If you have spent your life living nearer to the Equator than to the Arctic Circle, visiting Sweden during the summer months is a trip. I’d imagine the winter months would be, also, but, I was there during the summer. In August, in fact. To give you a brief landscape of this lush and flat moose-filled land would do a disservice to the reader, so I recommend a visit. Until that potential moment, allow me to write you a stick-figure diagram. Sweden is wonderfully green, in the summertime. The Swedes take nice care of their country. There is very little litter. There was some in the middle of this tree covered park by my aunt and uncle’s home. It was mainly confined to a bush, and by the looks of the litter, it was probably the local youth “watering hole.” I have never experienced air so clean. The sun did not set for the majority of my visit. Toward the end of my stay, it started to twilight around midnight, and less than an hour later, it was day again. For this reason, Swedish homes have very thick drapes to block out the light during sleeping hours. For this reason, I have little time recollection of the trip. The sky was blue, and clear; then, suddenly, dark, cloudy, and rainy for a brief bit. It rained for about an hour every couple of days. Heavily wooded, or covered with healthy grasses. The local beach, really, was a break in the woods around a lake filled with near freezing Artic water, and some sand strategically placed near the water. I jumped in and nearly asphyxiated from the cold. It was fucking great!
I was looking forward to the trip. I was looking forward to seeing my family, seeing a new country, meeting new people, plus, I really needed the break. The year was filled with many personal difficulties. It was my first year at UCR, and Riverside was sweltering by 10am. The weather was pretty hot at home that summer, too. I was, also, looking forward to a break from the heat. And, of course, I got there during a heat wave. Temps were in the mid-80s. It shattered records; but still a little cooler than home.
On two occasions, I was able to make it down to Stockholm, which is roughly an hour’s drive southward through a wooded auto way from Uppsala. I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Uppsala, which is a really neat little town. I visited the university, the Domkyrka, and, of course, I had to pay a little visit to the grave of Carl von Linné. After having memorized so much of his binomial nomenclature in my osteology and evolutionary bio classes and labs, I was ready to give him thanks for his meticulous labors, and a fuck you for my labors. Everything is in Latin in the Domkyrka. I really dug all the Latin inscriptions. I thought it was funny because I made my way around that place just fine, and guided my family. Anyways, back to the story at hand.
If you are not careful, like my cousin R and his good friend D, you may hit a moose, who doesn’t really give a shit, or so it seems. I saw one such occurrence. The car was totaled, and the driver taken by ambulance. Traffic was flowing at around 60mph, and this huge ass moose jumps out of the woods and BLAAAM! Its antlers through the windshield; it torso and legs made a mess of the entire front of the car. The moose gets up, shimmies, and goes back to business as usual. The moose acted like it was a little stumble. Moose – 1, Humans – 0. Fucking great.
Stockholm is an interesting city. It is arranged like most other European cities; homes and businesses intermixed, there is a town square, cool architecture. But clean; very clean. Stockholm is comprised of a number of islands and islets. The count of which, I have heard, between 14 and 21, though the Stockholm Archipelago, itself, has a count near 30,000. Many of the islands in the town proper were connected to one another by wooden or stone bridges. The smaller ones were wooden. I took note that many of the businesses in Stockholm readily accepted the US Dollar.
The Vaten Fest, or Water Festival, was an annual, I don’t know, like a very large street fair. At first, I thought it was a cultural affair. It was not. It lost funding and was stopped after half a dozen years or so. It went on through an eastern portion of Stockholm; encompassing streets, homes, businesses, restaurants, the Royal Palace, and a number of the islands/ islets. There were various sections of it; a food vendors’ area, which had a few dozen booths, some food carts, and such. There were bands at various locations throughout. People walking, talking, old school spiked and dyed hair punkers lying around. Patches of grass, small conclaves of tall trees…trees natural to the area, not like all the imported, not keen to have in such an arid climate found here in So Cal. Kids were hanging out, boom boxes blasting, drunks and dancers and drunken dancers swaying to the note soup of rhythms. The food vendors’ area was spread across a few islets. The bridges were overrun with food buyers. The locals had a solution to the bridge problem, though. This came in the form of skiffs, lots of skiffs. Next to each wooden bridge was a bridge of skiffs to the other side. Each skiff was manned by its owner, and all were rope-tied to its adjacent one. These skiff-bridges were rarely used. I was surprised to see the large number of Filipinos and Spaniards in Sweden. They were, both, represented in a few of the food booths. There were a lot of different booths vending various regional Jambalayas, which is something that tripped me out. Something else I noticed was that pretty much every food cart was devoted to something called “Bakad Potatis.” This consumable was sold in many of the booths, as well. I would say, it would be as common as French Fries, here. This bakad potatis is none other than a baked potato. Hot, foil wrapped, condiments on the side of the cart, baked potato. I hear it was a big fad in the mid to late 90s. Some of those bakad potatis stands should have offered sweet corn. That would have been sweet…as it were.
On my first outing to the Vaten Fest, I went with my family. We parked a couple of miles from the main action, such was the activity there. We went to a bar with a view of the goings on. We had a couple drinks, and some appetizers. I remember I drank a Carlsberg Special Brew. It boasted the claim that, at 11.9% alcohol, it was the strongest beer in the world. A couple months later, I had my first Sierra Nevada Big Foot Expedition. That claimed 13.2%, that year. They both were pretty gross to me…I prefer reds and stouts, and ales over pilsners, and other such watery brews. We walked. We talked. We ate. We listened to music. I took pictures of punkers hanging around.
The next time, I went with R. We were to meet our cousin F at 3:30. As is usual, he got there 2 hours late, while calling us on R’s mobile every 10-15 minutes saying he just walked out of his office. This was so typical of him; always late, and every word out of his mouth oozes with untruths so poorly put together as to be virtually incoherent. It was OK. R and I have always had a great relationship. We talked about everything. R went to meet up with friends, and F and I went to get a bite. We went to Clock; Sweden’s version of McDonald’s before it went the way of Montgomery Ward. The Swedes are better off.
F took me down to one of the further reaches of the VF area. It was a grassy, slightly elevated area that was separated by a couple of small courses of water making their natural path down toward the sea. It was mostly muddy, but some parts were about a couple feet across and a few inches deep of clear water. Not much, but definitely a slippery inconvenience to an inebriated American…more specifically, yours truly. I had not had anything to drink, when we arrived. There was a large building that F repeatedly claimed to be an authentic Viking longhouse, but, I am pretty sure it was modern. This building was a bar, of sorts. We walked inside and through to an outdoor area that had some very large benches. Most of the benches were full. F found one that we were able to sit facing each other, though rather snugly. The benches were made out of logs. The seats were 50-60 foot long logs cut in half, and resting on tree stumps. The tables were 6/4 in planks resting on stumps. I found it difficult to climb on to the bench. The tops of which were up to my sternum. I bumped into the fella on my left, as I imitated lifting myself out of a pool to get up; he gave me a hand up the rest of the way. He was just a bit taller than me, slimmer, with a rather business-like demeanor. I noticed a lot of the people I met were like that; polite, but not warm. The guy to my right was a wall of a man; at least 6’4”, easily 300 lbs of muscle and beer-belly, and a beard that would make the guys from ZZ Top jealous. He was dressed in a blue denim sleeveless jacket which exposed his tattooed sleeves of Nordic themes. I was just hoping he didn’t have a swastika or a “beat the darky” mark on him. He gave me a look as I settled next to him. I said “hej, “ he looked away. After talking a bit, a waitress who looked like Heidi dressed up as the St. Pauli girl, approached and started taking orders. F ordered us a couple of beers. Being at that bench, next to Bjorn, I had an interesting historical thought. One thing that I have enjoyed about Persian festivals, since age 12, is that compared to many of the older folks, I was tall. By the time I reached my current borderline short height, I felt like I imagined pro basketball players might feel most of the time. Which brings me to the historical thought: what would have happened if you aligned Vikings against the old Imperial military? I mean, while my drunken ancestors were prancing around the fire singing songs to water and fire, theirs must have been pulling those tree stumps out with their bare hands.
Upon her return, this average built young lady had 3 steins in each hand and doled them out in a courteous fashion. The steins were huge. “They must be plastic,” I thought. Wrong. They were glass, and they were huge, and they were very heavy. They were filled with a liter of lager. I clasped the handle and lifted the stein to my mouth. Upon decent from my 3rd lift, my shaking arm knocked old Giant McSwedenson on my right in the elbow. I looked over to find beer and an irritated look dominating the veritable skyline created by his mustache and beard. I immediately began to apologize as I started funneling as many napkins as I could in front of him. He didn’t know English, so F started up, in a sincerely apologetic face. Old Sven started laughing, and took to happy Chef like tone while spitting froth and words in my general direction. F translated, “Don’t worry. Shit happens. Maybe the birds in my beard have something to drink now.” Well, he didn’t say that last part. F translated a few words between us. By his speech, I guessed that the majority of the empty steins removed in front of us, must have been his. He slapped me on the back in a jovial fashion. I swear his palm covered most of my ribcage and felt like a chiropractic adjustment.
I was about 3/4 of the way through the beer, when Heidi dropped by and put another stein in front of me. I did not order this. “The man here ordered for you.” Oh, thank you, sir, but, I cannot accept this. I should buy you one. Sven tilted his head. “M, you need to accept it. He is offering it as a gift. He will be insulted if you don’t. Then, there will be trouble.” What is this, the Tehran portion of Sweden? Ok. Thank you, sir. Ok, well, can I buy you your next drink? “This will be his last. Ok. I said a toast to him and ching-ching. About mid-way through the 2nd, I was done. “No, M. You have to finish it. Be a gracious guest.” Shortly thereafter, R called and I made my own slip-n slide through to the other side.
I met R about a 20 min walk through toward the center of the festivities. By then, my shorts were beginning to dry. We listened to some music. We made a slower trek toward the food section to meet his friends. Occasionally stopping on my account to see some other sights, I told the story of the goings on. “Yeah, Swedes are great fun, when they are drunk.” If we had maintained my earlier clip, I think we would have reached our destination about 10 minutes faster.
The Vaten Fest was, also, a great place to get drunk…and get drunk for free. Of course, you could pay for it; and if you were wise enough, you would. Winters in Sweden are dreadfully cold, dark, and depressing, so I am told. Trains and buses run on time. People can sue the government, if they are late. People can get frostbite or die in the cold, at times. People drink a lot to keep warm. Bars and restaurants can sell to 18 and above, 20 years in stores. The amount of alcohol that can be purchased at a store in a monthly period by an individual is regulated. The only store that sells alcoholic beverages above 3.5% is called Systembolaget, or The Government Store. It is run by the government, though, I believe, it is run as a business separate from the government; it has its own corporate officers. In determining how much alcohol can be purchased, the System takes many factors into account, like the fact that many Swedish families make their own schnapps. Different families have different recipes.
When we reached the food islets, the traffic on the bridges were crazy. So cramped…so many people moving at different speeds, coursing through wedges of slower and stopped people, like food moving through clogged intestines. We stop about 20 yards back. I pointed to the skiffs and asked R,
“there is nobody on the skiffs. Can we really cross using them?” “You can, bu…” Great. Let’s go.” I took off. I approach the first skiff. The skiff harbored an early 50s-ish guy sitting toward the back with a large glass jar to his left. Hej. “Hej,” he responded. I carefully lowered myself into the vessel, took a breath to balance my feet as I prepared to step onto the next skiff. I feel a tug on my shirt, and hear a grunt. I look back. The boat’s owner was nodding his head to his left. R was still on land. He says “M, you will have to drink. You have entered his home. You have to drink at every skiff, if the owner is there. If you want to turn back, you should still have a drink with this guy.” I look over, and, sure enough, the plastic shot glasses were those tiny European sized ones. Ok. No problem. “Ok. I’ll meet you at the other side.” I lift the shot, nod my head, tilt back, and down it went. I shook his hand and made my next step. R helps me out of the last one, since he took the bridge. We met his friends; chatted a bit, and decided to head over to the Gröna Lund Tivoli. This is an amusement park, per se.
R’s friends were eating. He grabbed something. My buzz got stronger. We moved through the food islets. Every time I chose the skiffs over the bridges. Not so much because of the free schnapps, but because crowds like that freak me out. Besides, these little shots are like a third of ours. No worries. Sure, if you have a couple/ few and hour, you’ll be fine. Plus, some of the skiffs were unmanned. I think that I had somewhere between 15 and 20 shots in the 40 minutes it took us to make our way out.
I remember getting over to Tivoli. I remember running around a bit. I remember having a couple more drinks. I remember going to a Clock on our way back to Uppsala. I remember hurling outside of my aunt’s garage. The rest escapes my memory….