“You should write a post. One about Sweden, one about Germany,” my girlfriend tells me, while we stroll through the Christmas markets of a quaint German town a few hours from her place.
I should. I know I should. But every time I try, I falter. I’ve never considered myself a “travel writer” – I write tips on travelling with your dog, I write novels. How do you sum up the experiences of an entire country in a blog post? I know it’s the experiences that make a journey, but this is big-picture stuff. A post as big and as varied and Sweden is. My time there was nothing like I thought it would be. Not that I’m sure how I thought it would be. In my mind, when I arrived, I held hopes that Sweden would be the home I never felt Australia was. That I would find some deep connection to the land, the forests, the towns, and be able to say, “Yes, I want to live here. This feels like my place.” But Sweden was not that. Not this time. And yet, now that I’m back in Germany, there is a pull, a gentle tug, a whisper to come back, like a lover you’ve once spent some time with and now wants to see if you can “make it work”.
I saw a lot of Sweden, and yet none at all. It was both strangely familiar and yet completely opposite from Australia in so many ways. The gentle undulating hills of the south, the “food bowl” of Sweden, with its fields and country towns, and grass-yellow, open spaces was the countryside of central Victoria. Minus the sheep and scraggly gumtrees. And yet when we got into the forests, autumn gleefully reminded me that we weren’t home after all, blazing golden birch trees filtering the last sun of the season. The coast and sea-salt air was a memory of times spent on beaches every summer, yet here were rocks and pines surviving against the odds. And rain. A lot of rain.
Then we went north, through Norway before cutting across the middle of Sweden, and onwards north, north, north. Almost as far north as we could go before we ran out of Sweden to drive in. Our first experiences of “the North” were perhaps as stereotypical as I could have asked for. Crossing the border between two towns too small to be worth mentioning, a bald, snow-capped mountain loomed ahead and we pulled over to take a walk through Samí reindeer herding country, crossing a snow-covered river, soaking in the sun, and marvelling at our first reindeer sighting.
Then we continued north. The weather grew colder, the towns became further apart, smaller, more like something you’d find in Australia once you got off the highway and into the country. One-store towns where the locals stood outside, bottle of milk tucked under their arm as they chatted to their neighbours about family, friends, local things. I suppose conversations are the same all around the world, but maybe here they would talk about how it’s cold earlier than usual, colder than usual, icier than usual, instead of about how we need rain, how the land is so dry, how we’re worried about fires.
Soon we were surrounded by forests and roads covered in snow. The country was flat but it didn’t feel that way with the trees blocking our view of the horizon. The outback of the north. I imagine somewhere deep in the heart of it were the bears snoozing away the long winter, the moose that we never saw doing their moose things.
And as we went North again, further than I’d intended, the mountains opened up before us, and I felt myself release a metaphorical long-held breath. What is it about mountains that heals my heart? That calls to me like an old friend? And here they were, Abisko and Björkliden, one-store towns surrounded by a mountain range that seemed to have sprung up just to surprise and delight me when I needed it most.
Loki and I delighted in the snow. Powdery and soft, it never really became less of a novelty. There were times I grew sick of dragging it into the van, of having to put on and remove 15 different kinds of clothing every time we went in or out of the van, but by contrast, there were times we stood, lit by the glow of a streetlight at 3pm and marvelled at the silence of the snow drifting down around us, kissing my cheeks, dusting Loki like so much icing sugar. He would blink, squint at me as though unsure whether he liked it coming from the sky, would prefer to just jump around and stick his face into the drifts. His joy in the snow was infectious.
And yet, there were times it was all too much. Too different, too cold, too isolated. There was a time I decided we needed to get out of the cold, but the cabin at the caravan park cost 74€ and I had 70€ in my account. There were times I lay on the sofa of the van, gripped by something like a panic attack, crying against Loki and asking him why we were here. Does the good of it outweigh those moments? Does the resilience and strength you find in yourself outweigh it? If you lose some part of yourself, something innocent and doubting and come back with something stronger, more capable, something that believes in yourself more than when you started, is it worth what felt like a special kind of hell at the time?
We hiked National Parks. Of course dogs were allowed. They were allowed most places, though perhaps not as much as Germany and Austria. Once not in a Starbucks (actually in Norway), once not in a cabin in a caravan park, and often not in stores. On-leash rules reigned in the national parks, but most other places applied Sweden’s “as much control as if they were on leash” rule. But like Australia, we rarely saw people while hiking, and rarer still were there dogs out with them.
I heard lakes singing as they froze and unfroze, watched husky teams take their first rides for the season, we skijored on a frozen lake. I ate kanelbullar. So many kanelbullar. I saw the Northern Lights three times, from a trail of grey smoke, to green and flickering across the sky, north to south.
Turning south again, I watched the snow melt and disappear, though the forests didn’t. Now we scrambled over rocks on our hikes, until they became treacherously covered in ice. We met people who reached out to me through the internet, extending their hospitality and their welcome, with a warmth that I have so far only found in Australians and Swedes. We visited Stockholm’s archipelago, towns sleeping with the coming of winter, though I was assured they came alive in summer. Everything seemed to come alive in summer, or so I was told. Just our luck that we arrived in a time when Sweden seemed to be taking a breath between the frantic summer festivities and winter’s outdoor activities and long, cold days. We explored Stockholm and I found there a city that felt different to the other towns and cities we’d visited so far. Something that compelled me to stay, if I wanted. Unfortunately an injury to my foot was playing up so I couldn’t spend the hours wandering around that I would have otherwise.
Winter had followed us south, and so we cut across to the middle of Sweden and south again, shooting past Jönköping and back to Skåne where the landscape had transformed from the gold of autumn to the stark readiness for winter in just a few weeks. And just like that, we were gone, driving across the bridge to Denmark toward Germany, wondering how to put the experience of Sweden into words. A month later and I still don’t know if I’ve done it justice. Maybe nobody ever can build a country and their experiences with words, not until you’ve lived the experience yourself, and even then it could never be the same.
I will yield to the voice calling me back to Sweden, asking me to “give us another go”, maybe in Summer when everything is green and alive, when the sun is shining and the country is awake and celebrating the long days and the warmth. For now though, I’ll hold on to the part of me that Sweden made stronger, to the memory of snow falling in the middle of an empty forest by a frozen lake, to the reindeer licking salt off the snowy roads, to the pink glow of a 10am sunrise over bald, snow-covered mountains, somewhere further north than I’d anticipated.