We have been in Sweden for more than two months now. The first month was spent in Stockholm taking intensive language classes at the Folkuniversitet. Amanda took an advanced class as her Swedish skills are quite good, owing to the fact that her mother is Swedish, her dad speaks Swedish, and she spent summers in Sweden as a child. I opted to take a second level beginner class, as I feel when learning languages it is better to be overwhelmed (which I was) than to understand everything (which I certainly didn’t). The classes went well for both of us and I was able to meet some interesting people, including a Canadian diplomat, a Swiss woman who is from the same town where my grandmother was born, a woman from South Africa with an Italian passport, and a French journalist who writes for a ski magazine.
We were able to buy a 1987 Volvo 240 sedan (pros: built like a brick, cons: looks like brick) from one of Amanda’s classmates and we loaded it down with all the bags and skis that we had brought from Oregon, as well some gifts from Amanda’s mormor to help outfit our new living quarters above the arctic circle. We also equipped the car with some very lightly used studded snow tires that are very grippy and bristle with studs, a must for northern Sweden. It is in fact a rule that cars must have snow tires after November 1 in Sweden. The car has a manual choke which you have to pull out while starting the car, and then slowly push back in as the car warms up. It may seem like a simple task but it seems to cause Amanda the same amount of anguish as one would expect from performing a tracheotomy for the first time (she is not going to be that kind of doctor).
We tied our skis to the roof racks, and eased our 113 horsepower cream colored chariot onto the highway and off towards Östersund, a town located right in the middle of Sweden on the north-south axis, and also where Amanda’s aunt and uncle live. Stockholm to Östersund is about 600km, or roughly 380 miles and we drove mostly on two lane highways. While there is still some daylight to be seen, it is becoming rarer and rarer, so after a stop in Uppsala (a beautiful old university town just north of Stockholm) for a meeting with a prominent anthropologist who works with the Sami people, we drove on to Östersund in the dark and rain.
Swedes have made many adjustments to deal with their particular climate such as saunas, aquavit, engine block warmers, studded snow tires, orienting streets, buildings, and towns for maximum sun exposure, and of course, rally lights. Rally lights are an extra set of headlights that are often mounted on the front of the car and provide extra lumens when the high beams are turned on. Extra lumens doesn’t really capture the feeling of looking into these lights on a dark night before they have been dimmed. The light is strong enough to make it feel like it is boring into your head, and the logging trucks often have six or so of these high powered lights mounted high on the cab, a truly blinding sight. Amanda, known for her sometimes confusing analogies, likened them to the gaze of a snake. I am not sure how those two are related, but I think she was speaking more about the terror than the light? Fortunately Swedes are usually quite conscientious and respectful and they dim their rally lights as soon as they see approaching headlights. Anyway our car does not have rally lights, but we quickly wished we had a set to light up the dark northern forests.
We arrived in Östersund around 9:30 pm, which meant we drove in the dark for five and half hours. We even passed through a small snow squall just before arriving, the first snow of the year for us (November 1st). It was noticeably colder in Östersund than in Södertälje and the next morning we would awaken to icy roads and large snowflakes filling the sky and covering the ground. We were given a warm welcome by Amanda’s aunt Linda and her husband Leif and their two dogs Saga (a border collie, English setter mix that loves to jump in your face; her and Amanda did a tooth cheers on accident) and Ants (pronounced Auntz, a huge bristly hunting hound of some sort that sits regally on the couch, chest thrown forward, as if waiting to be knighted). Linda and Leif are a singing duet, trained in the national anthems of countless countries, often breaking spontaneously into some unheard of song. Linda is tall and blond, quick witted and speaks English extremely well, enunciating each word and often ending sentences with a rising, questioning tone, and accompanying raised eyebrows. Leif is kind and pensive and often uses his hands in “comme ci-comme ça” gestures to emphasize his points or to supplement his low growls of disagreement.
We had a wonderful time in Östersund, taking cold walks on the many miles of trails that include impressive public art sculptures, cooking spicy Thai green curry, going fishing with Leif and his son Frej, and visiting an interesting museum that included a Sami art display as well a sort of a natural history section on Sweden. Linda and Leif cooked us “plätta” small Swedish pancakes cooked in a special cast iron pan with round indentations for the plätta. We ate them with whipped cream and blueberry-raspberry jam. I think I ate about 40 or so of the little cakes. Leif’s son Frej is a professional freestyle skier who finished first in Sweden’s freestyle competition, pulling off a never before seen trick that is both unpronounceable and incomprehensible, just think lots of spinning, flipping and a graceful backwards landing after being 30 feet in the air (you can check him out at: http://vimeo.com/40189116). Frej, at 20 years old, is quiet and thoughtful and has decided to possibly forgo competitions because of the stress and expectations, and rather to focus on being in ski videos. Amanda and I are both hoping that he will come visit us and join us for some backcountry ski tours in Lapland.