Guest feature focusing on my recent visit to Riga, Latvia, finding out about the country’s literature scene.
Guest feature focusing on my recent visit to Riga, Latvia, finding out about the country’s literature scene.
More snow, please! Thanks!
My time in snowy Åre is coming to an end and I’ll soon be off to nearby city Östersund, but first I have one more morning on the slopes with an added bonus activity.
For my last day on the slopes, the weather has improved, the wind’s died down and there’s plenty of fluffy powder. Finally, that heavy feeling of my legs not quite obeying me has disappeared and I can do the red runs quite comfortably. As per usual, this happens just in time for me to move on and head elsewhere. This isn’t just a ski day though, I also have a beer-tasting session at lunchtime – it’s a hard life for the working journalist. I’ve never come across an on-slope brewery before, never mind skied to one. This will be exciting! Svartbergets fjällbryggeri, a micro mountain brewery opened in 2017, has promised to let me try some of their brews, even though I’ve confessed to being more of a wine buff (www.svartberget.se). Having come this far, I figure the least I can do is sample their beers and, blow me, they’re good. I try the Weiβbier, the so-called Tropical Blizzard – unsurprisingly with very fruity notes – Smoky Mountain and Stövelbranten, the latter a chocolate stout. Much to my surprise, I like all of them, but in particular Smoky Mountain, a rauchbier – it’s so smoky it smells like smoked ham (probably the reason why I like it so much). Stövelbranten (Boot precipice), by the way, is named after a nearby steep slope, which in turn got its name when two old geezers clearing the forest found a pair of boots dangling from a large spruce… Jämtland is full of slightly bizarre stories like that.
In the afternoon, I bid Åre farewell and hop on the train to Östersund, Jämtland’s main hub. Maybe it’s the beer effect – I’m suddenly shattered and struggle to keep my eyes open. The train’s final destination is Sundsvall, several hours further east and I don’t particularly want to wake up there, although I’m sure it’s a very nice town too.
Luckily, I perk up at the thought of doing Östersund by evening and as soon as I’ve checked in to my hotel, I’m off to explore the local winter baths. Unfortunately, I’m a bit early – by 2 whole weeks, to be precise – and although there is plenty of snow already, the so-called Winter Park, of which the winter baths form part, is not fully open yet (http://vinterparken.se/summary-in-english/). Still, I get to try out the outdoor hot tub, on the shores of Lake Storsjön with lovely views of the lit-up, snowy slopes opposite. When the park is fully operational, a lakeside ice hole is opened up, for the brave to dunk themselves in. Alas, said ice hole has yet to be created and, call me bizarre, but I am sorely disappointed. The hot tub is soooo hot, I would have welcomed an icy dip. Staying cool in Östersund in winter isn’t usually a problem though and once out of the hot tub, I quickly chill out again. Next up is dinner at Jazzköket and that’s quite an experience too (https://www.jazzkoket.se/english). Jazzköket is decidedly and unashamedly hipster. Your waiter will be telling you which farm the meat came from, there’ll be ingredients included that you can’t spell or pronounce, unless you’re in the know, and it’s all a bit “complex”. I feel oddly old-fashioned for not fancying a cocktail that contains actual cheese or chanterelles. In the end I opt for the cheese one – Ljugarbaronen – which doesn’t taste of cheese, but of soap, mostly. The food, however, cannot be faulted and after a rocky start, Jazzköket is a winner. I have set menu no.2 which includes a mushroom dish, a cod dish and, star of the evening, an oxtail dish, washed down with a glass of Portuguese touriga nacional red wine. Good start to my Östersund stay.
Cross-country skiing and biathlon:
Next morning I have a cross-country skiing lesson lined up, but sadly I’m not a very good student. Having grown up in rural Sweden, I feel I can already cross-country ski. Of course skis and equipment have vastly improved since I was a regular skier in the 1980s and I’m pleasantly surprised by both. My instructor, Mattias, valiantly sets out to improve my technique. I fall over twice and my approach is best described as “ass-over-tit”. I explain that I’d much rather just “hit the ski tracks” (for want of a better expression). Thankfully, he’s flexible in his lesson plan and we ski the 5-km track together, taking the scenic route through the forest, along the shores of a small, frozen lake and I’m loving it. When we get back after our ski session, it’s time for me to do some shooting. Yes, shooting. Biathlon shooting, that is. I have to confess I’ve never held a rifle in my life, not even a toy one and I’m slightly perturbed to be lying on my stomach, aiming at targets, rifle in hand. It’s quite uncomfortable and hard to aim but, much to my surprise, I manage to hit 2 out of the 5 targets. Beginner’s luck, undoubtedly. Shooting at the national biathlon arena is quite fun too, especially as they’re gearing up for the 2019 Biathlon World Championships ( 7th – 17th of March, http://www.2019ostersund.se/en/).
Winter culture – Jamtli:
Post-lunch I’m ready for the next instalment – a 2-hour guided tour of Jamtli Museum (https://www.jamtli.com/en/). The museum is huge, and we start by having a look at the open-air parts. The temperature has been hovering between -10C and -3C since I arrived in town, and at the moment it’s a fairly nippy -8C. Over 100 buildings from the whole region, dating from as early as the 1700s up until the 1970s, cover a large area on the shores of Lake Storsjön. We start in the 1780s and walk all the way to the 1970s, which I don’t feel I need to visit, as I’ve “been there before”, so to speak. Everything is covered in the thickest layer of snow and looks beautiful. For two months in summer, a lot of the houses have live-in actors, re-enacting the different eras. Indoors, I take a look at both permanent and short-term exhibitions. The permanent ones include the history of Jämtland, dating back to prehistoric times. There’s plenty to see from the Viking era, as well as exhibits focusing on the Sámi peoples and natural history. Temporary exhibitions include one about hair, hairstyles and attitudes to body hair, through the centuries – lots of furry fun. A branch of Sweden’s National Museum opened at Jamtli in 2018 – the first regional branch in the country. At the end of my visit, of course I have to check out the pièce de resistance; the so-called Överhogdalsbonaderna (try saying that ten times fast). These tapestries were found in 1909 in a trunk in Överhogdal church and turned out to be some of the oldest in Sweden, dating back around 1000 years, to late Viking times. They’re remarkably well-preserved, with lovely colours still visible, despite having had many uses over the centuries. Apparently one part was deemed too rough to clean windows with, while another piece was used as a doll’s blanket. But here they are now, displayed in all their glory. Well worth seeing.
Next morning, I have an outing by car to check out the crisp snow-scapes on nearby Frösön island, before it’s time to get back on the horse, literally. Head out to Sörbygården b&b and horse ranch in the afternoon, for my Icelandic horseback riding adventure (https://www.sorbygarden.se/English.html). It’s very cold and crisp now, with gorgeous sunshine and I’m looking forward to my ride. A whole group of us is heading out and Ann-Sofi, owner of Sörbygården, is keen to get us bonding with the horses first, so we bring them into the stables, where we brush and saddle them. There are 14 Icelandic horses in total and the b&b side of the business has 30 beds. Much to my delight, I get to meet Bosse, the farmhouse cat, who is exceptionally cuddly unlike Lúpa, my slightly cantankerous horse for the afternoon. After about an hour of preparations, we’re ready to ride and, much to my embarrassment, I need a stepladder to get onto my horse – graceful as ever. I feel like a sack of potatoes, but at least I’m in the saddle and, best of all, not cold. By now I’m used to wearing long-johns, two pairs of wind & weather-proof trousers, thermals, fleece and warm jacket, scarf, hat and gloves, this time with added riding helmet. We set off as the sun is sinking lower over the snowy farms and the views are magical. It feels a bit high and precarious, though. Lúpa can clearly tell I’m nervous and she keeps trying it on, cantering a bit too fast, getting too close to the other horses, or trying to eat what precious little greenery there is to find on trees and hedges. Occasionally she tries to pull me sharply downwards and I worry I’ll go flying over her head (that’s how I got my very first concussion back in Iceland as a teenager), or at the very least, pull a back muscle. Eventually I relax and we even do some “tölting” – the fast gait particular to Icelandic horses. The landscape is stunning and once I feel firmer in the saddle, I can really enjoy the views over the frozen lake at sunset. Taking photos while holding the reigns is a skill I have yet to develop, but Ann-Sofi helps me out and I get some nice shots. We return to the ranch and I meet Esmeralda, the Norwegian Forest Cat, who is extra friendly and incredibly fluffy. She comes to sit on my lap for big cuddles and purring. Then there’s tea, cake and glögg, the Scandie version of mulled wine, before I get a ride (by car, I should add) back into Östersund. Round off the day in a good, old English pub, Sir Winston Churchill which, despite the name, has hearty regional dishes. I enjoy local sausages with cloudberry mayo and chips. A tasty end to a good day and a cracking visit to Jämtland.
General information (and for booking activities):
easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct from London Gatwick twice a week in winter.
Where to stay:
Clarion Hotel Östersund (https://www.nordicchoicehotels.com/hotels/sweden/ostersund/clarion-hotel-grand-ostersund/), centrally located on Östersund’s main square, all amenities, good restaurant.
Sörbygården b&b (www.sorbygarden.se/English.html), quaint, countryside b&b with activities including horseback riding.
Where to eat:
Östersund has a number of good restaurants, including Jazzköket (www.jazzkoket.se), Arctura (with great views) and Republiken.
Keep bringing on the snow!
After a couple of days of fun and varied non-ski adventures, it’s time to pick up my skis in the afternoon. Much to my relief, I’m not hitting the slopes that day, as they close at 3pm when it starts getting dark, but at least now I have my skis ready for the following day.
I decide to head out in the evening and take a taxi from my on-slope hotel down to Åre town – £15 for a short ride, ouch! The taxi driver recommends Broken, as a nice place for a drink, but I step inside and immediately feel ancient compared to the rest of the clientele. It’s nice enough and not too busy, but certainly not the classy wine bar I had in mind. Instead I go for an Åre village walk in the snow, taking photos of the village still lit up with Christmas lights. A slightly tipsy man, wearing bright-pink ski gear, asks me if I want to take his picture too, but I decline. He is most offended, saying it would surely look great in any magazine…
In the end, I opt for Wersén’s (http://wersens.se/) for a glass of wine before dinner at Vinbaren, inside Åregården hotel (http://vinbaren-are.com/). The evening, which got off to a slow start, then turns a bit epic. My specialist waitress, Bree from Victoria, Vancouver Island, speaks good Swedish and clearly knows her food. She puts together a taster menu of 9 dishes and copious amounts of wine that have me nibbling and sampling for hours. I’m feeling adventurous and try the sweetbread with onion cream, capers and bay leaf, the charred salsify with trout roe and the slow-cooked pork belly with pumpkin and feta cheese, among many other tasty tapas-sized dishes.
The following morning, it’s time to get my skis on – I’m heading off-piste for the first time (https://www.skistar.com/en/inspiration/skiexperiences/are-off-piste-intro/). Sadly, the weather is on the foul side – high, piercing winds and heavy, icy snowfall. I opt for wearing as many layers as I’ve brought, including both of my ski pants on top of each other and a very good choice that is too. Looking suspiciously like the Michelin man – perhaps also something to do with last night’s food intake – I pick up my skis from the hotel storage. I’m supposed to be doing a whole avalanche preparation course off-piste, but with weather this bad, it mostly gets snowed off. Still, I get kitted out with a rucksack that straps on between my legs, around my waist and chest. A bit fiddly, but then I’m ready to get the lift and head up into the wilds.
The wind is whipping at some 30km/hr, it’s snowing very heavily and it’s cold, turning the snowflakes into icy spikes. We ski for a little while and I’m slowly getting into my stride. Reaching the forest, we stop for my instructor, Reidmar, to show me how the avalanche gear works. It’s all quite intricate – we both have sensors on, that can be detected if the sensor’s in search mode. He’s brought along the pole that’s used to mark the spot where a person is found, as well as a shovel to dig, but luckily this is just a course and we’re not actually rescuing anybody. We do a quick training session, with Reidmar explaining the gear. Having taken our skis off for the session, it’s quite tricky to stand around in a snow depth of 60-70cm and getting them back on is even trickier, but I manage with a bit of help. Back on the slopes, the wind is as piercing as ever, so after about an hour we stop for hot chocolate and decide to “abandon slope”. Most of the lifts higher up the mountain have now been closed because of the wind, but it’s still possible to ski down to leave the equipment and I also manage to ski back to my hotel, Fjällgården (https://www.fjallgarden.se/). Feel exceedingly happy to head back, despite only being out for a few hours – my face is battered by the wind and I’m feeling the chill. I gratefully return my skis to the storage, before hitting the hotel sauna straight away – bliss.
Snow quad safari:
By the afternoon I’ve warmed through and feel ready for my next adventure; the “night-time snow quad safari”. It’s hardly night-time at 4.30pm, when we start, but it gets dark here about 3pm this time of year, so it feels a bit like heading out into the night. Me and my guide are taking so-called snow quads – all-terrain vehicles equipped with tracks – out into the forest along snowmobile paths. I decline driving mine, having never driven one before, so I get to sit behind my guide instead. We don helmets and soon we’re off into the dark, snowy forest.
This is the part where I’m gonna be a bit of a spoil-sport and say, out of all the adventures in Jämtland, this was probably my least favourite. It’s dark, it’s quite uncomfortable and quite noisy. I hold onto my guide for dear life, thinking perhaps I should have tried driving one of these monsters after all. It seems something of a lads’ adventure, suitable for those wanting to go tearing through the forest in the dark and then call it “awesome”. I, on the other hand, feel slightly sad that we’re making such a racket in an otherwise still and peaceful environment. The magic for me, only happens when we stop and have a hot chocolate, lighting an open fire under the trees and wading through the deep snows. That moment is thoroughly worth the slight discomfort of getting here.
Next day I have more time on the ski slopes (https://www.skistar.com/en/ski-destinations/are/). It’s still snowing cats and dogs, with worse visibility than the day before, but I have found my ski legs now and I’m in my element as we ski down to VM6an chairlift. When I’m visiting, preparations are in full swing for the Alpine World Ski Championships (4th – 17th February, https://are2019.com/). This will be the third time Åre hosts such a major competition (they also hosted in 1954 and 2007). Unusually, many of the slopes are still open to the public during the championships, through a clever system of tunnels. I head up the slopes at Ullådalsbacken, take the lift to lunch and then ski down again – there’s something very lovely about being able to ski to and from one’s lunch! I also check out the slopes at Duved and Tegefjäll in a whirlwind tour, before leaving the skis for the day and descending on Åre village, visiting the local arts & crafts shop and stopping for tea at Krus, the pop-up branch of Michelin-starred Fäviken (https://www.krusare.se/krus). I try their “malt bun”, which has a sweet, toffee-like flavour, together with a pot of Earl Grey. The pot of tea is so warming and inspiring that, back at the hotel, I feel compelled to try the outdoor hot tub for more heat. Getting there is the real test, as you have to walk through the snow, barefoot, to get to the tub, but once in, it’s a lovely 37C. It’s a great feeling sitting there with snow falling on your hair, while you’re toastie warm. Chat to my fellow “tubbers” from Scania and Stockholm and enjoy a good soak, before a sauna session. Then it’s time to change for dinner at Copperhill Mountain Lodge (https://copperhill.se/en/).
Copperhill has got to be one of the most amazing hotels I’ve ever come across and there have been a few over the years. Named after a nearby old mine, it’s situated 7 km outside of Åre, up the mountain slopes. It was built, ten years ago, by star architect Peter Bohlin, and this hulk of a wooden building blends in quite nicely with its surroundings. To say it’s high-ceilinged is quite an understatement – the vast central part reaches over 30 metres and all the rooms are situated on 5 floors surrounding it. There are two restaurants, a lobby bar and an absolutely lovely-looking spa and relax facility. Apart from a hotel show-round, I’m also here to try out the dining options and settle in at Biblioteket (The Library) restaurant. After some bubbly to start, it’s Arctic char, followed by the rabbit for me, washed down with a nice glass of Nero d’Avola. Round the meal off with an ice cider from Brännland in Norrland, in the far north. Unsurprisingly I sleep like a log that night, before further adventures await.
To be continued…
General information (and for booking activities):
easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct from London Gatwick twice a week in winter.
Where to stay:
Hotel Fjällgården (www.fjallgarden.com), Åre’s prime ski-in, ski-out hotel. Perfect location, cosy open fires, outdoor hot-tubs and the après-ski with live bands has to be heard to be believed.
Copperhill Mountain Lodge (www.copperhill.se/en), Åre’s most luxurious, also offers ski-in, ski-out options. Surrounded by pristine countryside, with excellent spa facilities. Highly recommended.
Bring on the snow!
Getting off my easyJet flight to Åre Östersund airport, an icy blast of cold hits me – a welcome wake-up call after the early departure from London’s Gatwick. The temperature is showing a cool -7C as I disembark on a glorious January day; blazing sunshine with a fluffy blanket of thick snow and deep frost covering the landscape.
My destination is Fjällgården, my hotel in Åre, (www.fjallgarden.se), Sweden’s key ski resort with some 1500 souls to its name. Dumping my bags at Fjällgården, I get ready to head off on my first adventure of the day; a so-called gastronomy walk.
Out in the wilderness, 7 kilometres outside of Åre proper, I meet my guide Emil, a soft-spoken Dane who seems truly at home in this mountainous, snowy environment despite hailing from much further south. I’m wondering where on earth all the restaurants for the gastronomy walk are hiding, but I’m of an adventurous bent, and figure things will soon become clear. Instead I focus on the gorgeous views of Lake Åresjön and Åreskutan mountain (1420 m) in the sunshine, perfect for a snap-happy journalist on assignment. As it turns out, our gastronomy walk involves strapping on some snowshoes and walking through the snowy scenery, enjoying nibbles along the way (https://www.exploreare.se/are-gastronomy-walk-winter-2/) – how groovy is that? I feel rather silly in my long coat and handbag, having assumed we’d be in posh restaurants, but at least I’ve had the foresight to wear enough clothes. The temperature has been steadily dropping since my arrival in Sweden and dipped down to -24C at one stage (luckily while I was still in the car from the airport). Now it’s hovering between -17C and -22C and I’m grateful to be moving about with snowshoes on – good exercise and a great way to keep warm. We follow a snowmobile track to our first nibble-stop, which has excellent views of the lake and snowy forest-scape. I enjoy a fresh, slightly sharp and tangy-tasting blueberry juice, containing nothing but pure blueberries. This is the only cold drink of the walk, for which I am exceedingly grateful. It’s accompanied by saffron biscotti – all local products – which are tasty too, although I find it hard to envisage this being a great place for saffron harvests… Then it’s time to walk a good, long way down the hill, making me wonder if we’ll have to walk back uphill as well. Sure enough, Emil is already preparing us for things to come, explaining we’ll be feeling much warmer going back up.
Emil makes us a nice “snow seat”, with some rubber mats to sit on and we continue grazing. Some hot meadow sweet juice (älgörtsdricka), two different types of local crisp bread and thin slivers of chewy, smoky reindeer meat are swiftly consumed. It’s thirsty and hungry work, this snowshoeing. After a goodly pause, we start trundling up the slope again, giving me ample time to ponder just how unfit I’ve become in London. I huff, puff and pant my way up the slopes with my snowshoes unstrapped at the back, to make moving uphill easier, but they’re starting to feel a bit cumbersome by now. The sun is setting behind the mountains, as we reach the top and make our way to a nice viewpoint. I enjoy the sunset while Emil makes a fire for hot drinks al fresco. This time we start with a warming reindeer broth, full of salty goodness and much appreciated in the increasing cold. Then there’s extra chewy, gamey and herby-garlicky sausage from nearby Michelin-starred restaurant Fäviken (www.favikenmagasinet.se), more reindeer cold cuts and freshly brewed coffee from a local coffee roasting place. It’s so palatable that for once I don’t miss milk and sugar. We round off this feast with cloudberry truffles. An unusual and extremely tasty gastronomy adventure.
Back at Fjällgården, the hotel is by now positively vibrating with the après-ski crowd, so I make a swift dash for my room. No point joining in before I’ve even skied, I figure. Åre is enjoying a fabulous amount of snow during my visit and when I try to admire the view from the balcony, it’s so full of snow, I can’t get the door open – window-views only for the time being.
In the early evening, I walk down the road to Hotel Granen (The Spruce, http://aregranen.se/en/). It’s been awhile since I was anywhere this rural and it soon dawns on me that walking down the road towards the village, there are no streetlights. Also, I forgot to wear those reflector thingies you’re supposed to pin to your coat. Oh well, it’s a nice, snowy walk and traffic is minimal. This isn’t like the Alps, where people wear their finery to dinner, it’s a lot more casual – at least on a January Sunday – and I feel somewhat overdressed for the occasion. The hotel is one of the older ones in Åre, dating back to 1916, and it’s suitably cosy. I settle in for a light Sunday dinner of mushroom risotto washed down with Barolo wine – a nice combo. The risotto is cooked to perfection with a slight crunchiness to the rice, a mix of Portobello, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms, baby spinach, truffle oil and parmesan. And what better time to try two different Barolo wines, all in the line of journalistic duty? As my hotel is much further up the slopes, I then opt for the cable car on the way back. It’s been a good, but long, first day in Jämtland.
The beds are extra comfy and I only struggle out of mine after some 11 hours. While I’ve been snoozing, the weather has turned and it’s snowing cats and dogs. Well, dogs mostly, as it turns out.
This morning I’m off on a dogsledding adventure with Åre Sleddog (http://aresleddog.se/en/). Determined to at least be dressed appropriately this time, I wear all my layers, but even that isn’t enough. Despite a much warmer day – only 6 or 7 degrees below zero – the wind has got up and the wind chill factor alone is enough to freeze you solid. I’m spending the morning sitting on the sled, not doing any mushing myself, so staying warm is even harder. It’s quite a rustic experience, without much in the way of creature comforts, but that’s all part of the charm. Tommy, who runs Åre Sleddog, suggests I borrow a snowmobile overall, which proves to be sound advice. We set off into the deep forest with me on a reindeer pelt on the sled, and Tommy mushing the 9 Alaskans huskies. We’re out for about an hour and the piercing wind is bitter. The sled is also somewhat on the wide side and I’m mostly used to sitting on an office chair, legs together. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride at first, along a forested track, but I soon get into the spirit of things and the dogs are clearly loving it, running at full pelt and frolicking in the snow. We slide through the forest and out onto the frozen Lake Helgesjön for a good stretch and it is an exhilarating feeling, discomforts notwithstanding. Dogs being dogs though, several of them take the opportunity to “do their business” while running and multiple wafts of doggie poo keep hitting my nostrils. Best to turn one’s head and focus on the scenery instead… The dogs are, on the whole, quite cute and I get the chance to meet and greet them pre- and post-dogsledding. The oldest out for a run with us is Zeus who’s 12 ½ years old (most retire at 11) and the oldest in the kennel, Baloo, is 14. There are 55 dogs altogether – all Alaskan huskies – and Tommy’s been working with dogsledding for well over 20 years. He’s competed quite widely in long-distance races, going for days on end. Sounds like remarkable feats to me! Dogsledding and dog cuddles over, we retire indoors for a much-needed, warming cup of tea.
In terms of winter adventures, so far, so good.
To be continued…
General information (and for booking activities):
Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct from London Gatwick twice a week in winter.
Where to stay:
Hotel Fjällgården (www.fjallgarden.se), Åre’s prime ski-in, ski-out hotel. Perfect location, cosy open fires, outdoor hot-tubs and the après-ski with live bands has to be heard to be believed.
Hotel Granen (www.aregranen.se/en), halfway up the slopes, less of a party place, good restaurant with great wines.
I recently had a lovely evening, giving a talk on hiking destinations in different parts of the world, at the library in Arvika, Sweden. My hiking-themed photography exhibition, also at the library, runs until the 13th of October. This is the second exhibition of my photos in Sweden. I give travel, food and adventure talks in Swedish, English and Spanish. Currently I’m available for engagements this autumn and winter. Although I’m London-based, it’s safe to say I’m not afraid to travel.
Just back from a fantastic writer’s retreat at Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor (https://www.moniackmhor.org.uk/). A writer can’t ask for a more peaceful setting or a friendlier place. Highly recommended to anyone looking to take time out and really focus on their writing. And the weather was unusually “un-Scottish”…
If you’ve been following me in recent years, you’ll know that I’ve been writing fiction for a little while now, but you’ve seen little evidence of the “finished product”… Finally, with several novels and a number of short stories, as well as poems, completed, I’m embarking on “step 2” of the project – submitting my finished works to publishers, agents, competitions and journals. That’s my aim over the spring and summer, before I continue the actual writing. If you have any information that might be useful, feel free to send me a message. The novels are one young adult fiction novel and one fantasy/horror/romance story. The short stories are a very mixed bag, while the poems are both in English and Swedish. I’d be particularly keen to hear from publishers looking for submissions.
For my very first public speaking engagement, my thoughts ran along the lines of “I love talking – surely it can’t be that hard?”. A tad flippant, perhaps, but initially I was proven right and, having forgotten all about that friendly concept, “beginner’s luck”, I jumped to some unfortunate conclusions – i.e. that public speaking was very easy and that I knew what I was doing…
It all began some 7-8 years ago, when I visited Colombia for the first time and loved it. I was there on a foodie press trip, visiting Medellín’s food festival Otro Sabor, as well as various restaurants in both Medellín and Bogotá, with a sneak peek at the Coffee Zone thrown in – a great and exceedingly tasty combination. Upon my return, I was asked whether I’d like to give a talk about my experiences at an event being held at the Colombian embassy in London. Often impulsive (that’s how I’ve got to at least half of my 90+ countries visited), on the spur of the moment I said yes, only feeling that swift sense of panic when faced with the unknown after having agreed.
As it was, although a bit nervous, I had a great time giving the talk and had some lovely feedback from the audience and organisers. Luckily no one told me that the unobtrusive-looking little man, sitting at the front, was the vice president of Colombia until after I’d given the talk – it’s the kind of thing it’s best not to know, I find. On an absolute high and filled with unsubstantiated confidence, I signed up to give a travel talk at a large-scale travel show in London shortly afterwards, thinking I had a brand new, marketable skill to sell. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything, as it turned out.
The travel show, where I was due to give my talk was only in its first, or at most, second year and organisation was a bit of an issue – something I didn’t realise until it was too late. The whole show was open to the public, as well as the travel trade, so that should have meant the possibility of a fairly large audience. Alas, no one seemed to have done any advertising for the individual talks being held. In the end, only some seven people turned up to listen to my talk. I’m grateful there weren’t more, as the equipment completely failed to work and I could not use any of my images. The entire talk was geared towards accompanying said images and made little sense otherwise. Half the audience left before I’d even had a chance to finish and it all turned into a sad shambles that is best forgotten.
Rather than forgetting about it though, I decided to try and learn some important lessons from the mayhem that had ensued. Lesson no.1: always check the equipment! In my defence, I did try to do just that, but was only given 10 minutes to do so before my talk, by which time it was too late… Had I been a more experienced speaker, I would probably have insisted on checking things earlier, or at least had a back-up plan that meant I could swing together the talk even without images. Nowadays, if an organiser tells me there is no chance of checking the equipment or visiting the place where I’m giving the talk, beforehand, I really think twice about whether to work with them or not.
It took me a little while to rally and try again after my second attempt, but nevertheless I persisted, and was, to my delight, invited to give a talk at the National Geographic Store, also in London, a while later. This time the equipment worked fine, and the talk, for the most part, ran smoothly. There was, however, one tiny, teeny little issue: the topic. I had prepared a light-hearted, entertaining and quite funny talk, again on my experiences in Colombia, thinking I would be giving the talk to the general public. Because of the venue, I assumed it would be open to anyone, but instead the National Geographic Store had been taken over by a private event that evening and I was in fact talking to a bunch of tour operators wanting very specific information on how to sell Colombia, as well as practical details about the country. Oops! Lesson no.2: know your audience!
Daunting though some of these experiences were, they proved a useful, if occasionally painful, way of learning on the job. I was a teacher in “a previous life” for a couple of years and foolhardily assumed that experience would stand me in good stead with this new venture, but public speaking is a very different kettle of fish. Teaching and engaging an audience may have some similarities, but not enough to turn any teacher into a natural public speaker, by any means.
It’s taken a number of attempts in three different countries to date (the UK, Uruguay and Sweden), to build the kind of speaking confidence that means I don’t turn into a bundle of nerves at the start of a talk, when standing in front of an audience. Some of these attempts have definitely meant learning the hard way – but often those are the lessons you remember.
I usually start my talks – regardless of the topic – by telling people I’m not an expert, which might sound odd, but is also true. I know a small amount about a large number of topics and there is little point in pretending I know more than I do. Most of my talks are based on personal experience, be it of travel, gastronomy or culture e.g. and chances are there will be people in the audience who know more about the topic than I do. If the talk is open to the general public, someone out there might be dying to call my bluff, if I act like a know-it-all. Of course, if a talk is open to the public, it’s good to bear in mind that anyone could turn up, including people you were hoping you’d never see again…
Although I’m a writer first and foremost, when it comes to giving talks I’m a great fan of including images – usually my own, but I have been known to source others’, especially food ones, which are not my strength as a (fairly run-of-the-mill) photographer. There is undoubtedly a risk that something may go wrong with the technical equipment, but images can enhance a talk to such an extent, it’s worth the risk. Not all glitches can be anticipated though. During one talk, I found that the organiser had gone in and altered my images, removing one they didn’t like the look of without telling me and I only realised mid-speech, having to make things up as I went along for a little while.
I’m slowly realising just how good a speaker you have to be to make a decent living from it, but the good thing about public speaking, that isn’t as true for writing, is “the recycling of material”. You may spend many hours preparing the material for a talk and practising the talk itself, but that same talk can usually be used multiple times, unless the topic is particularly time-sensitive. If you give talks in different cities, or countries, the risk of somebody turning up twice to listen is very slim, unless you’ve picked up a fan or a stalker.
People in general, and writers in particular, tell me that public speaking is one of their greatest fears, that it’s truly stretching their comfort zones. That may be true, but I think it’s a good stretch. Giving talks can be a wonderful way of connecting to people, sharing stories and also getting your work as a writer “out there”. It’s a way for a writer to connect with an audience in person and actually, physically meet people, stepping out of that quiet solitude that is the essence of writing. Personally, I find it gives my work a good balance between my introvert and extrovert sides. Recently, I very much enjoyed giving a talk in Swedish for the first time – a new challenge after 28 years abroad. I would love to have a go in Spanish next!
I’m currently spending two months in Swedish Lapland, writing, exploring and doing research for future books. During the month of August I will be living in the small ski resort of Riksgränsen, just a short stroll from Norway, while I’ll be spending September in nearby Abisko, inside the Abisko national park. I’m happy to be contacted by anyone looking for written pieces or images from the area, or locals who know the area well and are interested in chatting to me about the culture and history of these places.