Stockholm: Venice of the North

A museum curator in Stockholm told me that Sweden's capital is sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the North," as it is a city built on a collection of islands. Despite the cold, I prefer Stockholm to Venice.

Actually, it wasn't even that cold - or at least it didn't give that impression in comparison with the high winds in Normandy. After a train trek via Paris to Lille and then later to London for four days, I packed up my things from the flat we were staying in (near Buckingham Palace!) for Heathrow. It's funny writing this now - a few days after the European skies have reopened to air traffic - as the day I left London for Stockholm, it was a relatively normal travel day. I certainly got lucky with my flights over all...although I wouldn't have minded missing a few more days of work back in France.

The two-hour flight on Scandinavian Airlines was relatively routine, but I got into the city rather late (jumping ahead an hour again) at about 10PM. I just made it to the baby bullet train from Arlanda Airport to the city center by a hair as an English woman in front of me could not figure out the ticket machine.

Normally, when I disembark from a plane, I'm quite hot and don't notice cold temperatures so quickly. So when I exited the central train station in Stockholm, I thought it might not have been warm as it felt. Granted, I was wearing a long wool coat and gloves, but I really only needed the latter for the rest of the trip. I was quite fine with my short leather jacket and a couple of long-sleeve shirts throughout my jaunt in Scandinavia.

This was also the first time I stayed in a hostel by myself. The City Backpackers Hostel was very easy to find, being only five minutes walking distance from the station. It wasn't as spectacular as the Lisbon Living Lounge, but then again I don't think any other hostel is. This one was quite nice nonetheless, and it hosted a mélange of guests. Over my four days in the hostel, I met people from Norway, Germany, England, Australia, Spain, Chile, France, Belgium and a handful of fellow Americans. The common language at the hostel was English, as it was almost everywhere in Scandinavia, which was incredibly helpful. I always try to learn at least four words in the native language of whatever country I visit: the equivalents of "hello," "yes," "no," and "thank you."

I was exceptionally lucky that the weather was pleasant all week, especially the first day. I decided I better take advantage of my good luck and situate myself at the same time by taking a day tour. Like most things in Sweden, it was a bit pricey, but I saw quite a bit in two hours. I don't like feeling lost, so it also gave me a better sense of where everything was, especially the sites I wanted to re-visit later in the week.

Two of those sites were the Vasa Museum and the Nordic Museum. Conveniently, they're right next to each other and the latter is free after 4PM on Wednesdays, so I hit them both up at once. Two very informative museums in one day can be a bit exhausting (and it's usually my limit), but it was well worth the trip.

After having to switch between a couple of buses unexpectedly due to construction, I finally made it to the Vasa Museum. It's the home of a Viking ship that sunk on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbor in 1628. Talk about fail. But thanks to some modern engineering, it was resurrected in 1987. The ship was massive. There were several miniatures on hand to represent what the ship looked like before centuries of decay underwater, and it was quite colorful once upon a time. Now it's just a dark wooden brown that shins from the little available light in the museum.

The Nordic Museum surprised me more. From the outside, the building looked well enough. But inside, it looked like a palace, reminiscent of the Danish palace from Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet. And even though it bears the name "Nordic" Museum, it's really only about Sweden. Starting from the fourth floor down, it houses exhibits on Swedish history, culture, architecture, photography, fashion and an exhibit about the Sapmi, the native tribes of Scandinavia. There's even a short exhibition on Swedish doll houses. But what surprised me most (and maybe it shouldn't have) was the exhibit on modern Swedish furniture. I always thought that Ikea's popularity stemmed from the fact that their designs are so basic that they can work in most countries around the world. But I didn't realize that they're actually a reflection of how Swedish homes have been decorated for the last fifty years. So either Swedish style is extremely basic...or they're trying to take over the world from INSIDE the home. And you thought McDonalds was too much of a cultural influence.

One of the highlights of staying in the hostel was meeting people from many different countries and backgrounds. On my third night in the hostel, I went on a bar crawl with several other guests in the hostel. The crawl was a bit short with three bars total - four if you went to the karaoke bar, but I don't sing. I met two other assistants, except they teach Spanish and French in England. And given that all three of us knew at least some of each language, it was pretty fun discussing the intricacies of the languages and our experiences living in foreign countries. My proudest accomplishment was teaching them typical American phrases, especially, "I know, right?"

Most of my last day I spent shopping, which apparently the Swedes really love to do. Stockholm goes right up there in the list of great shopper's paradises like Paris and Tokyo. Although, it's not exactly cheap. But there certainly is an H&M on almost every corner, and I nearly got lost in the shopping mall, so I left after 10 minutes. I didn't feel like spending anymore money in another foreign currency when I could buy the exact same thing in Finland in Euros.

On my last night in Stockholm, me and the other assistant girls plus one of my 12 roommates visited the Absolut Icebar. Being that I'm from California, the two girls were from France and Spain and the fourth guy was from Chile, a bar made out of ice was extraordinary. Stockholm's is the world's first location, with others in London, New York and Barcelona. While we were all bundled up already, we were all given thick blue capes with white woolen lining. The girls and I joked that we looked like Belle from Beauty and the Beast in that winter scene, but I felt more like Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when she blows up into a blueberry.

As it's the first location, it's quite small and tucked inside of a hotel near the train station. It was packed when we got there, but as we managed for 40 minutes in there, the number slowly dwindled. The temperature inside was -5 degrees C (23*F). It actually didn't feel that cold, and my theory rests on the fact that there was no wind, which is common when it's very cold outside. But we were also bundled up plus the furry ponchos. I can't even imagine visiting the one in Barcelona, as it would probably be warm inside, so all you'd have to protect you from the cold is the cape given to you on the way in. All of the drinks are served in glasses made out of local ice as well. Apparently they last very long - although not forever as a group of German guys brought their ice goblets back to the hostel the night before and they were a puddle in the morning.

After drinks, we headed for Max, Sweden's version of McDonald's. For some unknown reason, I'm really intrigued by other countries' equivalents of America's famous burger chain. For example, I find Quick in France to be deplorable, but Jollibee's in the Philippines to be satisfactory. But Max beats out McD's. My favorite item off their menu was the falafel burger, which didn't feel greasy at all. Plus, the restaurant was immaculately clean (even being inside a train station), and there was free tea and coffee.

Overall, I really loved Stockholm. Everyone I met was really friendly, and it was quite easy to communicate with locals if I ever needed help since most everyone was fluent in English. I'm very impressed by the nations of northern Europe by how bilingual they all seem to be. I wish that trait was common in the United States - and France as well, for that matter. It doesn't have to be English - but just something else!

Unfortunately, getting out of Stockholm was not quite so easy. After reading daily about the experiences of stranded travelers all over the world due to that pesky Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, I feel a little bad about complaining. But it was just one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong - precisely because I woke up a few minutes later than I had planned. Thus, I seemed to be thrown off and on edge for the rest of the day. While I caught the train to Arlanda quite easily and everything went smoothly at the SAS check-in counter as I checked my bag for Helsinki, something still felt wrong. And by the time I was about to leave the security checkpoint, I realized what it was.

When the inspector pulled me and my purse aside, I couldn't figure out the problem. Then he said it, "Miss, do you have a small knife in your bag?" I groaned. I forgot that my Swiss Army knife was still in my purse and I had forgotten to pack it away in my suitcase. Given that I bought it in Brussels and spent quite a bit of money on it, I wasn't willing to just throw it away. He suggested I go back to the check-in counter to see if I could get my bag, and in vain, I tried that. But the clerk said no, offering me two options. One, I could mail it back to myself. Or two, for free, I could check my purse. My purse. I didn't really know what to do, but for some reason, I went with checking my purse, removing my wallet, passport and my camera, but then filling it with items to fill out the bag that I didn't mind losing (all that much), such as my scarf and a water bottle. Then I had to bring it to the "Special Luggage" counter, where I handed it to a very amused gentlemen who handled the purse like it was going to explode.

Finally, I went back to security, where I got another funny look from the man who scanned my boarding card and said in an Indiana Jones-movie villain type way, "You've been here before, haven't you?" I said yes, and not really bothered by hearing my explanation, he waived me through. On top of it all, my one-hour flight to Helsinki was two hours delayed, which isn't helped by the fact that Finland is one hour ahead on Eastern European time. At some point that day, I finally boarded a plane from the tarmac itself given it was a tiny plane with two seats on each side of the aisle and only about 10 rows long. I hate tiny planes. And on top of it all, I was right next to the external propeller. PROPELLER! Apparently, instead of Helsinki, I was traveling to the 1930s.