Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Desperately Seeking Spring In Sweden

From Copenhagen I crossed the Øresund, over the mighty Øresund bridge, to Sweden. Unfortunately my hitching exploits didn't get me far and I got stuck in Malmo and had to continue by train (the Swedes are notoriously reticent in picking up hitchers). The difference in landscape is immediately visible as so far the countryside had been dominated by flat farmland with the odd hill here and there, but now forests were holding their own against the agricultural hegemony and brick and cement houses have given way to brightly painted (mainly red or yellow) timber. And although the scenery might have changed a bit one thing that has remained constant during my trip has been the weather. I have been making my way steadily northeastwards and so have remained one step ahead of spring. Wherever I have been the signs of its imminent arrival have abounded: pre-spring flowers like daffodils, snowdrops and forest anemones are everywhere; the buds on the trees are awaiting to explode into leaf; and the weather's more changeable than a teenage girl deciding what clothes to wear to a party. The one constant has been the cold weather, with it barely ever exceeding 10 C so that my one jumper and thermal long-johns have become a permanent fixture of my daily wardrobe.
I headed quickly to the east coast towns of Karlskrona and Kalmar, which are interesting as they chart two tumultuous phases of Swedish history. Kalmar, the older of the two, used to mark the border between Denmark and Sweden and is famous for the treaty that was signed there which united the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It was never really popular in Sweden though as they felt they were getting a raw deal from the Danes (with whom they have fought numerous times over the years and have a love-hate relationship) and it only lasted for 125 years. During that time Kalmar was at the centre of the Union, afterwards it withered away to a provincial backwater, albeit one with some nice old bits. As Sweden rose as a regional power (to the detriment of Denmark), with possessions on both sides of the Baltic, it decided to build a super-duper new naval base from scratch on a deserted archipelago on the south coast which became Karlskrona. Built in the latest baroque style the main town was off limits to civilians well into the Cold War era, but with the decreasing importance of the military it is now diversifying into a student and IT town.

Kalmar castle, at one time the capital of the short-lived union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

Although both Karlskrona and Kalmar were stimulating, they were certainly expected. I did, however, manage to find myself in a very unexpected situation this weekend. My host with whom I was staying in Kalmar was participating in a fun-run relay on the island of Öland. Since I was planning to go there anyway I took him up on his offer and tagged along. It turned out to be a wise move as the weather was particularly horrible that day and it was nice to be in the warm, dry cocoon of a car (and I also got to see more than I would have on foot). After the race the team hired out a hall for a party, but beforehand there was the essential business of sauna. Saunas are very much seen as a Finnish thing (and even the Swedes will admit that the Finns are the sauna kings) but it is also very popular here in Sweden, and I felt very honoured and lucky to be invited to join one. On Öland it seems as if every village has a communal sauna. And it is very much a social thing, a place for coming together, young and old, having a chat, a laugh, a joke, a gossip, and also a spot of drinking (we are in Sweden after all). There are also no unhealthy hang-ups on prudery, although a slight token of modesty is normal in mixed sessions. Following the sauna and BBQ (nothing deters Scandinavians from grilling meat) there followed something really special, as the (semi-)drunken revellers got together around the piano to sing songs: modern and older Swedish tunes (in the process I discovered that Aberdeen is famous in Sweden thanks to this classic song), popular English songs as well as traditional English campfire ballads (I was particularly surprised that they knew so many of these, as you don't hear them on the radio).

Unexpectedly ending up in the middle of a raucous Swedish birthday party.

And now I'm on the island of Gotland staying with my friend Jossi, who I actually met on my last trip whilst I was in India, where we bonded on a 3-day camel safari in Rajasthan. It's been great to see an old friend and relax a bit, whilst also seeing a bit of this beautiful island. It has also given me the opportunity to sort out some of my affairs that are hard to keep up with whilst on the road: washing clothes (not that this is the first place I've done my laundry, but it is never a certainty), backing up my photos (I'm paranoid about losing my pictures like I did with a few countries on my last trip, so I am carrying a separate hard drive with me and also sending DVDs back home), archiving collected memorabilia (i.e. sending home entry stubs, notes and the like), and picking up new travel notes. Tomorrow, however, I am leaving and heading further north to Stockholm, which means that it might be a while yet before I see spring.

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