10 things you didn’t know about Sweden

Although I lived here as a child and teenager, there is much I had forgotten. Here are some of the more remarkable things about this country.

SwedenIn the summer it gets light at 2 in the morning

In the winter it gets dark at 2 in the afternoon

Most people in the countryside will say ‘hej’ to you; but you can’t be sure whether they mean hello or goodbye

If you sit in a car in Stockholm and watch 40 people go by as Julia did yesterday, half of them will be blond

Everyone drives with their headlights on all the time

The countryside is empty and stunningly beautiful

When you go into a Swedish home you take your shoes off

They are opening an ABBA museum in Stockholm in June 2009

Beer comes in three strengths; low, medium and high alcohol content

Almost everyone has a Swedish flag in their garden (which Leo thinks means there is a branch of IKEA there)

Talking of IKEA, I have discovered that there is one in Abu Dhabi. After four days in Sweden I don’t think I can ever face another meatball as long as I live, but it will be nice to know it is there in case I start missing Sweden.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Travels with a film star

LeoWe have embarked on the next leg of our European tour. As I write I am looking out over silver birches, pretty red wooden houses and the sea in the distance. We are in Sweden in our rented house in the Stockholm archipelago. As we were settling in here last night, another family was settling into Sainte Cecile. I am getting quite used to this nomadic lifestyle (probably just as well as we’re moving to the desert).

London was great. Rupert’s book launch went very well; Stanford’s book shop sold lots of copies, his charming publisher made a lovely speech and lots of friends and family came. Leonardo enjoyed himself, playing cricket with Hugo and Julia across the shop with rubber balls depicting the world. Surrounded as I was by maps I finally worked out where Abu Dhabi is. Great neighbours….

But back to Leo. It was a little like I imagine travelling with George Clooney must be like. Every place we went in to everyone stopped what they were doing to talk to him and fuss over him. He was at his most charming. Every evening at the Connaught he would say goodnight to every member of staff and say “see you in the morning”. He even managed to get a free breakfast at Pret a Manger, something I have not achieved in 15 years of going there.

But here in Sweden sadly he looks just like thousands of other little blond boys so he may have to get used to a little less attention. And start paying for his own breakfast.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Big news from Sweden…..

When I was a teenager living in Sweden my Italian aunt once asked me why I chose to live “in that periphery of the world”. She had a point. I could have lived in London or Rome and compared with either of those places, the Swedish countryside probably didn’t have much going on.

""I am happy to report that this is no longer the case. Just last week an elk was rescued from a swimming pool in a town called Oskartrom, located in southern Sweden. The elk had wandered into the pool which had to be drained in order for special steps to be built so that it could walk out again.

I am not surprised the elk ended up in a private swimming pool. In Sweden we have a law called Allemannsratten, or Every Man’s Right, which means you have the right to walk anywhere you like, even on private land. The elk will have been well aware of this right and had clearly taken full advantage of it. Though I’m not sure it stretches to swimming in other people’s pools.

Anyway, even with the pool drained and the steps built, the elk was in no hurry to get out. Twenty-four hours later it was still standing in the pool. Probably waiting for someone to put the water back in. Eventually rescuers shot it with a tranquilizer gun and lifted it out using a harness.

“We initially held up a screen in front of the animal so that it wouldn’t jump back in the pool, but then she just lay down next to it,” said a local news reporter. After resting for an hour the elk wandered into neighbouring woodland and was reunited with its calf.

And you thought London was hectic?

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Upside down blueberries

BlueberriesSo my Swedish fantasy has been fulfilled. This does not involve blond hunks or even meatballs; but my children playing in the Swedish woods and more importantly leaving the woods with dark blue mouths on account of eating too many blueberries.

The weather, it has to be said, has been dreadful. Cold, wet, windy and that was on a good day. But still that hasn’t stopped us having a good time. Although at one stage Olivia did say “you know mummy, the grandes vacances are meant to be warm”.

The Stockholm archipelago is as lovely as I imagined with beautiful houses, stunning nature and more blueberries than you could eat in several lifetimes. We are staying with my cousin Erika and her family in their house on a small island called Edlunda. There are 47 houses on the island inhabited by various eclectic types like Swedish diplomats and pop stars. In fact the archipelago is stuffed full of Swedish celebs. Not that I would recognise them. But apparently Tiger Woods’ wife comes from the nearest place you can buy milk; a ten-minute boat ride away.

Today Bea insisted on Rupert holding her upside down as she picked blueberries in the moss-covered wood. One upside to the rain is that the ground is like walking on a mattress, so if he’d dropped her on her head she would barely have dropped her blueberries. It was a scene I will remember for years to come. It’s a funny thing holidays with small children. Well actually most of it isn’t much fun if I’m honest, but some highlights make it all worth while. Like the blueberries and like Leo saying when he saw his first plate of meatballs: “This was a good idea.” Like Bea and I walking around Vaxholm castle and me showing her how you put a feather in the ground and make a silent wish and her saying; “I wish I knew what you had wished for.”

Obviously I wished it would stop raining. Fat chance. It occurred to me in the middle of the night that if I were a Swedish homeless person I would move to Montpellier immediately. But before I get any more comments about how marvellous Sweden is, I don’t mean that as a criticism of the country, just a reflection on the weather.

As a place to holiday with children it is top notch. And despite my misgivings about the place I still feel emotional every time I see the flag or pick a blueberry. I think I view her rather like a relation I’m allowed to be rude about but still love deeply.

Tomorrow we begin our journey back to France where the forecast for the rest of the week is 39 degrees and sunny. As we Swedes say; Borta bra, men hemma bast.Loosely translated: There’s no place like home.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi LongstockingAfter three days of trawling around various sights, museums and shops in Stockholm there is one clear winner. She has strange red hair, odd stockings and a monkey called Herr Nilsson. Yes, it’s Pippi Longstocking, who as far as I can see is the most enduring Swedish character there has ever been.

She is from a children’s book written by Astrid Lindgren in 1945. On the back Pippi is described as “the strongest, the richest and the nicest girl in the whole world.” What’s not to like? On top of that she lives alone in a tumble-down house called Villa Villekulla with her horse (whom she can lift with one arm) and her monkey.

The great upside to living alone is of course that she doesn’t need to go to school, or to bed and she can also bake ginger biscuits on the floor. I think you have to be partly Swedish to understand the latter.

But my point is this. Pippi’s life is every child’s fantasy. She can do exactly what she wants, when she wants and there is no one to boss her about. No matter that her mother is dead and her father is off being a king on some remote island. She’s happy as anything. And children adore her. I adored her. So it’s nice to see my children do the same. Which I suppose is one good thing about getting older with children; you get to remember all the things you loved via them.

Now we are off to the Stockholm archipeligo so there will be no more blogs for a few days. But I expect you all to have learnt the Pippi song (in Swedish) by the time I get back. Hej hej!

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Any colour you like, as long as it’s red

So, the journey started well. We had been driving for three minutes when Olivia announced she wanted to be sick. Once at Stockholm airport (which seemed like a lifetime later) we lost Leonardo. I had that awful pit-of-the-stomach fear that only losing a child can give you. Eventually we found him, chatting to two Swedish girls who made Paris Hilton look like a red-neck.

“What were you doing?” I asked him.

“They’ve got nice gros-gouttes,” he replied grinning broadly. Gros-gouttes in the children’s word for breasts. This boy is three; what he’ll be like when he hits puberty is not worth imagining.

The dreaded meatballAlthough I was partly brought up here in Sweden I feel like a foreigner here. For a start it is 4.15 am and I am wide awake. The sun is shining. What is the point in that? In the winter it is dark all the time and in the summer it’s light all the time. That seems mad to me. Also everyone here eats meatballs; all the time. If you go out for lunch or dinner you will be surrounded by Swedes happily chomping away at their national dish. Now I like a meatball as much as anyone, but every day?

I am no longer surprised that on September 3rd 1967 the entire population of Sweden changed from left-hand to right-hand drive. Most of them live in identical houses painted the classic Falu red. They all eat the same food and they all drive Saabs or Volvos. It would be more of a challenge to get them to do something different.

Falu redNot that I’ve anything against this uniformity, or in fact Falu red which is as nice a colour for a house as you could wish for. It just seems strange to me now.

Yesterday we had a lovely day taking the children around Djurgarden which is an island a short boat ride from the hotel. It is entirely made up of fun things to do like a museum dedicated to Swedish characters from children’s books like Pippi Longstocking (where you can meatballs for lunch), Skansen, meaning zoo but which is actually an open-air museum dedicated to Swedish history and tradition (lots of red houses) as well as home to lots of animals including bears, wolves, seals and the totally mad-looking elk.

We ended the day at Grona Lund, a funfair. This is a name I remember from my youth. It was where you wanted to go and get drunk as a teenager. I never went then but now I have and although I was sober it was good fun. Generally I loathe funfairs but as with everything else we saw yesterday this has been very well done. There is no foul-smelling food but nice hot-dog stands (another national dish, just in case you can’t find a meatball) and lots of trees which give it an almost park-like quality. The rides of course are mainly terrifying. We went on a children’s version of a sort of human falling elevator which was far too much for me. I did enjoy the ladybird roller-coaster though; just the right amount of fear mixed with exhiliration.

So now it is 4.30 and I suppose I may as well get dressed. Luckily breakfast starts early. Meatballs of course.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

School’s out

Today is the last day of school. You would think the children would all be jolly happy and behave beautifully but no, this morning from the moment they woke up to the moment we left them in the care of their deliriously happy (I wonder why?) teachers, they fought.

They fought about everything and nothing. Every single decision was a battle. Every action was commented upon. Every word prompted a violent reaction. I was called “evil” by my son at least 50 times and told he would rather go and stay with Chantal (my child-minder) than come away with me. The extent of my evilness was to put the wrong T-shirt on him and insist he go to school today.

JCIn the car on the way to school Bea finally lost her patience. “I tell you Olivia,” she warned. “Jesus will send you to hell.” Bea’s best friend Manon wants to be a nun and there is a lot of talk about Jesus at the moment. The other day Leo was told he could only borrow Bea’s scooter if he promised “not to shout at mummy and to pray to Jesus”.

We left school feeling extremely gloomy. The prospect of our “holiday” which starts in two hours and 45 minutes is not a nice one. A week in Sweden with three warring factions. It makes Tony Blair’s new job as middle-east envoy look like a walk in the park. Maybe we could do a job-swap?

So if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s not that I’ve forgotten you, it’s just that I’m using my laptop to beat the children with in between trips to Hennes and IKEA.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Beware of vikings bearing gifts

Here they come...Never mind globalisation; there is an even greater threat lurking. Sweden is on course for world domination. It is achieving this through subtle cultural infiltration at thousands of IKEA stores all over the world.

You read it here first: the Viking spirit is far from dead.

On Saturday we went to IKEA. It was midsummer and we were greeted by smiling faces offering us hand-made garlands and scrummy cakes.

“It’s midsummer,” they told us. “Free cakes, free ice-creams, treasure hunts for the children.” We had a lovely time. The children had more fun than they had at Aqualand. We left laden with goods feeling jolly happy.

This might all seem harmless, but I know their cunning plan. Next we’ll be celebrating other strange rituals, like throwing ourselves naked into lakes on April 30th to welcome spring (which if you live in Sweden is still several months away) or putting candles on our heads on December 13th, wearing sheets and singing loudly.

All this free cake may seem like a good idea at the time but you’ll end up like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, unable to live without it and craving more endlessly. Which of course means you have to go back to IKEA to buy some (and be brainwashed again). And this is not just happening in France. Take a look at any instructions from IKEA. They come in every language known to man, and some that are unknown.

As a half-Swede I am guilty of supporting the aim of a global Sweden. If you don’t actually have to live there, it is the best possible of cultures. The food is fantastic, the people are thin and pretty, the cars reliable and the pagan rituals hysterical. Where else can you spend June 21st dancing round a may-pole, singing about small frogs without ears (I kid you not) and then falling over?

After our successful brain-washing session at IKEA on Saturday we went for dinner with some Italian/French friends. As we were leaving I pressed a packet of Swedish cakes into my hostess’s hands.

“Try them,” I smiled sweetly. “They’re truly divine.”

It’s only a matter of time before she’s ours, all ours…….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Where is my PR?

PR PR DarlingI am just finishing off my truffle omelette (like you do) when I get a call from a charming young journalism student. As part of her final year project she is publishing a Swedish newspaper. She has read my articles in the Mail, knows I am half-Swedish and wonders if I could write a 500-word editorial.

“I’d be delighted,” I say. Anything to promote Swedish culture. What there is of it.

“And do you think we could run a picture by-line?” she asks.

There is NOTHING a hackette likes more than a picture by-line, the bigger the better.

“Of course,” I say.

“Could I talk to your PR about getting a picture?” is her next question.

I have always known there is something missing from my life. For a while I wondered whether it was my lack of religious conviction, or maybe the fact that I am sub-consciously yearning for another child or that my La Prairie eye cream has just run out. Now at long last, the mystery is solved. I need a PR. Of course. How did I ever expect my life to be complete without one? What a fool I have been.

Applications on a postcard please.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007