And it is raining.
Marika’s gift is a bottle of tabasco. ‘I want to give it to you with a message’ she says. ‘Everything in life should be taken with a bit of spice’. I promise to pass it on.
I’ve got plenty of time in the morning. A petrol station offers full buffet breakfast for next to nothing and I’m happily stuffing myself. Getting seriously addicted to the tubed caviar – especially with boiled eggs. Or in sandwiches. Or with anything.
The weather is clearing up. What’s left are the puddles and wet grass in the shade. Looking for a place for lunch and picking smaller roads next to the sea I end up on some rocky camping grounds. Smoothness of red and brown rocks, interwoven only with patches of grass and roots of pine trees, go right into the sea. People are swimming, the sun is at its full blast and I’m happy to shed my biking gear. The water is bracing but so clear and pleasant – it’s my first swim since Luleå.
A guy with a couple of kids play ball and he strikes up a conversation first about the water. Then about football. I probably wasn’t nodding in the right places as he quickly realised it wasn’t the best subject. ‘Where are you coming from?’ ‘London, but the long way around the sea, through St Petersburg’ ‘Are you driving?’ ‘No, by bike’ He whistles. ‘How many miles do you do a day?’ ‘About 150-200, give or take’ He is looking amused.
I jump from the diving board a couple of times and go back to my stuff on the rocks. ‘Hey Englishman!’ I turn around. There’s the guy and his whole family under a tree, he points at my biking gear ‘You are on a motorbike! I thought you were cycling, now I’m not that impressed any more. Do you want some coffee?’ They stopped for picknick before going to Oxelösund to see a huge nuclear safe bunker that was built to defend Sweden against Soviet invasion.
‘I shouldn’t talk bad about russia then.’ Of course you should. ‘You’ve got so much forest, so much space – huge potential. But never used.’ I nod.
Because I left so early I got to Kalmar much earlier and have about 2 hours to spare until Maria comes back from work. Kalmar itself is well looked after, the streets of cobblestone. I stop for a coffee and a delicious coconutty cake in a typical coffee shop, crowded, I squeeze through to the far end with all my gear. Debating with myself about whether I have time for Öland or not and Öland wins – it feels like even a peek would be worth the trip. I’ve been looking forward to it.
The bridge is long and windy. The island looks tamed near the bridge but the feeling dissolves quickly as you go further along the coast and towards the south point of the needle like shape. Dying to pee and although I’m in the middle of fields there is nowhere to hide – I’m always in view of the road or windows. The rain spits every now and again, the landscape changes every minute, barren, fields, bushes, stone, colours merge one into another, bunches of old windmills and wind farms on the horizon are spinning like crazy.
Charming and quiet Maria talks to her cat and all animals. Her house in Orrefors, near the crystal factory, used to be a school. The school was closed because it’s a bit too near and a possibility of contamination. Fine for adults though and Maria’s flat is in the attic.
‘You’ve got a few copies of the same book’ ‘I liked the covers so I bought them’.
After dinner we set off to her friend Anna’s to look after her house. It’s getting dark but the forest road is gorgeous. We spot a cow on the road and Maria stops for us to try and figure out whose it is – it shouldn’t be walking about. After trying a couple of houses the owners are found and the whole family sets off to catch the beast.
Anna’s house is in the woods, guarded by a grey wolfhound – massive, kind and deceptively quiet. ‘But when he smells a deer and you see him go, you really don’t want to be on the deer’s side.’ We open up the house, it smells of wood and a bit of mould and homely, like a country house would. Anna rents it and lives there with her kids, there are family pictures on the wall.
They have three horses, chickens and all kind of stuff growing in the garden. I walk around the house as the evening descends before we settle in for a nightcap and a chat.
Olle’s gift is a pyramid. It was left to him by his ex wife and we tread carefully on relationships. Olle has ‘widowed’ as his relationship status on Facebook. But giving it away, it feels like’s getting rid of something for him, just as I felt giving away the first wooden statue that started the project. The pyramid is made out of stone. I put it next to the sleeping bag, in the bag on the saddle, praying it will be ok. If I left it in one of the inner bags, aided by vibrations, it would’ve poked the hell out of everything in there.
I challenge the satnav and take smaller roads towards the coast, eventually I end up in a resort town of sorts. Getting a pizza for lunch plus a couple of coffee refills.
A disheveled guy approaches me at the car park and tries to make a conversation. I had a Harley, he says, very heavy. Is yours heavy? He reaches out and tries to lift it up by a handle, I grab his hand. You better not, mate, you’ll drop it. I ask to take a photograph of him. He smells of wine.
Puffing, I roll out the bike backwards, two older guys on the bench are watching. I smile and nod and set off, trying to look natural.
There is something I marked on the map and I can’t remember what it is. It’s taking me a bit out of the way and onto a forest path. There is some archeological site or something of that sort and I’m driving slowly, trying not to miss it. And I missed it – I can’t see anything there that’s worth looking at. Nevertheless, I drive all the way until it ends at somebody’s house. The fields are marked with electrocution signs, must be to keep horses in? Or out.
Meeting Marika. We walk around town, moving towards the harbour. The castle on the way. We talk about the town and Marika tells me the story about the key that was thrown into the river. It was the key from a cell in which a king’s locked his two brothers. He starved them to death. That’s what Nyköping is famous for.
It’s a quiet town. Amusing demolition works, the silo with bits sticking out. I am mesmerised.
We are dining in one of the places on the promenade. There was something happening earlier but we were a bit too late for that, we arrive just as everyone leaves. I tell Marika about that music event in Gävle. She is quiet and laughs easily, we don’t talk about anything in particular, we just talk about life.
It’s starting to rain and we are catching a cab back.
Oh, hello Tony. The toilet brush looks like Tony Blair. I’m not sure if that was the maker’s intention.
Marika has to leave early next morning, ‘I’d feel bad to kick you out if it was raining’.
The next day I spend exploring their house, sacrificing Sundsvall for a day of rest. I have to make up for it tomorrow but I think it will be worth it. The massive boiler dominates the bathroom, toilet paper roll on a stand deserves it’s on space in the middle, entangled cacti on the window cell, two chairs with baby shoes on the wall in between, chickens, cellar for fruit and veg, shed with a bread oven – have they ever used it? That would be a cool thing to do.
The day is spent catching one’s breath – surfing the net, chatting, photographing. It’s a sunny morning and we are outside in the garden but clouds come again in the afternoon and bring some drizzle with them. That’s when we decide to go out for a swim. The first lake isn’t usable, the second looks great, even if it’s getting rather cold and wet. It should feel warmer in the water. And it does.
Anders works in a travel agent, Tore is a gardener. They collect sand from all the beaches they’ve been to. In the evening, over another glass of wine we teach each other rude words in Russian and Swedish. I can’t remember what they taught me – maybe it’s for the best – there’s still a half of the country to go through.
Their gift is a box of seeds, the metal box was given to Tore by his father, it has a few compartments. The seeds are of different sorts of sweet chilli and tomato, as they go well together. Alongside with a note in Swedish and a couple of chocolates. Olle will be able to read it. I hope he likes tomatoes. But even if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter – it’s a gift.
An early start the next morning – I have about 350 miles to go to get to Gävle, even if cutting some of the route. The guys give me a packed lunch and I roll the bike out of their garage. It’s been a wonderful day and a half.
To do the distance in reasonable time most of the way has to be on a motorway. But it’s ok – even the motorway has gorgeous sweeps as one comes to Sundsvall. I stop for lunch just before Höga Kusten Bridge – the tallest bridge in Sweden to look at the scenery. The temperature is dropping and the wind on the bridge is a bit scary.
In the afternoon I stop by what’s called an antique shop. A bric-a-brac rather. I drive a bit further, all the way to the water, around the warehouse building. The wooden platform that is bobbing up and down, making me produce a bunch of blurred photos with tilted horizons. That’s where I have some more fish paste and bread. The clouds are taking over in the afternoon again. Some museum, the ship, railway bits and the shop. I walk up and down the corridor, it’s stuffed with everything from mildly interesting to a complete junk, a smell of wood and mould. Small things I’m after, in one of the cupboards there are some shot glasses and other cutlery. I pick up one of the metal (tin?) mini mugs – it looks like it’s made out of metal, with a [sheep] embossed on it, some writing alongside. I take it and walk up and down again. And then again. And again, trying to find anyone to ask about it or pay for it.
When I get to Gävle it’s sunny again. Olle Oljud is shouting hello from his window on the N-th floor. Oljud means cacophony. He’s got a balcony and a great view.
Sound designer, artist, composer, however you call it, Olle is a talented creative. What’s your favourite sound? He thinks for a while. Steps on gravel. I’m listening to my steps, the sound never leaves me for the rest of the walk.
Gävle is small and charming, the river runs in the middle, some festival is kicking in, gathering a crowd in the middle. We decided to stay out of it. We agree that it’s way to popular for both of us.
Olle shows me a graffiti underpass, he left his trace there too.
It’s getting darker and I’m sleeping on the futon, in the same room. Funny how light changes, I’m only a couple of days away from the midnight sun. We listen to warped white noise, different frequencies and controlled clicks – all kinds of home made Olle’s sound boards – his neighbours must be amused. I’m thinking of those Tate live sound events with Ova, Scanner and those people as I’m falling to sleep.
You know you’re in Sweden when people talk about driving snow mobiles and have mashed caviar spread for breakfast. But at least I learnt that å actually sounds more like o than a. After the loneliness of Finland and reservedness of Gällivare I am glad to be in the warmth of a friendly place. But saying bye to Cecilia and me and Jakob are setting off to see the Storforsen – a humongous current in the north east from Luleå. It’s not exactly on the way but well worth seeing.
Jakob’s object is vial of cyruped birch sap. It’s very nutritious and was done more as an experiment than anything else. He took it out of the freezer, the vessel has that white porcelain top with a rubber ring and a metal spring, but but the sap should keep for a while even if melted. That’s what makes the project go ahead – a little thoughtful artefact that tells a bit about Jakob’s thoughts.
In addition, Cecilia gives me a tiny felt rabbit she made. I’m not giving that one away.
We unwrap the gift from Santa Claus I give them – it’s a snowball. That anti stress thing that you squeeze hard when want to calm your nerves – it makes the sound of a real snow. It has a white rubbery slightly textured surface and Cecilia says it must be stuffed with rice. It’s pleasantly heavy and comfortable to hold.
Jakob’s bike is one of those dirt ones, caked in mud and with an extra large fuel tank wrapped around it. He kicks it into action. I’m thinking of ride we did with Jan in Pärnu along the coast as I avoid lumps of mud falling off Jakob’s bike and jumping on the tarmac.
Storforsen or ‘Big Stream’ (no shit) is a natural reserve. That landscape of polished stone and pine trees, where the rapid used to cover the entire area but now tamed and reduced to the stream. Nevertheless, it has an awe inspiring force. The wooden bridges and viewing platforms erected next to it are there to protect one but you can only feel it’s strength by standing on the rocks next to it. The energy, the unimaginable masses of water, the sublime natural force that makes you feel very small and feeble. The rock plateau underneath the clear sheet of water seems so near but completely inaccessible as the innumerable tons of water that pass there every minute would reduce you to vapour within seconds.
In the smaller streams and pools around the area people are swimming and jumping into from rocks. It’s extremely tempting but the time (and clouds) stand in our way – it’s about to start raining and we left our gear uncovered next to the bikes. We should rush back to the parking lot and cross the swimming off the list.
Some more palt stuff in the local cafe, followed by waffles. The rain really does it, we got there just in time. Books, films and the usual chat makes the time pass before we can set off again. On the way back we pass the village where Jakob grew up and say goodbye shortly afterwards.
I’m on my way to Umeå, wondering which way the clouds go and hoping we are not going in the same direction – the rain is still here. I’m getting quite late, so wouldn’t like to do much stopping. But do twice just to adjust my helmet, have some water and one of those pastries from yesterday.
The Myrbäck village consists of 6 houses, it’s about 20 miles away from Umeå. Tore and Anders are walking towards me with the dog as I clumsily ride up towards their garage. It’s a wonderful house, homely and stylish. We start with whiskey, just before dinner, later switch to wine, they even found some Kilkenny and I’ll have to think about describing the house tomorrow as tonight we are getting sloshed.
Not much else to do in Gallivare in the morning and after a walk I do end up in the same hotel for breakfast, amongst other slightly bored tourists. Regular breakfast, I’m getting quite used to those – ham, cheeses, pastries, fruit. Lots of coffee. And an extra apple to take with me. It became a routine – collect things scattered around the room, replenish the thermos and the squished bottle with water from a tap, stick everything in the boxes (thank heavens, Ioannis and BMW for the inner bags), strap the sleeping bag onto the bike, attach and adjust the video camera, check the route on the sat nav – all the waypoints are where they are supposed to be. Switch the ignition on and warm the bike a little. Ear plugs… check. Helmet and strap… check. Gloves on. Off we go… Oh, bollocks, forgot the glasses. Stop. Gloves off, glasses on, gloves on again. Now we can go.
The sleepy mining town of Malmberget. Stormy clouds are hanging over the Dundret threatening to turn the sunny morning into a very wet one indeed. But I can’t stay any longer to wait for it to pass, so just have to bite it and go.
The ore mining (research) destroyed the insides of the mountain and a gaping hole appeared in the middle of the town, growing each year and making more and more of the town uninhabitable. It looks scary on the map. In real it’s just confusing. Even my recently updated map shows roads that no longer exist – to go around the fenced area I have to go much wider than expected. I try east, west and south looking for a spot to have a view of the whole thing. Unlucky. I can see a glimpse of the pit but it’s hard to imagine the scale of things.
The clouds are here, starting a drizzle just as I go into a what used to be a mining community, now it doesn’t look much more than a tourist attraction. Still very charming. I buy a bag of sweet pasties from a lady for lunch. From now on, I’m moving towards home, my route is going south.
Sweden is spectacular. I’m waiting to get sick and tired of cliffs and pine forests but it never happens. For lunch I stop by the road and walk into the forest, towards the stream, waaaay below. It’s just rock and wood, with splashes of moss here and there. The landscape is filled with earthy colours, the surface of rock is polished with a recent rain, glistening and hyping up the contrasts. Water is running down everywhere.
Sweet pasties (I wish I remembered what they are called) and water. With an apple, heart of which I throw away, hoping that it might grow, diluting the evergreen forest with something more user friendly.
I’m in the suburbs of Luleå and very glad to meet Jakob. I haven’t had a proper conversation for a couple of days. I park in front of their house and we are discussing what to do – I’m happy to do what he wants, he’s the same. Very soon we dismiss dirt riding (thanks Jakob) – I’m definitely not feeling adventurous, and we settle on some easy riding. Which, in turn, would rule out Håkan but I have to accept the sacrifice. And shortly after we agree that a swim and beer might be the most appropriate for the evening.
Jakob introduces me to his girlfriend Cecilia, they live together in the first floor apartment. Cecilia is as quiet as Jakob talkative, they make a great couple. There is a massive dragon skeleton Cecilia made out of felt in their living room, she’s talking about her shop and other bits she makes.
Jakob makes his own beer. I’m jealous. Apparently, it is a smelly process, so there is no way we could do it in our flat, beer making needs some space too. The cupboard in their office is full of beer making stuff.
We set off for the local beach, with the bottles clinking in the backpack. Meeting Anna and for a drink, swim and fire.
Lingonberry shower gel, lingonberry shampoo, now I smell like some lingonberry. 5 miles to the Santa’s office with my shirt flopping around – it’s way too hot, even for 8-something in the morning . Some Russian family having breakfast at one of the tables at the roadside. I am looking at the Arctic circle sign when a man approaches me ‘Hello friend, where did you come from?’ ‘London’ I say and switch to Russian. ‘I have a meeting with Santa, have you met him yet?’ ‘Yes, I’ve seen him twice. They do a video recording and photos there. I was quite shy at first so didn’t like how it looked, so didn’t buy it. But on the second time I was playing for the public a little, it’s much better. So, just relax.’
I am thrilled to bits, like a kid. Santa is exactly like in pictures, I always knew he was real! Warm handshake and nice voice. ‘We were worried about you.’ His gift is a wrapped so I can’t see what it is. A small cube packet tied with a ribbon. ‘ A piece of the Arctic’ he says. I’m very grateful to Rovaniemi Tourism & Marketing Ltd for organising this.
Skinny dipping again on my way to Sweden.
The rain is ahead of me… A few times it looks like rain passed just before I get there leaving for me only the smell of wet pine and fresh tarmac.
The Torne river between Finland and Sweden. Pello. A police car is passing back and forth across the border. I know, I do look suspicious, can’t help it. Really. But I ought to walk to the middle of the bridge to look around. A small canoe is floating about.
Swampy landscape. I am so tired and stop to walk around what looks like clearing in the woods with a river going through it but I see my shoes are being sucked into the wet moss and brown water as I approach it. Cloudberries and greenery. Not a chance to sit somewhere here, even if looks inviting.
I walk back to the rocks and branches and find a spot. Sit down. Then stretch on the ground for a snooze, ignoring the horse flies and ants.
Hostel has a kitchen but I can’t be bothered to cook. It looks like there are a few people just living here. The owner switches to Swedish between every three words and apologises for it every time. I think I can just about catch what she’s trying to say. Her English is good but I don’t know a word of Swedish. ‘That will be 300 kronors’ she says as we pass through a bunch of young guys in the kitchen to my room ‘I don’t have cash – just crossed the border a couple of hours ago’ ‘There’s cash machine up the road, just leave them in the drawer as you leave tomorrow. Put the key there as well, just remember that you’re locked out when you do that’.
Gällivare on saturday evening is totally empty, maybe I’m just spoilt by London and other towns. I walk around town but cannot find anything better than a hotel next door for a beer and some dinner.
The guy at the next table is talking on the phone with a proper Essex accent. Smoked through laugh. Is he really discussing me eating my hamburger or am I getting paranoid?
The time seems appropriate, so I set off to the top of the Dundret mountain. It’s 9th of July, the midsummer ends on 12th, I’m just in time. It’s cloudy so I’m not expecting to see the sun but at least I know it will be there. Running low on fuel but it should be enough to go there and I’ll just coast most of the way back. The road is narrow but the tarmac is good. Light is sensational, blue and eerie, not entirely dark but doesn’t feel like any time of the day. Evening? Night? Early morning? I could’ve never guessed the hour. I got there just as a large bus of tourists is unloading, it’s windy and people walk on rocky path looking around and holding their hats. Swedish I think. Lights and water far away.
Telegraph poles propped by big rocks like they grew out of the ground, pushing them away, making a space for themselves. Imagine the new sprouts of a pole getting out of the ground with fresh drops of tar on it’s stem before it gains strength, developing the wire buds that grow and pop releasing strings that will link the stem with the other poles nearby. At least, that’s what would’ve happened in Narnia.
Anyway. The lights in the cafe are on, I look inside. It’s run by a few local teenagers and they are open till 1am. ‘I heard a lot about your waffles’ ‘Only good things I hope’ ‘Certainly. With cloudberry jam. And a coffee please.’
Tar ice cream? Smoked raindeer? I love this town. Burnt down a few times but still standing strong Oulu has a lot to offer. Kaisu and Karoliina pick me up at the hotel at 9am and we are setting off for the town to walk about and say hello to the Botero-like policeman in the middle of a square – another symbol of the Arctic Gateway, made by Kaarlo Mikkonen. Oulu has the sea, beautiful waterfront and free wi fi on the streets (up yours BT), what else would one need? I feel welcome, I feel at home.
Market supplies us with coffee and fresh salmon sandwiches with rieska. I hope that guy with the mobile phone is not going to step on the little boy. Shame if the bright future was knocked off the edge because of some dude too busy chatting to look around. Finland is getting more land every year because the earth is rising after being pushed down by the masses of ice from the ice age. I wonder if it will ever join with Sweden. ‘Again’ says Kaisu and smiles. A bit more of sightseeing and then we meet Suvi, who gives me a bag with a t-shirt and other bits.
I set off for Rovaniemi. Breaking off from the sea, to conquer the Arctic circle which sounds quite glorious but it’s still around 30C, so doesn’t feel arctic at all.
The road is following a river, on one side first then on the other. It does feel like a break now, so I take a random turn to get closer to water and come across the dam. The landscape turns for being rocky, really does look like the ice’s been there. Using the absence of people and unwillingness to carry on with wet towel and swimming gear, in we go as we were born. The current is very strong that I’d rather not swim further than a few metres away from the shore – it would’ve been funny to get carried away all the way back to the sea and discovered somewhere in Sweden.
Further down the river Rovaniemi appears. It’s a great sight when approaching from behind the hills, crossing the Jätkänkynttilä bridge (try saying that a few times) to get into town. It’s a quiet evening. Very hot.
The hotel is very pleasant, sauna in on the 4th floor. I unpack, shower (as, of course, is tradition) then stroll around town, along the embarkment, suburbs, people doing barbeques, a street theatre with a couple of actors at the back looking bored and I’m almost tempted to approach them but then chicken out. Oh well, there’s plenty of bored actors in the world, I guess. It’s time for the sauna anyway.
Just as I’m walking up holding my towel I meet Petri, a Swede visiting his mum but choosing to stay at the hotel. We chat in and out of the heat, he’s got some beers that he shares with me. Taking out a round box. ‘What’s that?’ ‘Snus. Have you tried?’ I open it and sniff – it looks disgusting. Minced tobacco. ‘Never seen it before’ ‘Goes underneath your lip’ ‘Oh, ok’ ‘Pure nicotine, but healthier – no smoke’. He is a great company so we decide to meet at the bar for another beer afterwards. I think that’s going to be my dinner tonight. After another beer curiousity takes over and I take a small ball of snus. It starts burning straight away but bearable. After a few minutes I start feeling the effect of Mr N. If I remember rightly that’s how a cigarette feels… but stronger. ‘How long do I need to keep it for?’ ‘One can do for about 45 minutes but for a start don’t hold too long. When the juices start making their way into your stomach you can throw up, you’re not used to it.’ He laughs. I’m feeling woozy already. Time to give up, spit the thing out and splash my face with water. And get another beer. And then a pint of Synebrychoff cocktail. What were we talking about? I can’t remember the details. The age must be creeping up.