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People who chatter on about "Scandinavians" mean well, unaware of a Swede's sharp intake of breath at being lumped in with a Norwegian, or the taciturn "Well, then" of a Norwegian perplexed by being confused with a Dane.
So in the interests of fjord-like clarity: Today through Saturday, it is the king and queen of Sweden who are touring Minnesota, watching children make Swedish crafts, strolling the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and schmoozing with the governor.
Sweden -- birthplace of Ikea, Volvo, Nobel prizes, Abba and smörgåsbords. Sweden, where girls can have dragon tattoos, or walk around before Christmas with lighted candles on their heads.
Bottom line: Ole and Lena are Norwegian. Ole's best friend, Sven, is Swedish.
Makes sense now, right?
In any case, välkommen to King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden. Yes, it was just a year ago that Norway's monarchs were here. And yes, while there are more Minnesotans connected to Norway -- or to Germany or Ireland -- Swedes here enjoy a certain density: Almost one in 10 residents claims Swedish blood, making the state the most svensk of the 50.
"We often talk about Scandinavians in general, but they are different," said Roland Thorstensson, a retired professor of Scandinavian studies at Gustavus, which hosts the monarchs Friday for its 150th anniversary of being founded by Swedes. More to the point, modern Scandinavia often is quite different from how it's revered in America.
"Multicultural Sweden is a phrase you hear quite often," said Thorstensson, a native Swede. "Every fifth person was born in a country other than Sweden, or to parents who were born elsewhere. When I came to Minnesota, everybody would say, 'You'll fit right in,' and I looked around and thought, 'I am Swedish, but I come from Sweden. I don't come from Minnesota.' There's sort of a disconnect between Swedish-Americans and what's happened in Sweden."
The disconnect is common to many immigrant groups, said Bruce Karstadt, president of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. When the ASI was founded in 1929, "it was intended to serve as an anchor for the Swedish-American community here, but also was in a role that kept us connected in a living way to the quote-unquote 'Old Country.' But the Old Country progressed. It changed!"
Today, he said, there still is a strong sense of ethnicity, "but our sense of being Swedish isn't necessarily an inherited identity, but is consistently being reconstructed."
Karstadt called a royal visit "a galvanizing moment for the community." Their majesties last visited Minnesota in 2002.
Of chefs and sedums
Most of what Americans know of Sweden comes through popular culture, although it's often mashed up with Norway like so much lefse dough.
That's partly due to "A Prairie Home Companion," but also to Norway's intensity of national pride, "being a relatively new country," said Byron Nordstrom, a retired professor at Gustavus who's written extensively about Sweden, which became an independent country during the Middle Ages. (Norway? 1905.) "So Swedes tend to not wear the flag quite as brightly on their chests."
The most common connection to Sweden is through food -- the lutfisk, limpa bread, sandbakelser, and small, gently spiced meatballs.
"Interestingly, we've hung onto a lot of these peasant foods, and we come to think that's Swedish cuisine, when really, Marcus Samuelsson is Swedish cuisine," Nordstrom said, referring to the famed Ethiopian-born chef who was adopted and raised in Sweden and now has restaurants in Sweden and Harlem.
Samuelsson may be the new face of Sweden, given that Thorstensson also brought him up, albeit in the context that the most famous Swedish chef no longer is the shaggy character on "The Muppet Show." "I've been through the Björn Borg impact, to the Swedish Bikini Team, to the Swedish chef," he said. One of the hit shows on public TV these days is "New Scandinavian Cooking."
Sweden also is at the forefront of the sustainability movement, which informed the design of the new Nelson Cultural Center at the Swedish Institute, with its energy-efficient roof of grasses and sedums next to the masonry meringue of the Turnblad Mansion, completed in 1908.
"Sustainability is very much talked about in Nordic areas," he said. "So the Nelson Center is the evolving Scandinavia. Things don't really end, they just change."
Changing, here and there
A prime example of change is Crown Princess Victoria, who will succeed her father, thanks to the Swedish Parliament, or Riksdag, making women eligible for succession in 1979. Because Victoria's first-born also is a girl, little Estelle born in February, Sweden will have many years of females on the throne.
"There's been a sort of revival in a favorable attitude toward the crown with the idea of having a succession of women as monarchs," Nordstrom said. "They've recognized women's equality."
As Sweden has become a nation of immigrants, so has the Swedish Institute adapted to changes in its Phillips neighborhood. Newspaper publisher Swan Turnblad always appreciated libraries as resources for immigrants, Karstadt said, although he likely never would have imagined the small library-in-a-box on the corner of 26th St. and Park Av. S., where Somali neighbors trade books with longtime Minneapolitans.
"The values may be the same, but the expressions of them change," Karstadt said. "That doesn't make them any less real or authentic. It's just ... " he paused, searching for a word before settling on that most Scandinavian of explanations: "different."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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