Stockholm & Other Travel Syndromes

joyaanisqatsi  n. (Hopi) Nature out of balance, a way of life that is so crazy it calls for a new way of living

Ah, Sweden… The extortionately expensive Baltic country that introduced us to things like Pippi Longstocking, ABBA, Steig Larson, and IKEA.  What ever would be do without it?  My appreciation for Sweden definitely did not kick in right away.  Sunday was an overall rough day for me.  I arrived Stockholm physically and emotionally shattered, which is not a good way to begin a long stint of travels in foreign countries, which is exhausting enough already.  But shortly after my arrival, things began to look up.  After de-boarding the plane and making it through customs with a shiny new stamp in my passport (probably that last I’ll be getting for these travels… stupid Schengen Zone) I hopped on a bus that would take me into central.  Seeing as RyanAir trades off quality and convenience for price, it tends to only operate out of the most obscure airports, meaning the airport I flew into was two whole hours by bus outside Stockholm.  The bus ride was pleasant enough, however, and I found my mood steadily improving as a stared out the windows at the sun soaked Swedish landscape, lush green fields spotted with massive purple patches of lupine flowers.  Lupines remind me of home, particularly the small mountain path at Monocreek Campground where my father’s ashes are spread.  Every summer, when my grandfather and I would take that looping path “around the mountain”, I can recall the abundant lupines of vary shades of purple scattered across the mountainside, intermixed with the complimentary red Indian Paintbrushes.  Seeing them again so far from home had to be some sign.  Of what, I didn’t know, but I found a bit of comfort in it regardless.

After a couple hours, I could finally make out a giant sign obnoxious IKEA sign on the horizon, about as tacky as the furniture they sell there (but you didn’t hear that from me) and I knew I was in Stockholm.  I was immediately struck by how pretty of a city it seemed to me.  Granted, I’ve seen a lot of nice, cute cities over my travels, but Stockholm was different.   Other cities were beautiful like thunderstorms are beautiful: wild, natural, and a bit unpredictable.  Stockholm, however, was beautiful like a model in magazine, one that you could tell a lot of effort had gone into making look as such but you couldn’t help but be envious of anyone.  Stockholm is a city built on a tumorous outcropping of islands in southeastern Sweden and with its many waterways, it’s miracle it is as pristine as it is.  Stockholm is often called the “Other Venice” except for the fact that it doesn’t stink of sea brine or have black mold coating the buildings.  Though Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, or Old Town, dates back to 1252, it still looks perfectly preserved.  It has the charm of old architecture and warm pastel colored buildings, but it lacks the signs of time: chipping paint, crumbling brick, and worn cobble stones.  It is also remarkably free of trash and graffiti, which is ironic considering Gamla Stan was quite literally built on trash.  After the earliest settlers came and established the earliest shadow of Stockholm, it began to grow.  No just in population or in development, but the island that is now Gamla Stan quite literally began to expand in size because they used their trash to make it larger.  To give you a brief visual layout of how Stockholm functions today, it basically consists of five major islands, or sections of the city: Gamla Stan, Norrmalm, Ostermalm, Sodermalm, and Djurgarden.  That’s an oversimplified version as there are other islands and bits of land, but for my intents and purposes, those five sections were sufficient divides for me.

 My bus stopped at the main station on Norrmalm, where my hostel was also located.  I was happy to find my hostel locating skills had not dulled since my last travels and I was able to find the Birka Hostel relatively easily and quickly.  Like riding a bike, I suppose.  I checked in and went upstairs to my bunkroom.  I was staying in a large room of fourteen beds.  Normally, I dread those kinds of rooms but I book them anyway because they’re usually significantly cheaper, though let’s be honest, “cheap” in Sweden still means giving up your first born for a cup of coffee.   But as I walked in the bunk room, I was not instantly horrified.  In fact, I thought it looked rather cool.  The bunks were set into the walls themselves, build of sturdy wood instead of precarious metal frames, and they were tiered in stacks of three.  My assigned bed was in fact just a lofted bunk in the center of the room on the third level with no bunks underneath it, meaning I wouldn’t need to worry about disturbing people climbing in and out.  The whole room had a rustic feel to it, and I had to congratulate Stockholm on making even its hostels nice and presentable. 

            As I got my stuff settled, I talked with a few of my new bunk mates, including an older woman from America and a young woman originally from Australia now living in New Zealand.  I had only just started my trip and already I was meeting new people.  As sad as I was for the people I had left behind, it made me optimistic for what was to come on my travels.  While I was exhausted from the early morning, the travel, and the emotional drain I had endured that day, I didn’t entirely want to waste it by staying in the hostel all night.  Instead, I decided to head out and explore the city for a bit, at least to get a taste of what I was in for the next couple days.  As Gamla Stan was right next to the island my hostel was on, I decided to start there and I thus spent the next few hours wandering through its little streets packed wall to wall with extortionately expensive restaurants and little souvenir shops selling your stereotypically Swedish stuff like t-shirts with cartoon moose, little wooden carved Viking figurines,  and ABBA shot glasses.  Fun fact: ABBA is Sweden’s biggest export.  Stockholm itself has absolutely no industry (again probably why it’s so clean) but the entire country makes a fortune on selling and trading for ABBA.  When I was in Bulgaria on the free food tour, I learned that Bulgaria and Sweden actually have a trade agreement: ABBA for Bulgaria’s famous yogurt.  Sweden is weird.

            I eventually emerged onto the other side of Old Town and looked out across the canal at Sodermalm as the sun was beginning to sink.  I sat there on the edge of the canal for a while, thinking and staring at the sun’s reflection shimmering across the water like fireworks.  I found myself feeling sad again, missing everyone, missing Oxford.  Here I was in this beautiful new city with a wide expanse of possibility ahead and I couldn’t full enjoy it.  We always want what we cannot have.  That is the curse of the human condition.  I told myself it would get better, easier.  I just needed time to adjust like I did when my mom left me in Pisa.  And while I know that to be true, in that moment it sure didn’t seem like it.  What good was a beautiful sunset without someone to share it with?  The me of three months ago would have scoffed at that thought.  It just goes to show how much a person can change, how much people affect us.  With my emotions brought back to the surface, I realized how utterly exhausted I was.  Not really having the energy to remain out on the town, I returned to hostel where I made myself some pasta, which the hostel provided for free.  Considering how expensive everything else was, guess who would be eating a lot of buttered pasta over the next three days.

The next day, I let myself wake up at my leisure, not wanting to force myself into getting up and being places quite yet.  Enough of that would come later in my travels.  After an oh-so-healthy breakfast of (you guessed it) pasta, I set out on the town to explore.  This was a new day, a new city, a new chapter, and no matter how sad I got at points, I was determined to not let it stand in the way of me making the most of this experience.  Instead of going back through old town, I set off to Ostermalm, which isn’t so much a new island, but rather a different section of the island I was already on.  From there, I could cross to Djurgarden and hopefully see the ABBA museum and Stockholm’s city amusement park, Grona Lund.  Unfortunately, my plan went awry when I ended up on a different smaller island directly across from Grona Lund.  Try as I might, there seemed to be no land connection across the canal and thus no way for me to get to Djurgarden unless I wanted to walk quite a ways out of my way.  I decided against it and wandered back in the direction of Old Town. 

Stockholm is often referred to as the “World’s Smallest City” or the “World’s Biggest Small Town” and after being in it I can see why.  First off, despite it’s massive size, it is remarkably difficult to get lost.  Sure, you might have absolutely no idea how to get to a place due to a lack of bridges across the canals (another way to swindle you out of your money by making you pay for water taxis) but if you followed the canal edge far enough, you could at least get back to where you came from.  That was a philosophy I employed virtually all day as I maplessly wandered around.  Second, because it is divided into different islands and sections, no one part of Stockholm is overly bustling with the city rat race.  The most annoying part is probably the tourist packed Old Town.  Everywhere else is quite calm and relaxed in terms of cities.  I especially loved Sodermalm, which I reached after crossing back through Old Town.  On its front, Sodermalm appears a bit industrial but behind that façade (quite literally as the first row of buildings sit high on a stone wall that descends into lower levels of the island beyond it) is a really interesting and hip area of the city.  From deserted parks to cheap little record shops, Sodermalm entertained me for hours. 

One antique shop in particular was remarkably cool.  It was essentially a single room just piled with junk: old military uniforms, antique cameras, stamp collections, you name it.  It was the kind of antique store that was an adventure in and of itself.  Even though I knew I couldn’t take any of it with me, I lost myself digging through the piles of nostalgia, until the little old shopkeeper pulled me out of my trance.  “You from America?” he asked.  Jesus, I hadn’t even spoken.  Is it that obvious?  I nodded to him which was all the initiative he needed to launch into a full scale rant about how poor our economic state was in (you don’t need to tell me that, buddy, believe me) and how it was all because Jewish people owned everything…. I’m sorry, what?   He continued with a rant on the economic state of Europe and his crazy prediction that the EU will break up in five years time.  “In five years when it happens, you come back and see me!”  It was at that point that I decided it best to bid farewell to the anti-Semitic shopkeeper and be on my merry way back toward the hostel.  And that, folks, is how I met my first Nazi.

I didn’t really have plans that night when I finally returned, except maybe to just try to catch up some blogging.  Yet, as I sat in the kitchen making myself pasts (surprise!) I ran into two guys from New Zealand, a guy from Australia, and a girl from Finland, a random assortment of cultures if ever I’d seen one.  After talking to them in the kitchen for a while, we all eventually decided to go out for a bit and see if we could find a pub or a bar.  We found a dingy little dive bar not too far down the street and claimed a table for ourselves right next to the blackjack table.   After paying WAY too much for a simple bottle of cider, what I was going to make sure was my only drink of the night, we sat there and joked around.  At some point, the guys from New Zealand decided they would try their luck at Blackjack and failing to convince any of us to join them (mates, we’re all poor backpackers- add in the fact that if it weren’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have any at all and you have a recipe for gambling disaster) they joined the single toadlike man waiting to play.  In a matter of ten minutes, they were out.  I wanted to act surprised, but I just couldn’t.   By the time we left the bar it was almost midnight and there was still pink on the horizon, my first time ever seeing what they call up here in the north, the midnight sun.  As the previous day had been the solstice, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still so light out but for some reason I was.  It seemed very unnatural to me and as I fell asleep with a light blue glow still creeping in through my windows, I thought about how thankful I was that I didn’t live there, as pretty as it was.

On my last full day in Stockholm, I hadn’t really intended on doing much as I a) felt like I had seen a great deal of the city the previous day, b) really, really needed to catch up on my blog, and c) wasn’t too thrilled about that 90% chance of rain in the forecast.  But as I was eating breakfast in the kitchen on Tuesday morning, my New Zealand friends from the night before came down and asked if I had planned on going on the free walking tour.  Since spontaneity is practically my middle name and I loved both walking and all things free, I thought, “Why not?”  We set off together and joined a large group of tourists led by an American tour guide who sounded like remarkably like Tom Hanks.  Had I not seen his face before he started talking, I would have half expected him to start shouting, “WILSON!” at a volleyball floating down one of the Stockholm canals.  Alas and alack.

But overall the tour was quite fun.  I enjoy doing those kinds of tours because the tour guides are always fun and friendly.  Granted, that’s probably because the only payment they get is tips, which believe me, mate, I can relate to, but it always makes for a fun experience and a good way to find out facts about the city I probably wouldn’t otherwise.  For instance, as we passed by an expensive boutique, our tour guide stopped and explained that it was once a bank that coined the most Googled term with Stockholm in it.  Three guesses as to what it was?  That’s right, “Stockholm Syndrome.”  In 1973, a robbery was attempted of this particular bank which eventually ended in the tow robbers trapping themselves and several hostages in the bank vault while police frantically tried coming up with ways to smoke them out.  The robbers countered ever police plan and eventually, the police decided to just wait them out. It took six days to do so and in that time, the robbers had grown quite close to the hostages to the point that the hostages actually circled around them when they finally exited and later testified in favor of the robbers at their trial.  Years later, after they were released from prison, one of the hostages even flew all the way down to Thailand for the wedding of one of the robbers, where he acted as the guest of honor.  So the lesson is, if you rob a bank, just be nice to your hostages and things might work out okay for you.

The tour took us through a lot of areas that weren’t Gamla Stan or any of the other areas I had really explored, which I was pleased at because it meant I got to see that much more of Stockholm.  We passed the Royal Palace and learned that it wasn’t the originally, which “mysteriously” burned down after a new architect was hired to do some renovations.  The same architect was then hired to design the current standing palace, which only took him a couple weeks to plan (because that’s not suspicious at all).  The new palace is said to have one more room than Buckingham Palace in London.  It seems the Swedish are just as interested in outdoing the British so they’re alright in my book.  We also passed by the location where Nobel Prizes are awarded.  Little did I know that the Nobel Prize was literally established because of an incorrect newspaper fact.  Alfred Nobel, after which the prize is named, was originally famous for his invention of dynamite, something he wasn’t exactly popular for, especially after it became a common tool used in war.  When his brother passed away, the newspaper got the facts wrong and published an obituary for Alfred instead.   Yet his death was not looked at with sorrow.  In the obituary, he was referred to as the “Merchant of Death” and when Alfred saw this, he grew quite sad, as he was a lover of peace himself.  To atone for his invention, he established the Nobel Prize for people who did work in different categories to improve the world. 

And of course, the most important sight: the headquarters of H&M, a poor girl’s fashion savior.  I had no idea H&M was a Swedish company but after learning that little tidbit, it did make a few things make sense, like that fact that there are literally eight different H&M stores within a 500 meter radius in Stockholm.  They’re quite proud of the company, and I was happy to see their prices were still low by my standards.  I never assume I’m gong to want nicer shirts when I’m backpacking.  The packing method for me is purely practical.  Yet, on both my trips now, I regret that decision the minute I find myself in a nice city surrounded by fashionable people.  And then there’s me: rolled up jeans, a t-shirt that I’ve deemed passes the smell test of being still fit to wear in public, and hiking boots that refuse to match absolutely anything I own.  What better place to remedy that than H&M?  And, I told myself, it would be downright cultural experience considering this was its homeland and all that shit.  So I went in and found myself a nice summer shirt that I felt would match at least most of my limited selection of bottoms.  And it was only 50 krona, or about $5!  Of course, I couldn’t pass up an equally cheap romper that looked like a practical backpacking outfit as it was dark colored, simple, and cool.  So I escaped H&M with a couple more things to shove into my pack only short about $10.  I could hardly buy an ice cream cone for that much here, but clearly I could buy fabric and foreign labor.  I’ll say it again: Sweden is weird.

After the tour and my shopping excursion, I returned to the hostel as dark storm clouds began rolling across the day to work on my blog, which is exactly what I did for the remainder of the day until I was finally almost all caught up.  I’m hoping to not let myself get that far behind again (I say as I’m writing about Stockholm five days after leaving it… oops).  It’s just too stressful when that happens, and I’m really trying to stay very dedicated to this blog.  Blogs and journals are one of those things that a lot of people say they’re going to do when they go traveling or start some other big life journey, but they quick get lost and forgotten in the flurry of life itself.  People realize that more often than not, writing about life is less exciting than actually living it. 

But not me. No, I just happen to be one of the masochistic people in this world who actually love writing, and since Iactually want to do this sort of travel writing for a living, it’s best I get into practice with that necessary dedication now, even though I’m not getting paid for this (although I wouldn’t be opposed to accepting donations…Anyone? Anyone?).  And despite the fact that it does still feel a bit like a job, and sometimes blogging is the absolute last thing I want to be doing, I still really enjoy it.  Writing in general in a love/hate thing, and any writers out there will know exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s an exercise in both self-indulgence and self-loathing.  For me, it’s been a great way for me to reflect on my adventures and find meaning in them below the surface.  It’s a way for me to see what I’ve learned about myself and the world and to track the changes I myself have undergone.  Introspection and retrospection are necessary parts to our understanding of our place in the world and so often we gloss over it.  This blog forces me to dive right into those reflective acts and really see this experience from every light and angle.  Words are important, they are a legacy, a memory, a way of preserving things once they have happened, and boy has a lot ever happened over these last six months (has it really been six whole months?!).