Valborg in Stockholm

“I’m sorry, I’m a tourist, I can’t understand you…”, I said to a young bloke coming back on the train from Saltsjöbaden. As I recall, he’d gotten on the train about half way back to Slussen with a backpack over one shoulder, and a beer in his hand. On a couple of occasions he’d held up his beer, smiled over at me and mumbled something. When it came time to disembark, he said something again, and that’s when I decided there was absolutely no way I would attempt a conversation in Swedish. In some ways, it was the perfect stalemate: he was too drunk to speak English and I was too sober to speak Swedish.

As he got off the train, he put his beer down, and that’s when I noticed it was 7.8% alcohol. At four o’clock in the afternoon, he wasn’t the only one on the train who had been drinking though. In fact, seeing groups of very young drunk people walking around the streets of Stockholm is, I’m told, a good early indicator of Valborg. The other good early indicator is seeing groups of young people wearing sailor hats. For them, Valborg is a big night. They’re all about to graduate from university, and if you look closely at their hats, you’ll see their first name and the year of graduation. Valborg is, apparently, the first of many occasions you’ll see them on the streets of Stockholm, as they end their university careers and as summer commences.

Despite this contemporary reference, Valborg has its origins in pagan times. It has something to do with witches, apparently. Burning them. Though in modern times, this means a group of people starting off in Gamla Stan with Olympic-style flames making their way to Riddaholmen where, in the front of the city hall, they set fire to a giant bonfire.

It’s something I’d only read about in Swedish class. So when I knew I was going to be here for it, I was determined to attend. Robert and Sandra came along for the ride, even though they’ve been here for Valborg on several occasions before. “Keep an eye out for the karaoke at the end of the night”, Sandra told me. Or perhaps “Warned” would be a better word.

What I truly didn’t expect was how hot things would actually get. We got close enough at times so that it actually felt like my skin was starting to burn. Once we made our way in, there weren’t many options for escape. There were times when we came perilously close to falling in to Lake Mälaren.

“This could never happen in Sydney”, I told them both. The combination of a giant bonfire, lots of alcohol, and children in an enclosed space would never get approval due to Australian occupational health and safety laws. I guess it’s the fact they’ve been doing this for a thousand years (or maybe longer) that means it can still happen today.

I’ll admit we played up our accents a little to make our way through the crowd to get as close as we possibly could to the bonfire. The use of “Excuse me” with an Australian accent, as opposed to “Ursäkta mig” with an odd accent worked wonders. Already on this trip I’ve realised there are times when you should try to speak Swedish and times when you shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s better to ham up the Australian accent a little and sound more like a tourist (with no Swedish language skills) than appear to be an immigrant (with poor Swedish language skills).

I felt like a young kid as I enjoyed the excitement of it all. I think I’ve said here previously I’m sure my mum was a borderline pyromaniac, and I felt as though I’d inherited some of that. As the heat warmed my face, there was a wonderful tension emerging from within my soul as I agonised over what was too close, and what wasn’t close enough.

I was also sorely tempted to join the karaoke. “Go on, you know you want to”, Sandra said to me at one point. Indeed I did. The potential breakthrough moment was when a group of French tourists got on stage and sang. In the end I decided the crowd of a couple of thousand people were probably more happy seeing a bunch of cute kids sing Swedish classics, than in seeing a middle-aged bloke from Australia mangle the same classics.

Sandra’s account of the night…

4 Comments

  1. :-)
    Actually, I believe “Ursäkta” must be the most difficult word in Swedish – for Swedes(!) – both when it comes to using it and understanding it. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to get past people using a polite “Ursäkta” several times, until finally deciding to just squeeze myself past them since nobody listens anyway.

    1. That’s funny because it’s true! Public transport etiquette is quite different here. An elderly couple were genuinely surprised when I got up to offer them my seat the other day. They were very grateful. In the back of my mind was the feeling, “Don’t worry, I’m getting older myself…”

    2. I mentioned this at Swedish class the other week, the ability to say excuse me on the T-bana, and was glared at by my classmates.

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