"Europe 2004-05" story # 17

Nybyn, Sweden           September 13, 2004

I was riding Oumar from Senegal's bike at night, on my way to a party in Umeå. A black shadow scurried across the narrow asphalt in the midst of a park. The shadow resembled a self-propelled spiky, little cactus. I dropped the bike and charged on foot. I wsa overcome with excitement. That thing was a hedgehog!
     I'd always wanted to see and poke at a hedgehog. The "igelkott" (hedgehog) suspected this, and he hugged himself into a poky football. I tried to pick him up using a piece of paper, but he inflated a bit unleashing a dark, nasty snarl. That snarl unsettled me until I remembered "igelkottar" possess no physical threats. At least, I think they possess none. (I have this theory that any animal slower than me must be totally stupid.) I tried to pick up the hedgehog, but its quills stuck into my fingers.
     A second later, a car pulled up, and a young girl looked out at me. "Is everything okay?" And then I was scared.
     I was scared because this was Umea. Umea is a town full of vegetarians and animal-rights activists and young people who don't believe in hair-washing. Hedgehogs are practically royalty. There's even honestly a movement which calls itself the "military vegans." They set fire to farm-animal-transportation trucks, and they drove McDonald's out of Umeå once by harrassing the business and its owner.
     I grew nervous. If I would've said, "Yeah, everything's okay, I was just poking at some stupid hedgehog," it wouldn't have been too tactful. But, I did tell her there was a hedgehog.
     "Well, is it okay?"
     It was curled up in a panicked ball, half-inflated, probably more scared than it had been in a year. I swallowed and said, "yea-uh."
     Shortly thereafter, the car drove off. Of course, I don't feel there's anything wrong with chasing animals. That's what animals DO!
     but, I wouldn't tell that to a "military vegan" ...

I figured it would be a wise move to get out of town for a few days. I went north to work on a Swedish farm for a week. In exchange for my work, I got a place to stay and free food.
     Rural Swedish homes are typically maroon-red with white window-boxes. The farmhouse I stayed in had been built in the 18th century. It was two stories tall and very big, and the inside rooms were wooden and irregularly-shaped.
     Anders Nordim was the 50-year-old farmer. He was a bit overweight, he wore small dark t-shirts, a black beard crept in on him, he wore black-rimmed glasses, and his hair was nearly as long as mine and in a ponytail.
     Anders and I were the only ones on the farm, and we spent a lot of time talking about serious things. Anders used the words "stupid" and "not smart" and "konstigt" (strange) about almost every Swedish politician or other person he could name. Persistent pain in Anders' shoulder and the difficulties of being a small-farm-owner had dampened his spirits and left him a little stressed-out.
     Sweden, unlike the U.S., has eight major political parties. Of course, it did seem "konstigt" that the leader of Sweden's Green Party contradictorily tells people not to drive SUV's while he himself owns one.
     Anders explained his country's longtime habit of not making war. In the sixteenth century, he said, Sweden contained a vast land area in north-eastern Europe which went all the way around the Baltic Sea. Sweden then carried out what was possibly the first-ever census. They learned they had much fewer people than they had thought. In fact, there were almost no living adult men, because they had all gone off to war and been killed. Sweden began then to avoid war. (I found it strange, though, that Sweden remains one of the world's leading producers and exporters of weapons.)
     Farmer Anders smiled the most when we were out walking amongst his cows. He smiled when I delivered a big salt-cube to his cows, because he said they would love it.
     One all-white mamma cow came up to me and stuck out her snout and sniffed me with her enormous, wet nostrils. The cutest bovine was a white calf with little, black smudges around his nose and eyes and ears, who paused with watching eyes. Anders also had brown bulls shaggy with sloppy white marks, and all different types of bovines including yaks and "dongs" (yak-cow mixes). When Anders yelled, "Komda, kosina, komda!!" the cow herd obediently followed us, and we easily moved them from one grazing area to the next.
     Anders' farm was an ecological farm. This means his cows grazed in the forest, not in fields, and so they were members yet of a wild ecosystem. The cows ate most of the forest undergrowth, so only small greenery grew beneath the full-grown trees. But, it was really something to look deep within the dark forest of white birch trees and see a yak bull in his white-dirty-haired robe munching on small plants. "He has a big head," Anders said nearly every time he passed a yak, which was funny.
     Anders was a hosting member of the WWOOF program. The programs lets travelers (or, whoever) volunteer on farms in many corners of the world.
     A common WWOOF-volunteer activity - which I also did on Anders' farm - is to help cut and move and stack firewood for the upcoming winter. Also, I wandered the long perimeter of Anders' electric fence. I checked for problems, then fixed the fence where I had to. The farm-work felt good. Mrrooo-oo-ooh!

Anders was impressed by my quick Swedish skills, though he may not have been impressed by my farm skills. We spoke a lot of Swedish, a lot of English together. Reading books has helped me with the local language. The Swedish author I've enjoyed the most has been Ulf Stark.
     Ulf Stark writes funny childrens' books about dim-witted boys with big imaginations. A chapter in one book was called, "Spring Framfar Bilar" (Run in front of Cars). It told about a game the boys played. Each took turns running out of the bushes in front of oncoming cars. Whoever came the closest to a car won. Whoever lost was called "Snail-Coward" until the next time they played.
     In another Ulf Stark story, the main character goes out to watch the skies for UFO's and aliens. He doesn't realize he's coming down with the measles, and he passes out. He awakens once a bald man picks him up and gives him a ride in his car. Naturally, the boy thinks the man is an alien, because he's heard they're bald. He thinks the man's red, compact car is a spaceship.
     The boy dreams he's flown by the alien to a different planet. On this planet, the boy's dad is called "Mom." The boy's mom is called "Dad." Everything is opposite. People grow younger as time goes backwards. (Ulf Stark's boys are often obsessed with drawing pictures of dogs and want to have a dog more than anything.) The boy asks his parents if he ever owned a dog when he was older. His "Mom" answers, "Bara en vit." (Just a white one.)
     The boy wakes up to find himself back in his bed in the real world. The alien is leaving, and the boy's parents are tucking him in. The boy happily fades away to sleep, dreaming of the big, black dog he will one day have.
     Ulf Stark is a funny Swedish writer. But, there's another Swedish writer who's more interesting ...
     I'll tell you about her shortly ...

"Hej da!" (Good-bye!), Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Buse; Par; and Ilpo for the rides!
Much thanks to Johana, Buse, & Johana's mom; Anders Nordim; and Karin & Tor for the places to sleep!

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