Hugo Strandberg, from Sweden: Reseacher at the Centre for Ethics

Who are you? Where are you from? How long have you been in the Czech Republic and at the University of Pardubice?

I’m Hugo Strandberg, researcher at the Centre for Ethics. I grew up in Eskilstuna, Sweden, and have now been at the University of Pardubice for slightly more than a year.


Could you tell us more about your field and your research at the Centre for Ethics?

The questions I am most of all interested in concern fundamental existential issues. Moral philosophy is therefore central. At the Centre I am principally working on two things: the first project concerns forgiveness (the idea is that our understanding of morality would be very different if we approached it from the perspective of forgiveness), and the second one Freudian psycho-analysis, which is, I believe, both very fruitful and very problematic when it comes to understanding moral life, so the idea is to make use of the fruitful side while explaining why the other side is mistaken.


Is it your first professional experience abroad? Why did you decide to live and work in the Czech Republic, in Pardubice?

The last twelve years I was based in Finland, at Åbo Akademi University, and I will return there when I leave the Czech Republic. But since I have been in Finland for so long, I would not consider it abroad anymore.

The Centre for Ethics was funded just a couple of years ago, and when they announced a position as researcher, I applied because it seemed to be a place that would fit my research interests and understanding of philosophy. And full-time research for several years would be wonderful. When I got the position, I was of course very happy, also since moving to the Czech Republic would be exciting.


I was told that the Centre for Ethics is a “Centre of Excellence” in Europe. What do you think about the Centre for Ethics? Is it a special place for philosophy and if so, why?

As a philosopher, you are used to working in very poor conditions, so having money to spend on arranging conferences every semester, on going to whatever conference you wish to go to and on building up a very good research library feels almost unreal. The research agenda of the Centre differs from the philosophical mainstream in a very good way, I think. The idea is that the Centre should approach philosophical questions in a more down-to-earth way than is usually done in philosophy.


In your Pardubice team, you work with researchers from the Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia, the US, Finland, UK, the Philippines, India, Chile, Germany, Australia. Why is it so international?

To some degree it is a coincidence. The positions were announced internationally, so then you do not know from where the applications will come. But there is also a point to it, of course. Philosophy is done in different ways in different places and personal experience is important in philosophical work, which means that different philosophical and personal backgrounds enrich the discussions.

My situation is therefore unlike the situation of others coming to the University of Pardubice from abroad, I guess. If there would be cultural clashes at the Centre, that need not be a clash with Czech culture, and when it comes to language, I encounter Czech almost only outside work.


Had you heard about the Czech Republic before you came? And if so, what did you know about it?

I had never been in the Czech Republic until I moved here, but of course I had learnt things about the country in school, read some novels by Czech authors, and so on. Swedish and Czech history is furthermore connected, the Thirty Years’ War is important in the history of both countries. Speaking about history, 1989 was very exciting to me: I was old enough to understand what was going on, but young enough never to have been able to follow historical events in real time. Finally, a special interest of mine is German literature, and that includes a significant number of authors living in what is today the Czech Republic.


Was it complicated to move to Pardubice? Did you get any assistance? Could you tell us how the EURAXESS contact point/international office assisted you?

When I was in the middle of it, I found it quite exhausting, but looking back I must say that it went surprisingly smoothly. People at the Centre helped me to find an apartment and to settle in, for which I am very grateful, and as you know, Caroline, you helped me at the immigration office. Moving within the EU is certainly much less difficult than coming from outside the EU, but coming from Sweden and Finland, two very non-bureaucratic countries, I would have lost my patience if I had not been helped by someone more experienced – this was probably my first encounter with a real bureaucratic apparatus.


How is life in Pardubice? What do you do in Pardubice that you didn’t do in Sweden/Finland?

I like it very much in Pardubice. The town is small, so you can walk everywhere, and in a few minutes you are in the countryside, at the same time it is only a short train ride to Prague (or Vienna, or …). Trains are furthermore frequent and very cheap, so one thing I do much more here than in Sweden and Finland is train travelling, just to explore new places. Another good way of exploring things is running. I ran a lot in Finland too, but since it is so sparsely populated (half the population of the Czech Republic, within an area more than four times as big) there will not be many opportunities for competing within a reasonable distance. In Pardubice not only the whole Czech Republic is within a reasonable distance, but parts of Germany, Austria and Poland as well, so I have participated in more races during this year than during my entire life. Part of the excitement has to do with everything you get the opportunity to see, cities (marathon) and nature (ultra trail). But it is also possible to take the train somewhere, run around for a while, and then take the train back, just when you feel like it.


Do you have a favourite place in Pardubice?

Tyršovy sady is very nice, I walk through it every day on my way to work and back, and it’s a good place for picnics. Rivers, too, are always beautiful, and in Pardubice we have both the Labe and Chrudimka.


You speak Swedish, English, German and Finnish. You have also been attending Czech classes since you arrived at the University. Where do you find the motivation to learn Czech, especially when you work every day in an international environment?

Actually, I do not speak Finnish. Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and since the Swedish-speaking minority must be given equal opportunity to study, there is one Swedish-speaking university in Finland, Åbo Akademi University, and that’s where I was based. When I came to Finland I was very eager to learn Finnish, and I kept it up for quite some time. But the problem was that I never had any real use for it, not at work, not socially (since all the people I got to know spoke Swedish), and, most importantly, not practically. Everyone I had any dealings with switched to English as soon as they understood that I did not speak much Finnish, and their command of English was far better than I would ever be able to speak Finnish. In the Czech Republic, however, the situation is very different, most people you meet in shops do not speak English at all, so every little bit of Czech you learn will be useful, even if you are only able to stutter a few words. But, as you say, it is quite a challenge to learn Czech when working in an international environment. The most training I get outside class consists of reading short bits of text I see out on the streets. So I do not think I will be able to speak anything else than very bad Czech. On the other hand, learning languages is an intellectual challenge very different from the challenge of philosophy, so I have for a long time had it as some kind of hobby: I read quite a lot of novels in German, Norwegian and Danish, and I try to avoid the knowledge I have of classical languages (Greek, Hebrew and Latin) from turning too rusty. So if I will be able to read children’s books in Czech I will be more than satisfied.


Ikea, cold, glögg, Vikings, land of Santa Claus, people very talented in English … those are the main stereotypes about Nordic countries. What do you think about them?

There is some truth in all of them, but, as usual, reality is more complex.

Vikings: Most things people think of when they hear the word “Viking” are stories made up in the 19th century, with very little basis in historical reality. Stories are of course influential too, and I think that these stories have a far greater impact on contemporary Sweden and Norway than the real Vikings have.

Santa Claus: Swedes say that he lives at the North Pole, it is only Finns who say that he lives in Finland. But one wonders what he was doing up there in northern Finland before he started off his philanthropic mission, for seeing him as the Christmas gift-bringer is a relatively recent addition to Christmas celebrations in these countries (it was not he who brought gifts to my grandmother when she was young). The name of Santa Claus in Swedish and Finnish furthermore translates roughly as Father Christmas, so there is no connection to the saint with that name.

Cold: One should not mistake low temperature for feeling cold. In the autumn, it rains quite a lot in Sweden and Finland, and even when it doesn’t rain, the air is damp, and that kind of coldness really finds its way through your clothes. As soon as the temperature drops below zero, the feel is much different and you will not feel as cold, and rain turns to snow, which will not make you wet. (Furthermore, the dark is much more pressing in autumn, without snow that brightens everything up and with long periods of overcast sky.) When the temperature is really low, the air is very dry and it is usually sunny, so you can actually feel hot such days. Even summer can be colder than winter: a tent expedition in the mountains in winter is not at all tough as many believe, but in the mountains in summer you just need a little bit of bad luck to be exposed to days of rain and temperatures around +5, and that could be demanding.


Norway, Sweden, Finland are tarred with the same brush. Are they the same?

Just as is the case with any culture, there are individual differences. All people do not act in the same way all the time. Cultural traits also tend to give rise to the opposite: Norway is perhaps the most wholesome country you can imagine, and precisely for that reason it is the home of black metal. And since Sweden is such a long country, there are significant cultural differences between the South and the North. If you compare the three countries however, they are certainly similar in many respects, but Finland, especially Finnish-speaking Finland, is surprisingly different. It is not easy to pin this down in a few words, but one way would be to contrast the positivity of Norway and Sweden to the negativity of Finland, even though all such descriptions risk being too simplistic. It should also be added that the immigration to Sweden is much, much larger than the immigration to Finland, and the relative lack of diversity in Finland also makes it a bit foreign to me.


After spending so much time in Finland, do you feel more Swedish or Finnish? How are the relationships between these two countries?

A good question, I have thought about that before but have not come to a conclusion. I do not feel Finnish, perhaps I feel like a Swedish-speaking Finn, but, on the other hand, Swedish-speaking Finns have close ties to Finnish-speaking culture, since they have learnt Finnish in school, whereas I have not, and therefore I am a very odd kind of Swedish-speaking Finn. So perhaps I am mostly Swedish after all, but there is no denying that the ties to Sweden become weaker as the years go by. So one answer to the question is that you can become less Swedish without anything else taking the place of what fades away.

Sweden and Finland have a long common history. From as long as it is meaningful to talk about countries they have been one country, up until 1809, when Russia invaded Sweden and took the part of it that today is Finland. (As a result of the Russian Revolution, Finland became an independent country in 1917.) So there is some kind of sibling relationship between Sweden and Finland, which means both closeness and rivalry, with Finland seeing itself as the little brother. For example, in a hockey match between Finland and, say, the Czech Republic, Swedes will of course support their little brother, whereas Finns would like big brother Sweden to lose when they play against the Czech Republic. But we ought to be grown up by now, I think, and leave that kind of childish rivalry behind.


Out of all the persons interviewed, you are the only one who moved from a very cold country to another one. Is it different?

One difference is that I would not consider the Czech Republic to be cold. There is no winter here, at least not in Pardubice. I brought my winter clothes with me from Finland, but I have never used them. And the heat in the summer I find hard to handle. Spring and especially autumn are very nice, the temperature is perfect and the weather is much sunnier than what I am used to.


Speaking about cold, people from the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden are famous for being “cold”. Who are the coldest? Or is it a different kind of coldness? J

I have found it very interesting that many of the previous interviewees have commented on this issue. Coming from Sweden and Finland, the people here in the Czech Republic act just as you are used to. Perhaps they are even a bit more talkative: when someone sits down beside you in the train they say “dobrý den” to you, and “na shledanou” when they leave. That would not happen in Sweden or Finland, you would only greet the other person if you knew him or her from before or if you would like to start a conversation, which means that the greeting must be followed by a question. But perhaps coldness is not the right word. If you come to Sweden on holiday or for work, you might get the impression that people do not like you or that they are not interested in you, since they do not talk to you. But that is not at all the case. The silence means that they do not want to be intrusive, that you would probably just find them boring, they think, since they have nothing interesting to tell you. But if you ask people questions or want some advice, most people would be more than happy to help you. So you just need to be more active at first than you are perhaps used to.


What are the main differences between Czech culture, on the one hand, and Finnish and Swedish culture, on the other hand?

As I said, there are lots of similarities when it comes to social interaction. One important difference is that Sweden and Finland, in contrast to most other cultures, are very informal. We have no tykat/vykat-distinction, we never address people by their surnames and never use titles (a Swede would not even understand using titles as exaggerated politeness but interpret it as some strange joke). Now I do know intellectually how to act in a formal way, but it does not at all come naturally, which means that I probably sometimes act in a very inconsistent way, switching from being over-formal to being informal in just a couple of seconds or between one e-mail and the next. Another difference, which I have already mentioned, is bureaucracy; coming from Sweden and Finland, you find it quite strange to sign papers all the time and in all different kinds of context. When it comes to the aesthetic aspects of culture, the Czech Republic is definitely part of the Old World, whereas Sweden and Finland is, in a sense, part of the New: we react in the same way as the American having come to Europe. We see the Old town and castle of Pardubice as exceptional, as a fairy tale, whereas I know that there are many places in the Czech Republic, or continental Europe generally, that look like that. I find the architectural beauty of the Czech Republic to be one of the most exciting sides to life here.


People generally think that one huge similarity between these three countries is ice hockey. Is that so? Do you like it?

When it comes to playing, I cannot even say that I am uninterested: I have never had an ice hockey stick in my hands. There was no hockey culture in the town where I grew up, so we did not play it in school, we did some skating a few times, but not more than that. When it comes to watching, I have only once seen one match in its entirety, including on television, which again shows that there was not that much of an interest in hockey where I grew up. A good example of the fact that cultures are more diverse than the stereotypes allow for!


To know Sweden a bit better, which movies or books would you recommend?

Another researcher at the Centre and I gave a course on “Film and Philosophy” for our doctoral students last semester. We did not pick any Swedish movies to watch and discuss, but if I would have picked any, I would have chosen “The Simple-Minded Murderer” (“Den enfaldige mördaren”, dir. Hans Alfredson, 1982), “Together” (“Tillsammans”, dir. Lukas Moodysson, 2000), and “You, the Living” (“Du levande”, dir. Roy Andersson, 2007).


What is you favourite ethical quote? Motto?

Consciously I do not have a favourite quote or motto, but I did a brief survey of my writings to find the quote that recurred most often. I was a bit surprised to see that it was this one (from La Pesanteur et la Grâce by Simone Weil): “The belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love. The mind is not forced to believe in the existence of anything. That is why the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. When projecting the light of attention equally on good and evil, the good seizes it through an automatic phenomenon. There is not a choice to make in its favour, it suffices not to refuse to recognize that it exists.”

Thank you for the interview, it also gave me a philosophical lesson!

Caroline Novák-Jolly

International office

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