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JUly 1, 2004 -> Midsummer Swedish Style

The Blidosund was a beautiful old steamer. Built in 1911, she had for many decades chugged her way along the Swedish coast. Long outpaced by faster ferries, the Blidosund was now the choice of unhurried passengers who savored the nostalgia of the ponderous, gentle journey from Stockholm through the myriad islands of the northern archipelago. The coal-fired furnace released steam in three distinct puffs that sounded remarkably like the drum beat in Queen's “We Will Rock You.” Instead of plastic bumpers, the Blidosund hsad wooden posts that dangled from the railings. The interior was all varnished wood and polished metal. Down below, a tattooed old sea-dog, his shirtsleeves rolled up above his elbows, shoveled coal into the furnace. Slow and stately, the Blidosund was pure class.

The Swedish Archipelago comprises more than 24,000 islands, though many are just tiny, rocky shoals that the Swedes call ‘skerries.' The islands are larger and forested near Stockholm , but as one travels north or out to sea, they become smaller and barren. We were heading north through the archipelago to the small port of Graddo – Stefan and Annette's holiday cottage was just a short drive from there. Once out of Stockholm , the Blidosund turned to port and began charting a sinuous path between the mainland and hundreds of offshore islands. The Archipelago is beautiful but extremely disorienting: it is impossible to tell where one island ends and other begins. Many islands are large enough to be mistaken for the mainland, and only an expert navigator (or owner of a GPS) could make sense of the Archipelago marine charts, which resemble nothing so much as a random collection of large and small green blotches on a blue background.

Swedes had built holiday homes on many of the islands near the mainland. These were not expensive or ostentatious ‘Tahoe Ski Chalets' or ‘Homes in the Hamptons ,' but modest, wooden cottages. Most were painted red with white trim; the avant garde chose yellow with white; those with Finnish sympathies a darker pallet. It was delight to see a large, wooded island with just one, or perhaps two of these cute cottages. During the week, most of the homes were empty; during the winter, very few were used at all; but during that sunny midsummer weekend, every home looked occupied. And these holiday homes were not only for the super-rich. Many had been ‘in the family' for several generations. As Stefan said, “You would have to be desperate to sell your family holiday home.”

It was pure serendipity that we had arrived just before one of Sweden 's best-loved holidays. The Midsummer Festival celebrates the longest of the already long Scandinavian summer days. This year, however, it was a cruel reminder that summer had only just started. A short walk from Graddo's marina brought us to a large clearing where the festivities were to be held. Tractors trundled around the town, picking up local children and transporting them to the meadow in trailers festooned with leafy sprigs and balloons. We were somewhat surprised to see people of so many different backgrounds: African, Asian, and Middle-Eastern faces blended in with the more traditional blue-eyed Swedes. When the Blidosund docked at Graddo, the first person that we saw was a little black boy riding towards us on his bicycle.

The most important tradition of Midsummer is the raising of the May Pole, which looks like a leafy cross holding two wreaths from its ‘arms.' When I asked Stefan and Annette why the Swedes called it the May Pole (it was late June) they were stumped. Thankfully for them, the traditionally-clad emcee gave an explanation not long after. ‘May' actually comes from an old Scandinavian word meaning ‘dressed' or ‘decorated.' Before the pole is raised, people gather to decorate the pole with plants, flowers, and ribbons. Stefan and I helped raise and fix the May Pole, a difficult job made nearly impossible by gusting winds. Then the people formed two concentric rings around the May Pole and began to sing and dance. Everyone was having a great time. The children especially loved the “Frog Song,” where they imitated animals (leaping frogs, bouncing rabbits etc.) as they danced around the pole. Like most holidays, Midsummer also entails large amounts of food and drink.

Scandinavian food has an unjustly bad reputation. The cuisine does tend to focus on stodgy fare - this is meat and potatoes country – but fresh seafood and vegetables also feature prominently. Pickled herring may sound terrible, but it tastes great, especially when slathered in garlic or curry mayonnaise. ‘Knackebrod' – a dry, crisp bread – looks and feels like perforated cardboard, but is the perfect base for the open-faced sandwiches that all Scandinavians love. After just a week in the country, even Nori was beginning to find shrimp cheese paste on knackebrod quite a tasty combination. Stefan and Annette had prepared a lavish spread for our Midsummer lunch: a fish and gelatin mold called ‘aladob,' several different kinds of pickled herring, smoked salmon, flavorful cheeses, knackebrod, a number of food tubes, and of course, schnapps.

They call it ‘snapps' in Sweden – without the ‘sh' sound. It is also without the fruit or candy flavoring. Instead, Swedish snapps is flavored primarily with herbs and spices. There is a history to this: in the past, alcohol infused with herbs was seen as medicinal. It is a Midsummer tradition to have snapps with the big meal. Stefan had bought a package of twelve sample-sized bottles for us to try. A few were quite tasty: flavored with cumin or anise. But one bore an undesirable similarity to the foul German “Jagermeister,” and another – Piratens Besk – was infused with St. John's Wort, and tasted absolutely vile. I hope it cured or prevented something.

Stefan and Annette's holiday home was small and cozy. In the back was an almost unbearably cute guest cabin painted in the same style: yellow with white trim. “But I want to paint it red,” complained Annette. The surrounding forest felt familiar and welcoming; the plants and animals of the Swedish countryside are almost identical to that of my hometown in Idaho . We ate, drank, talked and slept in; it was wonderful. Each night after dinner, we would watch a Euro 2004 soccer match. Sweden had been playing well, and had a chance to make it all the way, but lost to the Dutch on penalty kicks. One day we went for a boat ride in Stefan's aluminum launch. It was wonderful to see everyone enjoying the good weather. People were preparing brunch on their patios, leaping into the water from rocks and piers, reading books in the sunlight, tinkering with their sailboats, or fishing for whitebait. It had been a great Midsummer weekend.