Ode to Summer 1981 — when life as I know it now began


Summer 1981. Four short sunny months in Stockholm that marked my rite of passage from wild teen to young woman. A summer that allowed me the luxury of living without a backstory; to rise or fall as nobody’s daughter, sister or even casual acquaintance. Nobody — with the exception of my trustiest pal and confidante, M, — knew me from Adam’s Aunt. It was a heady realisation.


As Scandinavian Studies students at University College London, we had been despatched to Sweden to master the lingo. Which we did. By living as Swedes in the best possible fashion. Stockholm glittered at our feet and we were raring to fit right in.

So we started the summer by knocking seven bells out of our new clogs to make them look lived in and native. I bought the trendy “A non-smoking generation” t-shirt and M tried Swedish snuff.

Home was half a ground-floor flat in the upmarket Östermalm district of central Stockholm. We rented the living room, the bathroom and the decent-sized kitchen. The other rooms were locked. But hey. We had our own front door and a dishwasher. Repeat. A Dishwasher. In 1981. Not that we ever used it on a daily basis, we barely ate enough hot meals to dirty the dishes.

The flat overlooked a courtyard at the back of the building. Climbing through the ample window and cutting across the yard saved a good twenty seconds to the tube station. It never occurred to us that someone untoward might climb in while we were away. And nobody ever did.

But we did have friends to stay. New friends from Sweden, Australia, France and Denmark. The flat had a fine parquet floor and, in a serious endeavour to live up to being entrusted with such a handsome headquarters in the heart of the city, we all adopted the Swedish custom of kicking off our clogs at the front door.

There could be up to six of us bedded down there on any one night in July and August; two in the bed and the rest bunked on the floor.

Not that we slept much (and neither did the couple in the flat above; at least not on Saturday and Wednesday nights…). Summer nights were long and our time was short. There would be plenty of time for sleep when we returned to our studies in London. Right now, we were young and free.

And, umm, hurt. I broke my arm. M broke her thumb. Don’t ask. What happened in Stockholm 1981 stays in Stockholm.

I can, on the other hand, tell you about the power failure that knocked out the entire Östermalm district just as we began to cook a rare lunch. We rang and informed the electricity company. They thought it very strange that they hadn’t received any other reports of a problem and asked us to go out and check whether we could see any lights working in our street.
So the fault was limited to our building?
Oops again.
So the fault was restricted to our flat. Had we tried any other lights (it being the middle of a summer’s day) or was it just the cooker that had died?
So one hot plate had tripped the cooker fuse?
We flipped the switch back.
Problem solved, we rolled around the floor laughing with embarrassed mirth.

But if we boasted few cares in the world, we boasted even fewer kronor. I earned a very lean crust working as a daytime au pair for an aristocratic family with two tinies. M earned hers by chopping veg in a staff canteen under the malevolent eye of a cantankerous Dane. We both learned how to count to ten before exploding.

And how to count every öre.

We thought nothing of running between stores to compare the cost of 88:an ice creams and other life essentials. Like magazines and vinyl records. But consumables such as food? Nah.

Fruit, on a good day, was scavenged from the local square after the market vendors had left for the night. Student-style hunger meant arguing over a pear off the pavement before cutting it precisely down the middle. Most days, our fridge contained a carton of milk, a tube of caviar sandwich spread, Wasa crispbread and an old cheese rind. Parental monetary contributions for food were diligently blown on trips to the fairground and the occasional binge at McD’s.

We splashed out on tickets to watch a galaxy of Swedish stars shoot four separate TV shows at Stockholm’s famous Grand Hôtel. The ticket for each episode included a chicken salad. Boom!

We listened to Agnetha Fältskog, Annifrid Lyngstad, Tomas Ledin, Björn Skifs and Ted Gärdestad. Back in London, I would later write an entire Swedish essay composed of sentences stolen from lyrics.

And we met Swedish boyfriends. Obviously. M’s was a banker. Mine a musician. And my first love. That relationship lasted a handful of summers instead of a lifetime, but in summer 1981 life was sweet. Very sweet. Even sweeter than the McD apple pies I’d grown particularly partial to. And so, at the time, was he.

But even the very best of summers eventually turn cold.

At 11 pm on Saturday 12th September, within an hour of The ABBA/Dick Cavett Special finishing on TV, M and I boarded the train to Copenhagen and regretfully headed home. Both boyfriends were on hand to help heave a six-month supply of acquired paraphernalia into our sleeping car. M’s boyfriend even gifted us a large princess cake to eat on the way.

We were to change trains in Copenhagen and again in Holland. A boat trip across the channel, another train, and finally home by Monday lunch. My father collected his ravenous daughter from Manchester Central station with a backseat laden with biscuits and sandwiches.

There would be more summers in Stockholm. All of them, in fact. Including 1982 and 1983 before I migrated to this country in 1984.

But summer 1981 was special.

We grew older, wiser and thinner. We learned how to budget and live within our limited means. We learned the fastest route to the ER.

We learned how to live and love on our own terms, and how to look out for one another.

And we learned how to check for tripped switches.

We learned that popping a cream cake down on a bench at Copenhagen station while hauling bags onto the next train would result in a flattened, butt-shaped cake…

And I learned that I would one day choose to call Stockholm ‘home’.

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