Beyond Nils Holgersson

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I am sitting in a clean, cushioned chair that obviously is part of an interior design concept and around me bell-like female voices sing about the importance of freedom. Did you guess where I am? Yes, at a Swedish university (hint: the cushioned concept chair) at my friend Malin’s choir practice. Her choir is due to perform at the welcome ceremony for the new students tomorrow morning and there is only one other girl in her voice who can be there so she did her duty and attends the practice. And I get to blog to a living testimonial to the choir culture in Sweden.

Yesterday, after more than seven hours of traveling, I made it to Karlstad where Malin lives nowadays. I am actually in Sweden for work, for a conference on Wednesday in Stockholm, but why flew up several times if you can combine trips. Karlstad is the capital of Värmland and the largest city in the province with 91,000 inhabitants. I have only been in Värmland three times in my life but I have had great times at Värmlands nation in Uppsala when I studied so I hold the province in high regard. It is also home to some famous Swedes, among them the founder of Ericsson, singers Zarah Leander and Monica Zetterlund, poets Nils Ferlin and Gustaf Fröding, and I believe most known: the grande dame of Swedish literature, Selma Lagerlöf.

Today, Malin took me to Lagerlöf’s estate Mårbacka for a guided tour. As a preparation, I had even started reading the only book by Lagerlöf that I own, “The Emperor of Portugal”. On the tour of the house we were the only people under 60 but I attributed this to the fact that it was after all a Monday. The estate was impressive – and modern, as she had such things as internal telephone lines installed in the house. Selma Lagerlöf, I learned, was an overall rather avantgarde woman. She took a loan to study to become a teacher when her father denied her an education, she cut her hair super short in 1891 she was the first woman to be awared a Nobel Prize (and the first Swede!), the first woman to be elected as a member of the Swedish Academy that awards the prize, she became a very active political influencer (as we would call it today), fighting for women’s right and suffrage. And she dated a woman.

And here we thought she was just that elementary teacher who wrote Nils Holgersson…I am putting some more Lagerlöf classics on my to-read-list.

 

Mårbacka has lots of apple trees and we tasted a tiny apple that was surprisingly delicious.

 

Selma Lagerlöf had a thing for peacocks. There was a sign with a story about how as a child, her leg was paralyzed and meeting a peacock healed her. Peacocks are still around and, as the sign informed me, are called “Sara and Pharao, as tradition demands”. I had no idea that there was a peacock naming tradition but I am glad I know now in case I ever get myself one.

 

 

 

 

Paradise Island

Ever since early childhood, I have fought a war against insects. I have been the preferred victim of mosquitos as long as I can remember. This has led to me developing an extreme acoustial alertness to the sound of tiny wings. If there is something flying in my bedroom I cannot sleep. I am in terror! (Will it sting? Will it give me another bite that will bother me for weeks?) So when two flies decided to settle in our room, the night was over for me at 4.22 a.m. A woke as I was battling the two insects who kept attacking my nose and ears, and said sleepily, “The advantage of Helen 1 A Tours is that you also get to partake in Helen’s insomnia”.

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The Fly Incident led to A letting me sleep in (when I finally won against Fly No 1. at 5:57 and Fly No. 2 at 8:12 and fell asleep again) which in its turn led to us taking a later ferry to – the Island. I had told A in advance that we had to go to the archipelago because if I was to sucessfully market Stockholm the islands had to be part of the experience. However, I had also advertised the archipelago as peaceful and deserted, I painted a counterimage of Düsseldorf which bothers me with its density. When we got to Grinda, it seemed everyone else had had the same idea – it was crawling with people which earned me a skeptical look from A. I could only redeem my trustwortiness when I led him to a beach off the beaten track. Okay, more or less of the beaten track, there were 10 other people at first, but we were alone within an hour. While the sun was warming us and the waves were softly washing up to the shore, A said, “Well, you promised me paradise and I was not disappointed.”

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Spot me in the Baltic Sea!

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We stayed in a real hotel (uncommon for the islands)

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The view from the restaurant

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First course of our delicious dinner (such luxury!)

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To perfect the day, a skilled musician performed on the jetty at night

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Upon our return, I insisted showing A the Old Town before he left. We saw it all, including creative window dressings.

Situatonal national identity

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To schedule an all-or-nothing World Cup match Germany vs. Sweden on Midsummer of all days is adventurous, I thought. To watch it with all my Swedes on the most crowded German party street in town is risky, I thought. I can change my situational national identity to Swedish for that night, I thought.

Let me tell you this: after Germany had scored their goal, I spent 50 agonizing minutes hoping nothing else would happen. How fun is it to watch a football match, that happens to be eventful, hoping for it to just be over before anyone does anything to change the balanced outcome of 1:1? I was terribly torn, sitting there in my Swedish jersey, being insulted by German fans (“All you can do is IKEA” [Eh, well, IKEA is pretty awesome.]) while slowly the feeling started creeping up that I really don’t want Germany to be kicked out of this tournament. But at the same time, Sweden fought so hard and come on, don’t we all love an underdog, and I was rooting for Sweden tonight, wasn’t I. Nerve-wracking! 

When the match was over, at least it was safe to go outside into the crowd. People patted our shoulders sympathically, giving us pitiful looks. “But my other team won!” I wanted to reply. It’s easy to be Swedish any other day but when it comes down to football, I guess I am still The German Girl.

We need to talk about schlager

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photo: Rodrigo Rivas Ruiz/imagebank.sweden.se

Anyone who knows me a little is aware of my love for Swedish schlager music. One of the very few lists on my Spotify that is always available offline is „Mel-Efter-Fest“. I’m a fan and I’m not ashamed to admit that Linda Bengtzing and Björn Skifs raise my spirits any given day.

What’s Scandi-pop and what’s schlager is hard to discern in the Swedish music scene but something that is certain is that Swedish schlager is very different from German schlager when it comes to the musical models, target group and the lyrics. We need to talk about the lyrics.

Recently, I’ve noticed such an abundance of hilarious lyrics, I felt compelled to draw your attention to them. Because if you’re Swedish, you’ve heard them and gladly sung along and probably never thought about how weird they are. If you’re non-Swedish, consider this yet another of my efforts to further the fame of the Swedish music industry. This list is by means complete of course and I’ll gladly accept additional suggestions.

Dvensk’s List of Hilarious Swedish Schlager Lyrics

Let’s start with a recurring theme that’s – surprisingly not love, but (and it’s up to you to draw your own cultural conclusions) money.  Or rather the lack thereof seems to be a hot topic in Swedish schlager. GES’ Stanna världen en stund is a true example of vardagsrealism, everyday realism:

I have thought about getting a dog/ but it’s difficult with my economic situation/But when she calls me and tells me everything will be fine/the world stops for a while“.

Thank God for that girlfriend, I guess.

Magnus Uggla in Kung för en Dag focuses on the daily troubles of Swedes living in a credit-based society:

If there is something that’s certain, it’s that shit will go down on the 24th [24th: pay day for most Swedes]/I’ll have ten pepper shots, beer, nuts and chips, if you deliver quickly, I’ll give you a big tip/But on Monday, one wakes with indescribable regret and to even be able to pay the rent, one needs to give the stereo equipment into mortgage.“

Lena Ph’s problem is the combination of Swedish consumerism and love. In Han jobbar i affär, she tells us of the shop assistant she fancies:

He wears such nice shirts, he has such great hair./ I hang out at the store where he works sometimes and I’ve bought everything I can there, my house looks like a shop by now. / It would be much better for my economy if it just was us and my clothes“.

Apparently, creating detailed pictures in the audience’s head is an important factor in Swedish schlager. „Nice shirts, great hair“ is a start but GES portrays the character of the song’s protagonist through an even more detailed account of his habits in Jävel på kärlek

I’m not good at football/ I have never jumped across hurdles and ditches/

I am not interested in horse racing/ it’s too expensive and who cares who wins/

I don’t own any tools/ I always take the bus when my car breaks down./

When I invite someone over for dinnner there are no happy faces/all the girls I like sit there and suffer/

But there is something I can do/all the other men can’t/

Tricks and feints no one else knows/Come home with me and you’ll see.“

I do believe that this could serve as a poetic Tinder profile text. You’re welcome.

If GES are the kings, Linda Bengtzing is the queen of original descriptions. From illustrating to how well she can live without the man who left her in Jag ljuger så bra:

I can watch a horror movie and sleep tight without you close next to me/

I can read my newspaper in peace and the bed’s really spacious now/

things could not be better.”

to characterizing the perfect man very thoroughly in E det fel pa mig:

 

I found the man with the right physique, the right chemistry/ who can empty the dishwasher/ he can do carpentry and knows how to pick the right wine to food.“

Total keeper, that guy. Of course, her songs don’t fall short of emphasizing her girlfriend qualities, too, which are – well – unusal. In Hur svårt kan det va she delivers this brilliant sales pitch:

I can be yours, I can be the worst heart attack/

pet your cat, I can do all that and a little more/

here I am, see me, hear me, touch me/how difficult can it be?“

Really, who would not fall for the cat sitter part?

Odd analogies are a success story in Swedish schlager. The legendary band Gyllene Tider, Roxette’s Per Gessle Swedish project, had a hit with comparing the effect of a loved one to that of anti-depressants in Lyckopiller. Expensive ones, mind you, supposedly a callback to the money issues:

It felt like expensive anti-depressants/when she kissed me on my mouth

It felt like expensive anti-depressants/ when she touched my neck

everything was like before and still everything was changed/

can I stay for a while?“

If that isn’t random enough yet, please be introduced to Björn Skifs’ megahit Michelangelo. (Björn Skifs was part of Blue Swede which had a song that started with Swedish men singing „Ugachaka, ugachaka“, so nothing can fret me there anymore.)

Michelangelo, can you please pick up the phone/

can you come here and bring your easel and paint my girlfriend?/ […]

If he could show the world how you smile, Mona Lisa would request to be taken down“.

First, didn’t Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa? Second, what does he even mean calling him on the phone? Third, nevermind, the melody is catchy and the compliment is flattering. (If you don’t consider that Mona Lisa doesn’t actually smile.)

But Swedes are not all about being nice. GES’ songs Hon är min (posessive already in the title, meaning „She is mine“) is full of mean insults to chase away the love rival, including pinning mental illness on him:

You stand there and stare with your mouth open like a dog/

the way you behave nobody wants to go out with you/

sometimes I think it would be good if a doctor told you to go home/

and take some more pills“.

Ouch.

Europe Day

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Every street looked like this, every street.

When I was in New York City, I was very surprised how I didn’t feel it was very crowded. I had expected the city to overwhelm me with its many inhabitants and tourists, to give me some kind of claustrophobia with all the people and skyscrapers. It didn’t at all and after being in downtown Düsseldorf a sunny Saturday today, I start realizing that maybe it’s because this town has made me used to crowded spaces and people everywhere. I don’t even know where all these people come from in Düsseldorf, it feels like all of the Netherlands come to visit and every single local citizen also takes out to the street of the Old Town. It’s literally more crowded than New York City – how is that even possible?!

But I will admit, if it had been 20 % less people, this would have been a perfect day. Suddenly, unexpectedly, spring returned today and bathed the cobblestone streets in sunshine, bringing out the lush trees in the alleys. I didn’t have time to sit down at one of the crowded restaurants until late in the afternoon though because I had agreed to help with promoting Sweden at the annual Europe Day. I borrowed a folkdräkt from a friend, put on my Tre kronor charm Andrea once gave me and was ready to sell dozens of cinnamon buns.

It was an interesting experience: a Dutch young man, probably part of a stag night, stopped and sang for me, an old lady told me her story of interrailing to Narvik as a young girl, another lady asked me why Crown Princess Victoria wasn’t there (“She’s so nice, she’s so incredibly nice!”), a Frenchman who had lived on Söder tried his Swedish on me and people asked us, somewhat accusatory, why we were not all blondes.

It was not that easy to sell the buns because when Europe gets together, there is serious competition: Belgian waffles, Portuguese natas, British fish ‘n’ chips, Spanish churros. Whatever you say tomorrow, Marine, I’ll always love being United in Diversity.

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Stockholm Social Race

“But you did manage to really do a lot this weekend”, my friend Marita said this afternoon during the 23-minute-lunch I could have with her at her home. Staying with her is really such a wonderful thing because I get to come and go as I want and she’s taking care of me with advice, food and most of all an extremely understanding attitude towards my day time absence during most time of my stay.

Other people run marathons. I do the Stockholm Social Race. I’ve been doing that for many years now, several times a year, but I feel my performance is not improving. I am still a time optimist and I still try to fit in too many people into too little hours. Because what am I supposed to do, who am I supposed to say no to if everyone is such inspiring, cosy, beloved company? As I only had 72 hours this time, of which I had to work almost one whole day, I already missed two thirds of the people I would have wanted to hang out with, too.

For being able to see the remaining one third, among them my French friend Laure exemplifying that if you don’t meet regularly you’ll miss serious life changes ( since we last met a few months ago, she managed to get married and is due to become both a mom and a Swedish citizen shortly), I cut down on sleep this time. I’m sure that’ll haunt me until next weekend, failing to catch up on rest, but it was worth it. My first night I got to spend a calm, much needed girls’ night with Marita on her sofa, the next day after work I hung out with Bianca. We headed to Gallerian and ate a foccacia because that’s one of our earliest memories of our friendship from seven years ago. Back then, she convinced me to dye my hair blonde and introduced me to the Italian toast, all in Gallerian. If they were not constanly rebuilding and opening and closing shops in Gallerian it would have felt just like back in the day.

Friday evening saw even more nostalgia when we had a somewhat unexpected Uppsala reunion. What had originally been planned as a dinnner with Tabea and me turned into a lovely meet up of my former room mates William, Hélene and Paul – first time in four years in that constellation!

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For Saturday, I had vowed to not go through all the shops I usually roam. I can nevertheless inform you that le derni cri is flounces at the shoulders and pleated long skirts. Instead of buying those, I looked for a new pencil skirt – an item I actually needed. Åhléns has taken out all my favorite brands so after Malin, who had come up from Karlstad to see me, and I left there empty-handed, she said, “You know, Helen, I’m thinking, as you like old ladies’ stores, shouldn’t we check at Dea Axelssons?” Ouch! Dea Axelssons is really an old ladies’ stores. Even for me. However, Dea Axelssons also had the greatest skirt. So I guess now that I’m getting closer to 30, it’s come that far, I’ve passed that Dea-frontier.

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Since I fell in love with Haymarket last time, we ended up there again this time. They have scones that definitely exceeded my expectations.

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My dear Malin, with what I call a bit of a Noora-facial-expression

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Happy Spring – let’s all continue to dress in black

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Malin attacking a hipster lego man (notice his hat)

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Malin had planned quite a happening for Saturday night: she’d booked us into a karaoke room and invited her former co-workers to come. I was very impressed with the performances to say the least. These (impossible-not-to-like) guys could sing, even without previous alcohol intake. In Germany, you can hardly find a man who will dare to sing in the comfortable anonymity of a choir let alone get on stage and do a whole-hearted “Circle of Life”-show. There is no denying it, Sweden is a singing nation and I love that. I think I personally mostly excelled at the schlager with “Det gör ont” being my most expressive act.

Somehow the night kept continuing even after the karaoke and I fear that all the money I saved on not buying new clothes went to buying alcohol. On the list of things I do not miss about Stockholm goes, apart from the gravel on the streets between October and May that keeps getting into my shoes, the following: alcohol prices (15 euros for a tiny cocktail), ridiculous admittance policies at clubs, artificial shortage of seats (in pubs), space (in clubs) and housing (in general). Going out is so difficult in that city, it made me appreciate the German culture and especially the Rhineland ways of going out. Maybe it was that that prompted a sudden emergence of #dizzelpride because I started selling Düsseldorf to everyone around me. Inexpensive wine, 25 degrees and sunshine, relaxed people hanging out by the water, excellent affordable sushi – Malin remarked surprised that I’d never advertised my city of residence this well before.

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We concluded the night at McDonald’s after the casino strictly refused to let us in. (I had hoped to win 4 million Swedish crowns to be able to afford a two-room-apartment in the outskirts of Stockholm.) Going to the casino meant going back and forth between the South and North Island which gave us the opportunity of analysing all the advertisments in the subway. I will probably never cease to be intruiged by Swedish advertisement and I tell myself I managed to instill at least some enthusiasm among my company.

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There is something greater than Stockholm, this ad by the Swedish Forest Initiative tells the inhabitants of the capital. Other posters read, “There is something greater than fredagsmys, Friday night coziness”.

I came home at 5 am which makes that night quite a milestone in my Stockholm history. Also because it was the night I at first try correctly identified a southern Småland dialect in one of Malin’s friends and another of her friends misidentified me as being from the north of Sweden, something Malin non-chalantly commented with, “You may give me the credit for that”.

Needless to say, Sunday was a hungover, tired day but any possible I’m-gonna-die-feeling was blown away by the radiance of Andrea who I met at Cafe String. (Which my phone kept autocorrecting to Cafe Strunt.) Because Marita lives in the south, I’ve put most of my activities this time on Södermalm to shorten my commute. The funny thing is though that I barely ever hang out on Södermalm so I literally have to check google maps not to get lost. (So does Andrea. We must have looked like tourists but really we just rarely left Östermalm/Gärdet/City, I guess.) That did not stop a German girl to ask me for directions though, something that made me very happy as I apparently still have an air of I-know-where-I’m-going. I succefully pretended to know where Bellmansgatan is located. Also, I deeply impressed her with my German language skills.

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Last tea before departure with Bianca on top of Stockholm

Despite the flight being overbooked, I made it home. In the security check, they frowned confused at my eclectic collection of imports: cheese, colored feathers, paper easter eggs and snus. Things change: before, I always would’ve brought the Amelia magazine and I’d always have been heart-broken to leave. Today, I buy Västerbottensost and I’m relatively okay with returning to spring temperatures. Relatively.

Citatsamling del 31, Stockholmseditionen

Hen är tysk, men trevlig.

Hennes efternamn är som en tagg i mitt öga.

Du är en riktig hetspelle. – Det kan jag ta. Det är faktiskt nåt fint!

 

Little Sweden

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There’s Chinatown, there’s Little Italy and according to me there is even Little Sweden in New York. Well, tiny Sweden.

Last Sunday, Emily and I continued our Church Tourism by attending service at the Swedish Church of New York. I’m kind of ‘collecting’ Swedish Churches abroad and it is so interesting to see how they operate in different countries, what kind of houses they have, how many people go there. The New York church has two pastors which is more than any other church I’ve been to so far has had. They also serve Philadelphia and D.C. though so I guess that makes sense. We were lucky to be there when the Örnsköldsvik youth orchestra was visiting, heightening the musical experience by a lot. So nice!

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New York is also home to the Scandinavia House, the Nordic Center in America, the leading center for Nordic culture in the United States, that offers a wide range of programs. I had been reading scholarly research back in grad school about the House. Of course I wanted to assess with my own eyes if I could follow the scholar’s arguments on the architecture. However, our stay there was rather brief as those eyes decided to provide me with only a blurred version of the site and my entire body completely – and rather suddenly – „crapped out“ on me as Emily phrased it, resulting in a breakdown, an opportunity for Emily to show her excellent skills as a nurse, and my confinement to bed for 18 hours. It was awful, I don’t recommend it, especially because I missed out on meeting Emily’s friend who had come to see us. There is much better things to do in NYC than passing out in your hotel room. In the course of these events, we also accidentally left my scarf and favorite cardigan at the Scandinavia House and had to make two trips back to finally retrieve both items – it was almost like getting them new, that’s how glad I was!

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Swedish Church right opposite H&M – coincidence?

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Scandinavia House’s Children Area

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The Scandishop and restaurant Smorgåschef