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.

Studentkatedral
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.

Avhämtning
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.

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