[Travel] Meditations on Stockholm, Sweden

By Frankey


14 October 2017

Most people tend to ask me about the one highlight of Stockholm (Sthlm), the most memorable thing that I take away from having spent just a little over two weeks here, and perhaps the biggest highlight is that there can be no single distillable thing that impresses me about Sthlm. Deciphering one thing that stands out about any place abroad is typically a futile pursuit, so tragically characteristic of our too-quick, too-on-demand, too-time-poor approach to life.

Which is why Sthlm is a place to be commended for its ability to inspire instead an ensemble of delights, captivating from every angle and perspective, equal parts intrigue and enticement (but certainly not without its faults).

I’m smitten.

Extracts from my journal

Observations on the weather

So it seems that the weather appears insufferable in all seasons except Summer. The days are cold, windy, and wet, with slight respites of sun throughout.

Observations on the cost of living

Stockholm is gentrified to the point of a $10 oat milk, triple shot flat white. Although, pre-brew-filled urns are available at your leisure. Table service rarely exists outside of restaurants, replaced instead with the simple “order when you’re ready” concept.

As a result, I wouldn’t say that there’s much of a dining culture in Sthlm. Eating out can be so exorbitantly expensive that it’s hindering. Restaurants and cafes generally offer what’s known as a “Dagens Lunch” which is a discounted version of the dishes they serve for dinner, typically with set menu options so as to entice you to buy at least something. Even then, the average price of a “Dagens Lunch” will set you back approximately $15AUD. When it comes to food, there is a lot of room for growth and innovation.

Observations on public transport

Efficient, but expensive. A 24-hour pass sets you back 120SEK (approx $20AUD), which must be topped onto your access card. Keep to the right. Don’t be too loud. Probably don’t even talk at all. Avoid eye contact.

Stockholm is still by relative standards, a small city, both geographically and socio-economically. The majority live in the centre, but there’s little hesitance among many others to live just outside the skirts and cop the minor commute. Main parts of the city are generally accessible on foot, with perhaps 45 minutes between central and Södermalm at the best of times.

Observations on nicotine

Nicotine highs are for the most part (more specifically among men) accessed through snus pouches wedged delicately between one’s incisors and top lips, smokeless, inconspicuous, and creepingly intense. They’re typically bought in plastic “cans” that resemble flat containers generally associated with hard-candy or avant-garde makeup. Snus is also very widely known to rot your teeth and in heavy-use cases, burn a hole through your gums. Many express their desire to quit. Some do it with artificial snus. Others do it with nicotine gum.

Smoking cigarettes remains somewhat prevalent, and it’s not uncommon to see smokers on the street. In 2015, 9% of the male population smoked daily, compared with 19% who used snus. Of the Swedish women who smoked, 11% smoked daily while 3 percent used snus (Public Health Agency of Sweden, 2016) (noting of course that this study does not appear to articulate the views of those who do not identify with either the male or female gender).

Observations on people

Stockholmers are nice, if not just a little too reserved to make the first move or initiate conversation in public spaces. Once they get going though, they’re incredibly wonderful and open. It can take a few drinks before they really open up, and Nytorget in Södermalm is a testament to that – stroll up to a random bar at about 9pm on a weekday and you’ll generally make yourself some friends.

Interacting with store clerks does appear to feel like abnormal behaviour, with many offering only a simple greeting, subconsciously averse to any additional banter that might extend beyond the expertise of the clothing on sale or what might be considered the agreed boundaries between vendor and consumer.

People here are particularly active. Trips to the gym are common. So is running. Cycling is the preferred mode of commute for many, regardless of the weather. Obesity is extremely rare, if not completely unrecognisable.

Observations on fitting in

Even after a few days, I can already sense this innate pressure from locals to live a life embedded in some level of conformity. It’s the embodiment of the Law of Jante, which pervades Nordic life and roughly describes a pattern of group behaviour that stigmatises individual success and achievement as something to be shunned. Everyone is in it together, so to speak.

It’s the kind of unified mentality that inspires such a government-approved thing like having everyone get paid on the same day of the month, regardless of where they work; a national pay day that inevitably leads to copious droppings of funds over the proceeding days.

This is also a city so intrinsically spurred by paternity welfare so as to create for itself the demonym latte papa as the representation of a well-to-do fresh father, typically well-styled, well-groomed, and glowing, sipping his eponymous beverage in the company of inaugural mothers and fathers and babies.

Observations on style

The Law of Jante is subtly portrayed in the realm of fashion, too – arguably the most subconscious representation of one’s societal values. In this way, I feel I must be controversial in saying that fashion in Sthlm feels unapologetically monotonous: washed in tones of black and black. Melbourne is guilty of this in its most hipster quarters, it’s true. But here in Sthlm, it’s penetrative across all age groups and districts.

The hospitality industry remains convinced to serve you while adorned in appropriately branded black t-shirts that are, for the most part, disappointingly unoriginal and uninspired for Stlhm’s expectations and representations.

Furthermore, Stockholmers purchase perhaps more Macbooks per capita than many other cities’ residents around the world, because, for whatever reason, it’s positively fashionable to sit at a cafe, whip out your Macbook for a bit, do something (that looks like maybe work to the common tourist), drink your $7 coffee, eat your kanelbulle (or kardemummabullar), and leave in perfect Scandinavian style.

Observations on gender-equality

For all the proclamations from Sthlm on the progression of gender equality and such, I still struggle to see the prevalence of the platonic mixed gender friendships that would otherwise arguably be the artefact of such a social construct, because yeah at the end of the day, gender norms push and oppress from all sides of international media, social media, American values, “reality TV”, perpetuating the imbalance of men over women on the subconscious, and it’s unfortunate. Clusters of teenagers fill the empty spaces of marked meeting points throughout the city centre, predictably grouped by gender, devoid of any overt desire to be gender-equal.

Men still get paid more than women; according to many accounts, men habitually don’t use condoms – pushing their preferences over women to the point of discomfort; they still roam in packs and they continue to objectify women in much the same way the Western world continues to maintain this disease, avoiding the necessary yet obvious treatment they know will take years, if not decades to repair, and so will never start.

I can’t quite see the gender-equality here across fashion, either (there are however sprouting enterprises such as Hope Fashion with its garments sporting both male and female sizes that are bucking that trend); males dress stereotypically male (dark monotonous blacks, whites, and greys), while females do likewise for what H&M defines is female vs. male – indeed perhaps this is the nail in the metaphorical coffin, at least at this particular juncture in time. For a brand that prides itself on being iconically, recognisably, even distinguishably Svenska, these values of gender neutrality, gender equality, and gender progression, are so far nowhere to be seen (or found).

A kind of conclusion…

In spite of it all, it’s much sooner here that the days begin to blend into each other again like they need to. It’s much sooner that I’ve started to develop an intimate connection with the names of the places and streets. It’s much sooner that I’ve forgotten the last time I wasn’t smiling. And it’s much sooner that I’ve started to feel at home.

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