25 years ago today I was singing this song and graduating from high school in Sweden.
[YouTube video no longer available]
These are the lyrics we sung that day. Even after 25 years they stick in my mind. I remember very little of the Swedish language, as I have no opportunity to practice it, but I remember this.
Sjung om studentens lyckliga dag
låtom oss fröjdas i ungdomens vår
än klappar hjärtat med friska slag
och den ljusnande framtid är vår.
Inga stormar än i våra sinne bo
hoppet är vår vän och vi dess löften tro
när vi knyta förbund i den lund
där de härliga lagrarna gro
där de härliga lagrarna gro
I could almost type that from memory. Fortunately the lyrics are easily found on the net. However, translations into English are not in abundance. In fact, I can’t find any. Here’s how I’d translate these lyrics.
Sing of the student’s lucky day
Let us rejoice in youth’s springtime
Yet beats the heart with a fresh pace
And the brightening future is ours
No storms are yet apparent in our minds
Hope is our friend and we believe its promises
When we make our promises in the grove
Where the glorious laurels grow
Where the glorious laurels grow
I think that’s correct. It’s an old song and the language is somewhat old-fashioned if not archaic. I think I’m correct to translate the first occurrence of vår as “spring” and not the possessive “our” which is what it means the second time it pops up. I’ve always found that line beautiful: “Let us rejoice in youth’s springtime.”
The part about making promises in the grove is kind of obscure to me. I don’t know if those are lovers’ vows or what. My translation is awkward enough but Google offers the even more ridiculous line: “When we establish affiliates in the grove.”
I would have translated “härliga lagrarna” as “beautiful branches” but I think I prefer Google’s “glorious laurels.”
There are other lyrics, but we did not sing them, perhaps because the fascist overtones were out of favor.
Svea vår moder hugstor och skön,
manar till bragd som i fornstora dar,
vinkar med segerns och ärans lön,
med den skörd utan strid man ej tar.
Aldrig slockne då
känslans rena brand,
aldrig brista må
trohets helga band,
så i gyllene frid som i strid.
Liv och blod för vårt fädernesland!
Liv och blod för vårt fädernesland
Svea our mother, thoughtful and beautiful,
calls for the achievement which in olden days,
waves with victory and honor salary,
with the crop without a fight you do not.
Never go out once
feeling pure fire;
Never burst may
fidelity holy band,
so the golden peace in battle.
Life and blood for our fatherland!
Life and blood for our country
Sorry, my Swedish is too rusty to improve on that. I can clarify that Mother Svea is a patriotic emblem and personification of the nation of Sweden which originated in 1672 and seems to have been popular through the first half of the 20th century at least. I have to say that during my time there nationalism was pretty well out of fashion. Young men served two years in the national military, but in regular civic life there was not a lot of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem like we do here in America.
In fact, when Olof Palme was assassinated in the streets of Stockholm, just three months before our graduation, it created a sense of national unity which had not been felt in generations, perhaps. There was a memorial service at our school. The centerpiece of the ceremony was a reading of the lyrics to a certain popular song.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
These were read in English. Now I ask you: Can you imagine something like this in our country? Imagine if John Hinkley, Jr., had succeeded on his crazed mission to kill Ronald Reagan. (Reagen and Palme were in office for roughly the same period of time.) Can you imagine students reading poetry in a foreign language at a memorial service? Note that I say nothing of the radical political content! I found this to be an amazing cultural moment and hugely indicative of the non-nationalistic national character of Sweden.
Just weeks before graduation I had another glimpse into just how different life can be in another place. It was a regular Tuesday at school, but our Swedish teacher didn’t show up. Eventually we heard the teachers were all in a big meeting; they were thinking about going on strike, and might hold back our report cards and (crucially for those graduating) diplomas. It seems the doctors were on strike, nationally, and the government was planning a lockout against the teachers who were in a “sister union” to the doctors. Soon all the students were in a big meeting, trying to decide if we should make a counterstrike, and if so if we should do so in solidarity with the teachers or against them. Mind you I was in a very small town in the frozen north. The same sorts of conversations were taking place at schools across the country. Later that evening I talked to my host-mother’s brother-in-law who was a teacher in nearby Haparanda. The students there had already gone on strike, and that was just fine by him: If the students weren’t in class, he couldn’t issue report cards anyhow. He wouldn’t have to withhold anything, wouldn’t have to engage in any civil disobedience.
Ultimately, in Kalix, we decided not to take a stand for or against the teachers, or even to strike, really. Instead we staged a protest the next day. About a thousand of us marched through “downtown” (I use the term advisedly). We had signs and we chanted slogans. I had never been in a protest before, and I found the experience exciting and deeply impressive. We marched to the administration building. Six or eight of us were admitted to speak to the superintendent, and as a “foreign observer” I was in that number. He told us there was nothing he could do, because the situation was beyond local control, and we expressed our displeasure, and then we went back to school and there was a story in the paper the next day. I’m not sure we accomplished anything but I learned plenty. The whole situation was resolved rather undramatically over the weekend while I was making a quick trip to Helsinki.
But I digress.
The graduation ceremony was more formal than I’d anticipated. I had to run home and change out of my jeans. I sang in the choir. There was a flute trio. The whole crowd actually did sing the Swedish national anthem, accompanied by a saxophone quintet. There were speeches and more songs. When we came outside we were greeted by a huge crowd. We were bedecked with flowers — literally. The flowers were on ribbons hung around the neck. My class had hired a flatbed truck and it hauled us around town as we sang Studentsången (“The Student Song”) and “Den Blomstertiden.” We waved at people, threw flowers, wore funny white caps, drank champagne, and generally made merry.
Studentsången is still sung by students today. I don’t know about the current political climate, but this video indicates the extended lyrics are still out of favor.
Here’s an instrumental chiptune version.
Here’s a techno version, not for the faint of heart; the studentsången lyrics start at 55 seconds at resurface around 3:40.
It was the first truly warm day of the year. I actually wore shorts for a few hours between the truck ride and the evening festivities. We had a ball at the “culture house” (kulturhuset) in nearby Nyborg.
That night we danced ’til dawn. Actually since we were up by the arctic circle and it was June it never really got dark.
And some of us overindulged just a little.
Ah, the springtime of our youth.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary, I’ve been posting photos from my year in Sweden throughout this past twelve months or so. I think this project is concluded for now. On June 11, 1986, I left northern Sweden. I have some better photos in an album which I may scan some day, but for now this set is all there is. I’d like to thank my parents for making that year of my life possible. It was a difficult time in many ways, but the experience was hugely formative and valuable to me, and remains so even after all this time.
I don’t think I ever heard the story of graduation or the “almost” strike. Even 25 years later, it is interesting to me. The year in Sweden may not have been the best at the time, but reflection and looking back sometimes sharpens our view of events in our lives.