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Saddle sore in Sweden: Trying to beat the no booze blues

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Saddle sore in Sweden: Trying to beat the no booze blues
10:19 CEST+02:00
In his book Cycling Back to Happiness, English journalist Bernie Friend covers 6,000 kilometres of northern Europe on a bicycle in a bid to overcome his paranoia. After a gruelling day in the saddle he looks forward to a beer at the Swedish Tourist Association (STF) hostel in Åsa in western Sweden. But the proprietor has other ideas. Part two of three.

The greatest thing about STF hostels is that they are like Garbage Pail Kids. No two are the same and you never quite know what you're going to get. Åsa's offering was a selection of blue wooden chalets, lifted up on ramps, cradled gently by a forest glade cutting next to the road.

Claiming a bottom bunk and nodding off reading names scratched into the wood above my head (a lot of girls loved Christoffer), I dragged my smelly body to the shower on awakening, scrubbed a few pairs of padded pants in the soap suds and hung up a wet tent in the wardrobe. I was revitalised, able to walk again and ready for a thirst quencher.

But there was no beer on sale at the driest wagon in town. The hostel doubled up as a meeting hall for the Swedish Temperance Organisation, IOGT, and operated a zero tolerance alcohol policy. Established in 1979, the action group combats increasing alcohol consumption and drug abuse, which they believe is having a detrimental nationwide affect on social society.

IOGT has 60,000 members and 700 temperance halls, using sport and leisure activities to get through to kids before they pick up a glass, while attempting to change the attitudes of already pickled parents. They also try to influence the country's political agenda, lobbying the European Union to raise the legal drinking age in Sweden. The group is self-funded, raising money through a lottery system played by 140,000 Swedes every month. Gambling seemed to be tolerated then.

To buy strong alcohol in Sweden you must be aged 20 or over. But that's not enough for IOGT, which claims the EU's desire to relax drinking laws and lower alcohol tariffs will lead to more people picking up the bottle, comparable to the figures from Sweden's darkest drinking days 125 years ago.

In the 1800s virtually every household made and sold their own hooch. Swedes were guzzling an average 45 litres of pure firewater from 175,000 distillers every year, using enormous amounts of grain and potatoes that could have been eaten as food. Sweden may have a universal reputation of being tall, blond, athletic, reserved and nonaggressive, but in fact it harbours a nation of thirsty pissheads who can't wait to get down the pub.

Hefty rationing was introduced during the First World War, restricting a parched population with the shakes to just two litres of liquor every three months. The throat screws were tightened further by banning beer.

This unpopular scheme wasn't abolished until 1955, replaced by the Systembolaget, a government run chain of alcohol stores. Systembolaget is the largest purchaser in the world of wine and spirits from around the globe. A cross between a pharmacy and a supermarket deli counter, customers take tickets from a wall dispenser and wait patiently to be sold bottles imprisoned in shackled glass viewing cabinets and beers stacked on hidden shelves behind tills.

To this day it is the only place you can buy booze containing more than 3.5 per cent alcohol volume and opening is restricted to 6pm during the week and 1pm on a Saturday, with Sundays shut for hangovers. All profit margins are exactly the same, but all prices are based on alcohol content.

Hostel Åsa was run by a strict tea-totaller, Ann-Sofi, who was in favour of seeing the age limit for buying alcohol radically increased. I bet it wasn't much fun round her house at Christmas and birthdays. ‘So how high should the drinking age be?' I asked.

‘As high as possible. Up and up. Keep on going,' she hit back with fanatical zeal.

‘Do you drink?'

‘No.'

‘What. Never?'

‘No.'

‘Have you ever?'

‘No. Never since I was born. Not in my whole life. Not even a single sip of red wine with a meal.'

Whatever happened to don't knock it, until you've tried it? I didn't understand how somebody could be so passionately dismissive, without actually ever experiencing what they condemned. Ann-Sofi had never even been tipsy.

As I watched her young kids joyfully running up and down the stairs, I wondered if they would be allowed to make their own minds up about the evils of alcohol, free from brainwashing. I hoped she would let them follow their own future paths.

A few hundred yards down the road, Friday evening was already in full swing as Åsa's cheering and screaming middle-aged chain-smokers piled into the bevvies.

Two restaurants, Thai and Italian, doubled up as bars and the locals were already well oiled at 7pm. There didn't appear to be much temperance observed here and feelings of host projected guilt soon dissolved when I spotted the hostel cleaner swooping down on a few Falcon beers at the bar.

A roof top pub with a wooden veranda offered an unfriendly nightcap, served up by a couple of sour-faced blonde glamour pussies, far too big for their bras, preening themselves at the bar. No wonder it was dead as a dinosaur. But there was plasma screen entertainment, of sorts, a time warped Swedish take on Britain's Got Talent.

The cream of the country's backward acts had managed to make the grand final of Talang 2007, one of Sweden's top three TV shows. Rockingrings Maria twirled numerous hula hoops, Robotman, an anorexic Terminator, complete with sunglasses and black leather jacket, danced like a slow motion playground steam train, and a sickening little shit break danced and moon walked in a trilby, milking the elderly crowd with a helium powered ‘I love you' at the end of his act.

But move over Nookie Bear, the winner was Zillah and Totte, a pretty ventriloquist with her arm stuffed up a smiling puppet monkey's backside. A victory for precious young talent and nothing whatsoever to do with a nicely toned set of pins reaching out of a risqué short green skirt.

Chancing another stony Medusa stare from the miserable fake tanned fillies, I snatched a newspaper off the bar, Aftonbladet, one of Sweden's national rags. I nearly rubbed my eyes out of their sockets after reading the bold black capped front page headline, ‘Piss Ocksa'. Translated as ‘Piss Also' in English, a photograph, leaving nothing to the imagination, showed a woman pulling up a red dress and peeing in a cup.

You could even see the urine dribbling down her legs. A special report inside revealed this was in fact a work of abstract living art, with its creator, Itziar Okariz, attempting to prove ‘this is not just a man's world' by standing up for a slash in the north of Sweden.

But her thunder was stolen by another artist, bearded Terry Waite clone Dorinel Marc, who placed a cup under her leaking body, before scooping it up and having a drink.

If this was his vile stab at trying to re-establish men as the dominant race, then I'm all for parity with the fairer sex. This was madness. I needed the confined safety of the temperance hall.

'Cycling Back to Happiness' (ISBN 9781906206710) is published by Pen Press on April 28th, 2008, and is available to buy and order in all book stores across Europe. For the rest of the world visit amazon.co.uk or contact info@penpress.co.uk.

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