Eskil, an old chap with a tidy haircut and a tightly clipped beard, is leaning against his small illicit alcohol still in his garage, cackling as he tells his story about his best friend, Erik.
“It was day three of our session in the middle of summer four years ago. When the sun doesn’t go down you must drink! Erik had drunk so much hembränt he just fell into his own barrel of vodka. It took four of us to drag him out.”
Eskil takes his glasses off and wipes the tears of laughter from his eyes.
“He was shouting at us as we pulled him out. ‘Let me go, let me go, it’s the way I want to die.’ He wanted to drown in his own chateau de garage. Of course, his wife was very angry. She said he smelled of potato vodka for weeks after. She even made him sleep in the barn for a day or two once he’d gotten rid of the still. She claims he hasn’t touched alcohol since.”
“But I know better, of course…”
The northern Swedes’ relationship with alcohol is complex, probably more so than in the south, where the younger generation at least, are far more bar-‘literate’.
They may still have that northern European tendency to binge drink but they’re not repressed or ashamed to admit they like a tipple. Up north, at least in the rural areas, it’s a whole different ball game.
Donna and I greeted the state-run alcohol store monopoly Systembolaget’s recent announcement that it is to trial a home delivery service with excitement.
Our nearest Systemet is an hour’s drive away. Where we lived in London our nearest off-licence was a 30-second-walk away. Or a one-minute drunken stumble. A delivery service would be great news for us.
But our neighbours in the village don’t seem to be so enthusiastic about Systembolaget’s plan.
We’ve hosted three dinners now and alcohol has not featured even once. We’ve offered our guests beer or wine but each time our offer has been rebuffed, although we’re pretty sure that at least one of our guests was keen on the idea of a glass of wine. But she bowed to peer pressure and reluctantly refused when everyone else said, “Oh no, water is fine.”
Our impression is that the idea of Systembolaget home deliveries simply adds another dimension to the potential for alcohol embarrassment up north. What if people start talking about the fact that you get weekly deliveries? Will they think you have a problem? Can’t they wrap up the delivery truck in a huge brown paper bag?
One of our English friends up here says that she gets odd looks from her neighbours when she suggests a gin and tonic at 5 in the afternoon.
“I think the northern Swedes’ attitude to alcohol is a little like the English attitude to recreational drugs. If we enjoyed a joint we wouldn’t light up the minute we crossed the threshold of someone’s house for the first time. So it is with northern Swedes and alcohol. They need to get to know you before they’ll drink with you.”
This reticence is crazy, of course. Anyone with eyes knows that northern Swedes like their drink.
At around 11pm on Midsommarafton this year, we took a drive round the village in which we had rented our first house. It was like a scene from US zombie drama The Walking Dead, with people of both sexes and all ages doing that strange, stiff-legged, weaving shuffle of the paralytically drunk. I’ve never seen that many people so utterly drunk in the UK – not even in Glasgow.
Back at the still in Eskil’s garage, the friendly retired engineer offers me a taste of his product. It’s surprisingly good. Does he sell it?
“No, it’s only for me and a couple of my friends. It’s a dying art. It takes too much time and alcohol isn’t so expensive anymore. I think maybe in 10 years there will be no more stills here.”
After I thank him for his time and, for probably the tenth time, promise not to reveal his real name or whereabouts, I turn to walk back to my car. As I open the door to my car Eskil calls to me:
“You know, I don’t think Erik fell into his vodka. I think he jumped in to escape his wife!”
And with that, he hoots with laughter again and slaps his thigh.