Everyone is free to express themselves in writing, provided they do not publicly defame another person or commit an illegal act.

Obviously, Sweden didn’t always have freedom of the press. In the early days of print, Swedes fought many battles against censorship and limitations on the printed word. However, things changed when, on 2 December 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to write freedom of the press into the constitution. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act also allowed public access to information, which made it legal to publish and read public documents.

The Act that applies today actually came into effect in 1949. Today, laws cover press ethics, disputes, freedom of expression over digital media and protection of the individual and of whistleblowers.

Compared with other countries in the EU, Sweden is the 3rd best country in terms of media independence, preceded by Finland and Denmark. Sweden holds the 4th position on a global scale, the number one country being Norway.

According to Reporters without Borders, one reason that Sweden isn’t ranked higher is that over 50% of local media is owned only by five major companies. These control the editorial line and job security.

Additionally, one third of Swedish journalists claim they self censor due to threats and harassment from trolls, violent groups, heads of overseas states and security forces. Very few perpetrators are sentenced.

Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

St Patrick’s Day – Irish in Sweden

Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day! I hope you remembered to wear something green, even if you didn’t leave your living room. Normally St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Sweden, like many places around the world, with noisy, boozy parties. This year of course was different. Public gatherings in Sweden are limited to 8 people, which makes a somewhat subdued party, not up to the standards of a real St Patrick’s Day bash.

The relationship between Sweden and Ireland is a good one. According to Sweden’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 2892 Irish people living in Sweden. Ireland has an embassy on Blasieholmen in Stockholm. Sweden has a consulate in Dublin, and honorary consulates in Limerick and Galway. There is a Swedish-Irish society that was founded in 1949 by a group of Swedish friends interested in Ireland. According to their website, ‘the society has been building friendships between the two countries, promoting Irish culture in Sweden and has gradually also become a hub for Irish and Swedish-Irish in Sweden. We organise events throughout the year and membership is open to everyone who shares our interests!’

For the purposes of doing business, there is a Swedish-Irish Chamber of Commerce. This is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to building a professional community to promote and strengthen commercial collaboration, development and exchange between Swedish and Irish businesses.

Classic Irish pubs in Stockholm include The Liffey, The Auld Dub and O’Connells. In Gothenburg there’s the Dubliner and the Irish Embassy, and Malmö has Fagan’s and The Shamrock. Normally these places would be packed to bursting, and rocking to the sound of the fiddle on St Patrick’s Day. Hopefully next year will see a return to normal.