Category Archives: Sweden

Should I Learn Swedish?


Major disappointment: the first time I went to Sweden, I kept seeing signs that said “Runt Hornet” on doors. I was enchanted. What a fine way to say “Ring the Doorbell!” Then I saw this sign on the corner of a building and went to investigate. Bummer! It actually meant “Round the Corner.” Oh, well, it still sounds cool.


And “Obs” must mean “Careful!”, especially if it’s printed in red.

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Smoking is “rokning.” I like the sound of the words.


Ok, I freely admit I’m a klutz in any language. Obviously, I don’t want to run for my train and risk “snubbeling.”

There are practical reasons to know the language.

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Every breakfast buffet has a big tube of this stuff. I thought it was some kind of hummus.


No such luck! It’s really “Fish Roe Paste.” Not my favorite. In fact, I had to discreetly spit it into my napkin and then look around for something to erase the taste. Lingonberry sauce?

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Sometimes, admittedly, words are not needed.


Sometimes, I’m not even interested in the words.


I don’t really want to know the translation of this sign in a subway car in Stockholm. For me, it says, and always will say “Sucks your job?” Or, for English speakers, “Does your job suck? Call this number and we’ll hook you up with a better gig.”

One big point in favor of learning some Swedish: it’s the second language in Finland. And the Finnish language looks much, much harder to learn.

In Finland, almost every single sign and caption is printed in both Finnish and Swedish. English is hit or miss.


At the Helsinki dog park near where I stayed in April, the rules are spelled out in great detail. Finnish and Swedish speaking dogs are all set. English-only speaking dogs are out of luck.

Yup, I guess this is telling me something. After years of traveling in French and German-speaking countries where I can at least muddle through with the native languages, I’ve found that  I love Scandinavia. Time to learn a little Swedish.

Now, about those Danish and Norwegian languages…

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

A Swedish Valentine

 

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The Nordiska Museum in Stockholm devotes a great deal of space to Swedish courting and wedding customs, for good reason.  In Sweden, folk art is still revered.

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For centuries, humble rural people in little towns and villages all over Sweden celebrated love and marriage and family using the materials at hand: wood, yarn, thread, and simple fabrics.

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A young man courting a young woman used to spend many hours carving an elaborate wooden spoon as proof of his devotion.  The woman’s parents would also be interested in the young man’s skills and willingness to work; wood carving was a necessity of life in poor farming communities where most anything had to be made by hand.

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After the wedding, the courting spoon was hung on the wall of the new couple’s kitchen, but wood-carving never ended. Country people took inspiration and materials from the natural world around them. The handy little table above incorporated a twisted tree branch as a decorative snake. Did the wood-carver’s wife appreciate having a snake forever in her house? Personally, I’d have relegated the snake table to the guy’s Man Cave.  But that’s just me.

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I’d have loved the little dog bench, though.

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Brides spent many hours making wedding finery which was then passed down through generations. The hours were precious, stolen from housework and farm work.

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Material could be precious, too–colorful scraps of silk and cotton lovingly worked into heirlooms.

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Wedding finery was carefully packed away for future brides and grooms.

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A bride might surprise her groom with a special wedding vest.

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I love the handwork on this one, and I’m sure the embroidered designs had special meaning for the couple.

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A colorful wedding proclamation was another treasured keepsake, for those who could afford it.

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A special tapestry or painted wall hanging might do double duty as a Biblical lesson about Adam and Eve, and a decoration on the wall at the wedding feast.

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Then as now, getting married can be tiring work.  A mannequin in the museum shows a bride falling asleep in her wedding outfit, maybe during the feast.  But I’m sure she’s about to wake up full of energy to start her married life.

Happy Valentine’s Day to lovers, past, present and future!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!