Ack, Värmeland

Just when I was starting to google, “Do I have a cold or am I actually dying of swine flu or something?”, my health condition improved. Today, I could be around people without them immediately noticing that I am not exactly in good shape. Malin and I took advantage of my return to the socially acceptable sphere and drove to Kristinehamn. (I have a vague recollection of having once written a story that was set in Kristinehamn, mere happenstance as I had never been there before.)

I like slogans and for some reason, we were going through Swedish town slogans on Friday night. Kristinehamn has one of the best/hilarious, I think. “Picasso chose Kristinehamn, you’re welcome, too”, it reads. Picasso is the creator of Kristinehamn’s biggest sight, a giant sculpture on the Lake Vänern shore. Picasso himself had never been to the place but that’s insignificant to the marketing.

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Picasso was here, well almost.

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So pretty at the lake!

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On the way to Kristinehamn,  we stopped in Gustafsvik to see a recently renovated former manor. Actually, only parts of the manor because most of it burnt down 50 years ago. Now you’re wondering why we would go there. Well, it’s actually like a big deal – because Ernst Kirchsteiger was the one renovating it. This person with the extremely German-sounding name is

“well, he’s more of an institution really. “No summer without Ernst” is something that Swedes seem to all agree on. Ernst is the epitome of the word folkkär or loved by the people – which doesn’t mean that everyone loves him really, but rather that everyone knows who he is and will have an opinion on him”

Born to an Austrian dad and a Polish mom, he has become a hugely popular interior decorator who provides the Kingdom of Sweden with hilarious quotes such as “How is it that some fir trees actually decide to become a Christmas tree and others just are ugly?”, “When a cat lies in a room and sleeps, there’s not much more work to do for a decorator”, “Has it ever happened that you have found yourself falling in love with a stone?”, “You have to see the pillows like an orchestra” and “This window provides a very good contact between inside and outside. It’s like inside and outside want something of each other.”

The quote machine has, in any case, renovated the remaining parts of the manor and it was very nice! I, all event manager, immediately thought about how Kristinehamn could use these for company conferences and parties.

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But Swedificiation does not come about by simply idolizing Ernst, there’s many more things to it. Like folk dances.

Malin works with many different projects nowadays, one of them being a cultural encounter between refugees, or nyanlända (newcomers) as the Swedes call them, and the local folk dance team and accordion orchestra. The newcomers live in the middle of nowhere, half an hours from little Kristinehamn, so we went there and did some extra advertising for the event. (Getting in direct contact with them and their living arrangements is quite an eye-opener. Not that the housing isn’t good but it’s just really far away if you’re trying to integrate/learn Swedish.)

A handful of young men got on the bus Malin had chartered and we took off to the Hembygdsgård which is the house of the local history association. Almost every Swedish village has one and they are often nice places. The Hembygds-organisations are not so much only about history but rather cultivate traditions and customs. Folk dance is one of them. The ladies and gentlemen first danced for us with the orchestra playing merrily, some tunes I even recognized, and then they made us join. What a sight – middle eastern men, Swedes and the German with a cold trying to coordinate a traditional Swedish group dance! It worked rather well though and it was quite an experience. I feel I can check off one more item off my list. Not Värmland though. Chance are rather good I’ll be back.

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After my 3-hour-train ride back to Stockholm, I met Andrea for dinner…

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…at the pretty Prinsen restaurant

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“Det var trevliga toaletter, i alla fall handfatsområdet”.

Office Anywhere

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Something I’ve definitely learned in my new job is that you can have your office anywhere. Right now mine is at the Intercontinental where I am waiting for the manager to show me their banquet rooms. (I looked at another hotel yesterday but their ball room has no windows and the entire hotel which was recently renovated goes in the colors beige, grey and brown. Seriously, who comes up with that color scheme?!) This hotel already made a very good impression on me now because five minutes after I sat down, a lady walked by, looked at my tulips and said, “Miss, can I get you a vase for those?”

Last night, we organized our panel debate on refugee integration into work life together with the embassy. I have several cooperation partners at the embassy but one is the one I have most contact with, she has lots of experience and is such a klippa as the Swedes would say, she’s firm as a rock, so I am always glad when I get to work with her.

The debate was interesting and we had one speaker from a foundation that helps refugees to find internships and apprenticeships. It sounds lofty but I got goosebumps when he talked about how they ask their second-year-trainees to be mentors to the refugees. “This way, these young people can communicate with each other, as equals”, he explained and told the story of a mentor who pragmatically took his mentee along to the local football club where the mentor and mentee are now playing in the same team. Talk about integration!

The chancellor of the free world apparently said, “Work is the best integration”, I learned yesterday and after some thinking, I tend to agree. It was when I first started to work (even as an intern) in Sweden that I felt I really become part of the society, I really know the language and I really live a local life. Not to mention the immense source of self-worth you get from having an occupation instead of sitting in your room all day (been there, done that, gives you depression).

But boy am I exhausted. It’s funny, I assumed that these two events would be less tiring because, “det är inte Företagspriset” (it’s not the gala event), a phrase that has become a standard response to “Will this work?” “Am I underdressed?” and “Do we have to be there five hours earlier?” But still, it’s an extreme energy drain simply because of the running and standing, smiling and greeting, helping out and seeing to it that everything goes right. But despite it all, it’s also fun.

The day after, today, we had our annual conclave where ideas were discussed and we were responsible for the event organisation and the minutes. Dates and places are set for 2017 which seems to far away now. I’ll be in Hamburg (January), Stuttgart (May), Frankfurt (September) and Leipzig (November) that year. Mark your calendars if you live there…;-)

 

 

Again and again

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photo: Göteborgsoperan

Do you know the Spotify Review of your year? It shows you what you most listened to during the past twelve months. For me, it showed as most listened playlist “Kristina från Duvemåla”, as most listened artist ”Helen Sjöholm“ [lead actress in Kristina] an as most listened song „ Duvemåla hage”.

Last Saturday, my friend Tabea and I took the opportunity to see the musical again. It had moved from Gothenburg to Stockholm and as they only seem to set it up every 20 years, I felt I had to see it again. When I talked to my friends who had been with me when I first saw it in February, many of them said they had also been to Stockholm to see it again. My former boss has actually seen it seven times.

I was cold during almost the entire show. Not because the theatre wasn’t heated (on the contrary) but because I had goose bumps all the time. Next to me was a man sitting whose lips moved with every song. He knew every line.

When I first saw the musical, I was not as familiar with the story or the music so it was a stupendous experience. This time, I had the opportunity to pay attention to little things and just like in February, the four (!) hours passed by in the blink of an eye.

The first time I saw “Kristina från Duvemåla” was before the September wave of countless refugees seeking shelter in Germany and Sweden. While it had already been an issue then, last Saturday, it was perfectly impossible to not see the striking similarities between Kristina and any refugee woman today. I don’t think anyone with a brain sitting in that theatre did not think of the current situation. ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus who wrote the musical, said: ”Kristina sings ”I am a refugee and a foreigner”. If we can open some eyes to what it can mean to be a refugee and a foreigner, then we have succeeded with something important”.

The day after I saw it was the last show they played. Let’s hope it comes back soon.

What’s Welcome in German?

Photo: Pier53

Yesterday night, I made a film director very happy. At least that is what he told me and a couple of hundred people. But let me start from the beginning.

In the afternoon, Tina, known from Come Dine with Me, asked if I wanted to come along and watch the new documentary about refugees in Germany and how Germans react to them. I had heard about the movie and would not mind seeing it but ah, going home and then go out again? Cycling all the way to Abaton when one could spend the evening on the sofa? Geez, I told myself, this has got to end. I cannot live in a metropolis where I have the chance to see the smallest documentaries on big screens and still always choose to watch Let’s Dance on my couch. I already vowed before to bring more inspiration into my life so I’d better live up to my own ideas.

Because I had an important phone call to make, I was late. When I stepped into the movie theater, they were just dimming the lights and a staff member told me, “There is only one seat left, in the front row there”. I had to walk past literally everyone and found my seat. Then I sat for 90 minutes and saw Larisa and Malik and Rrko and Herr Prahm and Frau Oelker and Herr Freudewald struggling with their respective situations. Larisa was longing for a home, Herr Prahm felt threatened by the 53 refugees that were to be placed in his 400-people-village. I got to meet Ingeborg and Eveline, two 80-year-old ladies that impressed me deeply by caring so lovingly for the refugee children. I got to see how authorities are trying to make refugees feel welcome and locals felt unsafe. I learned what it is like when you arrive and what kinds of adequate but simple lodgings you are placed in. The thought of my comfortable sofa made me feel rather lucky.

After the film, there was a Q&A with the director. He opened the conversation with saying how happy he was to see a movie theater filled to the last seat. “When we were about to start, there was only one ticket that had not been sold. And then someone came in, that last person, and I was so glad.” So that’s how I made a film director happy last night.

The movie “Willkommen auf Deutsch” (Welcome in German) is playing in selected cinemas now.

We need a German Ministry of Invitations

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When I was a foreigner abroad, especially in the beginning, I remember how the best thing would always be if a local invited you home. It was almost like an unofficial integrational competition among the other internationals: how many Swedish homes have you been to? Being invited into someone’s home gave you access to the society you were in, to find out more about how the people lived here and what they liked to do.

Last Saturday, I had guests for dinner. It is something that happens every now and then at my blue table. Young people in their twenties usually from different backgrounds, often different nationalities gather around that table that was the first one my mother owned herself when she was in her twenties. I put on that Spotify playlist, light the brass candle holders and uncork the red wine. That’s what I always do and that is what I did last Saturday as well. Actually, it was like any Saturday dinner with guests. Just that those guests did not come from Sweden or Spain or the South of Germany. They came from Syria and they did not come voluntarily.

Last year, Ebba Åkerman, a Swedish language teacher for immigrants, came up with the brilliant idea of the “Invitationsdepartmentet”, a Ministry of Dinner Invitations. She realized that refugees and immigrants are “let into the country but not into the society”. That’s why she started matching natives and immigrants who met for dinner together.

In Hamburg, we also have hundreds of refugees. They live in container camps with other refugees and contact with Germans is scarce or lacking. For the Germans, the refugee question is mostly a political topic that is discussed in media, it’s numbers, not people. In short: Hamburg, like probably any German city, is a perfect starting point for a German Ministry of Invitations.

Through friends I contacted Tina, an inspiring young woman who hangs out with the refugees and helps them with trips to the authorities. I asked her if she thought it would be a good idea and if the refugees would be up for a dinner with us. They were.

Last Saturday, I had guests for dinner. Young people in their twenties, from different backgrounds, different nationalities: two German girls, my colleague Sarah and Tina, and two Syrian guys. A PR professional, an engineer, an English graduate, an economist. We talked about Hamburg, about studying, about food, about parties, about what our parents do. We told each other of our childhood homes. We could have been a group of exchange students. When you sit down for a casual dinner, there is little difference between these guests, refugees, and other international friends if you don’t choose to focus on it.

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Sweden’s best book

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One of the most pressing socio-political problems of our time must be the migration and refugee movements. Who would have thought that a Swedish book could – in my humble opinion – contribute anything to the question?

A couple of years ago when I took a Swedish course in Göttingen, our teacher made us watch a movie where everything happened in what felt like real-time. I did not fully appreciate the movie but one scene was etched in my memory and the name “Utvandrarna” (“The Emigrants”) stuck with me.

When I came to Uppsala, my friends Michelle and Malin must have brought up the story and introduced me to the musical whose name I had heard before but as it is not the same as the film/book, I had never connected it to the story. To me, it was a musical about something on the Swedish countryside and despite the fact that ABBA’s Björn and Benny wrote it, it never succeeded to catch my full attention. When my favorite magazine published an article on the new, elaborate –redesign of the book covers in 2012, I decided that I would give the story a try. That’s where my story with Kristina, Karl Oskar and Robert finally began.

It is the story of a group of peasants from the South of Sweden who suffer from bad harvests and famine so that they decide to emigrate to America. My friends make fun of me because I read the books so slowly. One reason for that is certainly the advanced linguistics (with dialectal dialogues) but I also find the book series by Vilhelm Moberg to be very emotionally exhaustive. Every word in the thousands of page is carefully arranged, every character is fully thought-through and in every little substory, there’s a whole own drama going on. Moberg succeeds in sucking me into the life of Swedish peasants during 1860s in a way that only a skilled author can. Sometimes, I want to read with a highlighter to mark the passages that remind me of my own very much smaller-scale migration. And many times, I am amazed by the striking parallels between today’s refugees and Kristina’s family. Hundreds of years in between and yet, so much is so similar. This story, a national treasure in Sweden, manages to evoke such empathy for the characters that transcends the place and time and should contribute to changing one’s outlook on the Kristinas that come to Europe these days.

It is certainly true that I have no read all of Swedish literature but I am sufficiently impressed with both the story itself and the masterly way it is told to proclaim this one of the – if not the – best Swedish book. (Astrid Lindgren is, of course, standing outside all competition.)

The books in English and the movie trailer as well as the musical which goes under the name of Kristina från Duvemåla.

Coming up next: The Musical, Kristina från Duvemåla.

"Invandrarna", The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand

“Invandrarna”, The Immigrants, part two of the four-part-series on my nightstand