Sweden, Part I: Fika, Midsommar

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I’m excited to share with you, stories from my trip to Sweden and Spain! I had been looking forward to this trip for soooo long. Months. Probably a full year, actually!

Earlier this summer I went to visit my dear friend, Linda. I met Linda while studying in the South of France in 2013, and we made a pact to try and meet up annually, or close to, and to host each other. Last year we met in New York City, when another one of our study buddies got a job working in Manhattan. This year a few of us managed to get together in Sweden (and Linda and I hopped over to Spain, as one does while visiting Europe).

Next year we may be reuniting once again in France, and then soon after the destination will be Canada!

But on to my travels. In this particular post I’ll be writing about Midsommar, and also Swedish culture shock 🙂

I arrived in Stockholm, Arlanda Airport, the day before Midsommar. Linda, the best hostess ever, came and picked me up from the airport (she parked guys, that’s love). Upon arriving I noticed the WiFi was free and fast, and everything was labeled well and easy to find. Ah, the efficiency of Scandinavia.

I had zero jet-lag on this trip, and after dropping my stuff off at her beautiful apartment, we went straight in to Stockholm. The weather was warmish and kind of rainy, but the transportation system there is just so good, and the city is just so easy to navigate, I barely noticed the rain. Yes, this is coming from the same girl who threw a hissy fit when it rained the first time I took my boyfriend to Times Square.

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The first thing I noticed in Stockholm was not the fashionable drapey trench coats all the girls were wearing. And it was not the abundance of cute dads pushing strollers, taking advantage of their excellent paternity leave. No, the first thing I noticed was the STAIRWAYS. Almost all the stairways I saw in Stockholm had these metal ramp thingies on them. I stopped in my tracks as we exited the subway car, and asked Linda “What are those ramp thingies on the stairs??” Well obviously the ramps are for parents to push their strollers so they don’t always have to use an elevator, and also for bikers to push their bikes. DUH. EFFICIENCY. Yaaaaaaasss, Sweden.

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Linda took me around Gamla Stan (the oldest part of Stockholm), we saw the palace, the opera, the Queen’s street, and we had a fika in the CUTEST café/bakery called Vetekatten (flour cat). It is a “traditional” fika place meaning it probably looks the same way now, as it did when it first opened a hundred years ago.

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Are you wondering what a fika is? Let me tell you. It’s the best custom the Swedes have, which we should all be adopting. Loosely, a fika is a coffee break that you share with a friend (pastries, usually cinnamon bun, involved).

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But I like this description more: “getting together with a friend (or friends) to enjoy a cup of coffee, but not for a lengthy period of time or in such a way that it inconveniences the person extending the invitation” (source)– is that not the most Swedish description ever? I love it.

Anyway, our fika was delicious, and it was so sweet of Linda to take me somewhere that she used to go as a little girl with her sister and grandmother. These are the kinds of things you can’t really do if you travel and just follow the guidebook.

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The next day, the Midsommar celebrations begun, as well as our reunion with some of our Finnish friends! First on the agenda was making flower crowns. Not to brag, but Linda and I made the best flower crown EVER. Strangers were photographing us, and many people asked if we had bought them, and if the flowers were even real because they looked so perfect. Yep. I think the secret is in the birch branches. Linda and I ventured in to her neighbourhood to snip branches off the trees. I don’t think we were allowed to do that, but it felt badass and authentic. 😀

We rode bikes in the rain, in ponchos, to the community Midsommar celebration. I’ve never done anything like this, and I don’t know if I ever will get to again. Swedes are just as comfortable on bikes as the Dutch. Linda would get on her bike and shoot off before I could even get a hold of my handlebars. In the rain, and with a passenger double-riding with her, this was an impressive feat.

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At the community Midsommar celebration, there was a lovely Maypole, a band of senior citizens playing traditional songs, a cook-out with hot dogs and pastries, and people of all ages participating in the dancing, singing, and games. Linda and I jumped right into the circle of dancers around the Maypole, and I was holding hands with an old couple, and singing in Swedish in no time. Oh, yes the songs were bizarre, and yes the dancing was even weirder, but it was the most fun I’d had in ages. I was the only foreigner there, but I felt right at home.

Before we left, I stood contemplating the Maypole for a little bit before turning to Linda and asking her “so do you think the kids know what this means?” I gave her a knowing look. The Swedes are so comfortable with sexuality; I thought it was amazing that the kids would be dancing around a phallic symbol of fertility.

“Uhm, yes I think the kids understand all the songs and traditions…” Linda replied, not returning my knowing look, but instead, looking confused.

“No, I mean, do you think they know what IT means” I gestured at the Maypole.

“What do you mean, what it means” Linda was not getting it.

“Do the kids realize they’re dancing around a giant fertility symbol AKA a penis?” Duh, I thought.

Well, no. Apparently not duh. Linda laughed at me, and laughed, and laughed. Actually the Maypole is not a penis, no one really knows what it’s supposed to represent or where it even came from. I tested this theory by asking many Swedes, and even checking Wikipedia, and it’s true. It’s not technically a peen. It’s something born out of ancient times, and the meaning is different depending on which region of Scandinavia you are in. Weird.

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After the community celebrations we biked to Linda’s parents’ home, which they graciously let us use to have a Midsommar FEAST. I tried pickled herring, did way too many shots, accompanied by more strange songs, and had delicious jordgubbars (strawberries). I could never thank Linda, her family, and her boyfriend enough for how sweet they were to host me. This was a once in a lifetime experience for me – a real Swedish Midsommar.

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Playing “kubb”! It was like 11 PM or later at this point and still bright!
Next up on my travel series: Linda and I go to Spain, rent a car, find paradise.

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