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'Pretend to be sober for granny' and other secrets

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'Pretend to be sober for granny' and other secrets
Swedish high-school students. File photo: Elodie Pradet/TL
09:50 CEST+02:00
The public revelry of Graduation Week is the prelude to countless private family receptions. Awkward cross-generational parties are worth their weight in gold for us immigrants, however, argues Danny Chapman.

The sight of young Swedes throwing off their inhibitions with wild abandon and travelling around Sweden’s usually sedate towns in a most uncommon attention-seeking and rowdy manner, on the backs of cattle trucks and wearing sailor hats, means it is Graduation Week.

This drunken sailor-like debauchery is how the Swedish student celebrates surviving three years of high school. But after the public revelry comes the private family party. Having gone to five of these last year, I now feel huge sympathy for the graduates. But I also finally learned how to get a Swedish conversation going.

The “studentmottagningar” or student receptions start when the graduate comes home plastered from the afternoon’s cattle truck tomfoolery. And should they be too drunk to find their house they will see a large photo of themself taken when they were three-years-old, stuck on a stake in the driveway.

IN PICTURES: Swedish high-school students graduate

Awaiting the graduates’ return is a house full of aunts, uncles and grandparents who cheer as the poor wasted 19-year-old arrives. The students at this stage look likely to vomit and so, and I saw this happen five times, are rushed by mum or dad to the shower to clear away the stale beer covering them and in order to try and sober up a bit for granny.

Meanwhile the extended family, most of whom haven’t seen each other for a year, say hello to each other. And the enthusiasm with which the Swedes introduce themselves is impressive. It seems an essential part of a party that everyone will introduce themselves to everyone else there.

The Swedes are not, however, brilliant at small talk. And so this eager introduction, which usually only consists of a first name being offered up, leaves you still not really knowing who the person is. A firm handshake will be followed by a pregnant pause, turning into an awkward silence.

Once the graduate comes back from the bathroom with soaking wet hair and still looking pretty dazed, the songs and speeches begin, which I now know are a common feature at every type of Swedish party. These tend to annoyingly start just as I have surmounted the very difficult small talk stage with someone and am entering into a half decent conversation. But instant silence is now suddenly decreed and the conversation is killed dead.

The wobbly graduate must, like everyone else, listen in an extremely attentive manner to what are always very long and very formal speeches.

Next comes the public present opening ceremony. This, which is also a feature of Swedish birthday parties, is a ghastly period for everyone concerned as all the guests watch very quietly and politely as the receiver carefully opens each gift. Everyone therefore gets to see exactly what everyone else has bought, so you better get it right! And the receiver has no choice but to put on a big smile, express enthusiastic gratitude and seek out the buyer of the gift and give them a hug.

Not only does this go on forever, it is completely devoid of sincerity.

Next up is the buffet, where each person seems to stick close to who they came with, before finding a polite time to finally leave and free the graduate to go back out with his or her friends and get more drunk, which is well deserved after such a painful couple of hours.

Now the funny thing is, and I have since last year seen this played out time and time again, the Swedes who have barely spoken to you all night, at the point you say goodbye suddenly get all talkative, and it becomes quite impossible to leave. Especially as, like when you arrive and have to say hello to everyone, you also have to say goodbye to everyone, whether you have spoken to them or not.

I have had far longer and more interesting conversations with Swedes after saying goodbye to them than in the two hours of awkward silence that has taken place since I said hello.

We only have three graduation parties to go to this year. But at least now I am prepared and know what to expect. I am actually looking forward to them. I know what to do to get the conversation going. Say I can only stay ten minutes so I might as well say goodbye as I say hello. I still feel sorry for the graduate though.

Danny Chapman hails from London and works as a freelance writer and editor in Stockholm.

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