A timely fika with Sweden’s Ambassador Annika Thunborg

Published November 27, 2021, 11:00 PM

by Carol RH Malasig

The Nordic way of life is very much on-trend, especially now that Swedish giant Ikea has just opened its biggest store in the world in Manila

PARITY Ambassador Annika Thunborg and husband Aaron Tovish are a great example of love and equal partnerships

Sweden is also very much present in the world of tech, particularly tech that we use in day-to-day life. The way we listen to music now, through an app called Spotify, comes from Sweden. So does Zoom’s predecessor Skype, as do the game that got everyone addicted at some point (CandyCrush) and the game your kids are currently playing (MineCraft).

With Swedish furniture giant Ikea’s opening this past week, there’s been quite the buzz around everything related to the brand, from meatballs to the Nordic way of life, which is now very much on-trend. Sweden’s Ambassador to the Philippines Annika Thunborg, who just arrived two months ago, says there’s quite a lot to unpack (pun intended) when it comes to her country’s quiet but vigorous presence in the lives of Filipinos.

“Please call me Annika,” the Ambassador said as we sat down in her living room for fika, a social coffee break that’s often described as cozy and an integral part of their culture. “It’s still rather empty as we’re waiting for our things to arrive.”

I shared that my experience of fika often happened in Malmö, where my Danish father now lives. It’s always a lovely time and one of my favorite things about life in Scandinavia. People always find the time to slow down and chat, learning from and about their companions.

NEW DIGS Fourteen-year-old Oskar approves of the new space and country.

The ambassador has quite the career in foreign policy. She’s had postings in Geneva, New York, and Vienna before becoming Ambassador to Mexico for five years. Now, she’s finally in Manila.

She’s looked at foreign policy from the outside as a journalist, theoretically as an academic, and now on the inside as a diplomat. “I felt I was eager to actually work with foreign policy from the inside and also in practice, contribute—at least a little—to making the world a better place,” she said. “That, I think, is my motivation for working in the foreign service. To really try to contribute and do our best to make the world a little better.”

Sweden’s success story

The Swedish Embassy reopened in Manila in 2016 after seeing potential in the Philippines’ new and emerging market. “There’s a growing middle class and new opportunities for people,” the ambassador said, citing the success of fashion retailer H&M, which now has 40 stores in the country, followed by the opening of Ikea’s biggest store, and call center Transcom.

VÄLKOMMEN AMBASSADOR! Annika Thunborg, Swedish ambassador to the Philippines

Job creation and revenue are indeed helping stimulate both economies, especially during a pandemic. The ambassador shared that about a hundred years ago, the Nordic countries were considered the poorer corner of Europe. What changed that for them?

She says it was their focus on the resources they naturally have while investing in and encouraging great, scientific minds. “That combination really, really struck gold in terms of how we were able to move the country forward economically but also very important in building up a strong public sector.”

She added that Swedish companies also bring a whole set of values wherever they go as their competitive advantage. Sustainability, good labor conditions, gender equality, and human rights within the labor sector are just some of the things their companies tend to keep wherever they are in the world.

Before Ikea and H&M hit our shores, Filipinos knew Sweden for the Nobel Prize and for being the source of great musical acts, from ABBA to Robyn and Swedish House Mafia. Sweden, however, is also very much present in the world of tech, particularly tech that we use in day-to-day life. The way we listen to music now, through an app called Spotify, comes from Sweden. So does Zoom’s predecessor Skype, as do the game that got everyone addicted at some point (CandyCrush), the game your kids are currently playing (MineCraft), and even payment options like Klarna, which is currently easing most of Europe into becoming cashless societies.

FIKA FARE Traditional bites during fika served in the Swedish Embassy’s official china. It’s design dates back to the 18th century

“Always cutting edge and driven by a lot by young people—entrepreneurs, engineers, science students,” said the ambassador of their industries and how they empower people. “It makes every area attractive, in general, to the younger generations.”

But moving forward doesn’t mean they easily forget tradition. They keep things the old way where they matter. “This is sort of an interesting thing in Sweden. Nowadays, we’re usually seen as sort of cutting edge but I mean, we still have a strong connection to tradition,” she said, showing their official china as an example. They maintain the same design used by King Gustav III in the 18th century. While beautiful, it’s not sleek nor minimalist as fans of the ‘scandi’ style would expect. They also hold their holidays dear, from pre-Christian midsummer festivals to Christmas with their families.

Championing women and living nomadically

A true feminist, the ambassador wishes to continue championing women and their rights throughout her career. “Sweden has adopted a feminist foreign policy, which aims to achieve parity. Girls and women can enjoy the same rights, representation, and resources as men and boys do,” she said, citing their interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights and the right of women to make decisions for themselves.

FELINE FRIENDS Sissel, one of their three-year-old cats, joined the conversation

For almost 25 years now, she and her husband Aaron Tovish have been moving from one country to another and for about half of that time with at least one cat. They now have three.

Luckily, the couple were given the opportunities to grow in their careers. “That is also something that is pretty good in the Swedish foreign service,” she said. “They always ask what the spouse can do.” The diplomatic spouse’s career is also given consideration when the foreign ministry decides on where they are to go next. Aaron worked as an international advisor, which made their postings in multilateralism hubs perfect for them both.

There’s a lot to be picked up from Sweden and, two months into her posting, Ambassador Thunborg is only getting started. We can’t wait for what else is coming from the land of tech, lingonberry, and fika.