We are always surprised by the brevity of summer in Sweden – but three months, from June until August.
June stands at the beginning of this all too brief period, partly cool and rainy, sometimes warm and sunny. We bask in the glorious summery weather when it does arrive, enjoying the long light evenings, lighter clothing, and bare feet, and the equally light summer fare of fish and salads, asparagus and berries. Particularly enjoyable are the Swedish strawberries, plump and sweet, and delicious with breakfast, or with creamy Turkish yoghurt or fil for dessert.
Like the cherry blossom in spring, the lilac season is equally short – little more than a fortnight. These glorious trees bloom abundantly in early June, filling the air with their delicate scent. I gather up armfuls and place them in vases around the house, but they don’t like being picked, and wilt within hours. They prefer remaining on the trees, out in the light summery air.
The end of the academic year is marked by Studenten – the time of graduation from Gymnasiet (High School) for the school-leavers. Hooting truckloads of rollicking students drive drunkenly through the city streets, spraying anyone within reach with the contents of shaken beer cans. Festooned with balloons and posters, the trucks blare forth pop music and the young people sing and shout their jubilation at being liberated at last from the constraints of adult-controlled education. And well may they rejoice!
Traditionally the parents make large posters of their graduating offspring, with photographs of them when they were babies. These they wave aloft when the students burst forth for the last time through the school gates. They wear caps embroidered with their names and year of graduation, and hurl them into the air with joyful abandon.
These celebrations are followed by a luncheon or evening party to which the whole family and friends are invited. Future plans are discussed, usually entailing a gap year – if possible anywhere other than in Sweden – au pairing in France, waitressing in Australia, working in a wildlife conservation centre in Africa, or simply traveling the world, working and having fun – until they are ready to settle down to the serious business of tertiary education, and a career.
We are invited to our friends Jessica and Anders to celebrate 19-year-old Maxine’s Studenten evening drinks party. Anders makes a speech, and with champagne we drink a toast to their clever, beautiful daughter, bound for a gap year overseas, followed by studies in finance and business. Jessica lays on a splendid buffet of traditional Swedish fare: cold cuts and salads, cheeses and crispbreads, followed by strawberries and chocolates, with coffee. It is a privilege to be invited to celebrate this significant rite of passage with them.
Another highlight of early summer, on 6th June, is Sweden’s National Day, which has been celebrated since 1892. This is the day, in 1523, on which Gustav Vasa was crowned King of Sweden, and in 1809 on which a new constitution was adopted. This red-letter day is also associated with Sweden’s Flag Day, celebrating the moment in 1905 when Sweden acquired its own flag, following the dissolution of the union with Norway. It is now a public holiday on which families and friends gather for picnics in the parks and on the city’s islands. A favourite destination is Haga Park, where a temporary stage is erected for performances of opera and ballet excerpts by the Swedish Royal Opera.
Many ladies dress in national costumes, either the universal blue-and-yellow one, or that of their own province, such as Skåne or Darlana.
The city has become crowded with tourists: the summer sales are in full swing in the department stores and boutiques, garishly advertised with bright red REA! banners. Drottninggatan, the long pedestrianised avenue lined with stores and restaurants leading down to Gamla Stan – the Old Town – fills with flocks of visitors, posing by the beautiful bridges to photograph themselves with the architectural highlights of the city.
I love wandering through Hötorget (the Hay Square), once a hay market for the transport horses, in front of the old blue Konserthus. All year round the stalls are bursting with brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables (imported during winter), and abundant, seductively sweet-scented flowers. I cannot resist picking out three long stems of St. Joseph’s lilies, two pink and one white. Most buds are closed, but some are beginning to open, promising their delicious scent.
“Vous êtes trés belle, ma chérie!” trills the flower-seller, grinning flirtatiously, making my day. “Merci monsieur!” And I skip down to the central station eyeing my reflection in shop windows, summer-happy, and filled with joie de vivre.
Sadly the city’s numbers have also been swelled by numerous beggars, Roma people and cripples who have wandered north through Denmark to this far corner of the EU. It is evidently more profitable to beg in the streets than to avail themselves of the shelters offered to vagrants and asylum-seekers by such organisations as Crossroads. They call out pathetically to passers-by to drop coins into their paper cups,
The feathered pan-pipers have also wandered north, adding to the city symphony with their mournful music accompanied by booming backup from speakers. A circle of tourists stands around them listening, casting coins into their bowls and photographing them, entranced. I don’t care much for their maudlin melodies, always in a minor key, drifting across Europe from London to Tallinn: I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail, endlessly repeated.
But there are plenty of other buskers in the city in summer, taking advantage of the tourist trade, with much merrier melodies than the pan-pipers.
Peter and I enjoy walking through our nearby nature reserve, Järvefeltet, especially after work on the long summer evenings. Sometimes we spot the odd long-eared hare, or a herd of cows grazing peacefully in the meadows. The acrid odour of fresh dung mingles with that of the marshy wetlands, heralding their arrival from meadows further north.
Unlike the woolly Highland cattle we see here during the winter, these lazy brown-and- white creatures are plump and sleek, some heavily pregnant, others accompanied by their feeding calves. The odd bull regards us suspiciously through long white lashes, and I quickly survey my surroundings in search of a tree up which to shin, should it take it into its great forelocked head to charge. But they remain passive and uninterested. The cows prove more inquisitive, mooing noisily when we approach. They enjoy paddling in the nearby lake, muddying the waters with their clumsy tread, and munching the yellow water-lily flowers.
No herders are ever in sight – unlike the little barefooted piccanins always seen amongst the cattle in sub-Saharan Africa. The smaller Swedish herds stay out of doors all day in summer, but are confined to their barns throughout the long sub-zero winters. I wonder to whom they belong, and if I might procure a jar of thick yellow cream, such as we enjoyed when I was a child in. Memories of this heavenly cream – spooned onto porridge or desserts – are still fresh, and a far cry from the processed “cream” available in both South African and Swedish supermarkets today. But we meet acquaintances on our walk, and are informed that these are not dairy cattle, but destined for the butcher.
The bird sanctuary in the Säby Lake wetlands is a hive of noisy activity in summer: barnacle geese, Arctic terns, teal, Canadian geese, and many other waterfowl enjoy circling above the water and squabbling noisily in the reeds almost all night long.
There is an excellent bird hide, lined with labelled posters of all the species in the sanctuary, from which we can quietly watch with our binoculars, unnoticed.
We are ever wary of acquiring unwanted “passengers” on our walks; a particularly virulent strain of tick-bite fever is known to infest the woods and fields in and around Stockholm in summer. They are carried by the wild deer that wander through the city’s parks and into unfenced gardens. Ils adorent les roses! exclaims my friend Véronique in exasperation. Another friend captures one red-hoofed, munching her flowers in her front garden, and captures it on camera. So far they have left her peonies alone; we hope they remain uninterested in peonies. Some Stockholmers opt for the inoculations offered in clinics around the city, but thus far Peter and I have been needle-shy and have procrastinated, perhaps unwisely.
Linda is not the only ardent gardener competing with the wildlife to maintain an uninvaded garden. The Swedes are proud of their beautiful gardens, bursting with flowers unknown to me in my former African garden, including an abundance of cerise, white and purple rhododendrons. The fields are filled with wildflowers: cowslips, bluebells, lily-of-the-valley, hogweed, mothersheart, wintergreen and Arctic starflowers, and the highways are lined with tall, purple, white and pink lupines.
This time of long evenings must be enjoyed to the full, as it is such a short season. The nights are barely dark at all, with but a cobalt glow in the heavens for a few hours around midnight. The sun barely dips below the horizon, only to ascend again a few hours later.
Another significant celebration in Sweden in June is that of the summer solstice. Originally on the 24th June, the Feast of St. John, Midsommar is a public holiday celebrated on Midsummer’s Eve (the nearest Friday evening to the 21st June) with dancing around a maypole, and more family picnics in the parks and by the water, on boats or on the beaches. Skansen, the city’s “zoo” theme park, is an excellent place to celebrate Midsummer, to watch traditional dancing, and to listen to and join in the singing, provided for all visitors from near and far.
Everyone is invited to dance around the maypole, a tradition which dates from the 16th century, and which was introduced by German settlers linked to the presence of the Hanseatic League in Stockholm since the Late Middle Ages.
Since agrarian times, Midsummer has always been the time to celebrate the season of fertility and abundance, and was primarily enjoyed by the young. Nowadays everyone participates with passionate commitment. All businesses and most stores close at noon, and the celebrations continue all through the night, necessitating another public holiday on the following Midsummer’s Day in order to recover.
It is customary for the women and girls to wear homemade floral wreaths, and again many women wear their national costumes.
Traditional Swedish fare enjoyed during this erstwhile pagan festival is salmon and sill (pickled herrings) – prepared in a variety of ways (with mustard, or garlic and onions, or spices with cloves), and boiled new potatoes served with sour cream and dill, and cold beer and several shots of throat-burning schnapps. Well-known drinking songs accompany this most Swedish of traditional festivities. Strawberries and cream follow, for dessert.
The English Church remains at the centre of our spiritual lives, and on a sunny Sunday after the service we share a picnic lunch with our new friends from all over the English- speaking world – Australia and Ireland, America, England, Uganda, Kenya and Canada.
Another quaint Swedish Midsummer tradition is most endearing: on Midsummer’s Eve young unmarried girls go out into the fields and collect seven different wildflowers. These they lay under their pillows, and legend has it that they will then dream of their future husbands. If a woman is already married, she places the flowers under her pillow anyway, and makes a wish instead!
Amongst the summer garden and kitchen activities in early summer is the making of elderflower cordial:
Large bunches of elderflowers are collected from the bushes, and rinsed in a colander. To these are added three sliced lemons, including the skins, 50 grams of citric acid, 1 ½ kg of sugar, and 2 litres of boiling water. This is left to “stew” for three days, and then strained and poured into sterilized jars.
Most of our friends in the expat community have gone away for the summer – back to their home countries and clans in the northern hemisphere. We will see most of them again in the autumn – except those who have been transferred elsewhere, to whom we bid sad farewells, and with whom we have au revoir “fika” (coffee and cakes). Either way, we all wish one another a
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – a Garden Party with Scottish Dancing, English Church, Stockholm, June 2012