To this day I regret not learning to speak Swedish when I had the chance.
My first visit to Sweden was also my first visit to any country where English is not the first language. During a journey when anything that could wrong, did go wrong, speaking a little bit of Swedish could have helped calm my nerves and saved me from making some rookie mistakes, but this is not why I regret never learning to converse in Svenska.
When I disembarked from the Scandinavian Princess in Gothenburg harbor that chilly afternoon, I knew that I had already missed my train. It was still winter in Sweden, and the sky, at four-thirty, was already growing dark. The placid reflection of the pastel sunset on the water was splintered by drifting sheets of ice.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes, a little.”
“I’ve missed my train to Sundsvall. The boat from England was late.”
Although she understood my predicament, I could not understand her answers. I drew a map of Sweden on the back of the envelope that held my expired train tickets, with train tracks extending to the Arctic Circle. She exchanged my unused tickets for the next departure.
“Six o’clock? Fantastic! Is there a sleeper car too?” I mimed laying my head on a thin pillow with a question mark in my eyebrows.
She scribbled a new note and slid the envelope to me again under the glass.
“A.M.? six o’clock tomorrow morning?”
She smiled and nodded.
“But where do I sleep? Under the bridge?”
I stumbled out of the train station out on to the esplanade overlooking the marina, clutching the envelope covered in notes of train numbers, next stops, and departure times. Overwhelmed by the the vast distance still to travel and the falling night, I took my rucksack off, sat down on it and cried.
From the window of the train the next morning, I watched the white sun rise in the distant southern sky over Stockholm, and watched it sink again into an endless forest of frosted Christmas trees. The snow fell in loose, wet flakes. Passengers shook them from the hair and scarves as they sat down across from me. I spoke to no one, too insecure to try.
Sweden is a very dark place when the sun goes down. I could not see much of the town of Härnösand from train station, nor could I have found it on a map if I had needed to. I waited, not knowing where I was, trusting that a bus would arrive soon and depart again at seven-thirty to take me further up the coast by nine forty-five. There was nobody to ask. The posted schedules in the unmanned station, to me, indecipherable.
The white high-beams of the bus were visible from a long distance off, slicing easily through the frosted darkness, growing larger as the bus rumbled over the snow packed road to stop in front of me, standing alone in the dark.
“Yes please, I don’t speak Swedish.”
“This ticket: Where do you get it from?”
“In Gothenburg. I was told it was good for all Swedish buses.”
“It is not valid on my bus. It is for city buses. It is written here,” the driver demonstrated.
My chin began to quiver. I fought the tears welling up in my eyes. I swallowed hard. I looked out the windscreen at the white snow banks heaped high on either side of the road.
“Where are you going?”
“Örnsköldsvik,” I squeaked through a constricting windpipe.
“Take a seat,” he ordered pulling the door closed behind me with a lever.
Once I spied the sign of the Örnsköldsvik bus station in the headlights, the relief and elation was so that I had to to restrain myself from kissing the bus driver before I stepped off into the frozen air and in to the warm hugs of my waiting friends.
In the car on our way ‘home’ to Domsjö, everybody shook their heads and wondered how it was possible that I had made it so far with ‘just some scribbles on an envelope’, not able to speak more than two words of Swedish.
Undoubtedly, my journey would have been different had I learned a few phrases from my Swedish friend when she had offered to teach me. Surely, having been able to ask directions to the youth hostel on that icy cold April evening in Gothenburg could have saved my pride. Instead of sitting and crying, I could have reveled in the romance of vagabonding. What seemed to be a tragedy at the moment could have been transformed into an adventure, but these unsure experiences do not constitute the regret I have of never having learned to ‘tala svenksa’.
Scandinavia is a paradise for the youthful traveler. Foreign adventures are considered an important pillar of students’ education in those countries. Should every student decide to travel at the same time, the wide variety of youth hostels and their far flung locations could shelter and feed every one of them.
Sitting on my rucksack staring at the naked winter masts, bobbing and swaying in the Gothenburg marina, I remembered a souvenir map I had picked up aboard the ferry. Clearing warm tears from my cold face, I rummaged around in the top pocket of my bag. Eureka! I searched the buildings up and down the harbor for an hour, but could not find the youth hostel shown on the map. I was resigned to spend a very cold night on a bench in the train station. As I turned to watch the last sliver of the sun slide into the sea, there floating in front of me, moored to the quay, was the Båtpensionat: A floating youth hostel, right where the map said it would be. I didn’t know then that båt meant ‘boat’, and had walked past it three times, my eyes searching for a sign on the harbor buildings, not in the harbor.
From the boat I was able to phone Pia to tell her my sad story. I relayed the harrowing details of the train and bus journey still ahead of me. She listened with kind sympathy. I skulked away to the galley for a warm dinner, worried about oversleeping and missing my train. I ate alone and cried silently over spilled milk.
Although I slept alone in the men’s dormitory, the hostel was far from empty. The galley, empty when I sat down, was suddenly filled with twenty people dressed in ski pants and bright colored parkas. They swished around the cafeteria in their puffy down coats, pulling off woolly caps to reveal tussled, wild hair. Conversations warmed the air of the cramped kitchen. As I looked up from my empty plate, it dawned on me, slowly at first, but then it hit me like I had just won the super-power ball-lottery-jackpot. I was the only male guest on the boat!
I’m not sure where the girls ski team actually came from. I wasn’t sure if they were travelling to a competition or coming home from one. All I know is that they all possessed all the fabled beauty of the Swedish woman. Each was an athletic, fair skinned, blue-eyed, blonde beauty, the kind every college man dreams about meeting. I quickly forgot about what I was sulking about in the corner, and found myself in line for seconds of the meatballs, trying not to trip and fall, trying not to drop my tray, trying not to stare.
When I returned to my table I found two young ladies, with pale ponytails and flushed cheeks, sitting at my table, chatting with each other in hushed tones. Taking my chair, I pretended to be interested in my food. I took in the view, chewing and chewing and chewing just one bite, in no hurry to finish and leave.
When I realized that the two girls at my small table were now speaking to me, trying to get my attention, I froze in terror! I blushed to think that they knew just how much I was enjoying just being present. I smiled, embarrassed, with mouth full of over chewed meatballs and looked at them with surprised eyes.
“Pratar du engelska?” I asked timidly.
They giggled and shook their heads, their pony tails flipping from side to side. Too embarrassed or too self-conscious to try to speak English with me, they smiled, waved and turned again to their own conversation…in Swedish. I stuffed another fork-full of meatballs in my mouth and sulked alone in the corner, knowing I had just blown the greatest opportunity of my young life.
To this day I regret not learning to speak Swedish when I had the chance.
Did you enjoy this story? You can find it and others like it in V M Karren’s short story anthology: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night: