Felt so good to be back on the road in Europe after lockdown in the UK. Two fantastic shows to banish the corona blues in Sweden, following local guidelines for live music of course – 50 people max, social distancing, etc. Can’t beat live music 😊
A warm welcome at Strandkompaniet near Ystad in southern Sweden – beers and burgers and chat with owner Sebbe. He told me every ticket was sold, cool! I set up later on in the extended covered area outside and played 3 sets to a typically lovely Swedish crowd.
The second event was a private event – Corona Blues! – a party thrown by our friend’s Andy and Ucci for their neighbours and friends and family. I played perched on ‘the rock’, a very scenic stage among the heather. Again, a lovely crowd and very kind – I sold almost every CD I’d brought. Neighbour Alfred joined me for a few tunes, great guitar player and nice lad.
We enjoyed a fantastic week in Sweden, before starting to head home. Many adventures, swimming and fishing, hiking, eating and drinking well, visiting friends and family. Good times!
We travelled through Belgium, Germany and Denmark – quite different to the UK in the COVID-19 rules and attitudes. First stop in Belgium – we had to wear masks in the main square, but not in the side streets, and not in the bars, where they took our names, numbers and travel details. In Germany, we didn’t go into town but there was very little distancing going on at the campsite, compared to where we’d stayed in the UK! In Denmark, we passed through border controls and saw the COVID-19 testing stations, but once we got to Copenhagen, it was very relaxed – no one had masks, we went for a meal with no reservations, no details taken, stopped at a bar afterwards, etc. Felt strange to feel normal.
There had been no lockdown in Sweden. They implemented a set of measures quite early on and stuck to them. They’ve been criticised for this in some quarters, but there was no panic buying, no businesses bankrupted in lockdown, etc. We heard that they are sticking to the approach agreed across Europe after a pandemic planning exercise a few years ago.
Looking back at the last few months, spending lockdown in a van – 2 adults and 2 dogs in a box 6m by 2m – has been at times strange, intense and worrying! As ever we’ve tried to make the best of it. In many ways, we count ourselves lucky!
We’d rented our house out for another year – just 2 days before the lockdown started. At first, we thought, “No worries, we can wild camp”, but we began to hear reports of a backlash against hordes of campervans and motorhomes descending on parts of Cornwall and Scotland. So we had to rethink. Fortunately, we were able to book in as permanent/seasonal residents at a site we knew in County Durham so we at least we had a place to park up safely. Looking back, we certainly did the right thing. Although we spent lockdown in a relatively tiny space and couldn’t travel around, we never really felt cooped up or stir crazy as we had so much freedom on the site, great weather and loads of wildlife all around.
Motorhome are perfect self-isolation bubbles
In some ways, we were already used to isolation. We’d spent the last year away from our families and friends, keeping in touch with them with video calls (and endless games of Words with Friends with my Mam). One of the aims of taking time to travel was to spend more time together and with the dogs, so we embraced that: lots of walks, enjoying our sundowners with puzzles and games, researching and making plans for the future, streaming some movies and TV shows on NowTV, Netflix and Amazon. And we each had our own projects on the go.
Obviously, it’s very worrying when you have family in the at-risk category (oldies). Mostly they’ve followed the guidance and so far, all is well. We really enjoyed social distance visits in the garden. We’d had our brush with COVID-19 early on. Though it was very mild for us both, we both still occasionally feel the after-effects. My sense of smell is still shot, and Bev had the bizarre ‘covid toes’ (google it!). It definitely reinforced our feelings of seizing the moment, appreciating our physical and mental health, and treasuring time together.
New healthy habits
We started some new habits in lockdown, to help stay positive and appreciate what we had, rather than dwell on the things we couldn’t do and places we couldn’t go. Each night, we’d ask each other, “What were your 3 favourite things today?” and look back on the day. I’m not sure I realised how much we like eating and drinking!
‘Restaurant of the week’ became a bit of a regular thing. Instead of going out for a meal – we were in lockdown after all – we’d ‘dine out’ at a different establishment every other week. We’d make an effort with flowers on the table or suitable music, trying new recipes, dressing for dinner, etc. Daft, but fun…
Other variations on the theme… Ristorante Motorhome with the ‘Café Italiano’ soundtrack, Vietnamese ‘nhà hàng trên bánh xe’ (‘Restaurant on Wheels’) and a French bistro ‘Chez Nous’
Another routine: With our coffee after breakfast, we read our entry for that day in last year’s travel diary. We’ve read about getting our new home on wheels, a Benimar Mileo 201, our first days of van life, our adventures through France, Belgium,Italy,Slovenia, Hungary,Poland, Czech Republic, Germany,Denmark and Sweden. We remember the best bits, and the dramas, and look out for moments we can recreate, like going for a bike ride, having an ice cream or a particular meal or cocktail.
The Good Life
One of the things Bev is most looking forward to when we finally settle down is setting up a smallholding – growing fruit and veg and keeping chickens. We didn’t get as far as chickens but being in one place for a spell gave her a chance to set up an impromptu allotment. She got some seeds (summer salad, spinach, rocket, sweet peas) and some borlotti beans from our storage unit, and her sister Fran donated some pea and courgette seedlings. With a few grow bags, some mole hill soil, an old recycling bin, various recycled containers, odd sticks lying around the site as canes, and a 4 pint plastic milk carton as a watering can, she set to work. She even planted a dodgy bit she cut off the end of a potato!
The weather was great for growing. Apart from the fickle courgette, it all went very well. We’ve had loads of salad leaves and rocket, spinach for our smoothies and scrambled eggs. We ate lots of the peas as mangetout, not knowing whether we’d be around to pick them all as peas. The sweet peas smell great in the van.
Taking it up a level – she even got into home pickling. Can’t beat a pickled egg in a pack of salt and vinegar crisps with a pint of ale. Perfect pub snack! Got a glut of chilli peppers from the supermarket, more than you can use? – No problem, pickled! Perfect topping for enchiladas or on one of our favourite indulgences, nachos grande!
The baking just gets better and better. Lemon drizzle, Victoria sponge, Carrot cake, croissants. I’ve had to employ various ‘portion control’ strategies or I won’t fit my clothes.
CuteCardsByB on Etsy
With the galleries closed, Bev decided to set up an Etsy store. It’s going really well. She’s sold her cool and quirky embroidered cards and notepads to customers all over the country, and abroad as far as Spain!
One-off designs have included a greater spotted woodpecker, Minecraft and Harry Potter inspired motifs, and a FAB lolly!
Although all live shows were cancelled, I’ve been keeping busy. I did a couple of live streams, one of which has been viewed over 1600 times now, which has got to be a record for me!
I joined a group of north east musicians on a collaborative project, which turned out to be like a massive musical jigsaw. Good fun and a chance to practice with the recording software. Here’s my track…
My album Brass Neck! is still getting a lot of airplay around the UK. I’m really grateful for the DJs keeping that going. Big cheers especially to Gary Grainger, Ian McKenzie, Richard Harris and Paul ‘Pablo’ Stewart. Check out their shows – all good stuff…
The best news: The very first day they opened up, with social distancing measures in place, I went back into Ginger Music studios to record some acoustic guitar and vocals. I worked on the first tracks for 3 new projects – more original blues on a follow up to Brass Neck!, a cowboy/western themed piece, and some lighter, brighter folk/americana songs. The first release will be ‘Travelling Girl’ – words by Bev! – announcements on that soon!
Paying the bills
With all gigs cancelled, we had to rely on the income from Spotify streams. It works out about 0.4 american cents per stream or a whole 4 cents if someone plays all 10 tracks. So we probably burned through all my royalties boiling the kettle for a cuppa on day one on the site 😉
With uncertainty around how long lockdown would last and when we might be able to travel, I thought I may as well start looking for freelance and contract work. I was lucky to find a great project to work on, with a really nice team. Really enjoying it 🙂
Obviously, there is still uncertainty, even as businesses start to open up and travel restrictions are easing. I was gutted to miss the Sabar blues festival in Hungary in early July – looks like they had an awesome time. I really don’t want to miss any more bookings – so we’re getting ready now to travel to southern Sweden for a return visit to a cool beach bar and venue for a show on August 6th. Hopefully, all will go smoothly!
On our last night in Sweden, I played the opening set for the Wild West night at the Bison Farm at Gate, near Hjo on lake Vättern. We stayed there a few days before the event and I saw the poster – listing the headline bands ‘plus ???’. I asked if they’d sorted the ??? and offered my sevices. I played in the saloon bar as people arrived, got drinks and tucked into the excellent bison burgers and smorgas.
The main stage in the barn was fantastic. I saw most of Erika Baier and the Business’s set – a really tight band, bluesy with the occasional country twist which I thought suited the Wild West theme of the night perfectly.
Just caught a bit of De blev Handgemäng, which google translated as ‘It became a handgun’. Very cool band…
We missed headliners ‘Grass Tank’ as we had to high-tail it across the country to Gothenburg for a ferry to Denmark at 4am! Bev drove, so it was a cool moonlit ride for me. We didn’t bump into any mooses on the road. An hours kip before the ferry and we found a park4night close to Friedrikshavn in Denmark as soon as we disembarked, for a proper sleep.
Guided by our amazing friends in Sweden, we discovered so many wonderful and strange things during our 4 week exploration of the south of this fantastic country – a real highlight of our tour so far.
First at Västervik and then in Vimmerby, we were welcomed, entertained and generally spoilt rotten – by 4 generations of the Ask family and Tony and so many other lovely people! We’ve been immersed in Swedish culture, traditions and family histories and shared in the current excitement around Andy and Ucci’s new house and Robin’s plans to build an off-grid summerhouse in Durjsala.
I mentioned the breakfasts last time. Other culinary delights include Ostkake (cheesecake), korv (hot dog style sausages), raggmonk (potato pancakes, served with bacon and lingonberry jam) and last but not least – kebab meat pizza with chips (served on the pizza) and ‘pizza salad’ (a pickled cabbagey thing). And of course we had Swedish meatballs!
We did so many fantastic things but highlights would have to include:
Chilling/ messing about on ‘the rock’, swimming, paddleboarding, playing guitar and banjo with beers at sunset and so on.
Watching the Queen/Freddie Mercury movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at the film festival in an outdoor cinema in the ruins at Slottsholmen.
The Stadsvandring – an evening stroll around Vimmerby with actors in period dress telling stories, often based on real people and events in local history. It was all in Swedish but we really enjoyed it!
Seeing the Elk. We would have loved to see them in the wild (but not at night on the road!) but this was the next best thing. Huge beasts, very soft mouths – ‘like a peach’ says Tony. Bev was the only one in our party to go for a kiss…
I only hope we can repay such wonderful hospitality someday!
One of the traditions in Sweden is to celebrate ‘name days’ and there were two while we there with our friends – Margareta on 20th July as it’s one of Ucci’s many middle names; and Christina on 24th July, which we celebrated with Chrisa and Mickaela (it’s her middle name) with a big family breakfast and cake…
I felt a bit sorry for young Winston, because as it’s not a traditional Swedish name, he doesn’t have a name day!
Buying booze in Sweden
Systembolaget is the government-owned chain of off-licences in Sweden. Since 1955, this is the only place (apart from bars, restaurants and night-clubs) where you can buy strong alcoholic beverages. The one we went to was nice – plenty of range and reasonably priced (compared to bars). Felt a bit like a duty free shop in an airport. Apparently, the staff are usually quite knowledgeable and you can order anything in if its not in stock.
Turns out they have names for the different categories of öl (ale), based on the strength:
Lättöl 0.0% – 2.25% – Light
Lätt Folköl 2.8% – introduced more recently to align with EU
Folköl 2.9% – 3.5% – ‘the people’s beer’
Mellanöl 3.6% – 4.5% – in-between beer
Starköl 4.6% and above – Strong beer
You can buy cans of beer in the supermarkets, but only up to 3.5%.These are 3.5% versions of beers we normally see at 5.0% here in the UK, so were heartily dismissed as ‘piss ale’ by some of our party.
And one more thing on beer – each can has a deposit or ‘pant’ of 1 Krona which is an incentive to drive positive recycling behaviour. You feed the empties into a machine in the supermarket and it gives you a receipt for money off inside. We saw the same in Denmark and Germany.
This is the habit of regular breaks for coffee, chat and little cakes or nibbles. Someone pops by – fika time! Job done – time for a fika! We got into it. Lots of cinnamon whirls, little biscuits, etc. One of our faves was an orange and coconut biscuit/flarn – which was so good Bev asked Ucci’s dad for the recipe.
You see this on handwritten signs everywhere – it means ‘flea’ and points towards a flea market. Some are temporary car boot style, some more established. Some have fika! I half wanted to visit one – I’m on the lookout for some specific bits and bobs for a secret musical project – but had to remind myself that we don’t have room in the van for any ‘tat’.
This is the word for the Swedish craze for all things American and vintage – Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, 1950s music and dress, and so on. Some estimates say there are now more restored vintage classic cars in Sweden than in the USA. One day we passed car after car after car – heading to a massive meet-up at Falköping . Our last night in Sweden was a Wild West spectacular at a bison farm – we thought we might see a few there and weren’t disappointed. Chevrolets, Dodges and this immaculate Oldsmobile…
In Sweden, this is an ancient law that provides the legal right of access to private, uncultivated land. You can:
Wander freely in forest and fields.
Pick berries, mushrooms, and wild flowers if they are not endangered.
Camp one night, without permission of the landowners, if it is not too close to a populated area.
Bathe, row, sail, paddle and drive motor boats on lakes, rivers and archipelagos.
Make fires (proceeding with extreme caution).
But you must not:
Damage growing trees or bushes.
Walk over fields in crop or through newly planted forest areas.
Take bird’s eggs or bird’s nests.
Leave garbage (paper, plastic, glass, etc…) in countryside.
This is amazing for wild campers! We found that nature reserve car parks were an ideal place to spend the nights – most of them had:
a toilet, often a compost toilet but most were really nice!
a fire pit
spectacular views, walks or paddleboarding
Bev got into exercising her Allemansrätt, picking bilberries/blueberries for some amazing pies…
As a result of staying at friend’s houses and free nights at nature reserves, our camping costs for Sweden were far lower than we expected and we loved it so much, we stayed a whole month.