After the sticker shock of Oslo and the tourist lifestyle of the past 10 days, we are eager to finally be heading to our first host.
“Are you Americans?” Hans asked as he extends his hand.
“Yep. Are you Hans?” I reply. “Thanks for picking us up.”
We arranged our stay with Hans through HelpX. His profile said that they needed help renovating and updating their estate to become an arts center. Being interested in the arts ourselves, we thought this was a good fit for our first volunteer assignment. And since Charlottenberg is just a two-hour train ride from Oslo, a small town near the Norwegian/Swedish border, we figured the location was pretty convenient too.
We deposited our bags in the trunk of Hans’s car and climbed into the passenger seats. As we drove away from the train station, he gave us a brief but informative tour of the town.
“Here is a big shopping center,” Hans gestures to a large complex of buildings. If not for the Swedish writing on the advertisements, the shopping center could have easily been a dupe for any outlet mall I’ve ever seen in America’s suburbs. With its massive parking lot and colorful display of store logos, it almost felt like home. “There are only 2,000 people who live in this area. It is a very small town. This shopping center is obviously not for us. It’s for the Norwegians. They will cross the border to buy their food, alcohol, and cigarettes. Sweden is cheaper than Norway, you see.”
Arriving at Norra Mon
Hans’s property is not far from the train station. We travel down the birch-tree-lined two-lane highway, and after no more than ten minutes, we are pulling into the gravel driveway of Norra Mon. Surrounded by fields on one side and horse stables on the other, Norra Mon is a large, isolated building with a large garden to match.
“Welcome to our small home.” Hans jokes.
We pull our belongings from the car and Hans invites us inside. We get only a small peek at the interior of the building before we are in the main hall. The space is cavernous and the way that tables and chairs are arranged around the room reminds me of a mess hall at summer camp. Art – paintings and ceramic sculptures – litter every corner of the space. The big windows look out onto several horse corrals. This evening, young girls are perfecting the trot.
Birgitta, Hans’s wife, is waiting at one of the tables to meet us. After greetings are exchanged, she tells us to put our stuff down and get ready for dinner. Over a simple meal of homemade falafel and rice, we learn about the history and future of Norra Mon.
Historically, it was a home for “unwanted” people. In Sweden, there used to be a lot of these places, according to Hans. They were open to anyone who didn’t have somewhere else to go – old people, orphans, even the unemployable. After that, it was used for a hostel. Hans and Birgitta bought the place nearly 10 years ago with the intent of turning it into a multi-functional space – a B&B, cafe, art center, gallery. Now they want to transform it into an artist retreat and they want to upgrade the facilities so that they can live more sustainably. They also want to be able to host workshops on a variety of topics including gardening, arts & crafts, sustainable living, straw bale house making, and more.
During dinner, we also learn a bit about our hosts. Hans and Birgitta have four adult children scattered around various parts of the world – Stockholm, Chicago, Costa Rica, and Lappland. They are both artists. Hans makes a living by selling concrete garden art at local markets. But their interest lies mostly in sharing their knowledge and philosophies with others. We talk for a long time before finally growing tried enough for bed. And, even then, it was actually hard to believe that it was bedtime. Although it was probably sometime after 10 PM, there is just enough sunlight to see comfortably without the lights on.
The next day we learn that winter lasted longer than usual and spring never really arrived this year. Now that the weather is finally changing, we would be spending most of our time weeding and clearing the garden of winter debris.
We work a leisurely five hours a day. Hans and Birgitta are insistent that we not work too hard. It is simply not their style.
Each meal is spent comparing and contrasting Swedish and American culture and politics. Hans keeps up on world news and has much information and opinions to offer. The conversations are long and interesting. We probably spend more time sitting around the table talking than we had anticipated, but, ultimately, that’s what this trip is about. Learning how other people live their lives and how they see the world.
It’s a peaceful two weeks. I mean, there isn’t a whole lot to do while isolated in the Swedish countryside. But it is exactly what we need. We need time to settle into our new lives. And to reflect on the choices we’ve made and to prepare for the rest of our journey. We need to let our new reality sink in (as much as it can anyway). This new reality that is defined by change. I’m not so sure that it can really ever sink in… We’ll see.