a unique perspective on this crazy world

building a national identity

The Nordic people are noted for being a bit frosty.  Especially by their southern neighbours.  They are my people.  Apparently in high school I intimidated people.  It wasn’t intentional.  I just didn’t have much sense of play.  So I am grateful to my country’s celebrated multiculturalism that I met people from other ethnic backgrounds who taught me how to lighten up 😉  For any of you reading this regularly, you will already know my love for the Dutch who somehow seem to manage to combine warmth, efficiency and dry wit.  And, while I still love Paris and New York, I have the most fun in Amsterdam so it may have beat them out as my favourite city.

But today we are talking about the Swedes.  Since my grandfather died when my dad was ten, the first Swedish man I met was some random Björn or Mattias.  He was cute and blond, sure, but that is not why he was memorable.  At the time I was about 20 and back in those days, people didn’t talk about sex in public in North America.  They didn’t have ads for tampons on TV.  We were repressed and uptight about all that stuff.  And lots of young women were very conservative in their social mores.

But we were also brought up well so people could say whatever and we just smiled politely and didn’t express any shock outwardly.  Hey, we started as a British colony 😉  So I was chatting with random Swedish guy and another girl in the lounge at the university residence where we were staying during our summer jobs.  And random Swedish guy casually mentioned how his grandmother had been cool with him bringing his girlfriend to her house and having sleepovers with the girlfriend when he was 15.  And not just sleeping 🙂

(According to my guidebook, at 15 you become byxmyndig, loosely translated as “in charge of your pants” – the things you learn from travel :))

Random Swedish guy seemed very comfortable with the concept of sex.  Apparently in Sweden it wasn’t the big deal it was in North America (and in many quarters, still is).  It was likely the first time I heard anyone talk about sex without twittering.  Talking about it as though it was the same as talking about the weather.  It was definitely a revelation.  And obviously random Swedish guy had an impact on my perceptions of the world.

But what I remember most was talking to the other girl later when random Swedish guy wasn’t around.  She had been shocked!  I hadn’t even realized because we had been taught to not act shocked so you would never know from the way the person acted in the situation.  I believe that’s called “good manners.”  It was fun to giggle about it since we didn’t have to act cool in front of the Swedish dude right then.  But I was less shocked.  And thought the Swedes might be on to something.  WHY WERE North Americans SO uptight about sex – but so casual about violence…

I met a couple more Swedish guys over the years.  That was part of the reason for my trip to Stockholm.  To see if they were representative.  My conclusion…  I think so…  It was only a short visit so not exactly a scientific study…

I went to at least one historical or cultural spot every day to learn more about the Swedes.  I had only had a few minutes to leaf through my guidebook before I arrived but I had read enough to be intrigued.  Another reason for the choice of Stockholm was a conversation I had recently at a networking event with a banker who had worked in Stockholm for a number of years.  He was the one that alerted me to the impressive nature of Sweden.

And it is an impressive place.  It’s clean.  It’s green.  It’s pretty equal by world standards.  There is a strong social safety net.  There is very little crime.  People are articulate.  For a small country, they really make their mark on the world via business, sport, design…

There are flags everywhere.  And people seem to have a strong sense of identity.  As a Canadian, I was fascinated.  We are famous – at least within our own borders – for being on an eternal quest for our sense of identity.  Something a little more than, “we are not Americans.” 🙂

My father was one of the few Canadians I’ve known who really believed in the country and had the kind of patriotic attitude I saw in Sweden.  Could it have come from his Swedish father?

Now that I know a little Swedish history, I would think likely not.  But maybe…  There is no question the Swedes have an identity.  But the museums and my conversations with Swedes suggested that it is a fairly new thing.

And – like everything in history, especially in Europe – it’s complicated.  Apparently Sweden was pretty poor and agrarian until the Second World War.  Most Swedes didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the role Germany – and their “neutral” position during the war – played in their prosperity.  But without the Nazis, there might not have been IKEA…

I was more interested in the sociology of Sweden than in ancient politics.  What was fascinating is that there were some famous Swedes who decided they needed a national identity and strove to define and promote it.  Part of this was establishing the Nordiska Museet – a place to showcase Swedish culture and identity.  For tourists.  But, more interestingly, for locals.

Apparently part of its mandate was to provide people with information about what it meant to be Swedish – to build a national identity.  Because, as I learned in the fabulous 1,000 years of Swedish history in under an hour at the Historiska Museet, the Sweden of today is a really recent invention.  There were the Vikings, some evil (and more benevolent) kings, a pampered nobility, alliances with the other Nordic countries (why Nordiska, not Swedish), invasions and bloody fights with neighboring countries, an interesting positioning during the Second World War…

What I loved the most about the Swedish museums is that they didn’t just toss random facts at you.  They clearly stated that culture and history are complicated and perspective is key.  They actually asked questions in the exhibits and encouraged you to think about any “facts” presented.

That was the thing that I liked the most about Sweden.  The culture encouraged thinking and planning (very Nordic of them ;).  Once the dust settled and prosperity kicked in, they decided to define who they were – and wanted to be.  And communicate that message to the nation.  I think all the recent immigration has made that message more complicated to reconcile but what impressed me the most about my visit to Sweden was the sense that intelligent thought and debate was encouraged – and part of the national identity.

I think that’s why Sweden has likely been so successful in the complicated modern world.  So, save your pennies and go check it out.  And chat up some Swedes.  They like to talk about ice hockey.  Vikings.  Or sex 😉

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