Swedish expression: Life on a stick

The expression ‘life on a stick’ – (livet på en pinne)- is used in Swedish to describe a care-free, wonderful life. In the mind of the modern Swede, it conjures up images of, for example, lying on the beach, or floating in the lake, or partying and eating favourite food, or chilling with a beer in the sunset.

The expression is epitomised in a song released by a TV personality called Edward Blom with the name ‘Livet på en pinne’. It includes lyrics such as:

Livet på en pinne
Göra var dag till en fest
Ta varje liten chans du får och njut
Minut för minut, livet på en pinne
Nåt för varje sinne
Ja, låt ditt välbehag få blomma ut’

This translates roughly as:

Life on a stick, make every day a party, take every little opportunity you have to enjoy, minute for minute, life on a stick, something for every sense, yes let your contentment blossom.

So, where does this expression ‘life on a stick’ come from?

There are a few different theories, including a traveling hobo with his possessions in a cloth hung on a stick, and a hygrometer measuring humidity and expansion of a stick. The expression dates from the 1800’s and probably has a more rural origin.

One theory is that the expression relates to birds sitting on a branch in a tree, living a seemingly unfettered life. Another theory is to do with hens.

In the 1800’s in the countryside, many people kept hens and each farm had a hen house. The hen house was stuffed full with hay and sticks and the birds sat there and had a comfortable and carefree existence. While the farmers and their other animals toiled hard, the hens simply enjoyed their life on a stick.

The Swedish Easter egg

In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.

For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.

This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.

Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.

Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!

Happy Easter!

What is Sweden’s ‘Tranquil Week’ ?

There is an irony to the fact that we are socially distancing, quarantining and home working specifically during this week. In Swedish, this week is called ‘Stilla Veckan’ – which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’.

‘Stilla Veckan’ is a term in the Swedish church calendar to describe the week leading up to Easter – the last week of Lent. In English, we call it Holy Week.

Every day in ‘Stilla Veckan’ has a name. Holy Saturday is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish, which translates as Easter Eve. Do you know what the Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to Easter are called?

The Sunday before Easter is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday in English. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.

The Monday before Easter is called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday. It can also be called ‘Svart Måndag’, (Black Monday), ’Bullmåndag’ (Bun Monday), ’Fläskmåndag’ (Pork Monday) and ’Korvmåndag’ (Sausage Monday). It is called a predictable Holy Monday in English.

The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). This is called Holy Tuesday in English.

Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally used to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins in Ash Wednesday. At some point in history, they were moved colloquially to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, and probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.

The Wednesday before Easter is, unsurprisingly, called Holy Wednesday in English. However, in Swedish it had the fascinating name ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued sound during Easter weekend.

The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.

And finally, the Friday before Holy Saturday is called Good Friday in English. This is derived from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.

The Swedish King and the British Queen

Both Sweden and the UK have reigning monarchs. The UK’s has Queen Elisabeth II and Sweden has King Carl Gustaf XVI. Like most of the European monarchs, they are related to each other. King Carl Gustaf is a descendent of the UK’s Queen Victoria, making him and Queen Elisabeth third cousins.

The other evening, they both gave a speech to their respective nations in regards to the corona pandemic. And they were like chalk and cheese.

I first watched the Swedish King’s speech. This bumbling, friendly man stumbled his way through his speech. Heavily dependent on his paper notes, he sounded a bit robotic to me. A friend of mine said it was like watching a trained chimp. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Swedish King. He seems like a nice man. But as a father of the nation in times of crisis, he missed the mark for me.

Then I watched the British Queen. This imperturbable woman, looking straight into that camera, embodied calm and credibility. In her typical restrained manner, her speech had depth and meaning, and her words were truly comforting in a crisis – from the nation’s mother.

I reflected over the two speeches, and why my reaction was so different. Part of it was definitely influenced by the delivery of the speech. The Queen used an auto prompt which enabled her to look into the camera, straight into the living rooms of her subjects. The King also looked into the camera but read from paper notes, meaning he frequently lost vital connection with his audience. The Queen spoke fluently, the King, who has dyslexia, struggled through his speech. The Queen looked dignified and prepared. The King looked like a stunned uncle who has unexpectedly been called upon to deliver a speech at a funeral.

However, I think the main difference for me lies in the cultural value of language. Even though I can speak Swedish, King Carl Gustaf’s words did not resonate with me. I understood him but was not moved by him. His words hit me in the brain, but not the heart. In comparison, English is my mother tongue, my native language. I have a more emotional relationship to English. When words of gravitas are spoken in my native language, I experience them with depth and fullness.

This really surprises me. I’ve been in Sweden over 25 years, I speak Swedish on a daily basis, and many of my relationships are in Swedish only. Yet in times of crisis and seriousness, words in my first language cut through Swedish like a knife through butter. It goes to show the mark that our first language leaves on us – our language of feeling. This is the language that indelibly forms our emotional cultural identity.

The colourful Swedish Easter tree

With Easter approaching, Swedes start pimping their homes. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.

The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.

What’s the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?

Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were more pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?

Sweden’s ‘Vasalopp’ – the world’s longest cross-country ski race.

Today, the world’s longest cross country ski race takes place in Sweden. It was, this year, touch and go if it would actually happen, as there wasn’t much snow on the ground. But at 8.00 this morning the race began.

Called Vasaloppet, the race entails participants skiing 90 kilometers from start to finish. It’s an extremely popular international event, which can take up to 12 hours to complete, and which is broadcast live on tv. When tickets to participate are released, they sell out in 15 minutes – it’s that popular.

The first Vasalopp was in 1922 and it takes place annually, the first Sunday in March and it is a first sign of spring. It’s an amazing sight to watch, as more than 15000 mad, happy skiers glide along, the swishing sound of ski on snow filling the air. For the elite athletes, 12 hours to complete the race is of course unthinkable. They go considerably faster. The person who has completed the race fastest is Jörgen Brink, who in 2012 won the race in just over 3 hours 40 minutes, roughly 25 km per hour.

So why is this race called the Vasalopp? Well, it takes its name from a Swedish king. The race commemorates the escape to Norway, through the forest, of King Gustav Vasa in 1521. Legend has it that he carried out the gruelling journey on skis, but experts believe he more likely completed this escape on snow shoes. Nevertheless, out of this legend sprung the race which is so popular today.

Modern day skiers don’t see the experience as an escape, they see it as a challenge and for many of them it’s a rite of passage. And as you sit watching the TV comfortably from the sofa, under a duvet, with tea and toast, you take vicarious pleasure in this long, amazing Swedish race.

English Leap Day and Swedish ‘Skott’ Day

2020 is a leap year, and today 29 February is Leap Day. In Swedish, leap year is called ‘skottår’ and Leap Day is ’skottdag’.

So, why ‘skott’? And why indeed ‘leap’? Well, the English word refers to the fact that the extra day in February means we leap over a day for the rest of the year. For example, the 1st March would have been a Saturday, but because of the leap day, it is now a Sunday.

What about the Swedish word ‘skott’? Well, it has nothing to do with Scotland. Nor does it mean ‘leap.’ The word ‘skott’ originally means ‘inserted in between’. So ‘skottdag’ is literally an extra day inserted in between two other days.

An interesting fact, those born on 29 February are called leaplings in English, and there are about 4,000,000 of them in the world!

The month the world shrank

The existence and the spreading of the Corona virus in the last few weeks cannot have passed anybody by. In the earlier stages of the virus, flights were cancelled in and out of China, then we were advised to avoid other countries in South East Asia. Then Iran? And Italy? Should we also soon avoid Gothenburg?

The world went from a wide open planet of international travel to a closed place where we are advised to stay put. In under a month, the world shrank.

How might this impact Sweden and the Swedes? Well, business is certainly affected. Imports are stuck in China. Events are cancelled. Employees returning from affected areas are told to stay home for two weeks, in a corporately-imposed quarantine. And this might just be the beginning.

What about the Swedes themselves? Swedes are well-known for being travelers. The people of this small, cold nation set out all over the world in search of sun, warmth, light, and adventure. Will it be so easy to tell them to stop traveling? Some would say it is impossible. You can take away many things from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday. For some, it is almost perceived as a human right to travel to warmer climates. I would say how easy it is to get Swedes to stop traveling depends on how any possible travel ban is imposed.

In general, Swedes value rules. And, in general, they follow them: traffic rules, laws, deadlines and agreements. In comparative cultural research one of the frameworks that is often used is the contrast between rules/task and relationships. Simply put, some societies value rules over relationships, thinking that rules should be followed irrespective of the relationship between people. Others value relationships over rules, often seeing the rule more as a recommendation.

Consistently in research, Sweden comes out as oriented towards the rules-side of the spectrum. While this is of course a generalization, it suggests that Swedes tend to take to rules and regulations very easily, tend to prioritize them, and tend to value them. When Sweden legislated against smoking in restaurants, people’s behavior fell into line over night. It wasn’t the case in many other countries. In the EU, Sweden is one of the countries that has applied most of the EU legislation on a local level. When participating in tenant association meetings, Swedes rely heavily on the house charter to understand what is right and wrong behaviour. A customer of mine refused a friendly lunch (in my mind to build relationship) because the company had issued a decree against corruption. None of this might be the case in other countries where a higher premium is put on individual relationships and circumstances, rather than what it says in the rule book.

So will Swedes stop traveling? If it is legislated, yes. If it becomes an official ban, then most Swedes will probably follow it. The practical nature of the Swede will understand its importance. The logic of the solution will prevail. However, if it just comes as a suggestion, left to the whims of the individual, then most Swedes will probably keep traveling. They will avoid the worst areas, and reroute to somewhere they perceive as safer.

You can take a lot of things away from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday.

Fatty Tuesday – Swedish style!

Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.

While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’.

I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post. The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns.

Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter. I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.

The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.

Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.

And give it to me NOOOOWWW!!!

Swedish politics for the uninitiated

For those of you unfamiliar with the Swedish political system, here is a quick crash course.

Sweden is governed by a democratically elected government, led by a Prime Minister. Legislation is proposed by the government and decided by a multi-party parliament. The system of election to parliament is one of proportional representation. This means that there are several smaller parties, and sometimes they end up holding the balance of power. To hold one of the parliament’s 349 seats, parties must have a minimum of 4% of the vote. This barrier was put in place to prevent very small parties getting in.

Every four years, in September, a General Election is held in Sweden. At the same time, elections for the 290 local council authorities, and 20 county authorities are held. Sweden had a 87.18% voter turn-out in the last election in 2018, which shows a strong democratic interest from the electorate.

There are currently 8 parties in the Swedish Parliament. In the last election, the Social Democrats (left of center) gained the largest percentage of the vote – 28.26%. The next largest party was the Moderate (Conservative) party with 19.84%. Since proportional representation is the method, no single party receives their own mandate in Swedish politics. This means a process of discussion, negotiating and wheeling-dealing with smaller parties is required to gain majority, come over 50% and to gain a position of government.

Sweden’s current government took a very long time to finalise. After each general election, the Speaker of the House announces the preliminary Prime Minister, initially the leader of the party with the most votes. This person then has the task of forming a government and getting it passed through parliament. After the last election, the government was finally approved after an enormous 129 days of negotiation. It is a minority government led by the Social Democrats and containing the Greens (4.41%). It is supported by 3 opposition parties – the Left Party (8%), the Center Party (8.61%) and the Liberals (5.49%). This is a very unusual coalition which has shuffled around the political map and brought together parties with many opposing views. Some people think of it as an unholy and unsustainable grouping. However, despite their different political ideologies, this middle-ground alliance are united in one ambition – keeping the right-wing nationalistic party Sweden Democrats (17.53%) out of government.

It remains to be seen how long this alliance will hold, and indeed what will happen in the next election in 2 years time. It seems that Sweden might be caught in the jaws of political populism. In a recent opinion poll, the nationalists Sweden Democrats came out as number 1.

So is Sweden in a conservative renaissance – will the next coalition government be conservative-right wing?

Time will tell.