Stockholm Retro – Sweden, Europe


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The High Five
The High Five

Five skyscrapers in Stockholm City – situated between the squares of Hotorget and Sergels Torg – have lined up, as if ready to march forward, trampling down any old buildings on their way and replacing them with modern high-rises. That was urban renewal back in the 1950s. Although starting out as monuments of infamy, the skyscrapers did become a landmark of Stockholm – fivefold.

The pedestrianized streets, at the landmark's bottom, are paved with H&M clothes shops and Mac Donald's, an attractive combination, for the center is seething with people during busy hours, mainly a young crowd. If you ask a young man whether he buys his clothes at H&M, he will shake his head disapprovingly, while a young lady might admit, "Just smaller things". They pretend having no interest in cheap fashion, are contradicted by their own actions, though.

Stockholmers are at the forefront: they are smart, good-looking, well educated, they embrace new ideas and products, among them fashion. Foreign companies use them as a test market, surely watching local behavior instead of believing every word they hear. I decide to conduct my own test – seated on a Mac Donald's bar stool at the old traffic junction of Slussen, studying the Stockholmers as they climb and descend a steep pavement right outside the window.

Trendy Nordic Walking
Trendy Nordic Walking

A retired couple, sporting bikes and helmets, are more confused than trendy as they try to find their bearings, a reminder that even Stockholmers get old. An Asian-looking guy could walk straight into a fashion journal, wearing blue jeans and a chalk-white shirt under a checked knit vest. I do find one unmistakable tendency – blue jeans with a dirty look, low waist and tight all the way down, together with short narrowly fitted jackets, worn by young people, also by ladies holding on to a bygone youth.

Frustrated, I realize this is not the ideal place to approach the lady on my mind – Zarah Leander, singer and actress born 100 years ago, who died in 1981. Nobody promoted Stockholm better than the tall Zarah. "City of the Cities!", she sang passionately, her voice so dark and deep, strong yet sensual, spiced with a vibrato. She seemed to be sucking the consonants to make herself sound precise and clear, suitable for a self-assured lady. Her characteristic self-irony matured over the years, "I've become much much better now in my old age!"

City of Zarah

Stockholm is not exactly resounding with Zarah's anniversary. One CD is all a leading music shop has to offer. "Zarah is a bit controversial!", is the excuse offered in a bookshop. There is, however, a new book this year, Das Leben einer Diva, so far in German only. In total, quite a number of events have taken place: the opening of a Zarah Leander museum; Zarah cast in bronze; concerts and cabarets; a Zarah opera; university research on Zarah the gay-icon; male voices doing her repertoire, especially the voice of Matthias Enn – everything appropriate for Sweden's most idolized diva.

This very spot – Slussen – was completed in 1935, about the time Zarah moved abroad. If the Old City, Gamla Stan, is the heart of Stockholm, then Slussen is its pacemaker, letting boats in and out of the Malar Lake. The car traffic has all those years been led onto a clover-shaped rotary, connecting Gamla Stan and the island of Sodermalm. Slussen is about to retire, new models are on display – several keep the clover design, a stroke of genius.

Just Call
Just Call

A construction dating back to 1883, the elevator of Katarinahissen, sends you 38 meters into the air to let you enjoy Stockholm from a bird's cage. This might be how Zarah felt after her return from Germany – the Nazi regime's most glamorous film and song diva. Leaving the cage is like entering another world, not modern at all. Just take a look at the old telephone box on Mosebacke Torg, still operating, if you need a reservation in Sodra Teatern or Mosebacke Etablissement.

On the street of Fjallgatan, Stockholm generously spreads out at my feet. This is where Zarah would break out in song while presenting the Stockholm she loved: "Venice of the North". You nearly see it all – Djurgarden, island and park; a huge roller coaster, major attraction at Grona Lund; white cruise ships entering from the Baltic Sea; not forgetting the compact Gamla Stan; or the city hall, Stadshuset, at the water's edge on Kungsholmen.

These hillsides belong to Soder, Sodermalm that is. More of its wooden houses are found on the hills of Vita Bergen, a local park hosting an open-air theater. A series of folksy television shows were staged here – starting in 1981, the year Zarah died – a summer tradition repeated 14 times. People too, took root on Soder, a dialect of their own that used to be an audible effect. Soder has long been under pressure – it's already an oasis of going-out, much of the nightlife taking place around Medborgarplatsen, the main square.

City of Green and Blue

A Green Corner
A Green Corner

The top of Globen, The Globe, appears on the horizon south of Soder. It's like a planet merging with our own, another imaginary picture of Zarah's 1944 return from The Third Reich to the world of Sweden, where her stardom became that of a fallen star. Zarah, the tough negotiator, now had to fight for a new career. Globen has its own swarm of stars, next appearance is Bruce Springsteen. In the meantime, I'm busy uncovering Stockholm's three main ingredients: water, city and vegetation, each occupying one third of its space.

I leave the city part behind, by descending to the Arstaviken bay. The grove of Eriksdalslunden welcomes me – a collection of allotment gardens boasting cozy colorful huts and information on the man who classified the species of biology: Carl von Linné. Eriksdalslunden is only one of seven Linné Gardens teaching the Soder residents about flowers and species typical of the 1700s, thus celebrating the scientist's 300th anniversary. The allotment movement of Stockholm is younger, more or less the age of Zarah.

Along Norr Malarstrand
Along Norr Malarstrand

It's time to leave Soder, via the Western Bridge, Vasterbron, which traverses a former prison island, Langholmen. On top of the bridge, Stockholm does prove to be a city on water. Stadshuset, today's landmark, adorns the inner left corner, no clouds can hide that. "The sky may not always be blue", as Zarah put it, "Stockholm is Stockholm nevertheless". She probably included Norr Malarstrand, the last stretch of my walk, occupied by the Stockholm Ship Association: proud old ships built for hard work, rebuilt to serve as leisure crafts, their stories told on adjacent signs, some of them more spectacular than the story of Zarah.

Reaching Stadshuset, I realize I have no plans for tonight – until my memory conjures up a simple little restaurant I frequented in younger days. It lay on Vasagatan, had two waiters in black and white uniforms, they could have survived. At a late and quiet hour, one of the waiters – short and middle-aged – occasionally got the microphone, which worked wonders by turning him into a prima donna named Zarah:

Farewell, album cover
Farewell, album cover

Would you like t'see a star

look at me

You are very welcome

to look at me

Tears can I shed

Lightnings can I flash

I am prima donna




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