Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Watching the Swedes: Swedish protection in Addis Abeba

Watching the Swedes: Swedish protection in Addis Abeba

Swedish protection in Addis Abeba

And so the Swedish journalists in Ethiopia got prison. 11 years for illegal entry and terrorism. I feel sorry for them and their families. 'Merry Christmas'.

The outrage in Swedish media, however, is interesting from a cultural perspective. The trial has been called 'unfair', the case condemned as 'political' and the African system as 'corrupt'. Is this true or is it a case of Swedes taking the moral high ground?

Anthropologists are yet to find a culture that thinks their way is wrong. And judging by this case, this is a very relevant discovery for Swedish culture. It seems very often in Swedish media, and even amongst Swedes themselves, that no other legal system is as honest and fair as the Swedish one. All African and Asian judicial systems are deemed unjust, as are most European - and the American system is seen as flawed.

Is this the reason why Sweden has given itself the role of the social and political conscience of the world? The neutral, peacekeeping and mediating nation? Because at heart Swedes think they're right and the others are wrong?

My recurring feeling is that this belief gives some Swedes a false sense of security. Wherever they are in the world, they feel protected by the superiority of Swedishness.

The particular case in Ethiopia is, of course, a tragedy all round. And although the perpertrators may very well not be terrorists, they certainly did enter the country illegally. As journalists, they saw it as their duty to report on one of the most closed regions in the world. But they got caught.

And, although they might think so, I'm afraid being Swedish won't protect them in Addis Abeba.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Let the light in - Lucia morning in Sweden

A Chinese proverb says this,

'It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness'.

Never was this more true than today. Lucia day. At the darkest time of the year, when we all are drained by the black mornings and afternoons, Lucia pays us a visit. With candles in her hair and surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, Lucia shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

I love Lucia. Long live Lucia!

Lucia traditions are celbrated in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Malta, Bosnia, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovakia and St. Lucia, West Indies. But where does she come from and why is she one of the few Saint's days celebrated in Sweden?

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr's death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother's long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucy became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage. Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking. One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.

The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brough to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century.

The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people's homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread.

So, it might be cold and dark outside, but inside it's light. And the light is always stronger than the darkness. Keep your light lit, and you will never feel the darkness.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Animal rights

Out in the world, a prevailing stereotype of the Swedes is that they are liberal and sexually liberated. But even sexual freedoms can be too extreme. For example, zoophilia, or bestiality, has been legal in Sweden since 1944. It is also, by the way, legal in Denmark and Finland.

This is shocking information. How can a country like Sweden that fights for the rights of individual expression and rights allow such hanous actions to take place? Is bestiality allowed because Swedes don't believe it possible? Current laws protect the animal from cruelty, but as long as it is not injured, then sexual activity is allowed.

But now, at last, a new law is being proposed. This new law would solely encompass the sexual abuse of animals for the perpetrator's own pleasure. I am speechless that it has taken so long to affect a change. Outraged that it occurs in the first place. Thankful that the law is changing. Animals share this planet with us and they are subjugated under our will. They are without voices. This law will give them more rights, but they still do not have a voice. It is up to all of us to respect animals and to not abuse the power we have over these helpless beings.

Shame on you Sweden that it's taken until 2011 for you to realize this.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Swedish legends by the motorway

Sweden is a country full of myths and legends. Like other rural countries, many of these myths and legends are based around the dark woods, or rugged hilltops or deep lakes. These legends are passed on verbally down through the generations, and some are considered so important that the region builds a statue or another kind of monument in its honour.

One such statue, built in 1969, can be seen from the motorway just outside of Jönköping, in the town of Huskvarna. At this point, the motorway separates the town from the vast lake Vättern. On the town side, on the grass verge, a giant is standing. This giant is clutching a clump of grass in his arms and gazing beyond the motorway to the other side of the lake.

Of all the people who have driven past this place, I wonder how many have seen this giant? And I wonder how many know of the legend surrounding him?

The giant's name is Vist. And the story goes like this. Long ago in the area of lake Vättern lived the giant Vist and his wife. Every day, they would wander around the lake looking for food. It wasn't unusual that on their walks, they would end up on the opossite side of the lake from their home. But this wasn't a problem for Vist. With one giant step, he could stride across the lake and be home in no time. His wife, however, who had smaller steps than him, couldn't manage this and had to walk back home around the shore's edge.

One day, Vist was at home and his wife was wandering the countryside. She ended up on the opposite side of the huge lake. Hungry and weary, she realised she was too tired to walk all the way home so she shouted out to Vist across the lake. She told him to grap a clump of earth and throw it into the lake so she could use it as a stepping stone to get home quicker. Vist grabbed the earth and threw it into the lake and his wife came home.

We know this story to be true because the piece of earth remains today in Lake Vättern in the form of an island. The island of Visingsö - Vis's island.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

An announcement that shook Sweden

Recently, the winners of the Nobel prize for Literature was officially announced. This sombre occassion is avidly followed by the media from around the world. Who will win? A Swede? A European? The favourite....?

Yesterday, another announcement was made in Swedish media. Not quite of the same calibre as the Nobel prize for Literature, and not as interesting for international media, but none-the-less it was an announcement that created a lot of reaction in many Swedish households.

Who will lead 2012's Melodifestivalen? Who will indeed be the host for the Swedish version of the Eurovision Song Contest qualifiers?

Late yesterday, the announcement came. Film actress Helena Bergström, singer Sarah Dawn Finer and blogger Ana Gina were the 'lucky' winners. Not many people reacted to Sarah Dawn or Ana, but the choice of Helena Bergström caused a storm on websites, in coffee rooms and on social media networks.

According to one net survey, 32% were angry at the choice of Helena Bergström. Others wrote acidic comments such as 'She's just going to cry all the time', 'she has no business being there' and 'she's probably going to get her tits out like she always does.'

Think how powerful it would be if people could channel all this energy into something meaningful and positive instead of focusing on who hosts a music competition to select a bad Swedish song that never wins the international competition anyway?

Monday, 31 October 2011

The 7 billionth citizen of the world is not Swedish

In the Phillipines, a little baby was born. But Danica Camacho isn't any ordinary baby.

This innocent child has become a symbol for what Swedish Professor in World Health Hans Rosling is calling 'the beginning of the end'. Although impossible to accurately calculate, Danico has symbolically been labelled the 7 000 000 000th citizen of Earth. Today, 31 October 2011, the population of the planet has broken the 7 billion threshold.

Why does Hans Rosling call it the 'beginning of the end'? According to him, the number of births in the world is decreasing. And with an aging population, it's only a question of time before the imbalance in generations becomes unsustainable.

And how does this relate to Sweden?

Although an aging population might be a problem in Sweden itself, overpopulation hardly is. According to the UN World Prospects Report, Sweden is one of the countries in the world that has the lowest number of citizens per square kilometer. Sweden has 21 citizens per square kilometer, on average. Compare that to the 18,534 citizens per square kilometer in China, or 16,923 in Monaco. The country with the most space is, as you might guess, Greenland, with 0,026 people per square kilometer. This is closely followed by the remote Falkland Islands and then Mongolia.

These statistics are naturally an avergae of the whole country, and most populations are intensified around their major cities. The most densely populated city is where little Danica Camacho was born today - the Phillipine capital of Manila where staggering 43,079 people occupy one square kilometer. In Europe, the most dense city is the rather obscure French town of Levellois-Perret. Here, 26,126 people squeeze together in one kilometer. And Stockholm's population density? A measly 3597 people per kilometer.

So next time I'm on the underground and somebody complains about the number of people, or sitting on a bus, they whinge about the annoying amount of traffic, you know what I'm going to say?

'Try living in Manila, then you'll really have something to complain about.'

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Happy Leaders' Conference

I participated in a very interesting conference today.

Arranged by the newspaper 'Chef', the conference gathered 200 managers from around Sweden at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. The aim of the day was to listen to interesting and inspiring leaders and the day did in fact offer a variety of people and opinions.

SKF's CEO Tom Johnstone talked about the importance of accessibility. Marie Louise Ekman, head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre stressed the skill of creativity. And Jens Henriksson, Managing Director of Stockholm Stock Exchange emphasised loyalty.

But perhaps the most provocative and 'news-worthy' guest was the leader of the major political oppposition party Håkan Juholt. Currently in hot water due to scandal around fraudulent housing benefits, everyone listened to Håkan with bated breath. What would he say about the scandals? Would he announce his resignation?

The theme of the conference was 'Happy and a Manager - yes, it's possible' and Håkan Juholt reinforced several times that, despite his current situation, he is happy. So no juicy gossip and no resígnation. Just the usual political rhetoric.

As I sat and listened to the guests talking about what makes them happy as bosses, I was struck by the Swedishness of the entire theme. Would you find the same theme at a conference in Nigeria or in Russia? Probably not. In many other countries, the focus of leadership rests on efficiency or productivity or results. Of course, it does in Sweden too, but here we also have the luxury to reflect over our happiness also. We don't have to worry so much about where the next meal is coming from or if our job is secure or our health insurance is enough. We've solved many of the issues of survival and can focus our energies on something else. Ourselves. And how we feel.

But does the opportunity to reflect over our happiness actually make us any happier?

Now that's worth thinking about.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

5 tips for spotting Swedes at an airport

If, like me, you like guessing peoples nationalities at airports, here are a few simple tips to help you spot the Swedes:

1) Small children running seemingly out of control around Duty Free shops, seating areas and restaurants? Always Swedish.

2) People forming a long queue at the gate 1-2 hours before boarding is about to commence? Swedish.

3) Laden down with heavy shopping bags full of tax-free alcohol? Swedes.

4) Wearing trendy clothes and designer glasses from Efwa Attling or the like? Yes, Swedish.

5) Still wearing flip-flops from their holiday in a hot country, even though they’re currently in Frankfurt? Yes, you guessed it. Swedish.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Sweden's most famous saint

I was yesterday in an area of Sweden some 50km north of Stockholm on event where we drove rally cars and shot clay pigeons. Although it was a lot of fun, it was something else that actually caught my fantasy. Something completely different. The venue we were at was next to a small village called Finsta. And it was in Finsta that Sweden's most famous saint - Saint Brigitte or the Holy Birgitta was born.

I became so interested in this fact that I did some research into who this woman actually was. Born in Finsta in 1303, Birgitta Birgersdotter bore 8 children and, after her husband's death, dedicated herself fully to religion.

She had visions, her earliest visions being of the virgin Mary placing a crown on her head and of Jesus dying on the cross. Birgitta started a religious order with its main base in Vadstena and eventually moved to Rome where she died in 1373. She was canonised in 1391 for her good works.

And today, The Holy Birgitta is one of the six patron saints of Europe intended to protect the european land mass.

I wonder what she would think of loud rally cars violently tearing up the earth not far from her place of birth?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Favourite Swedish expressions

I have a Swedish expression that I really like - 'Inget ont som inte har något gott med sig'. With every bad thing, there's always something good. It's a little like the English 'every cloud has a silver lining'.

A couple of days ago I asked people on Facebook to let me know their favourite Swedish expression or words and, why. This is what some of them said:

'Skit gott' (Shit good)- What a contradiction of words...Poop good???
onsdag kl. 06:52 · Gilla.

'Nu går skam på torra land' - (shame walks on dry land???) - Jättekul uttryck :-) used when somebody has done something he/she should be ashamed of
onsdag kl. 07:05 · Gilla.

'Skamlös' - (Shameless)- A wonderful word if you think about it.
onsdag kl. 07:27 · Gilla.

'Jag älskar dig...' - (I love you) - Because it is fantastic when you can say it to somebody. I get warm inside everytime I say it.
onsdag kl. 07:31 · Gilla · 1 person.

'Det fixar sig'' - (It'll all work out) - Either exaggerated belief in the future or the irresponsible abandonment of your own fate into the hands of another.
onsdag kl. 08:00 · Gilla.

'When people mix up phrases and don't react themselves, such as "jag har många bollar i luften" + "jag har många järn i elden" = "jag har många bollar i elden''
(I have many balls in the air + I have many irons in the fire = I have many balls in the fire.)
onsdag kl. 21:08 · Gilla · 1 person.

What's your favourite Swedish expression, and why?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Reality check in Söderköping

Visiting the small town of Söderköping in Östergötland seemed like the perfect romantic and quiet weekend. But, boy, were we wrong.

Arriving in the town was initially unspectacular. We parked the car and walked towards the hotel. But on the streets, we noticed something different. All the people of Söderköping were wearing unusual clothes - long cloaks and capes, pointy hats with bells on, baggy linen trousers. They carried staffs and walking sticks. Some of the men had long beards and the women had shawls wrapped around their heads and shoulders. What was this? Is this small town, 2 hours south of Stockholm, stuck in time? It was like walking into a scene from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. There goes Gandalf. Oh look, it's Dumbeldore.

It didn't take long for us to realize that this particular weekend Söderköping was hosting a Medieval festival. As night fell over the town, torches were lit to mark the dark paths and bonfires were set ablaze. The local park was turned into a muddy arena with jousting, live music and fire dancers. The place would, however, have looked more authentic without the big 'Sponsored by Swedbank' sign. This arena was packed with Swedes in their costumes, many really getting into the role. Many of these people were probably what, in Swedish, is called a 'lajvare'.

'Lajvare's are the Swedish equivalent to the English 'Larpies' - people who participate in a role-play and physically dress up and act out their character's actions. These live-action role-playing games (LARPs)are not a new phenomenon, dating back to the late 70's and gaining popularity through the 80's and 90's. LARPs range in size from small private events lasting a few hours to huge public events with thousands of players lasting for days, rather like the one in Söderköping.

Culturally, this phenomena is very intriguing. Traditionally entertainment has meant spectating but participants in a LARP cast off the role of passive observer, and take on new roles that are often outside of their daily life and contrary to their culture. But, why? What's the attraction?

Is the daily drudge of life in Sweden so tedious that 'larping' is the best solution? For some, I guess.

But for me, well, I enjoyed the night in the small Medieval town of Söderköping but I was happy to climb into the BMW, switch on my Ipod and head back to the big city.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Tyranny of the Minority

Last night, I participated in a Tenants' Association meeting. All the owners of the flats were gathering together to vote on whether or not to build balconies on one of the buildings. Now, I happen to live in said building, so I was very interested, and turned up with my voting card in hand and smile on my face at the agreed time.

At best, these kinds of meetings give you an insight into Swedish democracy. At worst, they drag on and on and on with everybody giving their point of view, often irrelevant. Unfortunately, last night's meeting was of this latter kind. Two and a half hours of discussing the merits of balcony building unfolded before we were able to whip out our cards and vote. I was desparate. I was tired and frustrated. But democracy takes time.

After the long drawn-out discussions, we finally voted. I learned that, in order for one side to 'win', there must be a 2/3 or more majority. This meant we needed 63 votes to win. The cards went up, the counting began. And the result?

59 votes for, 20 votes against and several abstentions.

Although there was a clear majority for the building of balconies, we lost. 20 people could prevent it from happening. Now, is this democracy? I wonder.

This is what's known as Tyranny of the Minority - where a minority of people can block the decision for the majority. It's very common in Swedish decision and policy making. But is it democracy?

It certainly didn't feel like it last night.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The most liveable city in the North

In an unusual burst of self-confidence, a few years ago, Stockholm branded itself as the 'Capital of Scandinavia'. One could expect this to mean that of the Scandinavian and Nordic cities, Stockholm is the most sought-after and popular to live in.

But this, apparently, is not the case.

Of all the Nordic cities in the region, the city that people mostly want to live in Helsinki.

In a recent Global Liveability Survey of 140 cities, the Finnish capital comes out as number 7 on the list. The survey looks at criteria such as health care, environment and education.

Melbourne is in the number one position, then Vienna, then Vancouver. The first American citiy to appear on the list is Honolulu - in place 26.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Slobbering and slurping Swedes

So, there were 7 of us. Three Englishmen, one Scot, one American, one Canadian and one South African. But, because we all live in Sweden, we all knew actually what to do.

You see, Sweden is usually associated with reserved behaviour and pleasant manners. However, on several occasions a year, such as tonight, this myth is busted wide open.

I am referring to a traditional get-together where where little food is actually eaten but alcohol consumption is high,where drinking songs are screeched out into the night sky and where audibly slurping and slobbering your food is considered proper etiquette. What event is this? The Swedish crayfish party.

The crayfish party is, as it sounds, a party where Swedes slurp and slobber crayfish. Now, eating crayfish is quite hard work. There isn't much meat on these crustaceans and the little blighters can be quite tricky to crack open. This small amount of food, coupled with copious amounts of beer and snaps usually leads to a rowdy and boistrous atmosphere.

Crayfish parties are generally held during August, a tradition that started because crayfish harvesting in Sweden was, for most of the 20th century, legally limited to late summer. Dining is traditionally outdoors, but in practice the party is often driven indoors by bad weather. Customary party accessories are comical paper hats, paper tablecloths, paper lanterns (often depicting the Man in the Moon), and bibs.

And believe me, those bibs are needed.....

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Love kilos

The Swedish value of equality manifested itself recently in some interesting research.

Research released from Ohio State University has shown that in heterosexual marriages in the USA, women tend to put on a few kilos after marriage. Men, however, tend to put on weight after a divorce.

Apparently, this is not the case in Sweden. According to experts at Karolinska Institute, it isn't only women who increase in weight after a marriage. It is both men and women. There's equality for you!

In Swedish, these extra kilos even have a name - 'kärlekskilo' (love kilos) or 'trivselkilo' (satisfaction kilos).

So the extra weight deosn't sound that bad then does it?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

No snoozin' with 'snus' in

Cultural researchers say that you can understand a culture by looking at the products of that culture. For example, the way the houses look, what kind of clothes people wear or the food they eat.

One cultural product to come out of Sweden is a substance called 'snus'. 'Snus' is brown, sticky and can cover your teeth in discoloured drool. Sound attractive? Then read on.

'Snus' is a moist tobacco powder, made in Sweden since the 19th century. 'Snusers' squeeze the moist substance into pellets or use pre-packed sachets that look like miniature teabags, placing them under their upper lip for up to an hour. In best case, you don't notice that the 'snus' is in the user's mouth. In worst case, the 'snuser' has a very swollen upper lip giving them a slightly retarded look. But where's the kick? Well, absorbed into the bloodstream through the lip, 'snus' has a softer but longer nicotine buzz than cigarettes. No snoozin' with 'snus' in.

Due to health reasons, within the EU, the sale of 'snus' is banned, which is odd since cigarettes and other forms of tobacco aren't. However, in the rest of the world, 'snus' is proving a hit, with sales booming in the US and Canada. North Americans are increasingly buying 'snus' as a way either to quit or to beat smoking bans.

Nobody knows when the use of tobacco as a stimulant started but Europeans first came into contact with it during the 1400's when Christopher Columbus landed on Haiti. The tobacco plant was quickly exported to Europe and put into products such as snuff, chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

It was believed at that time that tobacco cured cancer and syphilis.

But users of 'snus' don't have to worry about the latter. 'Snus' has a pungent smell making the user's breath very strong. The chances of catching a sexually transmitted disease are limited when nobody will even kiss you.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Swede Talk, Swede Talk

A few random notes from a blog by Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman:

1. Stockholm isn’t perfect. Even in August, it can rain cats and dogs — which is why I’m still sitting in the lounge blogging over my coffee and herring.

2. More seriously, I wouldn’t want to live here — because I’m not Swedish! Culturally I’m very much an American, Northeast Corridor edition, and even the Swedes tell me that their society can feel a bit claustrophobic. Fundamentally, my home is in the real real America — the multicultural, multiracial, freewheeling society that is built around the American idea. Of course, the “patriots” of the right hate that America.

3. Of course the point is not that Sweden is perfect, it’s the fact that it works and thrives despite high taxes and a strong welfare state — which isn’t supposed to be possible according to conservative dogma.

An anecdote here: Robin and I were talking yesterday with an eminent American financial economist, and said something about tax levels here. He said, “Well, that’s why all the young people are leaving.” Except, you know, they aren’t. But never mind — that’s what’s supposed to be happening, and it must be happening.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Swedish summer shut-down

Summertime, and the living is easy.

Swedish culture and lifestyle is very much structured around having long vacations during the summer (and preferably also in the winter). Foreign companies who work with Swedish companies are often dismayed by the 'Swedsih shutdown' from the end of June to the middle of August when everybody seems to be on holiday. To the outsider, this seems very inefficient.

Swedes love their long vactions. In fact, it is legislated that an employer has to allow an employee four weeks holiday in a row, unless something else is otherwise contracted between the parties. It's hardy surprising with the deep, cold winters, that Swedes want to make the most of the long, light and hopefully warm days. It provides an opportunity to totally relax, to stay at the country house, to go out in the boat, or to travel.

But is it effective or even good for us to be off work for so long? Well, if we are to believe some recent research, the answer is no. This research out of Holland shows that the benefits of being on holiday radically reduce after the first week. What this leads them to conclude is that there is no apparent benefit on our health to being off work for longer than 1-2 weeks at a time.

So let's see if the Swedish government considers these findings. Will we see a change in holiday legislation? My guess is that any party that wants to be re-elected will stay away from this particular hot potato.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Politics week Swedish style

Once a year, at the beginning of August, there is a politics week in Sweden. The week takes place in an open-air park called Almedalen on the Baltic island of Gotland, and attracts heavy media coverage. Every day of the week belongs to a specific party that has a seat in the parliament. Quite conveniently there are 7 parties.

The Alemdalen politics week all started 40 years ago when legendary Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme spoke publicly. It was at the end of the 60s and the Social Democrats on the island took the initiative and asked Olof Palme to make a speech in Almedalen. Palme and his family had spent their summer holidays on the neighbouring island of Fårö for many years. The stage was a lorry platform at Kruttornet and there was an audience of a few hundred people.

Now Almedalen politics week attracts thousands of participants and is intended to involve the man on the street in politics and to protect the strong Swedish value of democracy. However, the concept of democracy has never been so strongly challenged as it is this year. Right wing, national socialist party Sweden Democrats won seats in the the Swedish parliament last year. This entitles them to their day at Almedalen. Despite strong criticism and outcry, today is their day.

Although giving a free platform to racists is a difficult thing to stomach, the act strongly reflects the Swedish belief in democracy. Although we don't all agree with each other, we have to defend the right for each other to think differently. If we don't do that, what's left? What kind of a society do we have then? I am sure it would be a society that we wouldn't want to live in.

At Almedalen politics week, we meet each other in debate. And in debate and discussion, we influence each other and our environment. And it is then, and only then, we can possibly change our society.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Defining Swedish

Back in June, I participated in a citizenship ceremony. Yes, I became Swedish. But does a Swedish passport really make me a Swede? The ceremony was attended by hundreds of people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Africans, Asians, Middle Easterns, Europeans, Americans, Australians were participating to receive their Swedish acknowledgements and to drink coffee and eat cinnamon buns. But are we Swedish? And what is a Swede anyway?

A radio program the other day was discussing this issue. They were talking about the Swedish soul. The essence that makes all Swedes Swedish. One member of the panel was disturbed. She claimed that such discussions were bordering on racist. She suggested that Swedishness needed a new definition.

What is a Swede then? Well, it's simply those who live here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Royal Imported Snow

And so the snow has gone. We can see the pavements once again. Patches of green grass smile at us after several months' absence. The sky is blue. The sun is shining. And spring, maybe, yes, spring is here.

But not at the palace. Tons of snow has been shipped in and placed around the outside wall of the royal palace in central Stockholm. Not because the King has a particular penchant for snow, but because the Royal Palace sprint is taking place today. A world championship race, this sprint is, of course, on skis and the keen participants skirt the monarch's outward rim in a sweaty, delirious blur of colour.

It seems to me like the transporting of snow into the city when the snow has gone is a strange idea. It seems expensive and not very environmentally friendly.

Why not schedule the race earlier in the year?

Like, in the winter, perhaps, when we have 4 months of natural unloved snow?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Cream buns for the girls

On International Women's day this week a primary school on the Swedish island of Gotland came upon a good idea. They decided that, at the morning break, all of the boys would get crisp bread as their usual snack. But to celebrate International Women's day all the girls would get a cream bun. Little did they know that this would create a parental and media storm to liken the Suez crisis.

At the end of the day, the kids went home and some of the boys complained to their parents that they also would have liked a cream bun. The parents were up in arms! How disgraceful! How terrible! What were they thinking?? How could they violate the rights of the boys and not give them the same as the girls?

This reaction made me think.

While admittedly the primary school maybe didn't make a clever move, they did provide parents with an opportunity. Thinking parents should have sat their boys down and explained why the girls were given a special treat and why they have a special day. Thinking parents could have explained that girls around the world do not have the same access to education, or that they are married against their will, or that they are killed for speaking up against their fathers etc, etc, etc.

What an opportunity for the thinking parent.

Equality does not start with who gets a cream bun or not. It starts in the home, at the kitchen table, in dialogue between children and their parents.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Gay Swedish footballers

The image of Sweden as a liberal and open-minded country took a bashing this week. In comparison to many other countries in the world, Sweden is liberal. It is a place where, relatively speaking, minority groups can live safe in the knowledge that they are free from attack and protected by the law.

However, earlier this week, a popular young football player came out about being gay in the national press. The news was extra tantalising because the footballer in question is the son of a Swedish football legend from decades back. Many Swedes reacted neutrally to the news, not realy seeing any big issue around the fact that someone is gay - even if they are an elite sportsperson. But not everyone reacted in this fashion.

In the comments box on the football website, hate and homophobia flourished. In the end, the comments were so many, and so vile, that the website's editor shut down the comments box. The hate that was spewed out had gone way over the limit.

This type of reaction indicates precisely why it is so good that footballers and other sportspeople come out. The macho culture, especially in football, means that many gay sportspeople are afraid to come out because they are afraid that their career will suffer or they will lose sponsors and fans. And as long as this fear exists, different sexual preferences will never been treated as equal, even in the democratic countries around the world.

So, in liberal Sweden, homophobia still exists. There is still work to be done.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The land of the lagom

One of the first words you learn as a foreigner in Sweden is 'lagom'. In English, there isn't one word to sum it up. Roughly translated it means 'enough, sufficient, adequate, just right'. Lagom is widely translated as 'in moderation', 'in balance', 'optimal' and 'suitable'. While words like 'sufficient' suggest some degree of abstinence or scarcity, 'lagom' carries the connotation of appropriateness.

Similar to the concept of the middle path in Eastern philosophy, or Aristotle's 'golden mean' of moderation in Western philosophy, it is said that the concept of lagom penetrates the Swedish way of life. Indeed the word lagom can be used in many situations to describe something that is 'just right'.

Living in Sweden, you hear the word 'lagom' often. And just when you think you've understood it, something happens that makes it clear that you haven't understood it at all.

For example, a person can be 'lagom tall' or 'lagom short' but that is not necessarily the same height.

Things can be 'lagom funny'. Although said with some irony perhaps, what does this actually mean? That something is funny - but not too funny?!?

Lagom can also be used as an adjective - 'that jacket is lagom on you'. Does this means it fits perfectly? Or does it mean it looks good enough - perhaps even mediocre?

And finally, things can be 'precis lagom', or precisely lagom. A concept that is so fuzzy for those of us not indoctrinated into it, can also be really exact.

The word lagom is generally believed to stem from the days of the vikings. When the vikings would pass around the mead to be drunk, it was important to take enough but not too much. The mead should last for the whole crew (in Swedish 'lag' + around 'om' Lagom = round the whole crew). Other etymologists claim that it comes from the Swedish word for law - lag - and means according to the folk law, or 'according to common sense' as we would say in English.

Whatever the origin, there is a meaningful cultural significance of the word lagom. The value of "just enough" is seen favorably in society as a sustainable alternative to the hoarding extremes of consumerism. But it could also be viewed as repressive - for example, it's less ok to be too showy about wealth and power.

In a single word, lagom is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. Despite a shift towards individualism and risk-taking in recent years, it is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes.

But is Sweden really as lagom as it thinks in comparison to other contries? There are research databases that claim otherwise. I'll talk about these in a later blog.

Right now, this amount of text feels, well,....lagom.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

How to deal with shoplifters

I often think of Sweden as a model country. In many respects, Sweden is a great example of social, political and economic achievement. But there's always an exception.

In a small town somewhere in Sweden, there's a hypermarket. This hypermarket is called Dollar Store. Dollar store has lots of problems with shoplifting. And so, they have devised a plan.

It costs 1500 Swedish crowns to hold a shoplifter until the police arrive. The shoplifter has to pay this fee. But now, they have a choice. Instead of paying the money, they can stand in the shop wearing a big sandwich board. On the sandwich board it says,

'I am a thief. I have stolen from Dollar Store.'

If this wasn't so horrifying, it would be funny. My immediate reaction to this is this is even legal? It feels like a serious infringement on personal integrity, even if it is someone who has committed a crime. We used to sew red letters into the front of the dresses of women who had committed adultery, we used to throw tomatoes at people in the stocks, cut off hands of thieves.

Haven't we moved on since that? Obviously not, in the Dollar Store somewhere in rural Sweden.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Swedish sex bombs

The myth of the Swedish sexbomb has been proven in the latest statistics from the Central Statistics Office.

The recently-released figures show that the population of Sweden is rapidly approaching 9.5 million. At the end of 2010, it was 9 415 570 people. This is an increase of 74 888 people since 2009. More people got married, more got divorced and birth rates are increasing.

I reckon it's all thanks to the long, cold winters under the duvet and the wonderful, light, summer nights in the forest.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The definition of rape

The current trial in the UK against Wikileak's Julian Assange has cast the light on cultural attitudes to rape. The Swedish prosecutor is demanding that Julian Assange is returned to Sweden to face two counts of rape. His UK defense lawyer is trying to ridicule the Swedish definition of rape in order to prevent this from happening. In other words,saying what he did is not counted as rape in the UK and therefore he shouldn't be extradited.

One of the women accusing Assange of rape has alleges that he used his body weight to pin her down. In the UK, the lawyer refered to this as simply 'the missionary position'.
The other women accuses Assange of penetrating her when she was asleep/semi asleep and without a condom. The UK lawyer interpreted this as 'half awake' and if you're 'half awake' you are consenting apparently.

The Swedish rape laws are amongst the toughest in the world, and I think that's a good thing. In a country that believes in equality and integrity, I would expect nothing less. The attitude towards rape in Sweden - informed by a strong sense of women's rights - means that it is more likely to be reported to police.

Some 53 rape offences are reported per 100,000 people in Sweden, the highest rate in Europe according to European jutice statistics.

The figures may reflect a higher number of actual rapes committed but it seems more likely that tough attitudes and a broader definition of the crime are more significant factors

Under Swedish law, there are legal gradations of the definition of rape.

There is the most serious kind, involving major violence.

But below that there is the concept of 'regular rape', still involving violence but not violence of the utmost horror.

And below that there is the idea of 'unlawful coercion'. Talking generally, and not about the Assange case, this might involve putting emotional pressure on someone.

The three categories involve prison sentences of 10, six and four years respectively.

So, whatever Mr Assange did, it is in Sweden that he should face the courts. If it is a conspiracy, and he is innocent, it is terrible. But if he is guilty and protected by the UK lawyers, it is even more terrible.

No rapist should walk free. Ever.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Swearing till you're blue in the face

Any foreigner arriving in Stockholm yesterday would have been surprised to see the tons of snow that were dumped on the city from the heavy sky. Even though they couldn't speak Swedish, they would have picked up on one expression - a word that was heard on everybody's lips. A word that had to be the most commmon word of the day yesterday.

The word? Fan!

The meaning? Something like fuck/shit/damn and used in this case in disappointment and dismay as the snow lashed down.

Swearing in Swedish is usually something I try to avoid. I think it's difficult to swear in a foreign language because you don't really understand the nuances and strength of the word in question. It's easy to cause offence.

A recent article in a newspaper took up this issue of swearing in different cultures. All cultures have swear words and most of them are connected to what is considered taboo in that culture. Common themes are religion, genitals, toilet, sex and mothers.

In the Nordic countries, 'mother' isn't such a loaded theme and therefore doesn't feature in the common swear words. The strongest swear words are those connected to genitals, usually the female.

If you know more Swedish words than 'fan' and you're interested in reading more, here's the link:

Friday, 28 January 2011

A Swedish scandal

And so it happens again. A new Swedish exposé on tax evasion.

During the week, a well-known documentary series has investigated Ingemar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA. Consistently denying over the years that he has any involvement with IKEA any more, it was revealed that he runs a trust in Lichenstein which, in turn, 'owns' the rights to everything IKEA. It was explained that IKEA is run as a kind of franchise system - for every item sold in an IKEA store 3% in 'royalties' go tax free to Ingemar Kamprad's trust. 3% on everything from sofas, to meatballs, to candles. The amount on income has reached something like 100,000,000,000. Now that's a lot of money.

But the documentary focused on how much tax should Ingemar Kamprad pay on this income. He was wildly accused of tax evasion, tax planning and tax manipulation. He was accused of profiting on the Swedish brand and returning nothing to the system.

This is all very interesting from a cultural perspective. What causes scandal in a society says a lot about the norms and values of the country. In the UK, scandal always revolves around sex. In the USA scandal is often related to misuse of power. And in Sweden, it's frequently about money and tax. In a country that sees itself as heavily taxed, it is however deemed scandalous when people don't pay it. It feels like everything from not paying a tv license, to using a government credit card to buy a Toblerone, to tax evasion on a grand scale is given the same room in the media.

What the documentary didn't take up, however, is the fact that since Ingemar Kamprad doesn't live in Sweden and hasn't earned these millions in Sweden, he isn't liable to pay the tax. For example, I live and work in Sweden. I pay my tax in Sweden. Should I also pay tax in the UK, even when I don't live there?

The documentary also forgot to mention the amount of job opportunities that IKEA creates in Sweden. Thousands. And all of those people pay income tax. IKEA pays VAT to the governent, pays employment tax, profit tax and corporate tax. All income to the Swedish government.

If IKEA didn't exist at all, there'd probably be higher unemployment in Sweden. And those of us with jobs would have to pay more tax to support the burgeoning numbers of unemployed.

Now I know it's not all black and white, but it is fun to play with perspectives. One thing's for sure though, Ingemar Kamprad has done more for Sweden and the Swedish brand than any of these state-employed documentary film-makers ever will.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

New Swedish words

In January, Sweden's leading newspaper looks back at the year that's been and selects all the new words that have been created. Swedish media are really good at preserving the Swedish language and creating new words, and this is an important function for all small languages. The varacious apitite of English is slowly devouring small languages around the world.

Some of the new words that came up in 2010:

Sosseväskan - Socialist Designer Handbag
Vabfebruari - February month when most parents stay home from work with sick kids
Köttklister - Glue that holds together bits of meat
Vulkanflyktning - people trapped abroad after the volcanic eruption on Iceland
Playa - to watch a program on the internet that you missed when it was broadcast on the tv
Grogghaggor - Booze bitches - relating to the Sex and the City gang (and the like)
70 percenter - a person who waits to the final week of the sales
Pinjemun - to eat a bad pine kernel and get a bad taste in the mouth for weeks
Fritzla - to hide something or somebody very successfully
Hipsterbuk - the fat that hangs over the top of too-low-cut jeans
Kaffeflicka - a woman who is invited to gentlemen's dinners to drink coffee (revealed in a scandalous book about the king)