Transgender Sweden

Today is the International Day of Transgender Visibility. The day is dedicated to honouring the victories and contributions of the transgender and non binary communities while also bringing awareness to the work that is still needed to protect trans lives. In the USA during 2020, 45 trans and gender nonconforming individuals were murdered. So far in 2021, the figure is 11.

Transgender in Sweden: It has been a long and rocky road for the transgender population to receive legal protection in Sweden. This road has been lined with demands on enforced divorce and enforced sterilization. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that the requirements to be sterilized and undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to change gender became unconstitutional. Sterilization had been in effect since 1972, and enforced on 500 to 800 transgender people.

Today, the transgender community is protected under the Anti-Discrimination Law of 2009. Additionally, in 2018, “transgender identity and expression” was added to the hate crime legislation.

It would however be naive to believe that this has eradicated this type of discrimination and crime in Sweden. In fact, many transgender people report a constant feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in society. Around 12% of the reported hate crime in Sweden has a homophobic or transphobic motive. Who knows how much happens that isn’t reported?

Days like International Day of Transgender Visibility are hugely important for breaking the negative cycle of hate. If you would like some input on how to support the trans and non binary people in your life, go to http://www.thetrevorproject.org and look under Resources.

A Swedish walk in the park

Today, 30 March, is International ‘Take a walk in the park’ Day. While some residents in some locked down countries might not appreciate the irony of it, here in Sweden it is fully possible to celebrate today by stepping out into one of the many green areas.

Take a Walk in the Park Day was founded to celebrate small excursions and the difference they can make to our mental, physical and emotional health.

In Sweden, there are thousands of parks and 30 official National Parks. What kind of park you prefer is of course a matter of taste. However, according to our friends on the internet, the three most beautiful parks in the country are Sofiero slottsträdgårdar in Helsingborg, Hagaparken in Stockholm and Boulognerskogen in Gävle. I’m sure there are a lot of people with other opinions.

Sweden also has a tradition of the ‘Folkpark’ which is a place for entertainment, cabaret, theatre, relaxation and enjoying the great outdoors. Folkpark’s had their heydey in the 1940’s-1960’s where artists would play on the stages and there would be party party and dance. The first Folkpark was built in Hällefors in 1796. Today they still exist, but have faced a lot of competition from festivals, arenas and other outdoor entertainment spaces.

For most urban dwellers around the world, the parks are the lungs of the city. And it’s the same in Sweden’s built up regions. Living in Stockholm, I am so lucky to have many parks and green areas within easy walking distance.

So, depending on where you live, and your time zone, it might not be too late. Put on your shoes and step out into your street, and go take a walk in the park. After all, today is ‘Take a Walk in the Park Day’.

Swedish icons 14: The Swedish Chef

I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning the Swedish chef. He was probably my second introduction to the Swedish culture when he appeared on the Muppet Show in 1975. Abba winning Eurovision in 1974 was my first. And in my ears when the members of Abba spoke – they sounded just like the Swedish chef!

The Swedish chef character is a puppet that was invented by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The puppet’s live hands where performed by Oz, while Henson controlled the head and did the classic voice. The gobbledygook that the character spoke was supposed to be Swedish, and had the occasional English word thrown in. It was basically gibberish and sounded like ‘hurdy gurdy’ and ‘bork, bork, bork’. He was known for his ridiculous cooking methods, his accident prone nature and the fact that he almost always tried to cook living animals that, in the end, attacked him.

As a kid, I thought that the Swedish chef was hilarious. I don’t know if my love affair with Sweden began there but I certainly found him entertaining and intriguing. To date, he has been seen in over 100 countries, and in some places he might be all they know about Sweden. Interestingly in Germany, he’s known as the Danish Chef.

Real-life Swedish chef Lars Bäckman claims that he is the inspiration for the character. Allegedly he performed catastrophic screen test in the USA in the 70’s which Henson saw and imitated. Bäckman’s claim has however never been corroborated by the Muppet Show.

So, does he sound like a Swede? Well, most Swedes would say absolutely not. To them, he sounds more Norwegian. I can say that in all the years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve only heard a handful of people speak in the ‘hurdy gurdy’ style of the Swedish chef when speaking English. It is so unusual that it is almost a shock when you encounter it. So, the answer is no – the Swedish chef is not accurate, but he is a comedy icon in his own way.

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: