Saturday, January 02, 2016

About Stockholm

I write this from the airport, having finished a breakfast sandwich and some coffee that would have powered the entire 7th Fleet for a week. The instant caffeine headache is slowly subsiding. It seems like a good time to post a few thoughts on our first visit to Sweden.

Waiting for the tram on Strandvägen.

Stockholm, having never been bombed in WWII is a tidy, in places even beautiful, city filled with 16th and 17th Century buildings. Like London, the old and new are freely mixed, even if the old here is mostly "pushed out" of the modern central city. Gamla Stan and the more suburban areas (city proper, but away from the central district) have lots of old buildings. Even places that are renovated since the war have reminders of the past such as the tram service shown above.

A street in Gamla Stan with an old-fashioned sled for sale.

Although you would not call any but a few of the most modern buildings brightly colored, there is a certain brightness to even the oldest buildings. Perhaps it is that they are well maintained and painted.
Roads, underpasses, industrial buildings and the like certainly have their share of graffiti, but much of the city is pretty. Especially along the waterfronts on the various islands.

The Riddarholmskyrkan on the island of Riddarholmen adjacent to Gamla Stan. This is the resting place of the  Swedish monarchs. It was closed to visitors while we were there.  There is a hint of Eastern architecture here.
 The most noticeable aspect of Stockholm, especially this time of year when there is only about six hours of sunlight per day, is the love of lights that the Swedes have. I'm not sure that I saw a Starbucks outside the airport, but every block it seems has a store selling some sort of lights. Business buildings have illuminated signs on them advertising the businesses inside. Riding in the cab to the airport this morning at 7:00 (it was still an hour and a half until the first gloominess of sunrise) the highway was a festival of commercial lighting on both sides. If a building didn't have all glass walls with the interior lighting ablaze, such as the three story Volvo dealership we passed, it was lit all around the walls and they had lighted signs. In a place that spends lots of time in the dark, light matters.

From our cruise of the archipelago, we saw the harbor in the noon-day sun.

Stockholmers are pretty friendly. No one yelled at us or was curt in a store. People were happy to wait while we sorted out a price or an order in English, often jumping to help. We had no more that the usual amount of being ignored or pushed aside on the street. That's just big city stuff everywhere. We did see what seemed to be a significant number of prams on the streets and public transport. And a large fraction of these were build for two. In spite of the fact that apartments are small, 50 m2 seems typical, there seems to be a common pastime amongst the natives.

The city is a true melting pot with a large share of street beggars.  Everyone seems to mix freely and there was no apparent segregation along the streets. All quite pleasant.

A storefront in Gamla Stan.

While there are no Starbucks here, 7-Eleven has stores with a density to rival McDonalds in any US city. At one place in Södermalm there were two in the same block. I guess the locals who buy coffee on the run, are happy to slip into 7-Eleven for a quick cup. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Stockholmers, like the statue outside the Stadshus seems at times to be dancing on the water. I think it is love of light in the winter that gives it this feeling. While Paris is called the City of Light, no doubt intended figuratively, Stockholm is literally a city of light. This light brings a kind of gaiety and connectedness to walking the streets that the placid exteriors of the Swedish faces would otherwise not transmit to a stranger. Having the world lit in small bits limits the world to just you and the person you are passing and even without acknowledgement, there is a tacit interaction. It soon begins to feel normal to see the world this way. I might be writing a very different post if we had visited in the summer when it hardly gets dark before the sun starts back up in the sky again. I suspect not. I think it is the light that pulls the Swedes outdoors to be adventurers. The folks we pet sat for noted that they moved out near the end of the T-banna line to be near a forest where they could go walking. Being in the light, natural or manmade, is part of being Swedish. Perhaps the lady at the Stadshus wasn't dancing on the water, she was just happy there was enough light to be seen dancing and part of the life that is Stockholm. Perhaps this is a characteristic of being human, not just Swedish. It is simply more noticeable here under extreme conditions.

There is an impression of the East here. Some buildings have turrets and domes that remind one of architecture in Russia or Turkey. Other parts of the same buildings are typical Western designs. Once noticed, this impression of mixing East and West seems to be in lots of places in an intangible way. It gives the city a kind of vaguely exotic feeling. Home, but not home. Comfortable, but interesting. This was made explicit in the mosaic seen in Stadshus in the gold room of the Queen of the Lake sitting between East and West. Being neither East or West, fish nor fowl, Sweden is its own place - a comfortable flavor of exotic - that gives a new way to filter the world and see it anew.

Here we are in front of the Riddarhuset. It is on the edge of Gamla Stan across from the Riddarholmskyrkan.