Dancing around the Midsummer Pole

20130623-043344 em.jpg

I am often the only man dancing around the Midsummer Pole in our little village. This year we were three, though two of us looked like immigrants. But we’ve always got the same accordion player, and he is perfect.


the summer solstice and baby sleep intersect in sweden

Time and light get all mixed up in Daddyland.  Today is the summer solstice, and I just came in at 8pm from sitting in bright sunshine in our park, the sun not to fall for hours and hours yet.

My first summer in Sweden I could not sleep for the light, no matter whether the blinds were down, whether I had my eyes covered, my body just would not slow down until midnight and started waking up at 3 in the morning.

It was awful.

Spring is cold here, and this means the solstice has an edge.  It is only the beginning of summer, yet the light is already fading, bringing just the slightest hint of the winter darkness that looms mostly forgotten through late June and July (you start to remember with the first yellow leaves in August).  Yet it is still the beginning of summer, and we will be out in the country, even farther north, where it will be lighter than even today in Stockholm, and there will be blueberries and fishing and digging and sleeping.

Our children are curiously unaffected by the summer.  Last year NK was up to 9 each night, too wound up by the sun to get to sleep.  This year she asks to go to bed at 5, and is drifting off by 6:15, “so tired from running with Tilla all morning.”

And the baby has started sleeping through the night, which is a miracle, except that it is his definition of night.  He goes to bed at 6:30 himself.

And wakes up between 3:45 and 4:15, just like he always has, ready to play, in the darkest nights or now when the sun is already up.

I actually tried to cut out caffeine last week.  I felt it was making me jittery.

Huge mistake.  Never underestimate how tired a 4am wakeup makes you.

Now I am sleepy at 8:15 on the longest day of the year.  Once I would have stayed up late to celebrate, but I have my long days already, and the next one starts at 3:45 tomorrow morning.

a swedish lesson in noisy village

While we are in the country, NK watches only one DVD over and over on our old laptop – Alla vi Barn i Bullerbyn, or The Children of Noisy Village.  Well, for a while she did watch another DVD – the sequel, More of the Children of Noisy Village.  They are Astrid Lindgren stories, of course, because everything of deep significance to the Swedish soul comes from Astrid Lindgren, and I am only slightly exaggerating and a little joking. Both were directed by Lasse Hallström, who later directed Chocolat and The Cider House Rules.

The stories take place in Bullerbyn, three red and white farm houses tucked together in the Swedish countryside in the 1920s.  There are six older children, plus Kerstin, who is two and a half and only half a person, according to her brother Olle.  There is little plot and little danger.  The movies are exquisitely shot, capturing the northern light, with beautiful country music.  The acting is good too.

The first movie takes the kids through their summer vacation.  The sequel runs through the rest of the year.  This is about the balance in which Swedes live their lives.  Summer is all.

When E’s sister first saw our summer house, she said, “Just like Bullerbyn!”  We have six houses in a row, but they are all red and white and in a clearing in the forest that isolates us even from the small community surrounding us.  And then NK starts talking over the fence to the girl next door, with her little brother climbing up and making toddler noises.  They have already progressed to real talk from oddly hillarious parallel conversations and the passing of sticks and half-dead flowers.  And I see them in six years just like the kids of Bullerbyn.

What I find interesting about the Bullerbyn movies is that they are essentially crash courses in what it means to be Swedish – here are the Midsummer legends, this is when you catch crayfish, this is what you eat for Christmas, this is how the farming seasons go.  Lindgren wrote them in the 1960s just as Sweden was turning into an urban, industrialized power, and I imagine this was half the point – to teach the urban kids about the lost world of their parents and grandparents.

And I realize that we can not do the same thing in America.  There simply is too much diversity of holidays and what you eat at Thanksgiving and landscape and language, no way to write what is essentially a guidebook on being American.   Or can we?  Is it on TV now?  Are we that boring and bland?  What does it mean to be an American kid?  Or does it remain some spirit or attitude that is harder to define, just in the air somehow?

a globalized, not midsummer, swedish baby boom

Traditionally, there are lots of Swedish babies born in late March, about nine months after Midsummer, that night of parties and dancing deep into the long, long Swedish summer night.  It is a holiday born of the seasons and the light and rooted in thousands of years of tradition.

But Sweden has a new baby boom month.  August.  Why August?  According to an article in Metro, in Swedish, it is due to winter vacations in Thailand.

Couples head to Thailand desperate for sun and to escape the Swedish dark winter.  And the sun, the time off and a beer on the beach are perfect for baby making, according to a top maternity official at a Stockholm hospital.

It is a serious baby boom too, with hospitals taking on extra staff.  There are 300 more births predicted for this August than last at the hospital where our son was born.

However, spring still reigns, meaning Midsummer does.

And, if I think about it, a Thailand trip is sort of an anti-Midsummer, an equally strong primal response to the swing of seasons in the far north.

climate change in the butterfly house

Over Midsummer weekend, I took NK to the Butterfly House, a tropical oasis on the grounds of a Swedish castle, filled with butterflies, fish, lizards, birds, and glowing black and green frogs. It is also a 20-minute walk from our apartment and one of the only places in Sweden open every day, holiday weekends included.

NK loves it, while I tremble a bit, because she always ends up overheated and hungry, running without end, and I always end up carrying a screaming child out into the cold.

Well, turns out they had a power outage at the butterfly house, and even in the cold Swedish summer, that meant that the sun baked through the greenhouse roof.

Plants got scorched, and butterflies died. Lots of them.

NK still loved it, though she got a little bored, which may have been due to the lack of butterflies. On the other hand, a fish tried to eat her finger, and, well, that is hard to beat.

Meanwhile, I stretched a metaphor as I chased her around. I care about climate change deeply. I really do. But, way back there, there is the thought – my children and grandchildren will likely live in Sweden or the United States. These are rich places that will adjust and cope. The world will let the Maldives slide under the sea. It will not let New York City slide under the sea.

But the margins will be thinner, won’t they? Kind of like living in a butterfly house. Everything has been adjusted to allow these delicate butterflies to thrive suspiciously close to the Arctic Circle. But they need the electricity to make it work.

With climate change, even the richest of people will need metaphorical electricity to make their lives work.

And the electricity can go out.

midsummer – then and now

We decided to stay in town this Midsummer, perhaps the most Swedish of days, what with rain to the north at the new summer house and no invitations to speak of this year.

So on the most Swedish of days, when we celebrate the sun and dance around the Midsummer pole and are supposed to eat lots of potatoes and herring and drink schnapps by the midnight sun, this was our day.

Hotel breakfast at the mall. Long aimless walk through our neighborhood. Lunch at Max, Sweden’s answer to In-N-Out Burger. Strawberries and oat ice cream with soy whipped cream (NK is allergic to milk and egg). Bedtime as the cool rain begins to fall.

But we’ve done Midsummer right. On my first Midsummer in Sweden, five years ago, I had about the most traditional holiday possible.

And, luckily, I already wrote about it for the Boston Globe in 2005.

Here are the first couple paragraphs.

HUDIKSVALL, Sweden — Summer in Sweden should be a kaleidoscope of colors in a bewitching northern light. Last summer, however, was a succession of damp, gray days, save for the green grass in the fields and meadows.
more stories like this

So on June 25, with intermittent fog obscuring the countryside, a group composed mostly of Swedes drove up the Baltic coast, the car full of home-baked breads and potato dishes with names like Jansson’s Temptation. They waited on a lonely dock outside this town, about 160 miles north of Stockholm. It was almost 10 p.m., though the overcast sky remained light, when two small boats glided out of the sea mist.

Lars-Ake Asell, 58, a financial controller from Gävle, a city about halfway between Stockholm and Hudiksvall, greeted the group from one of the boats and helped load their backpacks for the journey to the island of Olmen.

After easing through almost 2 miles of calm seas, the boats entered a cove ringed by a cluster of small red cottages with white trim. The Swedes marveled at the authenticity of the cottages, a return to the 1950s, with musty wool blankets, sturdy wooden furniture, no electricty, and a portrait of the king in the outhouse.

This is a perfect place for Midsummer’s Eve, they said.

Now if only the sun would shine. The next morning, for the first time seemingly in weeks, it did.

From beyond the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of their long country, Swedes flee their cities on Midsummer’s Eve to celebrate the longest days of the year, the return of the sun after its winter death. They gather around maypoles to dance and sing, to feast with family and friends, and to pick wildflowers and dream of love.

the freedom of not going to the country

We own a summer house now, which seems so posh that I keep thinking up new Facebook status updates then rejecting them out of a fear of looking snobby.

And the house will really pay off this Midsummer weekend. Because we are not going to it.

It is so beautiful. It is supposed to rain this weekend, and we do not want to be stuck inside, with bags and boxes to organize, unable to do the dishes or go to the bathroom without getting soaked in cold drizzle (the house has no water inside).

So we are choosing the comforts of home. Happily.

Now without the summer house, Midsummer in Solna would have been a confining, dreary affair. We would have stressed about where to go, stressed about having nowhere to go, felt trapped by our lack of network, all that.

That is all gone. We could always hop on a train north to the house, to family. We just choose not to. We can go next week.

And with a seven-week Swedish summer holiday thanks to the Swedish state and its world-best parental leave policies, we will.