Picktures and Pieces 7: Consumables and the Swedish Summer

Consumables and the Swedish Summer

by Randall Auxier

I don’t think you would want to be here in February. They say in Minnesota that if you don’t endure the winters, you don’t deserve the summers. How typical of the stoics who occupy these climes in the States. But I’m nonesuch. If these brave endurers of the hibernal sub-zero don’t want us to visit during their unending daytime, they need to run less inviting summer businesses. I came in August from the “Midwest” of Europe, that is, Poland, where the weather was as stifling as any Illinois afternoon in high July, to the “Minnesota” of the European continent, by which I mean Sweden. I can’t possibly describe the difference. But I’ll try.

First let me say that I love Poland. It’s the Midwest in so many ways, but moreso –older, more dignified, more tested by war, famine and plague. There is a reason that the Poles who emigrated to the US liked Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan, but there is also a reason that the Nordic contingent preferred Minnesota, the Dakotas, upper Iowa, and nether Wisconsin. The Scandinavians and the Poles have a great deal in common, but the commonality stops at the threshold of summer. When it comes to summer, the Poles must suffer it, but the Scandinavians, well, let’s just say they don’t.

Have you ever spent a night in Chicago when it was plus 90 and the humidity was still higher? A lot of Chicagoans believe they need no a/c, but then again, they could be pretty wrong about that. The 90-plus days are getting more numerous every year, and that, friends and neighbors, is also summer in Silesia. On the other hand, there is Sweden on the same day, at a commodious 72 and a level of humidity well below that. Is this fair? Must Poles suffer while Swedes party? Blitzkrieg and slaughter as opposed to successful neutrality? I don’t even want to think about it, let alone write about it.

What catches my imagination is the way that any of the human species might choose to enjoy the perfection and unmerited blessing of a Swedish summer. And here is what you didn’t expect: said enjoyment is subdued, moderate, pious, even simply grateful. I speak as a Pole. I have no Polish roots, but I live in the American Poland, which is to say Illinois, where summers are brutal beyond enduring, and where potential Nazis occupy the borderlands, electing fanatics to public office. The nightmares of the Polish emigrant of 1890 are realized in southern Illinois. (On the other hand, nightmares come in worse varieties than those of 1890.) No place could possibly be quite so hot or so humid. Yet, what is actual is possible. We American Poles are well schooled in this kind of minor suffering and religiously prepared to make the grace of the Divine evident in our sincere defense of home.

Alright, I’m exaggerating. We hate such weather and whine about it. And we dream of Swedish summers. Swedish summer is roughly what heaven would look like, if we could conjure the image, for a Pole or anyone else. It is a day in which the light disappears as midnight approaches, in which breezes are reliable, cool, and welcome, even though they are unneeded. It is the land where no one is inclined to know your sins, or to care about them, but still everyone is entitled to decent healthcare and housing. It is the world in which no one is ostentatious, no matter how rich, and no one goes hungry or uncared for, no matter how many bad choices may haunt her days. It is a place where prisons are almost entirely unnecessary, but people still have permission to pursue wealth responsibly. Swedish summer. Heaven. That’s about how it goes.

I’m sitting in a restaurant called Restaurang Mediterranean in the medieval city of Lund. I have one free day between conferences. The weather is glorious. Everyone else is sitting outside, but I saw a spot, elevated above the main floor, with a nice table for writing. Everything is expensive in Sweden and I don’t even want to know how much I am paying for my cheese plate and half carafe of (decidedly non-Swedish) wine. I worked out a nice method for calculating it, which I posted before, but not today.

Joseph here is from Hungary, but he works at the Greek restaurant in Sweden. Of course. Heaven has a diverse appeal. He strides from inside to outside, serving those al fresco, and returns to the kitchen to report on the varied desires of the clientele. He does this in an excellent humor, and why not? It is a perfect August afternoon and it wouldn’t cross Joseph’s mind, I suppose, that Midwesterners 5000 miles away would sooner have dental work than step outside in the heat that exists just beyond their air-conditioned doors. It crosses my mind because, well, I’m here and not there. I don’t miss home at just this moment. I am a free rider loose in Swedish summer.

Joseph brings tray after tray of amazing consumables from the kitchen to the deck. It’s a ritual, I believe, and he is the presiding official. The Swedes are all out there, enjoying their consumables rather unstoically (for Swedes). But this is hardly the last days of Pompeii (speaking of places hotter than hell). This is no Bachannalia, even if the victuals and libations are right. It is only a subdued celebration of what it is like to be temporary and human on an unending summer day, when the sun doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t chase and it doesn’t chide. Here it elicits a toast: “to our father, the sun, and his long summer life!” (And may the endless night find us elsewhere.)

Winter will come and we cowards will drift southward. But here, in Lund, people will endure a winter that American Poles, such as I, can hardly imagine. Its duration alone is enough to take one’s courage, but then there’s the darkness. It’s 55.7 north latitude. That is north of every major city in Canada, including Edmonton, which is a mere 53.5. Summer days last forever, but so do winter nights. And this is the south of Sweden. Wouldn’t you think that the celebration here would be raucous when winter finally releases its hold? But no. The thing about consumables in the Swedish summer is that they are received as gifts from Joseph (or from God –whatever) because of their very brevity. The day may last, in the retail sense, but the summer and the consumables do not keep in the warehouse of winter. Getting carried away with what is temporary is the worst of impieties.

Winter comes. It lasts. It abuses hope. Finally it relents and Joseph brings a tray. When he does, you should sit outside and discuss the weather quietly, until the weather turns. And you should do this wherever you are. You know the day I’m talking about. It comes occasionally to every place. And if you are blessed by the gods, it comes all summer long, or shall I say, all summer short, as it is in Sweden.

Lamb, zucchini, real feta, et cetera.