November in Sweden: Shoes at the door for dinner party season

The Year in Sweden - November: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

November in Sweden: Shoes at the door for dinner party season

It’s overcast. A wet mist slides down over you. Buses are sprayed with dirty, crusty snow. And yet many are happy at the onset of winter. There’s less guilt for staying indoors, and all that magical snow to look forward to, softening edges in the country and spreading street light in cities. November is when people get serious about Sunday walks. Kids skid around on the artificial ice in the parks. Sawdusted paths through suburban woods are gridlocked. Please keep to the right.

Winter is when it is legitimate to be melancholy. The culture accommodates gloom. Come spring, people will shrug off that dark woollen cape and embrace joy.

All Souls’ Day, another of the many religious holidays, is for lighting candles in cemeteries. Newspaper obituary notices often include a verse and an illustration indicating the deceased’s main hobby: cats, fishing, classic cars, etc. A matter-of-fact, science-loving people, Swedes are not normally bothered with the afterlife. Seventy percent are cremated at death.

Early winter is dinner-party season. Here are the rules: Arrive exactly on time. With flowers or wine. Remove shoes if it’s muddy outside. (Forgot your indoor shoes? Oh-oh.) Don’t drink faster than the host. Leave before midnight, by taxi or designated driver: drinking and driving is uncool. A single glass of wine will put you over the limit.

If Swedes are traditional when entertaining, they’re casual and innovative at work. And they like to work in groups. Teamwork means getting people with common interests to work together. In other countries, such as the US, goals are decided in advance and teams work towards them, using conflict if necessary. Like the Japanese, Swedes like to see how far they can get by agreeing. One of the major labour market achievements of the last century was an implicit pact between unions and employers to get along without surrendering their own interests.

Swedes like to think of themselves as a compassionate people with a durable engagement in world affairs and a tolerance towards immigrants. Yes, there have been attacks on mosque construction projects and yes, it’s demonstrably hard for people with unfamiliar-sounding names to get jobs they’re qualified for. But Sweden is also consistently good at foreign aid, up there with the Netherlands and Norway. No anti-immigrant party is represented in the Riksdag, although many people grumble about the influx of refugees.

Others are proud: Sweden has received more applications from Iraqi refugees than any other European country. The small city of Södertälje, close to Stockholm, has taken in more refugees from the Iraq conflict than the US and Canada combined. Södertälje is also home to the largest group of Assyrians in Europe.

Protected by mountains and seas, Sweden was homogeneous until the 20th century. The 21st is a new story.

Will the coming winter be another fertile one for the calicivirus, producing a form of gastroenteritis descriptively called ‘winter vomiting sickness’? Let’s hope not.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.

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May in Sweden: A nation back in bloom

The Year in Sweden - May: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

May is the Month of Flowers. The white wood anemone shyly spreads across the forest floor and the lily of the valley (voted Sweden’s most popular flower) shelters near sun-warmed rocks. Mirroring the voters’ love for nature, all six major political parties (save one) have flowers as emblems. Technically, the Greens’ dandelion is a weed. The Social Democrats long ago branded the First of May as their own. Their polite demonstrations troop the streets and speeches echo across squares.

For an overtly secular country, Sweden’s calendar is wildly religious. May begins with Ascension Day, which jokesters call Fly Away Jesus Day (Kristiflygare). Nine of 13 public holidays are religious. Keeping holidays — the more obscure the better — is a link to the physical past that the future will need. Sweden has been Christian since the 12th century, although travelling monks from the British Isles had been proselytizing earlier.

Just less than three quarters of the population still formally belong to the Swedish Lutheran Church. Until 2000, the Church was part of the state administration and was a repository of census data. Churches are admired mostly from the outside until Christmas rolls around. Religious gender roles are changing: 25 percent of Lutheran priests and most theology students are women.

Despite Sweden’s secular style, church weddings are popular (46 percent of the total), and the prime time for nuptials is Pentecost or Whitsun week. On the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to inspire the apostles and, apparently, weddings in Sweden. The ceremonies are scheduled to suit ever-extending families, but principally to catch the best weather.

Name changes are common, at one stage even officially encouraged. Until the mid-1800s, family surnames were mostly for the middle and upper classes while the peasants named their sons and daughters ‘Gunnar, son of Sven’ or Gunnar Svensson. Girls? ‘Anna, son of Sven’ — we’re talking pre-gender-equality. Statisticians, an influential group, complained that there were too many Svenssons and Anderssons to cope with. The rural middle classes took names from the nature around them, cutting and pasting: birch, rock, stream, branch, lake, bear, twig, island, falcon, etc. Occasionally, the mix will be an oxymoron: Mountainbeach, Seamountain or Firleaf. Johansson is the most common name, although Swedes refer to themselves as ‘Svenssons’ and Svensson is apparently the name most commonly used by couples booking hotel rooms for illicit love.

If you’ve been shopping around for a new home, chances are you bought it last month, in April, the spring peak of the housing market. Realtors like to wait for the most flattering light. Real estate purchases are fast and furious, so by May you’re probably ready to visit Ikea. The ubiquitous Ikea. A biblically huge print run for its catalogue, a major exporter of Swedish food to feed its restaurants, etc. Ikea has a central roost in the nation’s psyche. It’s a global success sprung from the callouses of a plain-spoken country guy. It’s a simple story and a source of pride. But people resent Ikea’s domination of the national design aesthetic. And rubbing salt in that resentment is that we all use it.

This is the time of year when people rediscover the joy of sitting outdoors with a cookie and a glass of classic fruit squash. The pleasure is so seductive that a Japanese marathon runner, suffering heat exhaustion, once broke off a race to join a Stockholm family relaxing under a tree in their garden. That was during the 1912 Olympic marathon. Ashamed to rejoin his team, Shizō Kanaguri slunk back to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He returned to Stockholm in 1966 to finish the distance. These days, the Stockholm marathon is run in late May or early June.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.