Monday, June 18, 2012

Stockholm, Sweden (6/14/2012)

15:05, 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 was awakened on the morning of the 14th by the unpleasant shrieking of seagulls outside my dorm window, screaming like banshees for over an hour.  Suitably nautical at this island hostel.  I had slept in a while, and set off around 9:30 to get information about a boat ride later in the day, and attend a free tour at 10:00.
The free tour was a good choice as usual, although not as good as the others I’d had.  Perhaps that was because it takes so long to walk around Stockholm, since it’s spread across several islands.  But I learned a few cool facts:
  1. “Stockholm” translates as “log island,” which comes from a famous myth. The story goes that the Swedes who lived down the archipelago by the Baltic Sea decided to move their home further from Finnish pirates.  They loaded their silver and valuables into a hollow log raft and sent it floating down the archipelago, vowing to build their city wherever it landed.  Of course, the real reason for the location of Stockholm is strategic: it allowed them to tax any ships moving between freshwater of Sweden to the Baltic Sea.
  2. The name “IKEA” stands for the initials and address of its founder, who is the richest man in Europe.  IKEA subtly makes fun of Denmark, its rival country: the couches are named for Swedish cities, and the rugs for Danish ones.  The IKEA catalog is apparently read more commonly than the Bible, according to my guide.
  3. One of Sweden’s most famous monarchs, Christina, was gender ambiguous: they mistook her for a boy when she was born, and she later insisted on wearing boy’s clothes because they were more comfortable.  She secretly identified with the Catholic church, and therefore decided to abdicate the throne (which must be occupied by a Lutheran) and move to Rome.  There, she was very progressive in fighting for the religious freedoms of minority groups.  I don’t remember when she lived exactly.
  4. The Konserthuset in central Stockholm is where five of the six Nobel Prizes are awarded.  (The Peace Prize is given in Oslo, Norway, because Alfred Nobel thought Norway was a more peaceful nation than Sweden at the time.)  Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was mistaken for dead once and read his obituary in the newspaper, in which he was described as “the most evil man on Earth” for his creation.  Not wanting to be remembered that way (as he did not intend dynamite to be used for violence), he established the Prizes in 1896 to be his positive legacy.  He died in 1900, I think, and they were first awarded in 1901.  (The Prize in Economics was founded much later.)
  5. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who led during the 70s and 80s, was killed in 1986 by an unknown assassin.  Though a very popular leader, his foreign policy views were very controversial (he was very critical of US’s involvement in Vietnam, Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, etc.)  He liked to walk around town and take the subway without any bodyguards, so as to be most accessible to the common people.  It was on one such occasion when he was alone that he was murdered.  There’s something like a $1.5 million award for his identification.
  6. King’s Street in Stockholm was the site of their biggest celebration of V-E Day in 1945: hundreds of people flooded the street to cheer and celebrate.  In fact, there are financial records missing from the month of the celebration, because in all their excitement the bankers of that street used all of the paper records for confetti (the government cut them some slack.)
  7. Princess Victoria of Sweden recently married her personal fitness trainer, and they are expecting a child.
  8. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” has an interesting story: a famous criminal trying to rob a bank took several hostages inside the vaults and locked them all in for several days, holding them as ransom for his demands, including the release of his incarcerated accomplice.  The police unwisely decided to throw the accomplice in the bank with them, now leaving the hostages with two convicts.  After several days, the police got inside the vault, only to discover that the hostages had begun to empathize with their captors and understand their motives.  Though the bank robber was put in jail, the other one was left off free.  Today, several of the former hostages and their captors remain friends.
  9. The royal family of Sweden is actually French.  Gustav IV, who ruled around 1800, lost all of Finland to Russia.  The people kicked him out and sought out a new king, one who would build a strong military.  They approached Napoleon Bonaparte in search of candidates, and chose one of his officers, who took on a new Swedish name “Karl Johann.”  His family still holds the Swedish crown.
  10.   The Swedish Parliament is about 46% female, one of the highest percentages in the world.  
The tour guide (who was a twenty-something-year-old of Asian ancestry from Toronto) concluded by listing several reasons why he loved Stockholm and wanted to spend his life there, in an impassioned sugar-coated speech: “It’s a land where women have the same opportunities as men, but where women leave the toilet seat up after they leave as a courtesy to the men; where a man can marry whoever he loves regardless of their gender, and a woman can do the same; where men wear jeans tighter than the women’s, and more makeup than the women wear; where people are treated with equality.”  It struck me rather oddly that he could speak of the country with such ownership although he himself had only lived there for a year or two, spoke no Swedish, and hadn’t participated in making Sweden the “land of equality” that he so loved.  Then again, perhaps he represents a new phenomenon of our world: the ability of people to move to other countries and call themselves a native, without having full citizenship or knowing the language.  Europe has shown me that the definition of nationality is changing, and rapidly.
It was around noon, and I stayed in front of the Parliament to catch the Changing of the Guard, led by a marching band towards the Royal Palace.  Then I walked towards the Skansen Open-Air Museum, which was two islands over.  I accidentally took the wrong bridge and ended up only one island over.  Because it would take so long to walk, I forked out $6 to get a stupid boat ride a few hundred yards to the right island, leaving me rather frustrated with the city’s geography and high prices.  Like the National Historic Museum, the Skansen Museum was okay, but not great.  It was essentially a park filled with old Swedish buildings that had been relocated there from all over the country-- baker’s shops, a glass-blowing workshop, pottery, little cabins, a windmill, a tower-- and a small zoo of native Swedish animals, like wolves, elk, moose, and owls.  Two highlights for me were the seals, whose swimming was fun to watch; and the Sami hut, in which I met an indigenous Sami man who told me about their culture of herding reindeer in the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
My final plan for the day was quite simple: I took a 5:00 boat through the Stockholm archipelago to an island called Vaxhølm, walk around, and come back.  It was a beautiful ride past the many islands of the archipelago, first lined with the magnificent architecture of Stockholm and later many seaside cabins.  After an hour, we arrived at Vaxhølm.  I bought the cheapest dinner I could find (I had withdrawn more money for the day, and barely overestimated how much I would need for the day), and walked around the small island.  It was a quaint little island town, complete with a small park, a grungy dinner, and pretty little houses.  I walked around for about an hour, and then caught a bus back to Stockholm, since it was cheaper than the boat.
Having done everything I had hoped to in Stockholm, I headed to the hostel to review my travel plans for the coming day.  I sat in the social lounge/dining room working on my computer when I met a kind young family: Brian from the Netherlands, Fiona from Australia, and their one-year-old daughter Lily.  The family, visiting from Switzerland, had a conversation with me and then kindly offered fresh strawberries, yogurt, and delicious grapefruit soda.  I was delighted to meet such a fun and kind young family, to make faces at darling Lily, and to eat fresh fruit and other delicious foods I hadn't had in a while.  
   It was around midnight that realized an error I had made: basically, I had to take a bus most of the way, instead of trains.  This also meant I had to catch a 6:00 train the next morning.  At midnight, I prepared for an painfully early start.

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