It was just good luck that we had come to know Sven. We had first heard from him over two years ago when we were still in Mexico. By the time we hit Belize, only three months after leaving home, he had invited us to stay at his house when we got to Sweden. Great, we thought, this would be the perfect opportunity to stage a pilgrimage. An adventure twenty years in the making.
I had always wanted to go to Shmirgin, which of course rose to fame following the release of Wayne’s World 2. While it had been an eternity since I’d seen the film, one scene had always stuck with me. In the scene, Wayne flirts with a buxom Swedish secretary named Bjergen Kjergen, who hails from the Shmirgin fjords. I immediately took a liking to the place, and when I was in high school I even set my Yahoo Chat screen name to Shmirgin, which I used to converse over the newly popular interwebs with Sheebee223, who I would eventually trick into marrying me.
It therefore broke our hearts to tell Sven that we wouldn’t make it to Sweden, even though we were already in northern Europe.
“Dearest Sven,” we had written, “it breaks our hearts to inform you that we won’t be able to come to Sweden.” We went on to explain that the trip from Belgium to Stockholm would add 3,000 kilometers to our trip, while the impending expiration of our European visa would mean that we would have to turn back shortly after arriving.
“Hey cool dudes, why don’t just fly here? The airplanes work too, and are much faster than Nacho. Besides, what else are you gonna do, sit around and twiddle your fingers?”
Honestly it had never even occurred to us given our obvious inclination to drive everywhere. When we told Sven, he seemed pretty happy.
“I’m happy to be your guide, host, chef, or anything else except pole dancer actually…I can’t wait to have you here! I feel like Hammy in Over the Hedge.”
We purchased our tickets to Stockholm, where we would stay with Sven and his family for two weeks before flying onward to meet Nacho at the port in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I informed Sven of our itinerary, and reiterated how excited I was to finally eat Swedish Fish in their country of origin.
“Swedish Fish are an American candy invention, but when you get here I will feed you real Swedish fish.”
When our plane touched down we collected our backpacks and emerged from the arrivals gate into the chilly Scandinavian night.
“Hiya cool dudes! See how the airplanes work?” After loading our bags into the back of his Prius, Sven looked at me from the driver’s seat with shifty eyes and told me to open the glove box. As I did so, two large, white, unmarked bags fell into my hands and we sped off.
“One for you, one for Sheena,” he said, weaving between cars as we sped toward the city center. “This is real Swedish candy—you will find no American candy fish in there!”
Sven lives 20 kilometers outside of Stockholm on an island—as do many Swedes, given the fact that the country literally has over 200,000 islands—30,000 in the Stockholm archipelago alone. We left the airport and drove through Stockholm, and then Sven stopped the car on the side of a large thoroughfare overlooking the city. We got out.
“This is my city,” he said, staring out at the string of colored lights reflecting off of the bay in between moored sailboats. “It really is a beautiful city. I’m not just saying that because I live here.” We looked out in admiration at the scene before us for another minute, and then Sven broke the silence. “We should get the heck out of here before some cop decides to give me a super big ticket for parking in the middle of the street.”
In the mornings, Sven would head off to work and his wife Annmarie would load their two sons, Wilmer and Walter, into a bike trailer and pedal the twenty kilometers to work, dropping the boys off at daycare on the way. Sheena and I were on our own, and were given two bikes to use. We ate breakfast with the family and then pedaled out across the bridge and onto the bike path, which stretched all the way to downtown. You could get anywhere on the bike path, and as it neared the city it became even more impressive, having its own curving flyovers to cross major freeways, and it frequently zipped through parks and along the shoreline.
On a couple of evenings we loaded up the paddleboards in Sven’s VW Vanagon and brought them to the edge of the island to explore his corner of the archipelago. Given our latitude, which was approximately as far North as Anchorage, Alaska, the evening sun sliced nearly parallel to the horizon, causing the sunset to last a great long time. We paddled across the calm saltwater as the nighttime sun projected a kaleidoscope of color across the sky. Sweden was all right.
“You think I’m crazy?” Sven said as he paddled between us. “You should see those crazy bastards who speed skate from here all the way to Stockholm to go to the work in the winter when the ocean freezes!”
One evening over a dinner of barbecued Swedish fish on the patio, Sven and Annmarie regaled us with horrendous stories of their life under their “oppressive socialist regime,” as we in America like to call it. The 480 days of paid maternity and paternity leave for each child, which could be used at any time before the child’s eighth birthday. The free daycare, the free healthcare, the free university education, the 41 days of annual paid vacation for every worker. It was every terrible thing that our political pundits back home had warned us about. That day Annmarie had come home with a new carbon fiber pump for her bicycle. When asked where she got it, she said that they were being handed out to everyone who was riding on the bike path during rush hour to thank them for not driving. The heavy-handedness! The human rights abuses!
It occurred to me that all of those times back in India when kids would come up to us and say, “America number one!” the appropriate response would have been, “No, you must mean Sweden.”
“So Sven, have you ever heard of a town called Shmirgin?” He paused mid-chew, Swedish fish hanging from his fork, and his eyes became slits. He took another chew, thinking hard.
“Your pronunciation of our Swedish towns is terrible, man. Do you mean Smögen?” The pronunciation was similar, although my source was Wayne Campbell, so it was no wonder that I’d botched it. The Ö was pronounced in the way that a British person might say the middle of the word “work,” a sound that doesn’t really exist in American English.
“Yes! That’s it! It is the birthplace of Bjergen Kjergen! Is it far?”
“Hmm. Yes, it is somewhat far. But listen up dudes, you know next week I have to go to France to go windsurfing, right?”
“Right. Because of the forty one days of vacation for every worker.”
“That’s right cool guy, it ain’t easy being Swedish. Anyway, why don’t you take my Vanagon and do a Swedish tour for the week. It will be like a Smögen quest.”
I envisioned Bjergen Kjergen sitting at her secretarial desk. “Yes, a Shmirgin quest!”
We drove west from Stockholm under blue skies streaked with wispy smears of cloud. The road slowly snaked through a wide swath cut through the forest, gently rising and falling over hills scraped smooth by glaciers. As the hours ticked by little changed in the landscape; the road continued its trajectory through dense forest, a landscape that the last ice age ensured would offer no mountain vistas. By dinner time the sky was no darker than at midday, but we stopped at a serene roadside lake anyway and fired up the camp stove to make some pasta with sparkling bottled water.
Normally, had we been driving Nacho, we would have filled our water tanks before hitting the road. But with Sven’s tankless van, and given that we couldn’t seem to find a large water container to fill up, we found ourselves at the mercy of using bottled water for the week. Apparently this isn’t a “thing” in Sweden, and the only bottled water we would find for the duration of our Smögen Quest would be sparkling water. And unfortunately for us, despite Sweden’s oppressive socialist regime, the country’s economy is far healthier than America’s, causing our dollar to be virtually worthless in the land of Abba. The cost of the water used to boil our pasta had been approximately equal to an entire day’s food budget in Asia.
At eleven o’clock we called it a night. We brushed our teeth and washed our faces with designer sparkling water, pulled the couch into a bed, rolled out our sleeping bags, and laid down. After thirty minutes of tossing and turning, Sheena bellowed crankily from within her sleeping bag.
“It’s too f*!%g bright!”
Without any curtains, and given the nearly 24 hours of sunlight, we were essentially sleeping right out in the open with light streaming in from 360 degrees. I got up and propped various objects near the windows, hanging towels from fishing poles and leaning pieces of foam against the windows, but it was all for naught. At just after midnight it became dark enough to fall asleep.
At three o’clock in the morning the sun blasted through the van windows, bludgeoning us into consciousness against our will. We sat up, bags under our red eyes, swollen with fatigue. I took an expensive swig of sparkling water and blinked hard a few times to stop the vertigo. I wailed like a yeti as I stumbled out of my sleeping bag, slid the door open, and stumbled out into the bright sunshine in my wrinkly underwear.
As we emerged from the forest at Sweden’s west coast the landscape abruptly changed from dense trees to windswept low rolling rocks and bare hills. Giant, low, smooth boulders dotted the coast like sleeping turtles, their surfaces covered by deep scrapes inflicted by the slow motion passage of glaciers.
We arrived first in Gothenburg, where we stopped by the market to restock on a new case of sparkling water and some food, but just enough to keep us alive and scurvy-free, so high was the cost of everything.
“Bradley, these little cucumbers are four dollar each!”
“Sweet Jesus! What else can we eat?”
“How about these ten dollar crackers?”
Between the $8 per gallon fuel, the small fortune required to buy food, and our reliance on designer sparkling water, our Shmirgin Quest was turning into a battle of simple economic survival. Our first reality check came when we had gone to lunch with Sven’s boss, and the bill for our modest lunch of reindeer and herring at a simple café had come to $150. Passing a pub in Stockholm, I had noticed Westvleteren beer on the menu—of which I had hidden 48 bottles in Nacho—could be purchased for $100 per bottle!
“Keep in mind, dearest Sheena,” I said as we waited in the checkout line in Gothenburg. “This is our Shmirgin Quest, and I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. We will make it at any cost.” The checkout lady placed our salad greens in a bag, slid our designer water to the side, and requested in return a small fortune, which we begrudgingly handed over.
The Swedish coast is something from a fairy tale. Stereotypical, weathered wood shingle homes dot the shoreline, painted in primary colors or whitewashed. Fishing boats bob in the bays while small sailboats tack in and out of coves. Fishermen sort out their nets on the docks set against windswept, smooth boulder backdrops. On our first night on the coast we slept in front of a beach overlooking a cove, where I passed the evening fishing from a dock into the crystal clear water before retiring to the van for the world’s most expensive salad.
At around midnight we washed our faces with sparkling water under the twilight pastel-streaked sky, and then crawled into our sleeping bags where we tossed and turned until one in the morning, our movements illuminated by the twilight.
At three o’clock in the morning the bright sun awoke us through the windows and again I wailed like a yeti, signaling the premature start to a new day.
After a breakfast of crackers and pickled herring we were on our way northward, our swollen eyes regarding the windswept landscape as it passed our windows. We were finally Shmirgin bound.
“Oh my god I’m so tired, Sheena,” I said, bobbing my head from side to side.
“Oh me too, what are we going to do?,” she said as she rolled over in the passenger seat an went to sleep. I stared ahead, blinked my eyes several times and tried not to fall asleep at the wheel. I cursed our latitude and the omnipresent sun.
When at long last we pulled into Shmirgin, or rather, Smögen, there was a jubilant and victorious air about the van. We rounded a bend, crossed a bridge, and then came upon a wonderful coastal village set among the smooth boulders. Simple white and red homes clung to the rocks; they had shingled or planked siding, peaked windows and weathervanes, the kind of homes one would imagine to exist in a quaint Swedish fishing village. Bjergen Kjergen was one lucky lady to have been born here. We parked the van along the waterfront and I could almost hear Wayne Campbell’s voice saying “Excellent!”
We flung the doors open on our Mirth Mobile and tiredly faltered about, all a whirl of high fives and whoops.
“Party on, Sheena!”
“Party on, Brad!”
Days later, after having decided on a whim to drive to Norway, we finally arrived back at Sven’s house. It had been a magical week of (sleepless) camping in forests, along coastlines, and on lake shores. We had seen a bit of Scandinavia, and in doing so had made a pilgrimage to an important place from my childhood. Oh, and Sheena’s ancestral Norwegian homeland, but that came in a distant second to the Shmirgin Quest.
“Sheena, I’m so sleepy I could hurl,” I said, tilting my head to the side and flashing a big toothy grin.
“Brad, you need to stop pretending to be Wayne.”
We pulled the curtains and fell into a deep, comatose sleep. When we finally awoke, and being reunited with the internet for the first time in a week, I decided to pull up the clip from Wayne’s World in which Wayne flirts with Bjergen Kjergen of the Shmirgin fjords. I loaded the clip and we gathered around the screen in anticipation. Wayne opens the door and walks toward the buxom secretary, played by Drew Barrymore…
“Hi, um, we’re here to see Handsome Dan. My name is Wayne Campbell.”
“Ja, I know, ve’ve been expecting you, Vayne Campbell. I am Bjergen Kjergen.”
“Wow, I love your accent, where are you from?”
“I am from Sveden.”
“Oh really, whereabouts in Sweden?”
“Knjergen, near the Bjergen fjords.”
“Wow, nice to meet you Bjergen Kjergen from Knjergen near the Bjergen fjords. Hmm…Knjergen, that’s in the Klargen province, near the Bebjergen river?”
All at once my heart sank and I could feel Sheena staring at the side of my head. My stomach felt weak and I thought I might hurl. This couldn’t be.
“Um, Brad, did she just say she was from Knjergen? That sure doesn’t sound anything like ‘Shmirgin.'”
I sat there silently as it dawned on me that my whole life, or at least the last twenty years of it, was built on a lie. I searched for the words, but none came. We sat stunned, watching the rest of the clip. Wayne listed off the annual rainfall and chief exports of the Klargen province for Bjergen Kjergen.
“…And your chief export is modular furniture. I did a project on Sweden in the eighth grade.”
“Vell, I am impressed by your quest for knowledge. Educated men are rare.”
“It was really hard, I stayed up all night workin’ on it. And then the next day in gym class I was on the mini-tramp, and I got diarrhea … I really wish I hadn’t told you that.”
“Vell, I am sorry to hear of your illness, but since you have sacrificed your health for knowledge of my home country I find you very attractive, and I hope to make love to you in the near future.”
Now the camera cuts wide and we see a smile appear on Wayne’s face. He begins to walk away, and as he does he spreads his arms wide and does a pelvic thrust as he says the word:
Sheena turned back to face me, a look of disbelief on her face.
“Do you mean to tell me that Shmirgin isn’t even a real place? That we drove all the way across Sweden because of a pelvic thrust?”
I guess that’s just how things happen. All of us came to be, just as our arbitrary pilgrimage had, as a result of seemingly insignificant pelvic thrusts.
“I guess so,” I said. “But what else were we gonna do, sit around and twiddle our fingers?”