Why did I go to Sweden? Let’s be honest. It’s all your fault. No one grabbed my shoulders and demanded on logical explanation. Not to whine at you or anything, but SOMEONE was not paying attention. SOMEONE was not concentrating. Darling, I rely on you to keep me on the straight and narrow path – and what happens? I go off jaunting to Sweden and no one raises a peep. A little more concentration please. A travel intervention might be in order – who knows, I might be making noises about the Maldives one of these days and then where will we be?
In any case: Sweden. Quiet. Calm. Safe. Expensive. I was all excited when I found a hotel room in Stockholm for under $150, then I found out it had no windows. But before Sweden – ICELAND. Oh people, go to ICELAND. Proof positive that the colder weather the sweeter the people; North Dakotans looks like hardened New Yorkers in comparison. And I was only in the airport! Think about American airports: pure hell. Your connecting flight is a 25 minute walk through overcrowded hallways with no signage. And it’s canceled! This summer I asked one employee how late the plane would be (already about 20 minutes after planned take-off time), he answered “NOT!” Waited 30 minutes in “service” line and when I got talk to a guy he told me the plane was boarding. I said “No, it’s not.” He said, “Yes it is – you had better get there and get on it.” I say, “No, it’s not.” He says, “I say it is.” Walk 10 minutes back to gate – it’s not boarding. Wait another 2 hours. As I was checking in for another flight I asked if the plane would be late and said “the last four flights I have been on with this airline have been delayed.” Counter person replied, “Fly with another company.”
Euro and Asian airports (and personal) are so much nicer, but Iceland has them beat! Wooden floors. Excellent coffee. Only 30 gates. Super-friendly people (even the passport control guards!) Genuine viking snacks! Bottles of schnapps in knitted wool covers! No boarding announcements – in fact no blaring loudspeakers at all. It is your responsibility to get to the gate on time. Like a grown-up! Only one small problem: only a few of the gates have that airport-plane connecting do-hicky. Which means you have to walk outside from plane – in Iceland. 42 degrees in August. Imagine January.
But on to Sweden. Sweden was nice. Sweden was nice-nice. The Swedish are a happy-tempered, hearty people, and despite the fact that I am neither, I enjoyed it.
Notes on the way to town from airport: Minnesota, looks just like Minnesota. No traffic on roadways. Was on roadways, of course, because (for your sake) was eschewing public transport to sample the World’s Most Expensive Taxis (you can fly roundtrip to Berlin twice on cab fare from airport to town.) But after hearing that Sweden had the WMET, how could I resist trying them out? What fabulous luxuries would be in store for me? TV? Free champagne? Swedish massage? Of yeah right, it’s Northern European, a population not know for their ability to hedonize. WMET means a small Ford (Ford!) with crank windows. Hmmm.
Was always taken for a Swede (the benefit, maybe only benefit, of having a bland face), and since Swedes say ‘hi’ with something that sounds like a particularly chipper cheerleader’s ‘hey!’ – was most amusing.
PLAIN buildings, utterly without decoration – in plain, Martha Stewart-y colors, pewter, moss, toast, cafe au lait. ‘Plain’ would be an overused word in any description of Sweden. Plain but safe – hotel room doors had no additional locks (i.e. dead bolt or chain lock). The world’s plainest palace guarded by a bunch of teenagers. Forget Beefeaters, palace soldiers don’t look old or strong enough to chew solid foods. It says a lot about a country to have the ruling family protected by what looked like the Ames, Iowa junior tennis team. Wipes all thoughts of Vikings out of your mind – Swedes couldn’t take on Lichtenstein. Must make the Norwegians feel a little embarrassed; we got ruled by THESE weenies? And the train conductors are all 20 years old girls with blond ponytails – they look like a girl scout troop earning their Transportation Badge.
Shopping districts were ok – not fabulous. Good style, but not Style. You want capital ‘S’ style – you need Danes or Finns. Ikea is good but Ikea is, when you think about it, back-drop, not the main event. It’s not the accent piece, it’s the bookshelf you put your cool things on. Ikea is innocuous. Good but, what’s our word? Plain. And luckily I was not tempted by any of the nice (plain) wool sweaters for sale.
I know a lot of people told me that Stockholm is a beautiful city – well, ok, yes, beautiful, like a well-painted white wall can be beautiful. Rather like an open-air sensory deprivation tank. Main walking street was as hip-hop-happening, zippy, salsa, exotic, emotional as… Swedish meatballs. People more handsome that British, but, ummm, yawn. Nicely dressed to complement the buildings: beige, oatmeal, dark blue, khaki, black leggings, white tops. Good shoes. More fashion sense than, say, Canada or Albania. Hey, we can’t all play in the Premier League. Even the ‘punks’ looked clean. A little obsessive on the hair. Well-cut hair tended to by hair salons everywhere: nine in the three blocks between my hotel and the metro.
Clearly a people who write article in the tourists’ brochures about the joys of getting up at 3am to watch the sun rise. Yawn. I whole-heartedly advise Sweden for a rest-cure. These are ABBA people: bouncy, cheerful, nothing too controversial, nothing too melancholy. Do you hear the drums Fernando? Does your mother know that you’re out? Voulez-vous? Not the tough questions in life.
Afternoon tea! The Grand! Greta Garbo, Strindberg, Bergman… Horrible waiters – what is it with waiters? I want neither sniveling nor condensation. I want helpful not subservient, knowledgeable not over-weaning, prompt but not officious. No hairy hands. No prominent facial hair. Silent, gliding, unobtrusive, self-assured, dignified. And as for the tea: People! No hummus in high tea sandwiches! No chocolate chips in the scones! And I want to see watercress. No high tea without watercress. I don’t care if you have to airfreight it in from Shropshire.
What else? National Museum (free!) Lots of nice places to walk quayside. Some gardens, mainly gravel paths with a few delousatory roses, ugly benches, crows. I could go on but why bother – nice town, perfect for those times when hectic modern living and warm weather are bringing you down. Tall, thin, well-adjusted folks in a country cold and expensive enough to engender a mellow security. In cafes, loose leaf tea is kept on the counter in clear glass jars next to a small container full of tea strainers. You pay, get your mug of hot water and then concoct your tea yourself. On the other hand: pay toilets. Not a free washroom in the city and weird TINY little stalls with walls from floor to ceiling and their own light switch (dim lighting). Not recommended for claustrophobics. Cafes give you a blanket to cover your legs; it’s chilly after about six pm.
So I, being me, walked around thinking – what is the problem here? Ok, it’s cold, expensive and has no sun for months of the year but why aren’t people flocking to Stockholm? Why doesn’t the world talk about the Swedish miracle? Why aren’t there position papers and white papers and conferences about creating countries like Sweden? Ok, Danes have a better Tivoli and Norwegians got that whole fjord thing, but why hasn’t the Swedish “attitude” taken over the world?
Then I got on the train to the artic circle (you can imagine how thrilled I am to write the previous sentence – believe me it is going to worked into conversations for years, “oh, these ice cubes remind of the ice cubes I had when I was north of the artic circle.”) And we will now segue for the briefest of brief moments for a discussion of family. One of the most striking differences between me and my family is their odd desire to talk to strangers. Strangers! People they don’t know! People not previously vetted and vouched for. I don’t like strangers. I don’t like new people – they are invariably boorish or dim or, heaven help us, earnest and thoughtful. Tea-slurpers who want to talk about politics!
So the fact that I was going to be on a train for 19 hours in a sleeping compartment with 2 other women was cause for suspicion and doubt. And how well borne out that suspicion was! Both were nice enough, until it was time to go to bed, then the woman in the top bunk fussed for 2 1/2 hours – opening bags, taking something out, putting it back, opening another bag. I was ready to stab her.
The next morning we were all arranging our breakfasts. Me granola bar and teabag inserted into bottle of water. Shake water and teabag. Eat, drink, done. Granola bars and tea bags, of course, are in the one special, certain, never varying place in my book bag. The other two women pull out large bulky plastic bags and proceed to create four course breakfasts. One woman pulled out a little piece of tin foil, unwrapped it to produce another piece of wrapped tin foil, which she unwrapped to produce a small object wrapped in plastic wrap which eventually revealed a piece of cheese about the size of a box of matches. Back she dives into plastic bag. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Pulls out another item wrapped in tin foil. Eventually this is found to be a slice of bread about the size of 15 playing cards stacked on top of each other. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Plastic bowl. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Little container of yoghurt. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Spoon. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Mini bottle of milk. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Napkin. Rummage, rummage, rummage. Small tupperware with cut up pieces of grapefruit. Carefully spoons 1/2 the yoghurt into bowl. Adds a few teaspoons of milk. Adds rest of yoghurt. Pours a little more milk. She had been in constant motion for 25 minutes and not one morsel of food had made it to her lips. I was unable to tear my eyes away. It was like watching an Oscar performance: how to do nothing at all for the longest possible amount of time. I have made dinner for 6 in less time. Even if you wanted to know about the coffee-machinations, I don’t have the strength to tell you.
So that is your answer. Swedes are never going to be world leaders because they are too fastidious for world domination. All over Sweden, tall, friendly, healthy, well-adjusted, people are murmuring, “5 cm to the left? how about 3 buttons not four? one shade darker? what if we lower it 2%? maybe with the blue trim? a slightly thicker weave?” Fuss, fuss, fuss. Not the rock-hard self-assurance of the Brits and certainly none of that Italian style. Bouncy, shiny hair is sexy, but that is pretty much the A to Z of Swedish beauty. We are not talking Brazil, or, not to labor the point, Estonia.
Fussy example 1: famous Swedes: ABBA (bouncy, shiny….), Alfred Nobel (invented dynamite, then felt guilty) and Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus, 1707-1778). Of course you know Linne! Who doesn’t?! He invented the classification of plants which, as you can imagine, is a very important contribution of the understanding of yawn.
Fussy example 2: was on train back from Jokkmokk to Stockholm (supposed to get into Stockholm at 1pm, plane left at 6pm). When I got on, the train conductor (miss bouncy ponytail) told me that the train would get in 2 hours late and did I have a travel connection? Well yes, I did. She put me on a list and told me to get off at this station, bus would be there to take me to… Next morning, another conductor came and told me new list of connections – train to bus to… Then the train stops, announcement: “those with connections to Arlanda (airport) please get off the train here for your connection.” Off I hop – there is a private taxi (and remember this is country with world’s most expensive taxis) to take the 4 passengers with plane connections directly to the airport. After a 1 1/2 hour taxi ride, we arrive at airport exactly on time. Imagine, just close your eyes and imagine, telling an American or UK train conductor on a late train that you have a plane connection and asking for them to arrange a taxi. Ha ha ha.
Fussy example 3: famous Swedish meal: Smorgasbord. Fuss city. Wheat/ rye/ full grain bread, dry toasts and crackers; all kinds of sliced cheeses; schmear – butter, margarine, jam, jelly, yoghurts; various teensy cut veggies. Takes you 20 minutes to assemble a plate, 20 minutes to assemble a mouthful.
Fussy example 4: grocery stores, everything has its own little ‘house’
onions in special dark, cooled cabinets
bread is kept behind clear plastic sheets
shrimp is in its own special freezer section
chewing tobacco is in minifridges with glass doors
milk is kept at a different temperature than cheese/ yoghurt section
You know how grocery stores give out samples of mini-pizzas? In Sweden they give out small cups of fresh sample salads, made with 8 different ingredients and a sprinkle of fresh parsley on top. You know how at movie theaters candy there is a bank of different kinds of candy, caramels, gummi worms, Swedish fish, chocolates etc, in little clear plastic bins? You scoop out what you want into little bags which get weighed. Yup, every grocery store in Sweden has a whole “wall ‘o candy” and everyone stands in front of it and picks out a few things carefully, takes about 10 minutes per person. 4 caramels or 5? 8 Swedish fish or 9?
Not that this is a bad thing, not that (thinking like an MBA) you can’t work this to your advantage. Allow me to strongly suggest accidentally on purpose stopping by your Swedish friends’ homes around 11am or 4pm because there is nothing like fussy people on a coffee break. These are people who take coffee breaks (and the attendant coffee break treats) seriously, with splendid results encompassing soft and buttery coffee cakes. Not super-sweet/ over-processed (USA) and not crunchy (Australia). Not that the promise of magnificent coffee cakes had anything to do with why I chose Sweden. I hope you appreciate the tremendous sacrifices I make, forcing myself to constantly (against all personal intentions and desire) sample baked goods and refreshing beverages so that you can choose your next vacation destination based on the probable deliciousness of your afternoon snacks. Sweden: excellent snacks.
Last note on Jokkmokk: There is one tiny movie theater in Jokkmokk – in the hotel I stayed in there was a big picture of the night Titanic opened, long line of people waiting outside the theater, surrounded by snow banks. They had put a mock-up of the ship and the iceberg on the roof of the theater. For some reason I got the feeling everyone was feeling everyone was rooting for the iceberg.