27th May, 2008

In-Between Days

It’s now late May, and I’m right in between two trips. We’re also in between seasons here in Sweden. We often seem to be in between seasons in Sweden. In fact, the Swedes—especially those from the north—count far more than our four seasons. They have, for example, vårvinter and höstvinter, or “spring-winter” and “autumn-winter”. These are the tail ends of winter, which are considerable. In fact, I believe that if you talk to the Sami people of northern Sweden, they will even distinguish vintervår and vinterhöst, or “winter-spring” and “winter-autumn”, which are the cold ends of spring and autumn.

And it’s easy to see why the four-season system doesn’t quite cut it here. I recently experienced my first April in Sweden. It was weird. We had a bunch of snow in early April, and then none after that. Instead, it has been getting warmer, and the days have been lengthening. But here’s the thing: the warming happens much more slowly than then day-lengthening. Which means that by late April, it’s as light as summer in, say, New York, but still as cold as winter. I found it very disorienting. By mid-May, the sun sets around ten and rises around three, which means that the sky no longer grows totally dark. It’s impossible to see stars in Sweden between May and August.

And yet you can’t go out without a coat and hat. We took a walk last night around ten, and I was really cold because, even though I had a hat, it wasn’t a warm enough hat. And June is only days away.

To be fair, we have been alternating between warm spells and cold spells, but I can assure you that the cold spells are winning. I think that they’re the actual climate. Here’s a definition of climate to try out: the weather most often complained about in a particular place. What do you think?

So on a good day in May, the maximum temperature is about 15 C (60 F), while on a bad day, it’s only about 5 C (40 F). At night, of course, it’s much colder. The plants are, quite understandably, taking their own sweet time to produce green bits. Only in the second half of May did the leaves really come out in Härnösand. Now it’s beautiful, with the daffodils and tulips and hyacinths and everything. It looks nice, but don’t forget your hat. (I’ve been contemplating donating an advertising slogan to the Swedish tourist board: “It’s Sweden—bring a hat!” I’m not sure they’d use it, however.)

I should add that there are good sides to these in-between seasons. I am told that vårvinter (around April) is the best time to go skiing, since there is still snow on the ground, but it tends to be sunny and right around freezing. Indeed, I remember a particular day in early April when, on my way to teach, I was struck by the fact that it was a spectacularly gorgeous snowy-but-sunny-and-warmish day, and I asked my students whether this was vårvinter. Some of them said yes, but to my dismay, some of them said they never use the term, and others didn’t wake up. Oh well.

When spring comes in Sweden, you are supposed to get something called vårkänslor, or “spring feelings”. I have yet to figure out what exactly this means. When I ask, people say “just wait”. But I haven’t had any spring feelings yet. Perhaps that’s because, as a North American, so far I’m still having pretty distinct winter feelings.

Nevertheless, I can highly recommend the long days. There is something eerily wonderful about padding around the apartment at one in the morning with all the lights off and the whole place suffused with a cool blue light that makes it just possible to see what you’re doing, provided it’s nothing too complicated. I would not, for example, recommend painting with the lights off. Unless you’re in your blue period, I suppose.

Another aspect of the long days that I find captivating is the route that the sun travels around the sky. Nowadays, about a month before the solstice, it rises in the far northeast, swings around just south of the zenith, and swings back up and sets in the far northwest. We get direct sunlight in our northern windows—something that is impossible in, say, California. But the coolest part, I think, is that after the sun sets, its glow in the dark blue sky slowly swings north, so that at one a.m. it’s due north of us, and then continues east, getting ever brighter, until the sun itself appears again not long after three. Soon it won’t even be gone for that long.

So the in-between days here can be interesting, even if you only see them as an opening act for the Swedish summer, without any question the main attraction of the year. I can’t wait.


Nice to have another long report from you, Gregory. We’ve been waiting quite some time for one. I even got out of the habit of checking the website regularly for a while. You’re certainly living in a fascinating part of the world.

In New Zealand we’re easing into our version of winter after a long hot dry summer with unusual drought conditions in much of the country. The rains have now come but not enough over the main hydro lakes in the South Island, so there’s talk of blackouts this winter as a worst case. Renewable energy sources are all very well, but what if God sort of forgets to top them up?

John, nice to hear from you. Believe it or not, I’ve spoken about you quite a bit lately, with certain mutual acquaintances I saw in Switzerland. I heard only good things, naturally.

I’m sorry to hear about the drought in New Zealand (which, by the way, the Swedes positively cannot spell right–they call it New Seeland). Blackouts in winter sound especially bad. I assume almost all of your power is hydro-electric? I know the Kiwis are pretty anti-nuclear, but what about wind power? That’s gotten very big here. It seems like there’s less chance that God will forget to turn the fan on.

It’s interesting to read about life in the far, far north. Thanks for sharing this. Now I will know to bring warm hats if ever I travel up that way in the spring.

Let us know if you get struck by those “spring feelings.” (Unless it’s too personal…)

What trips are you between, by the way?

I’m loving the extra daylight here, I can only imagine what it’s like up there. Very cool.

Alejna, yes, do bring a hat. No matter what season you come. I’ll certainly let you know about any spring feelings. And as for the trips, I’ll be posting about them soon.

Jean, yes, it’s very cool. With an emphasis on COOL. Sigh.

John, again, out of curiosity, I was just looking at New Zealand on Google Earth, and I was interested to note that the North Island covers more or less the same latitutes as Spain, except south rather than north. So that gives me a slightly better idea of what your seasons might be like, albeit correcting for the chilling influence of the Pacific.

I also was surprised to notice that Auckland is at about the same (absolute) latitute as Virginia Beach, where I went to high school. I only hope Auckland has more culture…

Hmm seems like I’m obliged to make another contribution to this thread. Fortunately it’s our Queen’s Birthday weekend, so I have a little time for idle chat. When I say “our Queen”, of course we share her with a small island nation over your way — not to mention the humongous island nation to the west of us. Over there they mark her birthday next weekend for some reason. Then again her actual birthday is in April. One of these decades we’ll sort this out by organizing ourselves into a republic, but for now we have more pressing concerns …

Like how to keep the lights on this winter. We have about 60% hydro generation and another 8% geothermal. Wind power has made some headway but there are concerns about visual pollution and quite a lot of NIMBYism.

Latitude can be deceiving. It makes a big difference to be surrounded by a vast ocean. You have to realise too that the country is 1600 km long, so the climate varies a lot from north to south. Same with the cultural climate. For all its crass commercialism, Auckland is not devoid of culture (we’re going to La Boheme tomorrow evening), but Wellington is definitely the cultural capital of the nation. I mean, you could never imagine an edifying triumph of our civilization like the remake of King Kong coming out of Auckland …

John, thanks for the update. I hope you enjoyed La Boheme. I was, again this year, sadly not invited to the Queen’s birthday party. Even though I always invite her to mine.

Geothermal energy is very smart, at least from everything I hear. As for the NIMBYism, I read not long ago that in Scandinavia, people tend to protest before wind generators are put in place, and then immediately start to like them. Not, I think, out of making the best of a bad situation, but because they really are quite attractive. We have a big windmill on our island, and I would really miss it if it went away. It stands there on the hill shining like an alcazar in the evening, looking very handsome.

And yes, of course New Zealand is not going to be too much like Spain, in climate or, indeed, in anything. More on the Spanish climate soon, by the way.

Great article and great words shared with us. This is really something worth contemplating. Thank you for sharing! – Marla Ahlgrimm


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