The more serious and bicycle-riding a country, the more the visitor is gripped by an urgent atavistic desire to drop litter and behave like a hooligan. Off to a wedding in Lund in rural southern Sweden, frantically hushing each other in the face of universal bilingualism, my friend Louisa and I agreed that it makes good holiday fun to be prejudiced about unoppressed countries that quite fancy themselves.

The gentle old university town of Lund is chock-full of dinky kiddie clobber, unfashionable haircuts and bicycles nobody nicks. It's pretty in a sanitary, dozing sort of way. There are pale tan houses, cobbledy sections, and a 10th-century wooden stave church erected by someone called Sven Forkbeard.

Some friends of the bride were lumbered with the tiresome foreigners for the evening. In a panicked discussion about herrings, deer and sour cream, we decided to announce, in tones more commonly employed by vegetarians, "I don't eat Swedish food". Since "English pubs" featuring barmen from New Zealand are as strangely fashionable among Swedes as Domes and Cafes Rouges back home, we bolted into The John Bull for a cup of tea before having to turn down meatballs. We already knew we don't like Swedish cuisine because the food in the Ikea canteen is horrible. As Bill Bryson says, "Eating in Sweden is really just a series of heartbreaks."

Swedes have barking-mad laws about absolutely everything. They are supposed to keep their headlights on in midsummer, and may hardly ever purchase alcohol. When we tried to buy wine at 7.30pm to take to supper, we were told we could only buy supermarket "beer", a beverage with a very few corruption percentages of alcohol.

A bus as clean as a doctor's surgery glided out to the suburbs, where we went to a cats-flowers-guitars house for supper. Before we could announce our dietary restriction, we were served a dish that did indeed largely feature fish and sour cream, but, well, actually it was quite delicious. "Foreigners don't have kettles, do they?" said Louisa as she dug through hibiscus and camomile in search of plain tannin. We boiled some water and shared a teabag. We are pathetic.

Since few visitors can go to real houses and attend Swedish weddings, I felt very slice-of-life, as though an EC regulation might actually turn me into a Swede. After all, we speak the same language, except their English is more grammatically correct.

While Sweden's public places are like day-care centres for well-behaved adults, its private rituals involve less goody-good beardy stuff. The wedding - the Brollop - in the spectacular setting of Lund Cathedral, was not well-behaved at all. The bride wore red, carried sunflowers, and was accompanied by her baby. There were a cappella pop songs and a priest extending the sunflower metaphor, followed by rolled-up reindeer meat, and then a knees-up at a village hall, where a men's choir sang a Danish drinking song in the rain.

The countryside around Lund, it has to be admitted, is bloody boring - flat, vaguely green, with jetties tailing into endless stretches of cold sea. For lake-and-mountain excitement, you have to go to Stockholm and farther north. Ensconced in our village hall, however, with the rain falling darkly against the windows, there was something generically intense and Nordic about the atmosphere.

A sybaritic feast followed, broken by wild, impromptu speeches and dancing to a hundred Abba covers. It was drunken and moving and hysterically good fun. There was a crop-headed Scandi love god everyone fancied, a famous anthropologist, and a drunkard in a coma. A self-styled lesbian was caught snogging a man in the rain. The alcohol served must have contravened every dreary drink law.

This is what you'll find in Sweden, such a marriage of contradictions. It's not all saunas and sex kittens and snow. There's wealth and socialism, Lutheran churches and policies so exemplary they have to be downgraded in order to comply with EC directives.

The day after the wedding, we were taken to the couple's beach house to continue the party. The Baltic was still as a millpond. A paddle in the icy water made the plates of my skull contract, so we all formed a line and ran in together screaming.

In the green hollows beyond the beach, there was so much dazed blonde beauty, so willowy and regular, so Seventies and salubrious, it was like watching Elvira Madigan. Little blonde dryad children nested in trees. Perfect bodies in perfect jeans strolled through the woods.

We are dumpy and pasty and cynical. I need some carbon monoxide and a good Indian takeaway.

Joanna Briscoe's novel, 'Mothers and Other Lovers', is published by Phoenix, pounds 5.99.

Comments