Thursday, September 4, 2008

Some years we forget to burn the goat…

JoeAs with the start of any school year, much of my first couple of weeks have been spent dealing with administrative necessities. This being Uppsala, however, at least one of these was new to me: the need to pick a nation. We've mentioned the nations before: student organizations which correspond to various areas of Sweden. What we may not have mentioned before is the fact that membership in a nation is obligatory for students at Uppsala. In fact, when you show up to take your final exam for each class, you are required to show proof of your membership in some nation or another. So this week I had to decide what nation to join.

In the old days, students joined the nation named after the region they came from, but while some Swedish students still do that it's no longer required. Instead, people pick a nation based on some sort of shared interest. Most student groups are organized through the nations. If you want to play handball you join a nation with a handball team, if you want to sing you join a nation with a choir, and if you want to take cheap trips to Russia you join a nation that organizes cheap trips to Russia. With something of a war on right now, the only one of those things I might have wanted to do suddenly seems less appealing, so I needed some other criterion. Last week there was a sort of fair where all the nations set up booths, which I attended, and I did learn things about some of the nations there (Kalmar Nation has the biggest dance club, Värmlands Nation takes the most trips, Norrlands Nation has the most members, Stockholm Nation is the most stuck up), but nothing that really clinched it for me.

In the end, I decided on Gästrike–Hälsinge Nation. Here's what sold me on it:

  1. It has a name that's so funny the Swedes don't even say it, instead calling it GH Nation (which, in turn, sounds really funny to an American if you say it in Swedish).
  2. One of the nations two home communes, Gästrike, includes the city of Gävle, home every Christmas season to the world's largest flame retardant straw goat.
  3. While most if not all of the nations have pubs, GH is widely regarded as having the best, a cozy little third floor affair with 160 kinds of beer available. In a city where a pint glass of the nearly undrinkable local brew in one of the non-student bars will set you back 60 SEK, access to a good selection of reduced price beers is no small matter.

So this Tuesday night I went to GH Nation's Reccemottagning to get to know my nation a little better. When I got there I was placed in a group with four Swedes, and we were sent off with maybe a dozen or so other groups to find and answer a series of questions about the nation which had been strategically scattered about the building. Along the way we were introduced to several key members of the nation, such as Thor, the first curator. After explaining that GH was the second richest of Uppsala's nations (after Smålands Nation, and only because Smålands mistakenly received a large bequest last century and then "misplaced" the paperwork) he proceeded to pick up a small, straw goat. The conversation then went a little like this:
1Q: This is a bock. There's a bock every year at Christmas, and most years it burns.
Innocent New Member: It didn't burn this year, they soaked it in flame retardant.
1Q (vehemently): These little #@*!!*@s are soaked in it too, but they still burn.
stunned silence
1Q(quite calmly): Unless we forget to burn them. We meant to burn this one last year, but some years we forget to burn the bock.
After the group activity, it was up to dinner. This was a three course affair. We started with smoked eel in a cream sauce on a slice of pumpernickel, with a glass of beer. For the main course we had scallpoed potatoes, onion sauteed in a cream sauce, pickled beets, and a hamburger (no bun, mind you, just a hamburger patty), with red wine. Then for dessert, hazelnut ice cream surrounded by meringues, topped with whipped cream and some sort of grated nut (have I mentioned before that Sweden is the birthplace of lactose tolerance?) with coffee.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but actually it took nearly three and a half hours. Why? Because to Swedes it just isn't a dinner party without lots of singing. Every few minutes we all stopped what we were doing to sing a song, chosen seemingly at random from the GH Nation songbook, a 200+ page book of songs (mostly) in Swedish, copies of which were scattered about the tables. The only one I recognized was "What do you do with a drunken sailor?", but the others had titles that seemed to translate to things like, "Fat French Girls," "There's No More Moonshine," and "Why Am I Out Of Snus?". After each song we would drink a toast, raising a glass to the person to one side, then the other side, then across the table, then taking a drink, then raising the glass again to the person across the table, and then to each side. Several of the songs also involved banging loudly on the table or standing up on your chair or linking arms and swaying back and forth in unison.

After all that, the bicycle ride home seemed much longer than usual, but it gave me plenty of opportunity to ruminate, and by the end of it I was led to one inescapable conclusion: I've joined the Drones.


  1. please send the dessert to me. thanks. I recently made meringues with rosewater and they came out quite tasty. I love the vehemence surrounding the flame-retarded straw goat!

  2. but why is the swedish name so funny to swedes?