A Thread Runs Through It

From 1990-92 my wife Elisabeth and I lived in Sweden. We moved from the UK and ‘the idea’ was to be settled for a while in my wife’s homeland. By living in the country I would hopefully improve on my Swedish and get to know her family and background. With over 30 years of hindsight ‘the idea’ looks to us like something that fitted into place. A part of some pre-planned progressive journey through life. In reality at the time we didn’t know where this was leading. We had no idea that it would be for 2 years, we didn’t know that this would subsequently lead on to us going to Japan for 2 years. Maybe it is an illusion to look back and think we can see life fitting together like some sort of jigsaw. It is a comfort to me to know that Abraham, a man of faith, when called from the familiar “went without knowing where he was going”. Hebrews 11 vs 8.

My wife’s family had a business that was in its 3rd generation of making shirts. Her grandmother had started the business in her kitchen. I was amazed to discover how family chats with Elisabeth’s siblings could go on for hours where they would passionately discuss the finer points of shirt collars, cuffs and various types of fabric. Cotton and linen most definitely in and nylon or polyester totally out of the picture. The family took great care and pride in the quality of its product. A company motto was ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten’. It challenged my more pragmatic and pseudo utilitarian approach to things. Their approach bore fruit and the firm had an international distribution network selling to the most prestigious retailers. 

To pay the bills I got a job in the shirt factory as a warehouseman. It certainly was a steep learning curve learning the many variations of shirt. This was in the days of not so much automation. Every order hand picked from shelves and packed in boxes. To avoid time and effort roaming around the aisles of shirts you needed to remember where things were. The latest seasonal collection, the various collar types, sizes and colour ranges. Short arm, long arm, business, recreational etc. I was helped by two long term staff who had decades of experience. None of the staff spoke English so I was immersed in Swedish. To add to the linguistic intensity Swedish national radio was played factory wide all day. All good you might say. One of my work colleagues however had a very strong local dialect and she was given to using slang words. I was duly corrected by Elisabeth if too much influenced. I also needed to be careful when a certain delivery driver would call to pick up consignments. Every second word it seemed was a swear word. He wasn’t the best tutor.

There was a very stable workforce and a few had even worked there 50 years. Living in the surrounding villages most also knew one another outside of work. Whether it was in church, community or sports clubs people’s lives seemed integrated with one another. I now live in a large city where anonymity is prevalent. There is an attraction to the idea of community that village or small town life appear to engender. Perhaps that is another illusion!

The factory work routine was similar most days. Occasionally though there was a need for an urgent delivery of shirts. The job would involve driving a car or van load of shirts north to somewhere in central Sweden. It was an adventure to take off into what for me were unexplored parts of this large and scarcely populated country. Especially in the cold of winter it was special to traverse great swathes of forest. The stark, still beauty of a winter wonderland. The wonderful pallet of deepening blue as the weak sun sets through the trees. And yes the solitude. Stopping for coffee in a remote countryside café and practicing my fledgling Swedish was the ‘icing on the cake’. No pun intended but coffee usually goes with cake in Sweden and is called ‘fika’. 

Sunset over Lake Sämsjön

These journeys were not all serene as also needed to keep an eye out for elk (moose) crossing the road. There was the danger of maiming or killing the animals. Their large weight and size could also do serious damage to a vehicle.

Swedish employment laws were generous so as a foreigner I had the right to some paid time off each week to study Swedish formally. My learning included attending an adult education centre in the town. The people in my class of about 20 consisted mainly of political refugees from lands that most other western countries did not give asylum to. A second category were people of Finnish descent whose families had migrated after the 2nd World War. Despite many years in Sweden or even being born there some spoke poor Swedish and wanted to improve. And then there was me, an outlier. I seemed to be the only one who hadn’t experienced political oppression or family migration through war. 

What struck me most about the class was how small the world can seem to be at times. One lady remembered me visiting her town in the southern Philippines several years earlier. Another Sudanese woman knew a family I knew when I stayed in Khartoum in 1982. Two connections in a random class of 20! It is said that if we could trace through all our relationships we would only be 5 or 7 people away from anyone in the world.

Day’s end.

East or West?

A few of Stockholm’s 30,000 islands!

My wife is Swedish and for almost 40 years I have been travelling to and from Sweden. Sometimes several times a year and occasionally a year or two with no visits. Short period stays for a few weeks up to one period where we lived and worked in the country for 2 years. It has been a privilege to get snapshots of the changes and trends in a country and culture over a generation. All aided by in-laws and Swedish friends as expert guides. Despite seeing a lot of the country I really have still only seen a small part. Much of the time the places visited have been in the main populated areas in the south of the country. Between the 2 biggest cities and south of that to the coast. Sweden is a big country with relatively few people. As an example the UK has 11 times more people per sq km. than Sweden. It is all relative and the north of the country is far more sparsely populated than the south where most live.

Gothenburg on the west coast and the capital Stockholm on the east. In many ways different but with some geographical similarities. One such is that each city has an archipelago. A string of islands off their respective coasts. Gothenburg’s look like they have exploded out along the coast whereas Stockholm’s seem more swirling in and attached to the city itself. Quite a few who live on these islands work in the cities and commute into their respective metropoli by ferry. A refreshing way to start and finish the work day. The lifestyle reminds me of when I lived in Sydney. There I stayed in the northern suburbs of Manly but went to work in the city by ferry. Salt spray and fresh winds do wonders for the frazzled office worker. 

To me one remarkable thing about Sweden is the eye watering taxes people are prepared to pay. That might sound like a negative but there are advantages to living in what is a very egalitarian society. One of them is that many of these islands have free car and passenger ferries for both locals and visitors. Ran by the state you can enjoy free island hopping by bike, car or on foot. No skimping on the service from early morning to late at night. Some services run every 10 mins during the day.

This generous government policy also keeps the islands populated and accessible. If you have a second home on an island you can regularly visit. Also many go for day trips or weekends so local tourism and businesses thrive. In addition a number of close knit islands have bridges joining them. Further enhancing the convenience of moving around the islands. The islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago are car free and there are some passenger only ferries where you do pay. Not sure what the rules are for paying and non-paying ferries.

Lilla Varholmen to Hönö Island ferries

I have only visited Gothenburg’s northern archipelago and most seem to be mainly rocky with not a lot of trees. Not unlike Scotland’s west coast in parts. The few of Stockholm’s inner islands I have seen have more abundant tree life. Although ferry travel is made easy, living on these islands is not cheap. Houses are expensive. Sweden manages to combine a benevolent and generous form of socialism with competitive markets and a very entrepreneurial society. 

Stockholm, sometimes called the Venice of the north, is itself a collection of islands. It has more of everything compared to it’s smaller sibling Göteborg in the west. Thousands of islands in its archipelago (though not all populated), more wealth and more people.

The islands on both coasts often have picturesque harbours and an abundance of pleasure craft. All giving an air of relaxed and lazy living. As a mere observer with no real insider knowledge Stockholm’s islands seem to have more of a cosmopolitan air, perhaps inevitable given it is the capital. Gothenburg’s seem to have more of a local feel and its houses (I imagine) having more vibrant colours. 

The islands, whether on east or west, have a rich and interesting history. One example is Rörö, the northernmost island of Göteborg’s archipelago. Now it is a beautiful nature reserve with lovely walks. In days gone by locals got an income from luring ships with bonfires onto it’s rocks. They would then kill any surviving crew and plunder the cargo. The graves of an English crew are said to be buried along the island’s rocky western shore. In Rörö’s harbour today a lifeboat station has pride of place. Saving lives instead of plundering and killing. Times have changed. 

The islands on both east and west coasts have been strategic to the defence of Sweden through the centuries. Vaxholm is an island cluster on the way in from the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. It has been strategic to the defense of Stockholm from enemies to the east for centuries. A lot of the substantial buildings are of a defensive nature, such as military barracks or castles. The defence of the capital is still a concern today as every so often a foreign submarine appears in its waters. Vaxholm castle even has a mines museum in its courtyard. The Oxdjupet strait was a strategic waterway on the main passage into Stockholm. Guarded on the west side of the strait by Oskar-Fredriksborg castle and Fredriksborg fortress to the east. For 300 years locals worked on filling in this strait (yes 300 years!) as a means of preventing ships entering Stockholm. Times have also changed here and now this waterway accommodates large liners and ferries on their way into and out of Stockholm.

During the Cold War many underground bunkers were installed on both east and west coast as well as on the mainland. Their locations were hard to detect buried under rock and designed to survive nuclear attack. Some years ago I visited one of these in Gothenburg’s archipelago. Located on an uninhabited rocky outcrop it was well hidden from the pleasure boats that passed by. Along with hundreds of others it was destined to be demolished. 

I will not be drawn on whether east is better than west. Suffice to say I come from the port city of Glasgow in the west of Scotland. To the east we also have a capital city, Edinburgh. 

One thing I can say is that on a summer’s day seaside ice cream tastes just as good whether looking over the Baltic or the Kattegat. In fact good ice cream tastes the same wherever you are. 

Gumption in the Forest?

A new day

Whilst in Sweden visiting family my wife planned to visit a relative in another town, Ulricehamn. It is situated at the north end of Åsunden lake, about 100km east of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. The idea popped into my head that rather than jump in the car what about running there instead and then get a lift back. 

Up to the day before my plan had been to follow part of Sjuhäradsrundan, the cycle route along the disused railway. However it would mainly be covered in tarmac. I didn’t like what would effectively be a road run. A last minute suggestion persuaded me to instead join part of Sjuhäradsleden, a long-distance forest trail. It would make it easier on my feet but not for navigation. I have got lost in the forests of Sweden several times before. It was difficult to ascertain the distance on this new route but it looked like marathon distance which turned out to be right. 

So last Monday at 0630 I set off from where we were staying in the forest. Initially on a gravel road to Gånghester, a village on outskirts of Borås town. Plan was to join the former railway track there and then link in with the forestry trail from Dalsjöfors.

A short way into run I passed a place where several years ago I bumped into 2 elks whilst rounding the corner. All 3 of us were equally surprised. Despite them being strongly associated with Sweden they are elusive creatures and I have only seen a few times. On that occasion I carefully backed away. They are big and not to be messed with. Had I been running a few weeks later in October the elk hunting season begins. Then it wouldn’t be elks but people to watch out for. It is not advisable to enter deep forest when groups of hunters are out and about.

On this occasion I was thinking not so much of elks but more of elk fleas (‘älgloppa’). They are hard to get rid off once on your skin but thankfully don’t bite. Same can’t be said about the ticks. Nasty, infectious bites with even nastier potential disease. Plenty of them especially in long grass. In this there was some similarity to Scotland! 

Known to me as elk corner.

On the former rail track from Gånghester to Dalsjöfors I met a few early morning cyclists on their way to work. Also a guy running much faster than I at about 10 km/hour pace pushing a child’s buggy. I was not going to be tempted to keep up and kept to my modest 8km/hr as he moved ahead.

Runner and buggy receding into distance.

Arriving Dalsjöfors instructions from family were ‘turn right and join the forest trail when you see Toarps State church up on hill to the left‘. I couldn’t see church for trees but thankfully saw the sign. Interesting that all over rural Europe directions to finding your way are often given in relation to the church of a village or town. Maybe a message there. Eventually after gaining some height I did see the church.

Toarps church peeking through the trees

The route I was now on was Sjuhäradsleden which I would follow all the way to Ulricehamn. Where I joined it was well marked and was so for most of journey. An orange diamond or painted line seen clearly on trees, poles etc. The only gripe I have with Swedish orientation signs are that there are often markings 50m or so after a fork in the trail, rarely at the fork itself. For me, it can mean carefully checking some way up each arm of the fork. However I think Swedes know what they are doing as orienteering is very popular with all ages in Sweden. They are very good at it. On second thoughts maybe looking some distance ahead rather than focussing close at hand gives better awareness of where you are. There might be a life lesson there. You the reader can decide.

Spot the sign!

Terrain was frequently changing from gravelled roads to thick forest. The latter required concentration and awareness of where I was. Also the occasional meadow but the overall sense was of trees everywhere. At more open farm steadings the route would often deviate from the farm road to make a detour into a field. I guess the farmer wanted privacy. That said one landowner told me enthusiastically that I go through her house front gate as that was the route.

Field detour

A few times the trail was ‘booby trapped’ with electric fences requiring an inelegant sliding along the ground. I guess the safety of grazing animals takes priority over the ease with which two legged travellers can pass through.

Over, in-between or under?

Mostly it was quiet and at times even felt lonely. For about 25km think I only met one person and quite a number of contented horses and sheep.

The final 10km or so of the route felt hard. Few pictures of this last section, too pre-occupied. I was getting weary and adopting a run-walk strategy. The forest terrain was more difficult to traverse, the trail underfoot becoming fainter and mixing with other tracks. However what made it most difficult was that suddenly the trail stopped being marked. No more welcome orange diamonds or lines giving reassurance of progress. I now had to follow the map downloaded the night before and which I had not studied. Ended up getting lost.

This is what lost looks like!

When lost on a trail my usual experience is of mild panic and a sense of wasted time and energy. I blindly strike out in whatever direction seems best. This time I decided to be calm, go slowly and patiently retrace my steps back to where I last knew where I was. No second guessing my location and trying to make up time with ‘shortcuts’. 

My strategy paid off and gradually I was ‘free’ of the last forested area. I now had the wider perspective of lush fields. A few more km of this and I was on a cycle path leading to Ulricehamn’s town centre and my destination.  

Cycle track into Ulricehamn.

42.3km, 640m climb, 693m descent. 6hrs 2mins.