On the heels of my jaunt to Eastbourne, my wanderlust was somewhat satisfied – but not for long. The trip was a soothing, temporary relief, but it didn’t address the root of the problem. Besides the occasional trip home for some Christmases and Easters, I had not left England since moving here in 2010. The whole of Europe was on my doorstep — just a short flight or even a train ride away — and despite this, I always had excuses that kept me from going. One of the biggest of these excuses was, of course, money. Travel is expensive — there’s no denying that. But it came to a point where I sat down and reasoned with myself: travelling Europe is a lot less expensive for someone based in the UK than someone based in America; there was no guarantee that, when my time in university is over in two years, that I will be able to renew my visa and stay here. Suddenly, two years seemed like a very short time to fit all the European travels I dreamed of into.
My wistful pasttime of browsing budget airline sites took on a new, intent fervor. Where did I want to go that I could go for cheap? When would I go? I wanted to eschew touristy places that would be packed during the summer months. I took a look at the week I had set aside as my travel week, and noticed that it would encompass the summer solstice. In that moment, I knew where I had to go – Sweden.
A country famed for its Midsummer celebrations, Sweden was supposed to be beautiful beyond comparison in its warm summer months as well. I wanted to see as much of the country as I could in one week, instead of staying in just one city, so a plan began to form in my head: I would fly into Malmö for a few days, then take a train up the coast to Gothenburg, and finally end my trip with a short stint in Oslo. If there is anything I should have learned from my many years of travel with my parents, it is that things will almost never go to plan.
I booked my flight for Thursday, June 20th (thinking that Midsummer celebrations would occur on the Saturday), and began to send out my Couchsurfing requests. I discovered a few things very quickly: one, that regardless of the actual date of the solstice, Swedes party on the Friday and nurse their hangovers the rest of the weekend; two, that almost all of them leave their homes and either go out in the country or visit friends out of town; and three, I had picked a bad day to arrive in Malmö. Well, to be truthful, I had picked a bad weekend to arrive in Sweden.
I watched in dismay as request after request was politely turned down – the Couchsurfers of Malmö seemed to be going everywhere else in Sweden except their own town. Then, out of the blue, came an offer from some people I hadn’t sent a request to. Alex and Lisa graciously offered me a place to crash for one night. They were in fact also leaving to go out of town on Friday morning to the south coast, but saw that I was still in need of a place. We had a chat over email and ironed out the details. Soon, I had not only a place to stay but also a ride from the airport.
On the morning of June 20th, I rose early with a spring in my step. No morning in recent memory had inspired me to slip out from beneath the covers with such ease, despite being almost too excited to sleep the night before.
I made my way to Stansted airport to face my first encounter with budget airline travel. Though I was lucky enough to travel with my parents extensively as a child (they are both veterinarians who traveled to speak at conferences), we had only ever used Delta. The only plane I had ever booked for myself was my plane to Germany in 2010, and that was with the award miles I had accrued over many, many years. This trip was a “first-time” in many ways.
Long story short? Ryanair was pleasant and runs pretty much like you would expect an airline to run. I was expecting them to be very strict about the carry-on size and weight limit, but they simply eyed my gym bag (which was, of course, the correct size and a few kilograms under the maximum weight) and stamped my boarding pass. The plane was clean, the stewardesses friendly, and the flight was not just on time – it was early.
I stared out of the window as the plane descended into Malmö-Sturup airport, some 30 km east of the city. An emerald patchwork quilt lay below, reminiscent of the times I had flown into Munich, but with much less evidence of civilization. Long, straight roads and the occasional house broke up the varying shades of green that looked as though someone had scattered a vivid array of Pantone colour chips. In the distance sat white wind turbines, lazily turning in the still summer heat, receding into the blue UV haze over evergreen hills. I saw beautiful little hidden lakes and copses dotted throughout the landscape below and wished I would be able to find my way back to them; perhaps another time, I will.
Once through passport control, I panicked briefly after realizing that I hadn’t given Alex any information except when my flight would arrive. Would he be able to recognize me from my Couchsurfing picture? Would I be able to recognize him? There was no need to panic – just through the doors stood a man in a bright Hawaiian shirt and a little boy holding a sign that said “KATE.” I smiled and waved at them and they both broke out into smiles. Alex and I greeted each other and shook hands, and then he turned to his kid and said something in Swedish. In halting English, with a shy sidelong glance up at my face, the little boy said, “Hello… my name… is Tim.”
Soon we were on our way to Malmö, windows down to combat the blazing sunshine and 28° C heat. I watched the Swedish countryside fly past; Alex and I began chatting about the Swedish language as I inquired after the pronunciation of various roadsigns; I was baffled to discover that the Swedish word for “Copenhagen”, “Köpenhamn”, was actually pronounced “show-pen-hamen”. As Alex tried to explain to me the “soft” Swedish consonants and the intricate rules of pronunciation, Tim showed off his English skills by attempting to count to ten a few times. He pressed a Lakeröl pastille into my hand – the infamous Scandinavian salt liquorice – and without knowing what it was, I ate it. I can’t say the experience was entirely pleasant; I supposed if you start eating salt liquorice that early, though, you learn to love it.
By the time we pull up to their flat near the Turning Torso, I’d been briefed on the complexities of Swedish phonemes and the history of the Skåne region in which Malmö lies. Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden, was historically Danish until 1658, when Denmark and Sweden signed to Treaty of Roskilde. Various treaties throughout the years reconfirmed the cession of Skåne, though the Danes tried to take it back a few times, with the last attempt being the Battle of Helsingborg in 1710. Sweden viewed the region as a foreign land until about 1719, and forced the linguistically Danish population to speak Swedish. As a result of its fairly recent turbulent history, people say Skåne is markedly different culturally and linguistically from the rest of the country.
Once inside their beautiful, book-filled home, I sipped on a proffered beer whilst Alex and Lisa began to cook dinner. After asking a few times if there was anything I could do to help, I was told I could whip the cream for the strawberries – but that would come later. I followed Lisa out to the courtyard of the complex, awed to find a lovely communal space that all the residents gladly shared, both in leisure and maintenance. As she showed me the barbeque pit and garden, she explained how all the residents got together a few times a year to help with the upkeep of the yard. I thought fondly about how nice it would be to find such communal spirit in London (where I was recently yelled at by my neighbour’s wife after he let me borrow their hoover in an uncharacteristic fit of goodwill). From a selection of rhubarb, lingonberries, mint, thyme, basil, strawberries, and various other flourishing plants, Lisa cut some fresh chives to put on our potatoes.
A short while later we were sat outside in the diffuse late afternoon glow with the best and most authentic Swedish welcoming meal I could have asked for: fresh Baltic salmon from the fish market that morning, seasoned with herbs, baked, and sprinkled with dill; little baby potatoes, scrubbed of the dirt still clinging to their skin, then boiled and served with sour cream and chives; bright orange boiled prawns, also fresh from the market; and a selection of pickled herrings and caviar. It was simple, but then again, most Swedish cooking does seem to tend that way. It focuses more on the quality of the ingredients rather than the fancy things you can do with them or cover them with.
Perhaps the most authentic and daunting part of the meal was the selection of sill (pickled herring) that they prepared for me. I had requested it specially over email, saying that I should probably have some sort of introduction to the stuff before I would be expected to eat it at the Midsummer party the next day. Alex and Lisa were only too glad to help out, and bought four different types to help get me started: Skärsgårds sill, pickled herring in sour cream with chives and red roe; löksill, pickled herring with onions; dillsill, pickled herrings with dill; and the original inlagd sill, pickled herrings in spices and brine. Upon seeing my surprise that there were four different flavours of pickled herring on the table, Lisa laughed and told me that there were at least 20 you could buy at the stores.
The verdict on sill? The original sill is an odd blend of fishiness, vingear, and a sickly sweet flavour – definitely an acquired taste. The others were not that bad, however; I particularly enjoyed the Skärsgårds sill (supposedly the style of sill favoured by inhabitants of the Stockholm archipelagos) with its similarity to the sour cream-and-chive-covered potatoes and burst of saltiness from the roe.
After dinner, pleasantly full of all the sea had to offer, we pushed the plates to the side to deal with later – it was growing late in the day and I had one thing I really wanted to see on my stopover in Malmö.
Read the next part of the journey here.