SCANDINAVIA: Midsummer’s Eve…fear and loathing in the (24-hour) sun.

Those of us who live in the more temperate zones have a hard time really understanding the psyche of folks who live near and above the Arctic Circle. Think about the coldest, darkest, most desperate depths of winter wherever you are…maybe it gets to 10 or 20 degrees below freezing, and the snow builds up 3 or four feet deep. It’s cold and biting. Your windows are frosted over permanently, the car won’t start easily, walking on the ground is like stepping on styrofoam, needles of cold pierce your cheeks, nose and ears, and at its worst it lasts two or three weeks, relentlessly.

Now imagine that it gets about 20 degrees colder, the snowbanks are twice as high, the winds blow twice as hard, and it lasts 4 or five months. Relentlessly.

Oh, and the sun is only above the horizon for a few hours, at the most, each day.

That will give you an idea of why the Swedes in Northern Sweden get so giddy about the strangely-named “Midsummer’s Eve Festival”. I say ‘strangely-named’ because it occurs at the start of summer…both astronomically and climatologically…on the Summer Solstice on or around June 21. Being the solstice, it is the day with the most sunlight so that is what gives it its significance. But it’s not ‘mid summer’ by any means.

But nomenclature notwithstanding, it’s a festive day and we had a great time. Roger invited us to join what is traditionally a family-oriented day, with feasting and frolicking promised into the night.

The day started with a small breakfast snack to save room for lunch, one of the two traditional large meals. We were promised that the day would also include a lot of drunken debauchery, so I was a bit surprised that we didn’t start the morning with Bloody Marys or something, but strangely enough, there was no imbibing before lunch. No official reason….we were just saving it for later. After breakfast, Kevin and I went fishing, and Roger started preparing.

Then lunch began. The smorgasbord consisted of an abundance of Swedish treats: we had freshly grilled beef tenderloin, fresh smoked salmon, homemade and commercial pickled herring (four kinds), freshly boiled new potatoes (locally grown), Swedish cheese, shrimp spread, barbecued chicken, sliced meats, crispy Swedish bread, a homemade sauce, a salad, swedish meatballs and hard boiled eggs.

The Swedes have a fantastic way of making sandwiches for almost every meal; they use either a thick soft bread that is similar to pita, or a hard, tasty crispbread that is similar to matzoh. First, they spread a little butter on it, then they mash some boiled new potatoes onto it. On top of that, they add some special homemade sauce…each cook has their own recipe, but in general it consists of fresh cream, flavorings and a pinch of dill. Then on top of that they put whatever they want; often pieces of pickled herring, salmon, onion, caviar, or something from a tube. It is eaten as an open sandwich, and is fantastically delicious. They can be as ornate or as simple as you want, but in general it’s an hors d’oeuvre from heaven.
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After lunch, we drove over to the center of the little village where many folks were gathered in the sunshine, just to enjoy the day together. Then we came back and Roger started right in preparing for the evening feast, which promised to be even larger. We were joining his cousin Jan (pronounced ‘Yawn’) and his wife, father and brothers next door and each family was bringing an entire meal. Screw potluck…this was multiple feasts all at the same table.

IMG_4855When dinnertime came around, we all went over to Jan’s where a couple of barbecues were fired up. Roger cooked up some more tenderloins, but this time from some Roe deer that he had shot (he’s big into hunting and fishing). By then, the drinks had started to flow with the women drinking wine and the guys all starting in on some Swedish beers. By the time the meal was set up, everyone was feeling a bit tipsy and a lot of laughter was starting up.

 

Then came the AquIMG_9118.JPGavit, or Swedish Schnapps, made from potato and with a range of flavors. Roger produced a bottle of clear liquor that was produced in Northern Sweden and we all got shot glasses full. After a toast to the summer (“Skol!”) we were not allowed to ‘bite it off’ and it was ‘bottoms up’. The Aquivit was pleasant and sweet, with a touch of anise and lemon, which hid the 40% alcohol content. We drank toast after toast, with the gaiety increasing after each round. Then another bottle was produced, and then another, until the entire table of about a dozen people were joyously smashed as hell. The old patriarch, Roger’s Grandfather’s brother, was singing old Swedish drinking songs, the brothers were chatting loudly about something or other in Swedish, Kevin and I were laughing and enjoying the vibe, Roger was loudly explaining this and that and providing translations, and the whole party was rocking. At one point, someone mentioned that the old man’s birthday was the next day, which was also Kevin’s birthday, so some more songs and bonhommerie ensued.

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Then we all retired to the side yard to play with weaponry.

The gang was split up into two teams…the ‘Youngs’ and the “Youngers”. The Youngs (my team) were 50+ years old and pretty giggly by that point. The Youngers were from 18 up, and for the most part fairly sober, so it wasn’t really a fair match. But the scorekeeper was a Young, so we had an edge.

The first event was the blowgun. A target was set up on the side of the barn, and each person got exactly one dart to shoot. Most of us had never even held a blowgun, let alone shot a dart, so it’s a miracle that no one had an eye put out. Of our team, only three of us even hit the target paper (I’m happy to say that I was one), and we actually managed to tie with the Youngers, even though one of them was the owner of the blowgun. Much of that was due to a great hit by Kevin that earned us 4 points, while the Youngers only managed to get a bunch of 1-point shots. But it was a blast, and on my to-do list this week is to find a blowgun to buy.

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The next event was the pellet gun. We each got one pellet and had to shoot at a can hanging from a string about 20 yards away. We were shooting toward the road, so we had to be attentive to the occasional car or pedestrian who walked across the background. The Youngers went first, and every person except one hit the can…a tough bar to rise above.

The Youngs took their turn…the first shooter was the grandmother who was fairly hammered and did not know about things like aiming. She pointed the barrel somewhere about 10 feet above the can, and the scorekeeper (her son) gently pushed the barrel downwards and explained about looking through the sight at the crosshairs. When you add her normal shaking from age to the effects of the aquavit, its no small miracle that the can went ‘ping’ when she it it with the pellet!

I went second, and the best I could do was try to time the squeeze of the trigger with the can drifting across the crosshairs. Miraculously, I hit the target and protected my pride. Kevin went third, and was grinning ear to ear when he pinged the can also. There was, of course, a lot of face-saving to do with this crowd of people we were among.

By now, spirits were irrationally exuberant, and the next shooter was Jan, who was getting fairly deep in his cups. He took a stance, aimed the gun, closed one eye, and then almost fell on his face. We all laughed, he repositioned himself, took aim, said something fairly derogatory in Swedish, then pulled the trigger. Everyone watched in earnest.

Nothing. He had forgotten to load the gun.

The crowd went wild as he cracked the barrel, inserted a pellet, and jacked the barrel back closed. Armed and ready, he turned to apologize to the crowd, who promptly dove to the ground as the barrel of the loaded gun swept across us. He laughed and said something in Swedish, started to turn around and accidentally fired the pellet into the sky over our heads. Everyone split a gut laughing so hard, and allowed him another shot. He braced himself, aimed and pulled the trigger. The can pinged!

By the end of the round, the Youngs all managed to hit the can and we were ahead by one point. No one knew how that was possible, but this was a hunting-intensive culture, so I guess it was second nature for them.

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The third event was the golf challenge. Earlier in the day, several of us (Kevin, me and Roger’s two step kids) had been playing a lot of ‘off road golf’, hitting a ball around the back yard, earning a point for clipping a large rock in the field. Along the way, Jan’s dog had joined in the fun, seeing the golf ball (mine especially) as a rock that he was meant to fetch, so the game regularly devolved into chasing the dog around to retrieve the ball.

With all the drunk people teeing up to hit the ball, the dog was in heaven. He would wait off to the side, crouched in anticipation, and once the player hit their shot he would bolt off, find the ball, bring it back, and drop it at the feet of Siv, Jan’s wife. The Youngs went first, and with the close score the crowd was very attentive. I teed off and managed to hit the ball to within a few feet of the rock. No points were scored for near misses, but the close shot earned a nice round of laughter and applause from the crowd. Next went Jan, who was so hammered by this time that he could do nothing but a funny job of clowning it up at the tee, to the raucous laughter of everyone.

Next was Kevin. Feeling the pressure, he tried to soberly address the ball, took a deep breath, and swung away. Swoosh…he totally missed the ball, to the amusement of everyone. The crowd watched even closer as he took a second swing, but the pressure got to him and he missed the ball again. The crowd went wild. He addressed the ball a third time, took a massive swing, and again missed the ball and almost fell backwards.

Looking around sheepishly, he stepped up to the ball, everyone watching with bated breath, took a careful stance, and swung. The solid ‘thunk’ of the club meeting the ball was immediately followed by the yelp of the dog as the ball clipped right into the eye of the poor guy, crouched and ready to retrieve it. The crowd fell instantly silent as the dog ran off, tail between his legs, yelping wildly and finally hiding behind Siv’s legs. Kevin just stood there morosely, not knowing what to do. He loves dogs, and was just too stunned with himself to know how to react. For a moment, the only sounds were from me and Roger, trying to silence our guffaws after I whispered to Roger “the only thing worse he could have done was to hit the Grandfather!”

The tone of the contest soon returned to normal, although it took Kevin a few hours to recover from his gaffe. Roger and I didn’t help, just losing it every time we looked at him, but eventually the games ended and the Youngs were declared the winners, until someone from the Younger team looked at the score and realized that the scorekeeper had given us an extra 5 points to ensure our victory.

By the end of the evening, sometime after 2 am, everyone was happily hammered on Aquavit, and we all retired to our perspective homes and camps for the night.

A swell time was had by all, maybe even the dog.

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