Swedish Decompression: The Summer Cottage Experience


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May 31st 2018
Published: May 31st 2018
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A visit to the summer cottage in Sweden allows us time to entirely relax. There is no noise from planes, no traffic hum, no car alarms or police sirens. The gravitational weight of big city living is removed. Heads clear, backs straighten, fists un-clench, shoulders un-hunch and teeth un-grit. Faces are turned toward the leaf-filtered rays of the sun.

For over ten summers we have been taking advantage of a stay in a sommarstuga (summer cottage). We have been on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, in the country outside the pretty, historic town of Strangnas and more recently we have been further inland between two lakes in the depths of a forest south of the city of Sodertalje.

Apparently nearly half the Swedish population have access to a summer cottage. There are no fewer than 600,000 summer houses in the country. They range from the very basic to the positively luxurious that can be lived in all year round. Our place is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It’s located around three hours drive from Stockholm near a small town in Södermanland County.

Our cottage, boasts a small wood burning stove in the living room, a couple of small bedrooms, a kitchen and a shower room with toilet. The kitchen has a small fridge-freezer, electric oven and a microwave. Our luxuries include water being piped directly from a well and we even have a small washing machine in the shower room. Gone are the days of having to bring all the linen and take away great bags of bed sheets etc at the end of your visit. The TV is seldom watched and remains unplugged. This is partly due to a slightly irrational insistence that the aerial could attract a lightening strike if a thunderstorm was to roll-in.

In spite of the few mod cons, some things remain simple. To the unfamiliar, a few aspects of a most basic nature can still require the need to adaptation. The lack of mains water or sewage is manifested in bathroom facilities that are notable. The toilet system can take a bit of getting used to as they are linked to a septic tank. To facilitate deliveryinto the tank a crafty release mechanism is built into the toilet seat. When the seat is depressed by the weight of ones arse, the bomb bay doors below are opened. A graveyard gasp of cold air is then blown up your jacksy. It is still better than the alternative which is the composting toilet. A small shovel is kept one side. After doing your business, the result is sprinkled with a woody mixture of earth, leaves and twigs. I often try to visualise that I am actually decorating a Yuletide log with hundreds and thousands during this process.

In spite of having decent cooking facilities most of the action is transferred to the BBQ outside. BBQs abound in the area. The evidence of their use is occasional, irregular columns of smoke protruding above the forest. They resemble native American smoke signals caused by the hood being repeatedly raised and lowered during burger flips and hotdog turns.

The summer days are long and otherwise occupying yourselves during a stint out in the woods takes numerous forms. Laziness of a certain form needs to be seriously nurtured and some of the highlights of this gentle living include;

Around the House

The purchase of a cottage is the acquisition of a perennial DIY project. There is an annual cycle of painting, wasp nest removal, decking maintenance, wood chopping, tree planting, tree felling, gardening, general maintenance and fixing stuff. Our stugga is flanked by two further decent sized sheds full of tools. I have more storage space available here than in my main home in the UK.

Our summer house is painted that classic dark rusty red colour. This is called Falu Rödfärg, and was originally an industrial by-product from the copper mines in Falun and thus was dirt cheap to use. We also have the classic white trim around window and door frames. Fortunately the painting is only necessary every few years.

Gardening requires more continual attention. The long days of summer mean that plant growth is supercharged and mowing the lawn is a frequent act. Gardening is also on a bit of different scale than I’m used to and has a bit of a frontier feel. A trip to Bauhaus in Sweden contrasts hugely to a trip to B&Q in the UK. In the UK aisles are given over to many different types of faux-brass Georgian door knobs and high-end paint. Gardening equipment has a suburban, lightweight feel. The gardening tools in Bauhaus verge on heavy plant. There is a considerable choice of chain saws, lawn tractors and brush cutters that can take down decent sized saplings. At the weekend, the otherwise silent woods, become troubled by the buzzes, zips and pings as these brush cutters are deployed against the undergrowth. There are sometimes no limits to this manifest macho handiness. My Swedish boss has set up his own forge in his summer house in Skåne county and spends his summer days metal working.

A personal favourite is wood chopping and stacking which constitutes a highly enjoyable chore. There is a little bit of the bark-up, bark-down debate when it comes to stacking but generally its treated as a perfunctory, repetitive matter that manages to produce zen-like focus. Thankfully, the Swedes aren’t quite as weird as Norwegians about their wood piles. Bestselling books have been written in Norway on such topics and one of my colleagues was once treated to a numbing two hour conversation on the seasoning of firewood at the staff conference with a Norwegian colleague.

Community Service

This year our trip coincided with the residents association’s fixardagar (fixing day) or staddagar (cleaning day). These are biannual events that happen around spring and autumn. It consists of a day of cleaning and fixing the community spaces. On a Saturday morning we strolled down to a loose gaggle of people to have our duties assigned. We were given a small area around a swimming pontoon on one of the lakes to tidy. What struck was that the environmental baseline is somewhat higher than in the UK. Three hours of intense raking and cleaning yielded only three small pieces of expanded polystyrene, a bottle cap and a plastic carton. I remember seeing a similar exercise conducted on the River Wand in London recently. A same sized strech produced the obligatory supermarket trolley, a child's bike, a dozen empty cans of mostly strong polish lager and a five full bin bags of assorted trash. Our lone bin bag of finds hung forlornly from a nearby pine tree like a deflated wind sock.

A Drive into town

A drive into town invariably takes you past several loppis. A loppis is second hand goods pop-up shop. Think yard sale with a manana attitude. The aim is not to sell anything; thereby avoiding the tedious need to restock. The proprietors are as elusive as cats. They commonly have all the organisation of a recently tipped dumpster and all manner of detritus is strewn around both the inside and exterior of garages, cellars and barns. Your attention is drawn to these accidental thrift shops like rubber neckers as you pass. It is a good place to stock up on nick knackery if there are any empty shelves left at home. They are generally an ephemeral summer phenomenon and by the third week of August they are shut-up and packed away.

A walk in the forest

In July and October, you may take advantage of the customary law known as Allemansrätten, which gives you right to pick mushrooms and berries in the forest. It leads to feverish prospecting in our household for the “gold of the forest”. The golden chanterelle is considered to be one of the absolute best fungi in the kitchen, by some chefs considered equal to truffle. Seeking out these little trumpet shaped goodies exacts a price. Blood sucking ticks can lurk in the undergrowth and launch themselves at the unknowing fossicking strangers. The spread of Lymes disease means Swedes have to be inoculated along with their pets before either can play in the woods. Still, it really is worth it as these mushrooms are superbly delicious.

A dip in the Lake

The lakes nearby have numerous swimming spots with small pontoons extending into the water. The upper two meters can warm-up nicely by late afternoon in summer. Below that there is a definite thermocline and a layer of water that hasn’t shifted since the last ice age. My pre-stugga regimen used to involved spending 45 minutes under a very hot shower before leaving Stockholm in the hope that cumulative exposure many have a lasting effect. It was always done with the knowledge that swimming in the lake may be the sole source of all ablutions for a while.

I love the visits to the stugga; it’s a dose of contented retirement for those still working. With one or two little exceptions, it’s fair to say that modern summer cottages no longer have the privations of yesteryear. When people discuss the perfect summer break this is what the minds eye has a tendency to conjure up in terms of imagery.

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