Sour Swedes

I am the victim of a hate campaign from an otherwise peace-loving nation. It is not a nice experience. I am being inundated with emails, comments and facebook messages from extremely angry Swedes. The reason for their anger? An article I wrote for the Daily Mail in 2006 on the eve of Sweden’s world-cup football match with England where I was rude about my former home country.

These Swedes have clearly failed to understand the first rule of journalism: simplify and exaggerate. Of course I don’t find Sweden as boring as I wrote, if I did why on earth would I go back there for the summer whenever I can? Why do I go to IKEA every weekend? Why do I make the effort to speak Swedish to my children. But for the purposes of the piece, I wrote about the negative aspects of the country. And it is true that I would never consider living there again. In part because it is so boring, but mainly because it is too bloody cold.

I have been shocked by some of the emails. Offensive, abusive and, worst of all, terribly badly written. Most of them are rants about how horrible England is and how I belong there and never deserve to set foot in glorious Sweden again. And then more abuse about me. How I am certainly not Swedish as I am so unpatriotic not to mention boilingly ugly. And how COULD I be so disloyal?

I sent a few to my mother (who is 100 per cent Swedish). She told me to ignore it, or better still, write another article about them.

Anyway to any Swedes reading this whom I have inadvertently upset: I am sorry. I love many things about Sweden and I may have been a bit harsh in my article. But at least it got your patriotic juices flowing and gave you all something to complain about apart from taxes and the snow.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010

Where is home?

Today as I was about to board a plane to Stockholm my mother sent me an email saying “safe flight home”. It made me think, as the concept of home has been uppermost in my mind over the past few days.

Sweden is clearly no longer home. I love it here. I love the food and the cleanliness, the friendly people and the cakes. But it has not been home for a long time. Although I suppose in some deep part of my psyche there is a part that will always be Swedish.

no-place-like-homeatm.jpg

While we were in the Languedoc this week we went home to Sainte Cecile. Bea wept and I felt ambiguous. It is still a lovely house. It is a perfect house in many ways. But for me the romance has slightly gone. It could be because it smelt wrong. Maybe I am rather like a mummy bunny rejecting its young when they have been touched by someone else. I don’t know. But even walking to the cross (which used to be one of my favourite things in the world) was less magical.

I felt like a bit of a traitor but half of me was thinking about the Savoie house which I think could become a home. But is it mad to give up on Sainte Cecile where the children were practically born? The landscape is lovely and we have good friends there as well as granny and grandpa. Leo and Bea took their first steps there. Most of my books were written there. And yet I don’t really feel at home there any more. But would I feel at home in THE house in the Savoie? Possibly…as Shakespeare says: No traveller returns.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

Eleven years ago today…

Today is out 11th wedding anniversary. Eleven years ago today we were married in a beautiful white church in Hedemora, deep in the Swedish countryside. It is the same church I was christened in, by my grandfather who was the vicar then. Sadly he was not around when we got married, he died quite young.

“What does it feel like to have been married so long?” Rupert asked me. I told him it feels like an achievement. Not that it has been hard work, in fact it has gone very quickly. And I can imagine staying married for another 11 years.

This week was also Olivia’s 10th birthday and today we had her party. partyparty.jpgThe party went on for three hours. But there were times when it felt like it had gone on for longer than our marriage. Now it is over and we are here with my best friend Iona who is visiting from India. Eleven years ago today she was at our wedding too. And twenty years ago we left university together.

Here’s hoping we will be sitting around together in another twenty years’ time. But possibly without the birthday party…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

A dress fit for a king

One of the side-effects of moving to Abu Dhabi, apart from learning to pole dance and belly dance, is meeting interesting people and going to glittering events. It is true that in Gabian the most glittering event was watching Italy beat France in the football world cup with a few locals who seemed to care less than we did. I often wondered if we had hidden ourselves in the depth of the countryside a little too early.

The KingAll that has changed. As I write a stunning brown sequined gown lies in my bedroom ready for a reception this evening in honour of the King of Sweden. It is backless and off the shoulder, cut on the bias. I hope the king likes it. I have been told I might be able to interview him.

I have never met a royal, at least not knowingly. The closest I got was Margaret Thatcher and only because she had by then adopted the royal “we”. I am intrigued as to what he will be like. I know from Wikipedia that his father died when he was nine months old but that he wasn’t told about it until he was seven. Tragic and almost comic; you can imagine questions along the lines of “er, whatever happened to that bloke who used to have breakfast with us?”

I am keen to ask him what it’s really like to be royal. Is it as much fun as I think it could be; sleeping in silk sheets and having anything you want. Or does he feel like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and long to escape? I wonder where he would go in Abu Dhabi – Marina Mall perhaps? There’s an IKEA there, we might find him asleep on one of the sofa beds.

 I suspect it really isn’t that much fun. It must be tiresome never being alone, always having someone around you to pick things up or tell you what your next meeting is. Meanwhile I am very much looking forward to slipping into my full-length glittering dress, it makes me feel like I’m going to the Oscars. Maybe if I’d worn it to the World Cup final the Gabian villagers would have perked up a bit. I may go back and try it at the annual school party.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Do you speak my language?

It is a well-known fact that no one outside Sweden speaks Swedish. I have found this particularly useful when it comes to dealing with the children. To outsiders they seem seamlessly polite, with their pleases and thank yous and please may I get down from my delicious lunches. Little do they know that I am constantly whispering instructions in Swedish. It also means I can threaten them with unspeakable things in public when they misbehave. Not that it seems to make any difference.

It is most useful should you ever want to talk about anyone in the same room, or even leave a party early. Rupert now knows enough Swedish to understand “jag vill ga hem” – I want to go home.

Imagine my surprise then when I was in the locker room at the Hiltonia Beach Club on Friday and a woman asked me, in flawless Swedish, if I was Swedish. It turned out she had lived there as a child and still spoke it. She is from Switzerland and also has children at the French school. I was jolly pleased to have made another friend here, especially one I can gossip with about the other women around the pool.

By the time the girls and I went back into the locker room to get changed I was less jolly. They had been awful again, insisting on spending their time in the adult pool even though I had asked them not to, Olivia lost her shoes, all the usual stuff. A woman came in carrying a screaming child.

“Oh God,” I grumbled in my grumpiest Swedish. “Who on earth is this now with a screaming child?”

2 Swedish LadiesThen I heard the woman speak. In Swedish. I mean, what are the chances of meeting two Swedish speakers in the same locker room on the same day? About a trillion to one I’d say.

“She’s speaking Swedish,” whispered Olivia in French as I hid behind my locker, well aware that our secret language would not work with the Swedish woman around.

“What’s going on?” said Bea. There was only one thing for it. I leapt out from behind the locker and gave her my most charming smile, saying how lovely it was to hear my mother-tongue and shouldn’t we swap numbers. She agreed and smiled and the baby even stopped crying, but I’m not sure she was convinced.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Holiday routine

""Because we travel so much for work, Rupert and I have never really been on a proper family holiday until now. I can’t believe how nice it is. This is my routine: I get up, I do some writing (I am working on a novel), I do half an hour of yogo (as Leo calls it). Then Rupert and I go down to our ‘brygga’ or pontoon where we swim out around a boat called My Lady III, a mast-less sailing boat who is in more or less the same position every day.

We get back and have breakfast, then maybe play tennis, or read (I am reading Diana Athill’s Stet – an editor’s life, Rupert is reading The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers), go to ICA the supermarket and buy strange Swedish food, listen to Mamma Mia!, go for a walk, check my amazon rating (2833 since you ask) go to a lake etc etc. In the evenings we often have a sauna, followed by a beer and dill-flavoured crisps.

We leave on Saturday and I have been grumpy all day at the thought of going. I am off to Austria for another book project (all will be revealed once I have the contract) and Rupes and the children stay in England with friends until we head to Abu Dhabi and our air-conditioned office.

But the good news is that, all being well, next year someone will actually pay us to come to Sweden and go swimming – one of the upsides of a job is paid holiday. I am already planning how to spend it. I think we might just come back here and do the same thing we did this year…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Mamma Mia!

Stockholm seemed a fitting place to see the film version of Mamma Mia! Julia and I saw the musical a few years ago in London and loved it. As it was raining yesterday I took the four children off in search of a cinema. We eventually found one and settled down with our popcorn to a real treat. We were in the middle of the front row, my favourite place to sit.

""The film is brilliant; we all loved it. I particularly related to the plot because part of it hinges on who is going to give the girl away at her wedding. I had a similar conundrum at mine. By then my step-father and I had fallen out, so he was off the list. My real father seemed an obvious second choice (although he had practically nothing to do with bringing me up). So he was dragged along to Sweden, along with around 100 other guests.

The morning of the big day he left. He has still to fully explain himself but has said he finds weddings so “bourgeois”. So I was left with two major problems. One, who was going to do the Dante reading and two, who was going to walk me up the aisle. I asked my Italian aunt if she would do the reading.

“But I don’t know if my hat will go with Dante,” she said. Perfectly understandable. But she did it, and read beautifully. I asked my mother to walk me up the aisle and give me away. It was an emotional moment and fitting as my mother is the person who brought me up and the one closest to me by far.

I won’t tell you what happens in the film, but go and see it. I felt like clapping and singing, rather like we did in the musical, but being in Sweden I suppressed my desires for fear of arrest for unruly behaviour.

The kids loved it. “I sunged all the songs,” Leo told me. “Oh why is it finished?” wailed Olivia at the end. Meryl Streep was, as always, totally amazing. I read somewhere she wrote to the boys from ABBA and asked if she could be in any film version they made.

She was the perfect choice, rather like my mother was at my wedding.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Three weeks today….

Rupert was lying in the sun having just enjoyed a swim when I broke the news to him. “Three weeks today you’ll be in an office,” I told him.

“It’s Sunday,” said Olivia.

“They work in a Sunday in Abu Dhabi,” I replied. Rupert seemed calm, in fact he didn’t even open his eyes. Maybe he was enjoying one of his last afternoon kips.

I cannot imagine what we will think of it. I know it will be very different to here where we are outside in the fresh air all day, swimming, walking, playing tennis, running out of petrol in the middle of the sea. Yes, my husband and boats. I should have known better than to get into one with him but I didn’t.

We rented a small speed boat for the day to explore the archipelago and its thousands of islands with. It started well. I was driving, speeding along (like you do in speed boats) enjoying the sunshine and the children pointing at various sights. This really is one of the most stunning places in the world. If you haven’t been then you should come. I have never seen so much beautiful nature.

""Suddenly there was a splutter and we ground to a halt. In the middle of the sea. We didn’t have any spare on account of the fact that we’d already used that the first time we ran out. And do you know how many petrol stations there are in the Stockholm Archipelago? About three. And they’re miles apart. So we were on our way to one of them when we shuddered to yet another halt.

We started drifting into land and I saw some people along the coastline. I waved frantically and shouted. They just waved back as is the manner on the ocean waves. I picked up the empty petrol can and started waving that around to passing boats. Thankfully one of them, driven by what I can only assume was a Swedish football player and his WAG, understood. They towed us in to Vaxholm where we filled up. Rupert and Leo tried to leave with the WAG but we stopped them. We managed to get home without running out again, just.

I suppose it’s an improvement on the last time Rupert got in a boat, ran aground somewhere near Marseillan and he and Julia had to be rescued by the lifeguards which cost us over one thousand euros. And he is already talking about buying a boat in Abu Dhabi. Let’s hope the job keeps him busy for a while.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Bed, breakfast and balls…..

Spread'emSo I show up, wondering if I should undress in my car before being greeted by the owners who are charming and fully dressed. Then they take me to my room. En route we pass one of the clients. I have only been to one other naturist in my life; Cap d’Agde, and there, as here, the naked truth (ha ha) is that these places do not attract the kind of people who look better undressed than dressed.

In fact it is now exactly ten years since I looked better undressed than dressed, but I don’t (normally) go around showing my buttocks to anyone who happens to be passing. Being a half-Swede I do get this nudity thing. I like wandering around starkers as much as your next Swede. In fact at our rented cottage I can often be spotted of a morning walking down to the sea and indulging in a bit of skinny-dipping. But here are the facts; the sun is shining and there are no other people about. What I don’t get about this B&B set-up, is how they can possibly find walking around naked with strangers RELAXING.

Also, it was so cold my instinct was to put more clothes on rather than take them off. But as you will see from the picture taken by the lovely and talanted (and fully clothed) Teri Pengilley, I got into the swing of things. Having said that, I was mightily relieved to get into my M&S cashmere jumper and jeans and head off the following day.

One strange side-effect was that I kept imagining all my fellow travellers on the train to Stockholm naked. There at least there were a couple of people I wouldn’t have minded breakfast with. They’re a nice-looking bunch these Swedes, as long as you like blond hair. Rather like it’s a nice place to live as long as you like yellow or red houses, and a nice place to drive as long as you like Saabs or Volvos and a good place to eat as long as you like Salmon or Meatballs. I could go on but have to have my tea now. It’s a Kanel bulle (cinnamon bun) or, er, that’s it….

Copyright:Helena Frith Powell 2008

What not to wear…..

I am on a train speeding through the Swedish countryside en route to yet another tough assignment. I am going to write an article about Scandinavia’s first nudist B&B for The Times (www.hyltebergagard.se). I have covered (being the operative word) some weird and wonderful things during my journalistic career but this promises to be one of the more unusual.

The pool will be popular...

Packing was tricky. “Why the bag?” was Rupert’s first question. I cannot begin to imagine what it’s going to be like. Will I be able to have a normal conversation with a total stranger while he is naked? Will I be able to stop myself from looking ‘down there’? Is looking ‘down there’ encouraged or frowned upon? What about my own ‘down there’? How will I cope with people who’s names I don’t even know casually assessing it. Whatever else, it’s not an ideal time to have a bad hair day – anywhere.

The weather in Sweden has been amazing for once. But despite that Leonardo asked me this morning why it is always cold. “Because we’re in Sweden,” I told him. There was a slight pause. “Then why are we here?” he said.

This is a fair question and one that I can only answer with the excuse that having been born here and lived here for several years, there is something that draws me back again and again. Luckily Rupert seems quite taken with it, although he is now also sick of meatballs.

Which brings me neatly back to the theme of the day. “I have one ball with my willie,” Leonardo told me proudly yesterday. “Yes,” I replied. “And one day you will have two balls, like Daddy.” He looked at me rather questioningly and then asked; “Yes, but will they be tennis balls?”

Here’s hoping they won’t, and more crucially that any balls I happen to catch a glimpse of during this assignment are not enough to put me off my breakfast. Bed, Breakfast and Balls. It could catch on….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008