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5 – Where Do We Go From Here?

I can’t find the cold. Or the rain.

When I left for this trip, people told me “You’re going to freeze to death!” I read on blogs about how much it rains in Sweden. 7 years ago, I’d experienced it myself. The rain was a loyal friend back then. This year, I hear the same story from everyone, without even having to ask: “The woods are burning.” .

The first person to tell me about it is Hanna. It was raining when I arrived at their house. Not pouring, just a steady drizzle. While I’m moving my bags into the woodworking shed, she tells me that this is the first rain in a month. “We had the greatest fire warning just last week. The woods were burning in April.”

This is the second year they’re fighting a drought.

“The farmers have to slaughter their animals. The grass dies in the drought, and there’s not enough grass to feed them. So they kill them all.” I tell her we also had the highest fire warning in April already. She nods her head sadly. We both don’t know what to say.

“Yes, it’s been bad for two years in a row now,” Johanna says. “We had wildfires just here in these woods a few weeks ago.” I try to grin. “Guess I’m lucky that it rained yesterday, with my tent and all..?” It’s not working. There’s no way to make light of this situation. “I actually thought it would be better up here than down in Berlin,” I add. Johanna shakes her head. “It’s getting worse.”

Annika sips at her coffee. “Ah yes, last year the fires were very, very bad. The farmers were hit the worst. No people died in the fires, but so many pigs and cows and horses and sheep. All gone.” Her hand makes a little “poof” motion towards the ceiling. “I understand why Greta Thunberg is on strike now,” I muse out loud. “Before, I had always thought it was strange that a Swedish girl from the North would be striking because ‘the house is on fire’. But here, and everywhere else, the house really IS on fire.”

She doesn’t even blink. “Yes, of course!” she responds with a bright smile to my question if I could pitch my tent in her yard. The fact that a lone cyclist, miles away from the closest city, in the middle of the woods, at 9.30pm, just knocked at her door, doesn’t faze her one bit. I start pitching my tent and getting water ready to boil. I had bought a packet of dehydrated adventure food pasta at the Naturkompaniet store in Gävle. My experience has shown that the truly adventurous aspect of this food is the unexpected crunch of the desicant bag hidden inside. I’m pouring myself a tea as she walks up to me. “It’s quite cold out! Would you like to sleep inside? My kids aren’t there.” I smile happily. “I would love to! How many kids to you have?”-“Three,” she replies. “Where are they now?” I think I hear a small sigh, but it might just be my imagination. “They’re with their dad.”

Her name is Thea, and she works as a mailwoman in Sundsvall, the city I just biked 25km from to get to her little house in the woods. There’s nothing around except a lake. “And some neighbors, up there,” she tells me, gesturing towards the higher elevations of the hill we’re on. Her kids are 8, 6 and 2 years old. I’m sleeping in the smallest one’s bed, grateful that I’ve been blessed with the small, efficiently packed body that is mine. She introduces me to Gullan, the little hamster lady who shares the house with her. “Why did you love out so far into the woods when you work in the city?” I ask. “I wanted to get away from the people. And I love nature. I like the energy.” She taps Gullan on the paws. “I also like animals, and their energy. And it’s why I like you! You have good energy.”

I come back out of the kitchen with my now hydrated pasta. Swedish news are running on the TV as we talk about life. “So, why did you split up from your kids’ dad?” – “Ah. He likes to party, party, party. We met when we were very young. I had Leon when I was 18! But with the years…” Her hands move together into the air, then separate. “He has a new woman now.” I ask what he does for work. “He’s a grave digger.” – “HE’S A WHAT?!” She throws her head back as she laughs. We both do. “I think I can understand now why he parties so much!” I say. She nods her head. “Yes… Maybe. Sometimes he’s only there to dig the hole, and then fill it. Other times, he has to be there for the ceremony. It’s the hardest when he has to bury the little ones, kids.”

She hugs me before I go to the shower. “I’m glad you’re here.” -“So am I,” I reply.

I may be behind on my travel schedule. But I feel like I’m right where I should be.

I wake up with her at 7AM. Thea offers for me to stay longer if I need to. The forest sprite is ready to hand me keys and full reign over her house. “That’s alright, really, I want to leave with you.” We have a coffee together as the bright morning sun finally reaches us in the house, in this little valley hidden within the hills of Sweden. “Do you not eat breakfast?” I ask her. She laughs. “Oh no, never!” I used to be one of those people, but these days I’m just left, mouth wide open, unable to comprehend how some human bodies can live on so little food. Even though I have a big breakfast every day, I’m usually hungry again by 10AM. I can’t help it. I’ve turned into a tiny hungry caterpillar over these past few weeks. Food, in any shape or form, makes me happy.

She helps me carry my bags back up to the dirt road. I give her a great big hug before she jumps into her grey car to drive off. One last smile, one last wave, and she’s gone. I get back on Red and ride on to Harnösand. Two hours later, I can no longer ignore the inviting ripples of the lakes sprinkled throughout the woods I’m riding through. I want to take a dip in the delightful and refreshing (code words for ice-cold) water, and because I am free, I do. The reflection of the forest lakes brings back Thoreau’s stories of Walden Pond. Their deep-blue, azure color reminds me of your eyes.

The feeling of freedom has slowly, but surely, begun overshadowing the pain of loss these past few days.

I run into the water, butt naked, giggling, the colors around me a reflection of the ones bursting inside.

My porridge and coffee water boils away on a small picnic table by the beach. I send a picture of my little run into the water to Till, my friend who’d told me to take the train whenever I needed to.

He asks me how my trip is going.

How is my trip going? I look up at the bright morning sky. The feeling of “Fucking hell, what am I even doing here” is slowly disappearing. Asking that question isn’t relevant anymore. It’s not getting me anywhere. What is getting me somewhere though is this though: get up, get food, get going. It’s not the question, it’s the actions that are moving me forward. Movement helps.

And yet, there are the memories.

It feels like a gut punch every time I remember why I am on this trip in the first place. What happened. And every time I do, I think back to what we had. I’m slowly starting to understand that the life that I had may have seemed like the perfect life, the life I wanted. But the perfection of its marvelous outside appearance couldn’t glaze over the fact that it was breaking me apart. It couldn’t have fit better – all that climbing, all those adventures, how we both liked running out into the woods, sleeping in a tent for days, for weeks on end, bathing in mountain streams, then going back into the cities, to explore, to learn, to create, to read, to share – together. It seemed so perfect.

And yet that perfect life left me wishing for someone who would actually be happy to have me in their life, and who wouldn’t just see me as a burden. Someone who would look at me the way I looked at them, with the thought “Holy shit, I get to be with this person, I can’t believe it,” on their mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that relationships (all all types and sorts!) are not always butterflies and happiness and thoughts of “This person is incredible.” Some days, you or them are going to be the most annoying creature on the planet – sometimes both at the same time . Some days are going to be a whole lot worse than that. But as tough as love can be, I was aching to be with someone, who, even in those moments – especially in those hard moments – would choose to stay. Someone who can say: “Look, you have been quite difficult lately, but I still love you.” Just because you are going through a rough patch, doesn’t mean you are a bad person. Just because you are going through a rough time, doesn’t mean you are a flawed, broken thing in need of fixing.

Look, our life wasn’t perfect if I came out of the relationship thinking that I really wanted was: to be loved as I am.

Damn, that seemingly perfect life. A good life is about being with someone who genuinely loves you, quirks, flaws and all.

So, how’s the trip going? I answer Till in a voice message. “Good, in the sense of reflecting and thinking and pondering and concluding. I’m getting better. But ask me again in four days, when I’m going to fight my way through the worst part of the trip – or so I keep being told – the roads north of the Arctic Circle. Who knows if by then, I’ll have reached my breaking point, crying all the time, wanting to turn around – let’s be honest, I’ve already been doing that from Day One. But I am starting to understand things a little better. The question is: will all these realizations stick, or will I go back to Berlin, back to my old life, and once more become trapped in old habits, old patterns, old relationship dynamics? … We shall see.”

I giggle happily at the end of my message. The future doesn’t scare me right now.

I simply am, sitting with my coffee by a lake in Sweden.