A celebration of the longest day

There are two very important times of year in Sweden. One is the time of longest dark, and the other is the time of longest light. Both are celebrated with eating, drinking (and drinking), good company and the playing out of traditions that have long outlasted explanations. And, generally, joy.
We’ve been marking the lengthening of days for some time now, noticing that when we’re walking home late/early at night that the sun never properly sets, leaving the sky a hazy blue even down here out of sight of the Arctic circle. As of last week the balance tipped, and from now on the darkness with get darker and longer until we won’t be able to imagine relaxing in the sun on our balcony at 10:30pm.
A sad thought indeed. However before we and the rest of Sweden let ourselves dwell on that we all have a celebration. The day of longest light*, in which we eat, drink, enjoy good company, dance and admire a large somewhat phallic pole.

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

Midsummer! Or to be more precise, Midsummer’s Eve. Being the good little Swedish residents that we are, we had a picnic planned at Slottskogen, where we had celebrated the day last year. Loaded up with food, drink and a bbq we met our friends at the park and were soon settling in for an afternoon of merriment. There was cider, the lighting and subsequent going out of the bbq, napping in the sun and eating, which are fairly typical of any picnic. Slightly atypically for us, more or less the whole picnic was also in Swedish, which was the lingua franca between us and our Czech friends.
As we chatted and ate, the sun played hide and seek above us and we joked that the Summer had finally arrived during the warm patches of sunlight, and was replaced by Autumn as the clouds covered the sky. By looking to the north we could even see if we might get another moment of Summer and once past watch as it eventually drifted over the horizon. Though it had been nicer last year, we reminded ourselves in true Göteborsk fashion that it could always be worse.

After a few hours had passed, people began to gather around the garlanded pole set in the middle of the grass. Closer up we could see the two loops hanging from the cross piece, yellow and blue flowers tucked among the green foliage. Our attention was soon taken by the movements of the crowd, who began to spin in circles, some with three people and some with as many as 40. On a stage fiddlers, flutists and singers called out instructions and belted out the traditional songs. Among the crowds people in traditional costumes lead the dances, demonstrating the claps and kicks and leading their circles in twisting snake like lines, all while singing along. Many of those not in costume also seemed to know the words, and I can only assume that part of every Swedish child’s education involves learning the song about the drunk shoemaker, the one about the various pigs that you and I are, how to clean the house before going to church and of course the frog song.

Dancing crowds

Dancing crowds

I asked my mum about this, and her response would have been matched by everyone else on the field, which was that of course we sing songs about animals and drunk shoemakers. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, when we forget about the staidness of everyday life and give ourselves over to dancing, laughing and making fish noises. That is tradition after all; something we do as a group, that defines us and keeps us together, despite whatever silliness anyone else may think about it.

The young folk dancers leading the way

The young folk dancers leading the way

After at least an hour the dancing was over and the professionals took to the field. Most looked to be over 60 but were as spry as anything, and definitely knew what they were doing. They twirled, skipped and clapped to the applause of the crowd, with steps that I hope they’ll pass on to the other, younger costumed folk. There were no songs about animals, but rather folk jigs and reels that got your foot tapping and conjured images of an idyllic and possibly imaginary rural past, all green fields, mooing cows, clean kirtles and neatly ordered hedges.
As we had watched, we found a couple of friends in the crowd and spent the rest of the long patch of sunlight chatting and enjoying icecream as the light began to fade.

Before too long it was time to pack up, but before we went home we paid a visit to the animals on the hill. The first that we saw was an elk, lying down by a fence and not looking all that well. We were amazed as usual by its size and strange combination of elegance and ungainliness. We also saw the deer, ducks, swans, geese, goats and ponies, most of whom seemed to be trying to get some sleep despite the light and visitors.
As 9:30 passed and a sunset bloomed overhead we headed to the tram stop, hugging and waving our friends goodbye before stepping on our own tram and making our way home.

Another Midsummer’s Eve done, half the year has past and the lengthening of days has begun, at least until the next tipping of the balance in the dark of winter.

*Technically the celebrations don’t always take place on the solstice, and the dates are adapted each year to make a long weekend. It’s usually within a week of the solstice though.

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Blooms and brews

It’s sunny and warm and unseen birds are chirping. Time seems to pass slowly, perhaps because of the long summer days that last through midnight. I usually write the first draft of a post in a notebook, finding a cozy place to sit and wait for the ideas to come. As I write this draft, I can smell the earthy, sour scent of tomato leaves and warm soil. Along the window sill sits a line of pots of all sizes, containing plants of various shades of green sprouting or lolling about. Though I’ve recently been to a night of obscure and worldly music, a speech about cultural appropriation, seen Sweden open up in the summer sun and learnt more about teaching, I’d like this latest post to be closer to home.

Young tomatoes in the sun

Young tomatoes in the sun

Many of the plants to my right are looking less than healthy, the lower leaves stained and wilted beneath newer, greener leaves. These are all tomato plants that I grew from seeds, carefully watering and weathering until I thought them tough enough to brave the outside weather. Unfortunately, they weren’t all quite ready and all but one are now inside again. Little yellow blossoms tell me that this was the right move, though whether I get food out of them is another thing. According to google all I need to do to help with pollination is give them a little shake every day, which for some obscure reason is a bit of a relief.

Tomato flowers

Tomato flowers

In between the tomato plants are covered plastic growing boxes with seeds that I planted two weeks ago. The cress has been growing like a weed, leaning purposefully towards the sun and already tasting sharply peppery. Behind them are the nasturtium sprouts, which are popping up more ponderously and then quickly unfurling. Every day adds about a cm to each sprout, especially when there are blue skies and the sun is pouring in through the window.

New sprouts

New sprouts

Next to this container is a smaller one with only one sprout. They were planted at the same time as the tomatoes but seem somehow reticent. I’m tempted to poke about to see if they’re even trying. The one survivor is growing quickly though, and hopefully will pop out with a flower or two soon, and perhaps even some little, pinky-sized smultrons (wild strawberries).

At the same time, other living forces are underway in the spare room, getting on with a process as old as civilization. Brewing.
Two weeks ago my fella started creating what I’ll call generic beer, with the help of a friend who is much more knowledgeable than me about beer. Which isn’t all that difficult to achieve really. There was mixing, boiling, cooling, stirring, the adding of yeast and pouring, accompanied by the drinking of beer (to collect bottles for the brew) and much serious staring at the malty, hoppy mass. Some of the malt mash was used to make two excellent loaves of bread, thick crusty loaves that go down well with butter. The pre-beer is now bubbling away happily, along with the newest addition to the brew room.

Freshly baked beer bread

Freshly baked beer bread

This last weekend we spent a fair amount of time purchasing a juicer and 10 kilos of apples, and then lugging them home. Sadly I was able to eat none of the apples, as they were all put through the juicer to serve a higher purpose. Their juice is now frothing away, fermenting merrily into what I hope will become cider.

Frothy fermentation

Frothy fermentation

The next step is unclear, but mead, stout, lambic beer, wine and apple beer have been suggested. All I hope for is that when they’re done to our satisfaction we can have a sunny day to enjoy them, perhaps by the lake. If I’m very lucky there may even be a handful of cress, a couple of juicy tomatoes and nasturtium petals to mix into a salad. Or even a tiny, extremely sweet wild strawberry to savour as I sip our homemade cider in the fading summer light.

A room full of love

Many months ago, not very long after we’d arrived in Sweden, I found out about a school that I very much wanted to work at. I was at the time looking for relief teaching work, and sending my CV hither and thither in the hopes of finding something, anything.
I added an extra sentence to the email, and hoped that my enthusiasm if not my experience would attract someone’s notice. It did. I got an interview and soon found myself Englishing at ladies from all ages and backgrounds, coming in every few weeks or so to cover for sick leave or training.
In time I was asked to take over a class for the second half of a term, and then this year I was asked to take a class for a whole term. I obviously said yes to both, having grown to love the school, for opening its doors to me and for what it represented.

Fast forward a little to last Friday. The term is over, the last class has flown past (don’t forget the deadline for logbooks ladies!) and while for some this is a pause before getting back to the books next term, for others it’s the end. Graduation day. This term it includes not only many students, some of whom I have taught, but a teacher who has meant a lot to me.
There were no trucks or sailor hats for these women, but rather a party. It celebrated the ending of term, the beginning of the holidays, what had been achieved, who was leaving and what the school had come to mean to those who were a part of it. And love. A lot of that.

It started with one of the MCs stalking off in a huff. The huffer and huffee were students of mine, I was proud to see, and the huff obviously false. They did a quick costume change and then sashayed back into the room in a suit and a cheerleader outfit to pounding music. From there the party was launched, and the first order of business was to launch ourselves in good order at the smörgåstortor (sandwich cakes) along the sideboard, which had been made by one of the classes. They were all vegan and tastier than I would have thought, given the suspicion I have viewed them with in the past.
As myself and the other teachers and students stuffed ourselves with cake, a stool was set up at the front of the room. A young woman sat on it with a guitar and started to sing. She sang about friendship, surprises, learning and her experiences at the school. As she sang I looked to my left to see two teachers hugging as tears fell down their cheeks, and behind them the principal’s eyes were overflowing. When the song ended the room erupted, cheers rising and tears falling from all parts of the audience of 100 or so women. From that moment, if not before, we were all in it together.

The song for the school

The song for the school

What followed was 2 hours of dancing, poetry, speeches and films, the students and teachers performing to each other in turns.
A group of mostly Somali women did an interpretive song and dance with the theme of water.
The media class played 4 short films, about a feminist taxi making it’s rounds of town, a dreamy short about trans issues, a stop-motion raft almost capsizing and finally a music video for ‘I Will Always Love You.’ They ended the last video with a sing-along of the last chorus, accompanied by the rest of the room and with rainbow flags waving behind them.
‘Jag jävla älska dig’ (I f*****g love you) cried one of the MCs as they sat down. There were many hugs.
Teachers impersonated each other and then famous feminists to huge applause and laughter, the principal at one point upstaging one of the teachers with an uncanny impersonation of her which she didn’t at first clock on to. Marie Curie/the science teacher impressed us all with some flashy test tube tricks, and was followed by speeches from Frida Kahlo, Simone de Bauvoir, Emmeline Pankhurst, Emma Goldman and others.

Audience and bunting

Audience and bunting

One teacher called us cracks in the wall, inheritors of those that had brought down the Berlin Wall, and told us to never give up.
Then a student blew us all away with her story. She went on stage bedecked in bright blue robes and shimmering jewellry, telling us that from the time she was a child she had been by teachers that she couldn’t achieve what she wanted, and told by her mother to keep doing what she needed regardless of what anyone said. In SFI (the free Swedish course all immigrants do) the teacher expressed disbelief that she got the highest marks. No, she said, I will show you that I am more than you think. She switched languages and belted out ‘Still I Rise‘ by Maya Angelou, bringing yet more deafening cheers and tears to the room.
A poem was performed in Farsi and a song sung in Swedish by another student, who lead a group of students and teachers in a singing line, encouraging them all to launch into a second performance with much enthusiasm.
Soon after my class performed their disconnected, collected lines of poetry, and one of them, who had been one of the most nervous of my students took part in an energetic flashmob dance.
The party was now drawing to a close, and before it ended the singer from the beginning was called back onto stage for an encore. There were fewer laughs and tears this time, but at the last line love and applause rocked around the room to calls for it to become the official song of the school.

After which the principal tore up her prepared speech, declaring that nothing she could have prepared could possibly follow what had come before. She told us that this day, these experiences, were knots that we would tie on the pack that we all carried with us, strengthening it and marking a stage of our journey. Then we all joined together to clean up the room and the stage became a dance floor, Persian dance music thumping away as teachers and students twirled in a circle, taking turns shimmying in the centre. A woman in a wheelchair got an especially big applause as she was pulled on, and a few more eyes were full yet again.

The dance floor getting underway

The dance floor getting underway

I got hugs and flowers, thanking the teacher who was leaving who had first called me in and being thanked by a student for speaking up for her. I left hoping to be able to keep the feeling of the day intact. Perhaps by writing it down I’ll keep it alive, so that even if I never visit the community again, the feeling of love will never fade.

Old streets, new streets and art in Aarhus

The day dawned bright and directly into my face as we woke up for our day of exploring Aarhus. Out the window I could hear gulls cawing and pigeons cooing, the jazzy pigeon having returned, and miraculously the sky was mostly clear of clouds.

In the kitchen we made cheese toast and sipped tea and coffee while I planned the agenda for the day. A quick search revealed that, inexplicably, the two museums I was most interested in were closed on Saturdays. On Saturdays (There was another museum that I’ll have to return for, the Museum on Women’s History, which boasts this charming billboard).

A good thing about museums

A good thing about museums

In addition, the managers of the tourism office, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that the best time for the tourist office to be closed was weekends. The only logical conclusion I can draw from all of this is that the people of Aarhus are just not that interested in other people visiting their town.

Despite these setbacks, we hit the streets soon after for some history, and soon found it just down the street. Having found it, we followed the arrows located at random in the neighbouring Botanical Gardens until we found the entrance, which was exactly half-way around the enclosure.
You thought I was kidding about the anti-tourism thing, didn’t you?
Once we were inside, however, I felt willing to forgive Aarhus. Den Gamle By (The Old Town) is an open air museum, a familiar sight in Scandinavia. Someone in the past decided to gather houses from as early as the 1400s and as late as the 1970s, plonk them into the centre of Aarhus and fill them with antiques, re-enactors and exhibits. You wander the streets, nibbling traditional cakes, bumping into the pastor’s wife as she bustles around her small house, barely fitting through the doorways in her hooped skirt.

Old fashioned bakery

Old fashioned bakery

There were stilts that we tried out and raced on, horse drawn carriages that we took for a ride around the Botanical Gardens and geese that bullied anyone who crossed their paths. We explored for a few hours, looking into shops, watching people cooking in old fashioned kitchens, remarking on how many shards must have gathered on the apprentice glass-maker’s bed under the work bench.

Friendly carriage horses

Friendly carriage horses

We even found people making and selling beer in a cellar, getting around the liquor licensing laws by selling only the glasses that they promised would be filled up again the next time we visited. There was even a beer that I liked.
Soon after, before the glow of my astonishment and teensy bit of tipsiness had faded, we headed back out into the 21st century and to lunch.

After lunch (very tasty burgers) we went to the second most highly rated attraction in Aarhus; ARoS. From the outside it was a brick block with a circular glass rainbow on the roof, and smoke billowing out of a pipe on it’s side. Inside white staircases twisted up on either side of a large open space, designed to mirror Dante’s Inferno.

Inside ARoS

Inside ARoS

I’m not usually interested in modern art, because I don’t often understand it, but I was completely swept away by the contents of ARoS. I swung in a clear ball of a chair, deciphered writing on lighbulbs, walked under a corridor of spinning fans, through a room of swinging mirrors and glass that threw odd silhouettes on the thin cloth walls and a room showing four perspectives of a person diving into a pool, the water shooting up slowly in reverse on one and bubbles settling underwater on another.

Room of spinning mirrors

Room of spinning mirrors

Then we found the source of the smoke. Through glass doors was a room filled with white, smoke-machine smoke and lit in shifting pastels. We went in holding hands, even then were only able to see the shadows of each other through the dense clouds. Following the walls and voices we made our way back out and very nearly went back in again. It was disorienting and exciting, and summed up in a sense all of the experiences of art that I had at ARoS.

Having climbed up the staircases, we went onto the roof and circled the glass rainbow. As we walked, the panels gradually changed shades, though you could only tell the difference once you looked back. Aarhus went from blue to orangey-pink via green and yellow, it’s moods seeming to change along the way.

Aarhus from the rainbow

Aarhus from the rainbow

After a full circuit we descended to the basement where a corridor lead past rooms with projections of faceless men with groping hands, absurdist lounge-rooms, endless mirrored balconies and giant eggs with crying faces. I think I could have stood in the mirror room for longer than I did, staring at an eternity of myself, my face and the back of my head, but there was one more exhibit we had to see.

Up one floor from the basement sat the Boy, staring out at the room from over his arm. He is 4.5 metres tall and extremely realistic, from his wrinkled fiberglass toes to his thick mop of brown hair. Despite being so huge, the scuffed boyish elbows and defensive posture make him seem vulnerable, and I wonder what sort of impression we might have gotten had he been displayed in a smaller room, with his head nearly touching the ceiling.

Boy

Boy

There was another figure that seems to fool you with it’s realism in the museum, that of a living statue. Fooled by her soft looking skin, apparent skill and sensible sneakers under her dress, I put a couple of Danish crowns into her hat, only seeing as we were leaving the small plaque with the name of the statue and artist.

Not-so-living statue

Not-so-living statue

Having soaked our fill of art and history, we went to the Latin Quarter, where a festival was underway. Our host had told us that a street festival for multi-culturalism was going to be held on Saturday night, so we went to have a look and were soon lost in a crowd of boozy, partying Danes and other foreigners, following or swimming against the tide of party-goers. As Australia doesn’t have laws allowing drinking on the streets, this kind of thing was completely strange to me, but the relaxed, happy atmosphere went some way to convincing me that maybe drinking on the streets could work, if you can adopt the laidback Scandinavian attitude.
With the parentals in tow, and not really wanting to get stuck with giant plastic glasses of beer in the rain, we escaped down a side street and found a tiny wine bar. One of the two barmen gave us tastings and recommendations, and we settled in, sipping our glasses and warming up as the rain and wind continued outside. Then, once again hitting the streets, we went in search of food and had a very nice meal at a steakhouse. The red wine sauce was absolutely wonderful and not a trace of it remained on my fella’s plate by the end of the meal.

Glimpse of sun in Aarhus

Glimpse of sun in Aarhus

Fed, watered and footsore, we then walked back up the hill to the apartment, to sleep and prepare for the return to Sweden. The next day we breakfasted and packed, bussed to the station, boarded the train, changed trains, passed the fields of canola, arrived in Fredrikshavn, boarded my ship and bade goodbye to Denmark, for now.