13th February – Göteborg Nation sittning

Went to a sittning today which is like a big three-course student dinner but where all the swedes keep breaking out into weird chanting every few minutes and banging the tables and you have to stop everything to hold down your wine glass so they don’t knock it over with the force of their rhythmic whacking and whooping. I told a girl that she’d accidently tucked her top into her underwear instead of her jeans and then I shielded her with my body so that no one would see while she rectified the situation, but she just looked at me like I had told her I habitually eat babies and listen to the music of Rolf Harris or something. Honestly, you do someone a favour these days and no one says thank you.

(I also told a wanky Stockholmer in a ladies-fur-coat-and-sunglasses-worn-inside combo he looked like a wanky Stockholmer pretending to be Macklemore and that he should at least take the sunglasses off because he looked like a dick as it was nighttime and thus dark. I didn’t actually expect him to say thank you, though, just society in general.)

Wednesday 28th January – The Sauna

I have now become fully naturalised into the Way Of The Sauna.

Yes, I now sit naked on a towel in a tiny wooden room full of other naked people with the ease, and even relish, of those times when you snag the last free seat on the bus and there are no old/pregnant people coughing pointedly behind you to guilt you into giving it up. Like amateur antique furniture restoration or getting through the complete Are You Being Served?, though, this was no easy journey.

I remember there were these two Swedish girls in my pilates class back home, and I don’t know what their names were (possibly Anita and Svenita)  but they were like shining beacons of Nordic vitality, all blonde and tanned and muscular and voluptuous like they reared elk and pickled herring on weekdays and went to the salon for a blowout on weekends. Anyway, they were babes and used to just strip down in the change rooms after class while all the other gym users were doing that awkward taking-off-your-sports-bra-through-the-armhole-of-your-tshirt thing we were all forced to perfect on those infamous year 7 camps we’ve all repressed. I didn’t want to be the fully-clothed third wheel (the worst kind of third wheel amirite) so I’d force myself to get naked too and we’d be having a conversation like ‘oh, how are your English classes going? Yes the weather is lovely today. I think I nailed that backwards corkscrew move finally’ and I would be pretending like it was totally normal and not a thing at all that we were all starkers whilst applying our roll-on deodorant and hunting around for our socks.

So I get to Sweden and I sign up to the gym and I’m thinking yes I am READY for this I can DO public nudity let’s get NAKED ladies, and I hit the change rooms post-workout with my budget IKEA towel slung devil-may-care over my shoulder BUT, a dilemma strikes!

For the past three days I had been convinced that despite its location directly adjacent to the female change rooms, the glass-fronted sauna was co-ed and that’s really just gender parity gone a bridge too far here, Sweden, alright? I thought this because when I looked into it from my vulnerable position standing naked in a shower surrounded by other equally naked ladies, I could have sworn that the indistinct person within who was staring right back at me was an old man.

It turns out I was wrong, but I’ve since shared a sauna bench with the bristly, glowering woman I have lovingly dubbed Gerta (at a distance of several feet, obviously, out of courtesy as well as fear of the loud snorts and belches she emits every few minutes) and I still stand by my original confusion.

There is no bonding quite like that which comes from a continual inner monologue of don’t-make-eye-contact-don’t-make-eye-contact-shit-she-totally-saw-me-looking-wow-those-are-very-large-areole-is-that-normal-stop-looking-don’t-fall-asleep-shit-it’s-hot-in-here-ew-she-just-belched-again-where-the-feck-was-she-concealing-that-mandarin-until-now? There is also apparently no better way to start loving your own pale, flabby body than being surrounded by a lot of old ladies with voluminous folds of leathery, perma-tanned skin and a currently-giving-no-fucks attitude, sprawled on towels and bitching about their daughters-in-law. Liberating.

Thursday, 22nd January – Glow Stick Party

There’s a special kind of clarity which comes from finding yourself balanced over a men’s urinal in the dark at midnight because the queue for the ladies’ would invariably lead to bladder leakage/a UTI. One foot is pressed against the door because it doesn’t have a proper lock and you want to avoid a random Swedish man walking in to discover you half naked mid-slash (‘I just don’t believe in gender binaries, okay, stop oppressing me!’),the other one wobbling dangerously as you finish emptying your bladder. It’s a deeply profound moment which I imagine also comes when giving birth, or dying. You look down upon yourself from on high and think, ‘how the fuck did I get here?’

This time, though, my question was literal rather than an esoteric, figurative musing. How DID I get to this point? When did most of my body get covered in obnoxious neon green glow-in-the-dark paint? How close is the nearest kebab shop? And shit, there’s definitely someone trying to get into this toilet.

I never did find the answer to these questions, perhaps because I was too busy stealing my coat back from the wardrobe attendants (employing the classic ‘Look! What is that highly compelling thing over there that you should look at right now?’ method because 10 kroner for coat check? Tell them they’re dreaming). Probably consulting Proust and evaluating my life choices would clear things up, but probably I’ll just spend today eating porridge mixed with nutella (nutritionally balanced) out of a saucepan and repressing everything so the real winner here is me, surely.

Wednesday 21st January – Herkules Bar

The art of seduction in a place of seemingly perpetual ice and cold presents an interesting and surely unique anthropological study. Should the Michelin Man ever find love in the vein of Mr and Mrs Pacman, I’m certain it would be a similar phenomenon. Because David Attenborough has still yet to look into it (poor form), I have taken one for the team and broken Common Swedish Mating Habits down into their composite parts.

Stage One: Target Assessment and Selection

This is difficult for those who seek out a specific and discernable gender with whom to mate, and must thus almost always take place inside. This is due to the fact that the multiple layers of wool and down necessitated by the extreme weather conditions reduce the average human body shape to a bulky, indefinable lump complete with bobble hat and clown-like mittened hands. Mark your man outside in the queue and you may risk accosting anyone from Maria in your basic Swedish class to that scary older lady from the gym who always insists on making conversation while you’re both naked in the communal showers. Risky.

Stage Two: The Approach

In the most progressive country in the world, gender parity has hit the bar-scene with hitherto unsuspected menace. This side of the equator, you need to start moderating your pick-up expectations: prepare yourself for no eye contact, conversation, dancing or touch of any shape or form. Yes, it is the horror of horrors: Swedish men are too busy respecting your rights and autonomy to grind up against you or make it rain free drinks. Instead, you have two choices before you:

  1. Bide your time like a barracuda under the surface until the Golden Window Of Opportunity: a magical time between 1-3am (otherwise known as two six-packs and some Jaeger in) where the Swedes are drunk enough to pursue the potential for casual sex but not so drunk as to pass out during the romantic -5 degree bike ride back to their single-bed dorm room; or
  2. Grab their face like it’s a discount avocado you’re feeling up for ripeness at the supermarket and just get in there, my son.

Just remember that like bears or Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door, they’re probably more scared of you than you are of them, so avoid making too many sudden movements and use eye contact to demonstrate dominance and strength.

Stage Three: Showtime

Because of the climate conditions discussed in Stage One, the act of getting naked at this point in the evening is something akin to the Dance of Seven Veils, only not sexy and a hell of a lot more insulated. Imagine the big underwear scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary and multiply it by ten in your mind’s eye; those two pairs of thermal longjohns you so sensibly decided were a necessary wardrobe decision five hours ago now mean that you can no longer remove your skinny jeans. You end up contorted into a pre-coital pretzel (not in a fun way) on their IKEA rug trying to yank them off whilst your mate hovers awkwardly to one side, trying to decide if it’s better to intervene or just see how the incident plays out. Alluring stuff. You almost certainly won’t remember the sex tomorrow, and sometimes in a way, that’s a blessing.

Stage Four: The Walk Of Shame

It’s the morning after, your mouth tastes like something from the neighbouring woodland crawled in and died there while you were sleeping, and your body is having to do some weird, painful yoga shit to fit into this tiny, tiny bed. Remembering that your one class of the week begins in approximately fifteen minutes, you are aware that you must exit the situation with haste and dignity. Both of these goals, however, are thwarted by Round Two of the battle of attrition between you and your thermal longjohns. An airy ‘right thanks yeah cool bye don’t call me’ as you rush out the door is made impossible by the awkwardly prolonged length of time it takes you to put on all six of your thermal layers, coat, scarf, hat, mittens and lace-up boots. You must then attempt to navigate your way through a dorm full of other smirking residents onto the street and on your way to class where everyone will notice that you are once again in last night’s clothes and unbrushed hair with a bit of dried red wine still on your face but be too polite to mention it.

15th January, Gunnesbo, Lund

Yes, I have become a hermit. I’m alone in the middle of nowhere and my mind is not a place anyone should safely be in without a buddy lest you are ready to descend into the bowels of should-I-make-a-papier-mâché -mask-of-my-own-head-and-wear-it-to-the-shops, I-want-to-eat-only-porridge-forever-let’s-make-it-right-now-I-don’t-care-that-it’s-three-in-the-afternoon, or do-you-think-the-time-I-found-out-my-kindergarden-teachers-kept-replacing-our-class-axolotyl-when-it-died-and-pretending-it-was-the-same-one-is-the-root-of-all-my-trust-issues?

All work and no play makes Alice something-something.

Three days in, it looks like I may have drawn the short straw in the student housing market. Instead of a dorm, I have been banished out to the northwest of Lund in a two-person apartment that has yet to deliver a second person. I know this because I have been meticulously monitoring any signs of potential life eg rigorously examining milk and nutella levels, have they been using my shampoo, was that floorboard creaking because they’ve been hiding out in that locked room this whole time just to throw me off IF YOU’RE HERE I WILL FIND YOU I SWEAR THIS. But no – my friendly ‘hello housemate, you can share my loaf of bread’ note stuck to the kitchen table has gone stoically unread. I have no idea if/when they will materialise.

The problems this creates are obvious – can I still walk around naked with impunity if there is a chance some belated Dutch engineering student could unlock the door at any moment and be scarred for life? Do I need to start closing the bathroom door when enjoying meditative thought time on the toilet? What is the courteous length of time I must wait before I take over all the cupboard space and steal all the communal coat hangers?

30th December, Copenhagen

Have not seen Lithuanian host in several days, but can only assume he is still alive as his ’supplies’ – family BBQ-sized polystyrene tray of mini chicken drumsticks, sack of cornflakes and two litre thing of milk – have been steadily decreasing. Presumably those of hardened Eastern European stock have adapted beyond the threat of scurvy. Luckily my risk of succumbing to almost-certain isolation-induced cabin fever was assuaged by a day spent with a top-notch pal from the motherland. DILF-spotting and appreciation is a sport best done in pairs, and together we were able to cover far more ground than I had been able to accomplish solo, assessing and comparing man-buns, trench coats and custom papooses from multiple angles.

In between analysing the best breeding stock Copenhagen had to offer and workshopping what any potential offspring would look like should we choose to mix gene pools (cultural activities and appreciation: done), we also saw a film (PRO TIP: assuage your inner arthouse film critic wanker-guilt by watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay with Danish subtitles – you can just pretend it’s another one of those cultural films no one ever actually understands that they always play late at night on SBS after the cartoons but before the soft-core porn). The real show, though, happened as we were leaving the theatre and the night sky opened and swirled with fresh flakes of new snow.

I know that every Australian who has ever been anywhere across the equator in wintertime has to partake in the same super-irritating lovefest of the magic and wonder of snow and I scoff and sneer at their shitty instagram/video/status-update-all-in-capslock/self-indulgent-travel-blog (ed note: IRONY) as much if not more than the next person, but ain’t nobody not going to do the arms-flung-wide-Jesus-stance ft little-bit-creepy-but-involuntary-lizard-tongue-licking-at-the-air in combination with the I’m-laughing-and-crying-fingers-crossed-people-just-think-I-got-snow-caught-in-my-eye thing in the middle of an unexpected snowfall.

The sentiment and beauty of the moment was really captured by the middle-aged Danish women huddled around a nearly park bench who, when they saw us looking in their direction, ran off into the night cackling because they had written the Danish word for penis in large block letters in the snow on the seat.

Profound. The snow, it truly moves us all to poetry.

27th December, Husum (??), Copenhagen

In a move no one saw coming, I may have possibly made a poor judgment call in selecting AirBnB accommodation based purely upon price without first consulting a map or reviews because ‘everyone in Denmark is super nice and cool apart from all the ones in the Danish crime shows and Copenhagen is not even that big like seriously it’s a super small country in general so everything has to be really close to the CBD right?’

Not so, Past Alice, you big dick. A train and a bus ride later, I end up stranded on the side of a very quiet residential street in the middle of the suburbs, frightening passing small children and elderly Danish couples as I skitter about with my suitcases on the icy cobblestones like a particularly foul-mouthed giraffe at a poorly-chosen holiday destination.

I eventually find the place, no thanks to the host’s shitty instructions (‘look for my name on the door’, he says, which on face value would indeed have been helpful if he hadn’t been secretly using the ‘anglo-ed up’ – can you even say that? Probably not. Sorry – version of his name in all the emails, leaving me unprepared for the additional “škevičius” or something. Thanks man), and fell inside. A door slides open. A large human figure appeared silhouetted in the doorway. The mysterious Lithuanian Airbnb Host has emerged.

Whilst based upon previous communication there did not seem to be any problematic language barriers hindering interaction, in real life, Lithuanian Airbnb Host seems to favour communication predominately through the medium of single-word answers and indistinct guttural noises. I ask if there are any good places to eat in the area (perhaps ‘Husum’ is a hitherto unsung cultural hotspot for fine dining and varied nightlife). He replies with a succinct ‘no’. I ask where the nearest supermarket is to acquire necessary foodstuffs. He responds with ‘nothing’s open’. With the ceremony and gravitas of Churchill handing down a proclamation that might have changed the course of the Second World War, he presents me with the wifi password. This apparently excusing him from the necessity of having to answer any more questions, Lithuanian AirBnb Host begins to construct himself a meal. I watch in silent awe as he places a large plastic salad bowl patterned with lurid, writhing dragons atop a set of kitchen scales and begins meticulously measuring out cornflakes from a plastic sack approximately the size of a sleeping pillow.

He adds a litre of milk.

He turns, drinking the cornflakes straight from the salad bowl in a single, extended crunching slurp that will haunt my dreams forever, and catching me staring, mutely proffers me the bowl.

I stare at the bowl. I stare at his milk moustache. He stares at me. Is this some kind of Lithuanian/Danish hybrid cultural rite of passage? Am I meant to sip from the Salad Bowl Of Peace to ensure my safe journey through this strange land? I promised my mum I would always take the safe option. Shit. Is this the safe option? JUST BREAK EYE CONTRACT AND RUN, RUN ALICE NOW SWEET MOTHER OF GOD

26th December, misc. airborne location

0430 hours:

Have constructed makeshift cocoon/bivouac out of several stolen complimentary knee rugs, tray table and a strategically placed neck pillow. Have contorted body into an approximation of a semi-upright fetal position. Currently in possession of two packets of mixed nuts and a gin miniature for sustenance. Flight started off well; successfully charmed check-in desk into obtaining exit row seat necessary for accommodating excess limbs, ate a KitKat Chunky Caramel bar (10/10), appeared to be seated next to Handsome British Man. We made eye contact followed by universally understood hand gestures for ‘boy is this flight busy!’, ‘do you need help getting your duty-free purchases into the overhead compartment?’ and ‘fuck I hope that baby stops crying soon’ and smiled awkwardly a lot. Was this an indication of airplane-fate finally helping a sister out in the eternal quest to Pick Up On A Long Haul International Flight? WRONGO.

Large Malaysian Man with bumbag appears suddenly as the plane doors are sealed shut; lurches towards us, belches loudly, scratches self, claims vacant seat between Handsome British Man and myself. In a flagrant and unacceptable departure from Entrenched Air Travel custom, Large Malaysian Man proceeds to take over both armrests. Large Malaysian Man begins what will be a three-hour Keeping Up With The Kardashians marathon, interrupted only to eat (loudly, open mouth, more belching), drink (four mountain dews, ew) and make several ostentatious trips to the bathroom. I cut my losses – Handsome British Man and I are separated by a gulf wider than the seat of Large Malaysian Man’s pants – and did the obviously sensible thing by downing two mystery US prescription sleeping pills with as much gin as the air stewardess would give me, and passing out. Came to seven hours later in a chrysalis of my own dried saliva feeling reborn like a triumphant moth with really long crampy legs and MSG-and-peanut-dust flavoured wings. Well done me.

Is 4.30am too early to want breakfast? I don’t even care. Give me the fricking breakfast. My hunger for those weird plastic containers of juice and the little shrink-wrapped packets of cheese and crackers that probably never go off ever knows no bounds right now. I wonder how many of these blankets I can fit into my hand luggage?