The first time I met Oskar was November, 2014. Thanksgiving Day night, actually. It was a very cold night, and I was home from school for the holiday. He had come to the U.S. for a few months, all the way from some place called Gothenburg, in Sweden. I met him through some of my friends, and we all spent that night talking and getting acquainted. He told us about his home only a little bit, and I would have never guessed I’d be on the plane to see this foreign land a year and a half later. I had told Oskar I’d be abroad while we were both still in the States, and in what felt like no time at all, I was on my way to spend one of my last weekends abroad in Sweden.
I sort of snuck up on Oskar as I came through the pearly gray airport terminal. I spotted him looking down at his phone, and tiptoed up to him slowly. My first view of Sweden was the gorgeous evergreen trees that guard the highway from the airport on the way toward Gothenburg city. It was drizzling when I arrived, and the scene reminded me of coastal Oregon. The darkness, dampness and weathered rocks nodded to me as we sped by, on our way in search of kebab pizza, a Swedish specialty. It was the best pizza I have had in some time.
While it was still light out, Oskar gave me a bike that was too big for me and we biked out to the ocean, which surrounds his neighborhood. This was one of my favorite places. Though it was a weekend, there didn’t seem to be anyone around for miles, and the misty, thick air surrounded us as we glided on the rain soaked blacktop. There are extensive bike trails along the water that I really liked to tread on; I honestly liked them more than the bike paths we have back home. They are flat, easy, and have way better views than the underside of an ugly overpass in and around Washington. It was also so quiet – something that I need every now and then when things get too loud. At one moment, we both stood in silence on a rock that overlooked the water that appeared so still it looked like a sheet of glass covering over the rugged earth, cut sharply by the jagged islands and wet, wooden docks that littered the waters.
Oskar invited two of his friends over that first night and we played board games into the early morning. They’d go back and forth between Swedish and English, and Oskar kept apologizing to me for it. I didn’t mind in the least, and I honestly wanted to hear more of the strange, pointy language that sloshed around in their mouths. It was not like I could pick out a word or phrase that sounded familiar, or like I could decipher anything that was going on between these three Swedish men. That didn’t bother me though; Swedish, to me, is too interesting and rare that I would complain about them only speaking English to me.
Oskar’s friend Ben told me his favorite English word that really embodied it’s meaning was none other than the word greed. Throughout our night of board games, dares and cider, he kept yelling “GRREEED!” just to make me laugh. Though I had felt a bit out of my element when I landed in this Scandinavian land, over the next few days, I slowly began to feel more and more at home. And it was little things like that that made the difference for me. I think that uncomfyness comes from being put up in a friends house, and feeling like a nuisance no matter how many times they tell you to make yourself at home. You still always feel obligated to be on your absolute best behavior. As I have said before, travel causes you to be off balance sometimes, and this was one of those times for me.
Dawn came and I woke pretty early, slowly taking in the morning through my window. For breakfast, I ate a very particular Swedish delicacy: Reindeer heart. It was quite an experience, and if an opportunity to eat the heart of a reindeer every comes your way, I’d reach out and take it!
Oskar, Andreas and I walked through the Slottsskogen, which was a huge park/nature center, right across from the botanical gardens, right outside of Gothenburg city. We saw elk, penguins and, to our humor, doves. Andreas left us to take the tram into the city, and Oskar and I jumped off at the stop not far from Haga, (pronounced HOGA) a beautiful neighborhood/section of the city that I had briefly researched before coming to Sweden. We took a beer at a little shop beside Järntorget, a square that was filled with people. The bar tender was from Greece, and he was delighted to hear that I’d be going there the next week. Oskar and I sat outside in the sun for a while and talked about life, travel, and our mutual friends. I had so many questions about Swedish people, culture, and the city, and throughout that day, I began to see and know the world Oskar resides in.
We went through Haga first. It was so lovely, with its cute stores and coffee shops on every corner, and the golden sun baking the cobblestones under my feet. They were not black and uneven like the ones in Edinburgh; they were sleek and supportive as my shoes beat and kneaded the ground. We got ice cream cones and walked up the long, harrowing staircase that led to the Skansen Kronan, a watchtower that oversees the city. The view of the city was lovely. There were red roofs everywhere, and the sun blazed in the clearest blue sky I had seen in a while. The cold raspberry ice cream made the experience that much more lovely. Oskar pointed out his church from the hill, and we walked through it briefly when we came down from the tower. We walked beside the canal that threads through the city like an indigo piece of fishing line, passing the Feskekörka (fish market). It was closed, so we went on towards the harbor.
We walked along Kungsportsavenyen, or what Oskar called “the Avenue,” which is a huge street that is lined with shops and restaurants, beginning down by the harbor and ending further up with a huge fountain (the Götaplatsen) and the figure of Poseidon. I recognized him as the god of the sea right away, which made me happy in a nerdy, academic sort of way. He was magnificent; Oskar told me that after students graduated, they’d jump into the fountain and swim about in the water, and hoped they wouldn’t get caught. To prevent this from happening, the city would drain the water from the fountain just before graduation.
While we had been walking down this major street, we encountered a large mass of people marching down the street, chanting things I couldn’t understand and carrying banners. One major banner I photographed read “Kommunism.” Oskar had mentioned the traditions of the first of May for Sweden before we had gone into the city, and it was really interesting to see the protesting people up close. More or less, May Day is a day for demonstrations and called the International Worker’s Day in Sweden. Oskar explained the extensive political parties of Sweden, but I will not go into that because I honestly don’t remember even the most basic aspects of Swedish political structure, and I’d rather not get it all wrong.
It was pretty comical, honestly, comparing Swedish May Day with American May Day. The way I grew up, my mother would (and still does!) make little bouquets of flowers straight out of our garden to deliver to our neighbors. I remember the roses weren’t in bloom until June, so my mother had us take sunflowers and lavender, tied with vibrant bows. When I was very young, I fancied myself a flower fairy, like the ones I read about and believed in, as Carrie and I would skip gleefully from house to house. That was May Day for us in America.
Oskar took me to his favorite coffee shop after, and it was nice to sit for a while. I didn’t notice how much walking we had been doing until I had sat still for a while. I barely felt tired, though. There was so much to see, and I was having a blast with Oskar, a true local Swede, showing me everything. We talked more about life and Gothenburg, catching up on where we were both at.
I met several of Oskar’s friends as we roamed the city. When he took me inside Göteborg Centralstation, the major train station in the city, I met Christine, who was working at the coffee shop inside the station. I’d see her later that night when Oskar and I came back into the city for a few drinks and a walk in the dark city. After, we walked across Götaälvbron, a major bridge that hangs over the harbor with a clear view of the Läppstiftet, or the Lipstick Tower the city is famed for. It was windy and refreshing. I saw the opera house (Göteborgsoperan) from where we stood across the water, and I felt pretty small, seeing another sun soaked, gorgeous angle of the city from so high off the ground.
Oskar suddenly remembered a huge candy store he used to go to, and we combed through all the rows and rows of candy. After, Oskar suggested we go on the Paddan Sightseeing tour. He had gone on it with his family when he was really young, and was embarrassed to be going on one of the most “touristy” things you could do in Gothenburg. Though he didn’t like it much, he stuck it out, just so that I could see the city by means of the waterways and harbor.
We took the bus back to Oskar’s neighborhood, and his mother and sister made us dinner. I loved the food; I realized how long it had been since I had a home-cooked meal (since I have never considered myself skilled at cooking at all). I asked Emilia, Oskar’s sister, all about her life and what it was like to go to school and live on her own. She reminded me a bit of my older sister, Mandy. Oskar’s mother was so gracious, making me coffee after dinner and asking me about what Americans do on May Day. Later, Oskar’s father came home and I was able to see a very authentic Swedish family, all under one roof.
After dinner, Oskar and I took the bus back into the city to meet Christine. We went to a really cool bar/coffee shop and I had the local beer, which agreed with me very well. I asked Christine so many questions, and we talked travel, politics, traditions, and I felt like I got to hear a wider scope of outlooks and opinions as we sat in the dimly lit, open-air bar. She was originally from Stockholm, and we compared the two cities. Christine was so great to talk to, and I felt like we connected on a lot. I had only wished we had had more time together to discuss life and everything else. Later, we stomped the empty dark streets of Haga, heading towards the bus stop that would take us back out of the city. Oskar pointed to a large university building and quizzed me on it. I was triumphant when I correctly guessed the Business Building of Gothenburg University.
Something I loved about our long walk about the city of Gothenburg that day was the passion Oskar had for the city. What really makes an experience in travel, I have noticed, sometimes is not always the place you go, but the people you go to go see. I kept telling Oskar that I was so happy to be there, and so glad that I came, and I meant it. It was amazing to keep up the relationship we had begun more than a year before in America, and it sometimes felt surreal that we were both in Sweden together.
The next morning came and Oskar took me to another part of the surrounding area near his house, called Stora Amundön. It was gorgeous out there. Like the day before, the weather was perfect for walking beside the water and exploring the rocky land. The sand and water was gray and dotted with smooth, earthy rocks. Oskar showed me where the popular places for swimming were in the height of the summer.
The rest of that day was spent on a few of the little islands that make up the Achipelago, which runs parallel to the mainland of Sweden and Gothenburg city. A mutual friend Oskar and I had, Axel, lives on Hönö, one of the little islands. It was a lovely ride over there; the easiest way onto the little pieces of land is the ferry, which carries cars across every day. While on the way over, I got out and admired the seaside and the water all around the ferry. It was chilly out there, where the wind whipped about sharply. I was excited as we neared the land, and jumped back into the car.
We picked up Axel at his house and he showed Oskar and I his island. He pointed out places he used to go in his childhood, and we went into the Fiskemuseet Hönö Klova (a local museum). Despite not understanding any of the plaques in the whole building, I was able to study the old photos in one of the rooms that visually depicted the maritime history of the little island. Axel had some experience with boats and whatnot (after all, he does live on an island!), and whenever I saw a strange looking contraption hanging from the ceiling or behind glass, he’d usually know what it was and explain.
We met up with another friend, also named Oskar. I’m not sure if his name is spelled with a “k” or “c,” so just to not confuse, I’ll write this second Oscar with a “c.” The two islander Swedes took Oskar and I to see a church and graveyard on the island, which I can’t remember the name of. The church doors were locked, so we walked among the graves and read the names. All three Swedes told me about how people are buried, which was actually fascinating. Because the winters are so cold, the ground is too hard to break up and dig a grave if someone were to die in the dead of winter. So, the Swedish people have to preserve the body until the ground warms up enough. Interesting.
We piled back into Oskar’s car and drove a bit more through the little island streets, the sun slowly beginning to sink and turn orange in the clean, sleek sky. Oscar suggested we take his family’s boat out on the water for a ride. This ride became the one of the best memories I had while in Sweden. Oscar’s dad gave me a big coat to wrap up in, as well as a warm hat to keep my head and ears from freezing from the wind. I had been on little boats like the one Oscar’s family owned, yet I still probably looked like a clumsy fool while getting on and off, and Oskar had to help me.
The ride was so amazing! I saw the island from the water, and we sped by in an exhilarating whirl of cold chill and seawater splashing all around us. The water was calm and flat; we only bobbed and dipped slightly while circling the rocky island. Oscar pointed out a tiny island that was isolated from the rest and told me that an infamous prison, “Like Guantanamo Bay,” he said, used to sit on that little piece of rock in the middle of the ocean. He stopped the boat at a little dock not far from his own and told us there was an icehouse, and that if I had never seen one before, I had to go in and look. Axel, Oskar and I trudged up to the little shed that was attached to the dock, turned the knob, and peered in sheepishly. On the other side of the little white washed room was a little hole in the wall with a trap door of sorts. The trap door was open, and I saw a wall of shaved white ice and a metal shovel. All three of us laughed a bit when we saw this, thinking it pretty funny that fishermen could just come in, take what they needed, and leave. That icehouse was by far the most bizarre thing I saw in Sweden.
After more board games and a quick trip to the ICA (a chain Swedish grocery store), Oskar and I jumped back on the ferry to go home. It was dark by the time we were crossing, so I stayed in the car on the way over the water. We exchanged music during the ride, and as we neared Oskar’s neighborhood, a fox ran across the road. I hadn’t been looking, and was mad I had missed seeing it. Ten seconds later, we rounded a corner and I saw a huge brown hare chilling in the grass by the side of the road. Though I missed the fox, I did see a good bit of Sweden’s wildlife.
Something I did throughout this trip that was very entertaining, exhausting, and intriguing was the guessing game. Every time Oskar, his family, Axel, or Oscar forgot a word in English, usually while attempting to describe something, I’d always try hard to find the word for them. Sometimes it took a few guesses, and sometimes I’d get it on the first try. I always liked when I got it right away because it made me feel smart, like I was some kind of mind reader. A few times I’d also jokingly correct someone’s grammar if the tense or usage was wrong, and Oskar found that pretty funny. “Keep doing that!” he told me. I realized as the days passed that even if two or three people can speak a second language pretty well, sadly sometimes meaning or tone of voice or sarcasm is lost between the two. Though a conversation or two got awkward at moments when this happened, it was a good lesson to learn how to be okay and comfortable despite being lost in translation on occasion.
Here, I have compiled a list of the words I picked up while in Gothenburg:
Fika – a coffee or hangout time: “Let’s go fika over in the city!”
Fisk – fish
Sadly, that is it. Other than Polish, Swedish is the most eccentric language I have come across. I loved my time in Sweden, and I am sure of this because as I was boarding my flight back to Edinburgh, I felt a heavy, crushing sorrow that remained. If ever the opportunity presented itself to return, I’d take it.
I’ll be writing about Carrie, mom and I’s adventures in Greece, next time!