It’s a crisp December afternoon. The propeller beneath me churns the calm, cold, deep blue water of the North Sea into a long, white line stretching back to Saltholmen. My fellow passengers – well dressed, middle-class Swedes (in Gothenburg, everyone is middle-class) – chat and joke with one another in the familiar way that you only find in small communities. I’m heading to Styrsö, one of the small, idyllic, car-free islands off Bohuslän on West Sweden’s Southern archipelago. I’d arrived at the ferry port on a charming pale blue and cream electric tram from Gothenburg’s city centre, just a short ride away. Both the tram and the ferry had arrived exactly on time.
That morning, walking the streets of Gothenburg had been an exercise in mindfulness as I attempted not to fall victim to the thin layer of ice that hid with ninja-like stealth between the pavement and my feet. This hidden adversary clearly wanted nothing more than to send me into an inelegant side-slide like a drunken Christmas-office-party-goer on their way home after one too many glasses of intoxicating glogg.
It’s fair to say that Swedish winters are cold and anyone who knows me will testify to my intolerance of low temperatures. I’ve even turned down fabulous five-star ski trips in favour of budget getaways in South East Asia and my inexperience of travelling to colder places had been highlighted by my inability to pack appropriately. My boots, lacking in both insulation and adequate grip, and the knitted beanie on my head, which had seemed more than sufficient at home, are providing as much protection against the cold as a lace doily. So before doing anything else I make a bee-line to the nearby Christmas market I’d spotted the day before.
Somehow despite my default cynicism around all things Christmas related, I end up getting caught up in the festive spirit. The market lacks the crass over-commercialisation that you find in so many other places. Aesthetically they just get it right, it’s filled with hand-crafted decorations and beautifully presented, home-made food and the air is thick with the smell of pine needles, hot chocolate, and of course glogg. Instead of pumping out piped music there is a live choir, positioned on a banked triangular stage to resemble the shape of a Christmas tree. I find myself a thick pair of woollen socks and an equally cosy hat and I’m good to go – wandering the streets and people watching – a pastime Gothenburg seems made for with its cute cafés, bars and shops nestled in narrow little streets. There’s a lack of urgency that pervades everything, lowering your blood pressure and allowing for you to take in the details. And details are what the Swedes do best, from their finely-tuned sense of design to the lovingly prepared coffee and cakes taken as fika. Fika it seems is something akin to ‘playtime’ at school. It’s both communal and compulsory and happens twice a day without fail. Essentially, it is a time for Swedes to commune with each other, and relax away from their desks, which in turn builds bonds and helps defuse stressful situations. Apparently not partaking, even when deadlines are looming, is seen as quite the faux pas, which says a lot about the Swedish mindset. Rather than the competitive individualism you get in the British workplace, Swedes work together for a greater good and I can’t help but think how sad it is that this has become such an alien concept back home. And it is this and numerous other thoughts that drift through my mind as I stand on deck of the ferry as we make our way through the archipelago. For the first time in a long time, I feel that I have time to just be still, rather than rush from one thing to the next. A few days before, I’d been in frenetic New York City for two weeks, an electric place where over-stimulation runs through you constantly. Here, surrounded by nature, I feel I am grounded again. It’s been one hell of a year, filled with political upheaval, but here in this sheltered, peaceful place all that seems a million miles away.
Regardless, I can’t seem to shake an underlying sense of melancholy. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen too many brooding Swedish dramas set against this landscape or maybe I’m just being affected by the strangely beautiful quality of the mid-winter light. Like the rest of the country in December, West Sweden’s days are short, however they don’t reach the 24-hour perpetual darkness of the more northern areas. While I’ve been here, the sun only ever seems to have stayed low in the sky casting long shadows. The result is a very cinematic half-light which remains pretty much constant throughout the day until sunset when the sky often turns gorgeous hues of orange, pink and mauve. Every turn is another photogenic scene, every frosty detail a potential subject for a close-up, which was what inspired me to grab my camera and head out of the city. As the ferry docks on the little island, the few other disembarking passengers quickly disperse, leaving me to wander around in complete silence. After a quick look at the map on the dockside I get my bearings and head up the hill. An elderly couple in a golf buggy swing past me but other than that and a few seagulls, I don’t see another soul. After a few minutes I come across a side turning lined with little fishing huts and just beyond that I find myself stood on the end of a little wooden jetty, rowing boats knocking gently against one another as they bob around in the gently undulating water. I take a long deep breath; the freshness of the cool air filling my lungs as I take in the view.
The Southern Archipelago is purported to be the origin of the famous poem Beowulf. The protagonist (the poem’s namesake) is a kind of Anglo-Saxon superhero: a boy, destined to be a king, who demonstrates heroic acts of strength by fighting and defeating all manner of sea monsters and dragons. All this seems a far cry from the genteel island of today. But like all good stories, it’s rooted in truth and it’s not hard to imagine how different this place must have felt a thousand years ago with no modern means of transportation. Nature would have ruled with a violence that we mollycoddled, 21st-century folk can barely comprehend. Surviving the cold of the Scandinavian winter alone would have been a relentless battle. The main source of food would have come from the sea and to get it would mean not only building boats, but putting one’s life
in the hand of the gods whenever they were launched into the unforgiving water. And it’s that relationship with the sea that still defines this area, from the hundreds of little boats lying like beached orcas on the shoreline of the bay I’ve happened upon, to Feskekôrka, Gothenburg’s ‘Fish Church’ where locals and tourists alike come to sample the day’s catch. It’s the thought of a meal pricking my thoughts, I backtrack to where I saw a sign for a tea shop – a walk that takes me down more narrow lanes that weave around life-sized, wooden doll’s houses, some amusingly with matching bird boxes, each set inside its own manicured garden, surrounded by white, picket fences. When I reach the shop, I find it closed up for the winter.
I head back to the ferry; checking the timetable on the wall of the little shelter, I realise that I’m 15 minutes early. True to form 12 minutes later, the ferry appears from behind the headland and people materialise from nowhere. Excited, happy kids play around me and older couples swap jokes with one another, breaking my contemplative mood. Their promptness reminds me of an explanation I had read about Swedish timekeeping. It pointed out that in hot countries like Spain, time is somewhat elastic to say the least. An arrangement to meet for dinner at 10pm can easily transpire to be more like 10:30pm or even 11pm without any need for explanation, but in colder climes like Sweden, keeping someone waiting even for five minutes can turn welcoming smiles into frosty glares. The reason being that just five minutes in sub-zero temperatures can make the difference between life and death and considering that I can no longer feel my frozen feet, despite my new socks, it certainly now makes perfect sense to me.
Martin’s trip to Sweden’s western city was courtesy of Visit Sweden. To find out more, visit www.visitsweden.lgbt