Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Stockholm: A picture-postcard city

Beautiful Stockholm.




THERE is nothing more comforting than the screeching of tyres on the runway and a little jolt back and forth.

It is that sound and feeling, not the assuring voice of the pilot or flight attendant that confirms you have safely landed on terra firma. 

“Welcome to Sweden,” said the waiting taxi driver with a broad smile on his face.

After 13 hours of flight, I was relieved that I was not going to spend time at Arlanda Airport before my arranged transport arrived to take me to my hotel in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. Airports, no matter how big and posh can be such boring places, and the niggling thought that one is in-between places can be sickening.

Well, at least for me.

I was in the Scandinavian or Nordic country on invitation by the Swedish Institute to look at some of its novel innovations meant to reduce greenhouse emissions and encourage sustainable living.

The taxi driver, a Turkish migrant, was kind enough to point out some important buildings on the way to the hotel, including the Nobel Museum.

I was booked at the First Hotel Reisen, an 18th century hotel situated in Gamla Stan or the Old Town.

The hotel overlooks a picturesque waterfront with white boats of varying sizes and shapes moored along the river.

About 200 metres from the hotel is the Royal Palace, a grand and imposing building with 600 rooms. 

Stockholm is a scenic city surrounded by water. Actually the city is made up of 14 islands connected by bridges, and one can even take a tour of the city by boat.

The city also has a well-developed and integrated transport system combining tramlines, bus lanes and bicycle lanes.

Every morning at breakfast during my short stay, I sat by a large window and watched the Swedes as they traveled to work. Many of them cycled.

The city also has an elaborate subway, and it is not just an underground tunnel, but an art gallery.

Large cruise ships, some as high as six stories can also be seen docked at various harbours in the city. Some vessels are so big that they appear to be part of the city blocks.

Stockholm is devoid of skyscrapers, which is by design, really. Few buildings rise above 10 floors. This provides a panoramic view of the landscape from various vantage points.

The city also has many green spaces, after all this is a country of tree huggers. Swedes place such great value on nature; they go to great lengths in protecting it.

And every citizen has the right to roam. No, I’m not talking about mobile phone connectivity. Rather, it means anyone can set up camp at any open space for a few days. This law is based on the belief that everyone must have access to nature.

Sweden is a land of freedoms and almost everything is subjected to a vote. In fact, Sweden was the first country to legalise same sex marriage in 1944, not surprising for a country that is deeply irreligious, as I was constantly reminded.

It is hard to define Swedes in terms of dress or music – I heard some Bob Marley and even some Paul Simon in the hotel restaurant and lobby. But no doubt, one of Sweden’s most popular contributions to the music industry is ABBA. The quartet were such a sensation, they have a museum dedicated to them.

Life in Stockholm

Life in Stockholm appears very beautiful, but also very uneventful and predictable. Every car stops at the red light, and the night is devoid of the sirens that characterise big cities.

Besides, the Swedes themselves seem very reserved and private people, showing little interest in strangers. It did not matter that I was the only black person in a restaurant; very few eyes rolled my way, which made me feel rather bad.

Discussing Nordic social trust and radical individualism in a journal, Henrik Berggren and Lars Tragardh predict that “…the world might be a more reasonable but also possibly duller place if it were inhabited solely by Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns.”

And I could not agree more.

And for all its beauty and serenity, Stockholm is a super expensive city, a fact that its residents will readily admit.

But that is not a huge problem in a country ranked by the World Bank as having the seventh highest per capita income in the world. The poor are far fewer here. I did come across three or four women begging on the streets and when we visited one of the poor areas, a colleague from Estonia had to ask how “poor” was defined in Sweden.

The Old Town

One remarkable thing about Stockholm is how the old masonry has been preserved and blended with the new.

The Old Town, with its cobbled narrow streets and medieval alleyways between centuries’ old buildings is really a remarkable place and attracts hundreds of tourists every day.

The town, which dates back to the 13th century, is like an open air museum with many curio shops that sell memorabilia of all kind, including Viking helmets and Viking dolls. 

Some buildings in the Old Town are as old as 700 years. Most of them have undergone some form of modernisation such as being fitted with electric door locks for card entry, but their original architecture has been maintained.   

Gamla Stan is such a welcoming place and gives one the feeling of going back in time many centuries.

One frigid evening, we sat in a pizzeria located on the ground floor of a seven centuries old building. The room looked like an old mine tunnel with an exposed woodwork and Spartan furniture.

It is here where I met Safi, a handsome chatty young Afghan man who migrated to Sweden nine years ago, and now works at the pizza shop.

“The Swedish people are good people,” he said after laying a plate of sizzling peperoni pizza before me.

“Maybe out of 5,000, you can find only one Swedish who is racist, but they won’t show it,” he said with a middle eastern accent.

Safi’s statistic may not be accurate, but Sweden has a large number of migrants. A large community of Somalis and Iraqis now call Sweden home, while the current immigrant crisis in Europe has brought many Syrians to the borders of the Nordic country.

Inevitably, the migrant crisis has become topical among Swedes and clearly not everyone is welcoming to the newcomers.

Two days after I met Safi, a school teacher and a pupil were killed in a racially-motivated knife attack.

I wonder if Safi changed his opinion about the Swedes after that.

During my short stay in Stockholm, I added two words to my vocabulary: fika and tack.

The two small words mean a lot to the Swedes. Tack means thank you, while fika, put simply, is a coffee break, although it seems to have more meaning among the Swedes than just sipping on a brew made of roasted bean seeds - brotherhood, perhaps.

 “Tack,” I said to the taxi driver after he dropped me at Arlanda Airport.


* Here is a tip for men when you are flying abroad, put on a tight fitting trousers that does not require a belt to hold your waist. It saves you the trouble and embracement during those annoying but necessary security checks.

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