Today, my far-northern foray brings me to Vilhelmina, named in history after a certain queen who was ousted from the throne shortly after being immortalised in the names of the towns of Vilhelmina, and Dorotea which I had passed yesterday. And it’s refreshing to spend a little time focusing on a settlement after pondering the endless forest for so long.
I am greeted by the usual welcoming party. This is always a man in his late teens, driving a second-hand BMW with illegally-tinted windows and a noticeable problem with his vehicle’s soundproofing. Generally, he pulls into a garage forecourt, glances my way and pretends he hasn’t, executes with precision a 180-degree handbrake turn and lurches off in the direction he came from. If particularly lucky, he may have a girl in the passenger seat.
This pattern repeats itself with clockwork predictability in every noteworthy settlement to which I come. Small-town mentality rules up here in the north. I am continually puzzled by what appears to be a sad lack of imagination in the youth of places like this. Is there really nothing better to do?
This puzzle, and that of other kinds of human behaviour, fuels meandering train-journeys-of-thought while I’m riding. Not just the given example of cruisin’ in automobiles, but other displays of carefully-chosen lifestyle-subscription, manifesting themselves in hair colour and style, clothing, behaviour, hobbies or lack thereof, choice of career, accumulation of material posessions, drinking habits, and what-not.
Answers are not easily forthcoming. Is it some tribal instinct coming to the forefront? With no need to take on the responsibility of providing life’s essentials — supermarkets and state welfare do that — do confused, underdeveloped adolescents just need to attach themselves to an invented ‘tribe’ of boy racers / skate kids / fixie-riding scarf-wearers / insert lifestyle here? Is it a fear of looking inwards and seeing something more ambitious; grabbing faintly at the heart but carrying with it a numbing risk of financial instability or social rejection?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s BMW-man’s sole ambition in life to continuously drive in circles around the streets of Vilhelmina, pumping insensible bass-lines into the brains of passers-by. But I suspect that this may not truly be the case. Sweden is a liberal place behind these little self-contained universes, and members of society have the opportunity to pursue pretty much any life they choose — given the motivation and clarity of mind to do so.
Something in these towns, however, does make me nostalgic for my childhood days in rural England; the days when I knew the name of everyone on my street, when village gatherings and coffee mornings were something to look forward to, when those invisible connecting strands that tied the community together were still hanging. This odd notion takes me back almost twenty years, and sets off yet another tangential thought process.
Nowadays, one might argue that these connections have moved from our real-life neighbourhoods to our online social networks. But is that a sustainable replacement for the physical community? Can the edited representations of our associates’ lives replace spending actual time with them? Does reading this blog give you the same experience as spending a month on the road in northern Europe?
I feel that kind of physical community here, and in my tangle of online and offline journeymaking, there’s something undeniably good about it.
And in the meantime, it’s time to stop whingeing, because I’ve been offered a bed for the night by the deputy head of the local secondary school, and funnily enough there’s going to be a leaving party at the Hotel Wilhelmina for a colleague tonight — sauna, spa and an extensive hot buffet.
Do I want to come along?