I decided, having discovered cheap flights from Edinburgh to Copenhagen, to travel 5.5 hours northeastwards by train to Stockholm – somewhere I had never visited.
Before I continue any further, I should probably explain – I’m very romantic when it comes to train journeys. I love traveling by train, and always have. Not just because airplanes always run the risk of inducing my severe claustrophobia – there is something mysterious about why people are traveling by train, or at least, a story behind it, and it fascinates me. When I was younger, the fastest route to Dublin from Galway was by train, and in this way trains have represented a gateway to the big city, and freedom, for as long as I can remember.
At Copenhagen, I made sure to be on time as guidelines instructed passport controls were now in operation. Apart from an animated group of Chinese tourists photographing everything within range, there was nothing conspicuous about the small group of people gathered to board the SJ 2000 after being screened by two (extremely friendly) Danish border police. When we were finally allowed aboard from the freezing platform, I jumped on excited and ready to soak up the sights – even if, according to previous travelers online, the scenery would inevitably be found somewhat lacking.
Things weren’t as I expected from the beginning when, once I boarded, a middle aged man who stank of alcohol was sitting in the window seat I had acquired by chance with my ticket, despite the carriage being 80% empty. It took me back to a passage I read in Maeve Binchy’s collection of columns for the Irish Times, about her luck with travel companions. He did move to the adjacent seat on my polite instruction, in fairness. Unfortunately, the few combined passengers in my carriage meant the Monday afternoon journey was less Orient Express and more The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel meets The Last Chance Saloon.
Fighting sleep I awoke at Kastrup (Copenhagen Airport), where large crowds were gathered on the platform. I reasoned they would fill the train with noise and felt a sense of dread from my tiredness kicking in. I made eye contact with a man of Middle Eastern appearance, as most of those waiting were, waiting with his family. Closing my eyes, I felt vibrations I assumed were from a passing train on the next track. Two or three bodies shuffled down the corridor and when I lifted my lids I was surprised to find we were already moving. So many on that platform must have not made it past the controls. I thought about how far those people must have traveled, their conditions, and the complete accident and unfairness of birth that meant through the window I was the carefree, blue-eyed blonde continuing on to Sweden without difficulty.
Within minutes of leaving the dark tunnel after Kastrup behind, I was awe-struck at the view on the Oresund Bridge – which connects Sweden and Denmark above water. The speed, and wind turbines located further along the sea that had previously been visible through the airplane window on arrival to CPH filled me with a sense of amazement as we shot ahead, reaching the Swedish mainland in minutes. There I was struck by the scorched yellow tundra of land that experiences cold weather and little light during the winter months, while drinking in the bare landscape, flat roofs and primal coloured homes in the approach to Malmo.
I fought at first but the wave of sleep washed over until I awoke to a putrid smell. My ‘companion’, having moved to the seat behind me before the Kastrup stop, had returned to the seat beside me for an unknown reason. In a strange twist of fortune it was actually preferable – the stench was far worse when he was seated directly behind, and also because he had found solace in kicking my seat in time to the beat of his audible iPhone music.
While reviews of the journey I had read before coming were largely ‘blah’ in nature, “loads of fir trees” and nothing much else, I found the trip more interesting. Two hours in, coasting past huge lakes, I notice innumerable small lights surrounding Germanic, maroon-hued houses. Clusters of housing where they exist are almost on top of each other, or at least very close, and facing in all directions. I think of my Irish mammy’s shock at the complete lack of walls and consequent privacy, and smile. She would be nothing short of horrified, and if anything else confused because where could you decently hang your clothes when there’s good drying out?
Having very close friends from both Denmark and Finland, and another friend from Iceland, I feel I understand the sense of community and sharing that is alive in Nordic and Finnish culture, and in this respect the difference regarding where I come from makes sense. However, I’m abruptly jolted out of my reverie by an announcement that seems directed at the companion to my left. The hissing tones of freshly opening cans have been an accompaniment to my musings, and in an opportune moment the train conductors remind everyone via PA, in a litany of languages, that the only place to legally drink alcohol on board is the bistro car behind our carriage. In the most efficient manner, he downs whatever is left of his own beverage and barrels back in that direction.
I was later free, in between visits by my neighbor to quickly consume one-by-one the remaining cans in his bag, to admire the attractive businessmen speaking English across the aisle who joined our carriage at Mjolby. Eventually, we rolled into Stockholm to a blaze of lights that arose on both sides of the waters edge, as we crossed bridges into the city.