ALISON ALLFREY revisits cross-country skiing, trying hard not to embarrass herself in front of Scandi friends…
How do you know if ‘längdskidåkning’ is for you if you’re from a ‘non-skiing nation’, as the Swedes are wont to call us? Cross-country skiing is the quieter, sometimes more sedate, often supremely exhausting cousin of downhill skiing. Swedes take it, like most things and especially outdoor pursuits, completely in their stride. Norwegians are totally addicted and it is the winter keystone of their phenomenal levels of fitness. So how would I fare?
Staying with friends outside Stockholm, most watery and elegant of European capitals and our erstwhile home for three years, I ventured back onto my cross-country skis, the ones for absolute amateurs.
As we ventured up to Järvsö, a charming, low-key town on a dramatic river three hours north of Stockholm, the utter emptiness, calm and silence of Sweden embraced us. This was what I had been missing! You breathe really deeply, your shoulders relax, the chill air arrests and intoxicates you. This is a country where you feel in complete harmony with nature and released from the clamour of modern life. And nowhere more so than circling a vast frozen lake, the sun glimmering through snow clad trees, swinging your hips diagonally to propel your skis forward in their perfectly carved tracks. The effort quickens the pulse, the swings develop a hypnotic rhythm, this is really something. My hips fall back into the movement my Norwegian friend so painstakingly taught me in our Swedish days, aiming to avoid a duck-like waddle in favour of a smooth, efficient glide in the groove. We’ve intentionally opted for an almost entirely flat route, previous experience having revealed the difficulty of tackling sharp inclines on very thin, light skis in a V shape to prevent moving backwards. That’s another challenge, but is perhaps Stage 2 and not for the rusty. I wonder at the ability of this sport to bring you into a state of exultation, as the resolute snow of Sweden – welcome this winter as never before, there having been a dearth ascribed to climate change – becomes a real joy rather than a battle.
“This is a country where you feel in complete harmony with nature and released from the clamour of modern life.”
I find myself reflecting once more upon the extraordinary way in which different peoples are conditioned by their landscapes, as I follow my great friend and former neighbour, Helena, around the track. She makes it look so entirely effortless, she the picture of Swedish vigour and peak winter fitness, me in reasonable shape thanks to exertions with our new puppy and an addiction to tennis, but certainly not a natural. The Swedes are distinct in the way they embrace the seasons wholeheartedly and revel in all manner of sports designed to leverage what they have in spades – in winter snow and ice usually of epic proportions, and in summer water of stunning clarity spread across 90,000 lakes, not to mention Stockholm’s archipelago of more than 25,000 islands opening the floodgates to sailing, boating and fishing unbounded. Sweden is a paradise for those who love the outdoors – get your skis on and try it! Then you’ll sleep like a baby.
ALISON ALLFREY is the author of So Sweden: Living Differently, written about her time living in Sweden, and available to buy now on Amazon.
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