Thursday, 18 December 2014

A Weekend in Stockholm: Part 1

It's strange how the act of travel so frequently defies our expectations. Rarely does a country feel precisely as we imagined it, and no matter how many stories we've heard or photos we've seen, nothing compares to living and breathing the real thing. One thing I've learned from travel is that no country or city is a fixed constant, that they are always evolving, and places never feel quite the same when you return to them for a second or third visit. I think part of this is physical change - change of weather, new buildings, fashion trends, and so on - but the traveller's internal changes can also have a marked effect on the surroundings. Your mood, your energy, your circumstances...these can change the atmosphere or quality of a place in immeasurable ways.

Where am I going with this? Well, before this journey, if you'd listed the thirteen countries Angela and I would visit, and asked us to guess at which one we would feel the strongest culture shock, we would probably have said, I don't know, India? Maybe Cambodia? One of the poorer, more backward countries for sure. Never would we have expected it to be Sweden. Yep, that perfectly progressive, safe, modern, ultra-clean northern European country, perhaps among the least likely nations to inspire feelings of cultural alienation in the western traveller. Of course, the thing we've learned about culture shock is that the nationality or culture you yourself grew up with is only a small part of it. What's just as important is the nation or culture you've most recently been spending a lot of time in. For example, a Japanese person may feel culture shock in Paris if that's the only foreign city they've been to in a while, but let them spend a month in London or Brussels or Berlin first, and chances are that Paris won't phase them one bit. It's all about what you've acclimatised to.

With that in mind, consider the fact that we'd just spent about three weeks traveling through northern India. We were finally starting to get used to the endless filth, the noise and the traffic, the touts and shopkeepers bothering us on every corner, the infinite chaos of it all, and then BOOM, in comes Stockholm with its spotlessly clean streets, its orderly traffic, its quaint European architecture, and its socially reserved citizens. Who would ever imagine that this small northern capital could club you round the head with such savage averageness? Asia had disappeared into the abyss, and we were left floating in some strange place called Europe. How can there be no cows, tuk-tuks, or huge piles of trash in the middle of the street? we thought. And why are those cyclists and motorcyclists wearing helmets? What is this madness?!

To be honest, we're so adaptable at this point that the shock only lasted for one day. After that, things felt relatively normal. But boy, that first day, we were blown away by Stockholm's medieval churches and castles, the picturesque storefronts and cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan, and all the charming canals and waterfronts. I'd been to Stockholm before, and before I moved to Korea I was actually getting bored of European cities, particularly those in the north. So it just goes to show what a difference two years in Asia can make. This time round, the city bewitched me in a way it simply never could during my first visit.

As for why we chose to stop off at Sweden on our route back to England? One of my best friends, Nick, has lived in Stockholm for a few years now with his girlfriend, Ulrika. I hadn't seen him in two years, and flights from India to Stockholm via Dubai were relatively cheap for the distance covered. It seemed a no-brainer that we stop there for a few days to pay them a visit. We were especially thankful that they let us stay at their apartment while we were there. Stockholm is ridiculously expensive and we're glad we didn't have to pay for accommodation. Those beers, though, man!

From Delhi, we took an evening plane to Dubai for a brief layover before continuing to Stockholm. I forgot to mention that this all happened around mid-October of this year. It's really taken me a long time to get round to posting about it!
We only stopped in Dubai for a few hours, not long enough to visit the city. However, at the airport we did get a small taste of its opulent and artificial Las-Vegas-meets-the-Middle-East vibe.

Going for a brief walk outside. It was pretty damn hot, even at night.
After sleeping for most of our seven-hour flight, we arrived in the much cooler climes of Stockholm Arlanda Airport.
Passing some autumnal countryside as we took the bus into the city.
Arriving in Stockholm itself.
Nick met us during his lunch break, and let us into his and Ulrika's apartment. I got to play Nick's Xbox One, the first time I played video games in two years. Later that evening, we enjoyed a delicious homecooked meal and wine with our two friends, who were excellent hosts for our entire stay. Nick and I go a long way back, and I've known Ulrika for quite some time too, so it was wonderful finally reuniting with them after all this time apart. Getting to introduce them to my amazing wife was the icing on the cake!
We gave them some souvenir gifts we'd bought on our travels, including a Rajasthani turban, some handcrafted pillowcases, and a Nepali flute.
The next day, while Nick and Ulrika were at work, Angela and I explored Sweden's beautiful capital city. After eight months travelling in the humid tropics of Asia, It would take us some time to get used to actual cold weather again.
We first explored Gamla Stan, the city's historic heart.
Enjoying some morning coffee at a charming cafe. Sweden is one of the world's largest coffee consumers, and there are cafes like this one everywhere.
In a Viking-themed store I found these old runes.

Gamla Stan is filled with these picturesque, multicoloured buildings.

An old telephone booth.

Watching the changing of the guard at Stockholms slott or Royal Palace.

If you've got money to spend, Stockholm is a shopper's paradise, with so many unique stores on offer.

This sci-fi bookstore displayed models from famous sci-fi movies.

Apparently you can learn Dothraki.

Stockholm exists across several islands and peninsulas, so you constantly feel like you're exploring an archipelago of different districts.
Soon we came to the more modern district of Norrmalm.

Drottninggaten is a busy pedestrian street lined with fashion stores. Angela dragged me into about a dozen or so. Par for the course.
A charming flower market.
At Kulturhuset or the Culture House.

As evening approached, we paid a quick visit to Fotografiska, the Photography Museum.

That evening, we met up with Nick and Ulrika to watch a presentation at a bookstore in town.
Beer in a bookstore.
The presentation was on the history of the record industry. Among the many interesting things we learned about were these strange things.
Browsing vinyls.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2!

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