STOCKHOLM, Sweden, June 17, 2010 -- Even before this much-anticipated spectacle of bell-ringing and protocol, of rustling lace and crimson carpets, it is clear that Swedes are just like the rest of us when it comes to wedding gifts.
After a torturous eight years of waiting, after the objections of her strict father and after overcoming life-threatening illnesses -- in her case bulimia and in his a kidney transplant -- Crown Princess Victoria and her former fitness instructor Daniel Westling are finally about to say "I do" to each other, and what do they get? Practical gifts.
According to Swedish custom, which is also practiced in the royal family, wedding gifts are unpacked and presented before the actual wedding, apparently because the soon-to-be newlyweds can hardly wait to get their hands on their new mixer.
In the case of Sweden's royal wedding pair, those practical gifts consist of several crates of drinking glasses, a cabinet full of bed linens and monogrammed towels, several spa weekends, a year of free electricity for their palace in Haga, a district of Gothenburg, and a green wooden horse.
A green wooden horse? Where was that again in the Ikea catalog? In any event, it's an unusual gift, and it will probably quickly end up in the place where those particularly funny, poetic and bulky wedding gifts always end up and gather dust: The basement. Because Crown Princess Victoria, the daughter of Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and his German wife Silvia née Sommerlath, who is from Heidelberg, is everything but unusual.
Unlike Norwegian Crown Princess Mette-Marit, who also comes from a middle-class family, and who had a somewhat checkered past before meeting and marrying Prince Haakon, Victoria took her time after seeing Daniel working out on a strength-training machine for the first time. But then the relationship grew.
She was as single-minded in developing her relationship as tennis legend Björn Borg once was on the baseline. She set her sights on her Daniel and, in a long, grueling match, finally got him. The entire country took an interest in this world record for endurance, and now the global media want to at least benefit from it.
Some 2,300 journalists are expected in Stockholm. The royal court is almost worried that media representatives will outnumber the ordinary people lining the streets. All good camera angles have already been determined. There are no exclusive rights. After all, this isn't some show-business or country-gentry wedding. In Germany, the ZDF public television network alone will be broadcasting live, on Saturday from 2:30 to 7:00 p.m. A documentary the station already aired about the wedding had outstanding viewer ratings. German television station Phoenix will also be involved, and private broadcaster RTL will follow up with a summary.
Meanwhile ARD, Germany's other major public broadcasting network, is competing with its broadcasts of the football World Cup. Rarely have the target groups been this clearly defined: Half of the world is watching kicks while the other half is watching kings. The royal reporters from publications like Neue Post, a gossipy German weekly, to Frau Mit Herz (Women with Hearts), another weekly German magazine specializing in news of the aristocracy among other things, have already been raving about the event for months.
A Spectacle of Solidity in Uncertain Times
Alexander von Schönburg, the brother of the Germany's best internationally known aristocrat, Princess Gloria of Thurn and Taxis, and a writer for the tabloid newspaper Bild, has been preparing the German masses for the happy end with a series he has been writing since last week. Experience has shown that such private moments of bliss cause a substantial spike in circulation among the tabloid press, which has been in crisis of late.
But if there is anything to marvel at when it comes to this wedding -- which, with an anticipated 500 million TV viewers, promises to be another royal TV blockbuster -- it is not about Snow White's quick charm, but instead the triumph of a tough will. Because Victoria is the opposite of Lady Di.
If that royal wedding was all about the look, then this one is about the spectacle of solidity in economically and politically uncertain times. The world is on the brink of chaos, and this couple is a solid anchor. It is the excess of normality and the promise of a middle-class way of life that distinguishes Scandinavian royal families, the promise that it's worthwhile to be real.
Victoria is authentic. Her love is authentic. Her fiancé is authentic.
The royal court, and the king, in particular, was initially appalled by her choice. This Daniel Westling had no money, no education and no family (which, among the aristocracy, means that his family name doesn't appear in the Almanac de Gotha, a former directory of European nobility and royalty).
But over the years, everyone has increasingly been impressed. The young man didn't show the slightest tendency toward malice or the sort of lightheadedness to which the daughters of Monaco's royal family once regularly succumbed. But that country, too, is ruled by little more than a pirate dynasty.
Westling, though no shining light in an academic sense, was an outstanding athlete. He comes from Ockelbo, a town of 3,000 people living in red wooden houses in a remote forested area north of Stockholm -- bear and elk country. Last year, remote farms in the region were plagued by hungry wolves roaming through the area and killing house pets.
The mother of the groom worked at the post office and the father for the social security office. The only prominent member of the family is former weightlifting world champion Susanne Formgren, who now runs the local gym. That was the world of Daniel Westling. And it was the challenge faced by a team of specialists consisting of teachers and etiquette consultants, whose job was to turn the jewel of the princess's heart into a diamond suitable for gala appearances.
They taught Westling to converse about the weather in English, German and French, and not to bang on the table during state banquets and shout: "Enjoy your meal!"
Westling was apparently particularly interested in the history of the Swedish kings. Does this make him suspect? No, because he can never become a king himself. Victoria -- to his chagrin, as some claim -- has already made this clear to him. His title will be -- and will remain -- Prince Daniel, Duke of Västergötland. Not bad for a fitness instructor.
He will spend his entire life a step behind the future queen, and perhaps he'll be as irritated by this as Denmark's Henrik, who has complains about the "cigarette money" he is allotted by Queen Margrethe. Or maybe he'll be depressed, like the sad Claus behind Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Or perhaps he will develop a quirky sense of humor, like Queen Elizabeth's Prince Philip of Great Britain, who, after state visits, has been known to say things like: "If it has four legs and is not a chair … the Cantonese will eat it."
But perhaps second fiddle is precisely the instrument that suits Westling. Journalist and nobility expert Alexander Graf von Schönburg-Glauchau is more concerned about the groom's family: "When a member of the royal family marries a subject, he comes complete with his entire family, which could be a source of embarrassment," he said with a groan on a ZDF program. "It has always proven to be expedient not to marry subjects, but rather people from countries that are as far away as possible."
A Highly Symbolic Act
In other words, in the case of the Swedish crown princess, a relationship with someone from the Chinese highlands would have been far more suitable than her love for a boy from Ockelbo, only a few hours, by dogsled, north of Stockholm. But who can predict where love will blossom?
But Victoria, as stubborn as she is likeable, isn't just ignoring Schönburg's warning, she also intends to modify the ceremony to reflect her choice for a husband. In the past, it has been traditional for the bride and the groom to walk to the altar together. But Victoria wants to walk at the side of her father, who would then hand her over to Daniel. She wants things to be more conservative!
Meanwhile, nine pastors have already pleaded with the crown princess not to do this. First, they say, because of tradition. For centuries, the bride and groom have walked to the altar together in Sweden's Protestant churches. Second, because of emancipation. "The crown princess can walk on her own two feet," says Pastor Maria Isberg. Her father, she adds, should remain in his pew. "That would be a good signal for equal rights."
In fact, the bride's thought process is far more political than this battle-of-the-sexes pastor realizes. First, she probably wants to demonstrate to the world that her father approves of the marriage. Furthermore, says a spokeswoman for the royal family, it is a highly symbolic act "when the head of state leads his daughter, who is Sweden's crown princess, to the altar."
Sweden has now agreed to embrace the royal wedding and to dub this season its Summer of Love. The Stockholm airport is now the "Official Love Airport 2010," and the Swedes are determined to crank up business as if the wedding were actually an economic stimulus program for the nation.
The message is clear: Everyone does their part. In addition to providing information about the royals, the website Love Stockholm 2010 includes banner ads for Swedish companies like Ericsson, Volvo and Ikea. Musician Benny Andersson of the legendary Swedish pop group Abba, has even written a song that's practically designed for a play on his group's well-known lyrics: "Mamma Mia," isn't it nice to hear them saying "I Do, I Do, I Do" in the church; Let's just hope that they don't experience their "Waterloo" one day. Until now, however, the tragic figure in the Swedish royals' soap opera has been Victoria's younger sister Madeleine, who recently broke off her engagement.
Abba, dressed in court garb, performed their hit song "Dancing Queen" 36 years ago, on the evening before the dream wedding between Carl Gustav and his German Olympic host Silvia. Paul Sahner of the German celebrity gossip magazine Bunte proudly recalls: "Germany was somebody again. The world's most beautiful queen was a German woman."
Several years before Lady Di and the spectacle of the Windsors, Silvia did in fact captivate the world media and liberate the once-powerful Swedish royal family from a dangerous crisis of legitimacy. She so captured the hearts of Swedes that even the Socialists abandoned their sinister plans to abolish the monarchy.
Is a Swedish Royal Family Necessary?
Now there is a new debate over the need for a blue-blooded showpiece family. Critics say that by bringing what the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet called a "village athlete" into its fold, the royal family makes itself more and more ordinary, and that it is time to think about whether the expense is even worth it anymore. Each additional child, they argue, increases the costs and makes budget cuts an even bigger issue.
But Victoria knows that the monarchy "can be a positive, cohesive force in society," and that it will help to "overcome differences."
Reconciliation across class divides -- that will be the slogan when Sweden is turned upside-down for three days this coming weekend, when screens on every street corner celebrate the bliss of the royals and, in Ockelbo, the townspeople barbecue a bear to celebrate the day.
We, on the other hand, have to prepare ourselves, once again, to be tortured by yapping commentators, who will join us as we watch this coat of paint while it dries and tell us: Look, it's drying. If only they kept their remarks to those sorts of minimal statements.
Nobility experts simply cannot be stopped. Royals observer Schönburg has suddenly forgotten the class concerns he once expressed (don't marry beneath your station). In fact, now he even characterizes such sentiments as narrow-minded prejudice, writing: "The people are the real snobs here."
Schönburg's about-face reveals, once again, that ordinary people can never quite please the aristocracy, and that everyone is permitted to gossip whenever a coach is in sight.
And there is plenty of gossiping going on, particularly when women, probably rightfully so, believe that there are no men around. When German television channel RTL reported on the wedding of Spain's Prince Felipe, its reporters used lines like: "He's also crazy about sports" or "You can never overdo it with hats," or, in the church: "What we're hearing right now, by the way, is the Agnus Dei." A short time later, the RTL reporter told TV audiences that they were now watching "the most important part of the mass, the so-called consecration."
When Chapter 13 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, which is on the subject of love, was read out in the church, RTL viewers saw a commercial for foot fungus medication. But after the commercial, they were once again regaled with sighs and emotions and expert comments on the designer of the bridal gown.
Some 1,200 guests from the worlds of aristocracy and politics, business and show business, are invited to the Swedish state ceremony, which, at an estimated cost of €2 million ($2.4 million), is still relatively cheap, given the recent explosion in the cost of royal weddings. Not too long ago, the Crown Prince of Brunei is believed to have shelled out €40 million for his nuptials.
When, at the stroke of midnight, our knight from Ockelbo leads his princess onto the dance floor for a waltz, when that magical hour begins, we will be only too happy to pass our remote controls back to our wives. At that point, we will already have watched the Danes and the Cameroonians, the Australians and the Ghanaians play their World Cup games, and we'll join our friends to recap the matches and concoct our analyses for the coming days of the championship.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan