Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Life in a small northern town

JenniferSo it's true that in a town like Uppsala a car is not really needed (although it would come in handy for those weekend Ikea binges), and many people do not own cars. On the other hand, having a driver's license is not at all unusual, and renting a car or RV for summer camping is a common way to vacation. There is a lot of Scandinavia to see that is not readily accessible by train or bus. Besides, we are used to having a car, and being able to just up and go somewhere for a day or a weekend. Sounds good, right? But... how? The first step was to spend an afternoon in small-town Sweden for a test drive.

I had asked my friend S. if she would like to come along, in part for moral support, in part for language support, in part for just for fun, and we decided to make a small vacation of it by staying at her cabin (which is in the vicinity) for the weekend. We took the train to Hedemora, the small town where the car place is. The size of Hedemora can be judged by the following conversation I had when I rang the car guys and was handed over to a fellow named Bosse:

Me: "Hi, I have an appointment at one o'clock, and I was that told someone could come to get me. I've just had some lunch..."

Bosse: "Ah, then you must be at the restaurant. We will be there soon." (NB: implying that there is only one place we could be, that is, at the restaurant)

We were greeted at the car place with an offer of coffee. We talked to my contact, a fellow whose nickname is Furan, and another fellow named Torsten, who sports a magnificent handlebar mustache (you can see him a little bit above, in the first picture of this post). Hedemora is in a region called Dalarna, which has a particular dialect (see this post from 2008), and the region is known for producing vintage American car fanatics. I had therefore prepared for this interview by bringing along some pictures of my grandparent's 1953 Studebaker.

Furan and Torsten looked at the pictures reverently and started to discuss details with each other in hushed, quick tones. "That is my aunt," I said, pointing to a black and white picture of Aunt Judy posing by the car when it was new. "What color was the car?" they asked. I turned to the next photo, of the car being taken out of the Barn for rehabilitation, five or so years ago, which shows its beautiful and remarkably un-faded teal paint job; Aunt Judy stands by the car trailer, smiling. "Ah," they said. "The color has not changed so very much. And your Aunt has not changed either. (pause) Maybe only in hair color."

I left the photos. Aunt Judy, you (and the car) may now be serving as a pin-up in a garage in Hedemora. Hope you don't mind.

After coffee we went for a test drive. "Do you have permission to drive?" they asked. "No," I said. "Oh, well, the police know us and do not bother us," they said. "Don't worry."

We then went out to check out the traffic school, a ranch-style house surrounded by other ranch-style houses where I would theoretically live for two weeks in order to take a short, intensive driving course. Turns our that small-town suburbia in Sweden looks a lot like small-town suburbia in Michigan (see picture to left of the back yard). We met Åsa, who seems to be in charge of the place. There was more coffee and cookies. Small-town Sweden is a lot like small-town anywhere, I suspect. It's... calm. Which is to say... slow. What do we do now?, I wondered. "This is Dalarna, we are not in such a hurry," said Torsten. Conversation became nearly a parody of the sort of thing that happens in small towns, when it turned out that Torsten and Åsa (a married couple) had lived for a long time in the much much tinier nearby 'town' of Arkhyttan, where S.'s cabin is. Their conversation went something like this (NB: conversation shortened because I don't remember exactly; all reported relationships may not be completely accurate, but it gives the gist):

Åsa: "Do you know the house by the pond? That's where we lived."

S.: "Oh yes, that house, of course. Our house is on Road X by Family Y. Have you seen the house two doors down from that? It is owned by my partner's stepmother's ex-husband's sister's daughter. They have done some wonderful renovation work."

Åsa: "Why yes, my grandfather helped to build that place!"

The size of Arkhyttan can be judged by the following anecdote. I called the local transportation authority to get a ride taxi ride from Hedemora to Arkhyttan and bravely tried my best, but it soon became clear that my Swedish was not up to the task; I assumed I was pronouncing 'Arkhyttan' so badly that the operator couldn't understand me. I handed S. the phone with an apologetic shrug. She was on the phone for nearly as long as I had been, and I heard the word 'Arkhyttan' repeated many times. Turns out it wasn't my pronunciation that was the problem, the problem was the the operator had never heard of Arkhyttan and couldn't find it on the map. Looking back on it, I think the following analogy is about right, if only useful for my readers from southwest Michigan: If Hedemora is Stevensville, Arkhyttan is Derby.

We celebrated our eventual arrival in Arkhyttan, and getting through the afternoon, by having a drink on the verandah, looking out at the grain field and woods opposite in the early evening sunlight. When S.'s partner I. arrived, she told us that she had talked to her father, the fellow whose second wife's ex-husband's sister's daughter had helped build the house down the road (see conversation with Åsa above). When her father learned that S. and I had spent the previous day in Hedemora dealing with cars, he had said "Oh, did you meet the fellow with the mustache?" Why yes, yes we did (again, see the first picture of this post). But that's the kind of thing that happens in small towns...

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