It was the day of the ‘Vikingarännet’, the world’s longest skating competition on natural ice. The track is a total of 80km, ending in the centre of Stockholm. My partner had signed up for the ordeal and headed off at 6.30 in the morning to catch the bus to the starting line. My job was, 6 hours later, to go down to the finish line and cheer and applaud and welcome him back.
At 2pm, I headed down to the lakeside. I passed a few weary-looking ice skaters on the way. Eventually, I arrived at the finishing line. A few tents were set up around a little podium for first, second and third place. A man with a microphone was walking around interviewing contestants who had finished and made it up the slope to the tent area. His voice echoed around the lakeside from strategically-placed loudspeakers. As I stood and waited, he approached one of the contestants who turned out to be an Australian. The Australian was exhausted. It was only the 5th time he had ever ice-skated.
Jokingly, he said to the interviewer, ‘there’ll be no Valentine’s Day romance today’.
‘Oh’ said the interviewer with typical direct Swedish communication style, ‘you mean you have no energy left for the bedroom?!’
The Australian looked a little embarrassed and said as he cringed, ‘Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.’
I decided to move away from the tent area and proceeded down the slope and across the frozen lake to the finishing area. A large, inflatable archway marked the end of the 80km race. Lots of people huddled around waiting. Silence prevailed.
As exhausted racers lumbered across the finishing line, the crowd did nothing. No reaction. No cheering. No bravos. No clapping mittens. Nothing. Just staring with blank expressions. The silence was almost oppressive. How does that feel, I wondered, to have acheived such a magnificent feat and to come back to this? 80 km is a very long way! And nobody showed any appreciation! Not outwardly anyway. The Swedish value of modesty was very clear at that moment.
As I saw my partner approaching across the ice, I started waving my arms and jumping up and down. Perhaps I overcompensated somewhat.
I clapped my gloves and, with steamy breath, I shouted ‘Yeah! Come on! Bravo! Well, done! Keep going!’
I shouted ‘Brilliant! Looking good! Yeah!’
My voice echoed out over the lake and was suspended in the air like an embarrassment.
Now, I am not an over-expressive type. But compared to the Swedes I experienced yesterday, I was positively Italian.
Yes, yesterday, I felt very foreign indeed.