Sunday, June 08, 2008


Oh, Swedish beer! How yucky and unbeerlike thou art. Sigh. I bought a can of it at the grocery store (and already the Swedes among you are wailing, "But that's not real beer!" I know, you're supposed to get the good stuff at System Bolaget, but this is regular old Carlsberg 3.5% beer, it should be beer, like I'd have at home, except it has extra flavor of "ew") this afternoon to go with my sandwich for dinner. I'm staying in a pretty little farmhouse in Järvsjö, because I didn't feel like staying in Hudiksvall ("Happy Hudik!" it's called), and because I have a looooong way to drive tomorrow so figured I'd get a head start. I didn't know if this place would be open (turns out it's always open, the guy said, even when he's not around, his neighbors let you in and you leave your money under the pillow in the morning - tooth-fairy honor system) so I stopped for supplies just in case it was going to be a picnic-and-nap-in-the-car night. No worries there. I'm in a big red wooden barnlike house, in a room with one of only two double beds I've ever seen in Sweden (the other is in the room across the hall - usually they're just two teeny beds lined up), with french doors that open onto a little deck that overlooks a wide green river valley dotted with pretty red houses.

Oh, and below the deck there's an immaculate garden surrounded by a tiny red picket fence. Lilacs at the corners. Come on, Sweden. Let up a little.

Yesterday*, in Gävle, which rhymes with a Swedish cussword, for the first time ever I watched the MotoGP while in Europe! (On TV.) It was totally weird. First, I was the ONLY person watching - possibly the only one in all of Sweden; the bar was the only bar in town that seemed to have any televisions at all, which normally would please me. This bar is part of an awful chain called O'Leary's that I tried to eradicate from the previous edition for its pure cheesy obviousness (it would be like reviewing Denny's, except O'Leary'ses are easier to find). But I guess it has its purpose. On the Sunday of the GP race in Mugello, the Gävle O'Leary's opened at 2pm. The race started at 2pm. I waited around the corner until 2:01pm, all casual, then went in, probably looking like I had to pee. The barmaid was sort of mean, but the Hives guitarist in the kitchen understood "motorcycle race" (I don't know the Swedish for race! I know track, but that didn't help), and he knew which channel to put on. I bought a beer and they left me alone. Yeay! But it was odd watching the action without any skreeky boy sound effects around. The silence of the bar made me feel like I had to be quiet, too.

The volume on the TV was up, at least. Hearing the broadcasters in Swedish was funny but sort of disappointing; they never sounded excited about anything. At most, they'd go "oj" (pronounced "oi!" or "oy!" depending) at the really dramatic moments. It took them almost a whole minute to replay Rossi's maneuver into the lead. But there was a better than usual focus on the mid-pack battles. And there was only one commercial break, and all of the commercials in it were motorcycle-related (no Harleys). After the race, you got to see way more of the post-race shenanigans than we normally get. It in fact takes ages for the press conference to come on, because you see everything in real time: riding back to the pits dodging crazed fans, giving and receiving high fives, spraying the champagne, all that. When Rossi and Pedrosa did their mother-tongue speeches, a translater did a voiceover in Swedish. Not as sexy.

* actually a week ago!

OK, now it's Tuesday night. I'm at a hostel in Tänndalen. (I'm not calling them youth hostels anymore. Most people in them are even older than I am. In Swedish they're called "wanderers' homes," which I think sounds nice.) My view through the bedroom window today is almost an exact copy of one of my grandfather's paintings. (A specific one.) Slopy brown hills mottled with leftover snow. In front of that, trees for miles. I think I'm looking at Norway; will check the map later. Since I arrived in Tänndalen, three people have asked me if I was going to Norway, their eyes full of hope and yearning, as if Norway were some mythical beauty forbidden to them. (But they're so close! They could just go!) I'm going eventually, I tell them. (It seemed heartless to admit I'd popped in for five minutes last week.)

Update: Now I'm in Åre. It's a ski-resort town, completely abandoned except for a few dedicated mountain bikers. (This is the kind of mountain biking that requires a dirtbike helmet, knee pads and shinguards; you ride up the ski lift carrying your sturdy little bike, then you ride down at insane speeds on these twisty little tracks full of obstacles like sideways bridges and steeply pitched boulder fields. I've never seen the likes of it before.) Hostel bedroom window has yet another staggering view: trees, mountains, occasional cottages, Icelandic ponies arranged on the green green grass. Today is Sweden's National Day: June 6. It means that on the radio, they play only Swedish music; also, almost everything useful is closed. Same as July 4th in Amurrka, pretty much: listless people sit in their yards on plastic chairs, turning pink, eating and drinking things they never otherwise would, in appalling amounts.

Yesterday was even better. I woke up in Östersund (where the sea monster lives! allegedly) at 7am or so to the sound of inebriated college-aged people dancing in the backs of huge trucks while being driven around the city. It's not something you hear every day, so I had to peek outside and make sure that's what it was. Yep. Traditional Swedish graduation ritual. Loud!

By the time I'd showered and eaten breakfast, dozens of the sad pale creatures were collapsing in little patches of shade from heat exhaustion and too many alcopops. And in bikinis, too!

Anyway. From Åre, I drove to a teensy little hostel in the village of Björkvatten (hard to find on the map - gravel road, etc). This route led me through - yes! - Norway. Instantly, a guy passed me like I was standing still. (He didn't give me the thumbs-up I'm used to getting when this happens. Strange.) The pavement improved, and the house/church dynamic shifted: red church, white houses. Also, SPE, the mountains were definitely cuter.

Photos coming up.

Björkvatten's hostel was abandoned when I got there. A note on the door said (I think), "Welcome! Cyclist to Rm 3. Rooms free! Come back later." The grammar eluded me and I couldn't tell if that meant I should come back later or the warden would be coming back later. (On reflection, it clearly meant the warden, but I was tired.) The door was unlocked, which meant I knew I had a place to sleep regardless, so I relaxed, sat at the picnic table on the lawn and read for a while. The cyclist showed up. No warden. Eventually I just picked out a bed; the cyclist reported that the warden showed up at thirteen minutes past one a.m., but I heard nothing. She was there when I woke up, though, so I got the world's tiniest cup of coffee before hitting the road again.

More Norway! This was the most extreme example yet of its superiority: Sweden, gravel road, major potholes, rickety houses. Cross the border, and voila, buttery pavement shaped as if specifically for motorcycles. (I highlighted it on the map!) I actually drove for about 5km down the wrong road just because it was such a perfect road. (Also because I missed the turn.)

Later I went a km or two out of my way to pass through a place called Kyklingvattnet: "chicken water." Mysterious! Saw it on the map and had to investigate. Turned out to be a pair of scraggly-looking houses. No chickens in sight. Hmm.

Also had my first reindeer sighting of the trip! It was right around the Stenenjokk mine, in a landscape that looks totally fake, like some crazy George Lucas planet. (Again, pics coming soon.) The reindeer were a little too far off to photograph, but it was a huge herd, and there were baby ones. Aww.

This is a very Twilight Zone time to be traveling in Sweden. Tourist season doesn't start until Midsummer ("right now everyone is at home in their gardens," one guy told me). Everything I drive past is closed. But it's so warm and sunny out that it's hard to believe nothing is going on. The weather says "summer" but the calendar says "hibernate." If Sweden were a bear it would be very grouchy right now. Meanwhile, museums are closed, roads are under construction, the hostels have dust bunnies. Gangs of snowmobiles loiter in people's yards, totally bored, nothing to do in this weather.

I'm now in a hostel in Saxnäs. Just ate my first hot meal in recent memory, not counting one grillad korv in Ljusdal. (I haven't seen an open grocery store for miles - Swedish miles! - and I ran out of supplies yesterday. Hungry Becky!) Tomorrow: Tärnaby, where the hostel isn't open yet but a new-ish B&B place is waiting for me. Onward!

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