The Sweden post

Sep 30, 2006 • Karen

I started awake in my bus seat, just in time to see a grave covered in rocks with a rune-enscribed headstone pass by on the side of the highway. Wait what?

I'm sleep-deprived as heck (and, as I would find out later, harboring some pretty nasty throat germs), yet dozing on the bus is out of the question. How can you close your eyes when you're traveling through a brand new place? Blink, and you miss things.

We drive through miles and miles of pine stands--and pine falls. At first I was surprised: clear-cutting is allowed in Sweden? But then our tour leader informed us that a Category 1 hurricane hit this part of Sweden a few years ago and toppled millions of trees. The power was out for a week and a few tree farmers committed suicide. Even today they haven't completely cleaned up the mess. In some places you see fields of young birch trees with one or two battered-looking pines towering over them. Other places, though, the ground is greenless and grey with dead branches and stumps.

We turn into the driveway and I can already tell that Bergdala is a beautiful place. The red wooden hostel is clean and charming, full of glassware from the hyttsill next door. We get some time to ourselves before dinner, so I wander around the grounds.

First stop? The hyttsill dumpster. No, really. If I learned anything from Evasion, it's that dumpsters can hold some of the most surprising treasures. And while I wouldn't exactly recommend diving into glassblowery refuse (broken dishes and glass dust are bad, kids), this dumpster failed to disappoint. I found a black-striped paperweight, imperfectly finished but otherwise fine. Free souvenir!

As a Minnesotan of Swedish extraction it was difficult for me to process the quirks of the Swedish society as such. Our tour leader mentioned the red barns and distinctive roof shapes that characterised the Swedish farms we passed. I would have never noticed those as a Swedish characteristics if she hadn't pointed it out. That's what a lot of Minnesota barns and rural homes look like, too!

The traditional Swedish food at the hyttsill was also a less-than-unique experience for me. Bread, flatbread, meat, herring, and no fruits or veggies except for lingonberry jam? Sounds like our usual holiday meals. No lutefisk, meatballs, or lefse? Pffft. Amateurs.

While on our study tour, we were told to think about the cultural similarities and differences between Swedes and Danes. Over the course of the tour, however, I really didn't meet any Swedes other than our tour guides and speakers. My experience with meeting Danes in any social capacity was at this point pretty minimal, too. For me, then, the greatest difference between Sweden and Denmark (and Sweden and Minnesota) was the terrain itself.

Walking in the pine forest behind the hyttsill is like walking on a five-meter-thick pile of old mulch. Which, well, it is. The ground has a definite give to it, a damp crunch. On top of it is moss, some scrub grass in the open areas, and striking red and brown mushrooms. And the trees, of course. Every few meters, you see a huge, lichen-covered granite boulder emerge out of the land like it owns the place. Maybe it does.

Unlike flat, smooth, grass-covered Denmark, Swedish terrain is wilder, with bumps and curves like a bedspread with someone underneath the covers. It's a land where you could really believe that Ymir's down there.

I sit at the hyttsill table with a emptied plate of ostkake or "Swedish cheesecake" (think bland diner scrambled eggs, only creamier and with lingonberries on top), sipping away the last dregs of the delicious apple "welcome beverage." The old man up front is strumming his guitar and yabbering away in Swedish, far too quickly for our tour guide to translate. Earlier, a few of us, myself included, got to try blowing glass with variable success. The heat from the glassblowing fire makes the whole room warm and cozy. I'm talking with the other people at my table, all of whom I just met that day.

And so we attempt to sing Swedish drinking songs and laugh at the table over with their pile of emptied snaps glasses and maybe it's the one shot of my own but I'm feeling warm and a little drowsy and far too pleased with the evening and with my brand new friends to go to bed. I'm not in Denmark anymore, but maybe this is what it means to feel hyggeligt?

The previous stop in Malmö was interesting, but brief. Our subsequent stops in Karlskrona and Kristianstad were a bit of a letdown. My memory of Sweden is of the roads to and from Bergdala, the mossy forests and ravaged patches where the giants sleep.