I was glad that Luxembourg Airlines fly over northern Germany and Denmark on their flight to Stockholm. The reason is very simple: it’s always nerve-wracking to fly over large bodies of water in a tiny Bombardier aeroplane. I had a row to myself. Flights to Sweden from Luxembourg are rarely full in the winter and I was only too happy to see Skåne below me.
This wasn’t my first time to visit Scandinavia in the winter. Actually, I’ve only ever visited Scandinavia in the winter – but I hadn’t travelled quite this far north. The Stockholm December light confused me at first. It’s so very feeble, so delicate – it’s the lightest shade of blue, the faintest yellow. I arrived at just before 2:00 in the afternoon but the sun was already giving up the ghost. On the commuter train from Arlanda to Stockholm I was overjoyed by the sounds – the sounds of silence. Everything was so quiet, so reserved. Stockholm is so quiet, deathly still. In a city of a million people one can barely hear anyone.
I like Stockholm. It is, at least in my humble opinion, among the world’s most beautiful cities. My first night didn’t give me much hope to fully appreciate this. In order to simplify things I took a “short cut”. Instead of travelling to Stockholm Central I went one station further, to Stockholm South. I spent the next 2.5 hours utterly and helplessly lost. I had an appointment to meet an old colleague who is now living in Stockholm. I had to tell him that I was so lost that he’d have to come meet me where I was. I was simply too exhausted. The poor lad had to help me to my hotel – a converted passenger ferry built in 1929 that originally served the Bergen-Oslo route.
My room was tiny but comfortable and had a view across Lake Mälaren to Stockholm Town Hall. It was a new experience staying on the water. I enjoyed the gentle swaying and the sound of the water. Then there was the chance to see boats passing by in front of me… That was another first for me. The staff were perfectly lovely and their breakfast offering was generous. It was, of course, a regular Swedish breakfast but that’s rarely a bad thing. Meats, cheeses, breads, yoghurt, juices, coffee, tea, etc. Not “quite” Continental, but certainly closer to that than the divine English breakfast or the food of the gods, the Scottish. Oh, and fish in a metal tube. The Swedes enjoy it and I have grown accustomed to it.
Walking around Stockholm was strange. It’s beautiful and it’s clean, but there is sometimes a note of tension in the air – a hint of quiet desperation. I never felt unsafe there. On the contrary, it remains one of the West’s safer cities outside a few unpleasant neighbourhoods. Rather, there was a hint of psychological tension. Something is happening in Sweden, something is changing but I couldn’t tell exactly what it is. The best that I can manage is to posit that an era is well and truly coming to an end. Sweden is changing and the Swedish Government has affected one of history’s most rapid changes in policy and the shocks are still rippling through the country.
Stockholm Town Hall was beautiful. Fittingly for Stockholm, it’s an iconic building in an iconic city in an iconic country. The guide let slip that there is a new political force in Sweden. Standards are somehow being maintained and appearances are being kept, but there is an eerie sense that no one knows what’s coming – only that it’s something few had anticipated. Gamla Stan was also worth the visit. It’s stunningly beautiful, if somewhat touristy in places, but rich in atmosphere. Unfortunately, it was also rich in gippoes. Romania’s greatest export, it seems, is available everywhere. The grand Storkyrkan, Great Church, is among Stockholm’s older structures and houses some of its more interesting works of art. This, of course, includes a truly monstrous St George Slaying the Dragon. Or Danes. The chances are that it was a Swede slaying Danes, just allegorically.
Skansen is one of the world’s great museums, even if much of it was closed due to the season. What was open was splendid. A 1920s peasant julbord, ginger snaps baking in a wood-burning oven, 18th century farm houses from difference provinces, reindeer (they of a putrid stench), a Sami village, an old chemist’s, etc. Then there was the Vasa… The greatest ship of the 17th century. Nothing could have prepared me for it. It is simply massive. It’s ornate, inspiring, bemusing and tragic. It sank barely over half a mile into its maiden voyage. I had to buy Viking-type chum a Vasa ornament to warm his Danish heart. I couldn’t think of a more fitting monument to honour the glories and the follies of Sweden’s Golden Age.
Nordiska Museet helped to relieve the disappointment from the limited openings at Skansen. Their focus on traditions, their development and their evolution put many things into perspective. Things can change really quickly. Life can change really quickly. Within a century, all becomes unrecognisable. Within a matter of a generation, the world no longer resembles what it was. There is no effort placed into glorifying the past, nor is there an effort placed into vilifying the past – only recognition that life and all that it entails is ever-changing. That, and that Sweden borrowed quite a bit from the Huns – and some things that they borrowed were later returned to Hunland and embraced for their Swedishness.
I travelled to Copenhagen by train. First class, of course, one mustn’t endure revolting peasants unnecessarily. Before leaving Sweden I had a pleasant chat with the hotel’s owner. She was very helpful and gave me advice pertaining to reaching Stockholm Central Station quickly – it was just a quick ferry ride across the lake and maybe 5-7 minutes past that. I had to drag my luggage there as I broke a wheel on my large suitcase when I had to carry it behind me for hours a few days before. I made it in time with a few minutes to spare. The Swedish countryside is as beautiful and understated as ever. I wished that I could have stayed in Sweden longer. If anything, I am only growing fonder of the place with time and experience. Alas and alack, it was not to be – for now. I changed at Malmö Central Station. I could travel to Gentofte with no need to transfer in Denmark. Malmö is pulsating with a strange, unsettling atmosphere. I was relieved when the language of announcements changed from the musical lilt of Swedish to the guttural Danish. I was in Viking-type chum’s homeland and came bearing offerings of Grillhaxe, nougat, chocolate, sausages, an ornament and a Moomin Troll candle chime carousel.