January in Sweden: Week one, thirteenth day, thinking time

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

January in Sweden: Week one, thirteenth day, thinking time

Welcome to Week 1. Every week in the Swedish calendar has a number. This combines efficiency and inefficiency: instead of scheduling a meeting for a day of the week that begins with the 5th, you suggest Week 32. Easy to find in a diary, impossible to remember without one. Only Week 1 and Week 52 are easy to keep track of.

Wherever you are, it’s cold. The trees are bare, and you can now see from one side of a city park to the other. Even in the extreme south, the mean temperature is zero Celsius, although the country’s western face to the North Atlantic and the Gulf Stream provides a relatively mild winter climate considering Stockholm’s shared latitude with, for example, Anchorage, Alaska.

The last of the Christmas holidays is the thirteenth day after Christmas, celebrating the visit of the Three Magi to the infant Jesus. The following Monday, schoolchildren slip back to their desks after the holidays — some after taking unapproved time on distant charter islands. July has always been the major holiday period because of the weather; now there’s competition from December-January — also because of the weather. Charter flights to Spain started in 1955, flashbulbs popping for the first departures.

These days, Thailand is the most popular destination. Nine million people generate ten million charter trips annually. One poll said that 60 percent would prefer more vacation time to a bigger paycheck. Sweden’s travel operators are efficient. When the 2004 tsunami hit southeast Asia, 4,500 Swedes were in Thailand. The effective help provided by Sweden’s biggest Thailand operator, Fritidsresor, has since been included in Harvard University’s leadership training curriculum.

This is the poorest sales month for Systembolaget, the state alcohol retail monopoly. By their philosophy, poorest is also best. The monopoly grew from an 18th-century decree banning the use of grain for private distilling — poor harvests had led to a scarcity of bread, a major food. The monopoly is cursed, ridiculed — and beneficial. Juggling with taxes and tariffs while fighting off EU trade infringement charges has produced results. Swedish alcohol consumption, once among Europe’s highest, dropped to among the lowest after the monopoly became law. Alcoholism is seen as either an illness or a rebellion against conformity.

The state has also produced booze. Before it was sold to a French company in 2008, Absolut vodka was earning zillions for the same state that took every opportunity to rap its population on the knuckles for its drinking habits. But the message about the dangers of drink was a mixed one, and the state no longer manufactures demon rum while tut-tutting its users. Systembolaget is an efficient monopoly: the selection of beers, wines and spirits is broad, sophisticated and available anywhere. If you live in the countryside far from a System outlet, they’ll send your order by post to the nearest food store.

Coffee al fresco in January? Swedes drink more java per capita than anyone in the world after the Finns. And in the depth of winter — at least in the southern third of the country — mocca addicts who are also smokers take their espressi outdoors under radiator heaters.

Culture blossoms in deepest winter. Myriad art courses involving eco-beads from ancient, musical cultures. And people buying theatre seats and popcorn. The Swedish word for cinema is bio, derived from the Biograph, an early German projector. The Guldbagge Awards for film (the word translates to Gold Bug, but the actual prize is a 1.2-kilo copper beetle) are awarded with fanfare in January. Swedes are avid moviegoers — apparently everyone goes one and a half times a year. Some swear that watching subtitled movies from childhood helps foreign language skills, a possible explanation for the Swedes’ excellent English compared to most people from Germany, France or Spain, where markets are big enough to support dubbing. Sweden and Denmark top EU rankings for state support of culture and numbers of citizens putting rear ends on seats.

At the end of the month, the architectural gem that is Stockholm’s Liljevalchs museum gallery opens its salon for amateur artists. The salon is open to all comers, but almost a century ago it was the major entry point to the art establishment. Easily the most successful Swedish artist is Carl Larsson (1853 – 1919). He has visibly impacted Swedish taste and might be considered the aesthetic root of Ikea. He painted countless interiors with loving precision, a diary of life in a perfect home. His wife Karin, a designer and artist, once commissioned a rocking chair from a local carpenter who delivered the finished product in the gloom of night because its plain lines embarrassed him.

They say it used to rain dead Christmas trees on Knut’s name day, twenty days after Christmas when children took a last whirl around the tree before packing down the ornaments. By tradition, the trees would be jettisoned on the nearest pavement. These days, the tarry wood is collected to fire furnaces for district heating.

Fewer dinner invitations this month. Christmas budgets are overdrawn. But after the mad partying of December, Swedes are pining for that insulating darkness again. Thinking time.

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.