My wife and I like to stash extra cash and get away for parts of the summer — that time of year when God likes to punish Oklahoma for Sen. Jim Inhofe’s snowball demonstration. Heading to a place with 20 hours of daylight where the temperature won’t rise above 75 degrees is just the right escape. The fact that we have Swedish friends who let us crash at their home for 10 days makes it even better.
My mother-in-law was an exchange student in Sweden as a teenager, and our family has remained friends with her Swedish family over the generations.
Sweden is about what you would expect: an orderly, small society with a commitment to public investment in the common good. Their economic and political system is being put under a stress test now with the increasing amount of immigrant and refugee populations settling there. Talking politics with my Swedish friends, I could not help but sense their longstanding majority party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, is looking the other way about the rapidly changing political sentiments around this issue. It reminds me how rural Democrats who controlled the Oklahoma Legislature for much of the 20th Century failed to take seriously the rapidly deteriorating status of their brand before it was lost all together for a generation.
But I digress.
On our way to the land of free health care, free education (pre-K to medical school) and the woman who smacked Tiger Woods with a golf club, we stopped in New York City for several days to see my sister. We enjoyed some good food and this atheistic anthophilic public art installation.
When we landed in Stockholm, our friends picked us up and we headed for some outdoor fun. We then stopped to have coffee and cake (fika) with some of their friends who live in an old castle. We were late for fika but just in time for lunch. As one comes to expect from Swedes, they graciously invited us to join them and eat.
The 400-year-old castle we visited sits in the Uppsala lake region, just about 40 minutes from Stockholm. It is situated just near Lake Mälaren, a sprawling and beautiful body of water that extends all the way into Stockholm and its harbor. The international soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who is a Swedish national) owns a small hunting island nearby. The rooms of the castle provided for interesting internal designs common from past centuries, but the most fascinating room was the attic, where the owner’s 65-plus-year-old mother holds a weekly spin class. No, I’m not joking.
A day or two later, we jumped on our friend’s motor boat that seemed like something the Navy Seals train on and took an hour trip on Lake Mälaren to visit the Gripsholm Castle at Mariefred (Peace of Mary). Prior to the castle, a fortress was constructed in 1380 by the Royal Council of the time. King Gustav I took ownership of it in 1526. For security reasons, the King demolished it and built a castle with high walls and circular corner towers. It was an imposing sight when approached from the water. And the boat was an amazingly smooth and fast ride at the same time (as you will witness in my action Go Pro video later on when we visit the Swedish archipelago).
Swedish Midsommar is the whole reason we took the trip in mid-June rather than late July, when Oklahoma’s inferno rating peaks out. It celebrates the summer solstice and has its roots in pagan, pre-Christian traditions. It is unique to Northern Europe, with Finland and Sweden sharing the same name (Norway and Denmark, for instance, have other names for it). In Sweden, I think it is just an excuse to try and have a 24-hour party without passing out. About every 60 mins we would all stop socializing, sing some songs, and have a toast of homemade schnapps.
In all seriousness, it is a lovely holiday. The real celebration actually begins on Midsommar Eve day around noon. Guests arrive with their contributions to the potluck, usually a creative take on the common Swedish dish of pickled herring. One guest brought a particularly yummy curried pickled herring that seemed Thai or Sri Lankan more than Scandinavian. After lunch, the grown boys and actual boys scattered off to the forest with hatchets and saws to cut down specific varieties of vines and lumber for the construction of the maypole. The girls of various ages walked the meadows to collect wild flowers from what seemed like endless patches of any color you could wish for.
We danced around the maypole, my favorite part of which is a song where everyone acts like bears. Animal role playing in a song makes it easier navigate the unknown foreign language issue, although most Swedes’ command of English sadly exceeds some Americans’ language competence. After dancing, it was time for games with adults and kids alike. Think of it as a sort of mini Midsommar olympics. This was our second Swedish Midsommar trip, the first being in 2013, and the games were just as fun the second time around.
We broke off into teams and attempted things like pitching small Velcro-covered balls onto archery targets or tossing mini-Frisbees into Frisbee-golf cages. By far, the crowd (but not participant) favorite is the game that involves wearing blacked-out ski goggles and dangling a string off your waist tied to a ping-pong ball that you must lower into a small bowl.” You can imagine the awkwardness.
The Swedish Archipelago
If you head by boat from Stockholm harbor to the east into the Baltic Sea, you traverse a beautiful and fairly calm region of nearly 30,000 islands large and small, known as the Swedish archipelago. Our friend’s boat was more than up for the task.
Our destination was a small island named Fejan. The island is just 1.4 kilometers long and is where the last Swedish case of Cholera was eradicated. We stayed at the only venue open to the public on the island, which is an old fisherman’s boarding-house-turned-hostel. Next to the hostel was a charming farmhouse-like restaurant where the food rivaled the best that Stockholm eateries offer. I had a huge rainbow trout that looked like salmon, along with spring potatoes and dill aioli. It dissolved in my mouth without me having to chew it. For dessert, I enjoyed an apple tart with fresh cream and cinnamon. I’m sad to say this lovely cafe burned to ground about four days after we were there.
After dinner, we walked down to the calm waters of the Baltic Sea and enjoyed this insanely beautiful summer sunset from about 10:30 p.m. to 11:15 p.m. while the kids played by the water. The sunset slowly faded over 45 minutes being so far north.
The farm near Vimmerby
Prior to flying home, we traveled southwest of the Uppsala region to stay two days with other relatives of our friends who own a small farm and hostel catering to the steady flow of young families traveling to the nearby Astrid Lindgrens Värld. It is the small theme park with rides and experiences depicted in the famous writings of Swedish literary icon Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking and Mio, My Son). Our friends offered a morning ritual of petting bunnies and riding ponies for the kids before their parents take them off to the amusement park.
The farm had a mixture of well-attended-to cows, horses, ponies and a lot of cute but noisy sheep. We spent quite a bit of time hiking around the woods and came upon a small cabin (below) off the beaten track. Our hosts explained it was owned by a 92 year-old woman in Stockholm. She still visited about twice a year, sometimes with a caretaker, sometimes without. The cabin has no running water. How pathetic do those of us under 90 years of age feel now?
I highly recommend trying to find a way to visit this special country before your time is up, or any part of Scandinavia for that matter. Just make sure you avoid December through April, when the darkness and cold are obviously a drag. And no, you cannot rent our Swedish friends for 10 days, nor do they rent out their guestroom on Airbnb.