Monday, June 18, 2012

The most delicious herring: Stockholm, Sweden (6/13/2012)

14:03, 17/6/2012.  I am riding a train from Myrdal to Oslo as I write this.  By tonight, I will be in Lillehammer, where I will begin my studies through the Peace Scholar program.
I got up very early on Wednesday the 13th to depart for Stockholm.  First I caught a one-hour train to Malmö, just a bridge ride away from Denmark; and then caught the next train to Stockholm, where I arrived at noon.  Stockholm, a city built across several islands next to the Baltic Sea, is a beautiful city, but a pain-in-the-ass to get around.  Although it wasn’t geographically far from the central train station to my hostel, it took me over a half hour since I had to take certain bridges.  I only minded this insofar as it forced me to spend most of my time getting places rather than being at places.  
I stopped at the Hostel STF af Chapman to drop off my things before seeing the town.  The hostel was very nautical: many of its rooms were actually cabins on a large white ship docked at the island shore, and the rest of the rooms were in a former navy building fifty feet from the island shore.  To my slight disappointment, I was assigned a room in the building instead of a ship cabin.  It was a very nice hostel, though a bit expensive, so I’d recommend it for visitors to Stockholm.
As I left the hostel to explore the town (it was around 1:00), it began to rain hard.  I quickly made my way to my first destination, my hair, glasses, and map becoming progressively more soaked.  I was very thankful to be wearing my trusty waterproof softshell jacket!  Finally I arrived at the Östermalm Saluhall, a giant ritzy indoor food market in a wealthy neighborhood of Stockholm.  (My Lonely Planet Stockholm book, a gift from the Drechslers, told me I had to go!)  It was a sensational place, its narrow aisles lined with 1880s wooden booths where vendors were selling fresh fish-- and I mean enormous, caught-an-hour-ago fresh fish.  You name a seafood, they had it, in twenty different varieties you’ve never imagined.  Along with fish and gourmet fish concoctions, there were booths selling breads, pastries, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, and every other food you’d find at a huge market.  As you can imagine, everything was quite expensive, but I trusted Lonely Planet that this was the place to get one awesome authentic Swedish meal.  So after a while of browsing, I found a restaurant with what I carelessly and erroneously calculated to have reasonable prices, and ordered a platter of herring from a very stereotypically Swedish-looking waiter.  Moments later, I was served a platter of bread and butter, which I devoured happily as I pored over my Lonely Planet guide and maps, planning the rest of my day.  Within minutes, the waiter returned with my meal, a plate of carefully-crafted servings of herring, rye bread and fancy cheese, and eggs with caviar.  It was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  The herring was sweet, each flavor slightly different but all delicious.  The taste of the caviar reminded me regular chicken egg yokes, but perhaps a bit more rich.  And, as I expect of any European country, the bread and cheese was better than in the States.  I ate slowly, savoring the flavors and taking in my fascinating surroundings.  Once I had finished, I was startled by how much my meal had cost-- over $20 USD.  Though slightly ticked at myself for calculating the cost so carelessly, I decided that I was happy to pay for one really great Swedish meal. 
It had stopped raining when I left the market, I resolved to walk to a nearby National History museum, since I had had such a great experience in the Danish National Historic Museum.  (On the way, I discovered that Stockholm has a public bike rental system like that in Copenhagen, but I didn’t use it: I would have had to buy a special electronic card to unlock the bikes, and it would have cost quite a bit.  The infrastructure for and popularity of biking is not as good in Stockholm as in Copenhagen or Berlin, anyway.)  The museum was okay, but not excellent.  I got a solid dose of Danish history since the arrival of Christianity, and a very cheesy education on prehistoric Sweden, which followed the lives and questions pertaining to fictional prehistoric characters portrayed by actors on large screens.  
The museum closed at 5:00, and I headed to the nearby Brevardhuset (is that the name?), home of the Royal Stockholm Radio Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir, to see if there were any concerts.  There were not, but I got a lot of good info on destinations, concerts, and bars with live music from the two young desk workers.  I walked back at the hostel to eat dinner (by that time it was 6:30), and later headed out to go explore Gamla Stan, the tiny historic island where Stockholm originated, and Södermalm, the large southern island home to all the vibrant youthful neighborhoods of Stockholm.  I was running low on cash as well (I had 45 kroner, about $6 USD) and I had decided to spend it up on a Swedish beer along my way (Sweden is not known for the alcohol it produces, but I wanted to find some, anyway.)
It took a half hour to walk to Gamla Stan, although it was the next island over.  I explored and took pictures of the Royal Palace, the Parliament building, famous churches, and a monument to kings Gustav Adolf (there were three or four of them, the namesakes of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.)  The island is lined by charming narrow cobblestone streets and medieval building one thousand years old, many of them now inhabited by sidewalk cafés and tourist shops.  From Gamla Stan, I wandered south to Södermalm, searching for a bar that was recommended to me at the hostel in Copenhagen, where I hoped to get a beer.  I found it, but the beer was far more than $6.  I found another nearby pub listed in Lonely Planet, but it too was too expensive.  The bartender kindly recommended what he believed was the cheapest bar in Stockholm (that can’t be good for business!), but it didn’t have Swedish brews within my budget.  By this time, I was feeling very lonely and stressed out about my pathetic financial situation, and felt rather depressed.  I started the hour-long walk to the hostel when I saw a Guinness sign by the door to a bar.  Naturally, I walked in: gotta love Guinness!  Of course, it was too expensive, but Falcon was exactly 45 kroner.  Desperate for company, I decided to stay and drink a Falcon, hoping for a conversation.  Sure enough, I struck up a conversation with a nice guy named David.  Now about thirty years old, he had been adopted from southern India when he was very young.  Now a nurse in southern Sweden, he was visiting Stockholm to see a metal concert.  We talked about culture, soccer, music, politics-- it was a quality time!  We parted ways at 11:30 or so, and I headed back to the hostel feeling about a million times better than I had before.
Travel notes:
  1. Stores in Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) close at 8:00 or earlier.  I found this interesting because in Decorah people joke and complain about this same issue.  Turns out that people like to spend time with their families instead of working until nine or ten-- who would have thunk!?  So, if you go to Europe and have an unfortunate addiction to retail therapy, get it done in the afternoon.
  2. I don’t think I mentioned this yet: find a grocery store.  Eating out all the time is expensive, particularly in northern Europe.  Buy a loaf of bread and some peanut butter or cheese (there all tastier in Europe anyway): it’s much cheaper, and it’ll serve as several meals.  Not to mention, visiting a foreign grocery store is a cultural experience!  I try to get an authentic meal in a restaurant once, and then eat cheaply.
  3. Don’t take Lonely Planet too seriously, although they have some good suggestions.
  4. I’m pretty sure I’m an extrovert, at the end of the day.

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