First Trip Abroad (ish) – Sweden Part I
This entire blog is a sham. The title ‘First Time Wanderer’ may lead the casual reader to believe that any exploits are part of a maiden voyage out of the country. In actual fact, my first trip abroad was to France when I was four. It was with my parents, and I don’t think that it can really be counted, as my only memories are of the large bathtub that belonged to the family friends that we stayed with, and being incredibly disappointed that we couldn’t go to Disneyland Paris.
Skip forward 24 and a half years. Laura turned to me – with my burgeoning wanderlust – and asked me if I could go anywhere in the world, where I would want to go. I said Iceland, but quickly stated that I didn’t want to go there for my first trip abroad. I wanted to save it. So I opted for Norway. I tend to favour colder climes apparently.
Fast forward another couple of months, and Laura and I have booked a trip to Norway, along with a number of friends. Only there’s one problem – they’re mostly Laura’s friends, and wanting to be the cool recently acquired boyfriend, I’d rather that they didn’t see me breaking down and openly weeping at the concept of flying for the first time, as I hadn’t yet been on a plane whilst airborne. We hurriedly organised a trip elsewhere, requiring a place fulfilling only 3 criteria:
- Neither of us had been there (easy in my case)
- We had to fly to get there
- It had to be cheap
At this point I had no idea where to begin with planning a first trip abroad. Flights were a mystery. Connections seemed problematic. Accommodation presumably worked the same way as domestically, but what on earth is an Airbnb?
Laura introduced me to Skyscanner, which rapidly became an obsession – particularly the map view, where you could see any number of direct flights, along with prices that were the absolute cheapest offering that they had on their records. I spent many mornings just browsing to get a vague idea of how cheap the flight component of the trip would be – occasionally pitching suggestions for my first trip abroad, along with Airbnb-assisted plans for where we could potentially stay and how we could get there, with all transport/accommodation costs accounted for. I enjoyed it, but it was still pretty tough.
Copenhagen looked lovely, but Laura had been there a couple of years previous. Dublin sounded great, but was still a little close to home. Cologne was wonderfully cheap, but only on days where we couldn’t secure time off together. We eventually settled on Gothenburg.
A couple of months on, we’d purchased tickets to Gothenburg for 2 days. I’d dutifully packed my rucksack with everything that Gothenburg was likely to throw at us in early September. Electronics were in their own freezer bags easily accessible. Socks of both a thick and thin variety were available. I’d purchased a new raincoat. Everything was set for my first trip abroad.
The start of the trip was not hugely promising. The coach to Stansted ended up arriving an hour late. During this time, an operator from the local cab company kept walking over – at 5 minute intervals – to tell us how the coach hadn’t even turned up the previous week.
Once on the bus, I snatched a couple of hours sleep, and we arrived at Stansted at 4:20. This marked the first time that I’d been in an airport, and I was surprised to find that it was practically silent – there was hardly anyone there. This silence was shattered when, at around half 4, the airport suddenly heaved to life. The formerly quiet security desks were inexplicably thronging with people, wheeling cases around with dogged purpose, clanging baggage into trays and generally making quite a racket. As someone who hadn’t experienced this before, it was suddenly a lot to take in, as we pulled up to unpack our bags and rid ourselves of bottles.
Once that was done, we proceeded to the security gates, where Laura was quite forceful in reminding me to place my iPad and camera separately in a tray, but neglected to tell me that my belt would trigger the metal detector on the way through. One quick scan and pat-down later, we were free to move onto the duty free.
Viewed as a novelty, duty free is a curious place. I’ve heard a great deal about it over the years, usually accompanied by an enthusiastic middle aged face, effusively discussing the amazing value of drinks and cigarettes that they have procured. I wasn’t anticipating a purchase of either of these items, as we were saving our limited bag space for trinkets from Sweden itself. Even so, I still partook in a spot of window-shopping and was horrified to discover that the prices weren’t all that different to a sale in a supermarket. Perhaps Amazon and their ilk have killed off the novelty of dodging VAT. We stocked up on essential toiletries and went to find somewhere for an early breakfast.
Unfortunately the throng of people that had accompanied us had overtaken us as we passed through security (I’d like to blame the pat-down), and were now casually enjoying woefully overpriced drinks and meals at every eatery that Stansted had to offer. We settled on a liquid breakfast, which I hoped would, in turn, settle my preflight jitters. Opting for an expensive concoction served by a fairly aloof bar lady, I soon found myself regretting the fact that I couldn’t afford another, and that my slightly fuzzy state would not last until our flight, due to take off in some three hours.
We spent a good portion of that time people watching. There was – unsurprisingly – a lot of variety on offer in Stansted airport at 5am on a Friday morning. There were stag dos and hen parties, presumably off to somewhere where the drinks were cheap and the strippers even cheaper. There were men dressed in sharp attire, I figured off to some important meeting. There were families, featuring nagging parents, accompanied by kids who looked ecstatic at the sheer fact that they were up and about at such an early time in the morning. I would have loved to have shared in their enthusiasm, but with the looming spectre of my first flight on the horizon, and a decreasing blood alcohol level, I could not.
Eventually our gate came up. We walked straight there, and after a little more waiting – and a little more time in which to completely lose the beneficial effects of a stiff drink – we boarded the plane. For my first trip abroad we were flying Ryanair, and whilst I was under no illusion that it was going to be like the 1960s heyday of airlines, I was a little surprised to see that it was more like a coach than a plane. That said, the seats were reasonably comfortable, albeit lacking much in terms of frills. In flight entertainment was provided in the form of a list of safety instructions stuck to the rear of the seat in front, along with some fairly costly options of tea, coffee or – I suspected at a premium – something stronger.
I had been pre-warned not to expect a lavish performance in the safety briefing, but I was shocked to discover that the well-being of the people aboard the plane was to be entrusted to a lethargic lip-synced performance from a bored looking air hostess, delivered with all the gusto of a checkout assistant offering a bag at Poundland. This was probably a bit of a harsh judgement, but my pre-flight nerves made me yearn for something delivered with a little more enthusiasm. Still, I diligently listened whilst others chatted, wondering if ‘the unlikely event of the plane landing in water’ meant that the plane was unlikely to need to land in the water, or if the plane would explode in a failed attempt at landing in water. Either way, people continued to chat away through this life-or-death briefing, and I obsessed over the poorly illustrated instructions on the headrest, in case I’d missed something.
With the safety speech out of the way, it came to the moment that I’d been anticipating and apprehensive over. Being something of an outlier, taking my first trip abroad aged 28, I had heard many things about flying from various friends. These ranged from supportive to sadistic. A number had told me that the takeoff was exciting, that a fear of heights wouldn’t matter as you’re unaware of the altitude of the plane. One friend – the sadist – reveled in telling me about the time that he experienced turbulence so bad that he thought he was going to die.
I actually found the takeoff to be quite exhilarating, and didn’t really find the height to be an issue. Turbulence was limited. The only thing that I found to be a particular issue was the gentle banking of the plane – I attributed this to the fact that when I’m playing games featuring pilot skills, any sort of banking is the precursor to a quick and fiery death.
When we took off, the weather at Stansted was overcast with some rain, but during the extensive climb through various layers of cloud, the weather became much nicer, as sullen greys gave way to whites and eventually to clear blue sky. The clouds below were obscuring the ground, but I was delighted to see the vertical aspects of the clouds, invisible from the ground. Soon the plane was descending towards Gothenburg, and the brief bit of farmland we saw as we ascended away from Stansted had given way to the dark greens and greys of Sweden’s rather more dramatic topography. There were huge lakes bordered by small red houses, there were large areas of bare grey rock mottled with patches of green, there were great swathes of forests of deep greens and browns. I fell in love right away.
One soft landing later, we were in Sweden, ready to begin my first trip abroad.