Saturday, June 22, 2019

Day 6: Stay Unplugged

And then there were four. With Marcia taking a day off given her non-functioning electric bike, my wife Karen, former school boss Terry, family friend Heidi and I set off yet again through lovely countryside. The sun out yet again, the constant wind (but warm) blowing, the silence of the trees and occasional cows, horses and a few colts. A lovely lunch by the side of the lake— cheese, bread, avocado, cherry tomato, cucumber, cut on Heidi’s little board she carries with her. Some time on the main roads with a shoulder 1 foot wide and occasional cars roaring by (see photo below), then off to the dirt roads through the barley fields, down a hill with a particularly rough washboard surface. We came back to the main road and suddenly, Heidi’s electric bike gave out. We suspected the washboard jiggling jiggled something loose. Some 30 miles from our destination, we had to call the woman who organized the tour and have her pick Heidi up. And then there were three. 

On we continued around the lake and after a relatively flat first few days, these past two were constant ups and downs. Luckily, my San Francisco bike riding well-prepared me for hills, but it was still somewhat challenging, especially with the accumulated 300 or so miles we rode over the five days (with one day off). We alternated between the gravely dirt roads through fields and forests and the “tarmac” main road. The smoothness of the latter was always welcome, but it came at a price. Cars whizzing by with that aforementioned narrow shoulder. 

We finally arrived at one of the bigger (but still small) towns of the ride—Mariefred. Off for a beer at a hotel that was founded in 1609, a light dinner and a hilarious game of miniature golf in a little park nearby. Tomorrow a day to ourselves before a 3-hour boat trip with bikes and bags returning to Stockholm. We could spend the day biking around the area, but I suspect we’ll opt for casual strolling, park-sitting and catching up on e-mail.

All in all, a delightful 6 days and happy to know that this almost 68-year-old can bike some 200 miles in a week and have it feel just fine. And more than just fine, with all the pleasures of trees, lakes and fields as company, the busy mind falling out into the wind, time to refresh from an always-hard-working-industrious year. Still a week ahead in Sweden with touring in Stockholm and visiting a friend out in the countryside. With or without more bike riding ahead. 

“Stay unplugged” was the take-away after the failure of the electric bikes, but also good advice to unplug from that always-busy self. Gratitude to bicycles, nature, friends and Sweden’s hospitality. 

Day 5: Falafel on Midsummer's Day

After one of the best meals we’ve had yet and memorable conversations with our hosts Carl Michael and Leif, we set off yet again for another 50 kilometers or so of biking. Food was on our mind because of these three observations about the Swedish countryside:

1)   There are very few people here. I’m sure I’ve passed more people walking a half a kilometer in Ghana, Bali or India than biking 70 in Sweden.

2)   There seem to be very few cafes, restaurants or places simply to buy food. 

3)   The few we’ve encountered have often been closed and since it was Midsummer’s Day and a National Holiday, we were concerned about lunch.

So we were thrilled to pull into Malmkoping (mentioned in the book I’m reading about The 100- Year-Old Man…!) and find a Pizza-Kebab-Falafel place open. Right next to the park where the Maypole (okay, I know it’s called something different) was being prepared. So I had falafel for lunch, served by a Middle-Eastern man who was one of the many immigrants come to Sweden. 

At 2:00 sharp, exactly the time we were told, they began to raise the pole while two fiddlers, a bass and a keyboard played. There was a crowd of perhaps 100 people (a giant group given our experience!), the women decked out in beautiful Swedish dresses and with flower garlands in their hair. Some Muslim women with head scarves were there as well and it all seemed fine and I wonder if they would someday join the flower-garlanded folks. Across the street was a Thai Take-Out Food truck (not open). Welcome to the new world.

Once the pole was up, the people began dancing led by a women singing out directions. Simple folk dances moving right and left, in and out, miming work actions and so on. Sweet. Not the intensity of festivals in Ghana, Bali, India, not the beer-drinking at Maibaum outside of Salzburg, but a simple sweet greeting of the summer on the longest day of the year. 

We stayed for a while, but as Malmkoping was only the halfway point of our ride and it was nearing 3:30 pm, we set off again. Soon after, one of the two electric bikes gave out and the rider, Marcia, was concerned about making it to the end. I offered to take the heavy battery and that helped and gave me some extra exercise. Finally arrived at our Air B&B in Skykasa and spent some of the evening checking out Swedish TV. Interesting for a bit, but not easy since none of us speak a word of Swedish. 

What will tomorrow bring?

Friday, June 21, 2019

Day 4: Singing in the Rain

There’s a forgettable movie (Ishtar) with a memorable scene. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play two songwriters who are lost in the Sahara desert and as they’re crawling to an oasis with their last breaths, they start to write a song and trade rhymes back and forth. 

So yesterday afternoon, we got caught in a rip-roaring thunderstorm. Out on our bikes in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, no shelter within miles and no idea what to do. The lightning seemed to be flashing dangerously close and the thunder roaring over our heads as we biked through a birch forest in the pouring rain 5 miles from the town of Blaksta, where there was a church we thought we could take sanctuary in. 

It potentially was a life-threatening situation and I found myself like Warren and Dustin in the movie, singing some songs and thinking of clever titles for my eventual blog about the experience. That's pretty weird. But hey, it seems to be a big part of who I am. Some of my potential titles:

• Get Me to the Church on Time

• Celebrating Plastic 

• What to Do When Out Biking in a Thunderstorm

We did make it to Blaksta Church, but by then the thunder and lightning and stopped and it was more important to soldier onward to our accommodation still two miles onward. We arrived with sopped shoes, dry shirts and backpacks (hence, “celebrating plastic”). After a welcome dinner, I looked up the answer to that last question.

Basically, everything you might do is wrong. Don’t be out in the open, don’t be under a tree, don’t be under an overhanging rock, don’t think rubber tires will make a difference to a lightning bolt (it won’t), don’t stop riding if the rain is strong and you’re in danger of hyperthermia from being wet and chilled or swept away by a flash flood, don’t keep riding, seek shelter in someone’s house but if there are no houses then…

Like I said, everything you might do is wrong. The most concrete suggestion was to park your bike away from you and crouch down until it passes. But they forgot the most important part. Crouch down and…


Preferably in a dry church giving gratitude to plastic. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Day 3: All Things Swedish

Yesterday was a day of rest in Nykoping. The usual catch up on e-mail and writing and then a stroll through the town in search of lunch. Water, water everywhere we’ve gone in Sweden, including canals and rivers winding through towns. Nykoping was no exception. What a difference water can make in the feel of a place. We picnicked looking over the river, climbed a hill or two and wound our way back to the hotel. At some point, we started naming all our associations with Sweden, without the help of Mr. Google. Here’s what I came up with:

• Dag Hammmerskold —U.N. diplomat

• Greta Garbo—film actress: "I vant to be alone!"

• Ingrid Bergman—film actress: Hitchcock and Casablanca. Love her!

• Ingmar Bergman—film director: even our Swedish host tonight said, "Ach! Depressing!"

• Jenny Linn—Opera singer: “The Swedish Nightingale”

• Alfred Nobel—scientist/ inventor/ philanthropist: inventor of dynamite and when his brother died, the paper made a mistake and wrote his obituary as "Mr. Death dies. Grew rich by discovering how to kill more people more quickly." After reading it, Nobel had his Scrooge "A-ha!" and decided to donate his fortune to …you guessed it, the Nobel Prize!

• Sankta Lucia— the December holiday and young girls wearing a garland of lit candles

• Swedish meatballs/ pancakes—the former served at dinner tonight, the latter for breakfast

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—the thriller series written by two different authors

Elvira Madigan—the romantic movie of my college ears, with Mozart soundtrack

The 100- Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared­—the international best-seller by Jonas Jonasson that I’m reading now. Fun!

• Saab/ Volvo— the car I once had, the one I used to hope to have

• IKEA— provider of shelves in the school music room

And of course, 

The Swedish Sisters!! —my favorite part of the story of how Carl Orff created the approach to music education that created my life as I know it. People who know me know the story! I’ll save it for the rest at a later time.

On to Day 4!

PS Found out that Ann-Margret of Bye Bye Birdie fame was born in Sweden!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Day 2: Rye Krisp and Licorice Ice Cream


    The earth expanding right hand and left hand, 
     The picture alive, every part in its best light, 
    The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted, 
     The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road. –Whitman

     I was 16 years old when I first read Walt Whitman and re-reading his Song of the Open Road, I’m drawn back to that sense of adventure, of excitement, my whole life a beckoning road before me, enticing, inviting, the delightful sense of the possibility of the unknown given language by this poet. It will be the poem to frame this bike trip and though so much of the road is behind me, still I have not reached its end and each new horizon keeps my feet pedaling with excitement and enthusiasm.

And so Day 2 of the 8 day biking adventure began with a blue sky and slight breeze as we began one of the longer rides, some 45 miles from Trossa to Nykoping in the land south of Stockholm. On the first day, we stopped at a palace and decided to swim in the lake surrounding it. Well, more jump in and jump out, as the water was colder than this old body is comfortable with. On this day, we arrived at a small sandy beach on the Baltic Sea, but with a slight morning chill in the air and a memory of yesterday’s freezing water, no one was enticed to jump in. So after a short snack of carrot, apple and chocolate, off we went into the woods and out through the fields until arriving at a small town and a large fancy Manor that would serve us a needed and delicious lunch. Except for the fact that the restaurant wasn’t open until June 23rd

We learned the hard way that the Swedish countryside is different from any countryside we have encountered in that there are hardly any small towns, more like various clusters of six houses. Hence, no little cafes or restaurants or convenience stores or Farmer’s Market stands for miles and miles and miles. (Technically, kilometers and kilometers and kilometers). And even with long stretches on a major road, never once passed a gas station, which theoretically might have some chips or some snack food. With some 20 plus miles ahead of us and no food prospects, we were a bit concerned. Whipped out our phones and tried to find if the nature reserve on the way might have something and there seemed to be a chance that one place did. 

So off we went to find out and saw a sign on the highway with a fork on it that seemed promising and headed off in that direction. There we stumbled on an industrial park of sorts that was a Tech Place with lots of cars in the parking lots. Cars, people? Must be food! So we wound around and found a cafeteria of sorts that was…closed. But a worker was there and she sold us some fruit from the basket, invited us to grab some of the Rye Krisp crackers they had and let us buy an ice cream or two. We sat on the grass with all of this for lunch and my wife Karen yelped with disgust when she discovered that her ice cream bar was not chocolate on the outside, but licorice which she hates. Well, that was a memorable meal. 

The place itself was a bit odd, hidden away in the countryside with parts of it behind locked gates with “No photography” signs. It was called a “Vital Installation” and we conjectured about creepy experiments going on there. Later, when a lovely woman helped us with directions to get to our hotel, we asked her about the place and detected a guarded, “I don’t know what goes on there” response. Well, maybe we imagined it.

Earlier, we passed a field with a horse standing over another horse who was lying down and not moving. We conjectured that it had died and its friend/ mate was mourning. But then the horse lying down sat up. So best not to jump to conclusions too early!

A lovely dinner at a lovely hotel overlooking a river and a welcome sleep with muscles toned and body well-exercised. Had a dream that Trump was deposed and Nancy Pelosi given the Presidency and in the dream, woke up and wondered if it was real and had it confirmed that it was and I was so happy. Several more times in the dream, I “woke up” and asked the same and each time was affirmed. Imagine how disappointed I was when I really woke up. Though maybe I should check today’s news!

Day 3—today—is a “day off” and well-timed as it is raining a bit and it feels good to catch up on the storyline, such as it is. More to come!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Life on the Open Road

                                                 Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 
                                                Healthy, free, the world before me, 
                                                The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. 

                                               Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, 
                                              Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, 
                                              Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, 
                                              Strong and content I travel the open road …

                                                    -      Walt Whitman
And so begins the first day of an 8-day bike ride in Sweden. Traveling and teaching workshops like I do is my idea of summer vacation, my hanging out on the beach in my island paradise. And yet it is still work and schedules and plane flights and planning and sending notes after the workshop. 

But this. This brings me back to the mythology of my childhood and young adulthood. Time spent wandering in the woods or aimless exploring a new city or hitchhiking across the great open expanse of America with Keruoac’s On the Roador Steinbeck’sTravel’s with Charley in my back pocket. That exhilarating sense of freedom, of following one’s nose, of being open to the great, grand surprises a generous Universe offers. Nothing particular to do, nowhere particular to go. Ah, how I have loved it! And how little time I’ve made for it these past years. That will now change. 

And so I set off on Day 2, the Incredible String Band song singing in my ears:

Farewell sorrow, praise God the open door
I ain’t got no home in this world any more…

 Or rather, every place and every moment is my home in this world. Ta ta!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Gone Fishing

What does a culture suggest when life’s inevitable curve balls knock you down? 

For some, it is a trip to the priest in the confessional booth. In others, you head straight to the bar and weep in front of the bartender or seatmate. Some send you to the therapist’s office, with the clock ticking as you pick apart your miseries. Some get you singing in the Gospel Choir or dancing to drums in the ring. And so on.

In a fascinating conversation with some of the indigenous Lapland Sami people here in northern Finland, I found out that there are very few words for emotions in the Sami language. The basics of happy, sad or angry, but not all the nuances of bored, disappointed, melancholic, anxious, lovestruck, confused, joyful, depressed, etc. There are many, many words for snow, for the nuances of eight seasons, for stages of reindeer development, for the flow of rivers. In short, the linguistic imagination is tuned to the natural world. 

If you’re a Sami person and you’re sad, you go fishing. If you’re happy, you go fishing. If you’re angry, you go…well, fishing. No therapists, priests, 12-step programs, identity groups and so on—whatever the affliction, Nature is the cure. 

Or at least it was before the typical signs of the invasion of mainstream, “Christian,” “civilized” governments that stole lands, forbid the native tongue in indoctrination schools, forcibly converted “the natives” to the religions of Jesus and economic development and rape of the land. The same sad story of Native Americans in the U.S., First Nation people in Canada, Aboriginal people in Australia and beyond. First destroy the culture and then introduce alcohol to get the people to drink themselves into a stupor to bear up the pain of losing one’s land, culture, language and identity. So though Nature was the preferred cure, alcoholism is a real problem. And still today, even as Sami are struggling to reclaim their heritage, there is a proposal to invade and destroy their land with a railway designed to move oil, there are no Sami representatives in government, there are only 3 or 400 remaining native speakers in two of the nine Sami groups. Again, the same sad story.

And sadder yet, going fishing won’t bring the full cure. Dear reader, if you ever see a petition calling for help to protect the Sami’s land and culture, please sign it.