March in Sweden: Slush, bears and skiing royals

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

March in Sweden: Slush, bears and skiing royals
Prince Carl Philip skiing in the Vasaloppet race in 2004. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

A transition month, long on slush. Step outside in fine shoes at your own risk. But day and night hours will return to equilibrium about the 20th, and winter’s agonies are forgotten at the first sighting of yellow coltsfoot in a roadside ditch. By the end of the month, the crocus appears in the south. Crocuses don’t grow wild but almost every garden has them. This is a country poorly suited to gardening because of the temperature swings and short growing season, but everyone with a patch of land tries. Almost a hundred years ago, cities began setting aside plots for factory-working families to plant flowers and watch real grass grow. The huts on these allotments are legally limited in size to prevent their use as dwellings.

Bears are in their last month of hibernation (no, there are no polar bears in Sweden) but deer can occasionally be seen in city suburbs, nibbling at early tulip bulbs.

Long-distance or tour skaters are still plying the archipelagos, where virgin ice too thin to stand on will support you if you’re moving fast enough. Skaters say the ice will sing its thickness, warning you of danger, but it’s still safer earlier in the winter when the ice is sturdier. The hardest part must be the test dip: skaters’ clubs sometimes ask prospective members to jump into freezing water so they can practise getting out. Skaters carry a pair of ice prods on a string around their necks, handy for gripping the ice in case of a dunk; dry clothes in plastic bags can also serve as flotation devices. Once in the water, you’ve got 20 minutes at most. Ice-skating originated in Scandinavia about a thousand years ago, when some unnamed genius came up with the idea of tying polished bone to footwear.

Outdoor exercise, particularly in winter, underpins the population’s good health. The global battle between the couch and the great outdoors is being fought here too, although the toughening effect of a winter climate serves Sweden well. Almost everyone has at least stood on skis by the time they reach adulthood.

The pinnacle event of the skiing year is not a high-purse race involving slalom brand names but the world’s oldest mass ski race, the Vasaloppet, on the first Sunday of March. If there’s no snow, they’ll manufacture it. More than 4,000 skiers from dozens of countries compete. The race covers the 90 kilometres separating the towns of Sälen and Mora, recalling the 1521 flight of the renegade Gustav Vasa, later king, from Denmark’s Kristian. Kristian was known as ‘the Tyrant’ in Sweden but not in Denmark. Vasaloppet is a world-renowned event and a male rite of passage. The starting gun brings to life a mobile mosaic of thousands of battling skis and ski poles. Wool-covered heads bow to the snow and shoot like shotgun pellets into the forest. King Carl Gustaf and his son Prince Phillip have done the race, presumably both for its iconic thrill and to honour its royal history.

The monarchy enjoys continued popular support. But Swedish monarchs are restricted to opening bridges and parliament, with less power than any other European royal heads of state. The current royal dynasty is relatively young — in 1810 the government needed a replacement king sharper with money than the old one, and offered the throne to a wealthy French field marshal, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (aka King Karl XIV Johan). Paradoxically, some of the world’s most stable democracies are the monarchies of northern Europe.

Article written in 2010. The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale at the AdLibris online bookstore.

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May in Sweden: A nation back in bloom

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

May is the Month of Flowers. The white wood anemone shyly spreads across the forest floor and the lily of the valley (voted Sweden’s most popular flower) shelters near sun-warmed rocks. Mirroring the voters’ love for nature, all six major political parties (save one) have flowers as emblems. Technically, the Greens’ dandelion is a weed. The Social Democrats long ago branded the First of May as their own. Their polite demonstrations troop the streets and speeches echo across squares.

For an overtly secular country, Sweden’s calendar is wildly religious. May begins with Ascension Day, which jokesters call Fly Away Jesus Day (Kristiflygare). Nine of 13 public holidays are religious. Keeping holidays — the more obscure the better — is a link to the physical past that the future will need. Sweden has been Christian since the 12th century, although travelling monks from the British Isles had been proselytizing earlier.

Just less than three quarters of the population still formally belong to the Swedish Lutheran Church. Until 2000, the Church was part of the state administration and was a repository of census data. Churches are admired mostly from the outside until Christmas rolls around. Religious gender roles are changing: 25 percent of Lutheran priests and most theology students are women.

Despite Sweden’s secular style, church weddings are popular (46 percent of the total), and the prime time for nuptials is Pentecost or Whitsun week. On the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to inspire the apostles and, apparently, weddings in Sweden. The ceremonies are scheduled to suit ever-extending families, but principally to catch the best weather.

Name changes are common, at one stage even officially encouraged. Until the mid-1800s, family surnames were mostly for the middle and upper classes while the peasants named their sons and daughters ‘Gunnar, son of Sven’ or Gunnar Svensson. Girls? ‘Anna, son of Sven’ — we’re talking pre-gender-equality. Statisticians, an influential group, complained that there were too many Svenssons and Anderssons to cope with. The rural middle classes took names from the nature around them, cutting and pasting: birch, rock, stream, branch, lake, bear, twig, island, falcon, etc. Occasionally, the mix will be an oxymoron: Mountainbeach, Seamountain or Firleaf. Johansson is the most common name, although Swedes refer to themselves as ‘Svenssons’ and Svensson is apparently the name most commonly used by couples booking hotel rooms for illicit love.

If you’ve been shopping around for a new home, chances are you bought it last month, in April, the spring peak of the housing market. Realtors like to wait for the most flattering light. Real estate purchases are fast and furious, so by May you’re probably ready to visit Ikea. The ubiquitous Ikea. A biblically huge print run for its catalogue, a major exporter of Swedish food to feed its restaurants, etc. Ikea has a central roost in the nation’s psyche. It’s a global success sprung from the callouses of a plain-spoken country guy. It’s a simple story and a source of pride. But people resent Ikea’s domination of the national design aesthetic. And rubbing salt in that resentment is that we all use it.

This is the time of year when people rediscover the joy of sitting outdoors with a cookie and a glass of classic fruit squash. The pleasure is so seductive that a Japanese marathon runner, suffering heat exhaustion, once broke off a race to join a Stockholm family relaxing under a tree in their garden. That was during the 1912 Olympic marathon. Ashamed to rejoin his team, Shizō Kanaguri slunk back to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He returned to Stockholm in 1966 to finish the distance. These days, the Stockholm marathon is run in late May or early June.

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