August in Sweden: drinking shots, sinking ships and stinking fish

The Year in Sweden - August: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

August in Sweden: drinking shots, sinking ships and stinking fish

The moon is bloated but nights are now dark. Some warmth remains and in fortunate years, one evening will be chosen to spread outdoor trestle-tables with paper tablecloths, get out the paper lanterns and plot the crayfish party! Here, hearty indulgence in hard liquor is actually encouraged.

The kräftor (freshwater crustaceans, crayfish, mudbug, crawdad) are boiled, steeped in dill and brine, then sucked and devoured. Flimsy paper hats are put on and ditties are sung. The short, pithy drinking songs, unique to Sweden and Swedish-speaking Finland, are the nation’s living poetry: every year new songs crop up to be remembered and repeated at next year’s parties. The song canon tends to the farcical. And what a joy it is to witness one’s normally reserved acquaintances, now giggling and tipsy, shouting risqué doggerel.

Drinking habits at crayfish parties mirror the nation’s: a few people get plastered but most drink at a tacitly agreed pace. Aficionados take as much care as winemakers in flavouring grain or potato vodka with herbs and spices such as horseradish or roasted fennel seeds. Or forest fruits like rosehip, lingonberries and blueberries.

The third Thursday in August is the unofficial opening of the fermented herring season. This is Baltic herring soaked in lactic acid and packed in cans that literally bulge with odorous gases (hydrogen sulfide, butyric acid, etc.). Some airlines won’t let you pack the tins because of the pressurisation issue but the tins don’t actually explode.

Because the Baltic Sea is brackish, not saline, northern Sweden used to lack easy access to salt. Innovation was needed to preserve food. Pickling, curing and drying are still widely used. The herring was sealed in barrels left outdoors for the spring sun to heat. Statistically, heat would spark the process in mid-April. Eight weeks later, trucks would load the cans and speed out from the salting-house gates promptly by the third Thursday in August. State control over the quality of foodstuffs turned into an excuse for a big party.

Thin filets of innocent-seeming but pungent fish are spread on prime hard bread. Chopped raw onion and boiled almond potato as company. Purists drink milk.

On 10 August 1628, the pride of the Swedish navy, the warship Vasa, sank in Stockholm’s harbour. She was on her maiden voyage, overloaded with cannon and 500 sculptures, including 60 of lions. King Gustavus Adolphus had ordered extra cannon, making the ship unstable. At the seaworthiness trial, crewmen ran from one side of the ship to the other, but the test was quickly called off because the ship was pitching so violently. Who would tell the King? Apparently no one did, because the ship went down only a few hundred metres from its launching place. Shock or embarrassment erased the memory of the shipwreck site until a lone researcher found it 333 years later. The world’s only surviving 17th-century ship, now battling only wood-eating sulphuric acid build-up, rests inside a world-class museum in Stockholm harbour with 25 million visitors at last count.

At the end of the month or the beginning of September, the annual measurement is made of Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise. Because the peak of the currently 2,111 metre-high mountain is glacier, global warming is whittling it down — it is currently 20 metres lower than when first measured. Kebnekaise is the jewel of Sarek National Park, one of 28 protected parks. Sweden was the first country in Europe to have them. And August is prime time on the hiking trails. But watch out, by the end of the month thunder and gales are ready to pounce.

By the last week of the month, schools are again filled with the eager, the reluctant and all their friends. A new academic year has begun.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.

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How a rental car shortage in Europe could scupper summer holiday plans

After long months of lockdowns and curfews Europeans are looking forward to jetting off for a bit of sun and sand -- only to find that their long awaited holiday plans go awry due to a shortage of rental cars.

How a rental car shortage in Europe could scupper summer holiday plans
Tourists wait outside of rental car agencies in Corsica. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

In many areas popular with tourists cars are simply not available or subcompacts are going for a stiff €500 euros.

Car rental comparison websites show just how expensive renting a vehicle has become for tourists this summer.

According to Carigami, renting a car for a week this summer will set tourists back an average of 364 euros compared to 277 euros two years ago.

For Italy, the figure is 407 euros this summer compared to 250 euros in 2019. In Spain, the average cost has jumped to 263 euros from 185 euros.

According to another website, Liligo, daily rental costs have nearly doubled on the French island of Corsica. At the resort city of Palma on the Spanish island of Mallorca, rental prices have nearly tripled.

Today’s problem is a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Faced with near absence of clients, selling off vehicles to raise cash made a lot of sense for car rental firms struggling to survive.

“Everyone drastically reduced their fleet,” said the head of Europcar, Caroline Parot.

Until the spring, most companies still had fleets roughly a third smaller than in 2019, she said.

Car rental firms are used to regularly selling their vehicles and replacing them, so rebuilding their inventory should not have been a problem.

Except the pandemic sent demand for consumer electronics surging, creating a shortage of semiconductors, or chips, that are used not only in computers but increasingly in cars.

“A key contributor to the challenge right now is the global chip shortage, which has impacted new vehicle availability across the industry at a time when demand is already high,” said a spokesman for Enterprise.

It said it was working to acquire new vehicles but that in the mean time it is shifting cars around in order to better meet demand.

No cars, try a van

“We’ve begun to warn people: if you want to come to Italy, which is finally reopening, plan and reserve ahead,” said the head of the association of Italian car rental firms, Massimiliano Archiapatti.

He said they were working hard to meet the surge in demand at vacation spots.

“But we’ve got two big islands that are major international tourism destinations,” he said, which makes it difficult to move cars around,
especially as the trip to Sardinia takes half a day.

“The ferries are already full with people bringing their cars,” he added.

“Given the law of supply and demand, there is a risk it will impact on prices,” Archiapatti said.

The increase in demand is also being seen for rentals between individuals.

GetAround, a web platform that organises such rentals, said it has seen “a sharp increases in searches and rentals” in European markets.

Since May more than 90 percent of cars available on the platform have been rented on weekends, and many have already been booked for much of the summer.

GetAround has used the surge in demand to expand the number of cities it serves.

For some, their arrival can’t come fast enough.

Bruno Riondet, a 51-year-old aeronautics technician, rents cars to attend matches of his favourite British football club, Brighton.

“Before, to rent a car I was paying between 25 and 30 euros per day. Today, it’s more than 90 euros, that’s three times more expensive,” he said.

In the United States, where prices shot higher during the spring, tourists visiting Hawaii turned to renting vans.

In France, there are still cars, according to Jean-Philippe Doyen, who handles shared mobility at the National Council of Automobile Professionals.

“Clients have a tendency to reserve at the last minute, even more so in the still somewhat uncertain situation,” he said.

They will often wait until just a few days before their trip, which means car rental firms don’t have a complete overview of upcoming demand, he added.

He said business is recovering but that revenue has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels as travel is not yet completely unfettered.

SEE ALSO: British drivers will no longer need an insurance ‘green card’ to visit Europe, EU rules