Wondering about Sweden in the middle of the night

It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. One of those nights with a million thoughts churning around in my mind. Outside, the city of Stockholm is quiet. Daylight is starting to slowly break. As I lie here, a question about Sweden pops into my head. Something I’ve never thought of before.

Where does the English name ‘Sweden’ come from?

I should be sleeping, but I decide to google for the answer and I am catapulted into the world of historical research, language theory and ethno-cultural writing. And now I have the explanation and hopefully I can sleep.

Would you like to know? Here’s what I found:

The English name for Sweden was loaned from Dutch in the 17th century to refer to Sweden as an emerging power. Before Sweden’s imperial expansion, Early Modern English used Swedeland.

The Old English name of Sweden was Sweoland or Sweorice, land or realm of the Sweonas – the Germanic tribes of the Sviar. The name of the Sviar itself is derived from a proto-Norse Swihoniz, presumably a self-designation containing the Germanic reflexive ‘swe’ – one’s own, self”.

The modern English name Sweden

was loaned from Dutch. It is based on Zweden, the Dutch name of Sweden, and in origin the dative plural of Zwede. It has been in use in English from about 1600, first recorded in Scottish Swethin, Swadne.

So there you go. Perhaps I can now zleep. Zzzzzzz.

Death of a Swedish superstar

World-famous Swedish house DJ Avicii is dead, at 28 years old. I liked his music but other than that, I personally didn’t have much more of a connection to him, But of course his untimely death has been taken hard by his enormous amount of fans in Sweden, and in the rest of the world.

In Utrecht, the church bells in the Dom Tower, rang out the songs of Avicii over the town. On social media, condolences from celebrities and music stars flooded in. In a spontaneously-planned memorial ceremony yesterday, a huge mass of people gathered on a square in central Stockholm. After a minute’s silence, they danced together to Avicii’s greatest hits. Swedish tv is full of Avicii tributes and he topped iTunes and Spotify yet again.

One can’t deny the impact that this talented man had on electronic music and the inspiration he left behind for many new upcoming musicians. This young Swedish man, born in Stockholm, really did conquer the world.

A new album of tracks is set for release, and is said to be his best music ever.

This will be his epitaph and his legacy.

Sweden’s giant blue penis

In recent days, a giant blue penis has been the cause of much discussion in Sweden. On the wall of a 5 story building, artist Carolina Falkholt has depicted an enormous blue male member – on a yellow background – Swedish national colours. The artist painted a similar pink penis on a wall in New York but it was painted over after just a couple of days because of public outcry. In a recent interview she says ‘I usually paint pussies, so I thought it was time for a dick..I think it will be allowed to remain here, that people let it take its place in the debate around the body, sexuality and freedom.’

If the purpose of art is to provoke and cause a reaction, she has certainly succeeded. The nature of the painting makes us reflect over why we might be shocked or offended by it – and that is a useful reflection to have.

The mural has been there a few days now. Let’s see how long it lasts!

The Death of a Swedish Icon

Lill-Babs-2015

Today, the news of a death reached the Swedish people. The death of an icon. At the age of 80, popular singer Barbro ‘Lill-Babs’ Svensson passed away. Lill-Babs is little known outside of Sweden, but in Sweden she was an icon, a part of the soundtrack of many Swedes’ lives – she was Sweden. To get a grip on her status in the country, think the UK’s Cilla Black, and France’s France Gall – with that combination of untrained vocals and girl next door sex appeal – and you come part of the way.

When I moved to Sweden over 20 years ago, Lill-Babs was possibly one of the first Swedish celebrities that I got to hear of. She was constantly on the tv, on chat shows, in theatres, in concert halls, in the tabloids, in reality programs, in magazine articles and firmly positioned in the national memory. Her modest origins from a small village in rural Sweden contrasted intriguingly with her show-biz lifestyle, her many love affairs and bankruptcies and her glamorous media-trained daughters. She seemed to balance the ability of staying true to your roots with the bravery of a sexually liberated woman surviving decades in a man’s world. In older days, blonde hair, tanned skin, moist lips, bling and leopard print were her signum, along with her distinctive raspy deep voice. She impacted everybody it seems. Even the King of Sweden announced his condolences today saying he will remember her warmth and exuberance.

I had the pleasure of seeing the ‘Lill-Babs Show’ in 2015, when she was 76 years old. She gave annual dinner shows at the Swedish venue called Playa del Sol on Gran Canaria. As I happened to be there on holiday, I went with some friends to watch her perform. I admit I was a little sceptical going in, but I was blown away. There on the stage stood a woman, slightly ravaged by the years, but with a warmth and a humour that is rarely seen. Her energy and professionalism swept us all away and the crowd went wild – well as wild as they could given the average age was about 70. She sang her classics from the previous 6 decades and told cheeky, saucy jokes to the audience. I felt that I wasn’t just seeing a concert but I was having a thoroughly Swedish experience, somehow immersing myself into Swedish popular history and culture. There, on the stage, was not only a singer but a living legend.

April 3, 2018 Lill-Babs died after a short period of illness. She takes with her a piece of Swedish history, an echo of a Sweden long gone. Her legacy is the openness with which she invited the Swedish people into her life – warts and all. I am sure she will not be easily forgotten and that her voice will be echoing loudly through many a Swedish home this evening.

Sweden’s pink Thursday

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Today, the Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. As the word ‘skär’ translates as a shocking pink colour, many people joke that today is ‘pink Thursday’. But the word ‘skär’ in this case relates to something else – something far more biblical.

The word ‘skär’ is an early Nordic word meaning clean and pure. And here, we see a parallel to the English word for ‘Skärtorsdag’. In English, today is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ and it relates to the religious rite known as ‘the maundy’ which involved the ritualistic cleaning of feet. According to Christian belief, today was the day that Jesus performed this act until the recipients had clean and pure feet. It also is the day of the infamous Last Supper.

However, in Sweden today, ‘Skärtorsdag’ is not celebrated in any great religious fashion but in a pagan manner. A old pagan belief in Sweden was that on this day witches would mount their broomsticks to fly away to the legendary mountain known as Blåkulla. At Blåkulla it was believed that the devil held his earthly court. There the witches celebrated their sabbath and danced with the devil.

In modern day Sweden, we see this reflected in the many children who dress up as witches. These kids paint Easter cards and walk around the neighbourhood knocking on doors to wish everybody a happy Easter. In exchange, they hope to receive Easter sweets.

A crucial night for Sweden

Tonight is the end of a gruelling six weeks. Tonight an important decision is made in Sweden – a crucial decision some might say. Tonight, millions of Swedes gather together to jointly arrive at their conclusion. From North to South, East to West, amongst mountains, by lakes, on islands and in cities, Swedes crowd around their TVs to watch the biggest show broadcasted in the country. This is bigger than royal weddings, political funerals or sporting events. This is huge. Tonight, Swedes decide who should represent them in this year’s Eurovision Contest.

Choosing a representative takes 6 weeks in Sweden. 5 weeks of semi finals, a second chance competition and then the final. It’s a combination of tradition and torture.

But tonight it is all over and Saturday evenings are finally released for other entertainment. In a puff of glitter, the winner is chosen by public vote and jury and then it is all over. Apart, that is, from the after party, the post analysis and the pre programs for the approaching Eurovision Contest in May.

Sweden might be a county of moderation, but Eurovision is a major exception. If anything’s worth doing, apparently it’s worth doing properly. By dragging it out. And out. And out.

Demolishing Swedish treats

Many Swedes love to ‘fika’ – the tradition of drinking coffee and eating a cake. So much so that somebody decided to create the graphic above about popular Swedish treats. While the drawing is nice, the picture rather shows the meagreness of a Swede’s cake options. What then are some of the terrible choices depicted?

In a previous blog I’ve talked about the creamy bun known as semla, which I happen to think is delicious. In my opinion the semla is the best of them all. It is the king of Swedish treats reigning large over the other, to be honest, rather underwhelming alternatives.

The apple and cinnamon scone – as a British person I would not call this a scone. I don’t know what it is. Some kind of triangular bit of plaster. So, no further comment.

Probably the most popular dry-as-a-bone pastry associated with Sweden is the ‘kanelbulle’ or the cinnamon bun. Sold predictably in every bakery and cafe in Sweden and in their millions at Ikea, the cinnamon bun is only redeemed when drenched in melted, oozing butter.

Then there’s the ‘lussekatt’ – a disgusting saffron bun baked and sold in December. If you like bland, yellow bakes that give you indigestion for hours then this is the one for you.

The ‘dammsugare’ – or vacuum cleaner – is a marzipan roll dipped in chocolate. They can contain a bit of Swedish liqueur ‘punsch’ to take the edge off their otherwise plasticky taste. Altogether pointless and unsatisfying.

‘Chokladboll’ or chocolate ball is a linguistically dubious treat. Traditionally given a racist title, they are basically cocoa balls rolled in coconut. An unpleasant eating experience, these balls tend to ‘grow in your mouth’ as they say in Swedish….

‘Hallongrotta’, literally means raspberry cave. These are vanilla biscuits filled with raspberry jam that melt in the mouth. Unless they’re rock hard. They are a traditional biscuit which seem to evoke memories of grandmas and hot kitchens for many Swedes.

‘Pepparkakor’ are crisp gingerbread biscuits eaten around Christmas time. A ubiquitous classic eaten with Swedish mulled wine – ‘glögg’. They are a must during the festive season in homes, offices and often served covered in bacteria in shops. They come in many sizes and shapes, such as love-hearts, stars, people and goats. Yes, you read that correctly – goats.

So none of the above have a patch on the creamy, gooey, airy, almondy delight that is the semla. I know what I’m ordering with my coffee!

Any other Swedish treats that you think rival the almighty semla?