01 October 2010

Stockholm: A Frigid New Beginning

Our comfortless Ryan Air flight landed in a muddy field which we mistook from the air as a lumber yard or a saw mill or something else necessitating cutting down trees for industry.  We arrived in an absolutely silent, minuscule warehouse that someone had named "a terminal" as a backwoods, Scandinavian inside joke.  If you told me right now that someone had to be ceremoniously woken up and called in to turn on the lights in that building before we got off of our plane, I would believe every word.

There was a sign that said in very apologetic Swedish that due to some remodeling of the terminal there would be modest (read: significant) delays in the arrival of our checked luggage via the adorably small carousel conveyor belt.  Blonde, tall people sat patiently.  Tan Italians scoffed.

I sat and waited while D paced the floor impatiently, counting the seconds until his next cigarette.  An alarm on a door sounded for five minutes.  I sat with the blondes and D paced.  We heard the grinding and vrooming of machinery as one carousel began to turn.  Ten bags arrived.  They weren't ours.  I moved in order to sit on the other side of the room; D paced.  Waiting.  We waited a long time.

The transition from Rome to Stockholm was severe.  Stockholm was cold.  Rainy.  Our hilariously naïve, short sleeved assumptions made while packing our virgin backpacks were immediately apparent.  Still, despite being the only two people in the discernible country of Sweden walking the streets in t-shirts, no one stared at us.  But, we knew - as anyone would have to know - that the locals saw us and were perplexed and concerned and at least slightly bemused at our obvious lack of preparation.  Stockholm was cold and we were so underdressed that we might as well have been skipping between the damp island bridges fully nude.  My nose sniffled in disapproval.

Stockholm served as an effective halfway point of our trip.  Temporally, it was a little bit late, but the shocking change of scenery from Southern Europe to Scandinavia was intentionally instituted by us (in one of our rare moments of actual planning) as a way to articulate and punctuate the median of our travels.  It worked, as far as I was concerned.

Walking through Stockholm I couldn't help but look like an advertisement for H&M.  It was the cheapest place to buy warm clothes.  It was a local establishment there.  It made us fit in warmly without destroying our finances.  What I mean to say is that H&M saved our very frigid asses, more or less.  I wrapped myself in a black hooded sweatshirt, a white jumper with horizontal blue pinstripes and a black and blue scarf tied firmly around my goose bumped neck.

Like we discovered when we arrived in Switzerland, the jump from Southern European hedonism to Northern European efficiency took hold of our decision making almost immediately.  Upon arrival we realized that two things were absolutely necessary:

First, if we waited any longer to do laundry our socks were going to become self-aware, sentient beings and possibly stage a coup d'état one night while we slept.

Second, if we waited any longer to get haircuts then we'd be waking up every morning in a room full of strangers with the same sort of maniacal hair one may expect to see on the floor of a psychiatric ward or on the head of a deranged serial killer - either image being resoundingly negative for the perception of said strangers we were waking beside.  I could imagine their horrified faces.

Actually, if I am going to be honest, we'd already manifested the reality of the second scenario.  Even I was frightened by the visage of myself in the morning mirror.

Luckily, as far as I could tell, every third establishment in the city of Stockholm was required to be occupied by a hair stylist.  We chose one at random.  The man who cut my hair was Lebanese and was infinitely curious to hear an American's opinion on all things political.

"How is Barack Obama doing?" he'd ask.  

Everyone in Europe seems to ask us this.

"He has a tough job.  We think he's doing alright, considering.  Other people think not so much."

This is the message we have delivered to Europe for over a month now.  Noncommittal semi-optimism.

The hair stylist told us that we should go to Lebanon.  We would find great wives right away, no problem, he said as he clapped his hands.

He told us that he thought Swedish girls were boring.  He had dated a Latina for years.

The haircut was good.  I had a white outline of my previous hair length from the dark olive tan the Italian skin had tattooed my head with.

And it kept on raining in Sweden.

Somewhere, I can't remember where, we were told that we would not have any good food in Scandinavia.  This was not our experience.

Our good food started when we found a restaurant that specialized in game which had existed since the 1700's.  We ate reindeer and game meatballs with a side of linden berries.  The food was incredible.  The main problem was that there were two more items on the menu that we felt that we just needed to have:  bacon-wrapped pheasant and a filet of wild boar.  We came back the next night and ate the remainder of the menu.  This was the first restaurant on the entire trip we actually came back to for seconds.  I think that says something.  (And that something may be that Santa Claus had better be careful the next time he lands on my roof.)  Reindeer is amazing.

Where was I?

The first night in Stockholm we went to an Irish pub to have a few beers and a snack.  There were two Swedish girls playing blues songs on guitar, souls bared powerfully.  They played many classic American songs and eventually told the crowd that they were going to get even more American and play some country music.  They requested yells of "Yee Haws" to the delight of the Swedish crowd.  They started playing Johnny Cash.

Someone in the crowd begged them to play "Ring of Fire."  The Swedish girls laughed and dug around in a bag until they produced a kazoo.  It took them about five minutes to start the song after attempting to play the trumpet part on the kazoo for the first time.  The "trumpet player" was laughing buzzed little laughs through the kazoo until she nearly cried; until we all nearly cried.

They moved into an Irish folk song:

I am going, I am going
To wherever the wind is blowing
I am going, I am going
To where the whiskey is flowing

My life resonated in perfect thirds with the chorus.

D had been given a list of places we must see in Stockholm from a Swedish bartender he met in London.  So, the next morning we set off to find a cafe she had recommended to us where we absolutely had to have coffee.  She asked us to tell the owner "Hi!" for her.  As we walked to the cafe, we realized that it was very far from the center of the city.  The sky darkened as we walked and we were not surprised at all when the rain started falling on our uncovered heads.  When we finally reached the cafe they laughed at us for being so wet and made us both double espressos which were indeed quite fantastic.  The owner was serving us so we asked him if he knew the bartender who had sent us there.  There was some deliberation between him and his colleagues in Swedish before they realized who we were referring to.  "OH.  THAT girl.  She is crazy."  There was more gossipy sounding Swedish thrown about the room.  "No one really knew where she was.  She just picked up and left one day."  The looks on their faces said that now they understood how two Americans had found this tiny cafe on the outskirts of Stockholm.  They were done conversing with us.

But, the important thing to note here is that if you were to meet the bartender in question, you'd probably think she had both her feet on the ground.  And, she does, more or less.  But in Sweden - she was crazy.  And, she was, more or less.  When your whole society has done as much as it can to create a societal utopia, it does seem crazy to the locals when people leave it.

That night we decided to visit some bars in the city and try to meet some Swedes.  It wasn't going very well because - although they almost all speak perfect English - the Swedes are very shy and it's difficult to really break into their social circles (or at least that's how it seemed to us.)  However, just as we were about to give up on the night, two Swedish girls approached us and beckoned us over to their table.  Now, if you judge me as shallow or superficial for the upcoming description, then so be it.  I am just describing what I saw.  These two girls were not attractive.  There was a blonde and a brunette and both were clinically overweight and done up in exaggerated makeup as if they were tarting up for a state fair pageant.  They wore expressions of general unhappiness as they tried to mention casually that they both had boyfriends.  D and I stared at each other perplexedly.  However, despite the highly unappealing nature of our new company, we surmised that it was possible that making ANY Swedish friends could be the key to unlocking the previously closed Swedish social circles.  So, with this hypothesis we shared drinks, clinking our glasses to a chorus of "Skál" and eventually moved on with them to another bar.  These girls were the first Swedes we found that didn't speak very good English.  Still, they spoke enough, so D and I conversed with each other in Spanish to make sure that we were both on the same page and O.K. with the whole situation, inching away as the girls tried to get friendlier, despite the earlier boyfriend conversations.

Swedish rules:  There are a lot of rules to be followed in Sweden.  Blonde, big girl was about to show us the first one.  Rule #1 is that a bar may carelessly turn you away if you are even a little bit drunk upon arrival.

Blonde, big girl (BBG), stumbled into the bar's doorway, looks the bouncer in the eye and, in English, says, "Hi, Honey-Bunny."

The bouncer replied, also in English, "Somebody's drunk."  Then they bickered a bit in Swedish.  After a few moments of this he tells her that she has to go and the conversation returns to English.

BBG:  "You're an asshole."

And the bouncer, sitting as cooly as possible, didn't flinch, didn't move a muscle that wasn't involved in the pleasant smile that he formed as he said, "Yeah, what do I care?  You are just a dumb, fat, blonde bitch."

D and I looked at each other stunned as the girls were jettisoned unceremoniously from the bar.  Stunned at the audacity of this guy to say what everyone else was already kind of thinking and to say it so casually.  Stunned at how nonchalant the whole exchange was.

We left the girls and decided to start heading back towards our hostel.  But, we'd only had about three drinks at this point and when we saw another bar on the walk home, we figured we might as well have one more to cap off the night.  Unfortunately, as we walked up to the door, we also learned BBG's lesson.  I am not sure what we did to draw attention to ourselves, but as we showed our ID's the bouncer immediately says to us, "Have you been drinking?"  We were asked kindly to leave despite being seriously, pretty sober.  D was suddenly extremely angry; he did not like being told that couldn't do something under those circumstances.  That it felt like injustice somehow.  I said, "Whatever." and we went to bed.

On our last day we went on a very long walk through a park that was large enough that it might as well have just been called a forest.  It was nice to be back in nature for a little while; as much as I love them, cities can be so draining when they aren't supplemented with something natural.  However, our exploration of this park was cut short when, deep down a wooded path, we heard horns and sirens coming from the waterfront that sounded an awful lot like a storm warning.  At the same time, there were rolling black clouds overhead that seemed to provide correlating evidence to support that theory.  I felt a raindrop and we started walking briskly, trying to find a good way out of the forest-park.

We emerged from the trees as the rain actually began to stop.  The storm had largely blown overhead without much ado.  We found ourselves walking through a street fair designed for rich yacht owners.  We ooed and ahhed as we realized that we could actually buy saunas to sit on our docks or on the decks of our (non-existent) boats.  There were vendors hawking compasses, water proof coats and telescopes.

At the end of this fair there was a museum that we entered.  The museum was built around a ship that had sunk in the Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage.  Its construction had been hurried due to pressure from the king and its dimensions were poorly designed.  The ship was built too top heavy and there was not enough ballast to hold it upright.  When the first gust of wind caught the sails, it capsized, killing many onboard.  The ship was recovered hundreds of years later and now sits in a museum, slowly decomposing as the visitors snap photos.  Ironically, the ship was only really preserved because the Stockholm harbor had been so polluted that there was almost no oxygen in the water and therefore very few bacteria to digest the ill-fated vessel.  It's rescue will eventually be its ultimate and final demise.

For our last night we had one final recommendation from the crazy Swedish bartender that had sent us out for coffee.  Again, the walk to this place was extremely long.  No tourist would have ever found this place on their own.  It was deep in the city, onto the campus of a university and tucked away behind a nondescript fence and under a bridge.  It was a club, sheltered by the bridge overhead, but otherwise outdoors, equipped with enough couches to make full living room sets and peppered with the occasional ping-pong table.  There was a girl on the turntables that was extremely terrible at fading albums in and out of each other.  Otherwise, the club was more or less empty, despite it being a Friday night.

The bartender lamented this fact with us, blaming it on cold weather and a very big Sweden football game that night.  She said some other things as well, but I was largely distracted by how cute she was (in the pinch her cheeks kind of way); standing there with a stuffed hammerhead shark emerging from her coat.  A few more people showed up later on, but it was a very quiet night.  We got a free round of drinks that I am pretty sure was intended to be a sort of apology.

Back in the hostel I re-packed my bags and got ready for Copenhagen.

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