Taking Stock of Stockholm

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Dusk in Stockholm’s main port.

I know, another winner of a post title. I finally visited Sweden: my fatherland, the origin of my surname, and home to many a blonde, pale person!

Accompanying me on this July visit was Emily, BFF extraordinaire and fellow Swedish-ancestry claimant, all the way from the States. We only had three precious days in which to explore Stockholm before I had to head back to London and she “had to” continue on to Copenhagen and then the fjords of Norway. We hadn’t seen each other in 9 months – a fully-baked baby could’ve gestated in that time! – and were really looking forward to getting some one-on-one catch-up time while also touring a new city.

Upon arrival, Emily was understandably jet-lagged after her trip across a whole ocean; I was completely exhausted for reasons I cannot explain except that flying out of anywhere that is not Heathrow saps one entirely of energy and of desire to interact with people ever again. Gatwick is particularly hard work, and poorly laid out, to say the least. But enough complaining, because I was finally in the same place as one of my dearest friends, in a country I’d dreamed of seeing my whole life, and we were going to rally, so help us, Thor!

Upon landing at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, everything was seamless. Signage was mercifully in English, or else so festooned with icons that it would’ve been hard to misunderstand. As I snuggled into the clean, quiet, gleaming train car of the Arlanda Express, I closed my eyes in the ambient lighting and smiled as I was lulled to sleep. No one chatted on their cell phone, glared at each other, ate food, or clipped their toenails. This was not one of New York or London’s outer-borough trains.

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I mean, this place…it’s called the Venice of the North for a reason. Also, hat tip for that awesome typography.

Our first half-day consisted of meandering our way down to the old town, Gamla Stan, from our centrally located hotel in ritzy Östermalm (all of Stockholm is expensive and prices were comparable across central neighborhoods, so why not have gorgeous old buildings around you?) to see the scene and have a drink and food. In Gamla Stan and beyond, the buildings are painted serene but upbeat colors, and everything is incredibly clean and well-maintained. It’s like a newer-looking Prague, but that’s not even a fair comparison.

 

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“First we eat, then we do everything else.” Amen to this sign in Gamla Stan.

 

Then dinner at The Flying Elk , which was delish, and then bed because we’re old and had stuff to do the next day. Which brings me to The Vasa Museum!

This is the Vasa, a less-than-seaworthy vessel that was built in Stockholm (ordered by the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, a fact I had to include because that name is everything) and launched into the harbor in 1628, only to sink after going a whole 1,300 meters out to “sea” aka still in Stockholm. Awkward. They salvaged it, in a complex and multi-step process, 333 years later. It now sits in its own custom-built museum, where curators cross their fingers that the wooden ship won’t immediately deteriorate.

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Jokes aside, even though it sank because it was not properly weighted in its design, the Vasa is still a marvel to behold. The detail is remarkable; a lot of work went into this warship, which is the only surviving example of a 17th-century ship. Because she sank when she was newly built, and lay enveloped in Stockholm’s polluted waters, the bacteria that would normally eat away at wood weren’t able to survive.

The museum goes into even greater detail, of course, about everything from the crew’s diet to the souls lost when the Vasa sank, to the inquest and more recent salvage efforts as well as conservation efforts. The Vasa Museum is a fascinating and niche window into 17th-century life and the world of ships, so a must-do for a visit to Stockholm (I know anyone going knows this, as it’s in every guidebook ever, but in case you needed anecdotal evidence… that’s what I’m here for).

After so much learning, Em and I steered ourselves to Djurgården, a green, leafy, suburban-esque part of the city for some rosé and a hearty but Stockholm-priced (read: extortionate) salad at the cafe at Flickorna.

 

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How do you say “nom noms” in Swedish? Still dreaming of this salad though.

 

Then we did a Royal Canal Tour of the city. Embarrassing admission: I did not know Stockholm was a canal city before I went. I vaguely understood that it was on the water, but I didn’t realise quite how much it relies on its waterways and how integral they are to the lifeblood of the city. Apparently (thanks Wikipedia), Stockholm is approximately 30% waterways and 30% green spaces, which means that the other 40% is stunning buildings, gilded park entrances (see below), and really really ridiculously good-looking people.

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This is the entrance to the regular ol’ public park. Originally it had been the entrance to the royal hunting grounds or something (sorry for forgetting the actual history), but now it’s for everyone. Badass level: 100.

After the gorgeous canal tour, we decamped to the hotel to prepare for dinner and a night out. The sun was still out at 9:30pm and came back up at 3:30am as we were heading home, seriously confusing my Circadian rhythms.

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Evening drinks at Stureplan. It’s about 8:30pm in this photo.

On our final day, we went to the Fotografiska Museet to see photographic exhibits, which is right on the water in a place called Stadsgården. Bryan Adams (yes, the “Cuts Like a Knife”/”Summer of ’69” Bryan Adams) is apparently now a photographer, and a pretty good one at that.

We walked over to Gamla Stan again to wander around and get some food, then ended our trip with a glass of champagne in the Grand Hotel Stockholm overlooking the harbor and dinner at Nybrogatan 38, which was conveniently located right across from our hotel so that when we were so full of food we could’ve rolled home, we could actually…just roll home.

Emily’s flight to Copenhagen was early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes before falling asleep, avoiding our usual goodbye routine of silent crying in an elevator with strangers after we leave each other. En route to the airport on the metro the next morning, I helped an elderly lady bring her luggage on board before the doors closed, and she began talking to me in Swedish at a clip. I didn’t want to interrupt her, but I was desperately trying to find my moment to tell her I didn’t speak a word of Swedish. When I finally did tell her, she smiled and seamlessly switched into near-perfect English and we chatted about New York, London, Stockholm — all cities she loved and in which had spent considerable time. She was going to visit her son in the country, and couldn’t find a cab in time, so was on the metro, or T-bana, and had forgotten how involved it was when one had luggage.

We exited at the same stop, and I helped her get her bag up to the regional train area. We parted ways, and though my trip was at its end, I was greatly cheered by this wonderful interaction with a stranger in a country that my ancestors called home. This was my first foray into Scandinavia, but I’m already anticipating the next one.

 

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Emily in Gamla Stan.

 

 

 

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DAM What A City

As you can tell from my entirely unique and creative title, I recently visited Amsterdam, and The Netherlands, for the first time. By “recently”, I mean months ago, and I’m slow to post things in a timely manner. I was meeting up with my name-twin, Meredith, and her two friends, Annette and Allison. After scouting an Airbnb in Jordaan, a lovely and comparatively quiet section of the city, we had all been so caught up in work that we didn’t plan out our short weekend visit. So upon arrival, we did what anyone would do: fuel up on Dutch cheese, bread, grapes, hummus, non-Dutch wine, and other snacks while we sketched a plan. Top to-dos were the Rijksmuseum, bicycling around, seeing and walking the canals, popping into the Red Light District, and the Stedelijk Museum of modern art. We did all of that and more, dodging the always-active bike lanes with the nimble legs of current and former New Yorkers who don’t want to die but also think they can make it across the street in time.

And in case anyone was wondering, the cheese was everything I had hoped it would be. In the airport on my way back, I bought an aged Dutch cheese that cost me an extortionate 23 euros, and I’m not even sorry. It was beyond delicious and worth every penny (as well as the boring but cheap meals at home I endured thereafter to compensate for this brazen purchase).

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The gorgeous Rijksmuseum
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Canal view
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A carved prayer walnut which was unbelievably detailed and got us all wondering about work ethic and sun-less workshops in the Dark Ages.
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Bitterballen, essentially a Dutch croquette. Obviously, I ate them too fast and burned my tongue and whole palate because self-control is not a thing that I do well.
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A rich Dutch lady wore this monstrosity to her wedding. Pros: crowd control, knocking down people you don’t like but had to invite, avoid husband (?), Cons: movement, looks uncomfortable, will never wear again
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Taking in some art

A Jaunt to Gib (and Spain)

For the Easter holiday, I was invited to an old family friend’s home in the south of Spain, in a town where I spent my summers as a child and teenager visiting with my family. The surroundings were therefore familiar, but I did something on this trip I’d never done as an adult – properly explored Gibraltar, the English-held colony on the tip of the Iberian peninsula. Normally, we flew into “Gib” and drove across La Linea, the literal line separating the territory from Spain, or otherwise flew into Malaga, bypassing Gibraltar port entirely.

Gibraltarians have their own culture and unique Spanglish dialect, able and inclined to flit seamlessly between the two. It feels like a little island apart from Spain and yet so ingrained in the local life that I came away thinking of it as entirely separate even from the UK. I certainly didn’t feel I was in London after hiking to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar via the switchbacks of the Mediterranean Steps and looking out over the 360-degree view of Gibraltar’s harbor and beyond to Morocco and the rest of the African continent.

 

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The view from the top of the Rock of Gibraltar.

 

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Billy forges ahead on the trail to the top.
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Gib Harbour.

 

Aside from exploring Gib, we also spent some quality time on the long stretches of beach for which the Costa del Sol is famous.

 

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Walking towards the Rock from Sotogrande.

With a larger group of family friends, I attended Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in the nearby town of San Roque. Though we’d often referenced them, I hadn’t been to see the Semana Santa festivities since I was small, and hadn’t realized quite how much effort both in advance and on the day of goes into the celebration. Parishioners literally shouldered burdens to commemorate Jesus carrying the cross – in this case, those burdens were elaborately constructed floats that barely fit the tiny, hilly streets of San Roque. Carrying the floats is considered an honor and a penance for one’s own sins. It’s taken very seriously by the participants, who vary in age from about 6-7 years old (who don’t carry anything but candles) to teenagers and middle-aged men and women, separated by gender and arranged by height. Many of those who carried the floats appeared to be in significant pain or discomfort but didn’t utter a word of complaint.

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They took a short break every 20 minutes or so…
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…but then were back to the heavy lifting.
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One of the ornate and heavy floats in the uphill parade.

 

After watching the parade for a while, we settled into some tapas at a nearby restaurant and did some catching up, sharing news and stories over croquettas, tortilla, olives, and Rioja. After snagging some churros from a stand in a nearby park, we called it a night. Those of us that live in London shuffled to Gib airport the next day, feeling reluctant to leave the sunshine and sea air behind. We stood on the airport’s balcony, leaning forward towards The Rock to feel the last rays of sun on our faces before we committed ourselves back to London’s rainy springtime skies. Hasta la proxima, España!