To the Land of the Midnight Sun

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Europe » Sweden » Uppsala County
August 8th 2009
Published: February 25th 2016
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I admit that I knew very little about Sweden when I stepped off of the plane at Arlanda airport near Stockholm. What I did know had come to me in a series of stories and pleasant memories that I had collected over the years, usually second hand, from one of my sister’s best childhood friends. My sister’s friend, Maria, had moved to America from Sweden when she was young and she and her family frequently went back for a visit. Most of her earlier stories came to me through my mom, perhaps in an attempt to free me from the closed-minded prison of ignorance that I was drifting into – I was an aspiring redneck in those days. As the years passed we all went our own ways in search of ourselves. I eventually shed my redneck bonds, worked my way through university and landed a great job in California. Occasionally, when I was back in Georgia for the holidays, Maria would come up to visit my sister and we would all sit around the kitchen table getting reacquainted – Sweden was often a topic of conversation. Once I started traveling my sister would occasionally fill me in on her friend’s journeys, saying things like, “Maria is in India now, you should e-mail her.” I was too blind to see it then, but my sister had ulterior motives. In November 2008 both Maria and I ended up back in Atlanta. Our paths had taken us both on grand adventures all over the world, but we were both a little weary of life on the road and had a longing to find a place to call home. My sister immediately got to work making sure that Maria and my paths crossed regularly. By the end of December we finally saw what my matchmaking sister had seen for years and we started dating. Since then I have lived some of the happiest times of my life with Maria, but that is another story…

When we started dating I had two short trips planned, one to the Amazon and one to visit family in Norway. Maria decided to plan her yearly visit to Sweden for just before my time in Norway, so I extend my trip to join her there. We had traveled together a lot in Georgia, but it was going to be our first time out of the country together so I was excited! I had already met her mom and sister, but it had been years since they had moved back to Sweden and I had changed a lot since then. I was also going to meet her grandparents, her nieces and the rest of her family and friends there. In addition to meeting many of the important people in Maria’s life, I was going to finally be able to see all of the places I had heard so much about over the previous eighteen years. I had already shared some of my favorite places, such as Cumberland Island, with her, so it was her turn to share her favorite places with me. I was finally going to see her father’s little red cottage on the shores of Lake Mälaren and her quaint little hometown of Enköping, nearby, as well as many other places that have been important to her over the years.

Maria left for Sweden several days before me, so she and her mother were waiting for me at the airport when I landed. I made my way through immigrations and then I went to the baggage carousel and waited. I watched as the crowd thinned to only a few hopeful people. There were only five of us left when the small door slid closed indicating that there were no more bags on the plane. I wasn’t really surprised since I had changed flights a few times in Atlanta due to cancelations and bad weather. It was comical, since Maria had arrived without her bags less than a week before. I made my way to the lost-baggage counter where I discovered that my bags had gone on to Newark as originally planned. I also learned that, since I had gotten on a non-stop from Atlanta, the bags were not even scheduled to follow me to Sweden. I left my address in Enköping and my contact phone numbers, I collected my emergency supply kit from the lady behind the counter and then I headed towards customs. I found Maria and her mom waiting just outside of customs. After a warm greeting and a welcoming embrace, we walked out of the terminal and started exploring Sweden.

The day was still young, so we took the scenic route back to her mom’s house in Lillkirka. We passed a sign pointing to a town called Sigtuna and Maria’s mom asked me if I was hungry. I was, so we headed into the town, and found a place to park. As we walked around they explained to me that Sigtuna was the oldest town in Sweden, having been founded more than a thousand years ago by the Vikings. We walked down through the narrow cobbled streets passing lovely little cottages and shops. Eventually we found the waterfront and walked out onto the small pier. The restaurant that we were planning on eating at was closed, so we went to the small restaurant next to it. We ordered some typical Swedish food and then we sat down at a little table right next to Lake Mälaren. It was overcast and a bit chilly, but we didn’t notice as we got reacquainted. Afterwards we walked through the waterfront park, admiring the twisted climbing trees and some reproduction Viking ships along the way. We stopped at an old building that contained a small museum, which was the smallest city hall in Europe, and then we made our way to the ruins of a big stone church that we had seen when we drove into town. We explored the lovely old church, which was around eight hundred years old, and then we continued walking. Near another ruined church we found a lovely rune stone – It had been broken at some point in the past and the pieces were used in two different buildings around town before they were found and reassembled.

When we left Sigtuna we continued on the small country roads. We drove through a picturesque landscape of rolling, golden fields and large stands of trees. Occasionally a red barn or a tiny farmhouse would come into view and complete the lovely rural scene. Maria asked me if I was interested in seeing a castle. I said yes, since I love castles, and we turned down a small side road following the signs towards Skoklostersslott. Eventually we came to a small group of buildings and a lovely orchard and we found a place in the shade to park. The four domed towers and the steeply pitched roof of Skokloster Castle rose up above the trees just beyond a small church. Maria and I grabbed our cameras and headed off to explore. The surrounding landscape was green and beautiful with great views of Lake Mälaren and the orchards. The stunning white castle was built in the mid seventeenth century and stood as a monument to Sweden’s ‘Age of Greatness’ when the nation was one of the most powerful in Europe. The castle remained in private hands until the mid 1960’s when the government purchased it and turned it into a museum. Sadly, the museum, which was supposed to be amazing, was closed, but we did get to explore some of the exhibits on the first floor of the castle as well as the lovely grounds. We walked slowly back to the car, stopping to admire another rune stone behind the church – It had once served as a foundation stone for the church!

It was late in the afternoon when we left Skokloster, so we ended our sightseeing and headed straight to her mom’s house. Maria had prepared me ahead of time for my first meeting with Bumsen, her mom’s large Rottweiler, but it was a bit daunting as I walked to the door and heard the vicious barking on the other side. Her mom warned me against making eye contact and told me not to attempt to pet him on the first day and then Maria reiterated her point of completely ignoring him until he calmed down. Her mom went in first and grabbed Bumsen by the collar and the Maria went in. When he saw Maria he immediately calmed down – He absolutely adored her. His calmness was short lived though. The second I stepped into the house he went into berserker mode. I love dogs, so it was difficult for me to ignore him, but everybody seemed sincerely worried that he would bite me if I gave him a chance and he was big enough that a bite would have been bad. I did as I was told and I walked into the kitchen and sat down with Maria and then they let Bumsen loose to get acquainted with me – I was a little tense, but I think I hid it well as he sniffed me. He eventually calmed down, but he continued to give me the ‘I will eat you’ look for the rest of the evening. By the end of the next day I was able to cautiously pet him, and after a few days he had accepted me and we were, for the most part, on good terms from then on – He was a very friendly dog once he got to know me.

Once the festivities with Bumsen died down we called Maria’s sister to make some dinner plans. We decided to go into Enköping for some Thai food. I got a quick introduction to her husband and three children and then we all piled into two cars and made the short drive through the lovely countryside into town. My first impression of Enköping was great. It was a quiet town with a compact center and lots of green parks. We parked on a quiet street near the main square and then we found a Thai restaurant on the adjacent corner and sat down to a great meal. After dinner Maria took me on a short walk through town and showed me the sights. My impressions of Enköping were getting better and better – The town was known for its parks and it showed. I was getting fairly tired by the time we got back to the house, so we said goodnight and headed up to bed early.

Our first few days in Sweden were an enjoyable whirlwind of activity. Spending time with Maria’s family was our main focus and we had a lot of fun doing so. We were staying at her mom’s house and we spent a lot of time there, or next door at her sister’s house. We played with Maria’s lively nieces, we ate many great meals and we had several entertaining game nights. It was during these first days that I got my introduction to the lovely Swedish tradition of ‘fica’. Fica is essentially a gathering of friends, which can happen at any time, to have coffee and sweets – Cookies, cakes draped in marzipan and fruit, sweet rolls… I always looked forward to fica and, being that I had a lot of family to meet, we had fica regularly. As much as I loved fica, I discovered that it had a comical dark side for someone like me that was trying to meet as many family members as possible in a short trip. Fica is obligatory when you visit someone’s house for more than a quick visit and there was one day where we made four or five house calls and we had fica each time – I had so much coffee and sweets that I was wired and jittery well into the next day!

I got my first glimpse of Maria’s father’s lake house a few days after I arrived. We went over there to say hello and help her father do some shoreline maintenance. We spent about an hour rowing around the swimming area trimming the water lilies and reeds that had moved in since her father had been there the year before. It was fun work, but it was difficult to tell if we had done any good. We returned to the lake house the day after for a big cookout that her father was giving for all of his friends and family – It was a yearly event that he did just before it was time for him to head back home to Atlanta and it was a lot of fun.

Our first little adventure together came when we borrowed two bicycles from Maria’s mom and we rode out into the countryside. We had the roads to ourselves as we passed through the lovely fields of grain and the thick, mysterious forests. We never knew when a lovely farmhouse or an ancient church would appear around the bend in the road, so we were continually surprised. Our ultimate destination was a swimming area on the shores of Lake Mälaren near the town of On. Maria had never been there, but she had heard that it was nice and it was the closest swimming area to her mom’s house. When we arrived in the lovely lakeside town we found a road sign that depicted a car rather humorously flying off of a ledge into the water. When we rounded the next bend we discovered the meaning of the sign – The road ended at a dock and the water. We stopped and walked out on the dock. It would have been all right for a swimming area, but we had hoped for a beach of some sort. We decided to ride around town and see if there was another place to swim. We followed a narrow, dirt road through the forest. After a few minutes we found what we were looking for – A deserted parking area and a sign welcoming us to the On swimming beach. We didn’t let the chilly overcast sky deter us. We changed into our swimsuits and we plunged in at the rocky shore. Once we were swimming the water was invigorating, though a little on the chilly side. We swam for a while and then emerged energized and happy that we had done it. We sat at a picnic table and talked for a while and then we started our return journey. During the ride back it started raining. There was nothing that could be done about it but laugh, so that is what we did and we had a wonderful time. By the time we reached the house we were fairly tired and soaked through, but we had had an amazing first adventure in Sweden.

A few days after the cookout at her dad’s lake house we got together with him again. His time in Sweden had come to an end and we were giving him a ride to the airport. As a gift to his daughter, he had extended his rental car so that Maria and I would be mobile while we were there. He also opened up his lake house to us, so taking him to the airport was the least we could do. We dropped him off at Arlanda Airport and thanked him for his generosity and then we set off to explore one of Maria’s favorite places in Sweden – Biskop Arnö, the island-bound school she had attended for two years. The island was a nature reserve that was connected to the mainland by a short causeway. The school was situated in the buildings of an old estate that was once home to the bishop in the area. The school was surrounded by picturesque golden fields and thick forests filled with giant trees. It was located about halfway between the airport and her mom’s house, so it didn’t take long for us to reach the turnoff and then the causeway. We parked our car and then we set off into the forests and fields of the island. There were signs all over the place of the small herd of cows that use the island as pasture for part of the year. Other than that, the trail we were following seemed little used. Our ultimate goal for the walk was a small swimming area on the far side of the island, but we were taking the long, scenic route. First we headed up to the highest point on the island. It had a formal name, but apparently everybody jokingly called it depression hill because it was a good place to go and sit when you needed to think about something. The wonderful views out over Lake Mälaren made it a nice place to get together with friends as well.

We continued our stroll through the forest stopping occasionally to photograph a clump of mushrooms or a lovely field of wildflowers. The scenery was mysterious and peaceful with lots of little meadows – It was easy to see why she liked it so much. After about twenty minutes Maria pointed off to the right of the trail and said, “There they are.” A few cows were standing in the shade of a tree munching on grass and looking at us. We said hello and continued on our way. Eventually we passed through an old gate and joined a well-trodden path through the forest, which led us a short distance further to the water’s edge. It was a beautiful place for a swim. The small dock was nestled into a gap in the Lilly pads and reeds that lined the shore. The sun was shining, the water was calm and, as we had expected, we had the place to ourselves. We put our stuff down on the dock and jumped into the pleasantly cool water together. We had been swimming for about half an hour when we heard voices coming down the trail. Four people emerged from the trees, an older couple and a younger couple, and headed straight for the dock. They paused to look at the water, but they didn’t stay for very long. After they left we sat on the dock for a while soaking in the warm sun and then we changed and continued our walk – It had been a wonderful swim though!

We followed the main trail back through the forest to the school. We spent the rest of our time there walking down memory lane as Maria showed me all of her favorite places at the school. I saw the places she had lived, her classroom, which a teacher was nice enough to open for us (the school was closed for the summer), the lovely old buildings that made up the administrative offices and a cellar with a beautiful, gothic arched ceiling held up by columns – She had told me a lot about the cellar and how it was used for special gatherings and weddings and such and it was a lovely place. Most of the buildings were locked, so we ended up sitting on the big lawn at the center of the school and eating our lunch and relaxing in the sun. After a while, we said farewell to Biskop Arnö and headed back to the house to prepare for more grand adventures in the land of the Midnight Sun…

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