Ever notice that the image you hold in your head doesn’t always align with reality. This is especially true of when traveling. You can do the research, buy the ticket—and then real life intervenes to bend the edges of your mental postcard.
Last fall I decided to take a friend up on her offer and booked a flight to Sweden. I planned a three-week vacation in the land of the midnight sun. In September. After the season, whatever that meant. I was soon to find out.
Before taking off I googled the top 10 tourist destinations of Sweden. I had a few days after visiting another friend in Gothenburg before meeting up with Lotta. I thought it might be fun to ride a bicycle along the Göta Canal, a World Heritage site. All I had to do was get to a little town named Sjötorp. Actually all I had to do was be able to say the name of that town. Which proved to be impossible.
It took something like 3 buses and each time I tried to tell the driver where I wanted to go the more embarrassed I got. Sheesh how was I ever going to navigate all by myself this göd-forsaken country with too many Os and too many dots over its Os? It was mid-afternoon as I alighted from my last bus in a puddle-filled street. It had been raining off and on all day. That was not part of the picture I had imagined. I tromped down to the metropolis city center, an ice cream shop where there was virtually no one. The waitress/cashier/cook asked me who/what I was looking for. I told her I was there in shn—nops—to hire a bike and ride the famous canal. Her response was that it was past the season and there were no bikes.
I refused to take no for an answer. You see, I had it all planned out in my mind. I’d ride and it would be beautiful and sunny. She said to try the shop down the street and over the bridge.
Gracias. Not really, but I knew they must have a word for thank you. Not one I could pronounce, mind you, but a word that related how I felt at the time.
I walked over and indeed saw what looked to be one bike at a little convenience shop. A man, probably originally from India but who spoke perfect English told me he could rent me a bike. I told him I wanted to ride the entire canal and leave the bike at the end. I informed him that the tourist bureau had told me it was possible to do this. I might have read it at the Göta Canal website. Yes, he said, but it was past season. That pesky sentence.
Indeed it was really quiet where I was in the unpronounceable town. Most of the shops were locked and bolted, the shades pulled down. I was beginning to understand.
The kind man told me I would need so many kroner for the bike and then so much for the room because if I biked until 8 pm I would need to stay the night. The rate he quoted me sounded like college tuition. I burst into tears. It had already been a long day.
Suddenly his wife was there beside me telling me to take a deep breath.
Together they operated the Sjötorps Vandrarhem och Rum which I assumed was a bar. Come to find out that a vandrarhem is like a nicer hostel. The rate they quoted equaled about $36 US dollars. Okay. Gulp. Breathe. Drying tears. Yes. YES.
Within 30 minutes I was on the bike and pedaling beside the canal. Living the dream.
I watched the long slow Swedish sun dip and hang above the horizon for about as long as it took to ride 30 miles that evening. I slept in a nice soft, clean bed and when I woke up the owner told me which bus to take. I was ashamed to tell him my other problem.
The Euro credit card has a security chip in it while the American ones, the ones always getting hacked, do not. I couldn’t use my credit card on the bus to buy my ticket and the driver did not take cash. No problem. And, somehow he fixed it with the driver. I was able to board and go on to the next town I couldn’t pronounce where I met up with Lotta.
Because of this man and his wife I was able to hold together for a little longer a picture in my head. Really without a number of people like them my trip would have been over before it even began. Everyday there were small miracles that allowed me to travel. Not always did the picture in my head line up with the current situation, but I was getting better at navigating the margin of difference.
Thank you kind strangers.