First impressions say a lot about people and places and from our first week in Sweden all we have to say are wonderful things. For starters, the people have been outstandingly friendly. Everyone says “hej” (sounds like hi) when we pass them on the streets, any time we stop in a town people come up to us and want to talk about where we're from and where we're going and we have yet to meet someone who doesn't speak at least a little English, most of them being perfectly fluent. For the first time in a long time communication has been easy and I must say it's really, really nice not having to speak in simple, broken phrases and simultaneously use hand gestures.
I've always imagined Sweden, and all of Scandinavia for that matter, to be somewhat like the Midwest in terms of people's kindness towards strangers. So far that premonition has held true. Last Friday was a holiday, The Midsummer Festival where all of Sweden celebrates, kind of like the 4th of July in the U.S. Technically Summer began only 5 days before that and I hope that this wasn't really the midpoint, which would leave us with only 5 days to go before Fall hits. Of course we didn't know it was a holiday until we arrived in a town to buy our groceries for the day. We stopped at a convenience store only to find it closed. At the same time, a woman drove up, we inquired about a supermarket and she pointed us in the right direction. However, when we arrived, that too had closed early for the day. We proceeded to the other store in town but as you can guess, it was closed. Luckily we had some lunch supplies in our pannier so we sat on a bench outside the market and pulled out our chips, cheese and avocado and began to eat. Just as we took our first bite a car pulled up. It was the same woman we ran into when we first got to town telling us that there was one gas station in town, 400 meters away, that was still open for another 15 minutes. I don't know how she found us tucked under the awning of a closed supermarket and I don't know of too many people who would go out of their way to hunt down two travelers just to inform them of the last place they'd be able to find food for possibly the next two days, but we were happy that this woman had the heart to do it for us on that day so we didn't have to eat only chips for lunch and plain white rice for dinner.
So far bike touring in Sweden has been fantastic. The landscape is very much like northern Minnesota, the Pacific northwest, Canada or Alaska. There are rolling hills of mostly forest though some stretches of farmland and we pass by dozens of lakes daily. We had to buy Mike a fishing pole so he didn't drive himself mad at camp every night and just as it turned out to be a good investment in Chile, it has also proven to be a worthwhile way to spend $30 here too. I get a couple of hours to write, read or work on editing our pictures and Mike gets a couple of hours to fish and drink beer; it works out nicely for both of us.
Although we haven't found any long stretches of bike paths, they're not necessary here. Most of the traffic sticks to the main highways which leaves us as the only ones occupying the quiet country roads that connect the tiny rural villages. It is peaceful riding with the only sounds being those of our tires whirring along the pavement, the wind in our ears, birds singing and our squeaky pedals. The land is scattered with little mountain cabins, the majority of them painted dark red with white trim, that beautifully contrast the lush green landscape and wildflowers that surround them. The air is clear and fresh, the kind that's only found in the forested northlands where there are no people and lots of trees. There is a crispness in the air and despite the fact that it's the warmest time of the year there is still smoke billowing from the chimneys that gives the forest the smell of lazy winter days and makes me want to snuggle up in a down blanket with a good book and a cup of hot tea. There is so much wide open space, so few people and such deafening silence that it feels like we have the world to ourselves and I think of how peaceful it would be to live in such a place. I'm sure I'd love it until winter hit (in August) and then I'd be ready to move some place warmer.
A typical looking house.
On top of everything I've already mentioned, there is one more thing that makes Sweden absolutely wonderful for bike touring. They have a law called “Every Man's Right” and what it states is that you are allowed to camp virtually anywhere as long as you're not in someone's yard, in a park where it's posted that camping is prohibited and not disturbing or destroying the natural habitat. For us, there couldn't be a more convenient law. No longer do we have to spend time searching for a place to hide every night. When we're ready to camp, we fill up water and pull over just about anywhere without having to worry about someone seeing us or spotting our campfire and kicking us out in the middle of the night. What a wonderful place this is!
Over the course of our first week in Sweden, we've talked to dozens of people and nearly every one of them has ended our conversation with some form of, “Welcome to Sweden. I hope you enjoy your visit.” What a proud, welcoming and wonderful people we have found in this country and thanks to their kindness, we are certain to enjoy our time here.