Travel Tips Part 4: Umea, Sweden

So: you’ve made it all the way to Sweden, a long way from home. Seeing as you’ve come all this way to these Scandinavian countries, you feel that you should at least make an attempt to catch the Northern Lights while you’ve got the opportunity. Buy a 34 SEK ticket (about 4 Euros) for the night train to a small town called Umeå: the European capital of culture for 2014! This is your second night train you’re taking, and although they save you money, your back is starting to involuntarily spasm due to the seriously crap sleeping conditions. Luckily, the train is quiet so you’re able to use your small backpack as a pillow while stretching your legs up the wall of the train. Optimum comfort, non?

Seeing as there are limited hostels available (none) and you’re looking to start saving your pennies, you decide to sign up for Couch Surfing. This sounds a little daring – sleeping in a complete strangers house for free – but it also has the appeal of the adventure. Your Couch Surfing host is 26 year old Jonas: a softly spoken student who lives in a tiny studio apartment 3 minutes from the main town. You chat about this and that and find that you get along well. You’re able to relax a little now.

Showered and clothed you venture into town in search for food. Umeå is quite possibly the quietest town ever. So quiet in fact that you find yourself really bored. There’s not what you’d call a great deal to see or do, so you walk into MacDonald’s, order chips and coffee an spend the next few hours working your way through Season 1 of Community while idly rolling cigarettes. Feeling that you are somehow wasting your day, you take a stroll outside down to the river which is quite pretty. Still unable to find filters in Sweden, you have used bits of cardboard from your coffee cup as a make-shift filter: this is quite possibly the worst idea you’ve had so far. Firstly: the cardboard doesn’t actually filter the tobacco, so while you’re already inhaling unfiltered tobacco into your lungs, you’re also inhaling a few more nasty chemicals – just what you needed. After licking your lips and tasting clean tobacco on your tongue you promptly stub out your cigarette and throw away your bag of cancer in a vow to never buy smokes again, (you can still smoke though…obviously). Feeling a familiar pang of hunger you walk in search of finding an alternative to MacDonald’s: maybe some place where they serve vegetables?

You find yourself in a hipster-friendly café/ boutique in town that serves fair-trade coffee and delicious sandwiches in a relaxing atmosphere created by a medley of Christmas carols and Frank Sinatra. You spend the next few hours doing – frankly – fuck all, then start the walk back to your couch, where you’re greeted with home-cooked vegan-Thai-curry (candlelit, by the by) and an abundance of pre-rolled (filtered) cigarettes. Note: Couch Surfing just got awesome. You spend the night with your host and a fellow surfer eating dark chocolate, smoking, listening to folk records and just being downright cool. At 10 pm you endeavour outside to chase the Northern Lights: but it was not to be. There is a low cloud hanging around and you can’t even see the moon or the stars.

In the morning, wake up at 10 and walk into town with the intention of doing a bit of window shopping. You walk into a cool second-hand book/record shop/cafe and find the tiny English section to browse through. Craving some decent fantasy you buy yourself a copy of The Man in the Iron Mask and walk out of yet another book shop with a book you’re never going to read. You walk halfway across town window shopping, until you remember to eat something. Having no intention of eating in yet another café, you walk to the local supermarket and buy a bag of candy and a banana. But wait: you don’t even get that far. You’re wallet isn’t in your bag. Don’t panic – check your jacket. Not in your jacket. Check your pockets – not in your pockets. Check your bag again – feel the hairs at the back of your neck stand up as you realise your wallet is missing. Put on a brave face and think about where it could be: you more than likely left it in the book shop. No problem, stick your headphones on and try to block out your fleeting thoughts with mewithoutyou – a band you’re beginning to love. Enjoy the walk back because, where else could your wallet be?

Get back to the shop and become disheartened when the owners don’t graciously greet you with your misplaced wallet and a box of chocolates and money – they don’t recognise you and the wallet hasn’t been found. At this point you start to feel sick: you definitely remember leaving the shop with your wallet in hand, so by the looks of things, you’ve dropped it, and someone has picked it up and nabbed it. Just think: at least you still have your passport, take consolation in the fact that you still have somewhere to sleep tonight even though you quite literally have no money on you at all. Make the fatal mistake of calling up your dad to tell him what’s happened, and cop an earful down the other end of the line about how stupid you are and how you should try to “be more careful next time.” Call VISA to organise emergency cash, and in the meantime give ANZ an address for them to send you a new set of cards. Explain to ANZ that you’re backpacking and aren’t staying in places any longer than 3 days at a time: when the polite customer service representative notes that it’s going to be problematic getting a new card to you, promptly burst into tears. 

You now have to shift your travel plans by about 2 weeks by going directly to Berlin to your family’s house to wait for your knew cards: Berlin is an amazing city full to the brim with things to do, so you try to look on the “bright side.” Decide that you may as well try going to the Police to see if anyone was decent enough to find it then hand it in, but you’re doubtful of this, at this point you hate the world for your own carelessness and you just want to bloody-well eat something! You arrive at the Police station already dishevelled and narky, when you’re greeted with a queue. Of course, you now have to take a ticket and wait in line. After 15 minutes of needing to call VISA and your German relatives, you snap out or your chair and ask the receptionist (very calmly) if any wallet has been handed in. Of course there is a rare language barrier and you spend the next 30 seconds talking louder like that’s going to make her understand the word “wallet.”

Finally she understands, and says that no, nothing has been handed in today. Having already had low expectations of this anyway, you turn around, and there he is: standing tall and handsome with his outstretched hand with your wallet sitting in his perfect grasp. You’re speechless as you look up into his piercing blue eyes and give him a gigantic Australian hug. The Swedish aren’t used to people expressing emotion publicly, so he’s a little stunned as you choke up with happy tears. He smiles awkwardly (yet still handsomely) and explains that he found it on the ground and was handing it in to the station when he recognised your face from your driver’s licence. You don’t listen to half of this because you’re lost in his eyes, but you smile and thank him about a thousand times, while hugging your wallet tightly. You say goodbye to your wonderful, delicious, knight-in-shining-rugged-armour, and skip down the street with the knowledge that you’re a very lucky girl. (i)  You walk directly into a 7/11 and buy a gigantic bag of candy, because after an ordeal like that, you deserve some sugar and preservatives.

It’s getting dark so let’s start walking back – you booked another night train for that night to go back to Stockholm: it’s going to be cloudy for the next few nights, so there’s not much point in sticking around.

As you walk along the darkening street, you notice an old lady hunched over, struggling to cross the road. She takes a few steps then stops and shudders with pain. Barely making it halfway across the road you walk over and ask if she’s alright: she looks up, and you notice that she’s actually quite young, probably about 26. Too young to be walking like an old lady. You give her your arm for support and walk with her to her apartment. Her name is Elise, she’s actually 38 and has lead poisoning, so her knees cramped up in town that afternoon, causing her total agony. Despite her disability, she’s a cheery person and soon invites you up to her apartment for tea. You politely decline, but she insists – she’s never met an Australian before and she wants to show you what a Swedish house looks like. Taking the chance that she’s actually been faking and has her serial rapist boyfriend waiting for you upstairs, you accept – she needs help up the stairs anyway. When you get inside you notice how small and sweet her 1 bedroom apartment is: there are trinkety items dotted all over the cramped apartment, notes from friends posted on the walls, and no bed – only a mattress on the floor. Elise relaxes more at her home and soon forgets about the pain in her knee. She tells you stories about her own travels, and asks you countless questions about Australia. As you leave she gives you her address so you can write to her and tell her about your travels. You promise to send her some pictures of Perth and Australia, and surprisingly mean it.

You walk back in the pitch dark and are greeted with a delicious vegan dessert and yet more tobacco. You walk back to the station and take yet another night train back to Stockholm, ready for more terrible sleep.

(i)                  He kind of looked like Denny from Grey’s Anatomy. Yeah. I know.

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