It was early on a sunless Saturday and we faced two and half hours on a bus from Stockholm to the ski resort Romme Alpin in Dalarna. Stefan, our silver-haired driver, had a store of jokes.
“You can choose among the movies,” he said, then switched on a forward positioned camera. Suddenly on the monitors was the road rolling under us. The camera’s infidelity produced a dirty yellow stain where there should have been paler light; otherwise you could see that outside was smudgy, cold and grey.
“Well, children, how about the film ‘Stefan drives all the way to Romme’?” he queried in a dead-pan sing-song voice.
“Nooo!” laughed the children. Now that he had our attention he allowed the camera to roll for another 5 minutes.
In the seat pockets there were bags, the sort from a grocer. “Put all your garbage in them,” intoned Stefan, “… unless you wish to sit in trash on the way home.”
The movie was a musical, starring dancing animals whose eyes were disturbingly large and close together. “Madagascar… No, Madagascar 2,” pronounced my daughter unenthusiastically.
I ate breakfast, putting every bit of trash in the plastic bag. Trash is, of course, a big part of skiing. Many learn on small hills that began as landfills. Earth compacted refuse is all you need. Swedish Olympic skier Maria Pietilae-Holmner learned on Bräntberget in Umeå, which boasts just 48 meters of vertical drop. Stockholm’s Hammarbybacken and Väsjöbacken offer just over 80 meters. Romme has 250, but only the flatness of Sweden allows us to consider it a mountain. It is just big enough to satisfy the urge to ski.
Don’t worry about ungroomed powder. The resort has 500 snow cannons that produce a mutilated beauty: the pines are white, not with H2O crystal dust, but old freezer box rime.
The utter lack of sun light made Saturday a bit cold. Still the fresh air and rush of speed gave everyone a bit of a charge. Back on the bus to the Galaxen hotel in Börlänge Stefan told us that there was some sort of Swedish dance band social event for the horse-racing crowd: “You’ve a chance of some hot tips for the trotters.”
Leaving my room on the 5th floor at 5:30 in the evening, I encountered two laughing women in their underwear on either side of a man in a similar state of undress. Apparently the hotel had a sauna or hot tub. I took the next elevator down and headed for the “sports bar”.
The choice of beers was paltry but they had ale from Oppigårds, a class Swedish microbrewery. The bartender was surprised at my order and had to find out whether they actually had any. “I don’t know the price,” he said, clutching the bottle as if were a fine single malt. The price was steep, 54 kronor for 33cl.
A crowd of people started to drift in. You could tell it was not Stockholm from the fashion. There was a woman in a tight short dress of metallic sequins and another who had a let’s dance dress with gauze folds around the top. For the most part all eyes were on the horse racing anyway.
Deciding to go I glanced at my receipt and noticed a charge for a 50cl bottle. I went back to the bar, and in return I got back a five kronor piece and a hostile glare.
Galaxen is the largest conference center in Dalarna. In an auditorium on the other side a schlager band with a whimsical English name was sound testing. As they struggled to perform in the same key, a man strode up, took me under the arm began to march me out as if he were security. When I stared at him he became somewhat chagrined: “I thought you were one of us sneaking in to peek.” Stefan had hinted at the importance of dance bands and horse-racing in the steel factory and paper mill town, but I hadn’t really appreciated it.
Our taco buffet dinner consisted of large dishes of fried ground beef on a hotplate. Everything else was cold. Besides onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, most of it came from a can (corn), jar (salsa sauce) or box (taco shells). My portion of the ski, hotel and bus package cost 1,600 kronor, not including the cost of rental equipment. The dinner was an additional 125 kronor per person. Mashed potatoes and Swedish meatballs and gravy at IKEA would have been better but Börlänge does not yet have one.
My room was immaculate and comfortable. After a hot shower and some channel surfing, sleep came easily. There were some inebriated shrieks in the night, but they barely disturbed me. In the morning a pair of gartered black nylons lay discarded by the lift.
The breakfast buffet was good: I wolfed down perfect scrambled eggs, ham and tomatoes. For toast there were jars of haute cuisine jam and marmalade.
The sun was bright at 9am. Revving the bus, Stefan was in a good mood and began to scold us finely for having strewn our ski equipment about the luggage compartment. Neatness was impossible since the rented equipment had no racks or bags. Stefan had to go back for those who had slept in and his rhetorical plan was to talk us into putting all the skis in order. But just as we pulled into Romme his speech suddenly faltered as he realized the bus had slowed too much to handle the upward slope at the entrance. As the back wheels spun impotently, silence descended. Stefan backed up and tried again, but we could not gather enough momentum, and rocking did not help.
Within two or three minute 8 cars were backed up behind us. After a 5 or 10 minutes the cars turned round and headed for another entrance. A man on an all-terrain vehicle drove up.
“Gravel is on its way,” said Stefan.
Five buses and some more cars pulled up behind. We rocked further with gravel but still not enough. Now even the buses reversed awkwardly back the way they had come. And no sooner had the second convoy departed, but now a new lot of cars arrived. We stewed in embarrassment.
“These boxes cost 4 million kronor but they don’t always work,” said Stefan over the PA system. Finally, a tractor towed us. Stefan got a round of loud applause.
It was a good moment for Sweden. Not a single car horn had been honked. The traffic jams had melted with nary a single angry word. No one had stormed about. The passengers had not talked sedition. In the parking lot our solidarity vanished; everyone grabbed their stuff and ran off, leaving Stefan to deal with the unclaimed skis and bags scattered on the ground. Coatless he stood with cigarette in hand and surveyed the mess.
I helped him toss the junk back in, including a helmet that could have been crushed under the bus. I couldn’t remember what my daughters’ rental equipment looked like and could only hope it was amongst the mess.
“It’s always like this,” sighed Stefan. He had pouches under his eyes and I couldn’t help but wonder how many years someone could put into such a hard job.
My 12-year-old’s skis and poles were gone and in their place were the poles of an adult and skis of smaller child. The rental equipment service tech, a young woman with a screw driver, quickly found replacements and adjusted the bindings.
“It happens all the time,” she explained, “People come out from the restaurant and take someone else’s skis.” In theory the mix ups could have been a disaster, but systematic Swedish pragmatism shone through again.
The skiing was great. The lift card system is electronic, sparing the need for an arm band. To minimize time in the lift queue you can take the singles line to the 6-man chair. More than half the time the lift operators could keep me and my daughter on the same trip up. We skied pretty much non-stop until it was time for the drive back to Stockholm. She even wanted to finish with a run down Götes Brant, the steepest going.
Romme has some the new southern runs. They aren’t very challenging, but they catch the sun. There was a classic moment in mid-afternoon when we decided to buy burgers at the outdoor grill. The line was slow but there was no hurry. A four or five-year-old girl whose parents stood before us in the line was resting under a pine. She lay on her back in the bright snow with eyes half-closed, not sleeping but just drinking in the sounds around her.
I can’t remember what movie Stefan came up with on the return trip, but it didn’t matter because it been a really a perfect day.