Swedish Summer Romance
"Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Henry James
Growing up, these delightful notions of Summer in all of English literature never made much sense to me. It was difficult to understand this love for the season, given that we struggled with it the North Indian plains. However, within the first 2 days of travelling to Sweden, as high up in the Northern Hemisphere as I've ever been, the whole romance started making a whole lot more sense to me.
The country of Sweden is often called the Land of the Midnight Sun. About 15% of Sweden lies within the Arctic Circle, and from late-May until mid-July, the Sun really never sets here. (On the other hand, there is utter darkness around the clock in January.) The capital city of Stockholm, however, is only about 1/3 of the way up this vast (tall?) country, and witnesses a few hours of semi-darkness during the summer months.
The city of Stockholm, is the epitome of a vibrant summer worth writing about. Medieval buildings, modern architecture and an efficient network of transportation mingle with great expanses of greenery and, of course, the water in between the 14 islands which make the city of Stockholm. In 2010, Stockholm became Europe’s first Green Capital. The green space per person in Stockholm is around 70 square metres, of which a majority if the woodlands and nature reserves. The “Right of Public Access” is a unique institution which gives Swedes the freedom to roam in the countryside, and enjoy a very high level of closeness to nature.
The statistics come to life when you spend a few days around the city. Throughout the city, the piers are full of leisure boats belonging to the local families. Summer cafes pop up as temporary constructions on generously proportioned footpaths. Almost like a cherry on the icing, towards the end of my stay in Stockholm, I was fortunate enough to accompany friends for a day out in nature – the Swedish way. We set off on a motorboat in Lake Mälaren, and after being in the water for about half an hour, arrived at the island. I call it “the island” because there’s no name that we used to refer to it. As one of the 30,000 islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago, I suppose it was just one of the many such places of peaceful retreat into nature. The boat club building was a humble little cottage in the typical ‘Falu red’ colour of Sweden. The foreground of this cottage was alive with playful outdoor furniture, eccentric looking tubs full of herbs, swings and a slide going straight into the water! Our entire day went by as we waded or swam around in the water, guided by the limits of our own abilities and nothing else. Sometimes we shared the water-space with ducks, half-excited and half-nervous because we were in their territory. At lunch time, our outdoor picnic table was a medley of Indian and European - food and people. With the unassertive club-house on one side and the endless water on the other, we sat down to eat and drink our many bottles of wine. I felt time slow down. There were no more touristy must-do’s to visit, no museum labels to be read, and no tickets to be bought today.
Endless water, greenery all around, and time to ourselves. What is luxury, if not this?
This experience was not one that you can recommend to someone in a guidebook, nor can you put down the names of must-visit-islands on the tourist map. But for me, it defined the essence of being in Sweden – the country where people’s names are derived from elements of nature, the country that loves to put floral patterns on everything from their textile to coffee mugs, the country that prioritises its leisurely coffee-and-cake breaks* beyond everything else. As the day passed by in this dream-like manner, it was 9pm before we knew it. The sun was still in the sky when we started packing up – we picked up not just our belongings but also the waste we had generated throughout the day. “Don’t disturb, don’t destroy” is the most important responsibility that comes along with the Right to Public Access. The motor-boat cruised on the waves, back towards the city, as we took turns to sit on the bow of the boat. Along with the music from our speakers, and the golden sun in the sky, there was a trance that I can still go back into through my memories when I close my eyes.
*The coffee-and-cake breaks are as integral to Swedish lifestyle as anything else. It is a very important part of the culture, where it is essential to make time for this practice of ‘Fika’ to slow down and enjoy time socialising.
Here’s a quick light-hearted introduction to the Fika!