Before leaving for Scandinavia, I tried to gauge opinion on Sweden by asking some friends to name a few things Swedish. I quote verbatim: Blondes, au pairs, blonde au pairs, ABBA, Ikea and Volvos. (Please note: This survey was carried out prior to the appointment of whatshisname, the England football manager.)
Having been to Stockholm I am at least able to set the record straight on a few counts. Firstly, the country is not entirely populated with blonde haired, blue-eyed, large breasted weather girls. Secondly, the economy does not stand or fall on pop music or practical furnishings. And Sven Goran Eriksson has taken up the post of England manager.
I spent an autumn weekend break in the Swedish capital after scoring a £5 return flight from London on the Internet. Ryanair are renowned for flying from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere else however, so it came as no surprise when after adding the airport taxes and transfers, that my journey costs came out closer to £60.
Still a remarkable price, admittedly. So remarkable that I can be forgiven for wondering whether our plane was going to run out of fuel halfway to Scandinavia and belly flop into the North Sea. Fortunately for me the two hour flight went off without incident, so I assume that the Ryanair bean counters must be saving money on other things best not thought about.
After clearing immigration and collecting our baggage, my fellow passengers and I were politely bundled onto buses for the 100-kilometre journey from Skavsta airport to Stockholm Central Station. Allowing for the one hour time difference, I arrived at my destination around midnight on Friday night. I was staying at a bed and breakfast in the centre of town.
My preferred choice of accommodation had been to stay in af Chapman, a three-masted sailing ship anchored in Skeppsholmen. However, as this was booked out in advance, I had found the bed and breakfast place through a Swedish accommodation website.
My hostess, Anna-Christine, a forty-something divorcee with blonde hair, blue eyes and a friendly manner, met me at the door to her fourth floor apartment. She introduced herself and gave me a quick tour of the facilities. My ‘cosy’ room came with a single futon, a chest of drawers, an en-suite loo and a shared bathroom. It felt like I was dossing at my friend’s flat in Wimbledon. We settled the bill (£50 for two nights) and the bathroom routines. Then Anna-Christine gave me a spare set of keys and a curious look.
“Now we make some sleep, yes?” I hesitated, unwilling to shatter this woman’s dreams.
“Um, I ah, if you don’t mind, I would like to get something to eat before going to bed.”
“Okay,” she said, shouldering her disappointment admirably, “Just to make
sure you lock the door before go to sleep, yes?”
After Anna-Christine left for work on Saturday morning, I showered, dressed and wandered down to the coffee shop below our block of flats. The girl behind the counter looked (naturellement) like Victoria Silvstedt. When she noticed me her eyes lit up and she walked round to the front of the counter.
“Hey, how can I have sex with you?” She offered cheerfully.
“I’m sorry?” I stammered, caught elk-like in her ice-blue headlights.
When Swedes are not speaking exceptionally polite English they have a habit of speaking Swedish, which often sounds like a strangled version of English. Or like someone trying to gargle and speak at the same time.
“Oh…hello. How can I help you?” repeated Victoria, switching languages
“Café au lait, please.”
“Sure, what would you like with that?” She smiled, indicating an assortment
“Um, what do you suggest?”
“Mostly we have cardamom or something like that.”
Curry. Swedes have curry in their coffee. Funny thing is it didn’t taste half bad. This is a common theme with Swedish foods. Many of the national dishes sound about as edible as sloppy dog poo, but usually taste a lot better. For lunch I had shellfish soup, the dish of the day at the Museum of Modern Art. The dish consisted of boiled fish, boiled prawns and boiled octopus soaked in a bean soup and topped with a dollop of clotted cream. It tasted great, but I still can’t shake the feeling that it must be one of those dishes that was invented at the end of a long winter.
I spent the rest of the morning walking around Gamla Stan and the old town, including the Royal Palace and the parliament building, though I didn’t venture into either.
Stockholm, more so than any other city I have been to, is made for walking. The city is built on a series of fourteen small islands at a point where an inland lake, Lake Mälaren, meets the Baltic Sea. These islands are connected to one another by countless bridges and ferry services. During the winter months, the waterways freeze over and locals simply walk from one island to the next.
In the afternoon I crossed Ström Bridge and walked around Blasieholmen and Skeppsholmen. After lunch I had a wander round the Moderna Museet. The building itself, designed by the Catalan architect Rafael Moneo, is a joy, and the Museum restaurant has arguably the best view in Christendom, but the collection failed to live up to it’s frame.
I returned to my digs via the central shopping district. In Sergels Torg, there was a Palestinian group protesting events in the Middle East. This being the 21st October, our television screens were full of Israeli soldiers being lynched and of Baghdad-style helicopter strikes. The Swedish police, as police do, were being patronising but weren’t otherwise interfering. I watched the protesters burn three Israeli flags in a row, and then headed back to Anna-Christine’s to wash and change for the evening.