Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Midsommar (Midsummer)

Size doesn't matter. 
Every June, Swedes throughout the world gather around a large, green pole and dance and sing and drink. They pretend to be frogs, they pretend to be little old ladies, they pretend to wash clothes and go to church. And they hold hands and skip and dance around the Midsummer pole. Then they eat herring, drink akvavit while singing, hide from the rain, maybe go for a midnight skinny dip in the closest body of water, and if they’re really fulfilling stereotypes, they have sex. All this to celebrate the longest day of the year. Or the shortest night of the year. I suppose it depends on your perspective.

Just like so many of the other Swedish holidays, the big day is not the actual day, it’s the eve. Midsommarafton. Midsummer Eve. Unlike Shakespeare, who was dreaming on the actual night of Midsummer, the Swedes like to get an early start. It might be because of all those supernatural beings hanging out that night. If you’ve been paying attention to the Swedish holidays, you’ve probably noticed a theme. Eves and evils. Or at least eves and supernatural beings. But that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The holiday has been around for a while—at least since the 1500s and probably much earlier than that. Midsummer used to be celebrated on June 24, which happens to be John the Baptist’s feast day. That meant that Midsummer Eve was always June 23rd. But back in 1953, that changed. The Swedish government decided that Midsummer Eve would always fall on a Friday, which means that Midsummer in Sweden can be any day between June 20 and June 26. That’s good for Swedes. Mostly because it ensures that there is no chance that the holiday will fall on a Saturday or Sunday leaving someone with one less day off from work.

Moving it to a Friday also means folks have a couple of days to recover. Because Midsummer is a drinking holiday. In 2014, according to Systembolaget’s sales statistics, over one million customers came in on the Thursday before Midsummer Eve. And the week of Midsummer? Over 2.5 million. Keep in mind that Midsummer week is only four days long because Systembolaget is closed Friday and Saturday due to the holiday and always closed on Sundays. Those 2.5 million customers bought over 14 million liters of alcohol in one form or another. Sweden has a population of just under 10 million. Like I said, Midsummer is a drinking holiday.

But, thanks to some pretty solid alcohol problems in Sweden in the late 1800s and early 1900s, drinking akvavit with a meal became more common. The idea being, of course, that a little food in your stomach will do you good. Luckily, a lot of those 14 million liters are consumed at dinner. Your typical Midsummer menu will include five things. Only three of those are foods. Since the early 1900s folks have been eating herring and potatoes for the meal; strawberries for dessert. Beer and akvavit have wet many a whistle in Sweden. Drinking songs will most likely break out, the classic being “Helan Går.” While the Midsummer menu might be relatively new, “Helan Går” has been around since at least 1845 and, according to ethnologist Mats Rehnberg, much earlier. Folklorist Christina Mattsson points out that August Strindberg even tried convincing people that it should be viewed with the same reverence as the Swedish national anthem. For some folks, that’s probably rings true today.

This holiday isn’t just about drinking though. There’s a big pole standing erect in the middle of the celebration. It’s called either the Midsommarstång, Midsummer pole, or the Majstång, Maypole. And it has nothing to do with the month of May. At least not in Swedish. Maja as a verb means to decorate with green leaves. And once that pole is dressed up in green leaves, people dance around it. Sometimes they dance traditional folk dances in their traditional folk costumes and sing traditional folk songs. Sometimes they pretend to be frogs and hop around. Sometimes they pretend to be washing their clothes every day of the week before heading to church on Sunday. Because people like to dance and sing and celebrate and pretend they are someone else.

Local folk dance enthusiasts cutting a rug. Or a wooden stage.  
That pole, despite what remains of my 13-year old self says, is not phallic according to Jonas Engman over at the Nordic Museum. Instead, the fact that we see it as phallic is more a comment on the way folks saw the world back in the late 1800s. I blame Freud. Of course, the idea has stuck around. Get your mind out of the gutter, is the lesson here. Sometimes a tree is just a tree. Not a penis. And sometimes a big, green pole with hoops to the left and right is just a big, green pole with hoops to the left and right. Not a penis. It might be celebrating the changing of the seasons, the greening of the pastures, the growing of the crops. It might be some sort of reference to pagan beliefs in sacred trees. It might be symbolic of the world axis. Maybe folks just needed something to dance around.

Grow up. It's not a penis.
Picture from Bohusläns museum via DigitaltMuseum.se
"Midsommardans vid Badhuset, Lysekil" by Hugo Hallgren.
But just because the Midsummer pole is not a penis, doesn’t mean there can’t be some sexy thoughts. Or at least marriage thoughts. Because there are so many supernatural beings out and about on Midsummer, it’s a good time to look into the future. One way of doing that is to place a bunch of flowers under your pillow. Usually it is seven or nine different types. Or sometimes it’s the handpicked wreath of flowers that you’ve worn atop your head all night. Either way, those flowers, if placed under your pillow at night, will help you to dream about the person you will spend the rest of your life with. No word on whether or not this is a nightmare.

If you are suffering from nightmares, or just suffering from some sort of health problem, there are plenty of powerful plants to collect. But maybe you’re tired of tramping through fields and meadows and forests trying to cure what ails ya. Have no fear. On Midsummer Eve, you can strip down and roll around in the Midsummer dew to cure your ailments. Without even meaning to, many Swedes still today adhere to this timeless tradition.

Midsummer has become one of those quintessential Swedish holidays. It’s the stuff of stereotypes and movies and beer commercials. It’s a time of tradition, but traditions that have changed dramatically over the last 500 years. Those traditions are changing today and will continue to change tomorrow. They always change. Sometimes those changes are for the better if it means not having to see Grandpa Sven rolling around naked in the grass trying to fix his creaky hip.

Regardless of those changes, for many, Midsummer is a marker of Swedishness. A time to identify as Swedish, whatever that means. For others, it’s a time to identify as part of a family or of a group of friends. Still others will simply eat some herring, a potato or two, and take a shot of akvavit and call it a day. And then there are plenty who don’t do a damn thing. Midsummer Eve is just another Friday. Like all holidays, there is no right way to celebrate, there is only your way.

Welcome to Sweden. And the land of the midsummer sun.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Oh, the Places You’ll Go. In Sweden.

Traditions come in many forms and they are constantly changing. They’re the foods we eat at Christmas and the clothes we wear at weddings and the songs we sing at sporting events. They’re also the rituals that we celebrate to acknowledge the passage of time or the moving from one stage of life to the next. And every year around the beginning of June, the streets of Stockholm are filled with tradition. And by tradition I mean honking horns, yelling teenagers, and public intoxication.

Freedom... to have to be an adult.
By Berit Abrahamsson
(Katedralskolan/Berit Abrahamsson)
GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Teenagers can be seen in various stages of undress, covered in beer, cider, and, for those with a little extra cash, champagne. But this is Sweden during the summer, so there is also rosé. Lots and lots of rosé. That rosé (and cider and beer and champagne) usually ends up being poured out, sprayed on, and drunk by students who are wearing fancy white dresses, nice suits, rain ponchos, swimming suits, costumes, overalls, or, sometimes, just their birthday suits. But there is one constant—the white graduation caps.

That’s because the beginning of June marks high school graduation. This year, most of Stockholm will be graduating sometime between June 2 and June 16. They’ll come running out of the doors of their high school into a pack of family and friends. And yes, literally running. The women usually wearing white dresses, the men usually in dark suits, their little white graduation caps perched perilously on their heads.

They’ll be met by their parents, who are usually holding embarrassing or cute pictures blown-up into massive poster-sized signs. In fact, this tradition is so strong that a friend with a two-year old recently told me he had already begun picking out embarrassing photos to use for his son’s graduation, which should be occurring sometime around 2032.

Look at that giant face staring right back at you. Parents, am I right?
By Einarspetz (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons 
So, to celebrate freedom, high school students will stand, pass out, and try to destroy their livers before leaving their awkward teen years behind them all while being driven around in the beds of trucks. It’s called a studentflak. The more rural folks will be staring at the backend of a tractor as they party in a flatbed trailer. You’ll see them driving around town, birch branches (remember those from Easter?) decorating the corners of the trailer. Banners with some identifying information about the class, the school, the line of study, will hang from the sides. Sometimes, those banners will attempt to be funny. Most of the time, they will fail. Turns out inside jokes are usually only funny to the insiders. Some will even set up entire speaker systems and blare pop music for all the world to hear. Some of the students even decide to take an impromptu bath in the local fountains. It’s an impressive display of celebration and one that no American graduation party can even pretend to compete with. It’s also quite the shock to see in action.

Yup. Look at those graduates carpe-ing the diem.
Picture by JET.
Tourists, expecting the quiet paradise that a Swedish summer promises, are instead met by bedlam contained to the bed of a truck. Those tourists will stop on the side of the road. They’ll stare. They’ll take confused pictures. And then they’ll get angry as that one kid from high school that no one really likes but who is fun at parties sprays cheap beer at the unsuspecting tourists.

That spraying of beer has resulted in some communities in Sweden prohibiting drinking on the trailers. The fact that students aren’t technically old enough to buy alcohol from the state-owned Systembolaget but still have enough beer to fill a small pool doesn’t seem to get much thought. But while alcohol is prohibited by some communities, the police actually re-write the rules for a couple of weeks every year. That’s because, technically, riding in the back of a trailer is very illegal in Sweden.

The police and the Swedish Transport Agency, Transportstyrelsen, even have pages on their website outlining the rules of the studentflak. Many of these rules have been put into place recently, especially after last year’s festivities when at least 12 different serious accidents occurred around the country. One kid managed to get henself (I need a gender-neutral pronoun in English) squeezed between two trucks. Another was knocked off the trailer by a bridge as the truck drove under said bridge. If it weren’t so serious, it’d be funny. Like some sort of Wile E. Coyote sketch.

But this is serious stuff. High school is over. Now it’s more school. Or work. Or unemployment. But it’s not high school. And that’s worth celebrating with some long-standing traditions.

Welcome to Sweden. And the places you’ll go.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Kristi himmelsfärdsdag (Feast of the Ascension)

Wednesday was a half-day. Thursday was a holiday. Friday was a squeeze day. And then the weekend came. Again. For those of you scoring at home, that’s the third week of holidays in Sweden since April 1. What is the occasion, you might ask. What could keep the Swedes from working a full week? Christ. Christ can keep Swedes from working a full week.

There he is, Mr. Jesus Christ.
There he is, your ideal.
The dream of nine million Swedes who are more than secular can come true in Stockholm city.
For he may turn out to be the King of humanity.
Picture from Nordiska museet via DigitaltMuseum.se "Väggbonad" by Anders Eriksson is licensed under CC BY 3.0 SE
Thursday was Kristi himmelsfärdsdag. Feast of the Ascension. Forty days after Easter. The celebrations are somewhat subdued. Or non-existent. I suppose people head out to their cabins again. They were out there on Easter weekend, opening them up and airing them out. Then May 1 rolled around and they headed out there again to maybe do some gardening or some drinking. Then Christ headed up to Heaven and Swedes headed out to the country again. To drink and maybe put their boats in the water. It’s a slow progression towards summer. These holidays don’t necessarily serve much of a religious purpose anymore. Instead, they are markers of the passage of the year and the emergence from the darkness. They are also a marker of leisure since, despite what you might believe, not all Swedes own little red cabins in the woods next to a lake where they dock their boat.

Traditionally, and remember, traditions change. Constantly. We are always making new traditions, discarding old ones, and reworking the ones we keep. But traditionally, Kristi himmelsfärdsdag included fire. Obviously. This was mostly in western Sweden and in Skåne, where the Swedes were working to scare away wolves. I assume the fires in all the previous holidays like Valborg had scared away the witches, but those wolves are pesky buggers.

But fires are old hat in Swedish holidays. There were more exciting things afoot. Or a-arm. This was the time of year when women were finally allowed to wear short sleeves. Seriously. That’s because it was often seen as the start of summer. Summer is relative, I suppose, because it is still damn cold in Stockholm this holiday weekend.

It was also a day for young men and women of the town to meet in front of the church without supervision from their parents. Seriously. Strangely enough, there was always a rash of teenagers giving birth in January and February of the next year. Probably just a coincidence. And probably something I just made up. Probably.

For the nature lovers, it was also a time to head out and kill baby foxes. Seriously. Because it was the first day of summer, mamma foxes came out to sleep in the sun with her babies, leaving them exposed to sneaky Swedes who wanted to catch them.

If you’d rather look at animals than kill them, this was also a big day for bird watching. Early in the morning, in southern and central Sweden, folks would get up to go look for the cuckoo and listen to its call. This was known as the gökotta. Gök being the common cuckoo.

While you might not find young men and women meeting in front of the church on Kristi himmelsfärdsdag, you will definitely be able to find birdwatchers heading out early on Thursday morning. I slept in.

On a completely related not, Nordiska museet is a wonderful museum with everything you could ever want to know about Swedish traditions. Their website gives amazing descriptions of many of the Swedish holidays. I borrowed liberally from them and you can too! Check out their website and their Årets dagar section. That effusive praise being said, one thing they don’t mention is the very real threat that Kristi himmelsfärdsdag faced about 20 or 30 years ago.

It turns out that back in the ‘90s, the Swedish government, with help from a committee of parliamentarians, began looking into a change to Swedish holidays. There was a movement to celebrate June 6 as the National Day of Sweden. This movement had been around for a while, but gained steam in the ‘90s. Of course, while Swedes love days off, the powers that be determined there would be economic consequences to all those days off. But the powers that be also really wanted that National Day. Easy! Just switch out an existing holiday for the new one.

There were a few holidays on the chopping blocks: May 1, the Feast of the Ascension, Whit Monday, and the Epiphany. A quick look at that list would suggest Sweden is a deeply religious country. And by religious, I mean Christian. It is not. At least, not by church attendance standards or actual belief in God standards. But religious holiday standards? Praise the Lord!

Finally in 2005, when the National Day of Sweden became an official public holiday, Whit Monday or Annandag pingst, was no more. Kristi himmelsfärdsdag survived and Swedes continued to take a Thursday off (and sometimes a Wednesday and a Friday for good measure) to celebrate a religious figure that few actually worship. Traditions are weird.

Welcome to Sweden. Jesus would be proud.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bad Moon Rising

Back when the nights were long and the temperature was still in the single digits, I went to dinner with a good friend and met her husband for the first time. He’s a nice guy, a creative guy, a writer and an artist and a cook. And, as it so often does, Sweden came up. The weird things about Sweden at least. We talked about all of those little things that Swedes do that make them so very Swedish. Like the silence on the subways. Like the shoes off in the home. Like the well-fitting clothes. Of course, those clothes that fit so well can sometimes fit a little bit too well. Especially when those clothes are tights.

I don’t wear tights too often. I’ve got a pair for those cold winter days and for skiing. I’ve even got a pair of compression shorts that I used to wear when I was playing sports that actually involved running and jumping. They’re basically the male version of a sports bra. Keeps stuff in place. Which, obviously, was something you wanted to know. Anyway, not wearing tights in this country seems akin to clubbing baby koalas for sport. You just don’t do it.

During the winter, men run through the streets of Stockholm. They’ve perfected the art of breathing without freezing their lungs. They look stylish doing it, having spent more on their workout clothes than I do on rent. But those clothes are sparse as nary a piece of substantial clothing protects them from the elements. Puffs of air rhythmically escape from their half-opened mouths. Their black tights the only thing separating their man-bits from permanent shrinkage in the northern climate. But the darkness gives them cover as they slip and slide their way to a better beach body. Or something like that.

Then the summer comes. The days get longer. Suddenly, the sun peeks out from beneath the horizon. Along with the sun, out comes the bike. It is, by far, the giddiest time of the year here in Sweden. But the tights stay. Those black tights adorn the men who run wild in the streets. Now, the lack of clothing makes some sense. It gets hot running and biking through town.

Unfortunately, I was faced with the reality of men in black tights just the other day. It was late afternoon, the shadows were getting longer, but it was that bright sun that makes coming home from a day at the library just a little bit better. I walked home instead of taking the bus. It felt good.

Having heard one too many angry bike bells behind me, I was walking in the correct lane. I could hear the bikers coming up behind me. Legs cranking. Wheels turning. Heavy breathing. They passed me on the uphill side of what constitutes a hill in this very flat city. They were standing, really using their leverage to push through and pass me. And that’s when the sun flashed just right. Or just wrong. Their tights were too tight. The sun was too bright. The black was too light. Staring back at me were two man asses. Those tights had been reduced to transparent pieces of plastic revealing the full moon on the early evening horizon.

I’m not judging. Ok, I’m kind of judging. I’m just not into seeing your sweaty ass glistening in the Swedish sun. Want to wear tights? Fine. Buy a pair thick enough to give you the support you need and the peace of mind I need.

Welcome to Sweden. And men, manly men, men in tights.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fika Times Four

Fika. I have written that word more times than I care to admit. And beaten several dead horses with it. But it’s a thing here. Not always, but it’s definitely a thing. And that thing became painfully obvious last week for me while attending a conference/workshop in northern Sweden. I was literally in pain.

Here’s why:
Tuesday, May 5
13.00–13.30: Lunch
13.30–15.00: Introduction
15.00–15.30: Fika
15.30–17.00: Seminar 1
17.30: Dinner

Wednesday, May 6
4.00–9.00: Breakfast
9.00–10.30: Seminar 2
10.30–11.00: Fika
11.00–12.30: Seminar 3
12.30–13.30: Lunch
13.30–15.00: Seminar 4
15.00–15.30: Fika
15.30–17.00: Sightseeing
17.30: Dinner

Thursday, May 7
4.00–9.00: Breakfast
9.00–10.00: Wrap-up
10.00–10.15: Fika
10.15–11.00: Group evaluation
11.00–11.45: Lunch
11.45: Departure

I seriously considered stopping the post right here. After that schedule. Just letting the schedule speak for itself. Letting you work your way through the time intervals. The hour and a half between breakfast and the first fika. The hour and a half between the first fika and lunch. The hour and a half between lunch and the second fika. The hour and a half between the second fika and dinner. Or maybe letting you realize on your own that on Thursday, breakfast ended at nine. And fika was a fifteen-minute affair beginning at ten. And then lunch began at eleven. I seriously considered stopping the post right there. After that schedule. But I clearly did not.

Let me say that the workshop was lovely. It was fun. It was nice to meet new people. It was a wonderful experience. Plus, I got to take a picture of this amazing sign.

I've heard that Swedish is the only language that doesn't use the Finnish
word "sauna." Like a terrible academic, I'm not going to check that claim.
Luckily, much better academics than me have saved me from a simple Google
search. Bastu=badstue in Norwegian. Mystery solved.
Couple the sauna sign with all of those fikas and it all felt very Swedish. So Swedish that even the Swedes started groaning by the time Thursday rolled around. Which made me feel a bit better. Mostly because I was doing a bit of groaning myself.

Turns out, I have a problem. If you put food in front of me, I will eat it. And when that food is put in front of me at regular intervals five times a day, I will eat at regular intervals five times a day. It also turns out that when the food that is put in front of me involves a lot of baked goods, I will feel like Joey Chestnut on July 5th.

By the time I came home, my body was convinced that it needed to eat every hour and a half. It felt like I was 16 again, except, you know, out of shape. In other, completely unrelated news, I went for a run on Sunday.

Welcome to Sweden. And four fikas in forty-seven hours.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sweden’s Finest – Policing the Police

On April 22, 2015, four Swedish police officers vacationing in New York City broke up a fight on a subway. They were lauded for their humane treatment of the men who were fighting. They asked how they were doing, were they ok. American media took this and ran with it. In the aftermath of death (murder) after death (murder) after death (murder) at the hands of American police officers, people are starting, just starting, to take note. There were cute comments suggesting that maybe the Swedish police should be training American police officers. Because they were so humane. So nice.

Maybe. You are, by all accounts, less likely to die after interactions with a Swedish police officer. But that’s a pretty low bar. Because there are still deep-seated issues with the Swedish police force as the videos below will demonstrate. Just a heads up, some of them are rough to watch. That being said, these four officers dealt with a situation in a way that, yes, they and the people who trained them should be proud of.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. It's been distressing to see Sweden held up as an example in this case because of the actions of four individuals, which ignores any systemic issues that may exist in Swedish policing. Here are three examples of why that is:

On April 30, 2015 (that’s eight days after the incident in New York City), an unmarked police car drove straight into a crowd of students partying at Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm. You can watch that video here. Apparently there was a fight and the police were on their way to save the day. The police officer driving initially claimed that they car couldn’t stop. That claim resulted in four people being taken to the hospital. Now the police are blaming it on human error. Hit the brake and the gas at the same time. I did that once. When I was 15 and had been driving for less than six months.

According to Aftonbladet, there are plans to press charges because of the fight. Of course, that’s where it gets a little awkward. Towe Hägg, from Stockholm Police says that “Men vi har inte hittat någon som är skadad så vi har inga uppgifter på vem som har bråkat.” “But we haven’t found anyone that is hurt so we don’t have any information about who was fighting.” Oh Towe. Towe, Towe, Towe. There are four people that were hurt so badly that they were taken to the hospital. Because a police officer ran into them with a car. Perhaps you should be pressing charges against the driver?

February 6, 2015, two young boys were riding the subway in Malmö without paying. A guard caught them, tackled them to the ground, and slammed the youngest boys head against the floor as he covered the boy’s mouth. It's important to note that this was not the police. However, the Malmö police initially refused to investigate. It took a public outcry and a video being published for the police to do anything.

Two months later, on April 20, 2015, no charges were filed.

There are plenty of examples of overzealous policing. Overzealous is such a handy euphemism for over-militarized police having their way with people. Like the two anti-Nazi protestors I saw felled by a police baton as they turned to run. A baton to the back. But the example that is all too reminiscent of what has happened in the US lately, especially in Ferguson, Missouri, happened a couple of years ago.

May 13, 2013, a man was shot in the face by Swedish police in the Stockholm suburb of Husby. He died on the scene. That was around 8:50 in the evening after police were called to the apartment. The man had been drinking and threatened a guard at a bar with a knife. Then he went home. And that’s when the police showed up. After some negotiations that went nowhere, they stormed the home and killed the man with his wife in the apartment. It’s important to note that the police assumed she was being threatened by the man. She says she wasn’t. His body was taken away in a hearse around 2am. About five hours after he was killed.

Protests followed. Strong ones. Protests that spread to other communities, especially other communities with larger immigrant populations like Husby. Those protests were against the shooting, the killing, the man being left dead for hours in his apartment. They were against the over policing and the situation and the poverty, the segregation, the systemic issues that people lived under every day. And just like the protests in the United States, they were condemned for being violent and destructive. But it was the police who killed a man. The protestors did not kill anyone. They did nothing that could not be repaired. There was an investigation. No crime or misconduct was committed. That was appealed by the widow and her lawyer. There was another investigation. On July 1, 2014, over a year after the shooting, the investigating body decided the police officer had shot a man in the face in self-defense. Case closed.

Let me say this explicitly. Not all Swedish police are like this. Not even all American police. Not even close. #NotAllPolice. Or something like that. Got it. They do a job I do not want to do and make decisions I am not willing to make. That does not mean they are above reprieve or even above questioning. In fact, there's an argument to be made that they are simply a tool in a much larger structural problem. Either way, the Swedish police are not leaving a trail of dead young men and women behind them. Since 2003, Swedish police forces have only killed eight people. And it’s sad to say, but only eight people is a good thing, especially compared to the US. Where hundreds are killed by police every single year.

Again. #NotAllPolice. Still got it. In fact, I've had good interactions with the police here. That’s not the point, though. To blindly accept that the police are always the good guys, always right, that leads to some scary assumptions that ignores any potential systemic issues that should be addressed and solved. That doesn’t mean for a second that every single police officer is going to shoot a 69-year old man in the head and leave his body in the apartment for hours. It doesn’t mean that every single police officer is a racist. Or a sexist. Or a murderer. Or corrupt. Or whatever other adjective you can come up with. It just means that law enforcement is a branch of civil service that, just like all branches, should be watched over by the very people who are being policed. So the policed become the police. If only for a while and if only to improve the system, both the policing system and the larger system in which we all live and die.

Welcome to Sweden. And a low bar of policing.