Northern Exposure: That Summer: Sweden, 1963 - Does your mother know?

The Sixties are famous for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. But for one teenager, they heralded a journey to the Arctic Circle. By Barbara Butler
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I WAS 19 and setting off on my first solo trip abroad. Inger, my Swedish penfriend, had been to stay with me in Huddersfield and now, in return, she had invited me back to Sweden. My itinerary was to be a few days in Stockholm, a short trip to Malmberget above the Arctic Circle, and then back to Inger's home in Strangnas, west of Stockholm. One of the main things on my mind as I packed was what to wear - such an important thing for a teenager. Not trousers, as I'd have chosen now, but a neat, light-blue, linen suit with navy-blue court shoes and a bag - possibly even cotton gloves.

What an impact Scandinavia was about to make. It is still easy to recall because it made such vivid impressions on my senses. Not many of smells though - certainly not in the toilets, where there were dispensers of anti-bacterial wet-wipes for the loo seat (unheard of in the parts of Britain I'd frequented) - just of sunshine and vegetation and tastebud- tempting meatballs.

There were so many new tastes: compotes of berry fruits, smorgasbords stuffed with treats - fantastic pickles and roll-mop herrings, novel breads and crispbreads - and breakfasts filled with strange new flavours - yogurt (not so common in Britain then) served with cornflakes and, less temptingly, porridge made with rice.

As to sounds, I remember birdsong, bits of conversations - notably a hunky friend of Inger's telling me, "You look beautiful when you smile" - and the train rushing along, carrying me to the far north. The train itself was light years ahead of those running in Britain at the time (and probably still is, even now, 36 years later).

Mainly, though, I just remember that there was a wonderful lightness and airiness in the wide, open landscapes - the huge, colourful meadows of the south and the seemingly endless spread of tundra in the north - and in the buildings and design.

Whether old or new, the decoration all seemed fresh and soft on the eye. Everything appeared to be pastel-coloured, from the paintwork on city walls to the furniture and tiles in the grand, old palaces we visited (I was especially impressed by the elegant Royal Palace, Drottningholm, which is close to Stockholm) and homes such as Inger's.

I was fascinated by the differences in decoration between this modern Swedish flat and houses I knew in Yorkshire. Everything in Sweden seemed to be so new, efficient and streamlined, and the flat was no exception. Simple yet ergonomically functional, it was upholstered in textiles of neat, abstract designs. The decoration was along very modern, rather minimalist, lines, with windows that were made private by blinds and loose, open-weave curtains that sensibly allowed as much light as possible to filter through - such a contrast to the lace curtains and heavy drapes in vogue in Yorkshire.

Somehow I managed to drag myself away from the swishness of Inger's flat, and we went to see the vast hulk of the Vasa in Stockholm. The massive - and magnificent - warship had sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628, before it even left the boundaries of the city's harbour but, two years before I visited, it had been sucked out of the mud to huge public enthusiasm. These days it sits regally - and fully restored - in a grand museum, but in 1963 it was still under conservation and had to be constantly sprayed with a fine jet of water to preserve its timbers.

It was the detail that had got me hooked, from the shimmering, interior walls of the Civic Hall, covered in gold leaf, to the white boulders that defined the Arctic Circle as we passed by to glimpse the unforgettable midnight sun. How hard to come down to earth, to put on that light-blue suit and head for home. One accessory I wouldn't be without in future was that smile.

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