The first thing that comes to mind when I think of spring in Europe is the popular Elizabethan madrigal Now is the Month of Maying composed in 1595 by Thomas Morley. I always delight in the suggestive double entendres in this sprightly ditty, which is supposedly about dancing, but actually about the other “merry activities” engendered by the arrival of spring.
The game “barley-break” was an adult version of hide-and-seek (a snatched kiss or quick roll in the hay), and much enjoyed by the fun-loving Elizabethans. Such imagery was popular in Renaissance poetry, and the English madrigalists were witty exponents thereof. What fun it would be to introduce such games once more! You can listen to this madrigal on YouTube here
Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
fa la, Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.
The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.
Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley‐break? Fa la.
An equivalent celebration of spring in South Africa is the delightful poem Oktobermaand by the Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947), with its cheerful first line, Dit is die maand Oktober! Die mooieste mooieste maand! (“It is the month October! The prettiest, prettiest month!”)
October might be the prettiest month in the southern hemisphere, but here in the north we feel our hearts lift at the sight of trees bursting into leaf and blossom – seemingly overnight – in the “merrie” month of May. Never before have I noticed so many different shades of green: teal and lime, emerald and new-leaf green. Every trace of snow that sought secret refuge in crevices and hollows has melted away, and there is no longer any ice lurking in the vikar (coves) of the city’s many islands.
With the longer evenings it is a lovely time of year to set out for an evening cruise to Vaxholm, once the island fortress at the entrance to the Stockholm archipelago.
Splendid views of the islands and seaside villas can be enjoyed in the comfort of the old “steamship,” Stockholm, whilst enjoying a Swedish evening meal. You can book online with the Strömma company’s user-friendly website, for a cruise to a number of island destinations by day and at night: http://www.stromma.se/en/stockholm/excursions/the- archipelago-on-your-own/ .
Or have lunch at the old Vaxholm Hotel.
A return to the city affords a splendid view of the picturesque skyline at sunset, especially the spires of Gamla Stan (the Old Town.)
The nearby nature reserve, Järvefeltet, is a glorious tapestry of flower-filled meadows and cool cobalt lakes, the bird sanctuary a-gaggle with the recently-returned geese and other water fowl, including swans.
The scents of fresh-cut grass and marshy wetlands mingle with those of dung and dust from the Järfälla Riding School. The horses, recently released from their stables for all- day grazing, twirl their ears and flick their tails with skittish glee.
The locals return to their allotments, and spend happy hours working on their flower and vegetable plots.
Towards the end of my third winter in Sweden I heard about the tradition of releasing the cows from their barns in May, and what a joyous occasion it is for both cows and spectators alike. Eager to find out more about this quaint ceremony, I consulted the Arla website – the principal dairy company in Sweden – where the kornasläpps information can be found. I saw about a dozen farms in the Stockholm area trumpeting the fun and games to be had by all when the cows are let out to pasture. Their offerings – clearly an Arla marketing ploy – ranged from free milk and cinnamon buns to quizzes, “fresh and healthy farm fare to buy”, hot-dogs, horse-shoe throwing contests, face-painting and artificial tattoos.
I learned that the cows could not, in spite of the now lengthy sunny days, be released into fields from which thick layers of snow and ice have recently receded, and which were still too soft and boggy. These heavy beasts would trample and destroy the new grass trying to re-establish itself after the long months of harsh conditions. In order for the pastures to replenish their natural summer health, and to provide good summer grazing, the cows must be retained within their cozy winter lodgings a while longer, until the new grass is fully established. Unlike the cows in my own country, which are able to stay out of doors all the year round, their Swedish cousins must spend a good part of the year indoors. I wonder at the intelligence of these gentle animals, and their capacity for boredom, munching hay all through the winter, and monotonously converting it into year- round dairy products – and vast quantities of dung.
According to the Arla literature, summer grazing takes place primarily in fields where the farmers have sown grass and clover, as well as in natural pastures. There the cows can also “play, rest and run free”, as grazing helps to “keep the nature open and alive”. It preserves the biodiversity that enables the proliferation of plants, insects and various small wild animals, such as hares, deer, and hedgehogs. Grazing, they claim, is good for both animals and the environment.
Arla is a farmer-owned dairy, and Arla farmers can be found from Skåne in the south of Sweden to Jämtland in the north. There are over 3,500 dairy farmers altogether, “always ensuring that there are fresh dairy products in the stores”. Children are encouraged to look at the Arla cartons, on which they can find puzzles, and experience Arlakadabra!
The farm I chose was Björksättra Gård, in the Orlångens Nature Reserve, south of the city in Huddinge Commune. (Björk means “birch”, and is also a common Swedish surname.) The site where I made our booking informed me that the farmers at Björksättra are Lasse, Sara and Tove. They have fifty cows which are milked with special machines, whenever necessary, throughout the day. The milk is stored in a large cooling tank, and collected by the Arla tankers every other day and taken to their dairy in Kallhäll. There the dairy products are processed and stored in different containers: fil (a processed sour milk popular with breakfast), yoghurt, cream, and various kinds of soft cheeses.
Apart from the cows, Björksättra Gård also has calves – heifers and bullocks, horses, sheep, cats and sheepdogs.
They also grow their own feed for their animals. They lease the farmland from the Huddinge Commune, and it is their responsibility to ensure that the natural, ecological and recreational values of the Commune are upheld and carefully managed, because of the farm’s location in a nature reserve.
We made the hour-long journey south to Björksättra Gård, getting lost at first, and eventually parking in a country lane. It wasn’t difficult to find the epicentre of this festive occasion – an enclosed field lined with some two thousand spectators. We just followed the strains of jolly Swedish folk music blaring forth from loudspeakers, and accompanied by a running commentary from a jovial compère with the persuasive joie de vivre of a cattle auctioneer. It was all clearly a popular annual family occasion; shouting children ran around and underfoot, and pink-cheeked infants gazed blue-eyed from their prams. There was no mistaking the spring fever in the air, while everyone enjoyed the welcome sunshine and carefree weekend atmosphere.
And we were not disappointed. When the long-awaited release arrived, after a theatrical crescendo from the compère, the doors of the barn were thrown wide, and the cows came skedaddling along the cordoned pathway to their grazing ground ahead.
They jostled and shoved in their eagerness to sniff the fresh air and to feel the new springy grass beneath their hooves once more. Some cows seemed bemused at first, and hesitated, staring bewilderedly around them, until butted onwards from others behind into the meadow ahead.
The crowds cheered and clapped enthusiastically, in competition with the compère, who reached a frenzy of excitement equal to that of a triumphant ringmaster in a circus.
Peter and I, each armed with a korv (hot-dog), could not help but be swept up in the moment, and laughed at the cows’ felicity as they frolicked and kicked up sods in the bright sunshine, their milk-laden udders swaying clumsily. We, too, felt elation at release from winter’s harsh hold, the fresh country air, and the promise of summer ahead.
Back at home in Jakobsberg, large tubs and hanging baskets of pansies have again been placed in the town square. Here the fruit and vegetable market overflows with colourful produce from around world: oranges from Morocco, pineapples and bananas from Costa Rica, peaches, plums and cherries from Spain and Portugal, grapes from India and Chile, giant cherries from Turkey, and blood oranges from Israel. There is also the locally-grown produce: the usual root and salad vegetables, and asparagus. Above all it is the many sorts of berries that the housewives hand pick for making jams, and confits to accompany meatballs and game dishes – especially lingon berries. For dessert there are raspberries, blueberries, strawberries (Belgian and Swedish) and gooseberries.
Down in our courtyard, the trees that were bare and grey for so long, are now fully clothed in abundant green. I see a woman sunbathing on a towel, and hear the persistent cooing of plump pigeons and the swish of the caretaker’s broom. The children in our complex, usually bundled up like small spacemen in their padded winter suits, now play scantily clad in the generous sunshine.
Here I celebrate my birthday in spring – a cool autumnal event in my own country – and enjoy a heartening “rebirth,” in synchronisation with the outburst of new life in nature, rather than a commiseration at the increase of years. My friends and I enjoy walking beside Lake Mäleren, where a well-kept path meanders through beech and ash trees, and leads to a bathing area with a wooden jetty.
The nearby Görvälns Slott, a lakeside manor house dating from 1460, and recently restored to its Swedish Rococo grandeur, offers accommodation, conference facilities, gourmet dinners and a splendid afternoon tea. http://www.gorvalnsslott.se/en/ .
Now it is possible to enjoy a drink and snacks at the outdoor cafés in town, watching the boats and reveling in the sunshine.
One of the highlights of spring in Stockholm is the magnificent eruption of pink cherry blossom in Kungsträdgården (“The King’s Garden”) in the city centre. This festive sight lasts barely a fortnight, and is an unmissable event in the Stockholm calendar. Avenues of cherry trees flank a large rectangular pond in which fountains leap, and throngs of tourists flock here every year to enjoy and photograph this glorious phenomenon.
Visitors enjoy a meal at Victoria (http://vickan.nu/ ), a restaurant beside the blossoming avenues, the increased sunlight enabling them to enjoy this beautiful sight while dining late. Crowds of weekend visitors and pairs of lovers photograph each other beneath the trees, which shed showers of pink confetti scattered by the breeze.
The social and cultural activities in the city reach a feverish dénouement – museum tours and lectures, and fund-raising luncheons – before the clubs and societies close for the summer and everyone disperses to their own lands, or to their summer houses in the country.
We attend the last concerts of the RSPO Season at the Konserthus, becoming familiar with works by contemporary Swedish composers Rolf Martinsson (1956 -) and Anders Hillborg (1954 -), as well as the great Nordic symphonies of Sibelius, Nielsen, Grieg, Sinding and Alfvén. A memorable performance is that of the challenging Brahms Second Piano Concerto, ably managed by the Polish-American pianist Emanuel Ax.
The apogee of the IWC season is the spring Garden Party, customarily held at Villa Pauli in Djursholm, a smart suburb in northeastern Stockholm. This grand old mansion, which overlooks the blustery blue Baltic route to Vaxholm, was designed by the celebrated architect Ragnar Östberg (who also designed the Stockholm City Hall), and richly decorated by painter Georg Pauli and sculptor Carl Eldh.
Traditionally the ladies wear magnificent hats; some go to great lengths, while others simply top their coiffures with fanciful feathered creations known as “fascinators”.
Conversation can barely be heard above the din of a hundred women in full swing, but great fun is had by all, and this highlight of the social calendar ends all too soon.
Wishes are made to good friends for a glad sommar, and fond farewells bade – until we meet again when the season reopens in the autumn. The summers are so short here, the culture is to work through the long winters and play all summer – long into the sun-lit night.
Sometimes we have to face the reality of our transient ex-pat existence, and must part with friends transferring to other lands, or returning to their home countries. Some will remain in touch, and others will pass like ships in the night…..
This is a good time to go down to Lucy’s home in Hölö, south of the city, set amidst sheep farms and wetlands – and to enjoy the view of a newly-ploughed field from her kitchen window and cuddle Milly the cat.
We walk to the neighbouring farm to see the new lambs. In the bird sanctuary the water fowl whirl beneath a cerulean sky, and nest and multiply all summer long.
We drive to the nearby seaside town Trosa, to see the sea, the boats and the quaint little buildings.
And visit our favourite store, the coffee shop and chocolatier Marsipangården (Marzipan Garden), www.kutterkonfekt.se . Posters invite us to sign up for a praline course, Now!
There is also the old Hölö church, dating from the 13th century, with a 15th century bell tower.
And the King of Sweden’s seaside chateau Tullgarn, where he must stay at least once a year in order to retain ownership. It was built for Duke Fredrik Adolf in the 1770’s (around the time of Beethoven’s birth), and is about an hour’s drive from Stockholm. It is a lovely destination to relax and enjoy the countryside, with a coffee shop in the former stables, and a restaurant in the orangery. The austere façade belies a light interior decorated in the Swedish Gustavian style (18th century Rococo.) There are also Victorian elements, as Queen Victoria spent summers here as the guest of Gustav V during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One can also take a picnic to enjoy on the lawns by one of the lakes, or overlooking the Baltic Sea.
By the end of May the days are still cool but very long, with around five hours of semi- darkness at night. We look forward to shedding winter clothes, and the promise of summer to come.