Wednesday, February 20, 2008

E-22, Karlshamn and Kalmar


We have decided that if I will be travel writing and we only have two and a half months left in Sweden, we will try to see a new place or event every Saturday. Sometimes, Saturday alone is not enough. We have to be back on Sundays because of the commitments we have made at our International church. So, we have decided to go soon after noon on Fridays when the travel time is longer than, say, an hour. That way, Phil gets in a half day of work, Hunter goes to preschool and I get some writing/reading/research done or I pack the car.

The first such adventure happened February 8 and 9. We headed off in the direction of Sweden’s Öland.

Though it did not seem far to travel, the GPS read that it would take 4 ½ hours to Kalmar, the larger town before crossing the bridge. Sure enough, it did. The main highway, called the E-22, ran through many tiny villages and small towns. I decided that if I had a cruise control feature that could easily take me from 30 km/h to 50 km/h to 70 km/h to 90 km/h and back down, repeatedly, on demand of the signs on the road, it would be much more pleasant driving.

We hadn’t made contact with any of the little country Bed and Breakfasts with reasonable prices by the time we had to hit the road. This bothered Phil a great deal, so that he used his time sitting by Hunter in the back seat calling places to stay from the three guidebooks we had on hand. Truly, it was a relief to have a place to land by night, even if it wasn’t yet on the island, and even if (sigh) it had to be a hotel.

My friends down the street went over the driving directions from their Atlas of Sweden and gave me a terrific tip: “If you get tired and need a place to rest, take Hunter to the Kreativum in Karlshamn. It is nearly half-way.” This ended up being a life-saver on the way over because Hunter did not want to travel in the least, so we redeemed ourselves by pulling up to this place in the backwoods of a town among industrial buildings (why are they always among industrial buildings?)

When we checked in, we found out there were only 40 minutes before closing. I felt doomed. Hunter was already enamored before we even reached the reception desk (he was mesmerized by a moving projection inside the front door). The receptionist told us the cost of admission but felt we really didn’t have time to make it worth our while. I wondered if they would turn us away just because there was so little time, but asked,

“Is there a discount if we only have 40 minutes left?” smiling a hopeful smile.

“No, I’m sorry,” the woman said.

“Oh.” I was willing to pay the amount just because my son was already wandering into the larger rooms to have a look at the experiments and activities and we really did need this break.

“You can go in at no cost,” she said suddenly, “because there is so little time left.”

My face brightened suddenly and Phil looked like a load of financial struggle just fell off of his back. We asked where the best place to spend 40 minutes (by now fewer) with a four-year old would be and headed in the direction given.

Clearly, we needed more time, but we enjoyed ourselves (all of us!) trying to do as many things as possible. I liked the little gravity scooters, Phil liked the huge bird robot that responded positively and negatively to his guidance (by nodding or shaking its head) and Hunter especially liked running the boats in the huge water feature, like a relief map, in the center of the room. By the time we were kicked out of there (and there were hardly families in there, maybe three, so we had free reign), we’d had a lot of fun and would need to go back another day.

We had a moment of Fika in the car—cinnamon buns from the Kreativum café, and water as we got back on the monotonous E-22. It was growing dusk.

We didn’t see one moose where moose crossing signs were (repeatedly for miles), which was a disappointment. But we did see a creative road feature. This highway was mostly very narrow, barely a two-way road. At times it would broaden and we could actually drive 110 km/h, but rarely. Then, there would be these strange stretches where they had broadened the road just enough for it to have what looked like a wide shoulder on each side, divided by a rutted broken line. In the center of the road were various broad unbroken lines or long dashes. If a car wanted to pass (apparent by its insistence on nearly kissing a bumper), it was the responsibility of the school bus (like a fancy van), mail carriers, and stupid tourists like us to move across the teeth- chattering rut into the narrow shoulder to let the impatient driver past. Of course, when I discovered the usefulness of this, I had to try being the impatient driver a few times, too. But often the moving over car would only straddle the rutted line between the shoulder and the main lane so that it was nearly impossible to pass without losing a left-hand mirror to on-coming traffic. Our mirrors are fine, I just prefer the spaciousness of U.S. roads, that’s all.

We found our hotel in Kalmar in enough time to check in before dinner. The hotel’s claim in the guidebook was that it was only two blocks from the castle, which was a selling point for Phil. The hotel was called Frimurarehotellet, and turned out to be a luxurious place at an economical price. We had a king-sized sleigh bed with fluffy down comforters and pillows, a nice couch, flat-screened television, interesting art posters on the wall, gorgeous antique desk and side tables, and a wonderful view of the park behind the hotel.

For dinner, we found your basic Swedish pizzeria-type place where the menu consists of pizza, hotdogs, schnitzel, meatballs, or plank steak in the form of beef, pork or chicken, the meat portions with boiled, fried or mashed potatoes. After we ate, I asked Phil if we always needed to eat that kind of food (the price is usually within our budget). “What?” he asked, “Are you tired of chicken, fish or beef?” ( It’s a bit of an inside joke, but it has to do with every time we stopped to eat somewhere in Guatemala, we were told we had three choices…)

In the evening’s darkness, we enjoyed the lights surrounding the area, especially the lit trees and the lit brick water tower. We decided to explore the park behind the hotel and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. That is until we saw an interesting group of sculptures that I wanted Phil and Hunter to pose among and Hunter fell over the metal sign and, just then, we heard a frantic yell coming from the train and bus station across the street. A man ran past me, catching my eye as I waited for Hunter to cry out his fall and find a place among the sculptures. He had stolen the yelling man’s wallet and was leafing through it at a tree very near where we were standing. Phil cluelessly smied among the art while Hunter sniveled over his mishap. I suddenly wanted to go back to our room, since no amount of telling Phil what was going on seemed to help.

Kalmar, home of the original IKEA and the castle we never saw, felt like a typical big city. It wasn’t really that large, but the intersection of ferries, trains, airport and buses from around and outside Sweden made it a sinister place—especially at night. It felt unsafe to park a car or have a nice camera around the neck or to wander the streets with a little one. When I asked Phil why he didn’t want to do anything about the thief, he said, “money is not worth losing a life.”

One small clue that worried us quite a bit was the provision of ear-plugs with our towels. What would we need them for? We needed them because the hotel is comprised of wood floors and there was a late night conference going on in the conference room over our heads. We heard every smart-stepping high heel and scraping chair. We needed them because, as we were about to nod off to sleep, idle and probably drunk mens voices rose from the street chanting loudly toward our room and the conference for some 15 minutes or more. Then, a chorus of the most harmonious men’s voices sang for an hour (starting at 11:00 pm) within the conference. I enjoyed the men’s voices, but not the loud, sometimes purposely rhythmic, clapping between songs, and the loud scraping of a hundred chairs for the encores. Somehow we slept well, anyway.

Before we went to bed, I discovered the reason Hunter had not wanted to travel. He had a fever. No wonder he had a runny nose all day. I was especially glad he fell asleep well and wondered how it would hinder our Saturday of exploring the outdoors on Sweden’s Öland.

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