Graduating in a pandemic – Swedish style

Usually at this time of the year, a common sight on the streets of Sweden is students on trucks, as seen in these pictures. Dressed in traditional white caps, and bolstered with alcohol, the students jump up and down to the booming music from loud speakers concealed in the vehicle. They scream and shout and spray beer on each other and sometimes unsuspecting pedestrians.

They are celebrating the end of their school career. Most of them are 19 years old and have just graduated from Sixth Form College/High School. Every year the media reports accidents and injuries, which is not entirely unexpected. And trucks have been banned from certain roads and areas in the towns.

In Sweden, graduating or doing ‘studenten’, as it’s called in Swedish, is a major rite of passage into adult life. The youngsters finish their last day at school, come running out of the building to be greeted by waiting parents and families. They then climb aboard their trucks for their lap of honour. After that they go around to each other’s homes where each family usually arranges a reception to honour the newly-graduated student.

This year though is a bit different. Due to COVID 19, the trucks are banned. Parties are cancelled. Parents are not allowed to gather in large groups. It is a necessary action to try to stem a pandemic, but highly disappointing for the affected youths.

However, people are finding other solutions. Trucks may be banned but cars aren’t. The streets are full of young people screaming around in cars, flying their flags and cheering themselves on. Boats float around the city waterways with groups of less than 50 graduates, drinking sparkling wine and dancing to their booming music. The parks are full of picnicking revelers, huddled on shared blankets but socially distanced from other groups.

Proof that people will always find a way. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Livestream Swedish National Day

Today is Sweden’s National Day. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005. Prior to that, the 6th June was known as Swedish Flag Day to commemorate that Sweden has its own flag – a celebration introduced in 1916 after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905.

Swedes celebrate National Day on 6 June in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king (6 June 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution (6 June 1809).

Normally, the King and Queen of Sweden take part in a televised ceremony at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum, on National Day. The yellow and blue Swedish flag is run up the mast, and children in traditional peasant costume present the royal couple with bouquets of summer flowers.

Otherwise, it’s a bit of a weird day, National Day. It’s celebrated with organised events in parks and squares. Buses fly the flag on their rooves, people hang up the flag on poles and people gather in large crowds to wave the flag. Other than this, many people don’t really know what to do. There is no collective memory around the 6th June, such as independence or winning a war, to pull people together. No sense of achievement. Or historical pride. So, the day is usually appreciated as a day off work to, for example, meet friends, or play golf, or day drink or sunbathe or go to Ikea.

One interesting event that happens on this day is the Citizen Ceremony. All new citizens up and down the country are invited to their town hall to participate in a ceremony to welcome them to Sweden as new Swedes. Usually, the mayor proceeds over the event and it’s followed by the most Swedish thing of all – Fika (coffee and cinnamon buns). When I participated 9 years ago, Crown Princess Victoria was actually there also. It did feel very official, with participants from all over the world dressed in their best clothes such as elegant saris, busutis and kanzus. Personally, I wore a blue jacket with a yellow handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.

Due to the current pandemic, lots of celebrations are cancelled this year. As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. This is what they write:

‘Sweden live: National Day @ home

Make yourself comfortable and join us as we celebrate Sweden’s National Day. In this 24-hour livestream Swedish artists will play for you from their living rooms, chefs will cook with you, museums will dazzle you with their exhibits – and you might also get the chance to spot some moose… Enjoy! Here’s the link!

https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lets-celebrate-the-national-day-of-sweden/

The ‘worst’ Swedish names

It’s funny how some names just don’t translate well. Years ago when I was living in London, I had a Swedish friend called Lasse visiting. At a party I introduced him to another person. ‘Oh’ she said ‘Lasse! That’s a really funny name! It’s the name of a film star dog!’ My friend Lasse looked unamused. He responded by saying ‘Well, what about your name Pippa? In Swedish that means fuck’!

In Swedish, there are some unusable names – because they simply don’t work in an international environment. Many names that are fine in Swedish, are just not in English. Let’s take a look at ten of the ‘worst’ Swedish names.

Titti – there are 1028 women called Titti in Sweden. They have an average age of 53. The most well-known one is a radio host called Titti Schultz. The last Titti to be registered in Sweden was born in 2014.

Jerker – this name works fine in Swedish. Not so much in English. Its masturbatory connotation makes it somewhat tasteless. In Sweden, there are 2705 men called Jerker in Sweden, with an average age of 49. Since 2010 nobody has been registered with this name.

Fanny – this name also exists in English and is considered by many to be inappropriate. Meaning vagina in British English and backside in American English, it’s probably best to avoid it as a name. In Sweden there are 10703 women called Fanny. The Bergman film Fanny and Alexander made the name popular again in the 80’s, so the average age of the name Fanny is actually 25.

Pekka – about 8% of Sweden’s population are Finnish, and of course they give their children names of Finnish origin. Pekka is such a name. Currently there are 2308 Pekkas in Sweden. The name is unfortunate because, to the English-speaking ear, it is suspiciously close to ‘pecker’ which is a slang word for penis.

Lo – a lovely name in Swedish sounds like ‘loo’ in English. To Brits, this means toilet. 2717 females are called Lo, and 1207 males. They average an age of 8, which means their name-related problems are ahead of them.

Sigge – a popular name for boys today. 2161 males have the name, averaging the age of 8. In Swedish, it’s quite a cute name but internationally it sounds like ‘ciggie’ – which means cigarette.

Birger – the name works in Swedish as it has the pronunciation of ‘biryer’. But in English it’s unfortunately pronounced Burger. There are 30,000 men with this name in Sweden, averaging the age of 66. In 2019, 11 new baby Birgers were however registered.

Simon – while we are on the subject of pronunciation, the name Simon becomes relevant. No problem pronounced the English way, but in Swedish the ‘i’ sounds like a ‘ea’. So the name is pronounced seamon, which is rather regrettable.

Odd – an old Nordic name which is beautiful in Swedish. But in English it means strange and weird. Maybe not what we want our newborn to be associated with. That said, there are 1373 of them in Sweden.

Birk – pronounced ‘birrck’ in Swedish, it’s probably also easy for Scots to say. However, English people would say ‘berk’. This is unfortunately a slang word for idiot or dickhead. There are 562 males called Birk averaging an age of 11, and it’s growing in popularity. It is an old Nordic name meaning ‘trading place’.

When Norway became free from Sweden

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.

Happy Syttende Mai!

May 1st in Sweden – a day of solidarity

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.

Happy May the first!


Welcome the spring in Sweden – wherever you are.

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.

If you are interested in witnessing this, go to http://www.confidencen.se/kalendarium

This is the site for events at Ulriksdal’s Palace. They will live stream their Walpurgis event tomorrow at 7pm. (Valborgsmässokonsert). The youtube link will be put up on this site just before 7.

I fully intend to watch it. Hope to see you there!

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.