Dreaming of Sweden

Av Julie Balot

Minnesota-raised and California resident Julie Balot recounts her childhood experiences of Sweden in America. Years later over the course of a few weeks she meets the World in Sweden at the international improvised music festival Hagenfesten in Dalarna and in Stockholm.

My infatuation started early one morning, as my ten-year-old toes wriggled in the moist grass of my front lawn in suburban Minneapolis. My parents had woken my brother, sister and I to witness a rare sighting of the Northern Lights dipping this far south into Minnesota. Unfortunately, not long after this magical hour with the Aurora Borealis, my parents would move us deeper south, where I would spend years feeling like a fish out of water.

There, in the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” I encountered an unhealthy preoccupation with an afterlife and narrow definitions of acceptable dress, hairstyles, art and music. Life had been quite different back in Minnesota, where I grew up amongst the descendants of Swedes, Norwegians and a few Finns, and with that came laughing at circumstances, rather than at others; an innate kindness; and a desire to do the right thing.

The Ericssons, Nilssons and Swanssons might casually note another’s differences and then ignore them, never to be discussed and likely not even thought of again. They welcomed everybody into their homes with warm hospitality and baked goods. My sister and I would ride our bikes to the Lundgren’s house, where Mrs. Lundgren granted us on-going access to their back yard to play with their dogs. The youngest of five children, our 15-year-old neighbor Karin Andersson thought of us as her honorary younger sisters, and we would leave her house sucking on lemon drop sweets and admiring our freshly painted nails. Summer weeks were spent swimming, canoeing and waterskiing at the Bergström lake cottage in the northern woods.

I missed my blue-eyed first love, these open-minded, nature loving Nordic folk, and finally in my early twenties I moved back to Minneapolis, a place where life was fully embraced, both in the buzz and hum of endless summer eves and in the long dark of winter. Eventually though I would be lured away by a different kind of love, my brown-eyed boyfriend headed to graduate school at the University of California in Berkeley. I moved to San Francisco and have lived here ever since.

I must’ve thought I could somehow capture those early days with a visit to the Motherland. One afternoon over “fika” – the Swedish word for drinking coffee, which also could but doesn’t have to include buns, pastries, lemonade for the kids etc., one could fika (noun as well as verb) alone, but one might not really call it that without company –with a friend and Stockholm transplant, I cracked open my guide book to Sweden that I had bought years ago in a fit of postpartum wanderlust. Here was an individual who chose to live amongst Swedes and might surely have a similar appreciation. With pen in hand, I took notes on the islands of the Stockholm archipelago, the Kungsleden Trail, the Vasa Museum, and the “most Swedish” region, Dalarna, known for its folk arts and music, as well as its red painted, wooden cottages. We discussed the Northern Lights, Pippi Longstocking, Ingmar Bergman, sea sickness, bicycling, mediocre food and my great fondness for Swedish pancakes and lingonberries. He then triumphantly produced photos of Swedish pancakes, clothes-pinned to a cord conveyed by a pulley system manned by a fancy-dressed chef wearing a top hat to the waiting diners sitting at a cloth covered, water side table set with fresh flowers. “Where is this paradise?” I asked. “Hagenfesten,” he replied. You must go, screamed my suddenly Swedish soul! Hagenfesten, an international renownedfestival of experimental, improvised jazz and folk music, poetry, film and visual art, takes place every other year in early August near Dala-Floda, Dalarna, Sweden. On an early Thursday morning, Hagenfesten bound, I made my way via train, bus and foot. Familiar birch trees, like those I climbed as a kid, fringed the route to Hagen. Tomas Tranströmer’s poem, “Med älven” flanked the quaint footbridge that would sway with each stomp above the river Västerdalälven. Camp was pitched upon the lushest, greenest grass experienced since a Minnesotan summer. A mid-afternoon swim across the river washed the journey away. Standing on the far bank, squishing the river’s silt between my toes, I’m transported back to an easy-going day at that lake cottage in the northern woods.

A few hours later, after welcome speeches from the festival organizers, I’m gliding barefoot across the incredibly smooth sanded floors of a converted barn loft, which is now a lovely, airy space that holds an art gallery and yoga studio. A baby grand anchors one end of the room, where mostly solo, acoustic acts will perform experimental and folk music throughout the weekend. I find the various works (paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography and video) exhibited intriguing, beautiful, disturbing, clever and thought provoking. 

A delicious vegetable curry with rice is shared at long tables beneath open-ended tents. Folks linger over dinner, wine and conversation before the evening’s performances begin, the perfect balance of improvised music, spoken word and Swedish folk.

I’m totally mesmerized by the magnetism between the improvisers vocalist Kovacs and saxophonist Dyberg. Kamilla Kovacs is a lovely bloom in her late pregnancy, and I try to imagine what this unique acoustic experience must sound like to this new life. Just when one might ordinarily get sleepy and amble off to bed, the multi-nationalUmlaut Big Band takes the stage and blasts the crowd back to the 1920’s and 30’s with upbeat jazz. I conjure up the Charleston moves that Mrs. Larsson taught me in the third grade. The European gentlemen players dressed in dark suits and ties, exude a classy charm. The band leader’s insistence at the beginning of each song to “Choose a partner” emboldens even the shyest wallflower and soon the crowd is in full swing.

At 2:00 a.m. the long Swedish summer day still lingers leaving the night sky an inky dark blue and sleep isn’t coming anytime soon. In my tent, I contemplate the rich musical experiences of the evening and my connections to them. Then off in the distance, I hear Phil Collins singing about something in the air tonight. My mind begins an incongruous unspooling and soon I’m whisked to sleep.

It’s amazing how one can sleep-in despite the dawn’s early arrival. A yoga class is offered at the very civilized hour of 10:00 in the gallery each morning. Young children and their parents paint and cut wheels and wings out of cardboard turning boxes into whimsical creations to take part in the next day’s parade. Refreshing swims across the river following a morning sauna wake up some. The pre-teens, who’ve spent previous summers here at Hagenfesten reconnect with one another, playing duets on the outdoor piano together, inventing games in the river or helping the younger kids with their creations in the make shift art room beneath the big white tent. Musicians and non-musicians alike, silently bask, faces upturned towards the morning sun, drinking cups of coffee and eating bowls of muesli, fresh blueberries and filmjölk (a kind of yoghurt).

Lunch followed by the first music of the day takes place in the Frikyrka (a church), which is about a half-hour walk through lovely countryside and across a red wooden one-lane bridge to Dala-Floda. A few years back, this bridge burned down, and rather than having a modern two-lane bridge put up in its place, the original bridge was rebuilt, preserving the village’s pace.

Beneath a tent in the church parking lot, a sumptuous pureed vegetable soup heavily flavored with leeks is served with homemade bread studded with raisins and walnuts. People meander off with their bowls to picnic in the church yard in company with former residents of the area. Afterwards, we are invited into the sanctuary for performances. Amidst holiness literally and figuratively, here in the “free church,” my mind, bathed in contemplative sound, is purified as the afternoon light bounces off gold and white.

Later that afternoon, up the gallery stairs, Erik Ronström pulls us in weaving his Swedish folk guitar with stories from his native Gotland. The next afternoon, Erik teams up with a pair of fiddlers, Bridget Marsden and Sandra Marteleur, and we tap our feet to the music of Stormsteg. We’re also treated to Tuva Syvertsen’s voice of velvet as she sings Norwegian ballads. Until Hagenfesten, I’d mostly been exposed to Celtic folk music, which to me a complete novice, sounds similar. I wonder how the musical influences traveled between Norsemen and Celt?

I go in search of coffee, which one can rely on at most hours of the day in Sweden. I remember my mother and a neighbor, Mrs. Sorensson engaged in endless conversations over a late afternoon pot of coffee virtually every day and my shy day dreamer of a child thought, “How could these two find so much to talk about?” After moving away, my mother never had coffee with any neighbors, and I believe that she must have longed to return, as well.

A few years back, I brought my daughter to see a Pixar movie, called ”Inside Out,” and my mother joined us for a girls multi-generational outing. The story focuses on an adolescent girl’s move away from Minnesota, of all places, and the emotional upheaval that occurs inside her brain, with various emotions, Joy, Fear, Anger and Disgust, but mostly Sadness, taking the center stage throughout this engaging primer on neuroscience and emotions in young brains. At one point during the movie, my mother looks over at me and asks loudly, “Julie, are you crying?” I’m unable to answer her, as a torrent of hot tears flows and woe wells up in my throat. Again, I’m 11 years old, not only embarrassed by my mother’s shrilled alarm in the quiet cinema and my unguarded surge of weeping, but clearly I have become one with the main character. This was a revelation, after the movie, we discussed the move from Minneapolis and found a through line in our common experiences from social isolation to deep depression.

The energy of SerbianMarina Džukljev’s fingers travel, like fire, up and down the piano keys leaping over the threshold to strike at the internal strings. Her flaming wild hair moves in synch and I hold my breath for an indeterminate amount of time. Elevated, I float down the steps to the evening’s dinner of a superb pasta Bolognese covered in Parmesan shavings from the largest wheel of cheese I’ve ever seen. A gradual warmth from sips of red wine and lively conversation satiate me, and I saunter off to the barn for the evening’s music. In the true spirit of experimentation, the program lists three ensembles that have only played together a few times previously.

The first time I ever met Anna Högberg was after I had pulled my thirty-pound (about 13 kilos) backpack from the belly of the bus and heaved it onto my back for the walk from Dala-Floda to Hagen. She kindly offered to shuttle my gear, along with several musician’s instruments, in her car to Hagenfesten. The next time, I see her, she’s playing sax in a sextet and I’m completely blown away! “Playing” cannot begin to describe Anna on sax; equal parts ferocity and tenderness resonate with me. The next morning surrounded by air still warm from someone’s earlier steam, I experience Anna’s intensity up close during one of the more relaxed sauna concerts.

Between sets I wander into the cozy little makeshift pub and drink a beer. The mingling is easy here with people from all parts of Europe and beyond. Discussions range from heavy to light and past to present events; difficulties of being a vegetarian in Sweden, where were you on September 11, 2001, the infrastructure of one’s home country, laments about one’s respective musical educations (too structured, not structured enough), to how wide swaths of sunlight are still brushed liberally against the darkening evening sky. Then there are other conversations, where I surrender to the sing-song rhythms of the Swedish language. There’s a certain freedom experienced when traveling in a land where the native tongue is unfamiliar to your ears, and your world must now be inferred from sight and instinct. Generally, I find Swedes to be respectful of others’ physical and psychic spaces, sincere, sensible, good listeners, drama-free, low maintenance, hospitable and humble. The Swedes I know a bit better are not known for their stoicism, they downplay the existing drama in their lives, they laugh at themselves, they like to sing and eventually and unabashedly they reveal the one true thing in the natural world that they love dearly.

Back in the barn amidst the warm red glow, the atmosphere of extemporization continues with a trio of troubadours performing Scandinavian folk. These three could easily be mistaken for my brother’s high school hockey teammates, if you took away their beards. Sweaty throngs circle dance exuberantly to Alphvénzh’s Klezmer and Balkan brand of music. “Those folks sure throw a fantastic party,” are my last thoughts as slumber welcomes me in the wee hours of the morning.

Meanwhile, a Parisiancamera crew is working diligently capturing various scenes documentary-style on 16-millimeter film, for a work of fiction about a French experimental musicianentitled, “Oki.” Guests are alternately stagehands and performers. Tables and benches are lugged out into the neighboring farm’s freshly plowed field, where we somberly eat lunch portraying a post-funeral gathering. A car is slowly pushed along the road to assist the cameraperson with their tracking shot.

After lunch, the parade for all ages lines up; children donning their cardboard creations, one a train conductor, another Mercury on the back of her mother’s bike, a few robots and flying automobiles, parents contribute by wearing hats made from foil and paper bags. A few older siblings lend a medieval flare with their crusader helmets and suffer accordingly in the unseasonably hot sun. We march through the village, bookended by brass bands, two kilometers to Wålstedt’s Farm, where we’re treated to spiraled cinnamon buns, cold blueberry juice and coffee. I relax in the shaded grounds paying silent reverence to this source of all vegetables served at Hagenfesten by köksmästare Lena.

A brief rain shower dampens camp, matching my thoughts about leaving this paradise. Soon I’m headed back to Stockholm, where I have a room with a view of a sunny courtyard surrounded by pastel painted buildings. My host considers my question, “Where can one find Swedish pancakes with lingonberries around here?“and replies that his mother sometimes makes them for his nephew and niece and if he’s lucky he’ll get some then. “Probably IKEA,” he says. I’m bewildered by this. How can this be? Eventually I find pancakes at a café listed on the children’s menu. They’re not quite as I expected, instead served with a very tart raspberry jam, whipped cream and powdered sugar, rather than the lingonberries, but they’re still delicious and manage to meet my hankering.

I walk for hours one day down leafy shaded streets and through green parks jammed with sun worshippers. I haven’t seen this many people tanning since the 1980’s, but I can understand a Swede’s mindset completely. This summer sun is fleeting and will disappear for hours soon, so let’s make the most of it now.

I jump on the subway and make my way to a crowded Gamla Stan. I’m yearning for that quiet walk from Dala-Floda to Hagen and the wildness of a forest, so I escape by ferry to Djurgården, basically in central Stockholm, where I’ve been told there are woods one could possibly get lost in. Hopeful, I bound off the ferry and make my way past the amusement park, the Abba Museum and board a tram, which takes me to Skansen. Maybe Skansen could quench my need for the most Swedish region, Dalarna, so I pay the admission and climb the hill for some very nice views of Stockholm. Later I’m walking rougher paths that snake through Djurgården, but not nearly lost enough. My quest for wild solitude continues the next day, as I venture out to Sandhamn, and it quells as the ferry passes each rocky island dotted with pine trees. Reaching Sandhamn, I leave the charming harbor making my way uphill and looking back I notice an incredibly long hedge of lilac bushes way past their best. Back in Minneapolis, my direct neighbors, the Sultans (obviously not Swedish), had a hedge of lilacs such as this one and in the spring the scent was magnificent. Pity, I’m too late and missed them. I must come back to this spot in June and check out the scent of these lilacs. By the time the bus pulls into Slussen, the sky is getting dark, but those yellow, orange and pink swirls remain on the horizon and I begin to ponder whether the Aurora Borealis ever appears this far south this time of year?  Probably not likely, but maybe if I return in March or April I’ll get another enchanted glimpse.

Julie Balot works for a high tech company in the Bay Area, California, writing short stories in spare time and enjoying the natural beauty and outdoor activities California offers as much as possible.


The house in Stockholm Housing the editorial board. Photo:  Julie Balot.


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