“I have a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…”
(I just love Karen Blixon’s opening line. Also love the film. Of course, I don’t have a house in Africa, and I don’t have a Danish accent.)
However, we do have a home in Sweden set above the Baltic Sea. A summer house, or sommarstuga as they are called in Swedish. While that may conjure up images of a grand home (or maybe not), that would not be the case. Because, by definition (at least for “normal” people), in Sweden “summer house” and “grand” do not go together.
(Background brief: You know IKEA? The entire concept of simple, clean, and do-it-yourself pretty much embodies the Swedish culture. At least as it has been transferred to me via my husband, his lovely family, good Swedish friends, and 20 years of visits to this country. This is a country lived by relatively straight lines – straight as in civilized, not boring*. I have never seen a person stopped for speeding, maybe because (a) there aren’t that many police around and (b) people actually tend to follow the speed limit and the rules of the road. Drivers even recognize crosswalks, and pedestrians and bikers are king, not the car.)
(Strange, I know.)
Summer houses, no matter how simple, are one of the Swedish ideals. Not dissimilar to the Russians and their dachas. It is a dream of many Swedes to own a summer house near water. This was imprinted on me very early on in my relationship with my Swede. The drive to have a place near water is akin to a salmon’s pull to spawn in the same waters where it was hatched. In other words, strong.
Summer houses are generally simple, wooden structures, commonly painted red, yellow or blue, and intended only for the summer months (thus, the term summer house).
(Note: I said, “summer months,” as opposed to “warm months.” I have purchased down jackets in the middle of a Swedish ‘summer. Therefore, it is with deep gratitude that our “summer house” has heating.)
The thing is, you don’t need lap of luxury in a summer house. Because the experience is not about the house at all. It’s about what is around the house.
Ice- and age-smoothed stone hills and valleys. Deep green grass. Tall birch and pine trees waving their leaves in the sea air. A profusion of wild flowers. Water, lapping in tune to the birds’ melodic prattling. Skies the color of a robin’s egg or a baby’s blanket, depending on the weather. Sun that refuses to go to sleep.
It’s also about what you do around the house. Boating. Lounging on one of the rocks, smoothed by ice and time, which make the perfect sun chair. Swimming (not for the feint-hearted; let’s just say the water is brisk and leave it at that). A friendly pick-up game of croquet (remember croquet?) or football (i.e. soccer). Basically, activities that, in the long breath of a fresh day, rouse the appetite. Which means that evenings include grilling or other means to delicious food. The semi-setting of the sun is met with relaxed conversation, good wine, maybe a stroll if there is any energy left, or, if not, swinging in a hammock.
Even if the day is hot, the nights are generally cool and refreshing. Which means a soft bed and comforter envelop you as the cool, night breeze caresses your face, and the sound of nature deliver you to sleep.
(Turns out, I don’t need a yurt (reference: yoga blog). I have one. Except, instead of a tent, I have solid walls.)
(And my bed here is more comfortable.)
(And I don’t have to walk outside to use the toilet.)
(Because indoor plumbing in summer houses is like good summer weather in Sweden. Not guaranteed.)
(Granted, we have depleted our well’s resources – the dreaded ‘gone dry’ – a few times, but nothing that a few hours and delegating the kids and husband to bathe in the ‘brisk’ Baltic sea with eco-friendly soap and shampoo doesn’t cure.)
And if that weren’t enough, there is one more thing, something that is the icing on the cake of this Swedish sommarstuga: Café Systarna. I could wax on – and probably will one day – about the Swedish food and all the great things to eat, but I won’t go into that now. I will just sum up this wonderful café for you in a run-on sentence that will end with 3 words…3 words that reflect the meticulous care and the baking expertise that is apparent in every hand-dipped-in-chocolate-and-sprinkle-decorated ice cream cone, in each cream-filled-marizipan-wrapped Princess Torta delight, in every flaky pastry confection, in each sandwich made with the most delicious homemade bread, freshest shrimp, chicken, creamy brie, ripe tomatoes….3 words that depict the scrumptious essence of this place and made clear to me at first sight that this would be a place that I would forever pledge my gastric allegiance to:
Buttered. Bread. Samples.
* Swedes are not, though, straight in terms of boring. Or lacking creativity. For example, the Swedish kitchen / food culture is filled with flourishes, exclamation points, and artistry. Each item consumed is approached with the same care, enthusiasm, and dedication as a master to his piece de resistance. Wine in glasses is swirled; the bouquet is inhaled; and there is a communion of eyes and nodding of heads to seal the deal. Potatoes are cooked to perfection – cooked through and firm, but never, ever mushy – and peeled as an artist would carve the finest wood; lemon, salt, pepper, butter, etc. is added to a dish only enough to enhance – not overwhelm – a food; menus follow the seasonal bounty of land and sea; and so on.