Sweden!

My father and I rented bikes our last day in Helsinki, rode all around the downtown and up to a small island. There were a number of reconstructed buildings in the style of traditional Finnish architectures, old churches, cabins, etc. It was interesting, but mostly I was glad for being able to get around easily on the bikes.

The next morning we flew from Helsinki to Lulea, a small town in the far North of Sweden. It’s less than 100 kilometers from the Arctic Circle, and except for Kiruna is the largest town this far North. Kiruna’s more industrial, however, so we opted to stay on the coast and use Lulea as a base of operations. We rented a Volvo and drove the first day to some waterfalls, Storforsen. They were quite impressive, really more a series of very large rapids than waterfalls. The weather was pleasant, it’s cold enough that we needed sweaters and pants but not bad at all. The most remarkable thing about the place is that despite the fact that we were in the middle of the woods, there was hardly any wildlife at all – only the occasional insect, no reptiles or mammals, and we could hear but not see a few birds. I think it becomes more alive, briefly, during the height of summer, but even in June things hadn’t quite awakened.

We headed back to Lulea and the hotel, to find the city very quiet for a Saturday night. The afternoon when we arrived there had been plenty of people out and about, shopping and walking around the small downtown. But by 8 p.m. there was almost no one out, we had trouble finding a place to eat. But we went out again just before midnight, amazed that it was still light out (the sun had set, but only barely, and the ambient light was still strong enough to see by easily). There were now people everywhere, waiting in line outside of bars and clubs. It was bizarre, it was still light out but clearly late at night, too. It had the feeling of a cloudy day right after a storm – it was cool and overcast, but still daylight.

The next morning we drove up to the Arctic Circle proper, first along the coast and then straight North along the river that forms the Northern border between Sweden and Finland. We ended up in a little village called Juosengi (sp?), one of many along the river. The terrain around that area is all forested, albeit not terribly heavily, with the occasional patch of land cultivated somehow (what they grow with such a short season we didn’t figure out). At the sign that said “Arctic Circle” we met one Sebastian, a 5th local grader who was probably more interested in our car than us, but talked to us for a while nonetheless. His English was passable, he was conversationally fluent (if halting), which is impressive for someone so young. He said he’d been studying English for 3 years. I think Swedish is actually pretty close to English; occasionally I’d find I could read bits of it on a sign or something by looking for similarities and using context. Everyone (and I mean everyone) we met spoke English perfectly, even older people, so I think it can’t be too hard to pick up. Then again, nothing you learn from the time you’re 8 should be that hard.

We drove a bit further up the river before spotting a sandy beach. We got out to explore and ended up jumping into the river, just so we can say that we’ve been swimming in natural waters North of the Arctic Circle. It was cold, predictably, but we dried quickly in the sun and dry air. The temperature actually increased as we went further North, I think getting away from the coast helped. It was nearly 20 degrees centigrade at some times. The fact that it’s sunny all the time probably helps.

Having completed the most adventurous section of the trip, we drove back to Lulea. We ate, slept, and the next morning flew down to Stockholm. We spent a day and a half exploring the city: we got our bearings and walked around the old city center the first afternoon, took in a boat tour and some museums the next day. Sweden’s neutrality during World War II means everything is perfectly preserved from whenever it was built, and the city’s nearly a thousand years old so there’s plenty to see. It feels much more like a typical European city than Helsinki does – for one thing it’s ten times as large, but it has a sense of history and culture that are reminiscent of Zurich or Paris. There are a lot of low buildings, everything’s under five stories or so, with a lot of crooked cobblestoned streets, which reminded me of Paris strongly. It’s also sensible and pragmatic, however, and I see why my father said it reminded him of Zurich so strongly. There’s water everywhere, so we took a boat tour to see a museum about the Vasa, a ship that sank in the seventeenth century before ever making it out of the harbor. It was raised again in the fifties, and now sits in a museum next to the waters it sank in.

Having thus completed a very quick tour of Finland and Sweden, the next morning we rose early to catch 6 o’clock flights. My father went to Luxembourg for another meeting, and I flew back home to make it in time for the Bonnaroo music festival down in Manchester, Tennessee. More on that soon.

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