Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cruisin' in Åland

JenniferEarlier in the spring, our upstairs neighbor P., who is an enthusiast of America in general, told us that he wanted to do something nice for us, and take us somewhere (within driving distance, for reasons that will become clear) to see more of Sweden than we've been able to. After some debate, he decided to take us to one of his favorite places, which is not strictly speaking in Sweden at all. The Åland island chain lies between Sweden and Finland, and is politically a part of Finland, although the residents speak a dialect of Swedish, and the islands enjoy some degree of autonomy that includes a tax exemption on alcohol. Many of the Baltic ferries therefore are based in Åland, so that they can sell booze cheap in their large duty-free stores. The eastern edge of Åland is only about a 2 hour ferry ride away, and it is a popular place to go for a week or so on holiday, while day trips are also popular.

The islands are beautiful, inhabited but not crowded (due to draconian residency requirements— you cannot purchase property, but must inherit it, P. said), but shockingly primitive when it comes to public transportation, as most people come here with their own cars. Fortunately, P. likes to drive. Even better, he likes to drive slowly. Driving slowly is not only better for sight-seeing, but is also a comfort when one finds oneself in a 1959 Ford Fairlane with a V8 engine but no seat belts or head rests.

We managed to have darn near the perfect day for this trip: sunny on the 1.5 hour car ride through the countryside to the ferry at Grisslehamn, then quite warm but not too hot on the ferry (although we got a little sunburned), then warm and partially cloudy, which was quite welcome as we had a picnic lunch and lazed about on the sandy beach at Degersand, near the town of Eckerö. The beach was busy, but not overcrowded, and to my joy, I have finally managed to go swimming in the Baltic. The water was quite nice— salty of course, but not too bad, and quite clear.

Then we drove across the main island to the other town, Mariehamn, enjoying the views of the farms and fields and numerous inlets and bays. There are plenty of old churches here, all now land-locked, but originally built on the sea so that people could arrive by boat. We passed a sign to another town, Kattnäs. "Cat Nose?" I said out loud, confusedly remembering that nose is näsa. P. gave me a sort of sideways look. "Yes," he said, "but no. 'Näs' is just a place surrounded by water." (Swedish for peninsula is halvö, which for some reason I find charming.) We drove into and around Mariehamn, with the windows down, and the CCR CD blasting from the speakers. "What is more American than cruising?" asked P. proudly, and we couldn't think of anything.

We headed back across to Eckerö, stopping at a nice little wooded place on the main road that looked like an abandoned campground, where we could also admire the red granite that the island is made of, and smell the wonderful smell of pine trees in the sun. We had brought fika supplies— hot and cold coffee, and cookies— and we had our fika directly out of the trunk, complete with one of the old pink plastic camping cups that have been in the family for decades and hauled around to everywhere. Those old American cars surely do have large trunks. Most of the cars I've ridden around in in Sweden could almost fit in it...

We got back to the ferry terminal in plenty of time, and talked more about the car, and P.'s restoration work on it. He searches diligently for genuine parts, often finding them online from places in Finland, oddly. His restorations iare not entirely contemporary for the car— for instance, there's an electronic lock on the trunk— and of course the CD player and new speakers. We looked at the buttons and pulls and other half-remembered controls on the dashboard. Above the AM radio are two buttons, one that has a "T" on it and another with a "C." None of us could figure out what they meant, although I vaguely recall seeing something like that on Grandpa's Ford trucks. Anyone who remembers what they mean, please let me know.

When we got back to Grisslehamn, we had a little wait to get out of the terminal parking lot, since there were a fair number of cars leaving the boat. The motor was running. A middle aged man stepped out directly in front of us and stopped. He bent down, and cupped his ear at the engine. P. obligingly put the car in neutral and revved it high. The man stood up, nodded in complete satisfaction, and walked on, as some onlookers laughed. A middle aged woman standing on the sidewalk waved, and gave P. a smile and a thumbs-up sign. The car is clearly a magnet, attracting all sorts of attention.

So it was a really good outing, and a fun day, and well worth three hours in a car and four on a ferry in order to go to a sandy beach, on a new body of water, for a summer afternoon. I will only mention that the concept of "beach" is something I am well familiar with, and Degersand was very pleasant indeed: nevertheless, the scale of it pales in comparison to the beaches of Lake Michigan. Anyone reading this who does not have to travel seven hours to get to a beach... well, just know that I am envious.

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