We “inherited” a trio of cement garden figurines when we purchased the Wisconsin lake home we call Northern Bliss. Noting their blue-and-white outfits, we assumed them to be of Swedish descent.  We named the couple wired to the wooden bench Ole and Lena.  I proceeded to paint the bench baby blue to match their clothes. We rescued a little boy figurine from the weeds near the lake, placed him on a tree stump, and called him Sven.


Growing up in Wisconsin, I’d heard plenty of Ole & Lena jokes. My German father Lester liked to use them to tease my Swedish mother Sigrid, so I assumed that they were Swedish put-downs, like the Polish jokes that also circulated in the Midwest.  Last week, soon after repainting that bench and securing the figures, I read a notice in the Amery Free Press about the a play being put on by the Amery Community Theater  called  “Ole & Lena Go to da Lake.”  This would be an excellent opportunity to acquaint Günter, who emigrated from Germany, with my Swedish heritage. Or so I thought.

We went to the play, wonderfully performed by the local theatre group. We thoroughly enjoyed it and laughed at all the Ole and Lena jokes. But I realized then that while Ole and Lena are indeed Scandinavian, they are Norwegians, not Swedes.  And Sven is the Swedish friend of Ole, who is not quite as bright as he is (which is not saying much).  Here’s the description of these characters given in the program:

  • Ole (Jim Thompson): Thick-headed Scandinavian, fond of fishing, campfires, and beer. Loves his wife so much he almost told her once.
  • Lena (Laura Sjogren): Ole’s long-suffering bride. Scandinavian down to her socks, but strangely passionate when it comes to stoic Ole.
  • Sven (Scott Kaml): Odiferous fishing partner and best buddy to Ole. Guileless. Every now and then he stops to think, but forgets to start again.

After we returned, I asked Gunter whether he’d ever heard Ole & Lena jokes in Europe. “No, they only told Polish jokes,” he answered.

So I researched on-line. According to Wikipedia, one would not even find Ole & Lena jokes in Sweden and Norway. That’s because they are an outgrowth of the American immigrant experience. Turning the misunderstandings and mistakes of a learning a new language into jokes enabled Scandinavians to jest about embarrassing incidents.  The primary reason the jokes have endured is that they are quaint and well meaning.  In fact, the core of this folk humor, says Wikipedia, is probably “the strongly egalitarian sense that permeates the cultural code in the Nordic countries.”

Here are a few of the jokes used in the play (paraphrased):

  • Sven goes out one day to use the outhouse, and he finds Ole there. He has his wallet out, and he’s throwing money down into the hole of the outhouse. “Uff da!” Sven says.  “Ole, you’re throwing the ten dollar bill down into the hole of the outhouse! Whatcha doin’ that for?” Ole answers, “Well, when I pulled up my trousers I dropped a nickel down there—and I’m never going to convince Lena to go down into that mess for just a nickel!”
  • Ole and Lena got married. On their honeymoon trip they were nearing Minneapolis when Ole put his hand on Lena’s knee. Giggling, Lena said, “Ole, you can go a little further now if you want to …” So Ole drove to Duluth.
  • Sven and Ole went to the lake, rented a boat and went fishing. They eventually found a great spot and quickly caught their limit. On the way back to the dock Ole said, “That surely was good fishing. How will we ever find that place again?” Sven said, “Don’t worry. While we were there, I put an X on the side of the boat.”  “But that won’t work!” Ole said.  “Why not?”  “How do we know we’ll get the same boat next time?”

New jokes are invented to fit the modern age. Here’s one from the play about using a cell phone:

  • Ole and Lena were so excited to get a new cell phone. Ole was to call when he was on his way home from town. Ole called Lena when he entered the freeway.  “Lena, put supper on, I’m on my way home.”  Lena said, “Be careful! I hear some nut is driving the wrong way on the freeway.”  “It’s worse than that Lena. Where I am, there are a hundred cars going the wrong way!”

And here’s a parody of that infamous 3 a.m. phone call:

  • A Norwegian answers the phone at 3 a.m. Wrong number, so the caller apologizes.  “That’s OK,” says the Norwegian. “I had to get up to answer the phone anyway.”

To read more Ole and Lena jokes, click here.

One of the expressions my mother used to say when something went wrong was Uff da. Commonly used in these jokes, it’s a handy all-purpose expression I’d forgotten. It has many uses, such as:

  • Uff da – replaces Charlie Brown’s “Good Grief.”
  • Uff da – walking to the next room and then wondering what you wanted.
  • Uff da – waking yourself up in church with your own snoring.
  • Uff da – when something doesn’t work out, such as trying to pour two buckets of manure into one bucket.
  • Uff da – (for the guys) when your two “steady” girl friends find out about each other.

After checking into their past, there’s no doubt that Ole and Lena will remain seated on that bench I painted for them, watching over little Sven.  All they will need is a couple of fishing poles. We wanted to create a heritage home, and these figurines, I’ve decided, are an integral part. Now for that German garden gnome…

P1060233 Ole & Lena view the lake and keep and eye on Little Sven