Stockholm to home

Day 1 - Stockholm

Road. Trip. Two words whose constituent parts of car, road, here and there are less than the whole. They don't capture the listless miles, the blurred tarmac, the landscape passing on either side like the bars of an equaliser. They don't capture the urge to leave, the limitless reach and limited grasp, the, for want of a better word, romance. Kerouac got it, Hopper and Fonda summed the stateless rebellion of just driving, or in their case riding. Is it more about the dots or the lines? The getting there or the getting there? So...road trip, as good a reason as any to be be getting up at 3am on a nondescript Tuesday to catch the night bus to Gatwick Airport and begin a journey back to England via 11 countries, 12 cities and 2550 miles of road.
I was flying with a friend to meet a friend in  Stockholm. Matt had gone over to compete in a Ironman competition which is a physical epic comprising a ride, a swim and a run. That doesn't do justice to over 10 hours of nonstop exertion which, to me at least, sounds beyond the limits of human capacity. Still, some people get a kick from it, and a wristband, so each to their own. Myself and James are more 'beer at 6AM' sort of guys. 6:25AM to be precise, at which point James said "they'll keep the gate open until 7AM I reckon." This prompted my sudden recall that the flight departed at 6:40AM and so the gate still being open at 7 was unlikely. Queue downed beers and brisk walking. Fortunately the gate was not open (in the literal sense) but not closed (in the some-dickheads-were-even-later-than-us sense). The flight departed some 40 minutes late which would have been an ideal amount of time to visit that whiskey bar we spotted.
"Thonk" - it's Swedish for the hollow sound of a boat striking a ship. Okay so we were in a kayak which I'm not sure is a boat and thus we posed little threat to the 1300 ton steel vessel moored in front of us but since we would be sleeping on it that night sinking the thing would probably forfeit our deposit. We had gone from airport to train station to English pub to the af Chapman a full-rigged sail ship built in 1888 in Cumberland (chief exports - ships and sausages), put into service between Europe, the USA and Australia. Bought by the Swedish navy it was used as a barracks during WWII and now as a youth hostel (run by the tourist board not the military). And after dumping our bags we were on the water again, practically in it. Myself and James had taken a two person kayak, Matt and girlfriend Sally another, a pair of Swedish girls the third and their mother shared the fourth with our guide. James was pilot, I was navigator (apt given that I had the  rudder pedals). I was Goose, he was Maverick. And maverick certainly described our interpretation of the guide's instructions but what we lacked in direction we made up for in knots. However far adrift from the group we found ourselves some Olympic quality synchronised paddling soon saw us rejoin the party, usually via the side of Matt and Sally's kayak. It was a thoroughly enjoyable bit of sightseeing and chicken with cruise ships, 2016 Rio Men's Double Kayak - watch out.
So far the trip had entirely contrasted with my previous one in February of 2007, snow/sun, on bridges/under bridges and now the food. I had found it to be a culinary minefield the last time round, pock-marked by veal and sludge, confusion and dismay, and lingonberries, so many lingonberries. Imagine my surprise and delight, having plunged once more unto the fray of traditional fare, to be given a meal of tasty meatball, potato purée and refreshing lingonberry. And all in a restaurant we found with great ease. My prejudices evaporated quicker than the light beer did. I f*****g love Sweden!
We returned to the boat to shower and change for the evening only to find James's bunk appropriated by some new and absent guest, James had failed to cover it with filthy clothes to secure it. No matter others were free. I was determined to make good use of the dress shoes I had wedged into my backpack given their weight and impracticality. Since we had a car and so little time would be spent with the pack actually on my back I decided such luxuries were permitted. That was after I taken out and left behind my penknife, compass, survival blanket, travel cutlery, collapsible pint glass, hunting knife and kitchen sink (travel size). Car + summer ≠ Bear Grylls time. We strolled through the island of Gamla Stan which is essentially the old town and settled at a restaurant called 'Engelen' which might mean 'England' in Swedish. They had laid their decking with high quality fake grass in homage to the inventors of real grass and namesake of their establishment. I tried the herring and those delicious essentials - potato purée and lingonberries. We had a couple of pints of exceedingly tasty unfiltered beer (Olfilterad Export, try it) before Matt's weary toes (IronMan inflicted) beat a path to their hotel. James and I fancied another one of those beers in a less salubrious venue and spied a likely place. They didn't have the same beer but they did have a large glass contraption on the bar full of a clear liquid that looked intriguing.
"What's that?" say we to the barman with a passing resemblance to Al Murray. "Water" say he
"....for the absinthe"
That nice beer was 5.8% so chasing it with absinthe seemed a great idea. The green fairy charged by the millilitre and while 300 seemed a large shot it was Al's suggestion so we went with it. Patiently we waited as water dripped from ornate taps attached to the contraption through sugar cubes and into our swirling glass of madness beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec, Hemingway, Van Gogh and Wilde. We heaved it down in two mighty gulps. Al returned to our empty glasses remarking "that was meant to be sipped". Classiness 0 British Tourist Stereotypes 1. During the process of preparing our drinks the pub landlord had been distracted by two hot Swedish female customers (disproportionately common here) and hadn't charged us. As as aside he might have saved himself some trouble there as James, pre-trip, had gotten his foreign currency but had asked for krona and krone. Those are the respective currencies of Sweden and Norway and we weren't going to Norway. He should instead have asked for krona and krone, the latter being the currency of Denmark which we were going to. I don't know how someone makes a mistake like that but you could never be certain what form of currency he was going to try to pay with. Anyway we ordered a couple of beers and paid, the cost of the absinthe not having been tacked on. Retiring to the back room which was an odd structure with a pitched roof, dark pine walls and the look of a sauna we debated our options....for leaving without paying. Fortuitously a short while later Al came back to clear glasses and when he got to the rear of the sauna we calmly exited the bar before breaking into a healthy jog through the cobbled streets of the old town, honesty and decency 0, British Tourist Stereotype 2.
Tomorrow the road.

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