The Swedes and their summer house
Us Swedes are a strange lot. We enjoy feeling a bit miserable. This isn’t necessarily painful; instead it’s often more a bittersweet sensation of homecoming. A general feeling of melancholy acts as a simple cure for all of life’s frustrations.
It’s well known that being surrounded by nature is a shortcut to emotional peace, and the extravagantly lush Swedish summer countryside is perfect for this. Few things are so evocative as seeing an ocean of colourful meadow flowers revealed as the morning mist is burned away by the sun. This is one of the reasons why summer cottages play such a major role in our lives.
Swedish cabin fever
For the big city dweller getting away doesn't have to mean leaving the country or even the region. Because of Sweden's diverse landscape and archipelagos sometimes just going a few miles does the trick.
And there's nothing like sitting on the porch of a cottage or cabin, looking at the sunset over the still blue waters or peering through the forest, hearing nothing but the careful paw-steps of animals in their natural habitat or the wind caressing the treetops. Sweden is a Mecca of different cabins and environments. At Swedish camp sites you can often find your dream cottage right by the sea or lake, in a forest or next door to your favorite activities.
You can choose a cabin high on a mountain in northern Sweden or beachside somewhere along our vast coast. Rent a cabin in a "cabin village", close to the action of, for instance, the medieval town of Visby or all alone in the deep forest of Småland with the nearest neighbor a mile or two away.
One Shared Dream
It can seem like every Swede has a summer home, but in fact it’s only 51% that has access to one. However, it’s important to add that the remaining 49% dream of having one.
Because this is a dream that combines two of our strongest character traits: the yearning for a lost childhood and an insatiable desire for solitude, for getting away from everyone else. We have to get far away, in thought if not in distance.
Does that mean that we’re antisocial? No – and we’re also extremely good at benefiting from that solitude. You could even say that we need it. To recharge our batteries, to achieve distance from our everyday worries and work our way back to a balanced view of existence. It is only by immersing themselves in their own sorrow and despair that a genuine Swede can cope with the prospect of yet another gloomy year at work.
We Like Being Stereotyped
The journey to the summer home is an epic in itself. This is where the process of recharging begins. Travelling through waving cornfields and shady spruce forest puts the mind in a special state.
Everyone in the car knows what awaits – the idea of the summer holiday is so deeply ingrained in us that our roles are almost predetermined.
The details of our desires can vary. Some of us want to do a lot of fishing, some of us want to do carpentry projects on the patio, others simply want to rest. But the sulky teenager knows that he can’t sleep long in the mornings before the shout comes from the kitchen to cycle out and buy milk. His parents know that the teenager will avoid spending time with his little brother and will instead lie on the beach with his new friend. Or spend the summer flirting with the cute local girl who works in the kiosk.
And everyone will seek out some kind of solitude. This is how Swedes find the energy to endure life. The family meets over dinner – with a dessert of freshly picked berries – but for breakfast and lunch they have sandwiches and milk on their own, behind a book or out in the vegetable garden. Their tasks are a charade – everyone knows that their thoughts are elsewhere, in a sorrowful reflection on existence.
Politics Shaped the House
It all began in an entirely different spirit. In the early 1900s society was changing, with new opportunities to increase people’s living standards. In Germany and France, affordable cars for ordinary people were being constructed – the VW Beetle and Citroën CV2 – and in Sweden, employers, unions and politicians came together to give people time and money to spend their holidays in summer homes. In classical Protestant spirit, the idea was that the new statutory holidays should be used for something beneficial – activities out in the fresh air was the refrain of the time.
Employers, unions and politicians came together to give people time and money to spend their holidays in summer homes.
The Swedish model was a consensus between state, industry and unions which provided the foundations for what is today a deeply ingrained love of one’s own hideaway in the countryside.
The idea immediately became popular and companies built their own holiday villages for their employees. These were small, cute houses, in many ways a modern take on the old red painted croft – the traditional home of tenant farmers and soldiers. The buildings were of relatively simple standard. Towards the middle of the century it became highly fashionable to build one’s own summer home.
But then something happened which is extremely important for our understanding of the current situation. We discovered that people didn’t need to build right next door to each other.
In many ways we suddenly wanted to be back living the crofter’s life, in that separation and solitude became a goal above all others. This idea lives on today, perhaps even more strongly than before. The expression “secluded location” (enskilt läge in Swedish) is something that gives rise to special feelings for the majority of Swedes.
A Mainstay in Swedish Culture
Ingmar Bergman, the best advertisement for Swedish melancholy, spent a great deal of time in his writing cottage on the barren islet of Fårö off the island of Gotland. Out there, his imagination had free rein and was interrupted only by daily trips to the kiosk by the ferry landing to buy the evening papers. With his back to the world, he could allow his works to take shape.
Bergman died in 2007 at the age of 89, on Fårö. He had stopped being afraid of death and chose to meet it in solitude.
Our dream home can now just as easily be a minimalist architectural work of art as a dilapidated croft from the 1600s with the axe marks still visible on its log walls. Size and comfort levels don’t automatically equal status. A private island with a sandy beach and good communication routes are the most desirable features, but the house buyer often ends up in something that reflects their childhood memories – at least as closely as they can afford – and then the standard of the property is less important.
For example, the issue of the outdoor vs indoor toilet is fundamental for all Swedes who waste time at work browsing through Sweden’s biggest property site, but in reality most people are just as happy with the simplest possible standard of accommodation. The lack of running water is counterbalanced by a solid old wood-fired stove.
In other words, we are in search of a kind of authenticity, and that’s why it isn’t impossible that you might find the CEO of the Singapore stock exchange crouching over a simple earth closet with a flaking heart painted upon the door.
In terms of its origins the Swedish summer cottage is therefore something of a divided tale. If we ignore the hyper-modern creations, we have roughly hewn crofts with stone foundations, simple cabins with thin partition walls and linoleum flooring, and restored former farm cottages.
After decades of renovations, the overall image is still strikingly uniform, far beyond the classical red façade. Often, the kitchen cupboards are from the 1950s. If there is wood-fired oven it is supplemented with a simple electric cooker from, say, the 1990s. An old-fashioned kitchen sofa has pride of place in houses from all periods. The attic under the gable roof has been turned into a sleeping loft and the beds in all of the guests rooms are simple wooden frames – or, something considered to be particularly classy – were built in place. Those who can be bothered rip out the linoleum flooring and sand the oak planks beneath, but in all honesty the lino isn’t such a bad idea.
We have large regional variations – from Norrland’s natural grey huts on mountain pastures to Mälardalen’s two-storey houses on small hills or Skåne’s sturdy half-timbered buildings.
The big mystery is why, when given the chance, children all across the country without exception draw a Swedish summer home as red and opulent, with mullioned windows and a flagpole nearby, surrounded by green grass.
Where Big Names Find Peace
Holidays are a private affair in Sweden and curiosity is aroused every time a celebrity reveals their summer home. The most famous houses are surrounded by a mystical aura.
Björn and Benny from ABBA fled life on tour as soon as they got the chance and hid themselves away in their basic little cottage on the island of Viggsö in the Stockholm archipelago. In this isolated environment, they created 70s hits such as “Ring, Ring”, “Fernando” and “Dancing Queen”.
Creative work and summer homes go together for many creative Swedes, but most often the goal is relaxation. When Hollywood star Malin Åkerman needs a break from showbiz, she travels to picturesque Falsterbo on the southern point of Skåne. Ex-footballer Fredrik Ljungberg visits his native area of Båstad and Tylösand, where they know how to party.
One of the things Sweden is best known for internationally is its stated aim to achieve consensus in politics. We sometimes call this the Spirit of Harpsund, after the Prime Minister’s country residence in Södermanland. It was here that Tage Erlander, regarded by many as the Father of the Swedish Nation, took a private trip in a rowing boat with Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union – a tradition which many foreign heads of state have since enjoyed.
And nothing makes us as proud as when major international stars buy their own little red house with white trim. We nod in approval when Will Ferrell and his Swedish wife settle down in the small town of Gnesta south of Stockholm. The same applies when Kofi Annan and his Swedish wife choose to spend the beautiful Swedish summer in south-eastern Sweden.
Will Ferrell has often praised the temperament and dry humour of the Swedish. But like us, he mostly just wants to be left alone when the summer arrives. “They live here because they want peace and quiet, they don’t want lots of curious people running around”, says an anonymous neighbour to the local newspaper.
Kofi Annan also ended up in Sweden thanks to his wife. Their summerhouse in rural Svalemåla on the island of Gyön is in the same area that Nobel prize for literature winner Harry Martinson used to spend his summers.
Then we have Luis Figo, one of the world’s most famous footballers, who built his own house near the small northern Swedish town of Sollefteå. It’s worth noting that the most exclusive aspect for a summer home is not to find the Swedish Hamptons or a version of Lake Como. Here isolation is the measure of happiness.
Weeks of Solitude
Our relationship to our summer home changes over the years. The desire for peace and our own thoughts is something that comes with age.
From the freedom of adventurous childhood games with a pocket knife and bow – with a touch of solemnity when an intrusive adder must be killed – through the teenage years of absence when there are so many other pleasures to discover in life, to rediscovering this source of enjoyment in early adulthood.
After this the biggest change of all takes place. When the school run and work take over, Swedes must get away… from their colleagues, from everything that relates to everyday social life. Our melancholy must be released, ideally throughout the summer.
Those five statutory holiday weeks are best taken all at once in order to maximise the time spent in the countryside. Quite often parents divide up the time so that their children can stay as long as possible, something they often forget to appreciate until they are adults themselves.
Time For Nothing
The original, 100-year-old idea – of being active on holiday – is now a thing of the past. When we have travelled the long miles to our summer home, we do… absolutely nothing, as the statistics make clear.
High on our list of ideal occupations are “rest”, “be alone”, “relax”, “read” and the somewhat vague “freedom”. 53% state that they want to “sleep”. 77% want to “take it easy”.
Among more active occupations we enjoy fishing, swimming, sunbathing, drinking coffee and having barbecues. The latter can take place every evening, providing a hobby that gives a great excuse for investing in complicated smoke barbecues and exclusive, locally produced barbecue sauces.
However, there is reason to doubt the truthfulness of all this alleged activity. If you spy on a randomly selected summer home, you realise that peeling potatoes on the front steps is often the day’s most exciting occupation. Or someone filling in the last letters in old crossword.
A search for calm is, of course, a reaction to the stress that characterises the existence of modern humans across the world. The unique thing about Swedes is the conscious search for a special type of calm in which all camouflage can be set aside. It is perhaps best described with another popular phrase: time for oneself.
So it’s somewhat surprising that “meeting relatives” is high on the list of activities. Of course we like our relations, but the summer home is often a complicated, jointly-owned affair. Time must be divided fairly, as must the work involved. Sooner or later there are always arguments about costs or, ultimately, about selling the property. Every Swede can tell you stories about families that were torn in two when irreconcilable desires collided.
It’s easy to picture Ingmar Bergman sitting and smiling thinly, gazing down from heaven at the tragic aftermath.
What Keeps Swedes going
It’s hard to see a future in which our love for our summer homes would wane. Our beautiful summer, with the tall grass along the verges and the dry crackle of gravel under our feet on the way to the kiosk, has a special attraction. And with a house of our own – whether castle or shack is irrelevant – we have everything we need. This is true for all ages and all temperaments. Only there can we be ourselves.
About the writer
Martin Genberg is a Stockholm-based travel writer who loves to discover great food and hotels in the most surprising places. In the summers, though, you’ll likely find him traversing the Swedish plains, valleys and mountains in his tiny car, living in a tent or – where applicable – at friends’ summer houses.