Stockholm is different from what we expected, not quite the perfection that was Copenhagen, a little off, a little strange, and at the same time a little more ordinary — though ultimately not without its own quiet charms.
Stepping out of the train station into a cold, windy night, we follow the road as it crosses above the train tracks, between tall stone buildings and shining modern apartments, scrolling around a Google Map with our numb figures as we walk towards our hostel. Our first impression of the city is that it’s more modern than Copenhagen, with glittering yellow lights and streets filled with cars. Vasagatan, the street one block down from the station, feels like a standard European city street, with vaguely 19th- and early-20th-century buildings housing a Kebab place and a bank and even an escape room. We cross a park surrounded by new, glass buildings, and I feel like if it wasn’t so cold, we could be in Los Angeles. K______ says that if Copenhagen was Scandinavia’s Italy, then Sweden is its London.
We check into our hostel, which is really more of a hotel with an intense hipster aesthetic, the colors of all the furniture either bright-white, blood-red, or sheet-metal-gray, and a gaudy spiral staircase swirling upwards in the lobby. The rooms have synthetic wood floors and a red-walled bathroom that looks like an escape pod from a old science fiction movie. A TV screen in the lobby just outside the elevator advertises the hostel’s club and shows douchey guys in V-neck’s and girls in crop-tops dancing amidst flashing lights. There’s something corporate about the aggressive hipness, like what a boardroom of old people thinks millennials want.
We eat dinner at a restaurant down the street that Yelp recommends, which offers a 3 course “Swedish Christmas Meal” at a reasonable price. The guy serving us wears a button down shirt pattered with images of Mickey Mouse and has the kind of lamppost-skinny body that you only see in Europe. The meal is good and cheaper than the equivalent would have been in Copenhagen, though very heavy. I can’t understand how people in Europe stay so skinny eating this much meat.
Back at the hostel, we do our laundry before we sleep. In the laundry room is a middle-aged balding guy in a towel, waiting for his clothes to dry. Later, we come back to find him hunched over the lint trash can, either peeing or masturbating (K______ later insists it was the latter). He stops when we come in and quickly leaves.
The next morning, we walk to Gamla Stan, the old town built on one of Stockholm’s many islands. It looks beautiful as we cross the bridge towards it, its spires of stone and rows of painted houses sparkling in the cold sunlight. But it also feels more emphatically like a tourist area, preserved against the sprawl of the actual city encroaching from all around. In Copenhagen, the past felt sprinkled throughout the present, whereas here it seems relegated mainly to this one area, as if the only thing keeping developers from bulldozing the whole thing and putting up luxury condos is some municipal ordinance. As we walk the narrow medieval streets, I note how the stores are the same as any European city’s touristy old town — souvenir shops and overpriced cafes and restaurants with English menus, nowhere that people who actually lived in Stockholm would ever go to, as evidenced by the whole island’s total emptiness.
We go first to Riddarholm Church, where Gustavus Adolphus is buried, a large brick building constructed in the Middle Ages but clearly added too in each successive century. I’ve been reading C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, and am eager to see the grave of the most famous of Sweden’s Kings. But, inexplicably, the Church is closed for the whole winter. We stand outside and shiver as we stare up at the tall cast-iron spire.
Disappointed, we go instead to the Stockholm Cathedral in the middle of Gamla Stan. It’s much smaller than Riddarholm and built in a more modest brick gothic style, but also about a century older. The interior provides welcome warmth from the biting cold and we happily pay the suggested donation. Inside, it is a standard Protestant church, not nearly as grand as a Catholic one, though it does try, its high ceiling and bare sandy walls giving off an austere sanctity. Children gather in school groups, seated in the pews or on rows of chairs before the small altars, surprisingly well-mannered and still as they listen to their teachers explain the significance of the artwork around them.
To the right of the main altar is a wooden sculpture of St. George and the Dragon by Bernt Notke from 1489, in commemoration of Sten Sture’s defeat of the Danish army during one of the numerous and hard-to-keep-track-of wars fought between the two seemingly similar countries. George, his armor a glittering gold, is meant to be the heroic Sture, and the dying dragon King Christian of Denmark. The Princess, looking up at George with a crown on her head, is the personification of Sweden, female of course.
There’s also a painting (a 1636 copy of a 1536 original) of a strange optical phenomenon that occurred above Stockholm, when large yellow rings of light appeared in sky. The plaque below the painting informs us that they are technically called “parhelions” and then offers some complicated scientific explanation. But all I can think of is what the Stockholm burghers must have made of those halos. In the painting they look miraculous, pale yellow against the cloudy purple sky, shining with divine light down on the rooftops built across the water and on the forested isles. To those early modern citizens, it could only have been God, blessing the city with His favor.
Södermalm is the neighborhood to the south of Gamla Stan, visible from the island as a cluster of old white and yellow buildings rising backwards up a hill. The streets have none of the touristy kitsch of Gamla Stan but instead give off an elegant charm, multicolored 19th-century row houses and large apartment buildings converted now into thrift stores and boutiques.
We stop at a cafe recommended by our guidebook that serves coffee in tall, clear glasses. Inside, a few well-dressed people in sweaters and expensive jeans sit before laptops while a large group lounges in the back on metal chairs. As in Los Angeles, no one seems to work here and everyone has time and money to spend weekday mornings in cafes. We hang our coats on the tall chairs and sit at the window, looking out at the tall red building across the street and the men and women leisurely walking dogs along the sidewalk.
Fotografiska, Stockholm’s photography museum, takes only credit cards, which feels wrong to me. Call me old fashioned, but I believe cash should still be a valid form of currency.
At 4:00 PM, we up go to the museum cafe and sit by the window. It’s already completely dark, and filtered through the glass, Stockholm’s brightly lit skyline looks like a black and white photograph.
That night we decide to see Rogue One. I realize that movie theaters are identical in any country, with similar corporate logos, the familiar bright plastic feel of the lobby, and the same industrial smells of lysol and fake-butter.
The theater is full of teenagers, shoving popcorn into their faces and slurping large sodas. The movie ends up being mediocre, as K______ had said it would be.
Cafe Pascal is surprisingly busy for a Tuesday morning. I learned of the place the day before, from a guidebook at a magazine store in Sodermalm, recommended as one of the Stockholm’s “hippest” cafes. It certainly is hip, with young people in their late 20s wearing hats and fashionable sweaters, spread casually out across the furniture, some sitting, some standing, some leaning against the walls, all sipping from small white cups on saucers and talking loudly in Swedish and Swedish-accented English, which sounds far more sophisticated than our bumbling American English.
The barista recommends the egg and caviar sandwich, which she says is “a bit different” but a Swedish classic. I find it delicious, the sharp taste a perfect accompaniment to the dark coffee, though K______ declines to try any. We sit in silence and eat, the animated babble of conversation circling us in a warm embrace. We’re clearly the only tourists, but for the most part we blend in and manage not to appear too American — until we decide we’re still hungry and order more food (a cardamum bun, to split).
The Nordiska Museet, or Nordic Museum, is located in a huge, 1907 neo-renaissance cathedral-like building on the island of Djurgården. We step off the tram and cross the bridge through the cold air. Behind us, a line of Stockholm’s elegant buildings stretch along the water while ahead of us looms the museum, framed by trees and clouds, its tall spires and ornate facade rising against the gray sky with all the anachronistic grandeur of the 19th century.
The museum was founded back in 1872 by the Artur Hazelius, a scholar and folklorist who also built the nearby Skansen, a zoo and open air museum designed to replicate a pre-industrial Swedish village. Hazaleius was evidently an eccentric, as the museum houses an odd and somewhat unsettling collection of everything from clothing to jewelry to furniture to folk art displayed as eerie dioramas in dimly lit glass cases, grouped under themes such as “Marriage,” “Death,” and “Christmas.” The main hall is dominated by a huge, wooden statue of King Gustavus Vasa, as fat as Henry VIII and painted in bright colors. The exhibits, meanwhile cover such disparate topics as Swedish table settings from the 1600s to the 1900s, folk art depicting strange and often violent biblical scenes, the jewelry worn by different monarchs, the personal papers and letters of writer August Strindberg, and a lesson on how to brew beer.
The museum’s oddest feature, though, is the style of the descriptions, which are formatted as poems, perhaps accidentally (we’re not sure). Accompanying a display of objects from a marriage ceremony, for example, is the following, titled “The Betrothed Couple”:
A year has passed since the courtship cheese
and the market candy.
They are engaged in the presence of witnesses.
He gives her a box
containing a hymn book, gloves and shawl.
They are now betrothed.
They are allowed to start spending the night together.
But if the bride is visibly pregnant at the wedding,
she can’t wear the church’s crown,
which is a symbol of virginity.
Another, in front of a table set with flowers and fine china on a pale blue tablecloth, is titled “Midsummer”:
The first strawberry gateau of the summer
is half-eaten, the array punch has been drunk,
and the adults have gone to dance.
The girl is thinking about raising the maypole in the afternoon,
about the games and the dancing around the maypole.
She is waiting for her friend.
They’re going to sneak out in the night,
pick seven kinds of wildflower
and put them under their pillow.
Then they’ll dream about the men they will marry.
We have lunch at a restaurant in Rosendals Garden, just behind Skansen. From the back gate, we cross the empty gravel road and follow a forest path down through a group of small garden plots lined currently with ungrown vegetables. Rain falls in a faint mist around us, and cold winds whip at our faces, but the air smells pleasant, like fresh grass. To our right a dark green lawn and a path lined with trees stretch down towards the gray sky and a distant hill, and to our left, the same path curves towards a row of greenhouses, hung with yellow christmas lights and lined with potted plants. A black sign written reading “kafé” in white chalk hangs above a doorway and from inside, warm yellow light glows outwards through the blue-tinted glass. Our shoes crunch across the wet gravel as we enter.
The food inside is spread out in a cafeteria-style buffet, each item separately priced. It’s expensive for what it is, mostly salads and simple entrées, but it has an organic freshness, and the coffee is rich and dark, and sitting along the long wooden tables amidst flickering candlelight and a gloomy sky outside, I feel a mediative tranquility, a respite from the tourist hustle of a museum. Around us are mostly other tourists, some bourgeois couples and groups of middle-aged women and a few people our age dressed vaguely like backpackers and looking over maps of Stockholm. I refill my coffee and we linger for a while in the calming space, watching the mist settle over the plants in the gardens outside.
Wednesday, we take the train north to Uppsala. The name alone evokes everything about the mist-shrouded Dark Ages — mead halls and boat burials and rusted Viking helmets, longboats moving through still water, a golden temple where humans are sacrificed before wooden statues of Odin and Thor and Freya, and the wild, unpronounceable names of another culture’s legends, “Yggdrasil” and “Ynglinga.”
The train, though, passes first through several suburbs, picking up commuting passengers on the way, men in puffy jackets with shoulder bags who go only two stops and young people who look college-aged and who I assume are students at Uppsala University. The landscape beyond these semi-rustic stations is uninspiring: trees in distance, a gray sky, tall buildings now and then, glass and steel, modern, shiny, in bright colors. If it wasn’t for the dirty snow piled up at periodic intervals on each stations we might be moving through suburbs of the Bay Area.
Reaching Uppsala feels equally undramatic — the station is modern, with big glass windows and a large sign welcoming us in san-serifed font. If this really was an old pagan religious center, it doesn’t show in the commuters’ faces. They step off the train and walk briskly to the elevators, past coffee stands and through metal gates that slide open with modern hisses, green lights flashing. At the window, a uniformed attendant checks paper tickets and answers questions.
Outside, Uppsala feels strange, like Oxford or Cambridge, or even Ann Arbor. It’s clearly a college town, with modern shops in old buildings, chain stores and chain boutiques, the generic corporate look of the 21st-century high street against buildings at least as old as the 1700s. We make our way to the Cathedral, which looms beyond the rooftops, tall, black spires rising up against the gray sky. As we move away from the station, the streets grow largely empty, save for a few old men walking along the canal bank. It’s much colder than Stockholm, and sharp gusts of wind sweep periodically through the streets, whipping at us until our cheeks and noses sting and then grow numb.
The Cathedral has a surprisingly significant history for such a sleepy-looking town: it’s an early modern building, redone over the centuries with new interiors and designs, and now it appears as a history of the 16th through the 19th centuries. We go first to the treasury, via in elevator in the gift shop, where in barely lit rooms we see the Cathedral’s sacred objects, red and gold vestments worn by Scandinavian bishops, crowns and shining swords that once belonged to monarchs, the bloodied clothing of the Stures, a family of noblemen murdered in the 16th century by King Erik XIV, and the gold and red gown of Queen Margaret, the “Lady King” who in the 15th century briefly ruled a unified Scandinavia. Back downstairs in the main cathedral we find King Gustavus Vasa, buried down at the end in the Cathedral’s prominent spot, just behind the altar. Two women are buried next to him, one his wife and one his mistress. This seems wrong for what is meant to be a sacred space — but he was a King, and the major patron and builder of this Cathedral, so I suppose God will overlook his indiscretions.
The Cathedral also houses the remains of St. Erik, martyred at Gamla Uppsala, as well as the coffin of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a surprisingly prominent place for that strange mystic of the Enlightenment. There are also stones honoring Linnaeus and Dag Hammarskjöld, which together make the Cathedral a kind of timeline of Swedish history, from the violently martyred St. Erik to the peacemaker and international citizen Hammarskjöld, also possibly martyred (in a suspicious plane crash that suggests involvement of the CIA).
From the Cathedral we proceed to the Gustavarium, just across the plaza — the University’s museum. There’s a 17th century anatomical theater on the top floor, partially a reconstruction, used in its time for dissections and demonstrations by prominent scientist Olaus Rudbeck. The museum has a small display devoted to Rudbeck, with some of his personal letters, instruments, and books, including one he wrote in which he claimed that Sweden was Atlantis, a theory he insisted he had scientifically proven. I except no less from a scientist of the Baroque. After all, Descartes himself, the father of modern rationality, claimed to have seen visions.
The museum also has the thermometer of Anders Celsius, a few things belonging to Linaeus, and the miscellany of other, lesser-known Uppsala University scientists. One of the room has a few old globes at the front that put me in the mindset of the 17th century, that strange era that managed to mix science, exploration, and religion. In the same room’s center is the Augsburg Cabinet, a gift given to Gustavus Adolphus by that Protestant city after he liberated it from the Catholic Habsburgs during the Thirty Year’s War. The cabinet is black and inlaid with granite and jewelry — an ornate masterpiece, exemplary of its century, far fancier than the cabinets of the Renaissance, and not yet with the elegant reserve of the Rocco, too bold and extravagant to be anything other than Baroque.
The museum also has a few Viking pieces on a separate floor, which bring us several more centuries back into the past: a boat, a few helmets, rusted swords, etc, and also some graves from the Vendels, the pre-Viking people of Sweden, from Valsgärde, a grave site north of Uppsala. I’d never heard of the Vendels before this museum. They’re a lost people, overshadowed by their more glamorous Viking followers, now nothing more than some bronzes and glass fragments in a few small display cases, tucked away in a tiny museum in provincial Sweden.
We’re the only ones in the museum, and in the heavy silence of the room, I wonder if we’ve been the only ones for quite a long time.
To get to Gamla Uppsala, the site of the old pagan center and the famous Swedish burial mounds, we take a bus from one of Uppsala’s two major intersections. Everyone else on board is ether a university student or an overweight suburbanite. The bus leaves behind the bustling college town in less than a minute and the landscape quickly shifts to a generic suburban sprawl, with shopping centers and large parking lots and low, long buildings. I’m surprised how ordinary everything looks, considering we’re only ten minutes from a 1500-year-old monument. Outside the bus window, it might as well be suburban California, except colder and with slightly older houses. Neighborhoods pass by, nestled between wide roads, gabled roofs hung with christmas lights, middle-class cars parked in the driveway. Even the people are as fat as Americans, dumpy women and chubby men easing themselves down the bus steps lugging plastic shopping bags of groceries and then waddling over to their front doors. It makes me sad to see it all, realizing that halfway across the world everything is the same.
Eventually, I see them out the window on the left, three large burial mounds across a grassy field: the burial site of Dark Age Kings and Queens, a few miles from a highway and a 21st century suburb.
We get off at the bus’s final stop, the last people still on board. Before us is a small museum in a round wooden building, and beyond that, the mounds, just off the small road and past a low wooden fence. A few solitary trees frame the sight, and the grass on the mounds, yellowish and half-dead, is sprinkled with traces of snow. A sign warns people not to climb the mounds, but nevertheless we see two small figures at the top of the nearest one. It’s still afternoon and the sun is technically out, but we can barely see it behind the clouds, and the sky looms gray and gloomy overhead. Gusts of wind hammer us, and my ears and face grow numb. K______ wants to go inside somewhere, and so we trudge up the road towards the cluster of buildings, a few red barn-like houses and the old medieval church, a small stone structure with a pointed roof, built in the 12th century. In the garden, signs describe the life of St. Erik, the 12th century King of Sweden originally buried in this church before being moved to the Uppsala cathedral.
This spot was also said to be the location of the legendary Viking Temple of Uppsala. What evidence we do have of the temple comes from Snorri Sturluson, a 13th-century Icelandic poet who in his Ynglinga Saga claimed that the temple was built by the Norse god Freyr, and from Adam of Bremen, an 11th-century German chronicler who in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg) tells of a temple in Uppsala decorated with gold and describes with the horrified tone of a good Christian the Viking practice of human sacrifice. Snorri’s account is obviously mythical, and some historians consider Adam of Bremen’s account equally fictitious, or at least greatly embellished. Archeologists have found some evidence of a Viking-age building on the site, but whether it really is Adam of Bremen’s fabled golden Temple remains unproven. If it did exist, though, Vikings probably worshipped there till it least the 11th century, around the time Christianity spread to Scandinavia, and only about a hundred years before St. Erik. It probably wasn’t coincidental that a church was built on such already hallowed grown.
Inside, the church is plain and unassuming, small despite its vaulted ceiling, with white walls, wooden pews, simple chandeliers of yellow candlelight, and a red carpet leading up the aisle to a few medieval relics gathered by the altar at the front. To our surprise, we see a white coffin at the end of the carpet, framed by lit candles, and we realize the church is being set up for a funeral. A man at the front in a scarf and a peacoat talks to an older woman, and they both look briefly at us, somber, melancholy. I feel suddenly like a trespasser, having treated the church like some inert historical site when it’s still a living space, a site for ritual — and I also realize that the ordinariness of the town which I sneered at earlier is really a testament to a profound spiritual continuity. Those fat suburbanites would soon come here, to this same church, to pay respects to one of their own, just like the Catholic peasants of the Medieval world and the Viking warriors of the Dark Ages before them. They were an unbroken line of faith and community, not the dogmatic faith of ignorance and intolerance but the simple faith of a group of mortal men and women, gathered together in the face of death.
All that time spent wandering museums, staring at broken relics, and it ends up being here, in this suburban church, that I feel the truth of history.
We exit back into the cold and walk quickly down to the museum. Inside we find detailed exhibits on the mounds, the objects found inside, the history of the Ynglings, and the ways in which the mounds became symbols of Swedish nationalism. There are a few others here, a mother with her two daughters speaking Swedish and two women our age, speaking English in British accents and lingering at length before each of the objects.
Eventually, we sit down on a set of wooden steps that look out through a large window onto the mounds. It’s past 2:00 PM, and so the sun is setting and the blue-gray sky growing darker. I stare at the nearest mound, at the dying grass turning brown like the soil, and I imagine a funeral procession ascending to the top and burying a white coffin down inside.
Konditori Valand is a cafe from the 1950s that hasn’t changed since then. The walls and the furniture are made of a light, faded wood, and old fashioned lamps give off dark yellow light. A copy of Picasso’s Guernica above one of the tables.
We’re sitting by the window, drinking coffee and eating sandwiches and pastries when outside we see one of K______’s British friends. There are 65 million people in the U.K., and I imagine only a small fraction of them chose to go to Sweden in the winter, yet somehow we managed to run into someone we knew. He’s leaving later that day and has a boat tour of Stockholm scheduled for the morning, but we agree to meet later for lunch.
After the cafe, we stop off in the Stockholm Public Library, an odd orange building from the early 20th century that looks like a grain silo placed on top of a Soviet-era public school. Inside, we walk around the rotunda and find the English section in the main reading room. I notice a copy of August Strindberg’s The Red Room and a whole shelf of P.G. Wodehouse, as popular here as anywhere it seems.
Afterwards, we metro down to Stockholm’s City Hall and join an English-language tour, led by a tour guide who K______ notes looks like a Swedish Lena Dunham. The building has a strange, ahistorical look to it, like a Renaissance Italian fortress but with a tower far too tall for that era and capped with a strange golden spire that looks like something from a fantasy novel. Inside, we find ourselves in a grand interior courtyard with a marble staircase, surrounded by tall dark-brick walls with thin windows overhung with yellow lanterns. Swedish Lena Dunham explains that the building was finished in 1911 and built in a style known as “National Romantic,” purposefully evoking Renaissance Italian castles, with a dash of some vaguely Northern European austerity. It’s all very beautiful and dramatic, but I can’t bring myself to see past the artificiality, and I feel like if it didn’t have its Scandinavian elegance, the whole thing would border on kitsch.
The tour ends in “The Gold Room,” a long hall with walls covered in Byzantine-style mosaics that depict various figures from Swedish history and down at the end a woman seated on a throne, another female embodiment of Stockholm. Despite the opulence of the room, and the walls that glitter in the dim light, there’s something silly and cartoonish about the figures, their eyes too big and their heads too small. Gustavus Adolphus looks shocked as he stands next to a ship inexplicably smaller than him and holds his sword awkwardly in the air. The room lacks the grace and seriousness of the tapestries in Copenhagen, perhaps because their Diego Rivera style was a conscious attempt to depict Danish history in a non-western form, whereas here the Byzantine element seems chosen at random. Our fellow tourists are impressed, though, and snap many pictures, and Swedish Lena Dunham looks pleased.
We meet K______’s friend in Gamla Stan at Den Gyldene Freden, Stockholm’s oldest restaurant, open since 1722. The name translates to “The Golden Peace” and refers to the 1721 Treaty of Nystad, which ended the obscure Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden (Sweden lost but got to keep Finland, and thus the peace was “golden.”). We all order the pea soup and pancakes, a strange combination that for reasons none of us really understand Swedes always have for lunch on Thursdays.
We’re seated in the basement, amidst faded white walls and a low rounded ceiling. The space was originally an eighteenth century tavern, and the menu claims that the inside is largely unchanged since then, though I’m sure it looks nothing like it once did. The white tablecloths and the gloomy, flickering candles and the low hum of murmured conversations and the solemn waiters pouring water with grave silence all together speaks of a very 21st-century bourgeois dining experience.
The food is quite good, though not very substantial, and if it wasn’t for all the free bread we ate, I would still have been hungry.
We duck into the Swedish History Museum an hour before it closes and barely have time to take in the breadth of its collection. We move through dark rooms displaying objects from the Viking era, and then along a timeline of Swedish history from the 11th century to the present, literally written as a line of years on the ground, moving us from St. Erik all the way to socialism. There is far too much to take in so quickly — marble tombs and official documents and a golden reliquary in the shape of a hand, displays on St. Birgitta Birgersdotter and on Kings Gustavus Vasa and Gustavus Adolphus and on the young, wide-eyed Queen Christina and her close adviser, the chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, a room on Swedish trade and commerce in the 18th century.
Written between the dates on the timeline along the floor are quotes from famous Swedes, often more humorous than informative. In one, King Gustavus Vasa declares that “The Swedes are a stiff-necked people given to great works.” In another Olaus Magnus helpfully describes the town of Visby by noting that “Geats, Swedes, Russians, Danes, Prussians, Englishmen, Scots, Flemings, Frenchmen, Finns, Wends, Saxons and Spaniards flocked thither.”
The museum’s most interesting section is a set of exhibition rooms built to look like an 1960s airport departure lounge. It’s unclear what the thematic unity to the objects on display are, as they include everything from bronze age weapons to contemporary photographs, but the descriptions emphasize the idea of a museum as a form of traveling, a way of discovering foreign cultures and people. The main hall is lined with mid-century modern furniture arranged in small waiting areas, and each separate room is marked by a glowing yellow sign marked like airport gates, A3 and B5 and A13. To complete the effect, a woman’s voice in Swedish periodically makes announcements over an intercom about soon-to-depart flights. As I stare at a studded bronze shield from 1100 BC, I hear the soothing voice and imagine planes lifting off and soaring overhead.
From the museum, we walk up towards the Swedish Film Institute, through the upscale neighborhood of Östermalm. The buildings here have the orderliness of the post-war era and the elegant simplicity of the contemporary age, charming in their own not-yet-historical way. Along the sidewalk, we pass lines of parked cars and bikes, as neatly arranged as the buildings themselves, as if they’re part of the architecture. There are no shops on these corners, no restaurants or cafes or even grocery stores. People here are obviously wealthy enough to drive long distances for what they need.
It’s early evening now and thus completely dark. We cut across a large, empty park, past benches benches and dead grass and frost-ringed paths. Wealthy apartment buildings rise up around us, with rows of open curtains looking in on elegant rooms decorated with Scandinavian minimalism. Each window gives off yellow light, painting the gray concrete in small swathes of color, and imbuing the cold air with a sense of warmth. We move through the lit up buildings as if we’re following a line of candles put out to guide us through the cold.
Eventually, we reach the Film Institute. The building is 1970s postmodern, a block of concrete built to look like a camera, long and flat and with a line of small windows like an old filmstrip. It glows wondrously now, giving off white, modern light against the dark surrounding sky. Behind us shines a new glass building, its windows looking in on fancy contemporary furniture, and ahead of us, behind the Film Institute, is a large park, now just a patch of darkness. I know based on the Google Map we were consulting earlier that we’re now at the edge of central Stockholm, but out in the distance, beyond the park, I see the lights of more tall buildings, more Stockholm we haven’t yet seen, and likely won’t. The city feels far too big for a population of only 1 million.
We walk into the Film Institute, to briefly check out the inside. Most of it is a research library, off limits to tourists. I’m surprised, though, to find the lobby full of Indian people, gathered there for a screening of a Bollywood film. I recognize snatches of Hindi and Urdu floating the air, and I feel like I’m back at home and a dinner party hosted by a family friend. As my mom always says, the world has over a billion Indian people, so it’s no surprise that you’ll find them literally everywhere.
On our walk back through Östermalm, we pass more Indian people, walking in the direction we just came from. One guy on a bicycle periodically checks the map on his phone. They all look at me as we pass them, instinctively recognizing a fellow South Asian face. One of them stops to ask me, uncertainly, “Svenska Filminstitutet?”
“It’s that way,” I say, pointing behind us. “Just around the corner.”
We continue walking. K______ looks amused. “They’re probably really confused because you’re walking the other way.”
On the morning of our last half-day, we go to a small cafe in Normalm, decorated with black and white drawings of cats. I have a final egg and caviar sandwich. The coffee, unfortunately, is a little watery.
From there, we walk to the Royal Palace, in Gamla Stan. It’s an 18th-century building and the current residence of the Swedish Royal family. The exhibitions are mostly disappointing, on irrelevant things like the royal wedding dresses and the princes’ apartments. The portraits of royals look particularly silly, these mustached men and sneering women staring haughtily into space.
I always find people’s obsession with monarchy incredibly distasteful, especially in an age when for so many democracy has been so hard-won. Watching the tourists ogle the dresses and the filigreed palace rooms makes me feel bitter and depressed. No wonder someone like Trump won. People would rather have royal families to look up to than liberty.
The one interesting object in the Royal Armory is the clothing that King Gustavus Adolphus wore when he was killed at the Battle of Lützen, during the Thirty Years War, stained with his blood. It’s a morbid artifact, but having read so often about the War, I wanted to see it before I left Sweden. I found the display, however, as garish as anything in the palace above. Eight million people were killed that awful war, and yet instead of them we memorialize one of the Kings who prolonged it, showing off his bloody shirt like some martyr’s relic. Nearby on mannequins of horses hang the armor Sweden’s kings wore into various battles, and swords and rifles that gleam with national pride.
We leave Stockholm via its central station, on a train bound for the airport, which is halfway along the route to Uppsala. The train is an odd, 1950s-era one, with wood paneling, antique chairs, and white curtains hanging down over the windows. We’re a bit confused and wonder if we went to the wrong platform. No one else on board seems to notice the retro furnishings. When we do get to the airport, we almost miss our stop because no one else gets off, even though they all have suitcases. It feels like some strange piece of performance art designed to make us uncomfortable.
As far as airports go, Stockholm’s is pretty terrible — ugly gray carpeting, cramped departure lounges, bleak off-white vents overhead, gloomy lighting. The Wifi doesn’t work, but it does exist, to tantalize us. The departure lounge is crowded and poorly heated and nothing like the one from the museum. The bathroom is also small and cramped, with water puddled across the dirty floor. Worst of all, the coffee is terrible, watery, mild, clearly not made of actual beans but just brown water flavored with a dose of caffeine. I end up spilling half of it as I dig around my bag for my passport — a tragedy had it been worth drinking in the first place. I expected much better from glorious Scandinavia, and I long for the warm airport of San Francisco, where they serve Blue Bottle coffee. On top of everything, our flight ends up delayed by two hours.
Perhaps there’s something more though — the sense of a vacation ending imbuing my surroundings with a dismal feeling. Copenhagen’s airport’s white walls spoke of the promise of a new city, ten days of freedom from our ordinary lives. Now we are returning, and the ordinary world looks gray again, as it often does after traveling.