I stayed up late the other night finishing Birgitta Hjalmarson’s Fylgia, a story based in Sweden and published by the same press as my memoir, Bedazzled Ink. I mistakenly drank caffeinated coffee at 4:30 pm, and decided to make good use of any anticipated insomnia. I would have finished the novel, without caffeine. And I am reminded. Again. Our stories make up who we are. We take them at face value, or change or discount or ignore them: but ultimately they find a place to fit into who we are, what we think and what we become.
Last week as I began the few pages of Birgitta’s novel, my brain darted back to 1983 – I was a new college grad cycling with my best friend Karen. I had graduated from the University of Montana early, working during the year and through the spring to afford the trip. No internet yet, we relied on paper maps leaving us to naively believe we could bike Italy’s Cinque Terre, no problem. True to that era, we left our parents addresses for mail drops: Oslo, Munich, Cannes, Zurich. (We connected with two of the four, never making it to Oslo and finding upon arriving in Zurich our Swiss connection on holiday for the month.) I traveled with travelers checks, no credit card, and a hostel card. I was lucky my younger brother picked up the one phone call I made to Dad from Italy in the middle of his night requesting someone wire me money from my savings account: international money wiring probably wasn’t within Dad’s skill.
After cycling through parts of England, Holland and (then) West Germany – before heading south through West Germany to Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France and back to England, we ferried to Gothenborg, Sweden: Karen hoped to visit her Norwegian family roots. Cycling north from Gothenborg, I wrote in my journal:
” I can’t describe the beauty of this country. So much green. It reminds me of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, it also reminds me of Montana. Perhaps that’s why we love it so much. Less people. Breathing room….”
A story I so clearly remember happened later that night as we camped on private property in Fargelanda, allowed by Sweden’s “Everyman’s Right” or freedom to roam, as after retiring early we climbed out of our tent to the yells of kids and the blamamamamamamaaaaaaaaaaa of motorbikes. We had camped in the middle of a kids’ motocross circuit. We stayed through the night but our “visitors” found our itty bitty green REI tent quite the anomoly.
The next day, 30 June:
“Caught in a heck of a rainstorm today, but made it into a rather enjoyable day. Yesterday cycled many kilometers because we couldn’t find the correct route. Because of it, however, we discovered many (dead end) rural areas. Beautiful pastureland. So much land. Sweden is so proud – rightfully so – of having the “last” of Europe’s wilds, including unpolluted, undeveloped land. Today we took a secondary road – but too secondary – road gravel for about 20 kilometers. So slow. Then the rain began and we were in the middle of nowhere. Finally arrived in Ed, a beautiful, albeit tourist town in between two large lakes. Dahsland. Dense vegetation like home, green ferns, cottonwood. Fields of buttercup and lupine.”
The rain continued but within a few days morphed into snow as we rode on to Halden, Norway. We hadn’t recognized we were a bit early in the season. We rode back to Halsten, Sweden and changed course, giving up on Oslo, Norway but instead ferrying from Helsingborg, Sweden to Helsingor, Denmark where we found “Hamlet’s Castle” and topless beaches, buttercups and rolling hills, and for my first time, punk rockers in Copenhagen.
As I read Birgitta’s passages, my senses remembered the smells and dead end roads of this journey from my past, recapturing memories from more than three decades ago. I fell into her storytelling of Anna and her family and her lover, her truths and those that never were, in Sweden’s “Hult,” a small town perhaps imagined east of my own long ago travels. A story of grief and joy and rules and sadness and things that could have been different. Echoing what we all innately know, whether it is stories we create and process minute by minute in our brains, or those that come to us through our own life experience. We humans share stories. It is what we do, and it is our power to do so that makes us learn and love and weep as we move through life.