Friday, May 1, 2009

De mest Uppsaliensk dagen för alla

"The most Uppsala-esque day of all"
JoeSo our MP declared last night, standing on the burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala as the majbrasan burned merrily below. In translation, her next assertion ("I resten av Sverige är det Valborg, men i Uppsala är det sista april") doesn't make much sense, but as we mentioned last year, the day before Förstamaj is a special day in Uppsala, full of traditional celebrations like hat throwing, river rafting, and picnicing—but mostly very, very full of drinking.

While we had a good time at last year's sista april, this year we were determined to do it right. So I got up bright and early Thursday morning, packed up the food I had made for us the night before, and hopped a bus down to the river. At 8:30 I had my pick of nice spots along the grassy west bank of Fyrisån, and so opted for a shady position in the anticipation of a sunny morning; by 9:45 when Jennifer arrived both banks of the river were packed as far as we could see. It worked very well though, as we were able to eat our porridge before the start of forsränningen, and by the time the first float came by we had moved on to the next traditional course: champagne and strawberries.

I won't dwell on the floats too much, not even those that to my foreign sensibilities seemed downright innappropriate; those who are interested should check out the gallery . I will just say that there were at least three Darwin floats, plus an HMS Beagle, and that a group of students near us stood up and sang "Ja Må Han Leva!" to the first of them1. There was also a group of Chinese students who put together a very detailed Chinese dragon. My favorite though: Danskjävlar!

I actually knew a few people who built a raft this year (that's them to the right), and it was nice to have somebody to cheer on. By the time they finally floated by, though, we'd been sitting for a couple of hours, and the shade (at least in combination with the fact that I'd opted to wear shorts instead of jeans) was turning out to be, well, a little over-optimistic. So we bailed on the last 40-odd floats. Staying even that long made us some of the more die-hard observers, though, as most of the university students had already wandered off to their next engagement of the day, a champagne and pickled herring lunch at their nation. For pretty much everyone else, the next step is to find a square meter of unoccupied grass somewhere in town and have a picnic, and that's just what we did. We wound up next to the cathedral, where we ate the salami and brie baguettes we had packed, and rehydrated a bit2, while warming up in the sunlight and watching the charming Swedish families at play. Across the street, yet another sista april tradition was being enacted, as hundreds of students waited in line. But more on that later.

View Sista April in a larger map
Shortly after one we headed further up the hill to join K., on of Jennifer's coworkers, who was picnicking with a bunch of her friends at their traditional spot, Engelska Park (right behind the main university library). Here it was a more sedate crowd, mostly families but with a scattering of large student groups. There was even a men's choir performing as we first arrived, although they soon dispersed (choirs gotta picnic, too!). So we spent the next couple of hours hanging out with K. and her SO and their friends.

By four it was time for us to head home, so that we could rest up for the evening. This, too, is nearly traditional: for the students the afternoon is supposed to center around the bubbelgalop, in which they gather at the library at 3 to hear the university rector give a short speech, then throw their student hats in the air and go running back to their respective nations, whereupon they are showered with champagne for the next two hours. That's the theory, anyway. In reality, the champagne part is so popular, and so many guest cards get sold each year, that people have to queue up hours in advance to get in to the nations (hence the line of students, earlier). So the gallop is now more of a meandering, since those people all know they can't possibly get in to their own nations. For us, though, it was just a bus ride back to the apartment, followed by some hard napping.

But by evening we were out again, this time with our Swiss friends G. and D., who accompanied us to the majbrassa at Gamla Uppsala. Last year we were a few minutes late, so things were well underway by the time we arrived, but this year we showed up early enough to witness the local scout troop marching over the hills bearing torches with which to set the huge pile of brush alight. Then we were treated to some choral music, and finally our MP's speech. My Swedish is still… rudimentary, let us say, but I was proud to recognize the lines I quoted above, and that I understood when she began to quote one of my favorite bits of T.S. Eliot:
April är grymmast av månaderna - driver 
syrener fram ur de döda markerna, blandar 
begär och minne, kittlar 
dova rötter med vårregn. 
Vintern höll oss varma, svepte 
jorden i glömska och snö, gömde 
en droppe liv i torra lökar.3
After the speech we wandered up the hillside to get a better view, and I wound up in a long conversation with a Swedish man who had just pulled up on a tandem bicycle with his wife, who overheard us talking and was eager to know what the youth of America were thinking these heady, Obama-esque days (not an uncommon thing for Swedes to wonder recently, mind you). I, unfortunately, am neither a youth nor terribly well informed about what it is like to be in the U.S. right now, but I did my best to represent my peeps, and we spent some time talking about the state of American music (i.e., it is true that all the old bluesmen are dead and gone, except for R.L. Burnside), and he told me about the days when he was a computer programmer for IKEA (in the early 70s). Eventually, though, it was time to head down to the fire and warm up.

We stayed until about 11, and then headed home, although not before I took the opportunity to stand atop one of the largest burial mound for a few minutes in the dark (the mounds are all off limits, but Sista April is not a day for rules, so the kids spend the whole evening running up and down the hills). Then home, and to a well-deserved rest. After all, it wasn't even May Day yet…
1 Which is a little odd—most people singing that today are singing it to Karl Gustaf XVI, seeing as he's the king and it's his birthday. But I didn't hear anyone sing to the King Karl float that drifted by.
2 One of the less fortunate parts of last year's sista april experience was the difficulty of finding publicly accessible bathrooms, and this year did not start off looking promising, as the one public toilet we found last year was not there any longer. In the end, though, it turned out that we were just on the wrong side of the river last year: the east bank was noisy, crowded, and not equipped with toilets, while the west bank where we were this year was pleasant, full of people lounging in parks, and every restaurant and cafe was letting people freely access their toas.
3 Not her own work, I hasten to add; she was quoting the original Swedish translation of Eliot done by local girl Karin Boye in 1931. I love it so, I quote the original:
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding  
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Reading it again, it's hard to believe it wasn't written by a Swede in the first place…

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