Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More reasons to love Sweden

How can you not love a country where the approved method of greeting someone even at a formal gathering is to say ‘hey’? Okay, it’s spelt ‘hej’ but ‘hey’ is how it’s pronounced. Meet more than two or three people at a time and you can start to feel like an extra from Friends.

If you want to be friendly and informal then it’s ‘hej hej’. However, if someone greets you with a ‘hej hej’ then it’s considered rude to respond with ‘vi har den Monkees’.

Best Beloved hails from Västergötland, an area between the two big lakes Vänern and Vättern. It’s highly fertile plainland, scattered excitingly by random collections of boulders deposited by the glaciers which you have to learn to ignore, or work around, or incorporate into your plans, and high-res grass crawls out of the ground at a thousand blades per inch, pushing your feet out of the way if you stand still for too long. In many ways it reminds me of the American Midwest, with fewer Americans (though a lot of classic American cars, tailfins and all). It’s wide and empty, with so much space that if you want to live somewhere then you build a house out of wood and plonk it down away from everyone else. The house is usually painted red or yellow and is immaculately kept, so that it could have been built last year or 100 years ago. It’s big sky country, and on a clear day when you learn to look past the midges the horizon looks a thousand miles away in any direction.

That’s on a clear day. Here’s our itinerary.

Rained. Toured the local area with Best Beloved, the Boy and my parents, getting accustomed to driving on the right. Looked at a nearby covered bridge and the stone circle at Askeberga. Also looked at a couple of churches. Proved by empirical testing and observation that a medium-sized pre-growth spurt 14-year-old male fits comfortably into the boot of a Skoda Octavia.

Then home to a sauna ... mmm. Sauna. My parents were staying in what was technically a B&B, though probably not a typical one, even by Swedish standards ...

... and there was an en suite sauna in their apartment. Ah-h-h-h-h-h. To draw in a deep breath, to feel 65-degree air trickling into your lungs and turning your insides into a molten mass, to feel your entire body liquefy and trickle down between the slats into a quivering puddle on the floor ... bliss.

Rained harder. To Skara, with its mother cathedral (think Sweden’s Canterbury) ...

... and also its tower with dragons, knights and goblins crawling out of the windows ...

... which is of course a bank, hence the cashpoint at the bottom. Then on to the abbey at Varnhem. Asked the lady at the desk if there was somewhere sheltered we could eat our picnic; after a moment’s thought, she suggested the abbey vestry. Gosh. Ate our rolls surrounded by dead stone Swedes, a few yards away from the tomb of Birger Jarl. No picnic has ever been eaten more reverently.

Discovered that some cats will sit on the mat, regardless of what the sign says. If TS Eliot didn’t write about this cat, he should have. Jagerbirl the Abbey Cat ...

Rained less. Looked at some more churches, to the flagging delight of the youngest member of the party. I personally find it interesting to see somewhere like Forshem, which was an approved substitute for Jerusalem if you couldn’t manage a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or Husaby, which still has the spring where the first Christian king of Sweden was baptised. But I concede that others’ mileage may vary.

A fun feature of Husaby is the square hole in the wall that used to separate the altar area from the rest of the church. In the good old days, when the altar was completely screened off from the plebs in case they saw what the minister was doing, and the clergy were practically a separate species, the minister would preach his sermon standing in front of this hole so that the congregation could see his head and shoulders. A bit like very early TV. Or Punch and Judy.

Someone must have asked this guy why the church doesn't just give all its money to the poor, hence what he's doing with the two fingers of his right hand.

Then on to Läckö Slott, a castle on the shores of Vänern.

Something that’s very rare in this country – an intact castle that’s still pretty well a castle and not yet turned into a stately home. Though you can see why stately homes were invented. It must be horribly cold and draughty in the winter, and when it was inhabited the line between the pampered ruling classes and the servants must have been mighty thin, based more on perception than any material count. When the cold north wind blows, everyone shivers equally. On a reasonably warm summer's day, though, fascinating to wander around.

From the datestamp on the file, this must also have been the day we established that the Boy can still get his toe in his mouth. No recollection of how this came about.

Rained a little. Boys’ day out. I want it on record (and both Best Beloved and my mother agree) that I was quite prepared to stay at home and help prepare for Sunday. But no, it was decreed that everyone with a Y-chromosome would head out and explore and leave the gels to their business, bless them. So the three of us matching that description wended our way up the Göta Canal, the shipping canal that makes it possibly for big boats to get from Gothenburg to Stockholm without going through the Baltic.

Threw the Boy a bone by playing minigolf and going for a swim in Vänern. Yes, I had a sauna and swam in a lake. I have done the Swedish experience. Also discovered what the TARDIS would look like if Doctor Who was Swedish. So there, David. (Sorry, in-joke – apologies to those who are Out.)

Rained hard. Our second blessing – or, as far the local pastor seemed concerned, our first wedding. Well, we got a certificate out of it anyway. Married by a Bond villain, or someone who should be when your name is Eva Post. Interesting mix of high and low church – Eva crosses herself, sings her prayers, and wears a robe that could have been a present from my three year old nephew. A handdrawn cartoon of Noah’s Ark (I’m guessing) was surrounded by coloured handprints made by the church’s Sunday school. Sweet.

Funny, but a small little service with about 20 guests can still feel like a much larger one with about 150, especially if most of the 20 don’t speak English. At v1 in England we were firmly told to sit back, enjoy the day and let everyone else do the running around. At v2 in Sweden I was despatched to the shop after the service to buy more beer, and it got to the point where I wanted to staple my wife's dress to her chair just so that she could sit down and eat and not have to wait on elderly family members.

Still great fun. We read Efesiersbrevet ... I mean, Ephesians 3:14-21 together in Swedish, and I had carefully practiced my bit from v 20 onwards, marking the stresses and writing words like ‘önskningar’ out phonetically. Äran tillhör Gud, som kan göra mycket mer än vi någonsin skulle våga be eller ens drömma om ... The result was apparently quite lifelike – well, it drew some compliments anyway.

The organist had laid on a treat that we only partly expected. A friend of hers, a student called Victor, was training to be a countertenor and would we like him to sing for us ...? Sure, we said with a shrug. And there on the day was ... this person, long flowing hair, gorgeous chiffon scarf and high, powerful voice that filled the building with liquid melody. If Freddie Mercury and Dame Kiri te Kanawa had a child, it would be Victor.

Afterwards, my mother remarked that our weddings just keep getting better with each one she goes to.

Rained. Planned a visit to Karlsborg, the fortress on the shores of Vättern designed to be Sweden’s reserve capital if Stockholm ever fell. Got there to discover that the tourist season had ended the day before and Sweden was now closed for the winter. Looked round a fairly interesting military museum (for a given value of ‘interesting’) but that was it. Somehow – still not quite sure how – persuaded by the Boy to go for another lake swim. Realised as I was changing – and I’m really still not quite sure how this came about – that I was taking my clothes off next to a main road. Got revenge by looking at another church on the way home.

Not a drop of rain. Flew home.

Celebrated our first few wedding anniversaries standing in the passport queue at Heathrow. Not a trolley in sight once we were through. NTL server down when we got back to the flat. Välkommen till Storbrittanien!


  1. I can out my toe in my mouth! I thought everyone could? Sounds like you had a good time.

  2. I don't think that my swiss tardis can trump the swedish tardis!

    They were both actually public call boxes still, right?

  3. I can get my toe in my mouth on a good day. I can also get my fist in my mouth, though only if I've taken my toe out first. Welcome back Ben, by the way! I went to Online Information Scandinavia once, so feel part Swedish myself.

  4. I think Simon hits the nail on the head with "everyone could", like, past tense. Some of us lose that ability, or acquire enough midlevel body padding to prevent the necessary folding.

    Or maybe it's just loss of inclination, like the ability to stuff marbles up your nose.

    David, the Swiss tardis at least looked better maintained. Maybe in my case the Doc set the chameleon circuits to "old and shabby". But yes, both public call boxes.

    Jo: my first Scandinavian exposure was the 1999 European Association of Urology's annual meeting in Stockholm. Highlights were seeing the Vasa and being serenaded by Bjorn Again with the cry "hello urologists!" Sadly neither experience has been repeated.


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