While Christine Demsteader floats from one Swedish village to the next without a care in the world, I am having a more traditional Swedish summer on my island in the wilderness. Here we take responsibility for the glass and the roofs that the winter destroyed, and the plumbing that we didn’t shut down properly before the winter came. We have sleepless nights because women no longer know how to sew curtains and because we worry that the wildlife will have a nighttime feeding orgy on our vegetable patch. We start projects with our bare hands that people living in most other countries would hire a bulldozer for. We receive post cards from people in southern Europe who seem to think that it is OK to lie on a beach and speak French all summer.
During my first experience of this Swedish island summer, I remember listening to the echo of Birger and Birgit soaring across the lake. Both of them had reached the ripe old age of eighty-something and they were still harvesting potatoes in the way that their parents had done when they were born. Birger dragged a great wagon filled with potatoes ahead of Birgit who threw the dirty bulbs into a satchel hung diagonally over her chest. As the sun beat down on their little clearing, Birger groaned. “Slave camp!” shouted Birgit. “That is what this is, pure slave camp!”
At the time I couldn’t understand them. I was here on holiday for a couple of weeks and hadn’t yet developed any DIY instincts. 13 years later I sometimes consider shouting the same words across the lake as Birgit once did. I’ve got no one to compete with since Birger and Birgit passed on some years ago. Sometimes my head spins at the expected industriousness of a traditional Swedish summer. “I can tell that you are not just a writer,” my masseuse says when she examines my arms and hands during my one hour of true holiday at her massage bed.
My husband keeps threatening to take us to Corsica next year and offer up our little piece of Swedish paradise to visitors who like fixing burst pipes. Still, I cling to my traditional Swedish island summer and often wonder why. One of Sweden’s leading wilderness experts once told me that he had chosen his vocation of teaching people how to survive in adverse conditions, because he thought that it could solve many of society’s problems. “If the lights go out, no one knows what to do any more – people feel dependent, even helpless”, he said. Perhaps it is this dimension of a traditional Swedish island summer that has so many of us coming back feeling strong. As I throw my soiled bulbs into my shoulder satchel, I will give it some more thought.
If you love DIY the traditional way, a half day at Gysinge Centrum för Bygnadsvård could interest you. Here you can learn everything you ever wanted to about fixing up a Swedish home the painstaking way with old bits and bobs and expertise that you will have a hard time finding elsewhere.