A world of darkness

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So, my six months stint in Sweden is drawing to a close, and it’s time to reflect on everything that surprised me, as a Frenchman, living in this country. I’m leaving tomorrow, followed by the lamented cries of the people here

So the first thing you notice is, this is an expensive city. And I say that coming from Paris. All things compared, accommodation is bloody expensive, something like 30% more than in Paris. That sucks up most of your pay. It is known.


When you get past that, you notice most of everything is also expensive. Doing one trip in the subway will cost over 4€, twice the price of the most expensive ticket in Paris. Getting a one month fare is a little bit more than Paris, but the network is five times smaller. Plus it’s not one month, it’s 30 days, so you get fucked if you forget when you bought the ticket. Oh and there’s no getting paid back half the fare by the employer as in France.

Ok so restaurants are pretty cheap, you pay around 10-12€ for a meal. But a good restaurant here would be considered below par in France – sorry. And you don’t get meal tickets (about 7-8€ for each working day).

I came here thinking Sweden was a socialist worker paradise, but it’s actually lagging behind. You work the regular 40 hours week or more. I’ve read about Sweden testing the 32 hours week, but it’s only a few companies.
To conclude on cost of living, it’s better not to have hair here : the basic haircut – for a man ! – is around 50€ ! That’s the price for women in France. I had to find a hairdresser school to get below 20.


Right, now, what do you discover in supermarkets ? It’s the place where you learn the most about peoples habits. I won’t even cover the subject of food in tubes, I did not try.


This will only be funny for French speaking people, a famous chocolate cake is named kladdkaka.


The default size of packagings is very strange to me. The roll-on version of body spray is about the size you would need to use it between your fingers.


The biggest washing machine powder pack is less than 2kgs. I’ve never seen one so small.


On the other hand, the smallest flour or sugar pack is also 2kgs. Couldn’t get through that in six months. I also never found what I consider regular sized sugar pieces, there were all small, 1 centimeter.


I also spent a lot of time getting fooled by what was and what was not milk. They use the same packaging, the name is very close, but no, it may be yoghurt, fermented milk or some other stuff. They also mix it along very skillfully to confuse you.


On the day to day life, no one here owns a washing machine. There’s a common laundry in the basement. You book a timeslot with a kind of board with locks. Except no one respects it, so you end up doing the same.


Most common doors also have a lock to turn to open. The trick is that the lock needs to be kept open while opening the door. Impossible to do it with one hand. It’s fine when you have to push, but when you have to pull, with one hand busy with, let’s say, your laundry, this gets annoying fast.


Many other doors can be opened automatically with a button. That’s more convenient.


Ok I’m not going to go into all the details and the pain to open a simple bank account here. Took me close to two months. When I realized you can’t expect the same level of service as in Western Europe, I was ok. Employees were mostly dumb.

It was the opposite at the tax department. Very welcoming and efficient. Fast process and they guide you through the loops. Tax is paid directly from the salary.

The only problem being, whatever you’re being paid in a year, you will be taxed at least 12%, which as an average tax bracket (not marginal) is pretty darn high ! For what I received over 2016, and then in 2017, I wouldn’t pay taxes in France. All in all, I will pay around 3k€ national tax over two fiscal years.

To conclude on money, this is indeed a cashless society. I have not withdraw money over the last three months, I never needed to. Everyone has a card machine – except the beggars on the street or in the subway, I don’t know how they manage.


Okay so the most famous attraction in Sweden is the Vasa museum. It’s a museum built around a 17th century ship, a great three decker, three masts, 80+ cannons from the glorious age of sea conquest. It was built to help ensure domination on the Baltic Sea over Poland.

Ever since the ship was retrieved from the bottom of the sea, about 50 years ago, it’s been a fight to preserve it from decaying, falling to pieces and rotting. You can’t get onboard, you can only go around. It’s still very impressive. After 300 years in the mud it remains a massive sight.


Of course less impressive is the fact that it sank on its maiden voyage. And it didn’t take an iceberg to bring it down. After a single mile, it toppled over in Stockholm bay and went under. 50 people died. The issue ? There was not enough ballast to keep it balanced. Conception mistake, blamed upon the master engineer of course, and also… the Swedish King, who forced the design. Good thing he wasn’t around when it happened.

It leaves you wondering though. If there had not been such a tragic mistake, a ridiculous accident, the ship would have lived its regular ship life, and certainly disappeared like all others. We would never have heard of him or see him on display in a museum.


To conclude, here is a piece of bread, 20 years old, to demonstrate that to remain forever young, you only need to live in a plastic bag with no air.

Oh yeah, why this title “a world of darkness” ? It’s because you don’t get to see much of the sun here during winter, when it sets at 3pm. But as you don’t talk about weather in England, you don’t talk about the sun in Sweden.

Stockholm!

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That’s it! I reached my destination around 1pm today. It’s been a very wet day, but it didn’t really matter at this stage 🙂

  
I knew it would be raining most of the day, but there was supposed to be a calmer time around mid day. So I waited and waited, and when it seemed the rain had stopped over Södertälje, I took off. The gps once again drove me into secondary dirt roads, but I expected it, and that remained bike tracks – mostly. I went around lakes and visited secluded country homes, then went back into civilization, which I never left after that.

  
That’s also the time when it started drizzling, and it never stopped. Never a really strong rain, but I was again feeling like in the millennium falcon, with raindrops whizzing past me. In urban areas, the gps is usually more efficient, and with bike lanes now commonplace, I soon saw Stockholm as a destination. I couldn’t grab a picture with the city sign, but with the weather, it wasn’t a good idea anyway.

And so, at one point, when I entered Södermalm, which is the southern part of the city, I started recognizing the area. This is a very special feeling when you realize you reached a very distant place on your own 🙂 I had this same feeling when I saw Los Angeles, or New York. You start grinning like a maniac 🙂

After this exuberant phase, I changed quickly in the toilets of a burger king, to avoid catching a cold, and I even went to buy a long sleeve shirt and some pants. It’s still a pretty chilly day here. Now I’ve got a couple days to recover before I start working 🙂

That was a almost-30 days ride, almost-2000kms. I paused three times, in Antwerp, Bremen and Copenhagen. It took ten days to cross Sweden (only the southern bit really), eight for Germany (the northern part). I had a few days of sunshine, but really the weather has not been helpful. No technical or physical issue (ah yeah except my back brake was out today). I didn’t really get lost, except the second day in Sweden, in that forest after the chemical plant. The quality of bike lanes vary wildly, even in the same country, but i doubt you can beat Belgium. I’ll do another post for cultural surprises along the way, and maybe a few learnings 🙂

   
 

Södertälje

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What a difference a day makes. Yesterday was a pleasant ride under the sun, today has been a grueling effort in the cold.

I’m now a stone’s throw away from the finish line, and this has been a great motivation to reach the end of the ride. That, and the fact there was no other place to stop before the city. I started the day feeling good, but that quickly turned around.

  
I suppose I’m mostly feeling the need for the break I didn’t have since I left Copenhagen. The effort is building up faster during the day. My legs have really been paying a dear price today, I can still feel it in the evening. The second factor was the terrain itself. I’ve been going east then north from Nyköping, on what was the best course certainly (no dirt road or strange detours), but I went through ups and down all the way – so it was far from nice and flat. Small hills actually, but I’ve  quickly resorted to walking them up when needed. No shame in surviving the distance.

  
On top of that, the weather went from a sunny 30+ two days ago, with a helping back wind, to less than 15 today, overcast again – I didn’t see the sun today – and a wind coming from the east. Not strong enough to be a nuisance, but it didn’t help. Mostly the muscles never got warm, and I had to push harder than needed.

Oh well, it’s this kind of day where you have to stay focused, manage yourself and keep going. Four hours on the bike is doable, as long as you move forward, and it doesn’t become ten or twelve hours walking. It’s what happened that fateful day in Utah, when I couldn’t go on. But the circumstances didn’t add up as much today, so after hours circling the fjords, passing a farm here and there, and even during a time seeing groups of cyclists in a race, I reached Södertälje. I haven’t really being looking around the city to be honest. I’m looking at the weather for tomorrow, which should be awful apparently. That won’t prevent me from concluding this trip and be happy I did it!

Nyköping

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Still going on, not much left now. It’s been a very nice day to ride in Sweden. I don’t even have something to complain about 🙂

  
The trip today was rather short, the weather was great, temperature was back to being nice and not oppressive. And most of the ride was with a strong back wind. It makes everything much much easier, especially when reaching the top of the hill and the wind pushes you for the final effort.

  
It’s also being a very nice mix of going in the countryside, with many large fields and farmers working them, small and large forests, even with a bit along the Bräviken, which probably registers as a fjord, given the size of it. The road was pretty narrow around there, but it didn’t last too long. I was happy leaving it and going back up on the plateau, with much less traffic. Plus a few small towns along the way to allow for short breaks. The second bit of the day was going up and down small hills, until I saw the city. Not a big one this time, as all shops were closed by 3 or 4pm, on a Saturday! Is this some sort of Nordic Shabbath? Thou shall not work on the sacred day after teatime?

  
I’m still going side by side with the E4, sometimes a few meters, sometimes a few kilometers, but it’s rare when I don’t hear it in the distance. It helps knowing I’m not lost or going in the wrong direction. I’ve also gone across quite a few cyclists going the other way, and I was feeling the pain for them. Although, as seems to be the norm here, almost none would nod or wave. The US feels like half a world away. I’m missing the hordes of Hell’s Angels waving at me.

Norrköping

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I’m reaching more populated areas now. I’m in Norrköping, I suppose pronounced Norshöping, after passing Linshöping, and tomorrow I’ll be in Nyshöping. I feel like going shöping, I don’t know why.

  
I have now been for a week in Sweden, and have done more than 90% of the trip. Three days left and less than 200kms between them. I’m starting to think a lot more about what comes next, and how it will work out. Still, I’m enjoying the great weather now, and the easy journey. I even remember now why I used to start as early as possible during the US trip : it gets hotter by noon. Today was over 30 degrees. And I thought this country was closer to the North Pole! Thanks Obama.

  
Right before going through Linköping, I saw fighter planes doing either a training or a show, more probably the later one. I went all around the Malmen airbase, which has a museum attached, and witnessed what seemed like F15s landing right on top of me. F15s are American planes right? It seems the European army is not yet ready to become a reality. Besides cheese and wine, we do produce planes and tanks in France you know? That’s even our first export in value. Would be better selling them in Europe than in the Middle East.

  
Anyway, going through the town, there was actually a European fair, with booths from various countries offering – selling really – food or items. France, in this case, was well represented. There were even a couple British booths, but of course that wasn’t food in their case. You can’t export fish and chips, anyone can cook that anywhere.

  
Ever since I left the Vättern lake, I’m now mostly going through fields, nor forests anymore. And I guess for the remaining days it’ll be a mix, remembering the forest surrounding Stockholm, but also more urban areas than before.

  
Norrköping seems like a large, really nice town, I approached the center following the river, which felt like following a canal into Paris.

  
For a few days now, I’ve been going back more and more to a normal diet, in terms of volume. Two years ago in the US, I made two major mistakes in this area, that I’m trying to avoid. The first one was keeping a regular diet while riding the first few weeks. After a month, I was really tired : when you do 4 or 5 hours of biking every day, you consume at least twice the amount of calories. This time I ate a lot more right from the start. The second mistake was not going back quickly to a more balanced intake : after returning to France I continued eating quite a lot, and especially chocolate (US chocolate is really crap). So I quickly regained the 7 or 8kgs I’d lost over the trip. This time I’ll try to keep this benefit 🙂

Mjölby

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I have reached the town of Mjölby, which is much much smaller than I thought. If I had not stopped for a minute to check my phone, I would have missed it.

  
It’s almost what the people of Delaware say about the state : if you’re on the highway to Washington and sneezed, then you just missed Delaware. It probably helps them staying a fiscal paradise too. Even on a bike it felt small.
 
So I did a rather short day and did in two days what I wanted to do… in two days. Except I didn’t rest. Today was ok, I’ll see how it goes further down the road. But there’s only four days left now. On Monday morning I’ll be in Stockholm. I hope I haven’t forgotten anything in Paris, or I will have to turn back.

  
Escaping Gränna and the Vättern lake was easier than I thought. The road followed the lake for 20kms, then gradually turned west, going slowly up all the time, until it was a plateau more or less all the way. The wind remains light, and coming from the south. I much prefer seeing the wind turnbines facing me than showing me their metallic butts. On the other hand, no bike lanes of any kind. But the traffic remains low, as there’s still the highway close by.

  
It was a beautiful day, still quite warm, and three hours pass by very fast in these conditions. I’ve also been passed again by a very fast cyclist – it happens about once a day now. I go ok, maybe 20-22k, and a guy (a gal once), whizz by, just as if I was stopped. They certainly have better and lighter bikes, that’s not hard to find, still, it requires a strength and stamina I don’t have. That reminds me of the race around the lake, when people do 300kms in less than 10 hours. I could probably reach this average for 30 or 40 minutes, but then I’d be dead. You got to push hard constantly to maintain such a speed. I’m really not here for that – although I could have done this trip in two weeks instead of four – I want to enjoy it as well.

  
When going through Väderstad, which means Vader’s town, of course, I saw a very nice touch of welcoming any passing French visitor, with both flags raised. Merci pour ce moment !

  

Gränna

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Today was a mix between a rest and a ride. I did a very short distance, 40kms, and stopped there. I’m still along the Vättern lake, with a much better view than yesterday.

  
It’s also been the very first day with an almost continuous sun! It was almost hot too, up to 25 degrees, which is very nice. I’m clearly not missing the current weather in Paris, ten degrees more, especially working without air conditioning. Being on the road with fresh air cannot be beaten.

  
On the other hand, it’s not flat anymore. When I arrived in Jönköping (pronounced yonshopin apparently) yesterday, I went on a very steep downhill, maybe 10%, for more than a kilometer. Logically I had to go up that again when wondering off the lake. I thought maybe the lane would follow the lake, but it doesn’t. So there’s been a few ups and downs, but it was okay. I suppose it will be more or less like this for the remaining days. It’s not Holland anymore. Still, I was riding along nice fields and small villages up to my target.

  
Gränna is a small town along the lake, with a very big camping, and a ferry to an island. There seem to be quite a few people living in the island, judging by the number of buses coming and going, and the frequency of the ferry. It’s probably gonna be a safe spot when the zombie apocalypse starts.

  
When I arrived here and parked my bike, it started doing a noise like everything was crumbling, and indeed it fell to the ground : the bike leg, which helps it stand, has just finished unscrewing itself! That’s French qualität. Apparently a metal disc below the screw split apart, creating a movement on the screw, which loosened itself for I don’t know how long. Well, nothing the correct Allen key in a garage couldn’t fix. And it’s only gone through three different mechanics a few weeks ago.

  
From the port at Gränna you can almost get to see Jönköping, about 30kms straight south. It’s rare to see that far on the horizon.