3 months of limbo: an experiment in working, remotely.

This summer, I finally made good on a thing I’ve been considering for much of the past decade. I schemed with my widely-distributed network of friends, examined my pandemic-induced sense of falling and failing and detachedness and isolation, considered my untethered lifestyle, consulted my supportive and completely remote team at work, and was encouraged by some enthusiastic (and possibly slightly envious) friends at home… I spent 3 months travelling (and working) elsewhere. The emphasis on elsewhere meant that the where needed to be as far away from here as possible given the circumstances.

I set out to see some places in Europe I hadn’t been, and at the same time visit the friends I hadn’t seen in ages. The trip culminated with a stay at a friend’s house and morphed into some subsequent weeks of working remotely from there. Since a large part of my immediate team is in India, the fact that I was in a much closer time zone meant we could have more meaningful meetings and collaborate earlier in their day. Since I was working a different shift, it meant I had time in the mornings to explore Aachen and its surrounds before beginning my day (on India time) and continuing as the US started theirs.


I started the adventure with two weeks off. I visited a friend in Amsterdam and explored a wee bit of Holland in a haze of pandemic-fueled anxiety. I went to Belgium, again visiting a long-time dear friend/co-adventurer to see different aspects of life and leisure there. When my time off was ending, I travelled to Berlin with the intent of meeting a friend there, and again seeing the city through her eyes. We used our yoga to minimise the disappointment that bubbled up when that visit didn’t turn out at all as expected.

As I travelled and saw those I hadn’t seen in eons, I was feeling more welcome away than I was at home, which was part of the impetus to get out of Dodge in the first place. To dodge Dodge, as it were.


From Berlin I went to Aachen, where my experiment in working remotely began in earnest; it’s here where the unintended extension of my trip unfolded. It went something like this: I simply wasn’t ready to go home yet.

A friend who was watching my flat back home told me that it looked as though I had been kidnapped, time stopped, a used coffee mug forgotten in the sink (I wouldn’t discover this until I returned home and the seasons had turned). And maybe I had been, in a way; kidnapped that is: the thought of returning was more paralysing than the thought of staying, even without adequate outerwear, shoes, pants or (especially) a place to spend the next 8 weeks.

Scenes from a soggy sojourn in Monschau

And so I undertook the task of finding temporary lodgings that wouldn’t a) break the bank or b) be too far from the immediate surrounds which were growing on me. I was stressed out and my options were waning as my impending departure date grew closer. My stabs in the dark of finding a place to stay somehow corroborated my poor aim and kicked me in the gut for good measure. Yet against all odds, and as I ran out of options, a personal philosophy reared its head: things work out, just not the way you expected. 48 hours before I was scheduled to fly, it was a near-stranger that came to my rescue. A friend of a friend with a house to lend, asking very little but kindness in return for his generosity. I am still beyond grateful.


These weeks, turned months, abroad meant I lived out of a suitcase and slept on a borrowed bed, cooked in a borrowed kitchen, foraged salad and berries and herbs in a borrowed garden, and woke each day on borrowed time.

I started writing this post weeks ago from the terrace of that borrowed house…in a country where I had only a smattering of friends, a handful of useful words and phrases in the local language, and a suitcase full of chocolate and other consumables that I’d intended to bring home with me weeks prior when my return ticket was supposed to return me to the States. Staying, ironically, felt a bit like I was running away.

To me, Corona-time has felt like a swirling mass of social anxiety, where the rules change by the day and any social awkwardness is put under an electron microscope: my every cell felt on-edge these past months, on the verge of Something Very Bad about to happen. Heeding that, I’d been cautious to exceedingly careful with interpersonal contact. Still, the weeks of travelling and staying with friends were more “peopling” than I’d had in nearly 2 years. I’d been awkward and amateurish with friends, near-terrified of public spaces (especially in Holland, where I’m still not convinced they think COVID is even a thing), and more reclusive than one normally would be on a semi-extended holiday abroad. All the while, I was thankful that Germany seemed much more organised against this mad bug.

And so, on the terrace as I was writing, a silly quote from my college freshman roommate swam into my mind: wherever you go, there you are. Me, in a borrowed house a few blocks from the Aachen Tierpark, where the he-wolf lost his mate and now howls at night trying to find her. Indeed. Here I am.

There’s the Tierpark and also a Bauernhof nearby, giving the air a certain je ne sais quoi when the wind shifts, and the greenery makes one feel like the heart of the city is several kilometres, not blocks, away. I’m working remotely with a laptop and a portable monitor and headset so the neighbours don’t think I’m completely mad. But dodging reality while creating something of a parallel reality is a little weird. Because at the end of the day, regardless of time zone, it’s still me at the end of the Teams meeting or email thread or WhatsApp call, avoiding dealing with the Bathroom Project and the batshit crazies where I’m from, and the local news cycles and the Physical Therapist and the Dentist and the Gynecologist and probably more ists than I’m aware exist.

Wherever you go, there you are. On a terrace, near the zoo, 1000-year-old churchbells ringing out periodically. It’s not bad, here, except that the mad ramblings in my brain are along for the ride as well.

These borrowed or stolen weeks of working and wandering were wonderful, if I’m honest: mornings before work there was time for a walk to the farmers market and chai from the coffee truck, all manner of local goods on offer: cheese and ridiculously fresh produce and local baked goods and regional specialties. Other days I’d walk in the nearby Nadelwäld, following the Eselsweig into the trees, watching the fog lift off the fields, horses grazing in their paddocks without a care.

I met additional friends of friends, coffee friends and friend-friends, the latter with whom I’d go hiking and apple picking and farmers marketing and walking in the days and weeks to come. I think I romanticized the simple-ness of it all, because much of my existence for those weeks was really just about walking and going to the market and the forest and working and making supper and crashing so I could do it all over again the net day. It didn’t suck.

And as the weeks unfolded, I revelled in the quality of life, the simplicity and wholeness: I didn’t drive, I barely even rode a bicycle. Rather, walking the cobbled streets daily, I passed centuries-old city walls and the even-older cathedral. I rinsed my hands in the city’s warm and sulfuric mineral spring fountains, bought yogurt in glass jars and Eier by the half-dozen from a guy with a cart at the farmers market. I picked lettuce and herbs from the garden, made applesauce from the apples we picked on the weekend, and brewed tea with the sage and rosemary and mint.

One morning, a few days before I was to fly out, I was walking through the pine forest with a heavy heart. The morning was also heavy with what felt like change in the air. In an instant, a low fog materialised and weaved its way through the pines, momentarily grabbing my ankles and stopping me in my tracks. The birdsong, the horses whinnying in the distance, the needle-muffled footsteps… it occurred to me not for the first time in recent days, that these small moments are precious. These Nadelwälder would never be the same as in this precise moment. Me either.


Being a guest in others’ lives made me think deep about the long-lost art of hosting. In French, the verb accueillir (to host) also means to receive or greet or welcome. In German, it is might be Gastfreundschaft zeigen…the word freund rings clear. Of all the things I learnt on this trip, the strongest lesson was how to receive and be humbled by an outpouring of graciousness by so many who really didn’t have to do a thing. It was a profound contrast to the 18 months of compounded inquiet and trepidation I had escaped, no idea if traces of that would remain when I returned.

So that was the middle part of the story. I took one more sojourn at the end of my stay: I went back to Turkey, unexpectedly solo, and experienced more warmth (human and atmospheric) than I could ever imagine. With that, I left Europe with a renewed faith in the goodness of strangers, realising at the same time how much I needed the independence of that last adventure…Aachen’s hot springs somehow still pulsing in my veins.

My yoga practice has taught me about balance, and the eternal tug-of-war with the concept of enough. This trip taught me lessons in receiving rather than always giving, in letting the Universe set a trajectory rather than charting a course, in seeing what transpires rather than injecting will into an outcome…

Lessons learnt from 3 months in limbo:

  • Bring the warm coat…it will come in handy!
  • Friends come out of the woodwork and surprise you when you least expect it (and need it most)
  • Don’t get attached to an expectation; we are part of a machine that is in continuous motion
  • Make the most of, and work with, what you’ve got…
  • …You can make do with much less than you think you need
  • Friendship is neither transactional nor always balanced, but it is reciprocal
  • Being an introvert in a pandemic comes with its own echelons of social anxiety that the rest of the world doesn’t quite get (and you’re not required to explain)
  • There are more strangers with warm hearts than with ill intentions
  • Show up: physically and intentionally
  • Be deliberate: with words, integrity, intention, respect, vulnerability, action, generosity
  • Accept acts of kindness and pay it forward

Thank you, Germany (and Holland and Belgium and Turkey)… I will be back.

Turkey, (re-re-re-)re-visited: Urban bustle and stone magic.

This entry comes at the end of a larger story, the middle bits of which I’m still not entirely sure how to convey. I’ve just finished a long stretch in Europe, totalling roughly 3 months away from home which was both an experiment in working remotely and an escape from home to learn more about the meaning of the concept of “home”. The working part was bookended by holiday weeks (for which I am very grateful); the days off helped me explore, recharge, reconnect (with humans), disconnect (from the blaring news cycles), re-evaluate (humans and news and all manner of things), and mostly begin to contemplate what comes next (the answer to which is still a mystery).

But I digress. That is a much bigger nut to crack and, consequently, summarily summarise.

I wanted to end my days in Europe on a sunny note, with toes in warm Mediterranean sand, appendages dangling in bright blue water. Due to circumstances beyond my control, plans for a Mediterranean escape didn’t unfold the way I had anticipated, so I aimed for a semi-familiar place with new and unexplored adventures to be had…


Istanbul.

This trip kicked off much the same as my other trips to Istanbul: a ride from the airport, a crowded highway, a wending through shop-choked streets, and a first glimpse of the Galata Tower, the iconic sight that brings me back, as I cross a modern bridge over the Golden Horn, to one of my favourite views in this old-meets-new city. I’ll sit and watch this old landmark in the days to come, listening to the ferry horns and the corn- and mackerel- and mussel-hawkers at the waterfront that make up the soundtrack to this bustling section of Istanbul.

I’m here this time for a significant amount of time: I have 10 days to more calmly explore Istanbul’s nooks and crannies, and I’ve booked a room in a cave house in Cappadocia, that rocky, other-worldly place I’ve long longed to explore.

The Adhan, the call to prayer, sounds just before dawn and at 4 other times during the day, adding a musical backdrop that is at times soothing or jarring, depending on one’s proximity to a mosque; the Imam’s voice projects across the bustling cobbled streets and resounds in the alleyways, bumping into the other nearby calls. The chant is my wake-up call, as this soundscape adds to the ways the city mesmerises me every time I’m here: it is a mystical mélange of old and new, of East and West, of saffron and silk, of wood (and tobacco) smoke, magic lamps and flying carpets…

I spend a couple of days in the city, exploring old haunts: the Mısır Çarşısı, the Eminönü neighbourhood, the cobbled, graffiti-flecked, narrow streets around the Galata tower, and of course the bustle around the waterfront. I also have time to wander into and around things I’ve missed the other times I’ve been here: an evocative staircase built in the mid 1800s called the Camondo Stairs; the Süleymaniye Mosque, perched atop one of the seven hills of Istanbul, its minarets overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, facing South-ish towards the Asia Minor portion of Turkey (and, farther-flung, Mecca), street food! Lunch one day was a balik ekmek from the food vendors on the waterfront (and a side of pickled cabbage and pickles, swimming in a beet-y pickle juice that is meant as a drink), and I managed to survive the gauntlet of the spice market without buying all of it.

As if my castle fetish wasn’t entirely satisfied in Germany, I set out on my second day to visit the Yedikule Castle and its seven dungeons. It turns out, however, that the government’s efforts to paint a pretty face on a country that is facing some dark socio-economic times have launched so many restoration projects that nearly every city wall and ancient mosque and historical building is surrounded by scaffolding and/or is closed to visitors due to renovations. I’ll reserve my political tirades for dinner over raki and just say that my exploration of old stone walls, turrets and dungeons will need to wait for another day.

The saving grace of the afternoon was a wander around the outskirts of the castle into a (very small) town square, where the local fruit seller invited me into his garden that abutted the old castle wall. Here, I was able to see some of the old stonework up close, and from him bought some of the most delectable fresh figs I’ve ever had. I ended up sharing part of my taxi ride back to the hotel with a young local Architect woman who offered to show me some of the city when I returned to Istanbul. I love seeing places through the eyes of locals, and I was excited to get her perspective on not only the city’s buildings but the political situation from someone of her generation. Google Translate for the win!

After a lovely Turkish breakfast, I embarked on the next phase of the adventure: the moon. Or something…


Cappadocia.

If Dr. Seuss hooked up with Dr. Ruth and Rumi and Akbar the Great, and they were asked to design something to rival Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon (but make it pigeon-friendly and not worry so much about how weird it gets), we’d end up with something akin to the rock formations in the Cappadocia region.

From the 6th Century BC, people populated the region encompassing what is now Göerme, Çavuşin, Ügrüp, Üchisar, Üzengi, Gomeda, and their surrounds. They built cave homes and underground cities and pigeon houses and churches and monasteries in the fairy chimneys and limestone formations created by the volcanoes and wind and water that sculpted the landscape here millions of years ago. I can’t do justice to a retelling of the long history, but this is a semi-concise recap of the main events, from ancient Hittites to Persian satraps and Zoroastrian cults to ancient Christians and Byzantines and, later, Turkish clans. The area is as rich in history as it is in natural wonder!

I did the requisite balloon ride over the fairy chimneys, as one does here. And as I tried not to be sucked in by the Insta-Selfieism of it all, I watched the sun rise over Love Valley and was dumbstruck by the colours and the clear air and most of all the topography, which may be, quite literally, a geologist’s wet dream.

Land of the giant penis rocks

After the balloon ride, I wanted to see Love Valley from the valley floor. From above it was spectacular, but I wanted to feel the scale of the place. If I tried to explain the rock formations, I’d say it’s like Stonehenge or Easter Island, but instead of manmade stone carvings, the result of the lava and erosion and water somehow resulted in 50-metre-tall penises, lined up in a row, dotted throughout a carved-out limestone valley. Even I would think I was making it up if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. It really looks surreal. So I hiked around the rim, cheered on some of the racers in the Salomon Ultra Trail Race that was taking place that day, and dropped into the valley to gawk as I walked through this other-planetary place.

Facing one’s fears in Rose Valley

Someone decided fifteen hundred years ago that they would build a church in a giant rock, in the middle of a lot of other giant rocks, in the middle of nowhere! I had hiked from somewhere at the edge of Sword Valley into Red Valley and then Rose Valley, looking for this church carved into a fairy chimney amongst thousands of other fairy chimneys and found, after a meandering semi-trek, the Ayvali Kilise.

Here, the hike took a turn…

The trails were vaguely marked but fairly obvious. And I had a map and knew the general direction towards which I needed to head. Feeling semi-confident, I followed the trail and the map and the GPS arrow. Then, the problem: although the map’s dotted line pointed me along a trail in the correct direction, what the dotted line did not do, was stop when it was time. But the trail did, and quite abruptly at that. At a cliff (with a gorgeous view, but that didn’t help much when I realised I needed to go down the same way I had gone up…)

So in an attempt to double-back and get back to the main trail, I encountered the most frightening 2 metres I’ve ever hiked: a narrow, eroded limestone arch bridge I needed to cross in order to make it out of there. It had a 10-metre drop on one side and a limestone cliff on the other, so my margin of error was approximately 30cm (or one foot, literally). I held my breath (also quite literally), stepped gingerly, and did not look anywhere but where I needed to go in order to live. As my foot cleared the last of the harrowing sandy and loose stone, I breathed, walked two steps, and saw the sign with the ⚠ and some equally nebulous arrows.

Because Turkey: a toothless farmer appeared moments later, proffered lunch (I graciously declined), tea (ditto), and directions (accepted, gladly). In hindsight, lunch and tea in his tractor cart might have made for an interesting twist to the story.

The rest of the hike from Rose Valley to Çavuşin was wonderfully uneventful, if you don’t count the vistas and the kind locals offering grapes from the vine and the street pups and the looming stone castle that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a small, dusty bazaar (and bizarre) street… I slept well that night in my cave room.

Step away from the tour bus

On offer here are tours: Red, Blue, Silver, Green, Gold… each offering a glimpse of the sights, and an Exit Through the Gift Shop approach to seeing a place. Since I had the luxury of several days in Cappadocia and I generally try to avoid crowds and tourist traps, I declined the canned tours and worked out a series of hikes and an itinerary of “must-see” places with the gracious and story-full owner of the cave hotel where I was staying. He grew up here, so was thrilled to craft a list of places for me to see. The first day, we headed out after breakfast and took a cursory look out over Pigeon Valley, where he gave me the scoop on the pigeon houses that dot the fairy chimneys throughout Cappadocia. Pigeons are held in high regard in Turkey, and throughout history have been used here as a means of communication (carrier pigeons) and as a source of fertilizer (poop). I’d also suspect, as today, there was a status element to one’s pigeon collection. To think that these pigeon coops were carved so skillfully into the rock centuries ago only adds wonder to the scene.

From Pigeon Valley we drove to the underground city of Kaymakli, inhabited in the 6th century (and beyond) to protect the villagers from invaders. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch at a local street market and picnicked by the side of the road, just next to centuries-old stone carvings. The warmth of the Turkish spirit really shined as bright as the brilliant day: my host and his stories of the area, and a neighbour to the place we were lunching who invited us into his home, gave us apples and quince from his trees, and offered tea. It was a recurring theme: chestnuts or walnuts or apples or tea or grapes, offered by complete strangers in warm greeting, looking for nothing but a smile in return. In retrospect, I realise that the people who wanted to sell me something offered much less of this gracious hospitality.

The highlight of the outing came late in the day… we ventured on to Soğanlı, another magical village with cave houses, a 6th century church, and a sort-of ghost town: the rock houses are now all abandoned because the government moved the residents to alternate housing (almost ironically) due to rockslides.

Between the apple tea and the warmth of the day (the sunshine and the big hearts I encountered), I left with the feeling I need to come back here to explore the secrets this place holds.

Wrapping up the trip with some raki.

I’ve mixed up my itinerary in this retelling, but suffice to say it was a fairy chimney-full adventure, making me again grateful for the opportunity to experience such a remote-feeling but altogether available spot, replete with history and fresh air and warm smiles and gracious hearts.

I extended my stay in Cappadocia for 2 days because I felt I couldn’t leave quite yet, but still managed to reconnect with the new Architect friend for a walk around the Fener neighbourhood and a dinner which included probably too much raki in relation to the hour of my trip to the airport the next morning.

The time flew, and I left Turkey feeling lighter but also like I’ve got unfinished business in the heart of the country…like I have more adventuring to do and so much more to learn about a place so steeped, like its tea, in history and culture.

Once again, I’m leaving a place feeling as though I’m leaving a part of me there and bringing a part of there back to be with me while I’m gone…


“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Terry Pratchett

Yggdrasil, in Newbury.

Once upon a time, when the line between myth and history was even thinner than today, there was a tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Nordic myth tells us that Yggdrasil was the nucleus that connected the 9 worlds: the world of the humans (Midgard) and those worlds of the two tribes of Norse gods (Asgard and Vanaheim), the world of the giants (Jotunheim), the primordial worlds of fire (Muspelheim) and ice (Niflheim), the worlds of Alfheim (elves) and Svartalfheim (dwarves), and Hel (well…).

Yggdrasil’s roots held the underworld down, and kept Midgard (land of mere mortals) at a neutral place, where prankster-gods like Loki couldn’t cause (as much) mischief from his perch on the upper Asgardian branches. That said, according to legend, he did his fair share. Yggdrasil was the home to myriad woodland creatures and a dragon, and was the epicenter of woodland resources. I paraphrase (and probably get some of it wrong), but if Yggdrasil were to fall, this would signal the end of days.

Oh, the irony.

So yesterday, when I wandered along a new trail and came out of the forest into a meadow on a hilltop, where this gleaming green giant simultaneously welcomed one into, graced, and held dominion over the space, I was awed. Yggdrasil is merely a symbol, of course, because gods and dwarfs and elves and giants don’t really exist. But the World Tree, whose roots tether the real world in all its fragility to the stories, and reach down into the well of Mimir, whose waters hold the depths of knowledge (sought by Odin for which he sacrificed an eye, but that’s another story), stands tall and solid and proud nonetheless.

Trees hold the keys to the wisdom of the land. One must be kind to nature (or trade an eye?) to drink from its well. But, I digress…

Norse Mythology is especially fascinating to me because if you look at it in parallel to the other polytheistic belief systems and their pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hindu, Greek, Roman, etc.), there are striking connections between their symbols and stories and philosophies, yet the Scandinavian relationship with the natural world is much more deeply-pronounced, as evidenced in their folklore (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface!).

I’m spending more time on local trails in these dragging Corona months, hunting egrets for marshy photoshoots, seeking refuge in quiet, wilder spaces (nearby, with safe social distancing and the fewer people the better); escaping the trappings of Zoom meetings and over-blocked Outlook calendars, daydreaming of the day I can hop a flight and head East. If I’m honest, where is of less concern to me right now than when.

But before I wander down a forest path and get lost in a macramé of Indra and Zeus and Thor and Jupiter, I’ll come back to my quiet present, walking these trails with flamboyant ancient characters spinning their stories in my mind, blue skies holding any thunderstorms at bay. Thanks to Surya or Freyr or Ra or Apollo or Sol for the skies on this brilliant afternoon!

So before me stands Yggdrasil, or a simple Oak (or beech or ??) standing tall, surrounded by a ring of boulders. Mind wanders to covens or whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, scholars, arborists, students or, like me, curious photographers that have stumbled upon this wonder… The tree, and its empty auditorium, stands in a meadow whose ridge overlooks the overbuilt town below. The clear day enables me to see beyond the rooftops towards the sandy shores of Plum Island, and from there, out to the Atlantic, only a few miles away as the osprey flies.

I sit in the embrace of Yggdrasil’s shade for minutes, or maybe half an hour, contemplating what, I can’t now remember. But the shriek of a quite small but very insistent human (read: petulant) refusing to move any further “or else” jolts me out of my quiet reverie and back into the real world of he who yells loudest gets the snacks. I get a “he does this all the time” look from the mother and Damien gets rewarded in the form of a juice box and cheese crackers, the bright orange ones whose cello packaging I often see littering the beach. Practice is stopping there: you don’t know her circumstances, I remind myself, and wish them happy trails as I traipse onwards.

I look to the tree as if it could understand my dismay with the world as it is, envisioning the irony of a tree offering a hug to a human, understanding its precarious footing these days.

The birdsong resumes, as does my walk. I spot a scarlet tanager, a fleeting flicker of blood-red in the lush green treetops, and I remind myself to log these outings as I do each of my dives. When we log experiences, we are less likely to take them for granted, I suspect.

I end the day with egrets and an oriole (or was it an American redstart?) and big toads and slithery garter snakes; even a curious white-tailed deer who looked on, perhaps even entertained, as I was assaulted by greenheads (note to self: leap year or non, these f*ckers are always on time).

And there it is: another Day ticked. In the logbook of my mind, I note that as with the now-waning light, we are entering into the spring of the last half of this famously infamous year. I’ll look to the gods of humility and patience and tolerance and forgiveness and humour to guide me through these next trees.

5 things I loved about the land of Vikings

Note: this started as an Instagram post but got really long and I figured I’d post it here as well…

A couple of weeks ago, I got back from a trip to Sweden and Iceland. I saw the Swedish countryside, the grand old city of Stockholm, and the weird and wonderful Land of Ice. I got rained on more than I prefer on holiday. I ate more than my share of Swedish pastry. I laughed more than I have in a while. And I loved both places for so many different reasons…

1. Friluftsliv. Swedes embrace the outdoor life better than anyone. We kayaked (in the country and in the city), backpacked, slept outdoors, foraged for wild mushrooms (and later turned them into dinner), walked for kilometers on end, ate apples from the tree, picked berries at the side of the trail, fell asleep by a lake with stora björnen over our heads…

2. Fika. Afternoon coffee and cake as an excuse to take a break and talk and laugh and share stories or gossip or recount family history… We don’t do this enough here, so busy are we at being busy.

3. Skyr. Like yogurt, only better. With muesli, or fresh berries, alongside Swedish pancakes. Followed, later, by buns (of the cinnamon variety)… this is why friluftsliv exists. And the double-digit kms.

4. Trolls. Or lava rock that could be any matter of ancient fabled thing. That mythology wends its way through the culture(s) is romantic in a medieval castles and dragons kind of way.

5. Rúsínan í pylsuendanum. Icelandic for the raisin at the end of the sausage. A rainbow, a parting of the skies after a downpour, chance meetings with kind strangers…The icing on the cake as it were: that which tops off something already good (or maybe it’s just a raisin).

 

Whatever. Just go!


Want to read about Sweden? Or Click Here for the Iceland story.

 

Sverige, del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden

Del ett: Stockholm…a cobblestone whirlwind, finding my feet in this cosy, multifaceted, vibrant, sparkling city. The middle, I’ll get into here: a foray into the forest in central(ish) Sweden. After that, we go back to the city to continue the outdoor adventuring, which is intertwined in one’s existence here. Friluftsliv.

Sverige, dag två: I meet my Calvin, Swedish interpreter and de facto tour guide, at the family flat in Stockholm, for a week of birthday adventuring in the homeland (my birthday, his homeland). My Swedish is admittedly atrocious (read: nonexistent), so I’m counting on his prowess combined with the 11 or 16 words I’ve managed to string together to get me through these next days. Luckily the trees don’t care much what language you speak, as long as you treat them with respect. And they do here; treat the forests well, I mean.

We are geared up to the brim with equipment and supplies to hike the Bergslagsleden from Kloten to as far as we can get in order to arrive back in Stockholm to celebrate my birthday on Friday.

Our first day, we arrive in Kloten to do some kayaking. It’s windy and a bit overcast, but we try our luck with the kayak place at the beginning of the trail.

The kayaks are nice…ditto, the company and the scenery. The wind, not so much. So we return the kayaks after a couple of hours and decide to begin the hike that afternoon (15:00ish), aiming to reach the first camp shelter, 11km in, by sundown. [For the record, I’m glad we decided against the kayak-camping option…]

And they’re off… It’s ambitious, our goal, but we lace up the boots, pile on the packs (on the order of 15 kilos each), and set off. Adventure points* earned for both the kayaking and the strong start!

By km 7, though, we’re tired from the drive, the kayaking, and the hike thus far. We’re hungry, and I’m feeling the jetlag. So we begin to look for a place to pitch the tent when we stumble upon a stuga along a little stream.

Åbostugan, it’s called: a semi-restored stone cabin built into the hillside (green roof and all!). The Bergslagsleden info sheet tells us that the name of the stream is Sandån, and the stuga was the type of house in which the area’s (very) poor lived…they’d harvest the reeds around the pond for food for the animal(s), and even bring the cow or goat inside in wintertime! The cabin is about 4 metres x 5, with a dirt floor, fire pit, sleeping platform, and table for eating.

We’re fully-content with our lodgings for the evening, but considering the (not-so) posh accommodations, we wonder where we’d put our cow.

We’ve logged 8km this afternoon and dinner is well-deserved and a little indulgent (and quite international): home-made knäckebröd with olives and sun dried tomatoes, reconstituted veggie masala and rice, Moroccan mint green tea and dark chocolate peanut butter cups for dessert. We toast to a pretty excellent start to our adventure, climb into warm sleeping bags, and consider ourselves lucky to be able to do this as lifestyle, not life.

The Bergslagsleden is broken down into stages. Stage 1 is 20km; Stage 2 is 17…and so on. We’re shooting to do a couple of stages, then double back to the car or figure out another way to get from Point B back to Point A, in Kloten. The Swedes are nothing if not orderly. So their maps indicate where to find clean drinking water, camp shelters, good places to pitch a tent, trail highlights, etc.

We wake up on Day 2 to that fine mist-type rain that soaks you to the core in minutes. We cook a trail brekkie fit for royalty (food dehydrator for the win!), re-pack our packs, thank the gods of Gore-Tex, pile on the layers, and begin the day. We’re shooting to finish Stage 1 and make some headway on Stage 2 today. There’s an established camp and conference center at the end of the Stage, so this should be a good place to rest for lunch and assess the rest of the journey.

By the time we reach Gillersklack, and the end of the stage, we’ve renamed the Bergslagsleden to the Bog Slog (laden). Intermittent rain has turned the lovely blue- and lingonberry-lined trail into a muddy skating rink. I deftly demonstrate how gravity works by sliding off a wooden plank (perhaps ironically placed to provide safe passage across a boggy patch) and onto the mossy forest floor. I briefly contemplate staying there for the evening but hoist my ego (and my heavy pack) upwards and onwards, for it’s the ego that’s bruised far worse than my arse. Fall #2 is my knee vs. a boulder: as they say, that one’s going to leave a mark!

We’ve hiked roughly 12km to Gillersklack in unfriendly conditions (but at least it’s stopped raining) and we’re now fantasizing about the sauna we’ll take when we arrive at the camp (this is Sweden, after all). And we do. Arrive, that is. What isn’t there is the camp. Its season has ended, quite literally; the owners have gone bust. So what greets us at the end of Stage 1 is 3 guys looking for a real estate deal.

The wind is still blowing, but at least the sun is out by this time… We resist the urge to accept a ride into town from the real estate guys, so we make a late-ish lunch at one of the defunct camp’s tables, take a much-needed siesta to dry out a bit, and after some grumbling we’re ready to roll again. Though it’s again late in the day, the goal before dusk is to find the first shelter in Stage 2.

The good news is that we’re rested and well-fed. The bad news is that my knee hurts, C’s feet are soaking wet, we’ve overshot the trail and have to ask a local for directions (he turns out to be a chatty Danish guy who runs a Spiritual Center in the nameless place we’ve wandered into by accident). Dusk is drawing near, but luckily after our long slog we find the camping shelter…just as the sun is setting.

Neither of us is in the mood to make dinner, rehydrated or otherwise. I coerce a grumbly tentmate to make a fire, hoping to fix the day’s shortcomings with s’mores, that weird and much-too-sweet American delicacy he’s never tasted. I’ve not made them since my Camp Waziyatah days, but this is one recipe you can hardly muck up. The combination of toasted marshmallows and chocolate does somehow make up for the soggy, boggy day, and smiles return to the forest. We fall asleep in the Olovsjön shelter, stora Björnen dancing over our heads. The day’s tally: 23km. I’m awarding 10 adventure points. Sleep: well-earned.

We wake up the next day with a plan: the weather has made the trails less than fun. We’ll hike to Kopparberg (8km or so), get a bus or taxi back up to Kloten, go touring in the Swedish countryside where C grew up, crash in a real bed, and hike in that area the next day.

Reality: Hatched plans don’t often take into consideration the what-ifs. Like, what if no buses run between Kopparberg and Kloten? What if the taxi company doesn’t answer the phone? What if we have to make camp that night beneath the Kopparberg Midsummer pole then hike back up to Kloten the way we came?

Kopparberg

Because of a little thing C calls trail magic, that last what-if didn’t turn into a when. For the record, the Kopparberg bus schedule is, erm, limited. And the taxi company is unreliable. But as C finally gets the taxi guy on the phone, a fairy godmother, in the form of a kind older woman, appears and volunteers (literally out of the blue) to drive us the 20km back up to Kloten. Trail magic indeed. Score: Soggy, boggy hikers – 0; Bergslagsleden – 1. Our elder savior lady gets the adventure points for the day. And the Belgian pralines C had brought me as a birthday treat. And a story to tell her grandkids.

A hot shower and clean sheets never felt so good. In fact, waking up on the right side of a real bed helped the weary wanderers manage 17km in the Swedish countryside, including a foray to forage kantareller for dinner!

Aside: Sweden has a law called Allemannsretten or freedom to roam. Essentially, anyone has a right to walk, hike, bike, ride horseback, pitch a tent overnight, and pick berries or mushrooms when and where they find them (all within the guidelines). It’s a law based on mutual respect of people, their property, and the environment. Instead of No Trespassing signs, it’s closer to, “Hello neighbour, I hope you have a nice time in the outdoors today. Would you care for a snack? Have a nice day.”

I’m liking the Swedish way of life more and more.

…to be continued, back in Stockholm!


*Adventure points: a system we devised a couple of years ago to reward our adventursome efforts in Sardinia. The concept stuck.

[Sverige, del ett: Stockholm…Part I]