Chapter two. “In the shadow of foreign roads”. Stockholm.

June 18, 2013

It’s stuffy. The sun is burning my head, my feet are heavy after a sleepless night. I’m looking for a road to downtown. I see two girls with quite Scandinavian looks, they are smoking sitting on the pavement. Seems like they work here at the port – they are wearing uniform jumpsuits. I ask for the direction and get an answer in Russian – my strong accent gives me away.

It’s hot and I have to change right here in front of the port workers. Fortunately, nobody gives a damn, they are busy unloading the ferry. It takes me 20 minutes to get downtown. Everything seems scary and unfamiliar. I didn’t feel this way in Helsinki. It was cosy, homelike, small.

Stockholm felt big and alienated right away. And nobody, not a single person cared about a Russian cyclist. So I rode staring around, trying to smile and ignore the fact that the chain was working weirdly. The sun was burning unfriendly, the cranks were creaking dangerously. May be this sullenness is just the result of the lack of sleep? I wanted to take a shower. I’m always a mess without a shower.
As I had no idea what to do next and how to get to Oslo, I moved along the downtown pondering over the plan. When I was going up changing gear, something very bad happened to the chain and the bike froze at once. Nice ride, my ass.

I mean I knew this was going to happen eventually, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. But still I panicked a little bit thinking of upcoming troubles. I looked around, got off the bike and rolled it by, searching for a bicycle service station. I asked some passers-by and bicyclists for a direction, but got only a slight idea where I should be headed. And then I met Sebastian.
He was passing me by with a chocolate cigarette in his mouth and entirely relaxed and serene face of a young man. Another second of hesitation and I would have never met such a symbolic person in my trip.

After the ritual of “Do you speak English” I asked if he knew the nearest service station. Sebastian was on his way to work. But he got off the bike, and walked with me to his favorite bike shop with a service station. Apparently, I looked very frightened, though I tried to save the face and smiled all the time. So we got into talking. He told me he was Swedish, I told him I was on my way to Norway and stuff. I relaxed a little bit, changed in the restroom, washed my face and felt much better than that foggy version of me. They even had a shower, but I did not have enough impudence to ask for it. I would not have that hesitation if it happened today, though.
Like earlier with Kolya, we agreed to meet during his break. He found me in a Pizza Hut where I was sitting all sad digging in a 10 Euro lunch buffé trying to use local wi-fi. That was the first and the last time of my Stockholm gastronomic experiments.

Sebastian took me for a walk. I felt uncomfortable without my bike, this was certainly not the plan. Despite the fact that there was actually no plan at all. I had a goal to get to Oslo as fast as possible. Still, without a bike it felt weird.
As we were walking I noticed that my English, which had never been perfect before, became even worse because of the lack of sleep – I didn’t get every other phrase, apologized all the time and asked to repeat. Sebastian was very patient and kind, so I relaxed and only occasionally felt awkward because of my tongue tie. He told me some of the city history, but I forgot it right away, he cheered me up and tried really hard to make me love and remember the city that was just a stop-off on my way to Oslo.

However, Sebastian had to get back to work. He offered to stay with him if I had any problem with my bike or the ticket, or for no special reason at all. I agreed making a sensible decision to get some sleep and take a shower. We split up till the evening.
At the train station I tried to buy a ticket for my bike and myself, but they sent me to the bus station. I went there, but they sent me back to the train station. Apparently, my first tired attempt to communicate with locals failed. I decided not to get upset about it and left to see my bike. When I came back to the bike service, it had already been fixed. People who worked there were really nice. So if you ever need a bike service in the center of Stockholm, call Daniel Reimer – Sportson Kungsholmer, Kungsholmsgatan 9 — 08-651 87 20. They even have a shower in the restroom.

So I went for a ride around. Stockholm did not cause that storm of excessive tenderness as Helsinki did. It seemed older, more sensible and sophisticated. It’s a convenient city, where you want to do science and have a life style I could only find in books, with a family, a house and a minivan, spending holidays together, good schools, universities, science degrees, your own office.

The weather got cooler, I decided to have a picnic by the water. I threw some bread at impudent Scandinavian seagulls, made notes, smoked. I had a few Marlboro packs with me bought in Saint Petersburg. I had not been smoking for a while as I was preparing to ride a lot. I took the cigarettes for ritual smoking on the top of Preikestolen. But I couldn’t help it, how could I not.

Stockholm bikers are much more enduring than me. I felt like I rode a bicycle for the first time, one would call me a rookie (which actually was not very far from the truth). Of course, the Swedes learn how to ride a bike before they start walking. No allowances for a loaded bike. No excuses for me. So I rode around, on islands and bridges, watching the daily routine of the locals, imagining myself in this relaxed rhythm of Sweden everyday life.

Later on I returned to the Central station to buy a ticket to Oslo, the second attempt was a success. Only this time I would have to unload the bike and put it in the case. Sebastian finished work, we rode to his favorite park and went to his place where he lived with his girlfriend and friends. It’s about 40 km from downtown, we took subway passing into commuter railroad. Sebastian had a ticket, and I was let in by a kind Sweden subway inspector.
About half a kilometer from the station, and we are home. That was a very warm evening with a delicious dinner cooked by Sebastian, Sweden people talking in Swedish, Sweden people talking in English. My brain almost exploded, I was so tired I almost forgot English completely, but instead, I started guessing what they said in Swedish just by their intonation.

I took a shower and felt the happiest person in the world. We were sitting all together on the porch, wrapped in blankets, smoking and chatting around. I felt like home, I did not want to go anywhere, I wanted to stay in that house on that porch, among my new Sweden friends. Watching torches shaped like dragonflies, learning Swedish, smelling wood and eating ice cream.

I was nodding from drowsiness. They made a bed for me in the big living room opening onto the porch. Everyone peeled away, I went to bed thinking that I would fall asleep in a moment. But I kept lying awake for a while listening to the sounds of the house, feeling that I was too tired out to get to sleep. Then I conked out as if I fainted.
I got up earlier than everyone else, swallowed two cups of coffee, sat with my laptop on the porch for a little while, exposing my legs to the Sweden sun, too heating for 10 AM. An hour later the others woke up, Jenny and I ate cornflakes with milk for breakfast. And a second later Sebastian comes out of the shower telling me my train is leaving in 15 minutes. So we jump on our bikes and dash to the station. We got just on time. I still had about an hour and a half till leaving to Oslo, so we drove around the streets, warmed ourselves in the sun by the water, rambled about. The city opened up for me, gradually, thanks largely to Sebastian. I no longer wanted to leave.

I remember those lines from a song by Boris Grebenshikov:

“Ages ago
In the shadow of foreign roads
I saw you and thought
How seldom you meet a friend”
But Norway was waiting for me. It was time to go to the station, we disassembled and packed my bike. I bought a sandwich and licorice tasting like you swallowed sea water. It’s Sebastian who suggested I should try that traditional Sweden treat. So my train arrived, we stood there for a while telling goodbye and hugging. I am saying I am happy to have met him and really hope we will meet again. It’s an unattainable luxury to get attached to people on my way, but I just can’t help it.
I had a little nap in the train, then woke up and looked out of the window. Little stations and villages, green hills and leaden sky. I was wondering where Sweden ended and Norway began. Little by little everything changed, abandoned alien scenes gave way to something dear and homelike. Colors changed.
Colors is what distinguishes Norway from any other country. You can always recognize it on photos. Rarely, you could mix it with Iceland. But the lights and the colors, the air density, or some other imperceptible peculiarities work right away – you look at the picture and it strikes you as if you were there, inside it, you can feel some coolness making your hair curl.

I had imagined this moment in different ways. How I would show up in Norway and fall on my knees to kiss the dear land, even if it’s hot airport asphalt. In reality I didn’t notice the moment of crossing the border, I might have even overslept it, but at one point I started to feel at home.

Well, hello, Norway, we finally met.

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