My friend Ka-Hing planned an inter-job vacation and I decided to join him and meet several European friends along the way. I flew Norwegian to the continent and opted to stay in Stockholm for two days since I had a stopover there. I have not previously visited northern Europe and have few stereotypes beyond blonds, Muppets, and metalheads.
Arriving in Stockholm, passport control expressed concern about how many countries I will visit. I immediately discovered that Sweden wisely does not participate in the Euro, ruining my imagined travel simplicity. I took the Arlanda Express from the airport to central Stockholm. This is a giant rip-off and I spent as much on a return ticket as I did for my hostel stay! Many have criticized the fare which contributes to its low mode share and this seems like a white elephant like the Shanghai Maglev. Allegedly savvy travelers can take the commuter train for half the price and double the travel time, a similar trick to the Shanghai 2 train.
I stayed at City Backpackers Hostel which is the nicest hostel I have ever visited, with a kitschy classic Macintosh and a fake tube television. I handled the particulars and set out to find an ATM and a transit pass. Sweden’s cashless custom made the former much harder than I hoped. I do not understand this obsession and prefer cultures like Germany and Japan which predominately use cash for anonymity and speed. The SL Access card proved easier and I discovered that the Hong Kong MTR operates Stockholm’s metro, a promising sign. Still, the service was only European good instead of Asian excellent. Curiously there were few cars on the road and many roadways are blocked off for pedestrians, guarded by concrete lions.
Stockholm consists of several islands and I rode a tram to Djurgården which hosts several popular museums. Lacking the faculties to enjoy anything high-minded due to lack of sleep, I opted for the low-brow Abba Museum. Most of my Abba knowledge comes from karaoke but I looked forward to seeing one of the few specific band museums in the world. The venue covers the band’s origins including its breakout at Eurovision and has a few oddities like a mockup of their custom recording studio. It also has a comprehensive display of their many the gold and silver albums and costumes. Unfortunately, it does not discuss the breakup or divorces, sticking to a saccharine storyline. One takeaway was that European music before Abba was balkanized along country boundaries and the band had some small influence on the creation of the European identity.
The weather turned from dreary to moist so I ducked into a cafe for a forgettable lasagna. Otherwise, I found little compatible with my vegetarian diet but observed that sushi was unexpectedly popular! I returned to the hostel to book lodging for some of my upcoming destinations. I met several friendly Germans who shared our six-bed dorm and they invited me to join them for drinks at an Irish pub in old town. Two conversations of note, the first with an older urban planning student who helped design some of the streetscapes in Estonia. I shared my enthusiasm for SPUR in the bay area and tried to explain our flavor of NIMBYism. The second, longer discussion with my German doppelgänger Andreas decried the United States meager social welfare. I tried to explain the tension between the United States’ relatively open borders and European-style socialism but likely came off as a Trumpeteer.
The kids planned to party all night but I returned around 12 AM for a few hours shuteye. The midnight sun woke me around 4 AM and I did not get much more sleep. I went to Urban Deli for an all-you-can-eat brunch as soon as it opened. I gorged on three plates over two hours, correctly anticipating few opportunities to find vegetarian food later in the day. Swedish food appears meat- and fish-heavy, supplemented with plenty of bread and cheese. I had not previously eaten a poached egg and I waited twenty minutes for another patron to decapitate hers so I could learn the technique! Keeping it 100 I did not spy the smaller egg spoons and instead ate with my larger spoon handle like an American savage. One curiosity was a small tube of edible paste called Kalles which I did not consume due to its odor. I later learned that this is caviar!
I joined a walking tour of Stockholm at 10 AM lead by a friendly Aussie expat named Ryan. His path to Sweden involved carousing with a Swedish woman in Amsterdam and her saying the three magic words to him, “I am pregnant”. Twice. The weather soured the two-hour walk but I enjoyed learning the origins of Stockholm syndrome which began with one of the worst-executed bank robberies and hostage negotiations ever. The guide speculated that an early and eventually abdicated queen contributed to Sweden’s notable gender equality. I met a molecular biology brain researcher from UCSF who tolerated my questions about brain stem cells and telomeres and patiently listened to my pseudo-intellectual musings about infant numerology and blind brain plasticity.
I broke for lunch and enjoyed a surprisingly good risotto at Coco & Carmen which was so rich I could not finish. The complimentary bread plate was almost as large as my entree! I headed towards Vasa museum where I ran into my brainy acquaintance again who assured me the museum was worth the visit. The Vasa sank on its maiden voyage over 300 years ago due to poor engineering and its underwater tomb preserved it. The ship is enormous at five stories and the museum offers many vantage points and analysis of the deceased crew.
With flagging enthusiasm, I headed to the Swedish History Museum to learn about Vikings and immigration. Certainly, this would interest me had I slept more but I only recall swords, boats, emigration to Chicago, and the gold room. Pearls before swine. I returned to the hostel to take a nap and headed out for an aborted dinner. After walking to two unexpectedly closed vegetarian restaurants and window shopping for an hour, I settled for the Subway chain to ensure I got something to eat. Mostly standard fare although they offer veggiebiff and spicy cheese. Sated but exhausted I returned home to meet my new Irish hostel mates who brought their instruments with them. Not having much in common, I retired for the night and enjoyed a half nights sleep to complete my two days in Stockholm.
Overall I did not form much of an opinion of Sweden due to my short visit and jet lag haze. Previously I assumed the Swedish people were homogeneous yet I learned that Sweden has one of the highest rates of immigration in Europe, including many non-European Muslims. I did not socially meet a single Swede which was a big failure on my part. Still, I do not see much to motivate a second visit, even if I failed to visit the Museum of Failure this time. On we sweep with threshing oar towards Munich!