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Time to take the top off

Thursday February 15, 2007

Stuart Roberts

There is something mildly incongruous, even slightly poignant, about what I'm witnessing, like a scene in a Jacques Tati film. It's a bright and warm Sunday morning, and I'm at Jönsson's Patisserie, at Gottskär, a sleepy seaside village a few kilometres from the city of Gothenburg, on Sweden's west coast.

I observe a dozen or so stocky, leather-clad men with bushy goatee beards, dark sunglasses and Cuban-heeled boots, seated demurely at petite wrought iron tables. They sip frothy cafe lattes and contemplate fresh cinnamon scrolls with lashings of whipped cream. Their gleaming Harley-Davidsons are clustered on the other side of the low stone wall nearby.

A few local kids in board shorts have wandered up from the foreshore and throw back Cokes. Several families with coteries of small children and prams fluster about with food, drinks and serving trays. Two vintage BMW touring bikes chug to a stop. A couple in their mid-60s dismount and strip off their leathers. They amble through the courtyard, hand in hand.

This montage of roaming fellowship is re-enacted throughout the countryside during these summer months, and there is something deeply and uniquely Swedish in this collective ritual.

For months of the year Swedes endure sub-zero temperatures, and are confronted by unrelenting snow and slush whenever they leave their triple-glazed indoor sanctuaries. The sky is dark and the sun skims furtively across the southern horizon, barely eking out a few hours of pale exposure every day.

Motorbikes, vintage cars and convertibles remain locked away in sheds, Ducos lovingly polished to mirror finishes, engines tinkered and tuned to orchestral harmony. Boats are hauled into dry dock, stored away in colourful boathouses that everywhere fleck the wintry coastline.

Cyclists brave icy pavements, but the long winter gradually claims more and more bicycles, abandoned to rust away in chained bondage to snow-covered bike racks. People trudge about, heads down, in terminal submission to the unrelenting drudgery.

But finally, the snows begin to melt, the skies clear, buds spring forth and the long submerged grass turns green blades upwards. Soon, the sun beams genuine warmth, heralding summer and the annual Swedish holiday period (sommar lov).

Sweden's unique allemansrätt (all people's right) opens up the entire countryside to general access, including private roads, rural properties and trails through deep forest reserves. It's a general invitation to get out and explore the natural environment, and Swedes are champing at the bit as soon as the sun breaks through.

Tarpaulins are pulled from motorbikes and cars, which are wheeled outside, roaring to life as their carburetors suck in the fresh summer air. Tops come off ? both people and cars ? and cafes on every corner dispense chairs, tables and awnings outside to welcome the suntanned patrons.

The entire country dances around flower-draped Midsommarpoles on the day of the solstice. For a largely secular society, there is an almost religious dedication to summer here. It's a time when Swedes honour the sun, the birds and the trees. And they honour themselves, their friends and their families, enjoying their sun-drenched country en masse.

Bike club members, pensioners and office workers alike give their pampered machines a final buff, brush the dust from their jackets, pull on their helmets and Ray-Bans, and hit the road.


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