Do the unna

There I was, leaning against a construction site wall, looking out to Sergels Torg, the heart of Stockholm’s downtown. That’s the location of the main subway station and the commuter station hub, with a tunnel connecting it to the main train station. It’s also the place for markets and on most days, demonstrations of all sizes and for all causes.

Right behind me on the wall, there was a gigantic H&M logo and in front of me, a stage where a band was playing Swedish pop. All around me, there were blue-and-yellow flags, and faces and wigs, also blue-and-yellow, as Stockholmians got ready to celebrate the nation’s beloved hockey team, Tre Kronor, the national team that had won the world championship the night before.

When I was a young, aspiring hockey player, many of my heroes where Swedes, partly because, unlike Finland, they were battling for medals, and partly because they had players like Mats Näslund and Håkan Loob who were small but skilled players. And also, I liked Sweden because despite having Näslund and Loob, they didn’t often have the best players, but they did have the teamwork that could sometimes produce upsets.

I admired that and the hockey team became a metaphor for the whole country, too. Swedes, I thought, were down-to-earth, they encouraged fair play, and they were all about the team. They stood for something.

Also, while Swedes were ridiculed for being soft on the ice, that never bothered me. In fact, I liked it. I enjoyed the fact that they didn’t fight, that they did what kids everywhere are always (?) taught – that living well is the best revenge. Or, in hockey terms, scoring another goal is the best revenge.

Lately, though, I’ve been worried about Sweden.

It seems to me the country’s got colder and harder, with a collective tunnel vision on economy. Even hockey players have become personal brands, and some of them have become bigger than the team brand, and while some of them still buy into the team concept, not everybody does. The biggest compliment many Swedes give their stars is how “beautifully un-Swedish” – brazen and brash – they are. Players forget they’re not self-made stars, and they’ve gone from being athletes to being stars – and rich.

That was on my mind as the announcer invited a Swedish pop duo onto the stage to sing their semi-hit about bathing naked (also beautifully un-Swedish) in the Sergels Torg fountain (50 meters from the stage), which prompted hundreds of people to record the performance with their smartphones. The smartphones went back down when the Prime Minister took the stage, as he in a few words recapped the previous night’s game before he was ushered off the stage, to give space to the players.

The players, in their yellow sweaters and golden helmets, with the gold medals around their necks, they hoisted the trophy, were like rock stars. But I thought something was missing, and then suddenly, everything came together when the MC pulled up 29-year-old Nicklas Bäckström for an interview.

He asked Bäckström what he thought of William Nylander, the team’s 21-year-old offensive star, and his linemate in the tournament. Bäckström, a wunderkind himself ten years ago, had won the World Championship with Nylander’s father in his first tournament, and had been teammates with Michael Nylander also in the NHL, and played road hockey with William, then a pre-teen.

“He’s a great guy,” he said, glanced at Nylander who was standing next to him, and smiled. Then he went on to say, “I unnar him everything.” (Except the whole sentence was in Swedish).


That was the Sweden I recognized.

Since May, since the event, I’ve asked my Swedish friends for a good translation to unna but haven’t heard it yet. Google Translate doesn’t have a great translation of the word, either, and other dictionaries I’ve used also define it as a double-negative, as “not grudging” somebody something, which – to my Finnish ear – sounds false.

Unna is more than not grudging. What Bäckström meant to say was that he thinks Nylander deserves every accolade he gets, that he thinks Nylander is such a great guy that he wishes him all the best and is happy to see him get everything. There’s love in the word, no jealousy. There’s warmth, but no … well, grudging. (Another use of the word is reflexive, in which the person treats herself to something, in a “because you’re worth it” moment).

Unna is the glue that holds together families, communities, even nations. Unna makes you feel good, it gives you a positive outlook on the future, and it most definitely comes back to you.

Spread the word. Do the unna.

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