In Dalarna, a bit of America in Sweden


A traditional wooden house between Rättvik and Mora, on the edge of Sweden’s Lake Siljan. (Steve Vickers/For The Washington Post)
August 30, 2013

Lazy orange sunbeams had begun to warm the forests, and through a crack in the door on bus number 270, I could smell pine and wild berries. Beyond the trees on either side were rust-red cottages, wispy yellow meadows and deep blue lakes: the classic images of Sweden in the summertime.

But on the road ahead were imports from America.

Details: Dalarna, Sweden


There were five at first: vintage Pontiacs and Cadillacs, tailing a rusty muscle car with a star-spangled banner hanging from its trunk. Now and then, a grinning man would emerge through the sunroof, pump his fists in the air — apparently for the benefit of passing drivers, who honked their horns enthusiastically in approval — and then disappear back inside.

Like me, they were heading to Rättvik, one of the small towns that grew up around Siljan, Sweden’s seventh-largest lake, with the arrival of tourists in the late 19th century. About 170 miles northwest of Stockholm, it’s a proudly Swedish place where summer crayfish parties, folk concerts and Maypole dances provide the 5,000 or so residents with much-needed relief from the long, cold winters.

But the locals, like many people in the central part of Sweden called Dalarna, have developed a thing for the USA. Local men strut around in cowboy hats and leather boots. American flags flutter outside family homes, and posters advertise hamburger bars and 1950s nostalgia markets. These days, owning a vintage American car in Dalarna is not just the preserve of raggare — slick-haired Swedish men with a love of rock-and-roll — but a part of everyday life.

A Chuck Berry tune was playing when I stepped from the bus and onto Rättvik’s main street. I’d arrived at the gas-soaked climax of the town’s annual Classic Car Week, when hundreds of enthusiasts arrive to cruise the streets and show off the wheels they’ve spent all winter polishing. In recent years, whole families have been getting involved, taking turns choosing which songs — usually 1950s foot-tappers — they’ll blast out for other car fans.

Enterprising locals, keen to cash in on the sheer scale of the event, had set up dozens of roadside stalls selling bite-size bits of Americana. Hot dogs and rockabilly records were for sale alongside souvenirs: plastic Harley-Davidson toys and shoulder bags emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo. One man had turned up hoping to sell a stack of sweatshirts decorated with pictures of Elvis Presley’s face, but the likeness wasn’t great, and in any case, it was too warm for extra layers.

JR and raggare

Stopping for dinner the night before at a roadside cafe, I’d found a free Swedish-Norwegian magazine called Memphis, which blends local news with tales of trips to the United States. The front page displayed a picture of actor Larry Hagman above a headline that asked: “Did JR’s car end up in Dalarna?” (It didn’t).

Flicking through the magazine, I learned that Torsby, a town in the next county over, had just hosted a festival of country music, welcoming bands with names such as Johnny Jean & the Humdingers and the Tennessee Drifters. I also learned, thanks to a double-page interview with a Norwegian who had traveled to every state in the States, what it had been like to holiday in Arizona in 1996.

What has made people in this serene and often snowy part of Scandinavia so keen on America? At the car show in Rättvik, I decided to find out.

I approached a group of raggare who’d gathered around an old SUV. Painted on the front bumper were the words “Vi bromsar för ingen (We brake for nobody).”

“I was wondering if you know how all this started,” I asked them in my best Swedish. “With the cars, the Confederate flags and all the American stuff, I mean.”

“It’s cold here for a lot of the year,” explained a long-haired guy in a leather vest. His drunk friend was swilling a beer and shouting at people across the road. “We like to have something to do in the garage. We can fix up a car or two, you know, or learn how to play in a band. It can be really bad weather here sometimes.”

Soon after, fat summer raindrops started to splatter onto the roofs of passing cars. I took them as my cue to leave.

The American connection

I got more useful answers about Dalarna’s fascination with America at Rättvik’s Nostalgia Museum, in a creaky wooden building across town. Among the kaleidoscopic collection of retro gas pumps, pinball machines and jukeboxes spread over two floors, I met the museum’s cheery owner, Bengt. He said that people from Dalarna have been interested in the United States for as long as he can remember.

“I think it started after the Second World War. Swedes started to see it as the land of the free. And lots of us have relatives in the USA,” he told me. “Some people I know go there two or three times per year. They buy one classic car for themselves and then another couple to sell back home.”

The first connection between this region and the States predates locals’ predilection for Pontiacs by more than three centuries. In 1638, when Swedes established a North American colony along the Delaware River, people from Dalarna were among those who populated it.

The small colony of “New Sweden” was initially successful; Swedes were used to living in forested areas and took with them cabin-building skills that would eventually be adopted across America. But by 1655, the colony had been conquered by the Dutch. It took Swedes until the late 19th century to begin migrating to North America in any serious numbers.

It was then that Dalarna native Anders Zorn, one of Sweden’s most successful-ever artists, began visiting the United States. His oils, etchings and watercolors made such an impression on American society that he was asked to work on portraits of three American presidents: Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. His painting of the latter still hangs in the White House.

Other Zorn works — depicting watery landscapes, scenes of peasant life in rural Dalarna and female nudes — can be seen at a small museum across Lake Siljan in Mora, the calm waterside town where he was born. His wooden house, a few steps from the museum’s front door, is cluttered with handicrafts collected on his travels in Sweden and abroad.

A quick sit-down on Zorn’s lawn, a heart-shaped carpet of grass landscaped in his wife’s honor, gave me time to think about exploring beyond Lake Siljan’s main towns. I know that it’s the countryside, with its pure air and big skies, that draws visitors here from Stockholm, Oslo, Berlin and beyond.

But instead of joining a Wild West-style horse-riding trip, like the one I’d seen advertised online, or tramping along Dalarna’s old railroads with a handcar (expensive at $90 per day), I decided to leave America behind and seek out the real Sweden. And for that — in a part of the country where narrow streams and rivers connect thousands of sparkling lakes — I knew that I’d have to take to the water.

Into Sweden

The first half-hour in our rented canoe was tricky. But after one dropped paddle and a short-lived lovers’ tiff (apparently I wasn’t steering properly), my girlfriend and I reached a wide, forest-fringed river. On the shallow northern edge, between two low-slung sand islands, was a very narrow channel that, according to our soggy map, would lead us away from Mora and up toward Lake Orsa, Siljan’s smaller sibling.

I unbuckled my life vest, pushed my paddle into the soft brown silt and let the momentum carry us under a tiny wooden bridge that marked the only entrance to the channel. It was so low that we had to lie on our backs and watch as the bridge’s splintered beams passed slowly above us, a couple of inches from our noses.

When the sun re-emerged and we sat up to continue paddling, everything had changed. Water that had rippled on the river was now glassy and motionless, and paddling was suddenly easy. Electric-blue dragonflies buzzed across the surface like stunt planes, and skinny-legged pond skaters flitted silently between yellow water lilies.

Soon we saw the houses: sun-drenched summer hideaways with dandelions growing in the gardens and rope swings hanging over the water’s edge. A couple of the red villas had jet skis and banana boats bobbing around outside — toys that can be used only for a couple of months each year — and one place had its own seaplane. We paddled down its shimmering runway, which acted as a welcome shortcut, and reached Lake Orsa feeling thirsty.

Smaller than Siljan but on the edge of the same vast crater that was created by a meteorite 377 million years ago, Lake Orsa has extremely shallow, sandy shores. A hundred yards out from where the water meets the land, we stopped and breathed in the silence. I grabbed a bottle of water from my bag, clambered out of the canoe and stood waist-deep in the water, sinking and drinking. Forests surrounded the lake, whose blue-black surface was broken only by a solitary white yacht. “I think we found the real Sweden,” I said with a smile.

Then a warm gust of wind unfurled the sailboat’s flag, revealing a flurry of stars and stripes.

Vickers is a freelance journalist and guidebook author based in Sweden. Follow him on Twitter (@StevenJVickers) or visit his Web site, www.stevevickers.co.uk.

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