Eternal sunset of an awesome time

Osby Lake

At 56° latitude, Älmhult is by far the northernmost place I’ve lived, so this is my first time experiencing the endless days and bright nights of a northern summer. The solstice is still three weeks away, but already the sun is traveling in wide circles across the sky, only dipping below the horizon for a scant few hours at night. Even at one in the morning, a little light remains as twilight gives nightfall a miss and goes straight on into sunrise. I’ve written before about the strong ties between the darkness and Scandinavian culture, and the long days of summer are no less influential.

With so many hours of daylight, flowers shoot up from the ground like rockets, and Swedes who huddled around their hearths all winter take to the streets, parks and lakes at all hours of the day and night. Conversations take on a hint of manic joy, and you never feel like sleeping. Ever. The sunsets last absolutely forever, as the sun bobs orange for hours in its ice cream sky, sinking so slowly that it’s like being frozen in time. If you’re listening to music, this glorious scene turns every song into a moment of perfect, instant nostalgia. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake a lot the past few days, as his dreamy strumming and gentle voice feel tailor-made for the long twilight of the northern sky.

 

It’s no coincidence that there are a staggering number of public Swedish holidays this month. Almost every other weekend has an extra day or two tacked on, and carpe diem becomes something of an art form. Going by how jam-packed grocery and beer stores were this weekend, I’m guessing everyone in Älmhult was either hosting or attending a barbecue. Scott and I had the good fortune to be invited to two of these get-togethers, where we were once again enchanted by the warmth and openness of our new Swedish friends.

The atmosphere at these gatherings was an interesting mix of peaceful bliss and frenetic good cheer. Relaxing under the trees gave way to a silly game of badminton using a fishing net in lieu of a racket. Gazing out over Osby lake gave way to rounds of snaps and drinking songs, each merrier than the last. These songs, called snapsvisor, are a proud Swedish tradition and the hallmarks of a truly successful party. Needless to say, I was so wrapped up in researching this post that I failed to document the moment. Luckily, YouTube has plenty of footage of snapsvisor, and they go a little something like this:

In the endless sunset, we played and laughed long into the night, never noticing the lateness of the hour. Only at midnight did the sun retreat far enough to warrant lighting torches on the beach, turning each reveler into a silhouette against the sparkling lake. And even as we rode home, the night sky remained a rich blue, heralding the dawn that would send us to sleep by the light of a golden sunrise.

Sweden Lake Sunset

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The glory that is Eurovision

Who's to blame?

This weekend, over half the population of Europe will tune in to witness the wonderful and bizarre spectacle of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. I’ve been looking forward to this year’s musical extravaganza with more voyeuristic glee than ever, because the competition will take place right in my backyard.

I’ll be in Copenhagen when it all goes down Saturday, and though I won’t have the privilege of attending the show, I’m looking forward to the energy in the streets as tens of thousands of visitors from across Europe make their way to the arena for the final showdown.

If you’re not from around here, you may not be familiar with the glory that is Eurovision. What began in the 50’s as an initiative to foster goodwill among European countries has since become an annual pageant of lavish musical numbers that range from earnest, to cheesy, to absolutely bonkers.

Case in point is Romania’s 2013 entry, and my all-time Eurovision favorite, “It’s My Life” as performed by Cézar.

If this year gives us anything half so good, I will be delighted.

I’ll share highlights after the dust settles Sunday, but for now let’s take a look at the home team. Sweden’s 2014 entry is “Undo”, performed by Sanna Nielsen who is the favorite to take the whole competition this year. If she’s successful, it would mean Sweden’s fifth Eurovision win and their second in just three years.

When “Undo” narrowly took first place at Melodifestivalen, the national contest that determined Sweden’s Eurovision submission, there was some controversy around whether the lyrics should be modified before the song went to the big leagues. The crux of the debate was whether to change the poetic but ungrammatical “Undo my sad” to the alarmingly angsty “Undo myself“. Happily, the songwriters stayed the course, and their commitment to the song’s artistic vision might just be what puts Sweden over the top Saturday night.

I personally have nothing against Sanna, though I had dearly hoped rival number “Blame It On The Disco” would be selected to represent Sweden.

The dance moves. The costumes. The AMAZING KEY CHANGE. I was devastated when they came in third and were relegated to the dustbin of Eurovision history.

With 170,000,000 viewers last year, Eurovision’s popularity is undeniable, and yet it stirs strong and complicated feelings in the average Swede. Pretty much anyone you ask will tell you it is cheesy, silly and irrelevant, but almost everyone watches it. During Melodifestivalen’s regional and national elimination rounds, the water cooler at IKEA buzzed for weeks with commentary that was at once derisive and painstakingly detailed. Everyone agrees that the songs are horribly uncool, and yet I have witnessed Swedish girls flooding the dance floor upon hearing the first strains of Melodifestivalen runner-up Ace Wilder’s “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”

Wilder came in second by a mere three points, but despite the timeless universality of her song’s message, the dream of unearned personal wealth didn’t capture the European psyche as well as Sanna’s lovelorn anthem. I’ll admit, the songwriter and marketer in me is strangely fascinated by the Eurovision songs and what makes everyone love/hate them so much.

So like a good Swede, I’ll tune in Saturday before bed just to see what happens. Not that I care or anything; I’d just hate to miss out on the wave of secret, shameful pride that sweeps Sweden when Sanna wins it all.

A light in the window

Night Apartment

In a country where the sun sets before three o’clock on the shortest days of the year, it’s no surprise that lighting plays a crucial role in the home. Swedes take lighting seriously, and even our tiny town has three lamp stores lining the main square.

When we moved into our IKEA-issued, furnished apartment, we were puzzled to find several mismatched lamps scattered around the small studio: table lamps, desk lamps, and lamps stashed away in closets. Scott even found a chartreuse frosted glass lamp balanced on the front windowsill and promptly removed it.

Mylonits

When he came home from his first day on the job, he immediately rushed to the closet to recover the lamp and restore it to its former position. “It’s supposed to be there,” he said in the fretful tone that comes with being new to a country and mindful of cultural blunders. He’d learned at work that it’s traditional to keep a light in the front window on winter nights and to keep the blinds open until bedtime. From this I deduce that it’s probably not traditional to walk around in your pyjamas all evening, which is probably a good habit to cultivate anyway.

In Canada, traditions tend to be observed mostly by older folks who are joined by the younger crowd only on special occasions. Not so in Sweden, where they are very big on tradition. In the case of the window lamp, I was delighted to discover that the vast majority of windows in Älmhult, Stockholm and points between are lovingly illuminated every evening around four o’clock. The effect is magnificent and turns a trudge down a windy, wintery street into a holy processional home.

It’s not just an urban tradition, either. Even a farmhouse in a desolate field of snow will have pinpricks of light in its windows, casting a friendly yellow glow into the night.

House windows

While I’m sure some Swedes, especially those who don’t have the luxury of working from home, probably automate their lamps with timers, pressing the switch has become a cherished part of my day. To pause for a moment, mark the sun’s retreat and look forward to seeing Scott walk through the door always fills me with quiet joy.

Next week, my travels take me to a conference in Las Vegas, so I leave behind the grey skies of Småland for now. But even as I pack to go, I’m already dreaming of getting off the train at Älmhult station, turning the corner onto our street, and seeing the strange green halo that means Scott is waiting to welcome me back to the light and warmth of our home.