Early morning: we get up to catch the train to Stockholm. It is a popping out into the world again as we say goodbye to Gareth at Lund station. I know we, or rather I, have to kick in and be self-sufficient. We have ten minutes or so to find the right platform. Everyone here speaks English but the signs aren’t in both languages. I find the ticket office and march straight in to ask, whilst the others look to find the departures board. I think of asking in Swedish if they speak English, but I know they do.
So, here on the train, which Gareth has warned us can induce some seasickness (high speed, the compensation for the bends is a kind of adverse camber effect of the carriages), we glide along out of Lund, north. I think of the train trip I once took through the Barcelona suburbs and of the place names I mentally recorded, and later wrote down, there. There’s a need to record this journey here.
Hässleholm. We’re well into the pine forests now. Bitter train coffee. Sunlight splashing the pages. Four hundred miles or so to Stockholm. Four and a half hours. It’s just struck me how this is like a journey as long as London to Edinburgh, perhaps. Endless forest? What now would Kerouac have written?! Get into that mindset. Metatravel: travel about travel. This carriage is efficiently quiet. Alvesta: the station sits opposite a shimmering lake surrounded by trees. Approaching stations, the sound of the train engine cuts completely for ten or twenty seconds or so. We coast in on an otherworldly silence. Then the engines kick in again as we come to the platform. Where is Alvesta? I want to see the route we’re taking. Out of town, which passes quickly, the pines are interspersed with silver birch and other trees I can’t name. It’s flat, or as flat as the trees fringe will allow me to see, flatish. More lakes – great wide puddles of black blue. I try to capture these snapshots in words (metatravel) but don’t think I’m writing it well. A narrative of a journey. The landscape really is just trees, as Gareth said it would be, or mostly: trees and lakes and dots of wooden houses, some painted yellow or light brown, some stained deep brown. Gareth said we might see elk; there are some bears or wolves that wander down south, he told us. There really is an awful lot of wood, in trees, in this country! Nässjö: clusters of low-level houses round its lake; overhead wires above a stream of tracks, a small industrial spillage of a place. Quarried rock. Outside Nässjö there are slopes rising up from the train track. A smattering of houses. Are they really built at the angle of the slopes (are the ‘slopes’ slopes at all?), as it looks like, or is it just an illusion caused by the sideways angle of the train carriage? This rolling and speed and writing on the go makes me feel a little unwell. The illusion of slope is what it is: careful study shows the pitch of the train to be quite steep – on the right, the buildings slope towards the train; on the left, just sky. Boxholm: another industrial outpost. Farmland. Rock starts to split through the landscape. Then trees, trees. Mjölby. The buildings are getting more urban, less pretty, though we’re still two hours south of Stockholm. Linköping, in the county of Östergotland. I find a map in Eleanor’s guidebook and see that there’s massive Lake Vättern out to our left but too far across the horizon to see. It stretches up from Nässjö, and then north past here. Linköping’s heavy industry surrounds the railway station, which smears into the low-rise city. It must be a city because of all the houses. What do they make or generate here? I can’t tell. Norrköping: more railway industry. Södertälje Syd: high up over a river valley. Sprawling car park of shiny white-topped ready-to-sells. Distant hills and stretching blue river. Look left, as we sit backwards, out towards the Baltic Sea, which isn’t in view, but I know it’s out there somewhere. Then, and then . . .
Stockholm. We pull in and it all feels somehow bigger than I expected. Why did I think of it as some twee little place?
We meet Billy outside the main station, as promised, and he’s a man on a mission to get us to our hotel, as instructed. Billy, our quietly spoken Irish guide: what would we have done without him? Billy’s married to Eva, or as he alludes: she followed him home to Belfast once, and now he’s here with her.
The hotel has rooms without windows. I think of the prospect of sleeping in a sort of cardboard box!
Billy then takes us to the Pressbyrå shop to help us buy travel passes, and then on to Thorhildsplan where we visit the local Parkleken (playground).
It’s got a good loose parts feel and a part-fence of low wire, but it still feels open, warm, friendly. The children go about the business of their play largely ignoring us. The staff there provide burgers for us and we talk of play and social attitudes and then leave them, goodbye and thanks. Billy talks into his flip-up mobile phone.
He takes us on a tourist trail of Stockholm: off the bus at Slussen – the lochs between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea; Gamla Stan, the old town with its narrow alleys, the castle and huge edifice of the Royal Palace; into the main thoroughfare of Drottninggatan, via the food hall – stalls and stalls of sausage meat, cheeses, fish, chocolates, fruit and vegetables. We separate as a group on our individual ways. Rich and I find ourselves on a search for a pub/bar. We walk up and down Drottninggatan but there doesn’t seem to be such a place. The street is jam-packed. Clothes shops, designer shops, sportswear. Then at the end we see what we think of, there and then, as the only bar in Stockholm. It is expensive beer (at around £7 for less than a pint each). It’s something I can say I’ve done though. Eleanor and Suzannah find us and join us for drinks. It would come to £30 for one person to buy a round of beer here!
Later, we find Billy and the others – Lucy and Di – again, and Billy careers through the T-bana underground, at a pace, and we end up at Ropsten, where he takes us up and through a car park and onto a small waiting ferry. The ferry takes us to Eva and Billy’s island of Tranholmen: no cars and about two hundred inhabitants, which Eva (who meets us at the jetty with her dog) tells us was once the playground of the King. Eva and Billy’s house is a small, pale wooden gem that overlooks the Baltic at the west end of the Stockholm island archipelago (which, apparently, has some 24,000 or 30,000 islands in it, depending on who you ask, stretching out into the sea). We eat ‘surprise meat’, which turns out to be moose stew! We talk of more play and social attitudes. After dinner, pudding and coffee, Billy does two trips in his little motor boat to take us back to the nearest island with an underground station. He powers the boat across the lagoon and swings it round. The sky is a pale northern late blue (Eva said that in summer months, even here in Stockholm – a third of the way up Sweden – it doesn’t really get dark at all). Eva then drives us, on the other side, and drops us off at Danderyds Sjukhus, and we arrange to meet tomorrow. Rich and Di and I manage to find our way back to T-Central station and then, eventually, after some trial and error, back to the hotel.
to be continued . . .