Midsommar, frog dancing and Brexit
When I woke up in Gothenburg at 4:45 a.m. on Friday, the Brexit results were already looking grim. I’d love to claim that the early start was due to me being a political keen bean, but in truth I was catching an early train to Dalarna in the middle of Sweden, where I was to spend the Swedish midsummer weekend with my friend Linnea’s family.
Linnea and I met at a festival in Örebro in summer 2012. She was playing violin for a band called Immanu El, I was there playing my own songs, and while chatting backstage we discovered that we both lived in Berlin. We became close friends over the next two years, drinking beers in Berlin’s many parks, talking about life over tea in my Prenzlauer Berg apartment. I’d often go to see her string quartet perform, including one unforgettable night where they provided the soundtrack for a hidden-away tango club in my neighbourhood. As dancing couples swirled around me, clearly in their element, I marvelled at the fact that so many worlds exist right under our noses that we never know about. In December 2013, the quartet accompanied me for some shows on a tour of Sweden, which stick out as three of the most beautiful concerts that I’ve ever played.
Midsummer (midsommar) happens everywhere but is very much a thing in Sweden. People dance like frogs around a flagpole to the soundtrack of traditional folk songs while wearing horrendously unflattering outfits. It’s adorable. After being repeatedly asked by my Swedepals what I was doing for midsummer (my answer: nothing), I was delighted to receive a message from Linnea inviting me to join her family for a weekend in the midsummer-est of midsummer locations: Dalarna. The area is awash with tiny wooden houses, painted uniformly in red, where Swedes flock to spend the summer months. Linnea was born here along with her mother and grandmother — who lived in the house next to the flagpole we danced around on Saturday afternoon until she passed away last year.
And so it was that I, an English immigrant, found myself holding hands with a Syrian refugee to my right and an elderly Swedish lady to my left — sporting a maniacal grin as she laughed at my failed attempts to get the actions to each song right — as we trotted around a flagpole that had been painstakingly erected by a thirty-strong group of Swedes under instruction from a man dressed in an outfit much akin to that of the mayor in the tiny English town that I come from. The event was innocent, wholesome, frequented by all ages and races, with none of the drunken braying and Strongbow cans littering the ground that would undoubtedly have accompanied a similar community event in England. No one seemed to care that they danced to the same six songs every year, or that the lyrics to the frog song were utter nonsense — people simply came together and participated as equals, each person’s dancing as ludicrous as the next.
Between listening to Linnea perform folk songs in her fetching get-up, I stayed in a cluster of the aforementioned tiny red houses with Linnea’s family, where for three days, life became an unending stream of meals and fika (a time of coffee and cake, much like English elevenses but not limited to a particular time of day). Essentially, we never stopped eating. On Saturday morning, I ran six miles down country lanes — uneventful save for spotting a snake on the road that had been split in half by a car going over it, making its final jolts before passing to the next life — then concluded the run by jumping into the lake next to our house. Saturday afternoon was my second flagpole dancing extravaganza, on this occasion preceded by a speech from the local priest, the only part of which I understood was the moment where he encouraged the small family audience gathered before him to join him in chanting, “We shall dump / Donald Trump!” I don’t have the full context for his speech but it’s nice to know that the Swedes despise Trump just as much as the rest of us.
On Saturday night, we joined Linnea’s cousins for a three-on-three football match on a makeshift pitch, asking to borrow a ball from a nearby house because we’d forgotten our own. Sunday morning started with a chilly dip in the lake whereupon a neighbour, already in the lake with Linnea, jovially chided my reluctance to jump in by saying, “We’ve fucking done it, now you do it!” I promptly dove in and washed my hair in the lake water with Garnier Fructis. My hair had never felt softer.
I started reading a new book about running, finally had time to finish a copy of Delayed Gratification that I’d been meaning to read for weeks, and that afternoon played kubb with Mohammad (a Syrian refugee living with Linnea’s parents in Uppsala who, it’s worth noting, has done a much better job of learning Swedish and finding gainful employment in his new home country than I have) and Linnea’s cousins to the sounds of Linnea practising Viennese waltzes in the mini-house that we were sharing floating across the garden. We took a look inside the local church (naturally, it was left unlocked), tried to avoid stepping on frogs that crossed our paths on evening walks, and slept blissfully despite the fact that the sun never quite disappears at this time of year, casting a hazy glow even as you drift off to sleep in the middle of the night.
In between all of this, I checked my phone (laboriously, thanks to the deathly slow countryside internet), alternating between the Guardian, Facebook and Twitter for the latest news on all things Brexit. And as the news floated in and the country seemed to fall apart, I mourned the fact that my children most likely won’t get to experience the same weekend that I was in the middle of. A weekend borne of a relationship that started in Sweden — where I was able to travel freely and play music — and continued in Berlin — as I was recruited by a Belgian to work for a company founded by two Swedes, alongside talented people from all around the world. And I wondered whether my own European journey — started when I embarked on my first European tour in summer 2008, leading me to live in Berlin and Gothenburg — would soon be forced to draw to a close.