Learning to love paying through the nose for everything
05.09.2011 - 08.09.2011 18 °C
It's been a while hasn't it? Rob's Odyssey has almost reached the infrequency and overblown word counts once associated with J K Rowling and the later Harry Potter books. Much longer and we'd have been heading into 'Chinese Democracy' territory. Talking of China, I've been and gone through there, and am now typing this on a crappy keyboard (but nevertheless a QWERTY one - hurrah!) in a hostel in Tokyo. As Cilla might say, a lorra things have happened in the intervening month of so between Sweden and here, but I'm fairly confident that at the rate I'm going I'll still be able to wrap this up in time for the Olympics. Maybe even the London ones...
Now I admit I said I was going to try and keep this short and snappy, but you know what? Stockholm deserves better. It may have left a hefty dent in my travel budget, but after three-and-a-bit days in the city, I could see why so many people have so many good things to say about it. It seeks to project an image of being the "Capital of Scandinavia", which has rubbed the other Nordic capitals up the wrong way but, in the absence of any real competition, it's probably not far from the truth. Certainly it was no coincidence that I'd made it the longest stop on my brief tour of continental Europe's northerly outposts. The train across from Göteborg was super quiet (there were never more than three other people in my carriage the whole time, but this still didn't stop the ticket inspector insisting that I should have reserved a seat), and passed through pine forests that gave me a foretaste of what awaits me for day after day in Siberia. My hostel was just up the road from the station and it was a corker, really swish from the moment you get in the door and see the iPad behind reception ostensibly being used for no other purpose than to play music. My first night's a low key affair (i.e. spent updating this thing and the rest of my online media empire), and the next day has to be a sensible one: I'm all but out of smalls, and need to purchase some kind of ticket to get from here to Tallinn. The fact it was tipping it down outside meant I chose the domestic option first, commandeering myself a toilet sink in which to scrub, to the probable perplexment of the cleaners who must have assumed I was having a particularly long shit or shave. By the time I'd hung them out to dry the rain had abated, so I went to the ferry office with a plan to revolutionise their ticketing arrangements and thus help me avoid paying full whack (a cool 196 Euros) for a four-person cabin. Good thing is the ferry company were one step ahead of me. "You don't mind sharing with three other guys?", asked the girl at the counter, before I informed her that it would pose no problem given I shared a room with 15 other guys two nights prior. A 52 Euro transaction later and I had my ticket to ride. I walked down the road into the city's main shopping area, clobbered by redevelopment in the 1960s. There was an international food market on, with the usual mix of national dishes represented: French cheeses, Spanish paella, Dutch pancakes. And from Britain? Fudge. A big stall entirely given over to the wonderful sugary stuff. Trade was brisk.
I'd read that food is expensive in Stockholm, but it wasn't until I'd parted with 7 Euros for a small carrier bag of veg from a market stall that I realised it was no word of a lie. Back at the hostel more roomates had arrived, and we swapped stories of how much we had (almost) paid for food and drink. Annoyingly, my outlay on groceries was still not enough to allow me to put together a simple pasta-and-sauce dish, but showing a Taiwanese girl how to switch on the hobs (fast becoming my party trick among Far Easteners) scored me some Frankfurter to pad out my meal a little. We chatted as we first cooked and then ate (stopping momentarily for her to take a photo of her meal for reasons that remain unclear to me). Her name was Jin, and she was back in Stockholm to see a friend from her time at university here, a period marked by her failure to master the spoken language (or at least the correct pronunciation of the letter r). She tells me that I should have put Taiwan in my itinerary as it's cheap (who knew?), but doesn't seem at all concerned by the ten days I've chosen to spend in China and Hong Kong. Given her previous experience of living in the city, I asked her what the one thing I should go and see once I've finished eating. Her suggestion was to go take a look at City Hall, only not to bother since the cafe will be closed that late in the afternoon and it's still raining. Upon leaving the windowless basement kitchen I found she was well wide of the mark meteorologically, and set off for City Hall to assess whether her judgement of civic sights was any better. It was, although credit for her success has to rest more with the architect and city fathers responsible for the building. Nowadays it's perhaps best known as the venue for the awards of the various Nobel Prizes. A restaurant housed in one corner of the building offers among other things the opportunity to eat the courses served to Barack Obama upon his premature receipt of the Peace Prize last year, but it didn't really float my boat. How about you?
That night was spent sat around with roomates chatting and drinking weak supermarket-bought beer. We talked mainly about languages, since one of our number, a Canadian girl named Crystal, was an avid linguist (and the only person I've ever known to matter-of-factly drop the phrase "false cognates" into conversation) whose problem was that her head gets turned by the thought of starting to learn a new language without having fully mastered any of those she has on the go already. It was fun, even if by the end of the night I still didn't know the name of the guy from San Francisco sleeping in the bunk opposite mine, and so it was a touch disappointing to have to leave the hostel for another one across town. The flipside to this was that the new hostel was in Gamla Stan, the medieval old town, which despite being a tourist honeypot has all of one cashpoint, forcing me to do a lot of walking around with two heavy bags weighing down on my shoulders (and a disappointing tomato/pepper/Swedish mushroom leftovers breakfast in my belly) trying to find somewhere to withdraw cash to pay for my stay.
With that all sorted, I spent the afternoon wandering the beautiful streets and alleyways of Gamla Stan, although all too frequently the idyll was shattered by the sudden appearance of a guided tour party. Nowhere was safe from them, except the nearby island of Riddarholmen, which boasts the city's best medieval church, Riddarholmskyrkan. Virtually all members of the Swedish royal family (and a hefty chunk of the aristocracy) from the past few centuries are buried inside, and are commemorated by an extraordinary range of monuments:
The sun was out, Riddarholmen was quiet, and the view across to City Hall was wonderful. Belatedly, I was really starting to warm to Stockholm. I even found that the City Museum was free to enter, which seemed nothing short of a miracle hereabouts. There were temporary exhibitions about two successful Stockholm men: one great (the life and work of Bjorn Berg - yes, Berg - a post-war illustrator whose style was equal parts L S Lowry and Quentin Blake) and one inevitable (Stieg Larsson, with a dubious reconstruction of his study dominated by MILLENNIUM spelled in big black letters atop his bookcase). Plus, as is compulsory for all city museums, there was a matchstick reconstruction of the city in its first flush of mercantile growth in the seventeenth century.
From here it was a quick walk into "trendy" (the guidebook's word, not mine) Södermalm, teeming with cool kids and cool parents, but also with some decent views back over the city. Having worked up quite a thirst from a day on my feet, I found in my guidebook a listing for a real ale pub. With the prospect of not being able to get a decent drink for several weeks, I decided to treat myself. And that was when Stockholm decided to remind me I was on its manor and had to play by its rules. One pint (slightly less in fact with the continental measures) = 76 Kronor, or somewhere over seven quid on current exchange rates. Ouch. I savoured every sip of it in order to get my money's worth, and it was a top tipple, but it was only brewed in Goteborg. Sweden, you do confuse me.
As if to remind me that this travelling lark ain't so hard to arrange and that I really should have done this before, back at the hostel a group of three English lads, all between their first and second years at uni, had arrived. They had completed the King's Trail in just under three weeks (with constant heavy rain a feature of all but four of the days), which they reckoned was a feat accomplished by only about 50 people per year. Even so, seemed astonishingly blasé about the whole trip (two of them understandably being more interested in the three weeks they would be in Morocco for, starting with a flight at the crack of dawn the next day), and were already contemplating which mammoth mountain hike to do next. The night turned into another Anglophone round-table chat, as we were joined first by a Kiwi couple who will be doing the Trans-Siberian at around the same time as me, and then a girl named Amanda who had spent an absolute eternity flying from Melbourne and needed to re-establish her ability to speak. We sat around and shared travel tales and a disappointing (or maybe cheap) Swedish equivalent of Revels before some elected to go out for beers and the rest, me included, hit the hay.
Breakfast the next morning was spent chatting with a guy in a salmon (I'm being kind here) polo shirt who at first sight bore more than a passing resemblance to Buster from Arrested Development. He turned out to be a perfectly normal Dutch civil engineer on a Scandinavian driving holiday (although he did admit to getting so excited the first time he saw a moose that he slammed on the brakes and got out to take a photo), one that was supposed to have been in the company of his girlfriend, only they had split up a few weeks before following a short break in the Lake District. Maybe she didn't like Kendal Mint Cake... With the day before having turned out to be so cheap I decided to go a bit crazy and splurge on a Stockholm Card, giving me free entry to dozens of museums and other attractions plus free travel around the city. Only problem was I'd left myself a little over four hours in which to recoup my 420 Kronor outlay, so what followed was a mad dash around key - and proximate - cultural institutions. First stop was the infamously once-mouldy Moderna Museet (Modern Art Museum) and Architecture Museum, the latter host to yet another exhibition of sustainable development (boy the Scandinavians trowel it on thick), admittedly the most strikingly displayed of the ones I'd seen:
The latter had a number of shows on, of which I only had time to see one which drew from its photography archive. Initially it felt a bit so far, so Louisiana: another Andreas Gursky, a couple of Hiroshi Sugimoto seascapes, even a boring-as-hell Thomas Ruff print (probably my least favourite photographer), but then BAM! Catharina Gotby's 'People in mental hospitals' and Larry Clark's young junkie-centric 'Tulsa' series had my jaw on the floor, where it stayed as I took in rooms rooms given over to the work of Irving Penn and Diane Arbus, and war reportage pictures (with Robert Capa's works naturally the stand-outs). All in all it was probably the best photography show I had seen in years, and to top it all off in the corridor outside were a wall of pictures from Carl Johan de Geer's inspired project in which he hid a camera inside a crate on the street with a sign on it inviting people to "push the button". Taking pictures of much more accomplished - if not outright iconic - photographs is a hiding to nothing, but I did succumb to my childish tendencies to like a montage of images of red trucks (unfortunately I can't remember the name of the photographer):
A short ferry ride across the water and I was at the Vasa Museum, housing the salvaged wreck of the seventeenth-century Swedish navy's flagship. To call it a wreck is to do it a great disservice, as it's 95% intact, which kicks the Mary Rose into a cocked hat somewhat. My first impression was something along the lines of "Bloody hell, that's AMAZING", soon followed by the thought that it looks a lot like the galleon in the massive cave at the end of The Goonies.
I'd been trying to keep a tab of how much I would have spent on individual tickets versus the cost of a Stockholm Card, and by my calculations was a little short of breaking even with half an hour to go. Handily the Nordiska Museet (that's the Museum of Nordic Life to you and me) was a stone's throw - and a very tame squirrel - away. It was a pretty huge, like the Natural History Museum in London, but apparently still only a quarter of the size envisaged by its founder (who made sure pride of place was given to a massive seated statue of him in a transept off the main hall). Exhibit wise it was okay I guess, if you like historic Swedish furniture and furnishings.
By now I was really pushed for time and, seeing a tram, made a dash for the nearest stop. My luck was in, as I'd managed to catch a vintage tram still with all its original signage and adverts. A quick walk across town to pick up an oh-so classy I <3 Swedish Girls t-shirt on my way back to the hostel, where sleight of hand allowed me to cook yet another rubbish pasta meal before taking a ridiculously indirect route to the Metro and thence the ferry terminal. But that's another (shorter) story.