A Swedish Tango
Our dance with Sweden began with an understandable yet costly mistake. The four of us were lounging around our Denmark apartment; Tom’s trip planning, Kieran and Asher are watching something on their devices, and I’m eating breakfast. “Oh crap!” we hear from Tom’s room. He comes out and explains that he messed up the dates–Grandma and Grandpa would be arriving 2 days earlier to Oslo than expected. Frazzled, we try to find a new AirBnB for Oslo for the two extra days and cancel our reservation for 4 people at another AirBnB. This misstep meant we’d have to cut out the two days we had planned for southern Sweden, a saddening turn of events for me. I had planned on meeting up with the family of one of my best friends, Mattias, in Malmö. I’ve met his grandparents multiple times on their visits to the U.S., so we were going to go see them and meet the rest of his Swedish family. In light of our itinerary change, we instead made a spur of the moment trip to visit Lund and Mälmo on one of our Copenhagen days–too spontaneous to make any meetups work.
We entered Sweden via the train from Copenhagen and first stopped at Lund. Lund is known mostly for its prestigious, 350-year-old university, which I have been entertaining doing a semester abroad at for quite some time. As such, a visit to the university was rather high on my list. Upon entering Lund, it was apparent that the university town packed a cultural punch that lives up to its age. Along the walk from the train station to the university, we passed by apartments and tightly packed buildings that hearkened back to a time long gone, though their bright, vivid colors seemed to do nothing of the sort. As for the university, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a campus so beautiful. The well upkept, aging buildings scattered amongst groves and ponds would, in most cases, come off as pretentious (see: Stanford, Princeton), but given the campus’ surroundings, it all felt wholly authentic. Seeing fliers for events going on around campus and students leisurely strolling between buildings, I began to yearn to be back in Berkeley. This is the longest I’ve gone without lecture or classtime since the first trip, and that’s not something that’s necessarily a plus. Kieran and Asher, not quite feeling the allure of such a magnificent university, were quick to want out of the campus, though a meandering family of ducks did manage to snag their attention for awhile.
Following a few hours of exploring the more college town-y side of Lund, we hopped the 10-minute train back Mälmo. We were not really sure what we would try to do in Mälmo, but I petitioned for us to at least drop by and see it because there was enough time left in the day. As with so many other cities that we have a short time in (Prishtina, Patras, Toulouse, Porto, Amsterdam, to name a few) bursts of rain kept us from accomplishing much. We walked through deserted streets in search of some central square that Tom recalled from a previous trip, but we could not find it. With little else to do, we let Kieran make his own fortune pulling Kronor from a sparsely wished at fountain. If the pickings hadn’t been so slim–he made about a dollar from the venture–perhaps we would have thought better of it, but this fountain was evidently scraped decently frequently. Without much else to do, we headed back to Copenhagen.
A day or two later it was time for us to leave Copenhagen for Oslo, a journey that required traveling through much of Sweden. Our train passed through Mälmo, Lund, and much of the south of Sweden on the way to Gothenburg, and up to that point, no previous train ride could compare in terms of natural beauty. Rounded, puffy clouds laid calmly across wide swaths of a very saturated, blue sky. The sun hung low for hours, casting a golden light on the entirety of what we could see, bringing out the vibrant greens of cultivated fields and untapped forests. After transferring in Gothenburg, we soon exited the country once again.
When we re-entered Sweden, it was through the Stockholm airport, but this time around we had Grandma and Grandpa with us. I had a lot of hope vested in Stockholm, seeing as it was the city I had most strongly considered living in outside of San Francisco. Swedish social programs and the country’s general approach to caring for its citizens has appealed to me for as long as I’ve been aware of them. About a year of parental leave, strong social supports for unemployment and the impoverished, free healthcare and higher education, all signs of a country that cares for its people rather than its corporations. Of course, I had already seen Mälmo and Lund, but Stockholm is the epicenter of this culture, and I was dying to see it up close. Perhaps the first thing one notices about Stockholm is the subway stations. Some time ago, the city decided that they would turn the subway stations into public contemporary art galleries, a decision that proved difficult to maintain when the 1980s brought an onslaught of taggers and graffiti artists (reappropriation, much?). Nowadays, that problem has subsided and the city is left to do what they will, which is really pretty great. Many of the stations that we frequented were designed to resemble caves by the sea, with uneven, craggy walls and even fake bird poop painted down the walls. The second thing one notices is that the city is situated upon multiple islands all connected via the subways (though I think they become “supra-ways” to go over the water). There are 14 islands in total and they make up what is known as the “Stockholm Archipelago,” a fact I was not privy to before visiting. We arrived at our apartment just after midnight, and luckily for us, our host was nice enough to wait up until we got there. She gave us the run-down on the apartment and how we shouldn’t call too much attention to ourselves because Swedish people haven’t been too happy with short-term rentals. She then bid us farewell and, funnily enough, the sky outside was still blue when she left.
The next morning, we started our first day in Stockholm off with wandering in the direction towards Gamla Stan, or Old Town. Along the way we stumbled across city hall, a rather majestic looking building with an even more majestic view of one of Stockholm’s central thoroughfares. Across the water stood other traditional buildings, gleaming in the sunlight. All of this glory, however, has paled in our memories by the hilarity of one Asian tourist’s actions. Right near the water stood two nude statues, one male, one female, and they stood ~20 feet apart just gazing at one another. The Asian tour group nearby took interest in the male statue. They took their turns, taking photos with the statue. One lady who had to be around 60, instead of standing there laughing or smiling as all the other members of her group did, casually extends her arm and firmly grasps the poor statue’s male parts. Seemingly no one from her group was entertained or even fazed by her unexpected gesture; not even her husband taking the picture cracked a smile. We all just stared at each other, mouths agape, trying not to erupt in laughter.
We then made our way to Gamla Stan, where we found the start point to a Tour for Tips style walking tour. It was interesting to hear about Stockholm’s history and to see the places where so many historical events took place, but about halfway through the tour we decided to break off and go to the Nobel Museum that we were passing by. Realizing that we forgot to tip the guide, we needed to have somebody run and do so. Somehow, it was only after Grandpa started briskly walking in the direction the tour went that we all realized he was not the one who should have volunteered. We tried to stop him but at that point he had already begun and was just going to go the distance. Unfortunately, the group ended up walking rather far and the people in the back wouldn’t let Grandpa up to the guide, thinking he was just trying to get a better spot, so it was another 10-15 minutes before he made it back to us. We spent a good amount of time in the Nobel Museum, watching videos of past laureates and reading up on the accomplishments of the Nobel prize system. Most surprising to me was that the Alfred Nobel who invented dynamite was the same Alfred Nobel who created the Nobel prize. It makes perfect sense in retrospect, but those two had just never occupied the same space in my mind. We then walked around Gamla Stan for a while playing Risky Business with Grandma and Grandpa while somewhat looking for a good place to have dinner. When the restaurant we had in mind was actually 25$ a person, not 12$, we passed on it, leaving the old town in search of not so touristy prices. As with Norway, everything seemed to be above our price range, but, with the help of Foursquare, we settled upon a unique burger joint after much fruitless wandering. It was so good for its value that during our layover on our way from Finland to Thailand, we would actually come back to this same restaurant. That night we continued our tradition of playing scum until the blue outside started getting lighter rather than darker.
On our second Stockholm day we started off by visiting the Vasa museum. The Vasa was a large Swedish warship built in the 1620s as a way for Sweden to start exerting itself as a colonial power. Due to the king’s impetuousness, the whole construction process was fraught with faults, such that on its maiden voyage the ship made it no farther than a mile, sinking before the eyes of Swedes and foreign dignitaries alike. A few attempts were made to retrieve the ship early on, but eventually the location of the wreckage was lost. Fast forward to the 50s and a group of marine archaeologist types figure they can find it and they do, leading to one of the most glorious ship retrievals of all time. My favorite token of all this: If the bay had not been so polluted and deoxygenated, wood-eating bacteria would have destroyed the ship centuries ago. Now, the Vasa stands 4 stories tall (not including the masts), almost fully restored at the center of a large atrium of sorts. When we had had our fill of Sweden’s failed colonialism, we wandered around the island the Vasa museum was located on for over an hour and then took a tram back towards the center of the city. Along the way, we spotted a large gathering of people arranged in an observer circle at the center of a park, so we hopped off the tram a few stops early to witness the goings-on. Rather surprisingly, the circle of people almost all fit under the demographic of middle- to old-aged women, and at their center was a circular runway for models to strut along. The models did not seem to be your generic, early 20s, tall and slim women, but fell widely across the board. It was difficult to ascertain what the event was, but it was certainly novel. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but when we pulled ourselves away from the crowd to leave, the only one of our party not to be seen was Grandma. We shortly found her taking pictures, well integrated into the crowd, but it was still quite humorous. We then resumed our wandering, this time with the hope of finding sub-$15 food, but as I’ve mentioned, eating out in Scandinavia will always gouge your budget. We thus decided to just stave off our hunger with baked goods and found ourselves a stunning vista to eat them upon. Determined to not let the higher cost of living win, along our long walk home we loaded up at a Co-op supermarket so that we could fix our own dinner at ⅕ the price of what it would be to eat out.
The next day we had a train to the North that left around 5 p.m., which gave us a good portion of the day to see a bit more of Stockholm. We dropped our bags off at the train station into some of the priciest lockers we’ve ever come across and made for Stockholm’s photography museum/gallery. Half of us thoroughly enjoy photography and the museum was located on an island we had not yet visited, so it seemed a strong end point for our stay. We struggled with finding the place, and when we did find it, we were looking down at it from the top of an 80 foot bluff. When we finally entered the museum we were not at all disappointed. It turned out that there were rooms well-suited to each of our likings: Asher and Grandpa thoroughly enjoyed an English photographer’s array of brightly-colored, consumer-culture subjects, Kieran, Grandma, and Tom were fascinated with Nick Brandt’s massive prints of savannah wildlife, and I fell in love with the work of Johan Strindberg, the museum’s Young Nordic Photographer of the Year. We had lost enough time searching for the museum that when we left we did not have very much time before we had to be back at the station, so we put in one last good walk through a new part of Stockholm in order to get to the main station.
The train ride ended up being more surreal and fantastical than I ever would have imagined. Though Tom was of the stern belief that going to sleep up early to wake up and take pictures when the light is good was the best route, Grandma and I stayed up until around 4 watching forests and lakes fade by. The beauty of it all was that the sky only stayed at its darkest for a few minutes around 2, but even then the sky clung to a twilight blue. For much of the journey before and after that point, the sky maintained the rainbow gradient that usually only lingers for 15 minutes or so after the sun goes down. On top of this, the frequent, perfectly still lakes and ponds reflected the waning and waxing colors of the sky, doubling the scene’s beauty. Eventually my tiredness got the better of me and I fell asleep, but If I were to make the trip once more, I’d be sure to reserve a place to sleep at the train’s terminus, spend the whole night watching the passing scenes, and immediately crash at my accommodations when the train arrived. When we arrived in Luleä the next morning, we quickly caught a bus to Haparanda, a town on the border of Sweden and Finland. Though we were tempted by the massive IKEA across the street from the bus station in Haparanda, we then hopped another bus to cross the border without delay.
Though we did visit Stockholm once more, as I previously mentioned, we did not do so with Grandma and Grandpa, and I have to say, it was much less fun because of it. Grandma and Grandpa infuse our travels with an excitement and vivacity that begins to be lost on us when travelling becomes the day to day norm. So glad we could have you explore Sweden with us, we love you Gma and Gpa!