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Letter From Sweden, In Summer
Alan AtKisson, 11 Aug 05

MixedBerries-small.jpgAttention Conservation Notice: Starts out talking about blueberries, and includes a brief mention of "Burning Vulva Syndrome," before concluding with notes on the state of the world. Busy readers may wish to skip the blueberries.

Here in this largely forested land in the north of Europe, it's blueberry season. We walk up into the woods every few days with our kids and their plastic sandbox buckets, and squat down among the tall pines, and pick. We can easily keep at it for two hours, without it ever feeling like work. The children eat; we collect. Our freezer is getting full of blueberries, and our bellies rounder from overly frequent pie-and-ice-cream desserts.

And it's not just blueberry season. It's also raspberry season, and wineberry season, and several other berries whose names don't translate well, and we're coming up into lingonberry season, and of course there are the mushrooms.

We become slightly stunned by nature's bounty this time of year. Everything is green and lush, nearly tropical in its abundance. There is a crispness to the air, a hint of summer's end, but it's not here yet. We can still stroll or bike down to one of the local lakes and take an evening dip, if the weather's good. The grass needs cutting with amazing frequency. The kids run around barefoot, and snatch the occasional raspberry off the bushes hidden among the shrubbery of our community.

Sweden has finally taught me to love the summer. I grew up sweating in Florida, without air conditioning, driven to distraction by the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears at night. Summer in Florida felt like an assault. Summers in New York and New Orleans were, if anything, worse. Even when I lived in Seattle, a very Scandinavia-like place weather-wise, I loved spring and fall best. But summer in Sweden feels like what summer was meant to be.

It is symbolic of this country's summer giddiness that it tends to draw to a close, in August, with a sometimes silly, always rather nostalgic party. A traditional "crayfish disc" -- which is the literal translation, no one can yet explain to me why this particular party uses the word for a flat, round item, such as a CD, to describe itself -- consists of crayfish cooked in dill, the flavored vodkas we call snaps, and colorful, conical party hats, the kind you put on the heads of three-year-olds at a birthday party. The optional plastic bibs only add to the regression-feeling, which of course is spurred on by the snaps and the snaps-songs.

The end of summer is toasted with rousing old songs about (for example) advising old men to grab the nearest nymph and take another drink, to hold off the existential fear of inevitable death and darkness:

Do you think the grave is too deep?
Well, then, take another drink
Then take ditto one, ditto two, ditto three ...
And you'll die happ-i-ly

While much of Sweden simply shuts down for its brief summer, which essentially means the entire month of July, intellectual life does not shut down completely. Newspapers continue to publish, though one notices that the contents sometimes stretch credulity. At the beginning of the season, one of the free city dailies in Stockholm had a cover story, no less, about some young women complaining that they can't get adequate treatment from the government health service for the rising incidence of "Burning Vulva Syndrome." According to this relatively non-sensationalist paper, BVS is not symptom of venereal disease. It is a persistent irritation caused by, well, having sex.

(Actually, nobody really knows what causes vulvular vestibulitis, as it's known medically, among sexually active women under 27; Go Ask Alice for more information.)

Swedes probably have no more sex than people in other cultures -- and less than the French, I'm told -- but they are certainly much more "no big deal" about the topic. They make a bigger deal out of relatively minor distinctions in political philosophy, and the differences between the seven major parties can sometimes be difficult to see. No one wants to do away with the core of the Swedish welfare state; they all just want to tinker with it in various ways. Bigger differences do exist, but they follow no easily discernable pattern: the Environment Party (Greens) is against EU integration, but stand with the pro-EU ruling Social Democrats. The Center Party stands with the more-conservative opposition bloc, but opposes nuclear power. You need a scorecard, and fortunately, the papers print one now and again.

Political discussion during the doldrums of summer is a gift to newspaper editors, so this is also a season of discussion forums in out-of-the-way, summery locations. The season always opens with Almedal Week, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. There Sweden's political leaders (and a few from other EU lands) take turns articulating their analysis of the recent past and their prescriptions for a better future, and in keeping with the spirit of summer, a certain license is granted to speak more thoughtfully and freely than one might in Stockholm in mid-Fall.

And at the recent Tällberg Forum, some five hundred leaders gathered in a kind of mini-Davos to talk about, among other things, sustainability. The very diverse participants included a few presidents from smaller European countries, some recognizable business leaders, scientists, journalists, and of course consultants and authors in the field (though not this consultant and author, I've mostly kept my head down in Sweden to date). Talks and workshops are interspersed with cultural performances of the highest caliber, and of course the King attends at least one of these. The Forum this year issued no declarations, said the concluding press release to the Swedish media, but celebrated the learning and exchange of participants. I'm sure the food was wonderful as well.

Tällberg seems to be a fine talk-fest, in a country where summer is a time for festing ("fest" is Swedish for "party") and talking and enjoying life, not doing. But talk matters, for talk spreads understanding. One of the Tällberg participants was Dennis Meadows, co-author of the now-updated Limits to Growth, first published in 1972. Meadows' talk was picked up and reported by, for example, a leading economics writer in a leading Indian paper, and the writer actually seemed to understand the key messages (unusual for economists). Was Limits to Growth right, thirty years ago? Is humanity outstripping the Earth's capacity to provide us resources and absorb our wastes?

Unfortunately, yes. As Meadows and others have been patiently explaining for decades, we're overdrawing nature's account, never more rapidly than now. And since we didn't respond adequately to the early warnings and calls for change of the 1970s, we have lost thirty years, and must now scramble to transform our energy systems, preserve ecosystems and biodiversity, reinvent agriculture and the like. Back then, we had maybe a hundred years, at most, to change course. Now the margin is down to a little as 50 years, and the changes needed are more dramatic, but just doable. If we accelerate the process of change. Starting right now.

Or at least, starting right after the crayfish party.

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The swedish word "skiva" translates to either "disc" or "party".

In this context, the literal translation of "kräftskiva" is crayfish party.

Posted by: Fredrik on 12 Aug 05

thanks for putting my thoughts about sweden in summer into such descriptive words!!!!!
I now live in alice springs in central australia...summer here leaves me hankering for a long warm july day in goteborg...
again, thanks

Posted by: liz on 12 Aug 05

Thanks Alan. Good piece.

Posted by: Zaid on 12 Aug 05

Wonderful picture. It was the same in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness just a couple of weeks ago!!

Posted by: Randall Kindley on 12 Aug 05

Thank you. That was pleasant.

Posted by: Lawrence Wang on 12 Aug 05

Its really a wonderful post. I am an Indian, studied in Linkoping, Sweden for 2.5 years. Its really a great country in most aspects.

Posted by: Raj Peddisetty on 12 Aug 05

Really great piece, Alan, thanks.

I know the women's health bit is just a part of the narrative, but I passed it along to my mother, Dr. Lynne Margesson, a dermatologist and educator who happens to be a global expert in the extremely small field of vulvar disease. Accuracy in this area is very important to her, so she'd like to clairify:

"Burning vulva syndrome is called vulvodynia. It's very common. Vulvar pain affects up to 16% of women at some time in their lifetime, and somewhere between 4-7% of women have vulvar pain all of the time. Vulvar pain can be related to specific disorders such as infections, or rashes, or a tumour. But when it is not associated with any of these conditions, it is referred to as vulvodynia. There are 2 kinds of chronic vulvodynia: the first is vulvar vestibulitis syndrome (localized vulvodynia), and the other is dysesthetic vulvodynia (generalized vulvodynia). A great resource for these conditions and their management is the National Vulvodynia Association, at"

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 12 Aug 05



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