This article is a continuation of ‘The Moomins and the Swedish/Nordic mentality’, which you are very welcome to read here!
Have you read Tove Jansson’s Moomin books? If you haven’t, you must, and if you have – re-read them. Not only are they beautifully written, subtly philosophical and thoroughly entertaining – I believe they reveal the Northern soul. In this article, I explore the connection between the Moomins and the Swedish/Nordic mentality – if there is such a thing.
Another source of my childhood fascination was Moominmamma’s bag.
‘Was there something important in it?’ they ask Moominmamma in Finn Family Moomintroll, when the bag disappears.
‘No, just the things which one needs in an emergency. Dry socks, candies, steel wire, stomach powders and such’.
Elsewhere I read, fascinated, how Moominmamma pulls out some dry socks for everyone from her bag.
We all know that in most cultures mothers do have this kind of magical bags – or at least they used to have. (My mother-in-law definitely still does, and the powers of her bag are truly remarkable.) Leaving aside the discussion of what or who Moominmamma represents in Tove Jansson’s stories, it is instructive to see WHAT EXACTLY constitutes the emergency items – and it was the CONTENT of the bag that fascinated me so.
Elsewhere in Finn Family Moomintroll we see Moominmamma packing:
‘blankets, saucepans, coffeepot, food, sunscreen, matches, everything to eat on, in and with, umbrellas, warm clothes, stomach powders, whisks, cushions, mosquito net, swimming trunks, a table cloth and her bag’.
(It’s incredible how much more sense this list makes to me now, when I am a Moominmamma myself, then it did when I was 7… 15… 20…)
I guess what fascinated me (apart from the ever-present coffeepot) was that the list represented things needed for comfort, and more specifically for altering, adapting the environment for one’s comfort. I believe it to be one of the key features of the Nordic/Swedish life.
To illustrate my point, I’d like you to take a trip to two places: a) Clas Ohlson and b) some sports shop, like Stadium. Nowhere else have I seen:
a) so many things, big and small, designed to make your life, in all its imaginable and unimaginable aspects, comfortable, enjoyable and beautiful;
b) so many things, big and small, designed to make you enjoy an active outdoor life, while looking very elegant – and things which last literarily forever.
Swedes/the Nordic people are not conquerors of nature. They are its admirers and wilful, determined negotiators. And everything they do, they do not with chic as some of their Southern European counterparts, but with understated style. Armed by beautiful, extra-light, super-portable, weatherproof, everlasting coffeepots made of organically grown metal, and a good dose of irony – like Tove.
I grew up in a landlocked part of Siberia, surrounded by great rivers and great woods, and the description of culture based on a proximity to the sea was awe-inspiring for me. The multiple references to bathing, boating, fishing, and all the things maritime, as part of a mundane, everyday experience, aroused a kind of jealousy in me.
‘Oh, to be a newly awoken Moomintroll and dance in the bottle-green waves at sunrise!’
…exclaims Tove, and I wondered what it would actually feel like.
Or, to the contrary, observe from the shore how:
‘The sea had changed its face. It was now black-green, and foam crowned the waves, while the depths glowed yellow, like phosphorus. Growling gloomily, the storm was approaching from the south, spreading its black sails over the sea’.
Mesmerising, isn’t it? Yes, the sea can be warm and friendly, and it can be scary and glorious, but it can also be very cultured, and a manifestation of that is a bathhouse.
What on earth is a bathhouse, I wondered as a child. And why would one have such a thing? But I knew intuitively that in the Magic Winter a bathhouse represented summer, joy, safety, perhaps life itself – in contrast to winter, which at first for a Moomintroll who suddenly awoke from hibernation, was synonymous to depression, danger, and death.
‘He looked at the wardrobe and thought how wonderful it was to know that his old bathrobe was hanging there. That in the midst of everything new and disturbing there was something safe and familiar. He knew that his bathrobe was blue and missed the hanger, and that there presumably lay a pair of sunglasses in one pocket’.
Once he is prohibited to open the wardrobe, Moomintroll becomes possessed by the desire to do it, to see that the bathrobe is actually still there. And as long as he cannot do it, he can never feel safe. In the end, when he does open it and wears his bathrobe, it turns out that instead of the sunglasses there was a stone in the pocket, still warm from the summer sun. And by opening the wardrobe in the bathhouse, Moomintroll lets out the ‘ancestor’, some kind of a spirit of the past.
The bathhouse is important. It is a place where we change clothes before going swimming – and thus it represents a preparation for diving into the sea. That is a very potent symbol: of joy, adventure, life – but equally oblivion and death. Not something to toy with, in other words. And Swedes/Nordic people take these things seriously. They build constructions and design things that facilitate the sea exploration and admiration, and whose names travel into other languages, including my own.
Less philosophically, the sea is an unalienable part of the Swedish/Nordic life and culture, something you cannot get away from. Summer holidays by the sea probably shape the mentality of people here from an early age, but the sea is present year-round, every day.
As Moomintroll longed to put on his bathrobe in the middle of the winter to enwrap himself in the summer memories, so I longed to try these sea impressions on myself when I was a child. Today, seeing a narrow stretch of the Baltic Sea from my balcony as I sip my Sunday morning coffee makes me one truly happy Moominmamma.