a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘Sweden’

the grand hotel doesn’t seem so expensive…

a little blast from the past 😉  As will become obvious, I mostly wrote this in the moment, my final night in Stockholm… the memories still resonate fondly 🙂

For those of you who haven’t been researching a trip to Stockholm, the Grand Hotel is the city’s grande dame.  This is where you get to stay if you have won a Nobel prize 🙂

I just walked through four different Stockholm neighborhoods and it is my last night so I am rewarding myself with a drink at the bar as the Nordic light fades and the twinkling artificial lights appear on the harbour.  This is a stunning city and the view is worth the price of the drink.

The crazy part is that the city is so expensive, the drink in the Grand Hotel costs about the same as less grand places.  When you see someone use a VISA card to pay for a Sprite, you know you are in another world 🙂

Tomorrow I leave for a final day in London and then onward to my real home.  Stockholm is the perfect place to not feel homesick.

It does seem colder here.  And I have had to channel my prairie roots and just huddle into my lightweight fleece because I am way too cheap to buy a new jacket 😉  As I agreed with the girls at reception on the first day, you don’t survive long in the north if you aren’t tough.  As a teenager on the prairie, you are always trying to not get frostbite when you are underdressed and it’s 40 below because it’s just not cool to dress properly.  So a Swedish autumn is a piece of cake… 😉

I did buy a pashmina shawl in London at a good price – and I brought gloves along after freezing in Berlin in April but I haven’t had the good sense to bring either along with me on this afternoon’s excursion.  Today there was a big clock announcing it was 11 degrees.  I wish I was wearing more but I’m not getting frostbite so it’s not really cold 😉

Stockholm does have moody weather, lots of water and clean streets.  The architecture really puts Vancouver to shame but there are more similarities than differences.

It is a little too “white” for me.  Seeing too many white people in a city always feels a bit strange – especially after multicultural London.  But the good news is that there are some non-white people here and they seem very integrated into the fabric of the country.  Now that I know some Swedish history, I know that immigration is a fairly new concept here.  It’s only been in the last fifty or sixty years people weren’t trying to get the hell OUT of Sweden.

So it is mostly full of Viking offspring.  But – contrary to popular belief – the blond, blue-eyed Swede is not very common.  It’s too cold for Latinos so most people have a similar look but it’s a much broader palette than one might expect.  The main thing the Swedes share – and I inherited – are the non-brown eyes.

I had an interesting conversation with some Swedish guys about “the Swedish look.”  They both looked different – but obviously northern Europe.  Two sets of green eyes.  One set of blue.  As we noted, a recessive gene.  I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the virtues of a mocha world.  It would be great for racism.  But the world is so full of interesting facial features.  I hope a few pale coloured eyes will survive.  Maybe they will have to be accompanied by pale skin.  But it’s the attitude that matters.

And Sweden has a lot to teach us about asking questions and playing a role in creating a society you want to live in.  An inclusive place where pretty blue eyes, pretty brown eyes or even obscure green eyes, male or female, you are considered an equal and interesting member of society.  That’s the kind of world I aspire to live in… this blog will continue to promote it until it is actually reality 😉

p.s. I ended my visit with an amazing cake and hot chocolate at the Sundbergs Konditori in Gamla Stan.  It’s been in business since 1785 but obviously still going strong…

finding my inner viking

We are soon to depart from my ancestral homeland so the final posts will be a little introspective…

As noted, these are my people.  And I also have Icelandic, Scottish and Irish genes… so the Vikings loom large in my genetic composition.  What that means is hard to determine.  The Vikings aren’t quite as mysterious as the lost city of Atlantis but they were some of the first people to try and conquer others (and explore the world), long before foursquare.  If only they had taken photos during a marauding venture on their iphones and posted them to their facebook friends we might know what had been going on…

I have now had two ventures into Scandinavia and the take on being a Viking is interesting.  The rest of us don’t know much – and generally I would say the rep doesn’t seem that appealing.  But apparently Vikings had some cool, modern traits as well – and, like any culture, came with attributes.  They were not just vicious plunderers.

I will need to learn more – and it will take time.  The Historiska Museet gave me a starting point.  And some interesting facts.  And some intriguing stuff to see.

The most spectacular part is the Guldrummet (Gold Room), which displays more than 3,000 artefacts in gold and silver, from the Bronze to the Middle Ages.  It was a wild time in history so hording metal seemed to be a common hobby.  Definitely makes for some great exhibits for us modern visitors.

There are also some exceptional rune stones and excellent exhibits on Viking history.  It’s the same as the other Swedish museums with lots of questions posed to make visitors think, not just read and accept.

As I’ve already noted in a previous post, there was a special exhibit trying to provide a Wikipedia entry version of 1,000 years of Swedish history.  It started with clans, who are not the best way to build an inclusive society.  They were replaced by kings, also not a great model for universal anything.

The power of the kings was gradually replaced by the nobility and the church, often working in conjunction with each other to oppress and suppress most of the population.  The exhibit also explored the role of chivalry and the aristocracy in shaping society (not so positive…).

What was most fascinating is that the 21st century Sweden with its strong sense of identity is a new entity, barely 100 years old.  What is most impressive is how they took an old-fashioned, not so great nation state model, and used logic and planning to create a nation state that is an enviable place.  The US thinks that is their mojo – but they missed the part about engaging your brain to develop a nation state model that will benefit the majority of its citizens, not just the rich guys.  Nation states benefiting the rich guys are a dime a dozen.  Africa does THAT – in spades!  But a nation state that really seems to be working on behalf of the entire population.  That really gives one food for thought…

The museum definitely gave me an interesting sense of what it might mean to be a Swede.  Or even a Viking 🙂

The Swedes do seem to be part of Europe, while also maintaining some distance where they feel it might be wise.  They are shrewd.

And smart I think.

After all, they have declined to participate in the crazy Euro experiment.  The EU leaders must have got bored in Brussels and popped over to Amsterdam.  After enough pot brownies, the Euro likely seemed like a great idea 😉 Like a David Lynch film, it only makes sense if you’re high 🙂

The French dude who wrote Delicacy seemed to be dissing the Swedes.  They weren’t interesting enough.  Not enough of the adolescent drama queen ridiculousness that the Latin parts of Europe hold so dear.

They dismiss the Nordic elements as boring and lacking in imagination… but when they have run up the gambling debts that come with such irresponsible behavior they don’t take it on the chin and face the loan sharks… they hide under the skirts of their responsible neighbors.

It is a lot of fun hanging out in southern Europe.  But the Norse are my people… and someone has to bail you out of jail… Greece, Italy, Spain, France – you might want to keep that in mind 😉

apparently misery DOES love company

This all started when I was browsing in the shops seeing if Swedish fashion would entice me to part with some more kroner.  But the palette made me feel kind of depressed.  It seemed to resemble the weather outside.  I wondered what came first…  and if, between the challenging weather patterns and all this black and grey clothing, the Swedes were depressed.

But I just thought it was more of my silly black humour.  I didn’t buy anything though.  It was all too shapeless and dark.  I guess Swedish women are so gorgeous they can wear a potato sack and look good.  Most of the clothing seemed to be working on that model.  Along with an awful lot of parkas!  If you need a black parka, this is your paradise 😉

I tried to like Acne – but it just looked mostly weird and I didn’t think it would look terribly flattering on me.  I am more a Dolce and Gabbana kind of girl.  I like it when French guys young enough to be my son come up to me and shyly tell me in broken English that they like my dress.  I didn’t think Acne was gonna get me that kind of attention…  I realize I don’t look very hip.  But it seems that looking sexy means I meet a lot more strangers – and my travel stories are better 😉

After my Swedish shopping experience I was reading a novel on the plane home called Delicacy by David Foenkinos.  It’s definitely worth reading.  But he’s French and I thought he was really picking on the Swedes with the Markus character.  And there was this big emphasis on the Swedes being suicidal.

I am a woman who enjoy facts more than chocolate so I had to get some info before I wrote about the depressing clothing in my blog.  Apparently, the Swedes ARE famous for being suicidal.  But the average Swede… pretty happy.  It would appear that really cool happy places make the unhappy people more unhappy.  Not enough other people around to commiserate with apparently.

So it would appear Sweden is a kind of Disneyland.  So, if you are more a Sartre Nothingness kind of person, you should likely hole up somewhere like the Democratic Republic  of Congo.  Lots of miserable people there to make you feel better about your lot.

Or you might just try not caring so much what other people think…

Personally I would be really happy in Sweden 🙂  But then I am pretty happy everywhere.  You make your own happiness – and a lot of your luck.

I was definitely happy when I was observing – or learning about – Swedish design.  They may dress like shapeless goths – but they like their interiors full of colour, shape and function.

I won’t bore you with all the details of everything I learned about Swedish design.  One of the coolest things I saw was the dollhouses at the Nordiska Museet.  What was especially fascinating is that they weren’t all for kids… and normally children were not allowed to play with them, just to observe.  But some of the early ones were to show people how to apply interior design in their homes.  An early version of the Home and Garden cable channel 😉

Another highlight for me was tacking on the Architecture Museum to my Moderna Museet tour.  Not only an entire history of Swedish architecture but some of the key architectural wonders happening all over the world at the same time.

One of the most interesting things I learned about was the One Million Dwellings Programme, an ambitious housing project implemented in Sweden between 1965 and 1974 by the governing Swedish Social Democratic Party to make sure everyone could have a home at a reasonable price. The aim was to build a million new dwellings in a 10-year period.  At the same time, a large proportion of the older housing stock was demolished.

In the end, about 1,006,000 new dwellings were built, which accounts for 25% of Sweden’s housing. There was criticism that the new apartments were ugly but they were modern and well-designed and generally the people who got to live in them were thrilled.  Yet another example of rational thought by the Swedes as to how to make the general society a better place.

The other interesting fact that I learned – both in Stockholm and in London – was the impact of the first World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace (London) in 1851.  I’ve been to the Crystal Palace – and to the shells of a few other World’s Fairs over my travels.  There were some interesting aspects to most visits but the importance of the concept was lost in the abandoned look of the sites.

But this is why it’s good to keep travelling… and learning stuff.  In Sweden, design is life it seems and the very first World’s Fair had a huge impact on Swedish society.  And the world in general.  Back in those days when google wasn’t a verb and the internet had not yet been invented – by either Al Gore or Tim Berners-Lee – information didn’t travel very far so the World’s Fair was a revelation… and all those interior designers selling themselves on reality TV should be eternally grateful to the Brits for kick-starting their careers generations before they were even born 🙂

In 1930, Sweden hosted the Stockholm Exhibition and introduced the world to Swedish functionalism.  Ingvar Kamprad was only 4 so I doubt he attended but the rest of the world who didn’t attend would learn about Swedish functionalism via the little company he started in 1943.  He called it IKEA…

So… it would appear the Swedes are mostly really happy, they like to dress in dark colours and they have a sense of style that is world-famous.  All the Swedes I met seemed pretty sunny… and the sun does pop out from time to time and – thanks to that Nordic light – when it does, it’s spectacular.

building a national identity

The Nordic people are noted for being a bit frosty.  Especially by their southern neighbours.  They are my people.  Apparently in high school I intimidated people.  It wasn’t intentional.  I just didn’t have much sense of play.  So I am grateful to my country’s celebrated multiculturalism that I met people from other ethnic backgrounds who taught me how to lighten up 😉  For any of you reading this regularly, you will already know my love for the Dutch who somehow seem to manage to combine warmth, efficiency and dry wit.  And, while I still love Paris and New York, I have the most fun in Amsterdam so it may have beat them out as my favourite city.

But today we are talking about the Swedes.  Since my grandfather died when my dad was ten, the first Swedish man I met was some random Björn or Mattias.  He was cute and blond, sure, but that is not why he was memorable.  At the time I was about 20 and back in those days, people didn’t talk about sex in public in North America.  They didn’t have ads for tampons on TV.  We were repressed and uptight about all that stuff.  And lots of young women were very conservative in their social mores.

But we were also brought up well so people could say whatever and we just smiled politely and didn’t express any shock outwardly.  Hey, we started as a British colony 😉  So I was chatting with random Swedish guy and another girl in the lounge at the university residence where we were staying during our summer jobs.  And random Swedish guy casually mentioned how his grandmother had been cool with him bringing his girlfriend to her house and having sleepovers with the girlfriend when he was 15.  And not just sleeping 🙂

(According to my guidebook, at 15 you become byxmyndig, loosely translated as “in charge of your pants” – the things you learn from travel :))

Random Swedish guy seemed very comfortable with the concept of sex.  Apparently in Sweden it wasn’t the big deal it was in North America (and in many quarters, still is).  It was likely the first time I heard anyone talk about sex without twittering.  Talking about it as though it was the same as talking about the weather.  It was definitely a revelation.  And obviously random Swedish guy had an impact on my perceptions of the world.

But what I remember most was talking to the other girl later when random Swedish guy wasn’t around.  She had been shocked!  I hadn’t even realized because we had been taught to not act shocked so you would never know from the way the person acted in the situation.  I believe that’s called “good manners.”  It was fun to giggle about it since we didn’t have to act cool in front of the Swedish dude right then.  But I was less shocked.  And thought the Swedes might be on to something.  WHY WERE North Americans SO uptight about sex – but so casual about violence…

I met a couple more Swedish guys over the years.  That was part of the reason for my trip to Stockholm.  To see if they were representative.  My conclusion…  I think so…  It was only a short visit so not exactly a scientific study…

I went to at least one historical or cultural spot every day to learn more about the Swedes.  I had only had a few minutes to leaf through my guidebook before I arrived but I had read enough to be intrigued.  Another reason for the choice of Stockholm was a conversation I had recently at a networking event with a banker who had worked in Stockholm for a number of years.  He was the one that alerted me to the impressive nature of Sweden.

And it is an impressive place.  It’s clean.  It’s green.  It’s pretty equal by world standards.  There is a strong social safety net.  There is very little crime.  People are articulate.  For a small country, they really make their mark on the world via business, sport, design…

There are flags everywhere.  And people seem to have a strong sense of identity.  As a Canadian, I was fascinated.  We are famous – at least within our own borders – for being on an eternal quest for our sense of identity.  Something a little more than, “we are not Americans.” 🙂

My father was one of the few Canadians I’ve known who really believed in the country and had the kind of patriotic attitude I saw in Sweden.  Could it have come from his Swedish father?

Now that I know a little Swedish history, I would think likely not.  But maybe…  There is no question the Swedes have an identity.  But the museums and my conversations with Swedes suggested that it is a fairly new thing.

And – like everything in history, especially in Europe – it’s complicated.  Apparently Sweden was pretty poor and agrarian until the Second World War.  Most Swedes didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the role Germany – and their “neutral” position during the war – played in their prosperity.  But without the Nazis, there might not have been IKEA…

I was more interested in the sociology of Sweden than in ancient politics.  What was fascinating is that there were some famous Swedes who decided they needed a national identity and strove to define and promote it.  Part of this was establishing the Nordiska Museet – a place to showcase Swedish culture and identity.  For tourists.  But, more interestingly, for locals.

Apparently part of its mandate was to provide people with information about what it meant to be Swedish – to build a national identity.  Because, as I learned in the fabulous 1,000 years of Swedish history in under an hour at the Historiska Museet, the Sweden of today is a really recent invention.  There were the Vikings, some evil (and more benevolent) kings, a pampered nobility, alliances with the other Nordic countries (why Nordiska, not Swedish), invasions and bloody fights with neighboring countries, an interesting positioning during the Second World War…

What I loved the most about the Swedish museums is that they didn’t just toss random facts at you.  They clearly stated that culture and history are complicated and perspective is key.  They actually asked questions in the exhibits and encouraged you to think about any “facts” presented.

That was the thing that I liked the most about Sweden.  The culture encouraged thinking and planning (very Nordic of them ;).  Once the dust settled and prosperity kicked in, they decided to define who they were – and wanted to be.  And communicate that message to the nation.  I think all the recent immigration has made that message more complicated to reconcile but what impressed me the most about my visit to Sweden was the sense that intelligent thought and debate was encouraged – and part of the national identity.

I think that’s why Sweden has likely been so successful in the complicated modern world.  So, save your pennies and go check it out.  And chat up some Swedes.  They like to talk about ice hockey.  Vikings.  Or sex 😉

memories of IKEA instructions ;)

I am discovering I DO create the travel stories – but actually getting them on-line while I am travelling – a lot more complicated…  when I retire… for now… you will just have to be patient… lots of posts partly written or in my head, photos on my camera… so the stories will appear over the next week or two… tonight it is my last night in Stockholm but we are exploring the first…

I have arrived in one of my ancestral homelands.  It’s just a few days in Stockholm so not sure how much I will learn about my roots but there is a different sensibility arriving in the country from which your surname originated.

The Stockholm experience begins at the airport.  It is well organized, ultra clean and full of minimalist Scandinavian design.  It’s the airport of the Jetsons…

Until I tried to get some kronor.  The Swedes are a bit suspicious of the continent so the EU is OK but the jury is still out on the euro.  My personal life and the euro have followed an intimate and bizarre trajectory but for this post, suffice to say, I think the Swedes are right 😉

Even though it’s a hassle for tourists.  But I’ve used bank machines all over the world.  How hard can it be?

Well, this bank machine had obviously been designed by the dude who writes the IKEA instructions.  First I had to insert my card in a totally abnormal way.  When I finally figured out how to get my card in the machine, I’d missed the nanosecond when you could punch an obscure key to get the instructions in English.  I suppose I should have guessed it was asking for my pin number in Swedish but seeing a bunch of stuff in an incomprehensible foreign language throws you.  I finally secured my measly 2,000 kronors – which will buy nothing I am discovering… and I have built a LOT of IKEA furniture in my iterant life so the haunting memories exploded into my brain…

But then I looked at the perfect sky – full of Nordic light and marshmallow clouds – as my wildly expensive taxi traversed the motorways toward my hotel.

<no question Stockholm requires a fat bankroll – but is full of small treasures… I am in the Berns bar where the cute bartender knows my room number typing this… and some woman who sounds like Adele has just starting singing… so my overpriced Chenin Blanc is tasting better ;)>

And speaking of the Berns Hotel… I am a fan!  Check-in was fantastic.  It would appear Swedish women could turn anyone into a lesbian 😉  They had my name wrong on the reservation – a common mistake.  But she really appreciated the significance of a letter.  It’s a totally DIFFERENT name!  I think her name is Danielle.  She is gorgeous – but that seems to be the norm around here.  What was unique about Danielle is that she just sparkled.  Her personality.  Her smile.  Her attitude.  You could fall in love with her in under five minutes 🙂

She was an example of the person we could all be.  Why not be friendly?  Why not be great at your job?  Why not be engaging?  Why not twinkle?  I know it will improve your life because strangers will enjoy interacting with you.  And people that you actually know?  They will fall in love with you – hard 😉

But as I write this (originally, in my notebook) I have decamped to the Gold Bar at the Nobis Hotel… because I wasn’t sure if I should stay there instead of the Berns.  (Now, with all my experience, I think it depends on your purpose in Stockholm.  For aspiring party animals, the Berns is perfection ;).



Back at the Gold Bar I ordered an Orchid Royalty.  Apparently it won some accolades at a cocktail contest in London.  Aged Guatemalan rum, sweet vermouth, Pedro Ximinez and gold dust!  It was sublime.  Bartenders in Stockholm are good at their jobs and friendly enough but a bit stiff by world standards.  No one is going to blow you kisses if you leave them a tip like the charming dudes in Amsterdam 😉

Dutch guys and Sweden women… that might be quite the combo!  I’ve had fun with both.  I never managed to confirm Danielle’s name but we chatted over the past few days – and she lit up every time I said “hi”.  I won’t forget her.  I like to think I light up around other people.  Being on the receiving end of it has convinced me it’s really worth paying attention to – and working on.  It’s common knowledge I love glitter and sequins…  let’s see if I can mirror that in my personality as well…

p.s.  I have been snapping Stockholm… in the various weathers… so pictures will be forthcoming!  Stay tuned!

p.p.s. subsequent to writing this I had a chat with the cute bartender who has been my favourite during my stay at Berns.  His name is Daniel.  He confirmed Danielle is the correct name for the girl at the front desk.  I told him he was really great at his job.  Watching him in action is very impressive.  You can only chat on Sunday.  On the weekend you just have to watch in amazement as he participates in the show that is Berns 🙂


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