Good evening, from somewhere on the black of the Baltic Sea. I currently (at the time of starting this post) sit on a cruise ship, which departed from Tallinn, Estonia about 90 minutes ago, and will arrive in Stockholm, Sweden in roughly 15.5 hours. This is my third such ship in about 11 days. The first of these ships went from Stockholm to Helsinki; the second, from Helsinki to Tallinn; the third, right back to Stockholm. I won’t be spending many minutes in Stockholm this time, but it’s a logical and necessary checkpoint if I want to get to Copenhagen without being airborne.
The cruise ship itself is lavish, and packed with Russians. Estonia is next to Russia and a former member of the Soviet Union (I’m not strictly positive about this one, but can’t imagine being too far off), so this is logical. My current bunkmates include a greyed Russian man, who walked in with a case of beer and drank 4 before we left the harbor, and two leather-clad Lithuanians in their late 20’s. They’re all watching some soap opera right now. Again, the boat is lavish, and is not short in size. It has restaurants, concert venues, night clubs, a casino, and a shopping promenade. Impressive, to say the very least. It’s often full of feeble grandmothers in wheelchairs, but you sometimes luck out with a few people your (my) age. On the boat to Helsinki, there was a group of early-20’s Erasmus exchange students. 1,600 of them.
..There was a party.
In recent days, I’ve been reading this book called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, by an ex-Lonely Planet writer named Thomas Kohnstamm. It’s a razor-edgy, cynical, and salacious telling of what it really means to be a travel writer. The impossible deadlines, the laughably frail budget, and the overreaching command of untainted objectivity. I’m 2/3 done, and I never want to be a travel writer for Lonely Planet.
In any event, I wish I was more like the guy–I think. At the very least, the 18-year-old Will would have had such a wish. The book is exciting. He bangs sushi waitresses in exchange for a good review, goes on 36-hour drinking benders because sleep wastes time, and uses respectable frat humour to archetype every character he comes across. There’s that, and the fact that he has sex with a different girl in every chapter. Thomas is a wheelhouse, do-anything-and-never-complain hockey player with a backpack and a laptop. He’s inventive, virile, and knows how to conscript it all for the joyride and envy of the reader.
With certainty, I can say that I wish this blog was more like Thomas’ book. I’d have a broader reader base–for sure. Cynicism sells. Like Thomas, I do have my salacious moments–I do have my benders. I certainly have my opinions as well, about who’s a pitifully oblivious coke-binging waste of a backpack, laughing at a pizza waiter in Bolivia for not speaking English, and who’s actually got a head on their shoulders capable of forming original thoughts. I’m decent with words, too. I could take every Maltese shaman, Chinese-Australian casino worker and Rastafarian Swede I’ve met and raucously deconstruct their beings and flaws into for-your-reading-pleasure gold. I can’t promise I’d do it well–but I could do it.
Unfortunately, cynicism isn’t my thing; I’m more of an honest guy. I won’t claim to not, on occasion, momentously omit the some of my trip’s pedestrianism for the sake of your excitement: this is what good travel writers (like Thomas, but probably not yet me) do. But no, cynicism is not something that will ever theme this blog.
As a writer, and as a person, I’m more on the I’m-here-to-learn side of things. That’s mostly why I’m traveling. I try to be objective, too. I won’t really ever claim anything as fact unless I’m unequivocally certain. I won’t ever say X is the best in the world until I’ve tried every X. In addition, I really enjoy trying to inspire others. With this blog, I’d like to inspire just one person to take an extended backpacking journey, who otherwise would have not. Just one person. It’s a big goal–for me.
I’ve been accused of being a bumptious writer as well, and really, I’d have to agree. I’m positive. Sometimes overly positive. At this point, it should be clear to my readers that when I have a shitty day, I’m not telling the world. When I don’t like a country, I don’t spin off into some tantric thunder about why it sucks. My thoughts are just opinions, anyway, and really, what the f*ck do I know? Furthermore, I rarely write about a country’s history of violence, corruption, etc. with any real depth, or about anything overtly negative in nature. That’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about my personal experiences in each country, and on the road in general. It’s about you getting to know me, about what I’m doing on my trip and why I’m doing it, what I’ve learned and what I haven’t, and what I want to tell the world. This blog is here to hopefully inspire you to dream really big, and to wrench open your mind to its fullest cranial extent. Myself included. That’s kinda why I’m here–to learn stuff, and to share what I’ve learned. Cynicism gets readers, but it’s not for me. This is Will’s blog. I mostly wish I was more like Thomas, but if I tried to make my writing more like his, it would not be truthful. I think good writing is honest writing, and I do try to be honest.
Rant or whatever over–here we go.
I met Jesper and Jennifer in the South Island of New Zealand (post here), in April 2010. We spent something like 2 weeks together, and became good buddies. We drank. We hucked ourselves out of a gondola 440 feet in the air with nothing but a bungee cord tied to our legs. We sang karaoke. Jennifer painted my nails once, fingernails and toenails, as I slept. I forget what color. We became good buddies, and we kept in touch.
Our story restarts in Stockholm, on the morning of October 26th. My plane lands from Reykjavík–the last plane I’m aiming to take for the next 14 months. I had slept for just a few hours the night before. Jennifer picks me up from the airport, and off we go.
I had gotten a message from Jennifer a few days before, saying:
Hi Will! Everything is all good for youre arrival, ill pick you up at Arlanda!!! I was given tickets For the erotic fair on friday evening by some friends, they Will go and Jesper and I, so we Will bring you there 🙂 they have a bar inside!!! So we will eat some dinner and have some drinks before! Looking forward to see you!!
Jennifer & Jesper
So yes–this was the plan for my first night in Stockholm. Not my idea, but not an invitation I was about to turn down. We travel for new experiences, yes?
From the airport, we pick up Jesper at work, pick up some beer at the mall, arrive at their brightly lit apartment in the brightly autumn countryside, and settle in for naps. Grace and Tobias pop up a few hours later (the “friends” from the message above), and in a motion of welcome-Will celebration or perhaps some kind of anticipatory hedonism for the night to come, we dine on a drunkenly thorough meal of drinking songs and Swedish traditionalism. We had Swedish meatballs, stinky Swedish fish (not the candy) from a glass jar that you eat at Christmas time, the same fish yet bathed in mustard, salad, breads with dips, and potatoes, I believe. I think there were potatoes.
At dinner, I was taught that in Sweden, it’s all for one, and one for all. This is possibly evidenced by their almost-socialist income tax structure, the heart-warmingly high standard of median living, or maybe by the fact that if one person at the dinner table wants to drink, everyone has to drink. That’s how it’s done, I was taught. You sing when you drink, too. So yes–if one person wants to drink, everyone fills up a glass, you all sing a song, and down the hatch it goes. No one likes drinking alone, anyway.
From there, it was the fair. First, I’ll say that I’ve never been to an erotic fair, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. We go inside, through the red tented entrance and past the ogling Spaniards, and into the main hall. Mostly, it was just a venue to sell toys. There were booths set up everywhere, selling vibrating this and smells-like-cherries that. It was kind of corny. However, there was a stage, and there were dancers. As a straight males, Jesper, Tobias and I enjoyed that one. It was a cool experience on the whole.
A few days later, we went for dinner at Jennifer’s parents house. A small and cozy home, further in the countryside. For dinner, we ate lots. We talked about Curb too, and I showed them the video of Larry yelling “I’VE GOT A SWEDE LAWYER?!” at Berg.
After food, we went to the sauna; saunas are very popular in Scandinavia. Years ago, Jennifer’s family and about 20 others joined forces to construct a wood-fire sauna, through the woods and on the shores of a quiet lake. We brought our towels, brought our beers, and headed down. Jennifer packed wood into the furnace, and the room heats to about 60° C, or 140° F. I almost got strangely emotional, actually, being Jewish and and feeling a bit claustrophobic in that small space. I’m sure y’all know what I’m getting at. In any event, the sauna was nice, especially when you splash water atop the rocks, and the burning vapor drifts towards and smacks you in the face.
When you’ve had enough, you sprint outside. The water is about 6° C, or about 43° F. It’s freezing. You jump in, and the body experiences a mild shock. It’s, well, novel. Relaxing too. Another new experience. Was kind of nervous from the beginning, actually; I thought my body might shut down in the water, or something. It didn’t. We went back into the sauna, back into the water, and then back home for sleep. I think I had a candy bar somewhere in the middle. Chocolate and caramel.
The following night, I met up with Yonnas, the kid with whom I traveled in Tanzania. The legend with the story–the story about driving through a tribal war on the Ethiopian/Kenyan border, as bullets poured through the bus. Read, please read, about that one here.
One of Yonnas’ buddies worked at a go-kart place, so off we went. Go-karting is ridiculously underrated. I hadn’t been go ko-karting in maybe 8 years, but I was just loving the f*cking go-karting. I haven’t driven a real car in about a year, but I was decent enough. Go-karting–a far superior alternative to bowling or the movies. A nice addition to your backyard/basement too, if you can afford it.
Lastly–Djurgården. Djurgården is an area in Stockholm, and has an ice hockey team. While usually good, the team has been super brutal as of late, and is now in the second-tier league, instead of the first. This is really fortuitous, however, because NHL players, who cannot currently play in the NHL because of this lockout (not fortuitous), are permitted to play in the Swedish second league, but not the first. Our team had Gabriel Landeskog, the captain of the Avalanche, and the other team had Anze Kopitar. I hadn’t watched, played, or generally been around ice hockey in about a year; you can imagine how much my mouth was foaming with excitement when Tobias, Jesper and I arrived at the rink. Hockey was my childhood.
I’d never seen a live European hockey game before, but I had an idea of what they look like. It was all there. The bigger rink, the scarves, the SKODA across the helmet. The advertisements everywhere. It was tough not to chuckle. These European teams seem to have real “hooligans” as well, which I find categorically different than a passionate, North American fan. The hooligan seemed like they could know nothing about hockey, and would just blindly scream out of some hard-wired thirst to just yell at the opposing team. Think European football (soccer) fans, I guess. Conversely, the passionate North American hockey fan, the real one, is definitely able to yell at the opposing fans and team, but overall, has a strong, well-developed respect for the game which trumps all testosterone and drunken energy. I may be wrong, but to the tattooed, never-quiet menace who sat next to me, I couldn’t help but wonder if he actually knew what he was yelling about. His passion was there, though–that one’s not up for debate.
Overall, the game was soft. It was slower than I expected, too, but this was perhaps just due to the larger size of the rink. Furthermore, the NHL guys were the biggest fairies on the ice–by far. Kopitar looked like he was sleeping. He’d sludge a few passes around, groggily cycle the puck back into the corner, and maybe half-ass a snapshot from the dot when the spirit moved. However, when his team was down 2-1 with under a minute to go, he decided to become super dirty for a whole of 5 seconds, utterly embarrassed the defenseman, and dangled his way into tying the game. Then, it was back to sleep.
Our team lost in a shootout, but regardless, it was just so awesome to be around hockey again. I miss it so much–so so so so so much. There’s simply nothing better.
Lastly, I note that Stockholm is the most in-your-face beautiful city to which I have ever been. It’s very colorful, like that technicolor dream-coat, with many castles and churches and churches that look like castles. It’s an elegant, medieval CandyLand. There’s a lot of water that runs through and around the city as well, water so clean that you can actually fish from it. There wouldn’t be many other capital cities on the planet that can make that same claim.
As always, it’s great and mildly surreal to see old travel friends, those people you really connect with many years back, hug goodbye, and know deep down that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever meet again. This is the reality of backpacking. It’s bittersweet, but part of the job.
From Piet’s (Zach Realberg’s friend of abroad) apartment in Copenhagen,
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