Guest post by Simon – How to Make a Dala Horse

Last weekend, we visited our friends at their cabin in Dalarna, in central Sweden. It was a great trip. Dalarna is home to one of Sweden’s most famous symbols – the Dala horse – and we were super excited to visit a Dala horse factory and see how they are made. Here is Simon’s explanation of how the process works.


(The author, outside the factory).

How to make a Dala horse:

First, you draw it.

1 - Draw.jpg

Then, you carve it.

2 - Carve.jpg

Then, you smooth the wood.

3 - Smooth

Dip it in paint.

Then you put putty on it.

4 - Paint and putty

(Note: Paint is on the right. A puttied horse is on the left).

Then you dip it in paint (again).

Then you decorate it.

5 - Decorate

A finished Dala horse!

6 - Finished.jpg

Simon’s original text and illustration below:



Yes, Sweden has a far-right movement

For those who follow European politics, it’s probably not news that Sweden has a growing far-right political party. They’ve been growing across Europe, with a lot of attention in Western Europe in particular: Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s National Front, the UK Independence Party, Alternative for Germany, etc. For those less familiar with European politics, it might be more of a surprise to learn that the Nordic countries are also seeing serious growth on the far-right. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden all have far-right groups that poll above 15%. In most cases, they’re approach nearly 25% support. Without going into the guts of it, 25% is a big number in proportional representation systems, which Sweden has. It makes it a lot hard to form a government and get the business of government done without working with them. (Proportional representation means that the number of seats that parties receive in Parliament is based roughly on the proportion of votes the party receives in elections.  That often means that parties have to form coalitions with other parties to gain a majority and become the ruling party. If your party has a small number, but if it’s the difference between Party 1 and Party 2 becoming the ruling party, it gives that party power disproportionate to their electoral support.)

In Sweden, that party is the Sweden Democrats. Support for the party has grown over recent elections. The most recent national elections (2014) saw them win 12.9% of the vote, which translated to 14% of the seats (49 out of 349). A more recent “poll of polls”, however, puts them at 19.4%. The next national elections are in September 2018. To date, all but one party has pledged not to cooperate with them, which would keep them out of any governing coalition. But since one party has openly speculated about cooperating, and since political parties tend to be chock full of politicians, it’s not hard to imagine that others might be willing to make a deal with them if it meant the difference between being part of the governing party versus being in the relatively powerless opposition.

I’m sure we’ll have more to say on this from our various perspectives. It’s certainly something we both want to watch and know more about. What I can say now is that the far-right noise is there and, it seems to me, is getting louder. Sometimes it’s subtle: a guy in the grocery store today glared at the dark-skinned Muslim people in front of me, while I’m pretty sure I didn’t get the same treatment.  (This, despite the fact that one of them spoke Swedish and I don’t. It’s weird to be an invisible immigrant in ways that benefit you.) Other times, it’s more visible. We visited a small town festival this weekend and the jolly-enough seeming man in front of us was wearing a Sons of Odin T-shirt, a neo-nazi group that fancies itself the bearers of some romanticized Viking legacy.


At the same time, the older man who noticed me taking a picture mumbled disapproval of the shirt to his wife. Time will tell which of those voices wins in Sweden.


A few weeks ago, we set out in search of a bakery that I had read about. We were exploring a new neighborhood, and this bakery was supposed to have especially good bread. (Note: Sweden has surprisingly few dedicated bakeries – another mystery!).

When we arrived, the bakery was dark and there was a big sign on the window. My Swedish is not great, but I could read this one: “We are on vacation… from July 8 until August 17. We wish all of our customers a nice summer.”


Since that day, I have noticed signs like this in lots of places. A lot of bars and restaurants are closed for the entire month of July (or more). My academic host here told me that she would not be returning to the office until August. Even the farmers’ market is closed for the summer (although the farmers, I am sure, are still working).

I think a lot of people are aware that European countries get more vacation time than we do, but the differences are striking. The United States is the only OECD country that doesn’t require employers to offer paid vacation time. 23% of workers don’t get any. According to a survey of people who do get paid vacation, American workers take an average of 16.8 days of vacation per year, with more than half of workers “throwing away” some of their vacation days.

Swedes, in contrast, enjoy an average of 33 paid days! Lots of people take off four (or more) weeks in a row. According to one of our friends here, even graduate students get six weeks of paid vacation.

All of the friends and relatives we have in Sweden are taking quite a few vacation weeks this summer. This seems to be true whether they own their own business, work in an office, or work in retail. Some are going camping, some are going golfing or to the beach, and some are staying home for a “stay-cation.”

Even though Mark and I are working for much of July, finishing up projects from the United States before everything starts in August, I like being in a place where taking time off is expected. (We did go on a weekend trip to the coast and we’re going up north at the end of the month). The vacation culture has its drawbacks, of course. We don’t know where Simon is going to school, and when I emailed asking for an update, I received three or four automatic replies explaining that the person was on vacation until August 7 – one week before school starts! And we still haven’t tried that bakery. But I think that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.


Of state monopolies: the Systembolaget

If you drink alcohol, you’re probably aware that the rules on alcohol sales vary. In the US, of course, they vary from state to state, county to county, or even town to town. I grew up in a dry county in the state known worldwide for producing bourbon. Here’s a great blurb about how the crossroads where I grew up voted to go wet last year by a vote of 103 to 101! I went to college in a dry (well, damp) town. I lived in Bavaria and in central Germany, where it was all up for grabs. I went to grad school at a party school where the student union sold beer and where liquor stores closed at 9pm, creating panic every weekend. We moved to North Carolina, where you can buy wine and beer in the store, but the state owns the liquor monopoly, and people are still celebrating the “brunch bill” that just passed allowing alcohol sales starting at 10am on Sundays. And unless you grew up there, you don’t stand a chance of understanding the beer and liquor laws in Sarah’s childhood home of Pennsylvania.

Coming from the US, I’m used to odd and varying cultures around drinking alcohol. Having lived in Germany and Spain, I have a background assumption that Europe is much more liberal in this regard.

That assumption remains, despite the fact that I know that Sweden has a very different alcohol culture. There are probably other places like it, but I’ve not yet been to those places. At the center of it is the state alcohol monopoly, the Systembolaget. If you’re inclined to imbibe, you get used to looking for this little green sign wherever you are:

Systembolaget hem


You also try to memorize the opening hours, which are odd: 10-7 on weekdays (normalish); 10-3 on Saturdays (always-catches-you-off-guard early); closed on Sunday (surprising, but I’m still used to the idea). The state owns the sole right to sell liquor, wine, and beer above 3.5%. Anything at 3.5% or below can be sold in the grocery stores.

As usual with restrictions on alcohol sales, the goal originally was to promote temperance. Alcohol sales were fully liberalized (all restrictions lifted) in the late 1700s. Not long after, the industrious Swedes apparently were drinking homemade hooch with abandon. Temperence societies popped up, the Church of Sweden jumped on the bandwagon, and by 1850 the state had taken over sales. In 1860, the state opened its first bar and the Systembolaget was born. Rationing kicked in during WWI and lasted until 1955, at which point even the unemployed and married women (!!) were allowed to buy alcohol. Until 1990, you had to go to a counter and ask for specific products by name, it seems.

When rationing went out, though, the state turned to taxation to control consumption. It began (and has kept) taxing alcohol at high rates based on the alcohol percentage: the higher the alcohol, the higher the tax. But the system isn’t allowed to favor any product over another and all products must be sold at the same profit margin. The system also makes the state of Sweden one of the world’s largest buyers of alcohol. For those keeping score, what this means is that all alcohol is expensive. But relative to other places, the middle- and high-end stuff seems like a bargain compared to cheaper versions of the same category.  One strategy is to drink less, but drink better.

So has all of this worked? It seems to have an effect. Yes, Swedes love to drink schnapps (not that nasty cinnamon stuff that still makes you shudder from that time in high school, but the high quality distilled liquor that comes in a ton of regional variations). And when it’s time for that (e.g., midsommar, Christmas, etc.), they go to it, with lots of schnapps songs to go along with them. Overall, though, Sweden has one of the lowest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the developed world. They take the question of drinking and driving very seriously. Despite the wide availability of what in the US would be called near-beer (beers in the 2-3.5% range), if you’re driving you’re expected to have alcohol-free beer or some other option. There’s really an incredibly low tolerance for it. They also have a lot fewer driving fatalities, although other factors play a role in that, too.

What surprises me is the lack of high-quality, low-alcohol beers: those “session” beers that have become so popular in the US. They’re coming around, but Sweden doesn’t have the microbrewing craze that been spreading in the US for a couple of decades now. It seems like there’s an opportunity, since they can be sold in supermarkets. So to my North Carolina brewing friends, come to Sweden and explore your market options. For everyone else, if you come to Sweden, keep your eyes peeled for that little green sign.


Being a kid (and being a parent) in Sweden

I thought it would be easier to be a parent in Sweden, and it is. But I am a bit surprised by why.  I would have predicted that it had to do with benefits like parental leave and government-subsidized daycare. However, even though we don’t have access to those benefits (yet – Anna will start daycare in August), it is still easier to be a parent here. Why?

The biggest reason is not that surprising – the Swedish government invests a lot of money in children. As I have mentioned before, the parks are fantastic, with options for every age group. We were also excited this summer to learn that the City of Gothenburg has a whole slew of special activities, organized under the hashtag #sommarlov (summer love), because every kid “has the right to a fun summer.” Last week, Simon and Anna made a mosaic that will be incorporated into our favorite park.


The week before that, we went to a short play in a library. And the week before that, Simon did a claymation workshop. All of these things were free! And there are many more.

It’s not just governmental programs, though. I have noticed that (adult-oriented) museums and other institutions often have special activities for children– more than in the United States. For example, this weekend we went to a small art museum. They had special activity boxes (with prompts about the paintings, as well as props), a “break from art” room with Legos (!), and a workshop room where you could try watercolors yourself (for 10 kronor per person, or about $1, to cover supplies).


It’s hard to know where programs like the ones at the art museum originate. (Obviously I could do some research into this, but I haven’t – yet). Some of it, perhaps, is subsidized by the Swedish government. It’s also possible that there is some institutional learning involved– in other words, that the types of programs funded and organized by the government are being adopted by other organizations. But I also think it is linked to Swedish culture — it says something about a country’s value for children and children’s culture when they put a children’s book author (Astrid Lingren, author of Pippi Longstocking!) on their currency.


Photo credit:

I am going to keep thinking about these questions as we continue to adjust to Swedish life. I don’t want to imply that it’s all rosy for kids and parents in Sweden – people are very quiet, at least in public (i.e., in the grocery store), and I feel like I am constantly shushing my loud American children. I think that being a parent probably comes with challenges in all places. But there are many things that make it easier for parents and children here, and I appreciate that we have the chance to experience them.


This weekend, we moved into our “permanent” apartment in Sweden – a 2-bedroom apartment very close to the historic center of Gothenburg. It is a great location, and after sharing a one-bedroom apartment for the last three weeks, the new apartment feels enormous, even though it is probably one-third the size of our house in Raleigh.

Packing (and unpacking) are significantly easier when you don’t have a lot of stuff. Here, Simon is sitting in front of all of the fun things we brought for the kids for the year – one small shelf of books and one small shelf of toys.


I always appreciate hearing about other people’s packing lists, especially for long trips, so here is ours, in case this is helpful:

Drawing boards – This is by far my favorite travel toy. It’s just like writing with a pen on paper, but with a stylus and an LCD screen. I basically keep them in my purse at all times, and Simon and Anna use them to doodle on at restaurants, in the car/on the train, or just during a break at the park. We also use them to play hangman and tic-tac-toe.

Books: We brought about 6 paperback picture books, and most of the rest are Simon’s reading books. Since he just started reading last year, I think it is important for him to read “real” books. We are also reading chapter books on the Kindle– we just finished James and the Giant Peach.

Legos: This is by far the thing they play with the most at home. We brought one large ziplock bag of Legos. I have noticed that both Simon and Anna are much more committed and creative about their Lego-building than they were at home.

Plastic figurines: The other thing they play with a lot is a tub of about 20 small plastic animals and characters, including two Toobs.

Building toys: We also brought some Tegu blocks (these are good for younger kids because they are big, they are cool because they are magnetic – easy to keep together if you take them to a restaurant or on the train!), Bunchems (you stick them together to make characters or pictures – a pro for these is that they weigh almost nothing), and Plus Plus (I LOVE these – we actually bought ours in Sweden last year. You can build flat shapes or 3-D shapes, and they are super portable, because they are so small).

Games: We brought a few card games (because they are small – Go Fish and Crazy 8s) and a magnetic checker set, which Simon is learning to play.

Other than that, we just have a lot of crayons, colored markers, and colored pencils, along with paper and “drawing journals.”

I am sure we will supplement their toys at some point, but three weeks in, I am pretty happy with what we’ve brought. I think it’s easy to romanticize minimalism, but I have to say, there are some great things about having just one shelf of toys. It takes about 5 minutes to clean up, and I like that they are really appreciating and using all of their toys. I hope that I can use this experience as inspiration when we get home!

Borders and migration

While I am in Sweden, I am studying migration – specifically, the role that food plays in immigrants’ lives. When someone moves to a new country, one of the very first things they have to do is figure out what to eat. Food can be a way of preserving memories. Food can create ties to new communities. But it can also serve to highlight and reinforce divisions; I just read an article about how some towns in Italy are banning ethnic restaurants. They say it is due to their interest in “preserving” Italian food culture, but it’s also about fear– of immigrants and how they are changing the communities in which they live.

It is particularly interesting for me to think about immigration while living in Sweden, because my great-grandparents were immigrants from Sweden to the United States.

Axel and Annie

Annie and Axel moved to the US from Sweden in 1920. Axel had relatives in the United States, but Annie left her parents and siblings behind. She never saw them again, although they sent many letters. They brought their three children with them. They had lost one child (their oldest – one of the two blond boys in the picture) to whooping cough just months before they left; I think this was one of the reasons that prompted them to finally leave, because they were so devastated.

During this time, many people left Sweden for the United States. 20% of men and 15% of women born towards the end of the 19th century ended up leaving. The top reason was poverty.

My great-grandparents, like so many immigrant families, were deeply committed to building a new life in the United States. They were eventually able to buy a farm, which is still in our family. My aunt got her master’s degree. My grandma raised four sons, and they loved spending their summers at the farm.

This year, my research focuses on immigrants’ experiences in Sweden. But as I think about my family’s immigrant story, I can’t help but think about the United States and the way we treat immigrants. I hear about terrible things being said and done to immigrants everyday, and it scares me. Immigrants have so much to teach us about resilience, hope, and starting over in a new place. What can we all do to welcome them?


Party in Partille

When you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, and you’re trying to move quickly on public transportation, you’re bound to head the wrong way from time to time. Even with Google. Today we were leaving the immigration office where we were registering and quickly jumped on the wrong bus. It happened that it was headed to a little town outside of Gothenburg, Partille (population 30,000). The art of enjoying life abroad is trying to make the best of these little mistakes. (And the real art of sabbatical is not to freak out because you’d planned on working, but ended up in a suburb half an hour away from your desk instead.) So Sarah dug around on her phone and found a local news article about the new park that had just opened 2 weeks before in Partille. We grabbed fika (cinnamon bun, cardamom bun (see header above)) and lunch supplies and spent a few hours enjoying the really cool, beaver-themed park. Apparently the local kid population voted to name the park Justin Bäver park, which was adopted. As Sarah already noted, Swedes have impressive parks. This is what family friendly policy looks like.


Island Capitalism

One of the awesome natural attributes of Gothenburg is the archipelago. The screenshot below is a map of the southern part of the chain. (We’re headed to the north in some weeks.) We went last year with Sarah’s relatives, Annette and Janne, to visit some of the islands.

Screenshot 2017-07-01 22.22.00.png

Yesterday when we woke up, the sun was shining and the forecast was optimistic (72 and sunny!), so we decided to go back. We hopped on a tram from just in front of our apartment and rode to Salthomen, the harbor from where most ferries leave. We scanned our Gothenburg public transport cards again (because public transport includes ferries to all the islands) and took a 20-minute boat ride to Brännö, the first big island in the southern half. From there, we strolled out to a secluded point on the island to have a little picnic in the only shade we could find at mid-day.


Most of the island looks like this:


Upon first landing, we read that today was the day for a collective loppis, or flea market. I was excited. To me, flea markets give intriguing and otherwise obscured glimpses in the private lives of people. Since learning the word over mid-summer, I’ve been eager to visit one in Sweden. We stopped at various stands as we walked to the middle of the island. A pattern quickly emerged: these seemed to be family affairs. Parents were in charge, but kids were selling goods, too. Sometime they sold food they’d made. In many cases they sold their own toys. The most entrepreneurial duo we saw were staffing the “Snack Shack,” where they made and sold waffles. (These 8-year-olds also conducted the transaction in English, including a free Swedish lesson in how to pronounce whipped cream in Swedish that Anna and Simon repeated for about 10 minutes.)


Over dinner back in Gothenburg, with the kids in bed, Sarah and I reflected on this. On one hand, there was only one B&B, with a brewery, on an island that was big enough to sustain farming as an industry. Regular ferries brought in lots of tourists to supplement the permanent population, which is only about 710 year-round, but swells considerably during the summer. There’s one grocery store.

These realities reflect two trends visible more generally in Sweden that at first glance seem contradictory. To the surprise of those who see Sweden as a socialist paradise and to those who fear it as a socialist hell, Swedes don’t fear capitalism. On Brännö today, parents and children alike hawked whatever wares they had or could make. The well-heeled hippies and conservatives of neighborhoods I’ve live in in the US would not see the neighborhood kids so eager “to truck, barter, and trade,” to borrow from Adam Smith. Nor would their parents push them to do so, for different reasons. Gothenburg as a city is as bold as the Brännö-ers. It doesn’t fear the change that comes from competition, and it’s re-invented itself many times (more on this another time, maybe).

At the same time, a major tourist destination like the archipelago is nearly entirely devoid of permanent enterprises. Why? Why isn’t it the ruined but profitable paradise of Gatlinburg, TN, or much of the Outer Banks in North Carolina? Why aren’t there restaurants with sea views? We have lots of thoughts about why that may be, and we may explore this question in particular more formally while we’re here. To me, it showed a classic side of the contemporary Swedish political economy: it was restrained capitalism. I expect this will be a theme in the day-to-day, as well as my research.

Speaking of cars

To answer the most common question I get both here and the US: I’m here to study cars. I want to document and understand how Sweden and Germany responded to crises in the car industry, what role the European Union played, how and why those responses differed from the response in the US, and what effect it all had. It doesn’t take being in Sweden long to see that cars really matter. The image below is the vintage Volvo that currently graces the baggage claim in Landvetter Airport here in Gothenburg. (h/t Bilal Arpaci because I was too tired to take pictures after delayed flights meant we’d been traveling with the kids for 23 hours.)volvo in landvetter

More generally, if you tell anyone here you’re working on the auto industry, you get a reaction. I’ve talked with former shipbuilders, school teachers, and plastics industry executives, and they all have thoughts–well informed thoughts, no less–about the industry: how GM or Ford did with Saab or Volvo; whether Spyker executives are criminally culpable, whether Koenigsegg would have been better. All of this while, off the top of my head, roughly 1% of Swedish workers are employed in the industry. Why do cars matter so much in national prestige? mtn