In the name of full disclosure, I am not a Swede. I’ve retained my Finnish passport, citizenship, and most of the values in my 12 years in Stockholm but I have also added many new ones. Values, not citizenships. One of the things that hasn’t changed, though, is my appreciation for the Swedish Chef, which is why I was so surprised to see this story about Swedes being tired of getting asked about him. Or that, gasp, he wouldn’t be funny!
This past summer, my two kids, my beautiful Swedish wife, and I have watched a half a dozen movies together: Ice Age 4, Madagascar 3, Mary Poppins, Wizard of Oz, The Muppets, and Alvin and the Chipmunks 3. And which ones are the kids talking about afterwards? Mary Poppins, the Oz, and the Muppets. Which songs have been in heavy rotation all summer? The ones from the Oz and the Muppets.
And whose picture is on my son’s wall?
The Swedish Chef’s.
Son has collected a pretty admirable list of Muppet clips on his YouTube channel, but the one he plays the most, and wants everybody to see, is this one in which the Swedish Chef makes popcorn. Or, “poppity corn”.
Our household may be the anomaly. Maybe my Finnishness has rubbed off on the others so much that even the kids instinctively laugh at Swedes? But then again, they are Swedes, too.
To be sure, I decided to ask around. I asked all kinds of Swedes, old and young, male and female, what they thought of the Swedish Chef, whether they thought he was funny, and whether they were bothered by people asking them about him.
“I really like him, although he doesn’t sound like a Swede. Or, maybe that’s why I like him. I mean, how funny would he have been if he had spoken perfect Swedish? No, it’s better with his bork-bork-bork,” said Henrik Harr, a journalist.
“Yes, he was funny, and I like the fact that somebody somewhere even thinks about Swedes, most of the rest of the world doesn’t know anything about us,” said Susanne Ellingsworth, also a journalist.
“Opschkidoschkidooo … Yes, he is funny! Of course what he says doesn’t sound like Swedish to me, but my German friends say it sounds pretty much how Swedish sounds to them. I’d rather have people ask me about a muppet who juggles meatballs than about a blonde bimbo with some other balls in the air,” adds Elisabet Tapio Neuwirth, a journalist who’s married to a German man.
So, they were all journalists, but still.
The Chef has his fans in Sweden. In fact, I even heard the story about the Swedish Chef being based on a real Swedish chef from Dalarna blabbering on American TV from a Swedish friend – who also comes from Dalarna. She told the story to me very proudly.
My younger friends, those in their late twenties, said they don’t know who the Swedish Chef is, and that nobody has ever asked them about him.
The last word on this, though, goes to Wife:
“It’s always nice when people ask me about Sweden, it doesn’t matter that the Chef’s speech doesn’t sound Swedish to us. It’s not annoying, it’s nice to be connected with something so many find funny,” she said.
“Oh, and in the popcorn clip, when he says “shrimpies”, I think he does sound a little Swedish. You know, candy is “godis”, kindergarten is “dagis”, and so on. “Shrimpies” are cute little shrimps,” she added.
Last year, ABBA’s Benny Andersson, annoyed with the City of Stockholm’s plans to redesign parts of the city center, demanded that his photo be taken down from the Stockholm-Arlanda’s Hall of Fame. Now, if the photo of the Swedish Chef went up, and he’d welcome people to his hometown, together with Björn Borg and dozens of other famous Swedes, I’m sure people would be just fine with it.
No, questions about the Swedish Chef, or having to talk about ABBA, or IKEA aren’t the thing that annoys Swedes the most. Any publicity is good publicity. There’s even a site called “Alla Talar Svenska” (Everybody speaks Swedish, a reference to movies that get dubbed in Sweden), a site that collects pop culture references to Sweden.
Everybody loves Raymond, but Swedes loved the “The Family Bed” episode a little more thanks to this snippet of dialogue:
Ally: “Can I sleep in your bedroom?”
Raymond: “Oh no, no not this time, honey ok? Look, you have a beautiful Swedish bed that took daddy three days to put together.”
Swedes take pride in ABBA, IKEA and the Chef just as much as they do take pride in their “hooty doogies” in which the sausage is twice as long as the bun. (Come and see!)
The thing that annoys Swedes the most is … well, let me tell you a story.
Five years ago, when my Finnish-Swedish son was four years old, I took him to the Ferris wheel inside the Toys R Us store at the Times Square in New York. Imagine that, a thing like that inside a toy store. We walked in, and stood in line to get a ticket, but as luck would have it, or not have it, we just missed the next ride, so we had to stand there a few extra minutes.
In Finland, we would have just stood there. In Sweden, we would have said “hi”, and then stood there, but, in the USA, the girl handing out the tickets wanted to engage us in a conversation.
“Hi,” she said, “how are you today?”
“We’re fine, thanks, and how are you?”
“Good, good. So, where are you guys from?” she asked us. Her “where” was a little long, more like “wheeeere” and her “from” was just as long, more like “froooom” as her intonation went up towards the end of the sentence.
“We’re from Sweden,” I said, because that’s where we’re from, and I didn’t want to get into a long, “I was born in Finland but I now live in Sweden” conversation.
“Oh, that’s GREAT!” she said, with a big smile on her face.
And then, after a pause, came the sentence that Swedes hate. The one thing that makes them sigh, and roll their eyes ever so slightly:
“Wait, is that the one with the chocolate?”
Even I sighed.
“No, that’s Switzerland. Sweden’s got … you know, ABBA, IKEA, and the meatballs.”
“That’s right,” she said, and opened the gate for us so Son and I could get into our ride. Sweden also has the Swedish Chef, I should have added.
Nobody remembers the Swiss Chef. He’s probably not even funny.