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020: travel : Europe : Sweden : what is Stockholm like?

collage of photos from Sweden by A.E. Graves

(To see all 76 photos I privately share(d) from this trip, see my Google+ album from Stockholm and Utö, Sweden, June 2013.)

In June of 2013, I visited Sweden for the first time to see two dear friends. They had visited me in San Francisco over several years, but 2013 was the first time all obstacles cleared for me to come to them.

Sweden, the land of Ikea, thin ginger cookies, blondes, minimalist Scandinavian furniture, historical vikings, and models used by American beer companies? Yes, THAT Sweden, though American Ikea is run less admirably than its Swedish parent, most people have sandy or brown hair, and nearly everyone knows not to bother with American beer. My main Scandinavian design associations are with Finns (Marimekko, Alvar Aalto) or Danes (the Danish Modern movement), so I had to properly separate out the Scandinavians during this visit, which took effort. My primary Swedish art association is with the watercolorist Carl Larsson (wikipedia.org), whose paintings of his family's remarkable home, filled with innovative furniture and textiles designed by his wife, Karin (wikipedia.org), inspired me as a student. (I was able to see his work, and learn more about her, which was pleasing.) The ginger cookies are legit, and I spotted the same brand I buy at home right away!

What is Stockholm, Sweden LIKE?

This is the question I always ask my friends when they travel to places that I haven't yet been to, though I rarely get an answer that satisfies me.

The author Ruth Ozeki has some brilliant descriptions of how we note DIFFERENCES while we travel, differences in how things are in the new places in comparison to home, and that is how we process much of the information that comes to us while traveling. Things that are the same - the same cars, the same bottles of flavored water in the shops - sort of fall away as unremarkable, but even the smallest differences - the way coffee is poured, what is in the vending machines, what colors are used on magazine covers - jump out. So, this is where I'll focus my observations.

SUNLIGHT: I visited during Midsummer, when the sun never completely disappears, and you need to look at your watch to determine if it is afternoon or evening. The practical implications for me meant that I stayed up until 2AM one morning, chatting with a friend, because we had no visual hint that it was late (or early, by that point). Well, and we were enjoying the conversation. :) This also means that darkening rooms for sleep is a major undertaking, and all buildings have different strategies for blocking light out for sleep: louver blinds on the outsides of the building (!), blinds inside, blinds outside plus window shades inside, and/or curtains, in many combinations.

CLEANLINESS: Stockholm is immaculate. There was no litter, no bad smells, no dog poo, not even stray leaves in most places. The people also were well groomed, and looked clean, classy, and a bit posh in even the most casual clothing. The city is orderly, there are plenty of public spaces, and the only marks there appeared to be left by seabirds.

SUMMER RAIN: I'm from California, where we have a long dry season (spring, summer, fall, part of winter) and a brief wet season (during what others consider winter). It rained abundantly, rigorously, and a bit warmly during my visit, in fast moving storms complete with thunder and lightning. The concept of a warm summer rain is so alien to me, and yet I was caught out a few times in a skirt and sandals, laughing as it poured beyond the edges of my umbrella. (This may contribute to the city's great cleanliness - it was rigorous rain!) This also means the landscape outside the city was unexpectedly verdant.

MINERAL COLORS: There are some greens in Carl Larsson's paintings which I've never had exact replicas of, and had always marveled at. Delicate, jade-with-milk kinds of greens. Remarkable. Beautiful. Where do those come from? The same places that the subtle reds, ochres, and golds on the walls of the buildings come from: mineral pigments. The Swedes mined iron, among many other things, from open pit mines, and learned that some of those iron oxides could protect their wooden structures from insects, in addition to making them stand out from the hills and be easily spotted in snow or from the sea. The colors in Stockholm, especially in Gamla Stan (the old center of town), are gorgeous. They should sell people like me pastel or watercolor sets on the street, named after the buildings that match the pigments.

GLACIAL LANDSCAPE: Out in the Swedish archipelago, smooth, polished granite islands dot the sea. The geology of my own home region is significantly different - rounded granite is up in the Sierras, not down along the coast - and so I was geologically disoriented. In some ways, the disorientation was right: the landscape I know as being above the snow line at home is very much above the snow line in Sweden, it's just that the presence of the ocean confused me. (Seattle taught me that the sea and the snow line are compatible concepts, even if I struggle to believe that.)

EUROPEAN-NESS: There is also a "European feel" of this European city. (I had only been to Paris before, so I hadn't formulated it, but I've seen more of Europe since, and can describe this more coherently now.) There was a feeling of order; the streetcars are clean and run on time; public facilities are clearly a priority, and public space is still treasured and maintained professionally; there are no extremes of poverty or want visible; the free educational system ensures that the people of all races I saw were speaking fluent Swedish. It is the feeling you get in a society where near-blonds are both waiting tables AND clearing tables AND working in the kitchen. (Americans reading this are taking a moment to process that.) The society is healthy and functioning, and it is reflected in the infrastructure, the maintenance, the businesses, and the people.

SCANDINAVIAN RESTRAINT: There is also a general feeling that the people in Stockholm are somewhat tired, VERY well behaved adults. People are generally considerate of each other, take up appropriate amounts of space in public, keep their volume low, and express themselves without drama. My California habit of wanting to hug everyone was eventually tolerated, but I knew it was a bit odd. :)

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images and original text Copyright © 2014 A. E. Graves

(posted November 30, 2014)

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