Sweden’s heartland, a vast expanse of farmland dotted with clusters of red and white farmhouses, filters past the passenger window of Simon’s red Volkswagen. The sun-scorched, water-starved fields of grain haven’t experienced rain in an unusual amount of time and the colossal wind turbines sprouting out of the distant acres are stationary in the midday heat. There are about 60 wildfires burning presently, somewhere in Sweden, but thankfully not here. This place would go up like a matchbook. Simon’s playlist is currently cycling through American country music, as we had decided such music best fit the current environment. My mind is barely in the present as I wonder how much of the crop is going to survive in this heat wave, and if it would be possible to strap yourself to the blade of a wind turbine and ride it around.
Eight days ago my flight landed in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city and once home to a thriving ship building industry long since moved overseas. The cranes and warehouses still loom over the port, waiting to build again.
Gothenburg is also the home of my friend Simon, whom I met in 2010 at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada. Back then I was trying to eat my lunch, in peace, at the dining hall in the athlete village. In the middle of my meal I noticed another athlete approach me, every bit of him covered in Team Sweden uniform. Introducing himself emphatically as Simon from Sweden, we are now good friends, both of us periodically taking time to explore each other’s country and culture.
When I arrived in Sweden we first visited Simon’s parents who greeted us with a thoroughly Swedish meal of pickled herring on crispy bread, followed by meatballs and an amazing multi-layer cake of with meringue and berries. During this meal we planned a day trip to Copenhagen, the first of several excursions we would make.
Early the next morning we boarded a bus to Copenhagen. Driving down the west coast, the scenery would reveal glimpses of harbors and calm bays surrounded by idyllic farms and expanses of long sea grass to the water’s edge. After passing through the city of Malmö in southern Sweden, we crossed the suspension bridge towards Denmark. Under the bridge passed giant ferries full of cars, buses and trains that crisscross Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Halfway across the straits the road plunges underground, and we finish the crossing through a tunnel. Above ground on the other side we arrive immediately in Copenhagen.
Copenhagen is much like an average city in Sweden. The buildings are old and made of stone, with small elements of Gothic architecture on the roofs and crenelations. Everything is very clean with no trash anywhere.
The first stop is for a hotdog. Denmark is famous for hotdogs, and we found an excellent example at DØP, or Den Økologiske Pølsemand. These dogs appear similar to be a classic American hot dog, with each one piled high with fried onions, regular onions, pickles, and mustard. Getting everything in your mouth and not the ground is a challenge but our hunger was satisfied.
Next to the hotdog stand is the Rundetaarn, a big round tower attached to the Trinitatis church. Throngs of people constantly stream in and out of a small door a the bottom of the tower so we decide to investigate. Along the inner wall of the tower is a a circular ramp, instead of stairs like you might expect. We begin to climb immediately, trying to stay on the outside edge of the ramp where the angle is not so steep and keep the front wheels of our wheelchairs from catching on the bricks that make up the floor of the ramp. After about 20 revolutions and 10 stories later, we find the last 20 feet blocked by a staircase, and a small fee for access to the roof. Deciding against this, we stare out of the small windows on the outside of the tower across the points and peaks of the copper covered roofs of Copenhagen. The way down is far faster and more efficient, as only a wheelchair on a gigantic ramp can be.
The next stop is Nyhavn, a small harbor within the middle of the city, lined on both sides by squat, wooden houseboats, brightly colored houses and storefronts, restaurants with a maze of outdoor seating along with several thousand people. This is where you go to get your stereotypical picture to proclaim you having visited Copenhagen. The entire world is represented on this harbor. Every language you can imagine, and many you can’t identify, float around the throngs of tourists. Every manner of people are represented and stereotypes are everywhere. Americans are easy for me to identify, mostly due to the volume at which we seem to think normal conversation should take place. It’s important that everyone within 50 meters hear what we have to say.
Scandinavia is currently experiencing a record-breaking heat wave and drought, but the summer weather has everyone on the streets and along the harbors. People are eating, drinking, tanning and swimming with no negative emotion in sight. According to the UN’s 2018 World Happiness Report, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland are the happiest people in the world, occupying the first four ranks respectively. As I watch people move about and study their facial expressions and their liveliness, I almost believe it. Sweden is in 9th place and while still quite happy, one gets a subtly happier vibe in Denmark.
Simon has been teaching me finer points of the Danish language which he describes as similar to Swedish, but with more alcohol and a strong tendency to spit something out of your mouth. I wonder if the Danes describe Swedish in a similar way.
After Nyhavn we roll through an old fort called the Kastellet. Built in the 1664 in the shape of a giant pentagram with steep sloping earthen walls, this design was constructed specifically in response to gunpowder and cannons. It even has a moat with fish swimming around and several signs reminding you that fishing requires a special license for just the moat.
Having worked up another appetite we cross the city another time in search of dinner. We eventually find a restaurant in the old meatpacking district where we hope we can find a decent steak. We find just such a place as well as the local Tuborg beer to wash it all down.
That night we board the bus back home, hoping to get some sleep. Before that can happen, we arrive at the border to Sweden where we undergo a passport check. I doubt I fit any kind of interesting profile, but I am the first person the officer comes to and he takes my passport, checking my face against my picture. Frowning, as I am sure border guards are required to do, he starts flipping through the many pages of visas I have acquired over my ski racing career. Every page deepens his frown. After 15 or so pages of visas from mostly western countries, he gives up, not finding any reason to bring me in for questioning. He almost looks disappointed. After a successful passport inspection we arrive back in Gothenburg at 2 in the morning and pass out immediately.
Several days later we drove to Stockholm, staying in a high-rise apartment building in a neighborhood just outside the city.
Stockholm can be a fantastically expensive city if you want to live in the city center, but on the outskirts you find quite a culturally and economically diverse community. You would be just as likely to hear people speaking Swedish as not. The public transit system in Stockholm is fantastic in a wheelchair. The city is mostly flat with smooth bike lanes if you want to manually cruise, and all the buses, trams and trains are easy to access and find a place to sit.
The city itself is built on a collection of islands lined with stately stone government buildings, fancy hotels, and museums. The first stop was the old city where we wandered down narrow cobblestone streets packed with tourists, restaurants, and gift shops. Moving through crowds in a wheelchair is a challenge since you can’t sidestep at all and people are not very predictable when they are staring at everything except where they are going. Becoming quickly bored with this scene and frustrated with the cobblestone streets snagging up our wheelchairs, we headed over to the Vasa museum.
The tour guide was a lovely girl who spoke delightfully Irish-accented English, making all sorts of fun statements about the Vasa seem like the most interesting facts in the world. Listening to her read the owner’s manual of a washing machine would keep anyone’s attention. As she explained, the Vasa was a Swedish warship that first sailed in 1628 and was one of the largest and most powerful ships ever built at that time. Commissioned by King Gustavus Adolphus, it took two years and all of Sweden’s cannon foundry capacity from that period to build. Richly decorated with carvings and meant to be a symbol of the Swedish king’s authority and ambition, it sank within minutes of its maiden voyage due to a dangerously high center of gravity. Shipwrights of the era were still experimenting with ship design, trying to accommodate as many cannon as possible. It would take another 100 years before ship design perfected the accommodation of 70+ cannon on multiple decks. One can admire the effort for pushing the envelope, even at great expense. The Vasa was recovered in 1961 from the harbor and is now a museum.
Many generations ago my ancestors decided that better opportunities were to be found in the USA, so they took a ship across the ocean. Part of the family stayed behind, and much of my trip was spent tracking them down. Some of the family had gathered at their family farm, halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg.
The town of Utterbäck is a small farming community outside the city of Karlskoga, in central Sweden. One of the farms, iconically Swedish with neat, dark red painted houses with white trim, sits along a narrow country road snaking its way through neatly planted fields.
The farm belongs to relatives of my family who stayed behind many generations ago and consists of a collection of outbuildings for housing farmhands, underground potato storage, livestock and equipment barns as well as a blacksmith and carpenter’s shop.
Farming ceased here many years ago; the buildings are now being used by various family members as a summer getaway where the major activities are fishing, hunting roe deer and wild boar, swimming in a small creek and generally enjoying the summer months.
The interior of the living spaces look unchanged from the 1950’s. The blacksmith, carpentry shop and barns look much older but all still functional. Every corner was packed with bits and pieces of tools, abandoned projects and spare parts. The more you looked, the older and more obscure the items became. From the outside, the potato storage cellar looked like a long-forgotten hobbit hole. Pry open the rusty metal door and spiders scamper out of your way to reveal a stone-vaulted room converted into a sauna.
Few places could be better for kids to grow up than this isolated complex of buildings and nature, with a myriad of settings that exist for the imagination to run wild.
Sweden’s government, society and experience with immigration is quite different compared to the US. Having discussed these topics with my friends and family in Sweden, here are some observations. (It should be noted that this trip did not allow me to accurately survey the entire breadth of Sweden’s population). Most striking are people’s view of society and their place in it as being far more collective with a “we are all in this together” attitude. Higher taxes are paid because maintaining a healthy, well educated population is seen as a net positive for everyone, even if you are not currently a consumer of either. If you are surrounded by happy people, it is a lot easier to be happy with yourself. Immigrants, particularly those from war torn areas, are viewed as people to be helped, not pushed away. There is a feeling of responsibility, perhaps stemming from simply the idea that Sweden is capable, and therefore should help those in need. I’m sure this altruistic attitude has its limits. Sweden has a distinct culture and language yet its society can accommodate almost anyone as long as you are respectful.
Life seems relatively good in Scandinavia with some of the nicest and most accommodating people I have yet encountered. They seem to have found a good balance of socialism and free market capitalism that makes the playing field much more equal than what I am used to. They pay more in taxes but receive a lot for it. Education and healthcare are provided, infrastructure is well built and people seem generally happy and better off for it. Nationalism, fanaticism and bad actors exist everywhere with Scandinavia as no exception but these countries have a great deal to be emulated.