Day 15

Monday, 31 August 2015
Start: Stockholm (S) 6:30
Arrival: Rendsburg (D) 21:30
Total: 1124 km


The morning on the ferry

The evening before, the ship management had urged all drivers to be in their cars at 6:15. So we had set the alarm clock to 5:40. We need not have bothered. The ferry managers wanted to make absolutely sure that all drivers got out of bed in time. Long before our alarm clock rang, the TV set suddenly switched on. Full blast news that drivers need to get ready. Drunk with sleep, we scrambled for the remote control to switch the thing off. A look at the watch: plenty of time. We weren't stupid ‒ back to bed. Sadly, management wasn't stupid either: barely five minutes later, the telephone rang. Rise and shine! Grumbling, we turned around and went back to sleep. Our alarm clock would tell us when to get up.
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Before we could react, the door was opened wide and a woman walked in. I beg your pardon?!? I could have been a guy, standing there stark naked. Had she never heard of a politician called DSK? Too tired to argue, we shooshed her out the door and finally got out of bed. I wistfully turned off the alarm clock. No need for it now. While we were brushing our teeth, the telephone rang once more. Suspicious bastards! I spat out the last bit of toothpaste and reached for my jeans when the door was again thrown open, this time without a warning knock. This took the cake. What a stressful way to begin your day.
At the ungodly hour of 6:00 we left our cabin and watched the ship wind its way through the numerous little islands at the Swedish coast. We were still some way from the port, so what was the hurry? At 6:15, all the drivers were dutifully sitting in their cars. Sonia and I read some more Martha Grimes. Anything to stay awake and pass the time. At 6:40, the hatch opened and a green light came on. I put the car in gear and we were back in Sweden. We recognized the area from our cruise through the Baltic Sea a month ago. Exellent, we knew exactly how to get out of the port. But with that many cars leaving the ship at the same time, the streets quickly clogged up. And of course we took a wrong turn somewhere in downtown Stockholm.



We were headed for our very last sightseeing on this trip: the Ytterby mine. Ytterby is a suburb in the north of Stockholm. In the early 19th century, when chemistry was in its infancy and lots of exciting discoveries were still to be made, scientists found several rare earth metals in this quarry. The village gave its name to the elements of ytterbium, yttrium, terbium and erbium. Good thing they ran out of elements before they ran out of syllables! I like the idea that an element is named after a place, and since I cannot very well visit the sun (after which helium is named), the village of Ytterby would have to do.
Even though it was very early in the morning, the sun shone brightly with the promise of a sunny day. Just after seven o'clock, we reached Ytterby. Oddly enough, the mine was not prominently signposted. But at least many streets sported mineral-themed names. Neat. Up a steep, narrow street we drove, a quiet, peaceful suburbian idyll with family homes and gardens. Here it should be, or very close by. Right or left now? Deciding to go right, we landed in a dead-end.
While I struggled to turn the car around, I noticed a man and a woman watching us from their porch. They seemed kind of suspicious. "Can you go ask them about the mine?" I tried to bully my sister into action. She shook her head. "You want to see the mine. You go and ask them." As I got out of the car, the woman retreated into the house. The man lingered behind his car, unsure whether he should flee or stand his ground. I gave him my brightest, most innocent smile. "Excuse me, sir, we are looking for the Ytterby mine." He looked ready to call the cops. "I like chemistry," I explained, smiling even more guilelessly. He eyed our car, then quickly looked back at me. "There is nothing to see," he finally said, gripping the hood of his car. I made sure not to get any closer. He was clearly uncomfortable. But why? "Could you just tell me the way, please? You see, four chemical elements are named after it. I find that very interesting. My sister and I are tourists, you see." Finally, he seemed to relax. "It's straight down that way." He pointed down the street. So I should have made a left. I thanked him and we slowly drove on. Inside the house, a curtain moved. We were being watched.
"You spooked him," Sonia laughed. Yes, but why? She shrugged. "It's 7:30 in the morning! Who wants to visit a mine that early?" Easy question: us, of course. I slowly steered the car down the lane. At the crossing where we should have made a left, a woman was standing at her mailbox. She stared at us and even craned her neck to see where we were going.
About fifty metres further on, we ran into another dead-end and parked the car. A path led into the forest. Up on a hill, there was a picturesque little picknick ground. Right next to the bench, there was a ventilation shaft coming out of the ground. Ahhh, the mine.
We headed back down the hill and soon found some stairs leading up a ravine. There we found a bronze plaque telling us that this was indeed the famed mine. I leaned against the stone. It was indeed pleasantly warm, as many slightly radioactive rocks are. We explored the area in more detail. The entrance to the mine seemed to be sealed off. Pity.
On our way back, Sonia noticed the woman from before, again standing on her garden path. Now she was holding a cellphone in her hand. When we drove past, she stepped forward, raised the cellphone and snapped some pictures of our car. Had she been standing on her porch for half an hour, waiting for us to get back? Nuts. "Maybe she's part of a neighbourhood watch programm," Sonia ventured. "Or she collects car plates. Luxembourgish car plates are probably not often seen in Ytterby." "If she even knows that L stands for Luxembourg," I grumbled. "Maybe she just doesn't like Latvians."
I slowly drove back down the steep, narrow lane. Around a corner, I ran head-on into a mean pothole. Ugly sound. I got out to check on the car, but the tyre seemed to be okay. Maybe they sabotaged their streets to keep the tourists from invading their suburbial bliss? I wouldn't want to live in this area. Bad streets and strange neighbours.


Through Sweden and Denmark

In the next village, we found a McDonald's. Seeing that we hadn't breakfasted yet, we treated ourselves to their yummy pancakes and omlettes. Heavenly. I needed the energy. We would get on the Stockholm freeway here and it would be four-lane speed streets all the way back to Luxembourg. 1800 kilometers, and hopefully we would be home by tomorrow afternoon in time to pick up our rabbit and wash some clothes. Because the day after tomorrow, Sonia and I both had to be back at work.
From Stockholm to Gränna it was new ground for us, but from there on, we took the same route as on the way up. Unfortunately, we made slow progress. It rained, there were traffic jams and roadworks, and when we could have speeded up, the numerous speed cameras reminded me to take the foot off the gas pedal. At four in the afternoon, we crossed the Öresund bridge and tunnel. Back in Denmark, the weather became really nasty. An ugly thunderstorm and a major traffic jam around Copenhague slowed us down further. We would never make it to Germany before nightfall. Sonia voted for taking a hotel in Denmark, but I was determined to drive as far as I could. At a gas station near Kolding in mainland Denmark, we made a short break. Our first real stop since Stockholm. We asked the girl at the gas station if there was a Wifi connection there. There wasn't, but she spontaneously offered to link us to her own phone via Bluetooth. She gave us her code, just like that, as if such trust and kindness were the most natural thing in the world. Thank you!
Now connected to the world, we checked for hotel rooms on Booking.com. I insisted on one in Northern Germany, in a little town called Rendsburg. That was only two more hours to drive, I could do that even after nightfall, no problem. If I had only listened to my sister! But I hadn't, and so we stumbled headlong into another adventure...



When we got to Rendsburg, it was dark and raining. Our navigation device was dead for good and we had no idea which exit we needed to take.
Then we saw a sign "Rendsburg Messe", meaning "trade fair". In Germany, hotels are often located next to the large international exhibition halls. So we headed that way. Off the highway, it was pitchdark. I followed the large, shiny signposts saying "Messe", cautiously driving along a major, large street. I couldn't see a thing, so I was really driving slowly. From one moment to the next, I suddenly found myself off the road, the tyres skidding into mud. Jamming on the brakes, I brought the car to a standstill. Where were we? At the edge of a cliff? On a broken-down bridge? At the rims of Hell? Heart hammering in my chest, I switched on the high beam: we seemed to be standing at the edge of a muddy field. Where seconds before had been a large, asphalted road, was now soggy grassland. At the far end, I could make out some sort of shed. This was spooky! I got out of the car and looked around: three large lanes were leading into this field. You've just entered the twilight zone...
I needed to get the car out of the mud. As it was really dark, my sister stood on the sidewalk and guided me back onto the street. Where had we gone wrong? Back on the main road, we stopped and looked at the large traffic sign: it definitely led into this mud field. Unbelievable. We decided to try another road, but I didn't trust this town. What if the next street led straight into an abyss? Inching forward, we soon came to some sort of harbour. Not a soul around, but at least there was some street lighting. Against all odds, we suddenly encountered a jogger, turning his rounds in the rain. He told us that we were almost at our hotel, as the crow flies. Unfortunately, there was a river in-between. Very funny. Apparently, we needed to get to the other side of the river, but there was no bridge. (Had it disappeared into a muddy swamp, we wondered?) We needed to take the tunnel. He sent us back to where we had been coming. We told him about the strange field, but he didn't seem to find this odd. Apparently, the field was the fair. A fair for tractors, or some such. You must be kidding us.
So we drove back. But we couldn't find the tunnel. Instead, we ended up in some sort of wood. I had hardly slept for four hours the night before, I had braved Swedish suburbian creepsters near a radioactive mine and I had just driven over a thousand kilometers in the pouring rain. Give me a break, please! But there was no break to be had, unless we wanted to spend the night in the car. So I turned around, back into the port. But the jogger had disappeared. Had he ever even existed? I started to doubt my senses. This was all so weird.
Now my sister took matters into her hands. "We get back onto the highway and try the next exit. I'll guide you. Go on, drive." Too tired to argue, I got the car into gear and headed back for the highway. The next exit proved to be indeed the elusive tunnel. Behind the tunnel, a brightly lit town street awaited us and in no time whatsoever, Sonia had spotted our hotel. Shaking with exhaustion, I closed my eyes while Sonia went to check in.
This time yesterday evening, we had been in Finland. Wow. "The receptionist is from Trier. She used to work in Luxembourg. It's a small world, huh?" Sonia heaved our baggage out of the trunk. "Come on, let's get you something to eat." Food. Good idea. The steak in the little hotel bar was really great. But the bed later on was even greater.


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