A little piece of Sweden in Bangkok

by Agneta de Bekassy

On October the 12th I had the pleasure to spend the afternoon with the Swedish Ambassador H.E. Mr Staffan Herrström and his sparkling wife Karin. To enter their residence on Sathorn, is like stepping into a classic/contemporary Swedish Östermalm’s apartment. The apartment is huge and light with windows from floor to ceiling. Karin has chosen not to use curtains, as the view is absolutely breathtaking. The furniture is from Sweden, the well-known and popular brand “Svenskt Tenn” (Swedish Tin) and many of the beautiful, big rugs are woven and designed by Märta Måås -Fjetterström, a Swedish textile artist, also a well-known name amongst us Swedes.

Paintings are handpicked by the Swedish Academy of Fine Arts but, there are also several paintings that are personal belongings. When you step out on the terrace, you have in front of you the MahaNakhon building, the greenish glass building that doesn’t look finished, and you also recognise the golden cupola of Lebua State Tower, turn around a bit and you see The Banyan Tree with its popular roof bar Vertigo. It’s not hard to understand why Staffan and Karin feel happy here.

Everywhere in the spacious apartment you see Swedish design, from candlesticks to the famous “Dalahästar” (Horses from the county Dalarna) lamps and much more. I came here this afternoon accompanied by Sofia, who’s doing an internship in Bangkok. Her interest in photography and the absence of my usual photographer, made me ask her to take today’s photos. She, like me, was deeply impressed by the apartment and its views.

Staffan and Karin are, not only in my opinion, a strong team and very popular among the other diplomats. Karin told me that they are trying to organise welcome dinners and farewell dinners for new and leaving colleagues and that they always have a lot of fun when they meet. This is something that all the Ambassadors I have had the pleasure to interview, point out; the fun they have together and how much they enjoy each other’s company.

Karin and Staffan have a Swedish Chef Andy, but Karin is also dedicated to cooking and she and Chef Andy work closely together. In these cases, I wonder who might be the sous-chef??? I have also had the pleasure to attend their dinner parties several times and the food has always been delicious. So who are they, this dynamic couple? Staffan was born in a small city called Strängnäs, not too far from Södertälje (the Scania-Vabis) city, but moved in early years with his family to Uppsala, one of the most known university cities in Sweden. Here he studied between 1975 and

1976 and also attended a “translation school” during his military service. He went on with the university studies between 1978 and 1981. From a young age Staffan has been deeply interested in political/state science and the Russian language. He already, as a young man, had the wish to make a difference, a better world… He was involved in the youth part of the Swedish political party, at that time, named “Folkpartiet” today the party has changed name to “Liberalerna” the Liberals. Karin was born in Gothenburg, or in fact close to Gothenburg. She was brought up in Hovås, a very elegant part of Gothenburg with a beautiful golf course close to the sea.

She studied to become a teacher in chemistry and biology. She finished her graduation in 1981 and started to work at different high schools in Lerum and Floda close to Gothenburg. So where did you and Staffan meet I asked Karin. “Well, we met in 1984 at a summer camp in the county Dalarna. We were both interested in politics and politically active, the same political party of course, she said with a smile. A common friend of ours thought we would be a good couple, so she played a role in how we met. When I sat on the train on my way to this camp, I read in the daily news “Göteborgs Posten”, an article that was written by Staffan about Georgian.

Staffan was working for this newspaper and really enjoyed his time as a journalist. One evening, the camp participants were sitting around a fire and Karin suggested they should all sing (she loves to sing) and she had even brought a songbook with popular songs. The common friend pointed at Staffan and said to Karin “go and sit down by that guy, he is also good at singing” and since then Karin still sits next to him. This was the start of their romance. In 1986 they got married in the old church in Askim, a white, romantic limestone church.

The following dinner took place at the golf club that has always been known for its delicious food. Not long after the wedding, Staffan became Head of Secretariat for the Liberal Party in Parliament in Stockholm and after we got married we moved to Kista 1987 (and to the suburb of Täby several years after that, quite far from Stockholm downtown.

In 1991 their first daughter Sofia saw the daylight and already in 1993, the second daughter Amanda arrived. I had to ask Staffan, how he became a diplomat. Well, it was a decision that came step by step. He was very interested in future developments and he entered SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) and with time, he became more and more interested and involved in important topics within SIDA.

During his time as Secretary of State, he worked with Carl Bildt (Nils Carl Bildt, a conservative Swedish politician and diplomat who was Prime Minister from 1991 to 1994. Leader of the Moderate Party) and his big boss at that time was the politician Bengt Westerberg. When this party lost the election in 1994 Staffan became Deputy General and East European Chief. He worked for SIDA for 12 years and admits that he enjoyed every day. When the oldest daughter Sofia, finished the compulsory school, two jobs in Africa became available and Staffan applied and became the Ambassador for Sweden in Tanzania.

Staffan’s wish to “make a difference, willing to make changes” has always been his driving force. This is also the reason, or at least one of them, that made Karin happy. She had been looking for a man with the same ambition as herself and she found her soulmate in Staffan. Tanzania was an exciting period and they stayed from 2007 until 2010. Their next destination was Vietnam and they spent just one year 2010-2011 before moving to Poland and Warsaw. We have really loved all the places that we been posted Staffan and Karin say. “To me, it’s very important to make clear what Sweden stands for and to let people know about our country, the culture, education system, equality, etc.” Staffan lets me know.

Here I have to make a comment; Staffan has become the Ambassador in Bangkok known for his deep commitment to gender equality. If you talk about this topic, people often refer to Staffan. “This is good to know and I’m happy to hear that” Staffan says. Karin lets me know, that if Staffan has not become a diplomat, he could have been a lawyer. Staffan smiles and says “I think I would have remained a journalist”. “SE Asia has been of big interest to me, one of the reasons we wanted to come to Thailand” Staffan points out. They arrived in 2015 to Bangkok. Bangkok has a big Embassy with sixty plus employees. The door to the Ambassador’s office is mostly open and his colleagues can walk in and chat or ask for help if they feel it’s needed. This, I point out, is very Swedish. Most chiefs in Sweden, leave their doors open for employees to come in, maybe not yet the case in e.g. Thailand.

The consular sector has a wide enterprise. During the berry season in Sweden, there can be up to 400 Thai people daily asking for visa to go to Sweden and pick berries. Why Staffan finds his job here so interesting is the possibility to work within so many different fields. Heavy topics, amongst many others, are the contamination of the oceans, the plastic and garbage problems, human rights, women’s role in the society and the other usual topics. Staffan writes a monthly letter to the Swedish Society, updating us all with current issues.

His experience from his time as a journalist by Göteborgs Posten. Now back to Karin and her role as wife of an Ambassador. Karin admits that she sometimes can be longing for a “real job” beside the duties that follow with her marriage. I was a dedicated teacher, just loved it but today, I’m the boss of my little staff at the residence, and I stand by Staffan whatever he has to do and I’m busy with SHOM (the organisation of the Ambassadors spouses). Right now, with the Santa Lucia coming soon, I’m organising and planning for this celebration and I am engaged in the World Childhood Foundation, a foundation founded by Queen Silvia of Sweden in 1999.

The foundation work to help abused children, families at risk and street children. There is no average day for those two. Staffan is an early bird, arriving at 7.00am in the office. He is participating in lectures, talking about Sweden, how our country looks upon “freedom of speech”, “gender equality” and much more. One day he takes the Minister of Transport to visit the Volvo factory or he meets with the Minister of Culture to discuss the 150 years anniversary between Sweden and Thailand.

” Right now, in connection with the 150 years anniversary, we focus on two themes. First of all the remarkable people to people relations, which we will present through a photo exhibition. We have already started to highlight this on facebook. The second theme is forward looking, related to environment.

We want to join forces with Thailand to combat marine plastic litter in our oceans,. The first steps were taken previously this year i.a through an event with the Minister of Environment and Sweden’s Oceans Ambassador.

Sweden and Thailand have always been very close, much due to our Royal families. Staffan also travels a lot, more or less monthly, to Myanmar, Yangon where he has 12 collaborators. When there is not enough time to visit, he makes video calls with his staff. We returned back to the topic of “Gender Equality” which is of great importance to Staffan.

“We have such a great potential in women, we have to use that the right way. Let us use the power women have, it would make the world better” he says. Many women today, all over the world, are exposed to some kind of violence, might it be sexual abuse or verbally abuse. We have to give these women a voice.” In Thailand we have an organisation called “Don’t tell me how to dress” founded by Sirinya (Cindy) Bishop, a former model and actress and currently the hostess of “Asias Top Models”. This is a similar organisation to “Me too” or “He for She” and the Swedish Prime Minister is amongst their supporters.

Staffan tells me that IKEA Thailand, has introduced a thirty days “Father’s time off” as their paternal connection with maternity. This is very common in Sweden. Most fathers take some time off from their job to be home taking care and building a bond with their child/ children. Right now, in connection with the 150 years anniversary, we try to draw attention to our team work Sweden-Thailand; we work side by side with the Environment Ministry to solve environmental issues. We focus on “People to people contact” amongst it, a photo exhibition will take place, theme “Look forward”.

Staffan also tries hard to attend the meetings with The Thai/Swedish Chamber of Commerce. Here he has a chance to meet people from the Swedish community and the Swedish companies’ representatives. What have, until now, been your most memorable occasion in Thailand I asked? “Well, of course the late King Bhumibol’s funeral, Queen Silvia represented Sweden. On another visit by Queen Silvia, she talked in front of thousands of listeners about sexual abuse and violence to children and women”. If you have a day off, what do you usually do? “I spend it with Karin of course. We take time to read, stroll along, listen to music and we follow some TV series”. Both keep themselves fit, through running marathons, swimming and walking. Karin is, as previously mentioned, an accomplished cook, but not with Thai food she says. They like Thai food and can eat relatively spicy.

One favourite restaurant is “Above Eleven”, this they have in common with the Peruvian Ambassador and his wife. The food at Above Eleven is a fusion between Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. I agree, it’s a nice place with great views and delicious food. I asked my last and favourite question; Who would you choose to have a private dinner with? Karin immediately answers “Astrid Lindgren”, a very popular late author who has written many children’s stories, funny stories but most of them with a deep message.

I think Astrid had a very good sense of humour; she lived a quite tough life, getting pregnant at a very young age, struggling with several issues. We would probably laugh a lot together Karin says. Another choice of mine would be Michele Obama, another powerful, intelligent woman that I admire. Staffan’s first choice would be, that young, strong Pakistan woman Malala. She is a real inspiration for young females and to discuss gender equality, sexual abuse, etc. with her would be most interesting. Malala Yousafzai, born July 12th 1997 in Mingora Pakistan. Receiver of the Peace Nobel Prize and the Sakharov prize for “free thinking”. In 2012, she was attacked and injured by the Taliban. If I have a second choice, I would probably say Frau Hedi Fried, a woman who survived Auschwitz. To discuss about that terribly time in Germany now when its 70 years since it all happened, I think would be an important and emotional discussion.

Hédi Fried (born 15 June 1924 in Sighet) is a Jewish author and psychologist.[1] A Holocaust survivor, she passed through Auschwitz as well as BergenBelsen, coming to Sweden in July 1945 with the boat M/S Rönnskär. [2] She has been awarded the Illis Quorum medal, and was named European of the Year in 1997. The afternoon went too fast, Sofia and I said goodbye and thanked our hosts for the lovely tea and home baked cinnamon rolls and chocolate biscuits, tasted too good. Karin said they came from Mia Palmqvist at Mamma’s Kök (Mother’s Kitchen). I know, by experience that Mia is a fantastic baker. If you haven’t tried them yet, it is never too late, do it.

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