December ’23. I can’t pretend this has nothing to do with The Holiday.
I’m on my way to Sweden to stay in a ‘remote’ (frozen) lakeside cabin. I hear and read so much about the allure of remote living. And this is it. I’m doing it. The owners have told me it’s currently thick with blankets of Disney-style snow and that they’ve also generously left me an axe – uses of which I imagine are multiple in such climates, but with the primary objective to head out into the woods and cut down my own tree to bring in and decorate for Christmas.
Over the last 12 months, I’ve embarked on a number of Home Exchanges, which do exactly what it says on the tin – you swap homes with people you’ve never met and step into each other’s lives. You get to see what brands of shampoo they use, understand the importance of air-con in the home in Valencia and the importance of underfloor heating in Amsterdam.
Home-swapping for me has been combined with constant remote working, but this weekend in Sweden – is a holiday. And whilst I have no conscious recollection of either Kate Winslet or Cameron Diaz wielding an axe in the film, this really does feel like the ultimate exchange of cultures (If that’s what L.A. x ‘Surrey’ really was meant to be).
I can’t deny the No. 1 draw to this particular exchange was the insanely idyllic image of this Scandinavian dream cabin. It’s purportedly been featured in numerous magazines around the world and is “dripping in Swedish style” and whilst I’m yet to find out for sure, from what the pictures look like it could well be made of actual gingerbread. Beyond this though, I had another reason for entering the snow globe fairytale wonderland – and that is nature and remoteness and solitude. These things I so often yearn for living in London’s wild East. I’ve become very aware that in these more recent years of my life, I seem to be craving the exact opposite of what I’ve got. On a rational level, I could see that it’s so unlikely to step into a completely different life and make it all work long-term. And even more rationally, it’s more likely that I actually do need and thrive off all the things I want to run away from (constant technology, tubes, £4.50 flat whites). But also I don’t think I’m a particularly rational person.
The last 24 hours leading up to departure have sprinted along in a classic London rhythm. From frantically tying up work, dashing into central London to meet someone who only told me that morning they were going to be in town and “is it too last minute?”. Then dressing up as Santa to join 2000 other Santas to run a 5K charity run along St Paul’s and the Southbank. Post run, meeting up with friends, going for late night pizza, getting a call from my Dad to say he’s just landed in London and can’t get home because of the trains strikes and can he stay at mine. Taking the meagre 40-minute tube journey home to briefly see Dad, finish packing, get up at 6am to leave the house to take the 1-hour journey to Heathrow (which is amazing to be honest thanks to the Elizabeth line as would’ve been 2 hours before). Get to Heathrow, get through security unscathed which always amazes me even though I have absolutely no reason to not get through just fine. And throughout all of this, consuming a rushed breakfast, coffee, festive Pret sandwich (didn’t even need it). Then just finishing final emails, calls, quick Instagram story, buying books, wandering through the Harrods store at T5 wondering when swimsuits got to be over £400 and, should this be something I’m aiming for? So all just standard city life really.
“I’ve become very aware that in these more recent years of my life, I seem to be craving the exact opposite of what I’ve got.”
As I board the plane I get that inward thrill from hearing I’m one of very few Brits on the flight – I’m embarking on a road less travelled. During the flight the view goes from Lego towns to farmers fields to glassy sea and coconut cream clouds. When I was much (much) younger I used to believe that the Care Bears lived up in the clouds. But I’ve been on quite a few flights now, passed a lot of clouds and I’ve got to be honest I’ve just not seen any yet. The pilot cheerily lets us know the temperature is at a reasonable -3 on the ground. That’s fine by me, I’m from Yorkshire and have brought my big winter coat. Plus it’s been snowing in Sweden and snow is soft and exciting. As we gently plough through the sky and start to sink beneath, I get my first look at what awaits. And it does not disappoint. Swathes of white-covered fields interspersed with perfect pointed triangle ferns, a flash of green beneath their snowy trench coats. From the airport to Stockholm city centre, there’s a high-speed train of about 20 minutes that’s something straight out of the Hunger Games. Pristine carriages with an Info area that’s manned by people you actually want to ask questions to and who are more than happy to give you the exact answer you need. I’m completely bowled over by the engaged sign on the train toilets (which are absolutely deluxe in comparison to my normal LNER..) which is a soft green LED heart, that beats red when it’s engaged. I’m in love with a train toilet door.
The next few hours include the two favourite parts of any trip for me – the journey from the airport to the destination, and (drumroll) the supermarket. I’d felt slightly uneasy about the cost of things in Sweden having been told that it was an exceptionally expensive place. But I do live in London and gliding my trolley around the wide, well organised aisles of beautiful looking, locally sourced produce – looking like it’s come straight out of the Selfridges food hall but at Sainsbury’s (Taste The Difference) prices, I feel more at reassured. It’s not cheap, but it’s quality. The exchange feels fairer. I can respect and value the food even more. Maybe I’ll take more time preparing it, like an almost meditative practice. Maybe I’ll eat less of it, wanting to savour it. Maybe it’ll make my skin look AMAZING and give me more energy to get out for that daily run I’ve been meaning to do. For the last 10 years.
The journey to the cabin was nothing short of spectacular. We first drive through Stockholm which I’m quite blown away by with its gorgeous doll-house-style buildings. Full disclosure, I look up online to see what the official style of architecture is in Stockholm and something called ‘Swedish Grace’ pops up and I can’t think of a more perfect description than that. We drive beyond the city and further out into the dark velvet countryside until finally, there it is. THE CABIN. And it’s as I’d dreamed. A perfect wooden-clad rectangle with illuminated paper stars hanging from the windows, a smart Swedish flag over the door, and more mounds of perfect snow. Beautiful. And in the cabin, it goes on – calming neutral tones and blankets and soft furnishings. A fire with a big stack of thick cut wood by it that absolutely needs to be kept on ‘all the time’ to keep it really warm. Black and white photography, the most incredibly well-stocked kitchen (two different types of coffee maker and a milk frother). Everything I need for my quiet, solitary time away in nature. Just a quick speed check on the wifi…pretty good. Excellent actually. Nice. Oh and full streaming channels. Let living in nature commence.
The first day, we do everything. And very much at an excited Christmas ‘morning style’ / ‘do you wanna build a snowman’ classic London pace. Swedes like their coffee and they like it strong and this is very much my no.1 drug of choice these days. We lean into it and then head off, into the woods, strides wide and steps sinking soft into knee-deep snow. We arrive at a wide frozen lake, one of Sweden’s 30,000. Standing there staring across it evokes the same feelings you get from watching a sunset or sitting around a fire – it’s a sense of awe and then a settling in oneself, as if every whirling thought or item on a to-do list is snow itself just silently falling down and away and disappearing into one white blank sheet. In all the wellness blogs, Instagram quotes or health advice, we’re told of the benefits of being nature. I’ve got to be honest I don’t really get that. I mean I understand it, I just personally don’t feel noticeably ‘better’ or at ‘peace. But here, I feel not just transformed but transported. Out of this world, out of my world anyway, and the word ‘solitary’ springs up to replace anything else in my mind. I’m not sure what to do with it. But then again maybe that’s the point. That’s all I need now. Christ, is this me ‘present’, is this what present is? Am I feeling something profound right now? Like the Instagram quotes talk about? Best not to think about it, just push on.
Having devoured a good amount of snowy woodland scenes, we head back and ceremoniously chop down the Christmas tree. This turned out to be much more emotional than I was expecting. When vegetarians say ‘If they’re not prepared to kill it, then they’re not eating it’, I really get that at this moment and I’m now thinking of going artificial with my Christmas trees from now on. Still, once the lights are on and flashing it looks lovely and we go on to enjoy our special festive rice pudding and hot chocolates from the very smart Swedish supermarket. It’s 2pm and starting to get dark. We heat up the sauna and let ourselves sweat then dash outside and roll around in the snow repeating this process until our skin is red and we go beyond ‘feeling fresh’ to slightly rinsed. We step then into the outdoor jacuzzi and melt into the 37-degree water, surrounded by trees and as it’s now around 3.30 pm moonlight. Come 5pm our circadian rhythms are floundering slightly to stay awake having been in darkness since mid-afternoon. But maybe a snooze is OK plus this armchair is so comfy and even has a separate little basket beside it full of blankets and duvets. The first day eases off to a gentle close full of potato salad, pickles, and Swedish salmon.
As the days progress, very little else does. And this is a good thing. Things slow down. My mind slows down. Along with time and any sort of physical movements. There’s the odd whimsical walk but that is then followed by long stretches of reading and at one point I find myself just sitting and sort of thinking but also not really thinking of anything at all. Whilst we’d been quite active with our phones on the first day, frantically messaging our friends to show them how remote and relaxed we were feeling, they now remain ‘somewhere’ around the cabin and quite possibly even out of battery but it doesn’t matter. I’m not fussed about films or achieving or completing anything. I’m not even that fussed about food which feels especially weird as that’s my go-to pastime. But this settled feeling, this stillness. It’s like the inside of my body has all gone one colour, is all one, and has been set to ‘neutral’ on some internal dial. And whilst I do have enough in here to keep me entertained a stimulated – all mod cons and access to the outside world, it’s my immediate outside world that must be having this effect on me. Something to do with the enormity and the emptiness and remoteness of it all. It’s detached something, like trains disconnecting from one another, and I’ve been left to gently glide along the track.
“As the days progress, very little else does. And this is a good thing.”
When you live like that, albeit for 2 or 3 days, you feel like you can do it forever. That you don’t need all of those things that we can so easily succumb to in ‘everyday life’. When you’re sat with this different version of yourself you want to get to know it a bit better. Give it more space. See what it can do with time and focus and a slower but more thoughtful approach. I don’t get to test it out, I have to be back in London and the steady streets of graceful Stockholm are a good gateway between these two worlds. People, suddenly. And it’s fine, I like people. But I am left feeling slightly bereft. Knowing that the cabin is all the way back there, remote and vacant. And the only thing I’ve left behind there is a feeling. And the Christmas tree.
So is it for me, remote living? I don’t know, it’s hard to think now I’m back in London and 101 things simultaneously coming at me. But it is funny to think how different life can be. How much the outside can change the inside. And I wonder if I did stay longer if I’d adapt and become a whole new person, living different ways with new values, a whole new outlook and understanding of the world. A vision of this alternative self, swathed in gortex and fleece, trudging thoughtfully through snow and staring longingly into the abyss of the wide-open lakes. Or if I’d revert and take back my original mould, bringing my existing bad habits into this new world, maybe become even more dependent on technology, more streaming, more virtual social connecting, and eating even more crisps. Right now, I’m left with an unknown. But hopefully, there’ll be a sequel coming to The Holiday to see how that all went for Cameron Diaz and I’ll get get good grounding from there.