I have wondered for a couple of months now why I have not written about Sweden. I visited there this summer and was bowled over by it, especially by Stockholm itself. This is a urban space that defies one’s preconceptions and demands a paradigm shift. I literally fell in love with the city, the archipelago, and the people. So why haven’t I written about it?
I don’t guess I really know the answer to that except that I can’t seem to separate my feelings for the place, which I long to share with whomever reads my blog, and my feelings for my hosts, which are more private and about which only my friends might be vaguely interested.
Ana and her husband are Spanish expats whom I met in North Carolina when she was a visiting Latin teacher at the school where I taught Spanish. My memory of our first meeting is a combination of her twinkling brown eyes and her wide smile as we spoke Spanish together, and her lovely and unusual Castilian accent, exotic indeed to my decidedly American hemisphere-trained ear, as she asked earnestly, “Where are you from? Your accent is a mix of different places!” Frankly, everything about this dark-haired, beautiful woman, some fifteen years my junior, simply delighted me. We quickly became very close friends, closer than any others for both of us at that period in our lives. Surprisingly, our relationship has remained strong, in spite of the passage of nearly twenty years since we’ve lived on the same continent! The only person who was anywhere near as excited as I was when I began interviewing for the position that would eventually bring me to my new home in Europe was Ana. Our geographic proximity now, only a couple of hours by plane, thrills me, and I am pretty sure it has a similar affect on this unselfish and free-spirited friend.
As my hosts in their adopted country, Ana and Mario were attentive and thoughtful. They wanted me to experience their city as fully as I could in these few days. From the first day’s walking tour and the carefully planned visits to important sites, to shopping and the re-discovery of Desigual (!!!) to the boat ride through the archipelago, it was as if they had planned the visit like tour guides would do. They have learned a lot about Sweden’s history and significance, and like good citizens, they’ve even learned to speak Swedish quite well. They clearly love their new home, and they wanted me to love it, too. I was surprised by how much these sun-loving Spaniards had come to respect the Swedes and to love the northern and exotic land that Ana sometimes still calls “el Polo Norte.”
Si Dios quiere, I will visit Stockholm often, hopefully every year until Ana and Mario leave it, which will probably not be for a very long time. So this time I will mention only a few highlights, and you’ll see Stockholm here again and again in years to come. Let’s see how much punch I can pack into a few words and photos about this enchanting place.
Stockholm has a population that is friendly, open and respectful. First of all they greet each other with a smiling “hej,” which to my Wilmington, NC ear sounds an awful lot like “hey!” the common down-home greeting that I grew up hearing and that inevitably leaves me feeling at home. Gotta love that. And they must be very honest folks because nearly everywhere we went, the Swedes’ favorite mode of transportation, mostly simple but often expensive bicycles, was left unlocked on the street. Some people, probably people like me who’ve lived in bigger, more dangerous places, locked their bikes, but probably nearly half the bikes I saw unsupervised on the street were not. I was impressed.
Bicycles? But wait, isn’t it really cold there? Well, yes, it is. In WINTER. In the summer months, the weather is sunny, clear, and while not hot, certainly exceptional for enjoying the outdoors. People love to sit outside on restaurant terraces (blankets are almost always handy, provided by the restaurants in case it turns a little cooler than comfortable) or on their own terraces, outside their houses and apartments.
Sunlight in Sweden possesses a quality that is hard to describe, very bright and haze-free. And said light makes for a looooooong summer day. While I was there in July, the sun went down about eleven or so, I guess, then came back up again about 3:00 in the morning or a little earlier. Ana had warned me to bring a sleeping mask! Winter, on the other hand, can be a pretty long stretch of dark nights with just two or three hours of sunlight between. But let’s not talk about winter here, okay?
Cleanliness is Next to Swedishness
Another important point is the cleanliness. This is a city that is clean. Really clean. From the buildings to the streets, it looked like somebody went around every day and swept, then someone else came along and washed everything, and finally someone finished up with Lemon Pledge. Maybe it’s all the water everywhere, but it really seemed clean.
The The History and the Geography: Water, water, EVERYWHERE!
Speaking of water, did I mention that it’s everywhere? Sweden itself is a series of some 20,000 small islands, a true archipelago. Stockholm is a microcosm of the country. The city is made up of about fourteen small islands surrounded by clean, blue water.
Gamla Stan, Riddarholmen, Sodermalm…
The oldest of the city’s islands, Gamla Stan, is a sort of charming European old-town, medieval in fact. One of my favorite tours was the Riddarholmen church located offically on Gamla Stan but actually another islet called, yep, you guessed it — Riddarholmen! This famous church itself is medieval, although the architecture will fool you because the spire was replaced after a lightening strike in the 1800’s. The building has evolved in use as well, from a monastery to a Protestant church, to its present use ceremonially. It is most famous as the burial place of Swedish royalty. Ana and Mario live on Sodermalm, a hip and youthful community of professionals, artists, and business owners. There are several other islands that make up the city, each a sort of borough with a personality of its own.
The City Hall on Kungsholmen (yes, another island/borough) is a treat to tour. The guides are young Swedes who lead in English, Swedish, Spanish, French, and other languages, too. They are professional and knowledgeable as they explain this massive building, beginning in the Blue Room, a massive space that is not blue at all. This is where the Nobel dinner is hosted. The dinner is followed by dancing in the Golden Hall. Unlike the Blue Room, the Golden Hall lives up to its name; it is really gold, with several million tiny tiles made of glass and real gold! The room’s dramatic mosaics feature depictions of mythical and real figures in Swedish history and culture.
The Viking Ship
Yes, that’s what I said: the Viking ship. The Vasa is a warship that was raised from just outside of Stockholm’s harbor, where
it had sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628. Yes, this ship is nearly four hundred years old! Painstakingly reassembled, this 52 meter high and 69 meter long ship is housed in an enormous building and is open to the public. Also on display are items found in and near the wreckage, including the remains of some sailors and others who perished in the disaster. The faces of several of those found have been realistically reconstructed, as well as their lives, although they were never identified for certain. Their possible identities were pieced together based on their clothing and belongings found near the remains. The stories are fascinating and allow visitors a glimpse into the past that sparks the imagination. I can’t do this justice in terms of photographs, but you can find all the info you need here: http://www.vasamuseet.se/en/
So here is your introduction to Stockholm. There is so much more to say about it: the archipelago, the Royal Guard, the connection to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the lifestyle, the food, the market, dinner at a restaurant owned by one of the members of ABBA, our new friend Arielle, the American style bowling alley and diner, Ana’s mad dash for a table at an overcrowded restaurant, beating at least one of my hosts in Scrabble in Spanish (pretty proud of that one, actually), handsome (and TALL) Swedish men…but there is just not enough time or space to tell about everything in one post. Here’s what you need to know: You will love it. Start planning your visit TODAY and get ready to be blown away. Watch this blog for more info, as I can tell that I’m not finished talking about Sweden.
One thing to remember: go in the summer as there is kind of a lot of snow in the winter…but I guess you knew that already.
See more photos here: http://estocolmo2012.shutterfly.com/
Like me on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/AmericanaEnEuropa