I find myself in a hostel in Gothenburg. I took the train across the Sound almost randomly this afternoon with the only aim of heading north. I want to be up there alone again to let the head clear.
I’m not a planner. The idea of planning a holiday months in advance is boring beyond belief. Nevertheless, this is an odd feeling. I realise I’ve never really done this on my own: just packed and left for another country without a plan. The Faroe Islands was a trial run. And so is this. I’m not used to travelling alone in this way, leaving things more or less to chance. I feel like an amateur in life again. I bumble around, look at Apple Maps, google things, follow signs, ask for directions. I booked a room in the hostel on the train.
Strictly 21st-century tourism. I think of how and why people travelled in the past. This is hardly a search for new hunting grounds or settlements, a Viking togt, a naturalist expedition, an exploration of unconquered lands, a diplomatic mission, a flaneur’s amble… It’s more like a gap-year trip.
The next day I follow a crowd of tourists on a tram and take a ferry out to the archipelago. Ferries crisscross the waters between the islands like buses. I walk some paths through pretty nature reserves.
Time thickens when you travel. It seems to go fast while you’re in it but, looking back, two days of travelling can seem like a week because of all the new impressions you had to be alert to.
In the morning, after the usual confusion about directions and times, I take a train past huge cornfields, red farms and quiet suburbs to Mariestad. I’ve already covered enough distance to span the breadth and width of Denmark yet I’m still in southern Sweden. As always when I leave the city for the country, my mind begins to open with the horizon and I’m surprised by how blinkered I’ve been.
I feel guilty travelling aimlessly, spending money without working. I sense the voices of my parents in the back of my head, even now as a middle-aged man, in fact as strong as ever – as undercurrents that always go against what I decide. I do it anyway: if I’d done all they said, I would have been dead in the water years ago. It must be because I’ve been living with my mother. There was a reason why I fled as soon as I could when I was younger. Back then I made it look like a calm choice to go to Britain to study, but by then it was too late. They’d long since got their voices in me.
I’ve always protected myself against chance in cryptic ways. I’ve often thought that there are people who shouldn’t leave themselves too open to random events, for whom it’s dangerous. It’s chance you need to watch out for, chance is when you come up against the rocks of reality that can break you apart. Of course that’s why I chose Sweden, I now see: I secretly knew it would be safe, smooth and boring.
I seem to be spending half this trip on my phone, arranging the next leg. Most of the others are looking at their phones too. On Saturday I take a flight up north from Stockholm to a sleepy town called Luleå. At three in the afternoon all shops are closed, including the state-run off-licences. The streets are quiet. I check into the hostel, shower and find a British-style pub where I spend a tremendous amount of money on beer and gin while I look for trips to the archipelago and busses to hiking trails in the vast forests we flew over.