Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Scandinavia By Train: January 2013 (Part Three)

Continued from: Part One / Part Two...

Saturday 26th January (afternoon/evening): Copenhagen - Malmö - Falsterbo - Lund - Jönköping

Last time I mentioned a TV series called "The Bridge", which is all about the Swedish and Danish police forces working together to solve a murder, and funnily enough the title isn't just a clever metaphor for the struggles of two countries divided by frustratingly similar (but not quite similar enough) languages - no, in fact there's an actual bridge between Denmark and Sweden. The Öresund or Øresund Bridge (depending on which funny letters you feel like using today) is 8km long, and basically joins Copenhagen and Malmö, via some small islands and a tunnel or two to fill in the gaps.

I've stolen this from Wikipedia because, well, it doesn't look quite as cool
when you're actually on it.
Our decision to fly to Copenhagen and take the train over into Sweden this time around has a teeny tiny bit to do with my wish to experience this iconic bridge first hand, although I did see it from the Swedish shoreline once before. As it turns out, it's rather less striking from underneath, but it's still quite a ride - as you leave Copenhagen Airport on the train and the view turns from city to ocean, the main road tags alongside like an annoying travelling companion, also heading for Malmö.

We find our train racing several cars and a giant lorry, which is all good fun until the gap between road and rail narrows so much that we're convinced a catastrophic collision is inevitable. Luckily, just in the nick of time the truck is plucked away by some invisible force, as the road heads up on top of the railway in a kind of giant concrete piggy-back.

Looking out of the window from the train tracks over the bridge, there's not a honestly a huge amount to see except kilometres of cracked ice, floating around in the Øresund Strait like frozen crazy paving. It's a stark reminder of how cold it is since the train, like everything indoors in Scandinavia, is toasty-warm. They're rather better at insulation than us Brits, as Karin likes to remind me at every possible opportunity.

It's not long before we pull into Malmö, and step out into another beautiful piece of railway architecture. Apparently Malmö centralstation (roughly pronounced "Malm-uhh Centraal-sta-hone") has had quite a facelift since Karin was last here, and it's so welcoming with its cafés and shops that I start to wonder whether we shouldn't just spend the whole week touring the railways of Sweden. (As opposed to what we actually end up doing, which is... oh, yeah.) No time for photos, though, as Karin's brother Gustav is here to welcome us and whisk us off for the next phase of our trip, a 40km car trip.

"Wow, your car needs a wash!" I say, amusingly, as we step outside and I spot Karin's mum Annika in what used to be a black car but is now pebbledashed with what looks like weeks' worth of salt and grit from the road.

"Yeah, we washed it last night," says Gustav, strangely unamused.

Getting into the car, there are quick hugs and greetings, and then we set off through Malmö City Centre towards our next destination, with Annika at the wheel - always an occasion to be wary. If she's not threatening to run down old people crossing the street or speeding past show-offs in BMWs, there's a good chance she'll just be speeding. Or getting lost.

I know precisely one Malmö landmark and it's a residential high-rise building called "Turning Torso" (a 2005-built skyscraper which is currently Sweden's tallest building), so I'm excited to spot it in the distance, even if it is just briefly from the car window.

Go home tower block, you are drunk...

"Ah - look, it's the Turning Torso!", I exclaim confidently, pleased to then get confirmation from Karin and Gustav that I haven't just completely made this up.

"No...", says Annika, "that's on completely the other side of town. I lived here for years, trust me, I know where I'm going..."

After a bit of family back-and-forth, the others eventually nod and murmur agreement whilst signalling to me not to pay attention. And somehow, even though it absolutely is the Turning Torso that we can see, and despite the fact that we're heading away from it and Annika therefore thinks we're going in completely the opposite direction, we do by some happy chance end up on the road we we needed to be on and start our journey towards the very Southwesternmost tip of Sweden.

Our destination is a town called Falsterbo - a strange sort of place out on a little spit in the sea, immortalised in the chorus of this cracking song from one of Sweden's best defunct all-girl Indie-Pop bands. It's one of the most expensive towns in Sweden but also one where nothing much happens, being more of a holiday and retirement destination than anything else, with its sandy beaches and golf course. Not that anyone's out making use of either today; in case you'd forgotten, it's a bit chilly. In fact it's so scrotum-tighteningly cold that the sea has frozen over as far as the eye can see. Where normally there'd be families sunbathing (as much as possible in a town that's on the same latitude as Sunderland), or playing beach volleyball, today they're skating, trying to stand upright, and playing Ice Hockey (or, as the Swedes call it, "Hockey", as if it had never crossed their mind that hockey might be played anywhere else.)

Actually, this might be the point at which I allow myself a little diversion to talk about Karin and her attitude towards Britain's favourite sports. She has extremely firmly-held but not always consistent views on what is and is not a "real sport", mostly I think secretly based on which of them she'd ever come across before moving over from Sweden.

Hockey ("Field Hockey") = not a real sport. Reason given: None, but I think it's to do with the lack of ice and the fact that the men all wear little shorts.
Cricket = not a real sport. Reason given: Anything requiring our nation to colonise other countries in order to have someone to play against is NOT a real sport.
Darts = not a real sport.  Reason given: Anything you can play whilst wearing gigantic gold chains and with gold bullion strapped to your fingers is not a real sport. I think she may have a point there...
Snooker = grudging acceptance that although not a real sport, it's strangely fascinating due to the mathematical knowledge required. That and Steve Davis' Prog T-shirts.

We're nearly at our destination now, and it's just as well; the car is deathly silent thanks to our extreme tiredness, brought about in most cases simply by having been awake since 3am but also by the fact that my lunch was not only extremely filling but also the most salty thing I've ever eaten in my entire life. I briefly contemplate leaping from the moving car and sticking my face down in the snow like a pig hunting for truffles, just to get a bit of moisture on my tongue, which has shriveled up like a sponge left out in the sun. But I don't.

Our destination is a rather posh retirement village, where Karin's grandfather lives by himself in a flat bigger than ours, making his own meals when he feels like it, diverting his landline to his mobile phone when he goes out for a walk, and serving a most excellent pot of Earl Grey tea (although I suspect this is for my benefit more than anything else.) He's 91 - although he acts about 45 and looks about 70, as well as suspiciously like the guy from the film "Up" (I've certainly never seen them in the same room at the same time.)

He's Karin's Farfar, which literally means "father father", in the brilliant way that the Swedes have of making their family words completely unambiguous. Never in Swedish does anyone get confused about your aunt or uncle or grandmother's exact relationship to you, which makes things a whole lot simpler. Hence when Karin's Faster ("father sister") Elisabeth introduces herself, there's no problem whatsoever figuring out who did what to whom - although later, when uncle Finnvid arrives, he just gets introduced by his name, so I don't get a chance to figure out if there's a word for "father sister husband", and, thank goodness, their dog just stays out of it completely.

Fa-ster-mans-hund? Oh, who cares, look at that sad face...
My heart sinks a little when a large plate of cakes is brought out to accompany the Earl Grey, but only because I imagine fitting anything else in my stomach will be somewhat akin to pushing the final piece of rubbish down in the bin - the one which finally makes it spill over the top and dribble slime all over your foot. (That's not just me, right?) Still, I have to give it a go, not least because these aren't just any old cakes, they're semlor - sweet, sugary buns cut open to resemble the Cookie Monster with a load of cream shoved down his throat, and a hidden dollop of almond paste in the middle. They're traditional in Scandinavia around Shrove Tuesday especially, which is...well, not for a few weeks, but still, nobody complains when Cadbury's Creme Eggs start coming out on Boxing Day so I'll let them off. I've just learned on Wikipedia that:

"Each Swede consumes on average five bakery-produced semlor each year, in addition to all those that are homemade."

I'd find this statistic slightly preposterous, if it weren't for the fact that I manage to eat 3 semlor before I head back to the UK on this 5-day trip alone. For today, though, while I drink as much Earl Grey as is humanly possible, and attempt to eat my one solitary cake without having a cardiac arrest, we chat about all sorts of things, including the time when Farfar went on business to the UK and nearly got thrown off a train in Eastbourne for not having a ticket.

Quite apart from everything else which astonishes me about this 91-year-old, his English is extremely impressive. People of his generation in Sweden don't generally speak English at all, unlike their younger compatriots, but he holds his own extremely well whilst managing to make both Helen and I feel part of the family. Swedes are extremely warm and welcoming like this – anyone who’s ever been on a school French exchange will be utterly bemused by the idea of arriving in a virtual stranger’s house and the whole family immediately switching their conversation into English just so that you could understand. You'd be lucky if they even acknowledged you were there, half the time.

It's a lovely afternoon, but we have another destination in the vague vicinity before we're allowed to conclude this insane day, so we bid everyone farewell and get back into the car. The next leg of the journey is a 50km car ride back North again, up past Malmö and beyond to a university town called Lund, in the heart of the Skåne region (Scania in English, like the lorries) - Wallander country for anyone who’s interested in such things. I can’t tell you a single thing about the car ride because I immediately fall asleep as soon as my backside hits the seat - so I’m therefore a bit dazed and confused as we climb out of the car again 45 minutes later and into the snow, but you can’t be tired for long at Carina and Stanley’s. Even the whisky I’m immediately given upon arrival perks me up more than anything.

Moster Carina (you've got the hang of these Swedish family words now, right?)  and, erm, Uncle Stanley are some of the most entertaining people you could hope to meet on your travels – it’s not every day you meet a middle-aged white Swedish lady with a broad Jamaican accent, for one thing. Stanley grew up in London and the West Indies but has been living here in Sweden since the 1970’s, so is a curious mixture of Swedish with a Jamaican temperament, as exemplified by his plans for their upcoming Caribbean holiday:

Ohhh, we just take it nice and easy…

The best thing about Stanley, though, is that he’s been everywhere and knows everybody. He gets talking to Helen about Deptford where she lives, and of course, “Ohhh, I’ve been all up around there…”, during his years working for the BBC. Karin and I tell him about our planned trip to Montreal in June and he says we should look up some acquaintances of theirs while we’re over there. In other people’s hands, such stories would sound fantastical and annoying, and yet you don’t doubt him for a second. He’s even friends with Sweden’s foremost rapper, Timbuktu (or his dad, anyway. But he's got the T-Man's mobile number.)

Carina, on the other hand, whilst being just as lovely, and sounding just as laid back thanks to the family Jamaican accent which even spreads as far as Annika on occasions, is rather less chilled in some respects – notably her concern for hers and other people’s health and safety. Hence when Helen complains about knee pain, she practically throws herself across the table to stop her from massaging the aching joint (apparently the worst thing one can do), and when I start coughing, as I’ve been trying not to do in her presence all day long, she immediately warns me, “Don’t you dare come anywhere near me!”, without a hint of a smile. She should also be on commission from various drug companies thanks to her constant endorsement of various wonder pills which seem to cure every ailment from colds to Lupus (although, if you’ve ever watched “House”, you’ll know that it’s never Lupus.) Last time’s miracle cure was Rinomar and today she extols the virtues of a pill called Treo, which apparently taken on a regular basis will cure anything that’s already wrong with you, prevent you from getting sick, and make you irresistible to goats (or something like that, the whisky and sleep deprivation make it hard to pay attention after a bit.)

Apparently we’ve not eaten enough yet today, so a huge spread is laid on for us – roast chicken pieces, salad, crusty bread and a salsa sauce with a distinctly Jamaican chili kick to it (oh, and more salt – they really do love their NaCl round these parts.) It’s all washed down with plenty of beer – or the type of 2.8% beer which is available from the supermarket anyway, the harder stuff being locked away in state run off-licences in Sweden and only available via a military operation which has even resulted in me being asked for ID on a previous trip.

"So, which button changes the channel again?"

As always, at Carina and Stanley’s place, time passes in a flash, as Stanley entertains us all with his stories before taking Helen and I upstairs to his study where he has a TV with Sky News, thanks to which we all have a good old laugh at the “snow chaos” gripping the UK. Meanwhile, Annika and Carina try to make sense of their new smart phones with limited success, and we finish up the evening with a photo session where Annika shows off photos of my family to our hosts, and the rest of us try to stave off imminent coma with whatever alcoholic beverages come to hand.

Apparently Helen is spared the photo session...

At around 22:30 we can take it no more, so we start the lengthy process of getting away, from the hallway to the staircase via numerous hugs and farewells, and thence into the car, where we have another 282 kilometres to go before we can even think about lying down on something soft. Actually, I would happily sleep on that broken carpet of ice under the Öresund bridge at this stage, I’m so tired (in case you’d forgotten, this is still the same day where we ate omelettes at Wagamama).

In the back of the car after an hour on the road, I’m really struggling. Not only am I more tired than the time I failed to sleep all the way from London to Canberra, but however much I beg Gustav in the front to turn down the heat, I feel like I’m slowly baking in a foil pocket. My cough is getting steadily worse, I’m desperate to both consume and expel liquids, and my legs start twitching. Eventually I wake everyone up and plead in my most whiney voice to be allowed to stop and get out for a bit at the nearest petrol station, which the others tolerate since they know me all too well and don’t honestly have too much choice.

Suitably watered and stretched, I shut up for long enough to allow us to get home without anyone having to bind my mouth with tape and/or throw me out of the passenger door, and we eventually arrive in Jönköping sometime after 1.30. I expect we remove our things from the car, make our way up from the underground parking to Annika’s apartment and whatever else one does when one gets home, but I have no idea.

All I consciously experience is the blissful, wonderful feeling of falling face down on an Ikea single folding bed and having it feel like the Presidential suite at the Sheraton. It’s 3:00 a.m in Sweden, and it’s been 23 hours since we got up. Time for a nap.

Next time: I fall off a snow racer (again), we check out the world's largest crispbread selection, and someone loses BADLY at Monopoly.


  1. Loving you work James, Truly inspirational. & quite how you managed to link Those Dancing Days in i'll never know!

  2. I've got a photo somewhere of me posing with the Falsterbo sign, as a request from my mate who was massively into them at the time... :)