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Here's the most pointless pastime of the Swedes

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Here's the most pointless pastime of the Swedes
Let's go skiing, they said. It will be fun, they said. Photo: Fredrik Schlyter/imagebank.sweden.se
06:59 CEST+02:00
No matter how hard he tried, Australian Oliver Gee just couldn't figure out why Swedes enjoy cross-country skiing so much.

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I've just spent a whole week on the Swedish side of the Norwegian border, with two extremely long and thin skis strapped to my feet.

I was told these things were called "cross-country" skis, and offered a more relaxed and enjoyable skiing adventure. In case you've never tried it or seen it on prime time Swedish TV (yes, seriously), cross-country skiing is essentially power walking with skis on your feet, usually on flat surfaces rather than downhill.

Forget about the perils of hurtling down the hills on the slalom slopes, cross-country is the best way to enjoy the outdoors in the Swedish winter (my Swedish fiancée and her family said).

My, how wrong they were.

But before we get into what I quickly realized was the most pointless pastime of the Swedes, we need a bit of context.

I'm a terrible skier. In fact, readers of The Local Sweden chewed me up and spat me out last time I complained about skiing, way back in 2012. There, I wrote that I just couldn't stand the discomfort, the danger, and the sheer senselessness of downhill skiing.

Sure, I'd been left in excruciating pain after I dislocated my shoulder during that fateful trip and vowed never to don skis again – and to tone down the complaining.

But now I've got a kind and loving Swedish woman by my side who promised me that a week of skiing with her family in the woods would be a much better experience.

"And besides," she said, "it's cross-country skiing. Even if you fall you can't get hurt. You're never going faster than walking speed."

My, how wrong she was.

It was probably three minutes before I fell the first time, in the car park. I'd just attached my skis and hadn't even reached the track yet.

My second fall was at the hill that led to the first track, about two minutes later.

"I thought there weren't any hills," I grumbled.

My, how wrong I was.

Turns out there are plenty of small slopes, but because your skis are always (supposed to be) inside these dug-out tracks, you're told to bend low and just let the track take you down the hill.

I gradually got better at the downhill parts, but what I couldn't for the life of me understand was the point of it all. If you're on perfectly flat ground, it's a huge effort to get momentum, so beginners like me were essentially waddling across the snowy plains. If you go uphill, you're absolutely waddling and you have to walk with your skis almost at a right angle to one another otherwise you'll slide backwards to your doom.

If you try to stride like the experienced Swedes, you're bound to fall over. That kind of finesse only comes with a lifetime of experience, I realized.

I looked at the whole family, my soon-to-be in-laws, and I wondered why they were spending four days marching through the snow. It seemed to me as pointless as going for a walk on a beach while wearing diving flippers.

Suddenly I found myself yearning for the adventure of the slalom hills, the risks of falling and rolling (to your doom). The skills in adjusting your pace, avoiding the other skiers, coming to an abrupt sideways halt and sending the snow flying.

But no, we were marching in single file for hours through the snow on skis so narrow that if you weren't perfectly balanced then you'd topple over. And believe me, I'd know.

By the end of the fourth day, when I thought I'd pretty much figured it out, I was convinced to take a more advanced track through the woods. The hills were steeper, the tracks seemed thinner, and the obstacles more plentiful.

It only took about ten minutes before I swerved to avoid a tree and, once again, dislocated the same shoulder that I'd dislocated six years ago.

I decided to walk back to the cabin. It was then I really got thinking about how pointless it all seemed to me. I just couldn't, for the life of me, understand why Swedes would actually do this to themselves for a week at a time.

Was it because it's physically impossible to go hiking when the snow is so deep, and skiing is the only option? Was it a sense of camaraderie that somehow isn't available by sitting around the fireplace in the cabin? Was it some kind of freedom that can't be found on the other end of a flight to the warmer climes of Southern Europe?

I don't know. Maybe it's the Australian in me that prevents me from ever truly enjoying the snow. I suppose I'll try it again in another six years. Maybe in a different form.

As for now, I better ice that shoulder again.

Oliver Gee has worked for The Local Sweden and The Local France. He currently hosts The Earful Tower podcast in Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.

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