Sweden has the misfortune of sharing one thousand miles of border with one of the most stunning countries on the globe: Norway, and so it always loses when compared. In that battle, the Swedish are so beforehand defeated that they don’t even try to compete: neither its endless forests nor its numerous lakes, reindeer flocks or other natural beauties suffice to impress the tourist who crosses that border from the west.
Like me, for instance.
A rainy and dull morning in late August I cross the imaginary line (barely a road sign, fifty kilometres southeast of Mo i Rana) dividing Norway from Sweden, and whence the road is called Bla Vagen (Blue Way) because of the many rivers and lakes alongside it, all the way down to Umea, on the Botnia Gulf.
While a rain shower is watering me on the mountain pass, I realize that I haven’t been too lucky, regarding temperatures, along this journey: for the first weeks, from Spain and across Central Europe to Southern Finland, the maximums weren’t anywhere below 30 ºC; and then in just two days they dropped to no more than 15 ºC in Lapland, Norway and up to this day. So, Mc Fate has refused to give me that suitable and ideal range between 20 and 25 degrees we bikers are so fond of.
This Bla Vagen, despite its pretty name, is a somewhat unappealing road. More than one hundred kilometres now without much variety: woods, rivers, lakes and a distant glacier, all of it somewhat monotonous. Despite being a nice scenery, I see no outstanding landscape (at least none deserving a photograph). Barely any people, no farms, not even a crossroads for a change. Every now and then a hunters’ hut, and that’s all.
Finally a village called Tarnaby, where I stop for a coffee and also to get a Swedish flag sticker, for the motorbike. The souvernir shop tender, a blue-eyed white woman whose features, on a close look, might slightly remind those of an Asian, replies to my inquiry with a mixture of haughtiness and offended pride: ‘no, no; this is Lapland territory; only Sami flags here’. Hmm… I find it pathetic, most of all when coming from a person who, at the very most, might have one eigth of Sami blood. Besides, I very much doubt that the Lapps had any flag whatsoever. Oh, these regionalists and their parochial complex! I’m afraid that, for good or for bad, the era of small nations and minority languages’ doom is nigh, and will be gone forever.
In any case, as I only take into account countries recognized by the UN (had I to put a sticker for every region, province or city I visit, there wouldn’t be room enough on the bike), I haven’t bought a flag in Tarnaby. For the rest, I’ve been quite surprised to learn that Lapland is not simply one of Finland’s regions, but stretches also to Northern Norway and a considerable part of Sweden, so that the Sami territory is way bigger than what I thought. One of those many mistakes I’ve been dragging along most of my life.
Back on Rosaura, the road and the forest, I’m recalling the first time I ever came to Sweden, one quarter of a century ago. As early as that–and even before–I had already heard inside myself the call of the North; but as I then had thrice the energy and one third the budget, to carry out the journey I had purchased one of those Interrail tickets for Central Europe and Escandinavia entitling the owner to travel by train as much as he fancies for a given period of time. And one of the things I best remember about Sweden is my own amazement when beholding–with young eyes, able to be surprised–the endless snow fields, underlined by the two black rail tracks in their elegant conical perspective, and the frozen surfaces of the lakes. Now, twice as old as I was then, I feel I am such a different person from that young man; and I regard my gained experience rather as a burden than a enlightenment, because I miss that ability to get surprised. Whatever in those times moved all of my heartstrings, seems trivial today to me. True, three decades ago there were proper winters, quite colder than nowadays, and on that occasion spring had but come, therefore the landscapes dressed quite a different clothing than now; but still, the sense of beauty runs down my skin like waterdrops run down a raincoat, and the enjoyment is much less.
Definitely not waterproof, though, is my cordura jacket, and today’s rain is getting me wetter and more tired than usual. For a change in the Bla Vagen’s monotonous perfection, I take a by-road that, a few kilometres further, leads to a village (a village?; but where are the houses, then?) called Umnäs. And quite conveniently (but not so much as to spare me the last, ultimate rain shower) there I find a lodging called Nordic Alaska (hostel, hotel, pub, campsite and ethnical museum) that suits me just right. Do they have free rooms? All for myself: I’m the only guest today. A hostel bed, 200 Crowns; a hotel room, 650. Give me that.
Quite coincidentally too, the man in charge, a kind and obliging fellow, can speak Spanish. It turns out he’s been married to a Panamanian, and they lived together in Barcelona for quite a few years. Hence, he eagerly asks me which is my hometown, and then looks a bit disappointed when hearing that I’m from Madrid. Anyway, probably he is feeling lonely or wants to practice his Spanish, or to tell someone about his life; or all of the above; and as I don’t mind listening, we spend a while chatting over a beer.
After living in Barcelona, the guy had moved to Wales for getting some distance after he found out that she was cheating on him, and after some time he took to love the Welsh and their country; so, he lived there for a few years endeavouring to get over the break-up trauma, to which purpose he also got into several activities like attending meditation courses, learning about self-awareness and even taking a zip of buddism. ‘Now –he says– I’ve finally forgiven her for what she did, and I’m in peace with both her and myself.’
He declares himself fond of quiet places, like this resort in the middle of a depopulated Sami territory, and he loathes hunting with all of his heart; but this, I guess, must cause him much grief because the Nordic Alaska caters mainly for hunters, and they’re the kin he has to deal with most of the year. But here he is, the one and only multipurpose employee: receptionist, cook, maintenance man, cleaner and museum guide, 24/7, all year round.
Interesting people I meet sometimes in my travels.
Along with having learned about Lapland’s boundaries, there’s another fact I’ve got acquainted with today that I didn’t know: Swedish are almost as fond of sauna as Finns themselves. And, there being one here down in the basement (I mean a sauna, not a Finn), I’ve seized the opportunity for taking a session. A bit shoddy facility (I had to squat under the tap for cooling me down between rounds because there was no cold shower), but it did the job acceptably and got me warmed up, nice and dandy, ready for my daily stroll.
Now the evening is over. As a dinner, my Spanish speaking host has cooked for me a fish dish quite good. There’s nothing else for me to do except reading a few pages before confronting the worst moment of my days, lately: the dismal night where the monster of anxiety dwells.