It was 5 April 1981 – the day of the national census in England, but I wasn’t staying to be counted; oh no... I was leaving on my first ‘grown up, all-on-my-own’ holiday. I was off to Kalmar in the south-east of Sweden to stay with a friend and her family.
After a few chats about personal safety, Dad drove me to Dover and waved me off on the ferry to Ostend, Belgium. Having done this part of the journey a fair few times before with friends and family, it felt kind of ‘normal’. But once I arrived at the Belgian railway station, I was so excited – I was on my own, going on my first ever holiday alone. Though I had looked carefully and read the signs that were there, I asked the guard to point me in the direction of the train to Copenhagen (just to be sure I was getting on the right one, of course!) and soon found myself seated in a carriage where a family was already settled in. The family was Dutch, on their way to visit family in Belgium.
Before long, we had soon started chatting in broken English and hesitant French and German – how glad I was I had studied modern languages at school! After some hours (I don’t remember exactly when or where), the family alighted, leaving me looking nervously around at and for potential fellow passengers who might sit in my compartment. I was a single woman, travelling alone – my father had instilled in me the fact that I should always make sure I travelled (if at all possible) in compartments with families, so that I might remain safe.
Before long, however, a colourfully dressed group of people got on and plonked themselves in my compartment. The man (probably around 30 or so years of age), wearing a sombrero and poncho, dragged and pushed numerous bags into ‘our’ compartment, whilst his wife struggled with a child on the hip and a toddler in tow. She pushed the toddler into the little remaining space in the compartment before squeezing herself in. Her husband sorted the bags, stowing most of them up on the racks above. That left us with a little space. Then an Englishman settled in our compartment, too. Fortunately, no-one else ventured in, leaving us with a spare seat, so there was (a little) room to breathe! These were my fellow passengers for the rest of the journey to Copenhagen.
The family was from Chile, on a tour of Europe, and they had loved what they had seen of Europe. I understood very little Spanish (having not learned it at school, but I found it a little similar to French and Italian, the latter of which was commonly used on Malta, where I had grown up). The Englishman, who was on his way home to Copenhagen, told me he spoke fluent German, Swedish and Danish along with a little Spanish thrown in for good measure, so between us we all managed a bit of a natter.
Along with books and magazines, I had brought with me a radio/cassette recorder on which I had planned to listen to my tapes (with my headset) to help pass the many hours I would be travelling. However, on seeing this, the Chilean man – I forget his name – insisted on me putting his panpipes music on. Though that can be beautiful music, enough was soon enough and I craved my Britpop sounds! Occasionally, I would plug my headset in, close my eyes and feign sleep, just to have a break from the Latino music.
We arrived in Copenhagen and we all said our goodbyes. Thus ended the first part of my holiday and I had done two of the things I had planned to go – got to know some new people and learned a little about different places. Steve, the Englishman, had told me a little about why he had chosen Copenhagen to settle down, how he had a newborn son waiting to meet him when he got home, and how he was being promoted at work... all good stuff; I was happy for him. As for the Chileans (I forget their names if ever I knew them), I hoped they would enjoy their tour of Europe and have lots to remind/teach their children about as they grew up.
I had to find my next train; this one would take me to Alvesta in Sweden, where Pia and her family would meet me at the railway station. I asked a guard or two to point me in the right direction, and finally a third took pity on me, carried my heavy bag (despite my thoughts on the flight to Malta as a child, I hadn’t yet quite learned the art of packing light for a holiday), grabbed my arm, and walked me to my train. He got on the train, found my reserved seat, made sure I was okay once my baggage was stowed and I was seated, and then left me to it with my thanks – such a nice man!
We left Copenhagen on time if memory serves me right and travelled for hours and hours, over land and over sea – yes, this train physically went on board a ferry or two, without us passengers having to disembark. We could get off and back on the train at any point during the ferry crossing, too, so we didn’t have to carry our belongings around with us, a definite plus point where I was concerned. I remember going up on deck and chatting with some folks but more than that fails me.
I know we crossed from Denmark into Sweden at the Helsingør (Danish)/Helsingborg (Swedish) border crossing on the ferry-train, but I cannot remember the points at which we crossed a second body of water yet I’m almost certain we did, and no amount of looking at maps so many years later helps... too many years have gone by and there’s no hope of me remembering. I do remember, though, occasionally leaning out of the window on the train, looking forward to see where we were going, and seeing a single railway line (the line we were on) going into a forest of gorgeous pine trees. I remember the feeling that, so far, Sweden had shown herself to be green, clean and natural... words I still use to this day when describing the country.
We arrived at Alvesta in the early afternoon on a Sunday, I remember that much. I got off the train with the help of the guard and, after the other passengers had left the platform, I waited – unsure what to do, unable to read the signs. Then, suddenly, there was Pia and close behind her were her parents. If I’m honest, it was a huge relief to see them. We hugged and lumbered up the stairs to the exit, where we found the car. We had a road journey ahead of us of around two or so hours, I think; for some reason, I couldn’t get a train to Kalmar, though I can’t remember now why.
On the way home, we all chatted – Pia translated for us – and we all had a real giggle when I tried to pronounce of the place names on signs that we passed: Norrköping, Jonköping and Växjo to name just three. For example I would pronounce Norrköping as ‘Nor coping’ and they would tell me it was pronounced ‘Nor shurping’. We had a blast and it definitely broke the ice!
We arrived in Kalmar, where Pia’s younger sisters were waiting to greet me at the family home. I was shown my bedroom and invited to unpack and take a nap if I wanted to, whilst dinner was prepared. I was definitely ready for bed – I was shattered! At the dinner table, Pia translated again – her excellent English showing me up with my non-existing Swedish, although to be fair, I had tried to learn a little in the letters we had exchanged. We discussed with her family our plans for that evening and the next day. The evening was to be spent with her and a couple of her best friends (who fortunately spoke English) at a local hang-out... kind of like a bar, but for younger people. We went and I had a good time, though I was soon feeling tired again, so we headed for home where I finally hit the sack!
The next day, and for several days, we went to school. Pia was still in full-time education so school was a necessity for her. I had already finished my compulsory education and was in full-time employment back in England, but I didn’t mind going to school. Pia had lessons in German, English and French which I took part in (and could understand!), so that was fine. After school, we would head for home, calling in to pick up her sisters from friends’ houses en-route.
I remember going to a disco with Pia and her friends; we had a whale of a time, though I also remember getting upset for some reason – I think I was homesick, strangely enough – and so I think we came home early.
Pia’s parents didn’t speak English – her dad followed Manchester United fervently, though, and on the Saturday that I was there, he offered to put a bet on the football lotto for me that they would lose (haha!) as I was not such a fan! He also put a bet on that they would win (for himself) and so he wasn’t really out of pocket either way. His bet, and not mine, came in, so he was happy!
Pia’s parents took us out and about – all over the place, showing me as much of their country as they could, bearing in mind they were working during the week days, and of course Pia had to be at school. We went for walks through the forests near the family home; we drove to several towns and villages to see the various sights. We went to Kalmar Castle, and I had a good look at the old steam engine parked in Kalmar, too. We also drove across the extremely long Ölandsbron bridge to Öland, an island sanctuary off the coast of south-east Sweden, where I took a photo of a water tower, with the Swedish flag flying in the distance. If I can find it, I’ll post it.
I absolutely enjoyed my time over in Sweden. However, being immersed in a family, where no-one but Pia spoke English and where I didn’t speak their language, had its drawbacks. Everyday life was somewhat difficult – if Pia wasn’t around, I couldn’t communicate fully with any of the family, although gesturing helped of course. It put a lot of strain on both, Pia and me, I think, and though I loved my time there, I was ready to come back home after my holiday was up.