“How long do you think it’ll take me to get to Copenhagen by bike?” I ask my brother. It’s Day 2 post-break up, and I just want to get away from it all. But instead of hiding from the world, here I am, sitting in the back row of a concert with my brother. But that’s not stopping me from daydreaming about escaping. “Do you think three weeks is enough?”
Maxi looks at me, one eyebrow raised. “Three weeks? That’s enough time for you to get to the Nordkapp!”
I stare back at him. “What’s the Nordkapp?” He laughs. “The lack of geographical knowledge for someone as well-traveled as you never ceases to amaze me.” Pulling out his phone, Maxi shows me a map of Europe. His fingers come to rest pointing at a single island at the tip of Norway, three little tongues of land sticking out into the Arctic Atlantic. One of them sticks out a fraction further than the rest.
We ask Google how many kilometers it would be to get to there by car. It spits out a number bigger, grander and more intimidating than anything I have ever seen before. Even though I passed the physical chemistry exam during my biochemistry studies. I’ve seen Avogadro’s constant.
“My bike isn’t good enough for that!” I whisper nervously. Maxi shrugs. “Of course it is!” We turn to face the stage. I can feel the excitement, the rush of adrenaline kicking in at the idea of escaping this wretched state of being. I can feel the nerve endings in the tip of my fingers tingling.
“Well, then, I’m not good enough!” I wheeze. The people sitting behind us are shushing us to be quiet. My brother smiles at me, patting my knee gently. He’s just trying to help me feel better. Break-ups are hard, and not just on the ones going through them – also on the ones trying to help them through it.
I laugh again. These ideas are insane, but they’re helping me feel better, at least for the moment. It’s not like I’m going to do any of it anyway. I don’t act out wild daydreams. I don’t make rash decisions.
And I most certainly don’t go on long-distance solo bike tours.
Or do I?
The red car swerves off to the other side of the road – and stops. I tumble off my bike and limp over. “Can I help you?” She asks. “I…I… My knee hurts, I…” I’m blubbering. I have tears in my eyes. I know I’m not making any sense, but am worried I’ll lose it completely if I explain my situation. “Where are you going?” She helps me by asking easy questions to answer. “I want to go to Gödegard.” She looks at me quizzically. “But why?”-“I…I want to rest there?” She looks at me for a while. “I’m actually on my way home, it’s just three kilometers from here. But…” She pauses. “I can take you to Gödegard.”-“Oh my goodness, thank you!” We pack in my bike and bags. “But I’ll take you to my place first,” she says. “We have to patch up your knee.” I nearly say “no thanks”, but I’m too tired. I nod and a small smile forms on my lips.
She’s a sports teacher at a school in Motala. She only works part-time, and has three children: two sons and one daughter.
We head into the woods on a dirt road. I can see a red house in the distance, hidden behind evergreens and blooming birch trees.
I count four horses. Two dogs, one a Siberian husky/Australian collie mix and a small terrier greet me in the happiest, friendly way. “My daughter and I have a horse we like to take cross-country.” She’s explaining to me. They keep pigs during the year, and then slaughter them themselves. She shows me the shed, nestled in between more birches. The pigs must have been very happy here. “There are chickens in the back! And there’s my husband, resting his knee after a surgery.” The husband looks confused when he sees me in the car. I smile and wave. “Look what I found in the woods!” she shouts to him as we get out of the car.
First, they offer to help me with the train situation. “I couldn’t get on the train in Motala,” I explain to them when asked why I kept going with my knee hurting. “And no one would take me along in the car.” Lilly laughs. “When I saw you, I was actually scared you were the bait for a bunch of thieves in the bushes, that would steal my car!” I gape at her.
The idea that such things could happen had literally never occurred to me. She hands me a plate of lasagna. After having seen where the pigs were raised, this vegetarian no longer had any issues with meat and dug in. “This is delicious.” For the first time in years, I feel good about eating meat again. Dag, her husband, comes back into the kitchen with a map. Together, we figure out a strategy on how to get me north. “If you want to get on a train, Hallsberg will be your best choice. It’s the biggest train station in Sweden.”
From there on and for the next two hours, the conversation drifts. We talk about why people weren’t stopping for me to hitchhike with them. “Swedes are always busy these days. They’re even too busy for their own children. They just put them into a daycare at 6am and then pick them up at 5pm. The parents no longer raise children. The government raises the children.” But why not let the kids roam free in these marvelous woods, I’m coming to love so much? “We don’t know. It’s how we were raised, but these days, we’re the crazy ones. People don’t understand how we can be happy with this simple wooden cabin in the woods, with our horses and part-time jobs. But we think it was good for our kids. They have good brains now.” As if on cue, their youngest son walks in. He plays with the dog, listens for a while, then walks out to shower and work in the yard. “This is paradise,” I say. “We agree.” They both smile.
The conversation continues, ranging from my work on memory to politics, back to swedish life, the environment. “People shouldn’t be voting on immigration. We have bigger problems. The woods are burning,” Dag exclaims. It visibly riles him, the growing threat of nationalism in the country, and having to watch it fester even in his own friends and family. Voting for the environment – that’s where everyone’s focus should be. I agree.
The clock shows 4pm. “Would you like to shower?” Lilly asks. I decline. “I have to get going.” Suddenly Dag is next to me, dressed ready for the road. “I’m taking you to Hallsberg!” He exclaims. I am at loss for words. I try to thank him, but nothing would be enough to express my gratitude. “It’s alright. It wouldn’t feel right to let you leave on your bike, with your knee.”
As we drive through the countryside, he shows me the woods that burned down in April.
“An area of 50 square kilometers, all gone.”
The flames weren’t hot enough to scorch the earth, so the woods will soon take over again. I am scared to think of the day when a drought so severe will come that the fire will be hot enough. We talk about the many birds I’ve seen in Sweden, and how happy it’s made me to see them. “Some wheat fields in Germany,” I tell him, “you can be standing right in the middle of it, and all around you is the food that birds normally like best. But there are no birds. All you hear is silence.”
“You know, I’m excited for the time when you women take over the world. In Sweden, you’re everywhere already, it’s like an invasion. Women in politics, on the radio, in the universities, and all so darn clever and with kids in their arms! We men just sit in front of the TV, shouting at soccer players. It’s time you take over. We’re just monkeys.” We laugh. He gives me his address at the station. “And your man, he’s a monkey, too.” I smile sadly. “Yeah. But he was my monkey.”
There’s a short silence.
“You know, we were actually married twice. We fell in love when we were really young, just 16 years old, and got married, a big party, the whole bling. When she left for her studies, she suddenly wasn’t sure anymore. She’d met someone who interested her. So we broke up, divorce and all. I went to Australia for 3 years and moved on. But I thought of her. When I got back to Sweden, I gave her a call. She answered, and in spite of the years, the chemistry, it was right there again. She told me to meet her. I took my bike – I rode 150km in a day, just to see her. Our second wedding was much quieter, just a signature at the local marriage office. It’s been a wonderful 20 years since.” He gives me a hug. “You’ll be alright.”
“Yeah, don’t take the elevator. Sometimes, people get stuck in there with their bikes.”
My throat makes a weird sound. I think it’s a muffled scream of frustrated agreement. “Yeah, I know,” I reply. “I got stuck on the elevator in Växjo!” Her response stops me in my tracks. “Oh, that was you! You got stuck on the elevator with Linda, my colleague!” My mouth hangs wide open. I shake my head in bewilderment and say something about the world being a small place. “And Sweden is the smallest,” Ann without an ‘e’ agrees. “Not as small as the elevators in Växjö,” I think.