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.
Posted by: Gregory