Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A week in Sweden by category

Here’s how it started. Many years ago – four to be precise – I drove the woman who was to become Best Beloved and the Boy, who was then and still is a boy, to Gloucester Green at 1 a.m. so they could catch the coach to London Stansted for their annual holiday in Sweden. Over the next fortnight I realised how much I missed her, how much I enjoyed writing to her, how much I enjoyed getting postcards ... and the next year I too was on the dawn flight from Stansted.

We don’t do that anymore. We now drive ourselves to Stansted at 1 a.m. It means we’re practically delirious from sleep deprivation by the time we reach our destination 12 hours later but it’s nicer than Gloucester Green in the small hours. Mind you, if you started a list headed “Things that are nicer than Gloucester Green in the small hours” then several trees would have to die to provide the paper to finish it.

Things have changed at the other end too. Used to be public transport all the way. Last year for the first time we flew to Gothenburg (Göteborg to the Swedes, but I bet you can’t guess how they pronounce it*), a train for the 200 km to Skövde (same bet with big brass knobs on**) and then hired a car. This year we hired the car at Gothenburg and drove the rest of the way. Avis upgraded our order at no extra cost to a Toyota Avensis, an over-engineered two litre behemoth with even bigger blind spots than a Vectra. I don’t think I hit anything but it’s impossible to tell when A4 wing mirrors and headrests impede your line of sight at every angle, giving you slightly less all round vision than a tank driver.

Still, I warmed to the vehicle as the week drew on. I still think self-regulating rear-view mirrors that sense when you’re being dazzled and turn themselves down are a tad unnecessary, but I became a convert to the joys of self-regulating windscreen wipers, and in particular cruise control.

* Yurterboy
** Hwevder

Home sweet home
This is home – a farmhouse on the plain between lakes Vanern and Vattern.

Turn around and you get this.

It is lived in by a mad one-legged Viking in his early eighties who trundles around the house in his wheelchair, has never been known to have an unshared thought (about which he will rant at length in Swedish), and who likes to demonstrate to his grandson how he gets into bed naked. I refer to my father in law.

Shortly after we first met, Morfar Hugo ran his moped into a car (which did everything it could to avoid the collision, short of going into reverse) and ended up in a ditch with a broken rib and pierced lung. After we had met for the second time, circulation problems meant he had to have his leg removed (with an epidural, not a general). He could have been forgiven for not wanting to meet me a third time last year, but maybe he was mellowed by the fact that I had just married his daughter.

So, he’s still alive and well, and still able (thanks to being built like several varieties of small brick outbuildings, and also to Sweden’s excellent social services) to live on the farm that has been in the family for generations and be master with dignity of his own house. I have the deepest love and admiration for him, and I really should learn Swedish so we can understand each other. For all I know he calls me the English Git, but I don’t believe it’s so. (Actually he calls me Ben-ya-meen.)

Morfar is simply a contraction of “mother’s father”. The Swedes have similar terms for all the permutations of grandparent, uncle and aunt – mother’s mother, father’s father, father’s sister, mother’s brother etc – so you always know exactly where the relationship lies. It’s a language of fiendish intricacy.

Good Friday in Sweden is Långfredag – Long Friday. I have no idea what they call The Long Good Friday if it’s ever shown there. The Even Longer Friday? The Already Long Friday that was Slightly Longer than Usual? Best Beloved hasn’t seen it, so can’t comment.

Anyway, to church on Maundy Thursday and on Sunday. I could vaguely follow the Bible readings, though I got a bit lost on Thursday when I could tell the reading was an altercation between Jesus and Peter, but somehow got it into my head that it was the “three times you shall deny me” bit. It was of course Jesus trying to wash Peter’s feet, which makes a lot more sense in the Last Supper context. I managed better on Sunday, if only because I took my phone which has the full NIV text with me.

The first service was led by Eva, the minister who conducted our Swedish wedding. She sat out the latter in the congregation, sporting a black leather jacket and yellow pashmina combination that our own minister could never get away with.

The Boy wondered how I could enjoy a service if it’s in Swedish, thus completely missing the point – it’s not the language, it’s the fact of fellowship with Christians from around the world, marking respectively Jesus’s last night alive and first day alive (again). It’s at Easter that I always feel so terribly proud of my saviour. And it doesn’t matter where you are in the world – on Easter Day you can still announce “Uppstånding är Jesus!”

I told you it’s a fiendish language.

(There is something purely Pratchett about the fact that “andon” can mean either spirit or duck, depending on intonation and context. This becomes more and more relevant as Pentecost approaches.)

Strangely, I didn’t have any rollmop this time, which is a shame because it’s a lot nicer than pickled herring ought to be. On arrival we were brought back from our sleepless daze by a slapup meal of Swedish pancakes and ring sausage. Swedish pancakes are Morfar's signature dish, the third state of matter between Shrove Tuesday pancakes and Yorkshire pudding, mixed up with bits of bacon and baked in an oven. Ring sausage is ... I’m not quite sure, but it was like someone had rolled up a lump of pure gammon and roasted it.

On Easter Day we ate a traditional Easter feast of meatballs, sausages and Jansson’s Temptation, a totally yum fish and potato dish. Throughout the week, vegetable accompaniment (if any) was boiled potato and carrots of broccoli. You probably can be a vegetarian in Sweden’s farming community and still have a healthily balanced diet, but you would need to work hard at it.

The Swedes have a traditional Easter drink called påskmust – malted (apparently), dark and fizzy like Coke, tastes like Irn Bru. Neither of these last two are bad things in my opinion but they do both rather militate against the “traditional” bit.

Every spring time, hundreds of thousands of cranes stop off at Lake Hornborga and obligingly perform a crane dance. Very decent of them, I say. According to signs, the birds are individually counted through binoculars each day. Strangely, the daily tallies posted were all multiples of 500, suggesting that cranes are very organised birds. It was 12,500 the day we were there.

The Swedes call it trandansen. They pair off and strut about, twine necks, jump into the air and hover, all to get a mate. Much like humans, except possibly the hovering in the air bit. We only saw isolated couples among the thousands doing the dance, but apparently you can see the whole crowd get started which is a truly awesome sight.

They are amazing birds - big, ungainly and also graceful. They are avian 747s. It was the first time I could swear I've seen a bird coming in to land and thinking: "flaps, undercarriage, throttle back a bit ..." Even without the dancing, just watching 12,500 cranes chat, fly about, do a little dancing and generally going about their business etc is pretty cool. You can watch for hours, lost in trandansental meditation.

Then Tiveden, a national park a bit further north. The guidebook says it contains mountains. In terms of elevation they’re more like hills but really they’re boulders left by the glaciers – some the size of a football, some the size of St Paul’s. It’s primeval Nordic landscape where the path scrambles up the side of jumbles of boulders, round the edges of dark brooding lakes and down into ravines where the sun never reaches the ground and the puddles still have ice. The ground is a mixture of bog and every pine needle in creation, held together by tree roots like steel cables. And pine trees. Pine trees everywhere. This is the kind of place where you can believe in trolls.

Cooking and cleaning
-is all that this sign means. I’ve no idea why the Boy should find it funny.

A load of pants
Swedes are heavily into recycling. Most supermarkets have an automated facility where you can return empty cans and bottles, and get your deposit back. The deposit is called the pant, so you take your empties to the Pantstation and use a machine called a Repant Universal. Sadly, I never had my camera to prove this assertion, but trust me. Also trust me that this is the end of the schoolboy sniggering.

Sweden is still in winter mode – the cars have their snow tyres, the B-roads are lined with snow poles to show where the edges are – but for the most part it was sunny and bright with a crisp, cutting wind and no snow anywhere. Dress for going out: a good thick coat and sunglasses. In short, lovely. I’m used to Sweden, or at least to Västergötland in the summer, when that fertile plain of farmland has come into its own and every manner of living thing is scrambling up out of the earth. This was the first time I’ve seen it with trees and bushes bare of leaves, and the grass brown and patchy. For the first time I could appreciate that Morfar’s farm is a little house on a very big prairie.

Then, Easter evening it actually snowed. And you know what? No one cared! Well, no one except the Boy who could finally entertain himself at an appropriate level.

I love a country that is grown up about snow. Two inches? So what! Close the schools?? Give me a break! Come the morning the roads were bone dry and free of slush. I don’t know where it all went but it wasn’t into dirty salty puddles that make your car filthy and rusty.

I love Sweden.

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