A wonderful new word I discovered on this trip to Sweden: smultronställe. The literal meaning is “wild strawberry patch”, but the word is used to mean a special place that is close to your heart, that isn’t so easy for others to find, where you feel at ease and at one with the world.
Your personal smultronställe may be a quirky café, a woodland glade or a place with a fine view, far from the madding crowd. (Examples taken from the Wikipedia article.)
Ingmar Bergman made a critically acclaimed film called smultronstället (Wild Strawberries), in which the elderly protagonist dreams of fondly remembered scenes of his youth.
Lots of berries and fruit end in -on in Swedish: hallon, smultron, plommon, nypon, hjortron, lingon, päron, and on and on…
Our home in Sweden for these two weeks is in Plommongatan (Plum Street) and all the neighbouring streets are named on a similarly fruity theme: Rose-hip Street, Bearberry Street, Raspberry Street, etc.
So what about you, do you have a smultronställe where you can escape the demands of the world?
In the southern part of Malmö is the quiet suburb of Limhamn, where we lived for a few months 15 years ago. In times past, Limhamn’s prosperity was underpinned by trade in two abundant commodities: herrings and limestone. Even the name of the town, lim hamn, means “lime harbour”.
The quarry from which the limestone was extracted is called the kalkbrott (chalk quarry) and is the biggest hole in the ground in northern Europe, extending over a square kilometre to a depth of 65 metres. I took some of these photos in January of this year and some in July. No prizes for guessing which is which!
As most of the excavation is well below sea level, the floor of the kalkbrott may well be the lowest-lying land in Sweden. Since its abandonment, it has been left to nature and the various levels have been recolonised by vegetation.
The limestone mined here was transported by a private narrow-gauge railway to a cement factory on the coast. Initially, the trains were drawn by horses, later with steam. In the 1960s, 2 km of the route was replaced with conveyor belts in an underground tunnel. Mining at the quarry ended in the 1990s, but the disused rail tracks still remained when we lived here in 2001. The tracks, fencing and signalling were removed in 2008 and the wayleave reverted to the city in 2009.
Compare these two photos taken 15 years apart:
Both photos show the Methodist church on the corner of Kalkbrottsgatan and Linnégatan in the centre of Limhamn. The one on the left, taken in the autumn of 2001, shows the railroad crossing signal and boom, and the tracks running along the street. In the photo on the right, taken this weekend, the rail line has been converted to a cycle track.
There used to be warning signs on the line saying “Gå ej i brottets bana“, which is a very clever double meaning. It straightforwardly means “don’t walk on the quarry railway”; but it also means “don’t embark on a life of crime”.
It’s a little ironic therefore that both the quarry and the cement factory have featured as scenes of crime in Nordic TV dramas. The very moving Wallander film Hemligheten (Secrets) opens with the discovery of a murdered boy in the kalkbrott. And the cement factory served as a suitably grim industrial setting for at least one typically tense episode of The Bridge.
Our home for these two weeks is in a lovely leafy suburb about 5 km from the centre of Malmö. It is a quietly affluent area with huge parks and an astonishing number of wild rabbits. Our house adjoins a cycle and pedestrian path, part of a network that is largely separate from the roads, so that you can walk or cycle around safely without having to deal with vehicle traffic.
We rented the house through Airbnb. On Tuesday morning we briefly met the owners; they were just about to set off on a two-day drive of their own, for a holiday in Croatia. They are completely laid back about having us living in their home; the only “rule” they posted on their Airbnb listing was “treat our house as if it were your own”. They also left us a bottle of wine with a note inviting us to help ourselves to the tomatoes and cucumbers growing in their glasshouse.
We’re also free to use their bicycles, including this handy (and somewhat unwieldy) cargo bike for doing grocery shopping.
Two things we noticed very quickly: there are no curtains and no clothes storage in any of the bedrooms.
The lack of curtains is typically Swedish; we had noticed years ago that as you walk around a Swedish neighbourhood in the evening you can see all the people in their houses and apartments going about their evening routines. The explanation I have heard is that Swedes don’t approve of having something to hide; if you are not engaging in nefarious activities, why would you need curtains?
What we hadn’t realised is that in summer, the lack of curtains means you are woken every morning at 5 a.m. by the full force of the sun shining directly in your face like a 100 MW laser beam. Which is good in a way, because it means you get up early and make the most of the day.
The lack of any wardrobes, closets, hanging space or drawers for your clothes is a bit more problematic. It makes for a really uncluttered look—the only things in your living space are things of beauty such as photographs and artworks that you have specifically chosen. But it’s quite inconvenient. For these two weeks, we’ve got around it by just living out of our suitcases; we’ve left our suitcases open on the floor of one of the children’s bedrooms.
The dogs are very happy to have a big garden to run around in. They were predictably excited at first by all the rabbits, but there are so many that they may actually be starting to get bored with them.
During my time in Malmö I worked for an electricity company called Sydkraft. Now owned by Eon, they were the regional electricity company for the southern one-third of Sweden.
My Swedish colleagues were extremely friendly and I remember that once a week we would go to lunch in the nearby Kronprinsen shopping centre and eat fläskpankakor med lingonsylt—bacon pancakes with lingonberry jam. Delicious! On another occasion, we went to a public bath where you alternate between sweltering in a hot sauna and plunging into the icy sea. I remember we got told off for drinking beer in the sauna.
On Saint Lucia’s Day, 13th December, we had an unexpected treat when a group of beautiful young women came into the canteen at lunchtime and sang Lucia carols, while we ate ginger biscuits and special buns called lussekatter.
I had weekends free, so I took the opportunity to travel around the local region and further afield. Near Ystad on the south coast of Skåne, I visited a stone circle or “stone ship” called Ales stenar (Ale’s stones), magnificently situated on a clifftop looking out to sea. Fans of Wallander may recognise this as the spot where Wallander brought Annette Brolin for a romantic picnic.
Yuko and I also visited the nearby university city of Lund, where the cathedral has a wonderfully complicated mediaeval astronomical clock.
Nowadays, Malmö’s outstanding landmark is the Turning Torso building by Santiago Calatrava, the tallest building in Scandinavia, towering above what remains otherwise a low-rise city. But when we were there in 2001, it did not exist, and the city’s tallest building was still the Kronprinsen—or possibly the tower of St Peter’s Church.
For our Christmas dinner in Sweden, we went Swedish style, including smoked reindeer. If you examine the packaging closely, you’ll be pleased to see that Rudolf has, in fact, been allowed to join in the reindeer games.
We bought these “triangle lights” in Sweden and still use them in our window every Christmas. In the picture, you can see lights like these in each of the windows across the courtyard.
In the southernmost counties of Sweden, winter arrives later than in the rest of the country. But when it arrives, it definitely arrives. One day in mid-December, the snow starts to fall, nor does it cease to fall until it has covered the world in a thick white blanket that remains until spring.
Yuko and I had just got married before I left for Sweden, and in December she came to visit me there. Together we drove across the southern part of the country from Malmö to the Hanseatic city of Kalmar and onto the island of Öland. Over 6 km long, the Öland bridge was the longest in Europe when it was built, and is still an impressive sight. We had fitted snow tyres to the car at the start of December, as required by law, and were amazed at how effective they are, although driving in falling snow at night can be tiring.
It was a lot colder on that side of the country than in Malmö. The daytime temperature was below -10°C, which at that time was the coldest I had ever experienced, and the biting wind meant that ordinary clothes were inadequate to prevent you from getting chilled within a few minutes.
Here are some photos Yuko took in Öland that convey some of the bleak majesty of the place in winter.
Fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2001, I was living and working in the city of Malmö, near the southern tip of Sweden.
The previous year, in June 2000, the Öresund link (bridge and tunnel) between Sweden and Denmark had been opened to the public. My apartment, in the suburb of Limhamn, was close to the Swedish landfall of the bridge.
I was awed by the scale and beauty of the bridge, by the conceit of building such a structure across the sea between the two countries, bringing Malmö and Copenhagen together. Thanks to the bridge, I could be in Nørreport Station in the heart of Copenhagen in half an hour, or Copenhagen Airport in 15 minutes.
On the dark winter evenings after work, I would go for a run along the coast to a viewing point near where this incredible structure launched itself high overhead, curving off into the distance towards Copenhagen. It was always just “The Bridge”; no other name was needed.
The third series of the Danish/Swedish crime thriller Bron/Broen (“The Bridge”) has recently started showing on Saturday nights on BBC4. I am a huge fan of this stylish series and find myself excitedly looking forward to the next instalment.
Take a minute to watch the opening credits on YouTube here, with its beautiful night-time time-lapse photography and haunting theme song by Choir of Young Believers:
The bridge itself is at the heart of the programme, and I always feel a little thrill of affection when it appears.
The Bridge is bilingual. The Danish and the Swedish characters each speak their own language, and they understand each other perfectly. This may seem improbable, but is not so far from reality; the Danish and Swedish languages are very close, especially the variety of Swedish spoken in Skåne, which is very close to Copenhagen and was once part of the Kingdom of Denmark. However, Danish is famously not enunciated as clearly as Swedish, so I think in reality there would be more effort required to communicate, more requests for repetition, and more misunderstandings than appear in the show.
The employees of the company that operates the bridge speak Danish and Swedish in the course of their work, and the official name of the bridge “Øresundsbron” is a nice compromise between the Danish “Øresundsbroen” and the Swedish “Öresundsbron”.
As the logo suggests, the bridge forms only half of the link between the two countries, covering the first 8 km from the Swedish coast, before landing on an artificial island at the midway point (named Peberholm, as a companion to the nearby Saltholm) and dipping underground to form a tunnel for the remainder of the crossing to Denmark.
Note: the above photos of the bridge are not mine – they are pictures I found on various websites. I was surprised, when preparing this post, to discover how few photos I seem to have from my time in Sweden, although it is only 14 years ago. However I did come across this picture; it’s on a different bridge between two islands in Denmark. A truck had jack-knifed in front of us in icy conditions, blocking the bridge completely and leaving us temporarily stranded.