Sweden is an exquisite country. Well, most of Sweden is an exquisite country – there are parts of it that are rather less than pleasant. I arrived in Kalmar late in the afternoon as the sun was starting to set. It’s cold; it’s very cold – and windy. Yes, yes. Of course that’s what one should expect. Kalmar is a seaside town in Scandinavia, not Singapore. Kalmar is beautiful in a way that’s almost too perfect. The streets are clean and well-kept. At seemingly every major square or corner there is under-stated, beautiful artwork. Shops are clean and well-ordered. It seems as if there isn’t a street in the city without a coffee shop. Kalmar’s old town, or gamla stan does not betray its age. It looked like a fairy-tale village. Its castle, Kalmar Slott, is the largest Renaissance castle or palace in the Nordic countries and by far the best-preserved. Unfortunately, it was closed. One of the main contrasts between Sweden and Denmark is in the opening hours of museums and historical sites. In Denmark, even in the dead of winter, they are open even with reduced hours. In Sweden, they are more often than not closed for the season or only open one or two days each week.
The castle grounds were open and I spent nearly two hours exploring it and the neighbouring mariners’ cemetery. The castle was too bloody perfect to be believed. There was some minor graffiti. It wasn’t gang graffiti; it was a nauseatingly quaint juvenile graffiti – something that every generation is guilty of. Looking out over Kalmar from the castle moat I thought “I need to write a murder mystery about this place. A gruesome, gory murder mystery; something involving wild sex orgies and dismembered corpses dumped on the castle grounds. Perhaps there should even be a severed head dangling in the middle of the gate”. Even the “refugees” I saw in Kalmar were too bloody perfect. They were overwhelmingly clean, well-dressed and polite. They also happened to be exceedingly photogenic. They were the acceptable face of the refugee crisis – the ones who could be trusted not to defecate on streets, piss in corners or grope women too often at major public events. The only museum I could visit in Kalmar was the county museum which had reduced opening hours but was out of necessity open for visiting schools. It was interesting enough. Its emphasis was on the wreck of the Kronan, a warship that sank in 1668 during one of those interminable wars between Sweden and Denmark. The cold water preserved it well and many artefacts have been recovered. The displayed skills and mutilated skeletons were refreshing after the surrounding perfection.
Their temporary exhibit on life in provincial Sweden during the Second World War was revealing. Sweden, like Switzerland, had adopted a self-serving neutrality in which it profited to no small measure by trading with both the Allies and Axis. Naturally, they did not emphasise the fact that during the first years of the war a narrow majority of Swedes sympathised with Hitler despite Norway and Denmark being over-run. When discussing the Finnish children they took in during the Winter War and thereafter they similarly failed to mention the frequency of abuse meted out to their wards or how often they were exploited. They did, however, put a great deal of emphasis on medical relief provided to concentration camp survivors! Their exhibition on the life of Jenny Nyström, an illustrator who was born in raised in Kalmar was interesting and tastefully curated. Their other main museum, dedicated to the local marine tradition, was open, like the castle, only on Sundays.
My B&B in Kalmar was similarly nearly too perfect. It was a well-maintained house built in the 1920s with heated floors and tile stoves. Their breakfast selection was Nordic ad nauseum. I was positively chuffed to bits by it all. I fell in love with the Småland of today as much as I always loved the Småland of Astrid Lindgren. The border between Småland and Skåne is not clearly marked, but the differences between the two regions are striking enough. Småland is Nordic to cliché: perfectly-maintained red farmhouses in fields and meadows surrounded by birch forests. Skåne, in contrast, looks almost Danish and it reminded me of Minnesota. Then again, Skåne was Danish for more than half its coherent national history and at least a large plurality of Swedes who migrated to Minnesota were from Skåne.
I despised Lund from the second I alighted. It was hectic and chaotic. Although it was clean, it didn’t feel especially comfortable. I hated being at train station. It was crowded with Löfvén’s “refugees” and they were infinitely less photogenic than those in Kalmar. They were grubbier and dirtier. There was a contingent of Romanians loitering about showing off their physical deformities or insisting on “serenading” us with their “musical talents”. Its status as a major university city – in fact, nearly half Lund’s population are university students, lent it a surreal air. It was clearly an ancient and venerable Scandinavian city, but it felt unreal. There were too many “alternative” restaurants and fashions. I was tempted to pop in at a supermarket to buy a bar of soap to use to ward off the ruffians! The ancient cathedral was interesting enough – it even had a few late-Viking-era sculptures adorning the columns in crypt. I still didn’t like it, well, save for Kulturen, an open-air museum dedicated to southern Swedish life over the past few centuries. Old farm houses, a church and other dwellings were either relocated from other parts of Sweden or were purchased when in the vicinity. I spent four hours exploring it and still felt rushed at the end – even if several buildings were closed for renovations!
My initial disgust with Lund nearly provoked me to cross the Øresund a day early. Fortunately, I didn’t check the time and it was too late to cancel my last hotel reservation without penalty. I left Lund after breakfast dragging my suitcase filled with the last salmiak-filled chocolate, fruit-and-nut chocolate bar, and pound of Arvid Nordquist Mellon Kaffe, Swedish lingonberry jam and – to the ecstasy of Viking-type-chum – cloudberry jam to train station to catch a commuter Skånetrafikentåg to Helsingborg. I fell in love with Sweden again there. My hotel wasn’t much. The wankers had the nerve to charge me 60 kronor for sheets and a towel! My room, however, had a view over the Øresund and I could see Helsingør glimmering in the distance. Helsingør is most famous for Kronborg. In English it is often known as “Elsinore” and is of Hamlet fame. Once, both cities were in Denmark and control over both cities provided the Danish crown with much revenue. After the Swedes took control over the eastern half of the sound both cities declined in importance and are now merely pleasant seaside towns. The primary difference being, of course, that Helsingborg actually possesses topographical variety – something which windy, sandy and flat Denmark lacks.
Sweden is a wonderful country for coffee and pastries. Swedes have turned this into a ritual more sacred than the highest mass. This is fika. After walking up and down many hills I popped into a small coffee shop for biscuits and coffee. The biscuits were lovely, the coffee at least an hour or four past its burial date. I kept walking up and down the hills, stopping to read quotes from writers who made Helsingborg their home. Helsingborg, it seems, is infamous in Sweden for providing inspiration for writers and artists in the same way that Aix-en-Provence is in France. On one corner with a clear view across the Øresund to Kronborg there was an inscription that caught my attention: Danmark är goldsmyck i västra. Denmark is a jewel to the west.
I had a late lunch at one of the most brilliantly conceived coffee shops I’ve ever visited. It was the Sweden of the past – antique toys and posters, old kitchen supplies, even a scale weighing things by the ort, mark and skålpund. The reading material comprised film magazines of the late 1940s and 1950s. The staff were absolutely charming people who could, due to their age and lack of practice, no longer speak English to any degree of fluency – something unheard of among younger Swedes who have a higher rate of competence in English than the US, Canada and southern Essex. This necessitated my speaking to them in Swedish which, surprisingly, I did fairly well. After a few more hours of walking about I returned to my hotel and watched the sun set over Denmark.
The next morning was grim. A fog had descended over the region mooting the anticipated return to Denmark by ferry. I had a quick breakfast before checking out and walking the 440 yards to train station in order to take the first non-stop Øresundståg to Copenhagen. For the first time in a week someone spoke to me socially. A man a few years younger than me boarded at Lund and asked me first and Swedish, then in Danish if I could wake him at Malmö. He proceeded to sleep again. I resumed my reading and looking out the train window at the fields of Sweden’s southernmost tip. We bid each other hejdå before I continued on to Triangeln and Hyllie. At Hyllie, across the tracks, the Swedish police were conducting a passport inspection of passengers entering from Denmark.
Københavns Lufthavn Kastrup Station, Tårnby, Ørestad, Københavns Hovedbanegård. I was back in Denmark. I alighted at the appropriate station and walked the short distance to Viking-type chum’s flat. He was ever so slightly miffed at my arrival. I was perkily chirping away in Swedish when he was still in his pyjamas and brushing his teeth. ”Oh G-d, you’re not going to speak like that to me, are you”? He asked, half-pleading, half mock-pleading with a glimmer of wry humour in his blue-grey eyes. We spent our last two days together taking it easy. I washed clothes and went shopping with him – lemon spaghetti, crêpes, etc. All illwill earnt by my Swedish-language barrage dispersed at the sight of the jar of hjortronsylt – cloudberry jam. It is apparently difficult to find in Denmark. If it is possible, it is prohibitively expensive.
I was happy to be back in Denmark, as much as I enjoyed being in Sweden. Well, except for much of Lund but that is naught more than the prick of a pin in the vast sea that is Sweden. Leaving Denmark proved hard. I am surviving Spain, but I miss the sounds of Scandinavia, the smells of Scandinavia. I miss the languages – Swedish more than Danish. In a strange way I understand Scandinavia. I understand it well enough not to want to live there. It is too contented with itself and far too aloof for a Hun-in-exile like me to ever have much of a chance. But I fell for it, now more than ever before.
7 thoughts on “Nordic Pseudo-Visions”
Another tour de force, C. I always liked Sweden too. Hospitable to a fault – and disarmingly honest.
Janus: and breathtakingly beautiful! Sweden’s landscapes and architecture are among the most beautiful anywhere. Southern Europeans are more outgoing and, of course, one can’t fault them for a lack of artistic or cultural achievement but there is something of the insincere about them. I really enjoyed almost every part of Scandinavia but have so far only thoroughly enjoyed the slums of Madrid as the people are more interesting.,
I don’t know Spain. Madrid on biz in the ’70s, cold and unwelcoming.
Spain is very different now. In the 1970s Spain was in the process of ridding itself of nearly 40 years of el Caudillo and people were still terrified of being seen with the wrong people or saying the wrong things. They’re much friendlier and more open now, but Madrid is a city for work and money. There are lots of museums and it’s well-organised, but it’s drab and soulless. I’ll go to Toledo next week and see if I like that better.
The Swedish vista will be greatly improved with a few mosques on the skyline.
Well a hotel charging for sheets! Never heard the like.
Good story telling as usual, thank you.
Not for me with cold and wind, bad enough here in Wales!
CO: I was absolutely shocked. I paid, of course, no telling what slept there before me! Viking-type chum insists that I should visit Scandinavia at a time when it isn’t under a 4-yard-thick layer of permafrost. I might try to make it there later this year if I can manage to get some time off.