Image credit: Splemansstämma by Stina Sunesson
by Catherine Young
"Ooh," Björn answers my call from a phone booth in Leksand, a four-hour train ride from his home in Stockholm. "What time is it?" He speaks each word slowly and separately as he tries to think in English.
"It's 3 AM. I need help. I need to come to your friend’s Midsommar party after all. The Americans threw all of my things out of the dormitory room, and I got locked out. I can tell you everything later. The first train out is at seven…"
"O-kay," Björn answers. "No worries, then." He gives me directions for each train I will take, and finally a taxi. He will see me after he plays accordion for a Midsommar pole-raising late that afternoon, and then we’ll go to a celebration. Björn is the best kind of friend for an American in distress.
On the crowded train back from Leksand to Stockholm, I lean on my backpack and fiddle.
My dream of Sweden at Midsommar began the moment I set eyes on a postcard as a child – a painting of smiling and laughing children and adults wearing flower crowns clustered around a log house painted red with white trim. Fiddlers in long, dark, wool coats and yellow breeches leaned in toward a girl in summer dress and clogs fiddling back to them. Spelmänsstämma i Dalarna was the caption. I had no idea the words meant a folk musicians' gathering in Sweden – but I knew it's where I had to go.
The fiddlers in the postcard came to life when I first heard Swedish folk music performed in America at a summer festival, and when I first heard a haunting Swedish fiddle tune, I had to learn the polska dance that went with it – a couple dance that whirled around the room. I stayed up all night, begging to be taught.
I dreamed Midsommar in Dalarna, the area in Sweden where a meteorite hit the earth and pushed up mountains, and centuries-old red log houses glow against the green landscape. A place where, because of poverty and mining, change has been slow and old traditions kept intact. Where the devil-driven, strange-sounding tunes of two hundred years still reign.
Two years ago, when I played with a group of Swedish-American musicians, five fiddlers from the town of Leksand in Dalarna gave a workshop in America. They announced the planned workshop with them in Leksand at Midsommar, and I asked to go along. I was willing to do anything to put myself in the scene of my childhood postcard.
But nothing has turned out as planned.
The blur outside the windows of the speeding train reflects the vertigo I feel from over two days’ lack of sleep. Why, Why, Why, the train’s rhythm pounds, but I refuse to consider the question for which I have no answer. The hurt is bad enough.
In evening, Björn brings me to his friend's Midsommar party – a gathering of middle-aged people like him. A visiting American smiles a welcome to me and puts a flower crown on my head. We dance and sing outdoors around a garlanded pole, children and adults together, and then eat and talk beneath it in the long twilight. Everyone asks how I've come to be with them, and it's so hard to explain.
"OK," Björn says. "So you made reservations at the folk school and they were expecting you yesterday. I put you on the train at noon."
"And the train broke down. Over and over. I got to the school at dusk and it was empty except for the rector who waited for me and let me in. The American musicians were at the party with the Leksand musicians. They told me at the airport that the party was just for them. So I unpacked and took the mile walk to town – which was also empty."
"Yes. Everyone’s at parties."
"When I got back to my room, I found my things thrown out." I take a breath to steady my voice before continuing. "The group leaders waited in the lounge to tell me I had no right to be there because I hadn’t made a reservation."
"But you had."
"Yes, but after checking me in and before the Americans arrived, the rector left for the weekend. It was awful, Björn. I could have slept outdoors, but – oh I needed to get away from them. I walked to town and called you, and then I went to the train station."
"And do the Leksand fiddlers know what happened?"
"I don’t know. I should just get a flight home."
The American woman listens carefully, and then offers, "You have three weeks before the return flight. You're here in Sweden for a reason."
"I came for the music in Dalarna. Now I don't have a place there."
The woman takes my hand in hers." Her aquamarine eyes sparkle in the summer twilight. She shakes her head and smiles at me, then whispers, "The universe is trying to tell you something."
I sigh. I wonder: What language is the universe speaking?
Long past midnight Bjorn takes me down to the lakeshore. "In Viking times, the water was higher and all these small lakes were connected. Viking ships sailed right to where we are standing."
We take a path through the woods where we discover four nearly spent candles placed on a Viking rune stone, one each for the four directions. I feel lifted.
Björn and I walk the streets of the town in the long twilight. At 3 AM, the color comes back into the rosebushes. He asks, "What now? There's a fiddle workshop south of here. I can sign you up. You can stay in Stockholm until it begins."
"Help me phone a contact in Dalarna. Maybe I can make my way there and camp at the festivals."
"All right then," he says.
I ride toward the sun in a cherry red Volvo with Ragnvald at the wheel, and Bojan, his wife, shaking her gorgeous blonde curls. Her fiddle rests beside me on the back seat.
"The farmer, he does the hay the old way, and he needs help," Bojan tells me in lilting English as we race the wooded Dalarna countryside.
The midsummer light in Sweden has me completely turned around. "So, now which direction are we going?" I ask.
"North, mostly," Ragnvald answers. "Around this time of year the sun rises in the North, going up almost to the top of the sky, makes a circle, then sets in the North, going down for only about four hours."
Bojan draws the path of the sun in the air: a circle and then a line coming down – the path of a child's pretend halo.
"You have heard of Bingsjö?" Ragnvald asks me.
"Yes. The tunes from there are gorgeous – and so impossible to play! Why do you ask?"
"We are going to help with hay at Pekkosgården, the farm where the Bingsjöspelmänsstämma is held."
I catch my breath. It would be enough for me to simply work on a farm in Sweden. But Pekkosgården – the home of the fiddler and tradition bearer, Pekkos Gustav. The most famous farm in central Sweden: the site of the Bingsjö Festival – the largest fiddlers' gathering.
"In two weeks, 20,000 people will come to the farm. And the hay has to be put up today."
Ragnvald hands over a wooden rake, its tines small, hand-carved pegs. I rake as I see the others do, pulling the hay in swaths. Pekkos Gustav gestures to me and speaks to Bojan in dialect. She translates for me: No it has to be just right. Just right. The hay has to be combed – like hair all in a line. Otherwise it won't shed water. Moldy hay can start a barn fire.
I comb and comb the hay, watching Ragnvald and Bojan, to see if my swaths look like theirs. As we rake, carpenters set up a stage near us below the farmhouse.
After three hours of raking and lifting hay, I spread my raincoat on the ground and lie down. Pekkos Gustav comes over, leans on his rake and smiles at me, saying something I can understand. Så trött.
So very tired. Yes, I am.
We trudge uphill to the red log farmhouse for lunch. Inside, the house is traditional and picture-perfect. Green and red shelves line the white-washed walls of the Dalarna kitchen. The stove is wood-fired. Svea, the farmer’s wife, places bowls and knäckebröd, the Swedish hardtack, before us. ("No meat, right?" I whisper to Bojan. She shakes her head. "Pea soup for lunch.") I'm so hungry I finish one bowl and gladly accept more. Svea fills my bowl a third time.
Pekkos Gustav is trying to tell me something. He gestures towards the barn. Bojan translates: "The soup tastes so good because it has the farmer's own ham in it."
I swallow hard. I have been a vegetarian for fifteen years. There is no food other than pea soup with ham, and I’ve already eaten two bowls full. I smile. Tack för maten, I tell them. Thanks for the food.
After seven more hours of haying and two more meals of pea soup, I collapse on the ground to rest. The farmer tells me in dialect, It's hard work isn't it?
When the haying is done, Pekkos Gustav invites us up to the parlor to play tunes. He plays music out-of-tune to my ear – quarter tones, disorienting and dizzying. As I listen, I look at the white-stucco fireplace surrounded by murals of Rousseau-like trees and 18th-century costumed people painted when the farmhouse was new. My sense of present time dissolves into the music.
In two weeks' time, Bojan, Ragnvald, and I become inseparable. I rent a car, and I follow them to each stämma, camp beside them, and follow them home in between festivals. I dance with Ragnvald, play fiddle tunes with Bojan. I skinny dip with them in a river. I visit their relatives, and babysit Bojan's nephew. Rangvald teaches me a new Swedish word: lagom – just right. The days become lagom. I learn to stay low key in the daytime, dance and play just before midnight, and continue partying until dawn. Like a good Swede, I sleep from sunrise till noon, then eat and lounge until clocks tell us it's night and time to celebrate.
I return to Pekkosgården for the Bingsjöstämma, seasoned. Thousands of people now cover every inch of ground between the farm’s hay-covered racks. Their murmuring voices cloak the hillside. Here and there a shout of surprise rises like a flare of a Midsummer bonfire, but only for an instant. Clusters of fiddlers play around the farm buildings, while scheduled fiddlers perform all afternoon on the newly-built stage. Ragnvald, Bojan, and I sit close to it, on the ground.
"There they are," I point out the American musicians out to Ragnvald, "The ones who threw out my luggage." He nods.
The Americans arrive at the stage in a tight group. They are scheduled as guest fiddlers. Behind them, I see the five Leksand fiddlers in their traditional long, dark blue wool coats and yellow leather breeches – dressed as if they've stepped from a mural. They are readying to play on stage with the Americans. I feel unbearably sad. I turn away.
Ragnvald nudges me. Lars, the leader of the Leksand group, comes up to us; the other four are behind him. He reaches down to where I sit on the grass, and takes both my hands in his. He shakes both my hands, and says, "You are welcome here." He shakes my hands and makes sure that I look in his eyes – that I understand him.
"You are welcome here. Yes?" All of the Leksand fiddlers behind him nod in agreement. They depart, and I am bewildered.
"That was an apology, you see? They came to apologize," Ragnvald tells me. In an instant, the weeks melt, and I turn and collapse into Ragnvald's arms and weep, while Bojan rubs my back.
After the sun sets, the tourists leave, and the short, twilit night begins. Musicians cluster in intimate groups and disperse across the farm, each claiming their own performance spaces. In the log barn, the most famous regional musicians play in complete darkness punctuated only by the pale golden sky through the open doorway. Dancers swirl and fly around the room. I find a partner and join in. We rotate clockwise, as if each couple is a planet, and together we revolve counterclockwise in the room, as planets around an unknown sun. Many dancers are drunk. With a doorway leading to twilight at one end, and musicians opposite in the darkness, we dancers take our chances. We hit like bumper cars in some crazy arcade. Oof, oof, we hear around the room as we make contact. Still we fly, managing not to fall down, or to take out any musicians whose proximity we navigate by sound.
Later in the night, the crowd peters out, campers go to their tents nearby, and couples make their way to the surrounding woods. Dancers stop spinning, but the musicians keep playing, as if possessed. One threesome near the pig barn has a percussionist. Indian Dwali bells dangle from his Irish hand drum, sweetly sounding out the Swedish pulsing rhythm: Thump baBOOM chime.
I am sated from light and music, but chilled. Svea is selling food from the farmhouse kitchen window for a good profit. When I offer her my kronor for a cup of coffee, she smiles, and shakes her head. Ingenting. Nothing. As she speaks, someone translates. For you it is free. Is coffee all you want?
By three in the morning, colors again return. Many sit on the hillside, talking quietly. We are smiling at one another, intoxicated on sleepless joy.
At four, fiddlers coalesce outside the farmhouse. The rest of us cluster like bees surrounding the queen. Fiddle strings ring as scores of musicians tune their instruments. Voices rise. The Leksand fiddlers stand in the center, roaring drunk, shouting and hugging everyone. A tune begins, and moves from fiddle to fiddle like a flame catching from twig to twig to light a bonfire. Louder and louder, they play the sun up, and as the first rays return over the North edge of the world, the fiddlers shout. The short night is over. The sun rises straight up into the northern sky. We are all shouting and singing, and I am where I belong.
After having worked as a national park ranger, teacher, farmer, and mother, Catherine Young completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essays, poetry and children's fiction appear in Imagination & Place: Cartography, Hippocampus, Punctuate, Midwest Review, and Cricket, among others. You can listen to Catherine read this essay and others here.