Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

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Turning Swedish

…continued from Upp & About

view of Lake Malaren from Drottningholm Palace

With a free pass to almost every museum and attraction in the city, I managed to browse through a lot of fine art, antique curios, and royal knick-knacks over the next few nippy days. I got a sense of this Baltic state’s rich maritime past at the Vasa museum, an impressive purpose-built structure sheltering the wreck of what was then the Swedish Titanic (mortalities notwithstanding, the movie would have been more of a comedy than a tragedy however, as the warship sank after sailing less than a mile).

The risen Vasa occupies its own museum where one can marvel at its size and detailed carvings

At Millesgarden, the home-turned-museum of famed sculptor Carl Milles on the island of Lidingö, mythical figures stand and soar amidst lush gardens and fountains. While exploring the grounds of Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish Royal family, I realized that I had flown roughly 13 hours far west for the chance to admire the Kina Slot, a Chinese-inspired royal pavilion built in 1753 when everything from the Far East was all the rage. One installation that stood out among the modern masterworks and architectural marvels at the adjoining Museums of Modern Art and Architecture, was a hot mess of ketchup bottles scattered around the floor, their sticky red contents sandwiched between 30 plates of glass.

views of Millesgarden

Waiting for the train is no dull experience at Stockholm’s art-laden subway stations. Each stop is designed around a certain theme

Edifying and interesting those worthy displays of high aesthetics may be, one eventually hankers for something edgier but still accessible. Fortunately a Swedish architect friend pointed out a must-see that was literally below my very nose – the Stockholm Metro. A number of stations are designed and decorated in very striking themes, making the subway lines some of the longest art galleries in the world. From Viking patterns at Rinkeby, a pastel-colored timeline of world history at Rissne, to a psychedelic mix of actual ancient castle ruins and pop art at Kungsträdgården (my favourite), there’s probably  a station to everyone’s tastes. But try not to get too distracted by the dramatic surroundings, especially at the more remote stops, or you may lose more than just your sense of direction.

Both Sweden and the Philippines celebrate their National Days in June, so because of these special occasions, I was able to peek into parts of Stockholm which would normally be beyond ordinary tourists. On Swedish National Day, the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan is opened to the public for free, with puppet shows and free hotdogs for all in its broad central square. Swedes swarm the streets to get a glimpse of the royal family as they parade through town. For the Philippine Independence Day reception I trooped to the city’s edge at Djursholm, a seaside private enclave for diplomats, pop stars and tycoons. Some stately residences occupied entire islands unto themselves, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the archipelago.

Malmö’s pride, Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso

But I ended up going even further out of my way, far beyond Stockholm, just to check out one bridge and one building. It may seem counter-intuitive to fly down to Copenhagen, Denmark to be able to go back up to Malmö, Sweden, then cross back south to Copenhagen Airport to catch a flight up north back to Stockholm. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing. All this criss-crossing was to marvel at (and photograph) Calatrava’s Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, famed for its 90 degree twist; and also to go over (both ways!) the Öresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe and the longest border crossing bridge in the world.

Some natives of Stockholm and Copenhagen (among other places) may have none-too-flattering opinions of Malmö, but even they have to admit that the city has come a long way from its glum industrial past as a peripheral port. It stands as a lesson for Manila’s city planners (do they even try?) that an iconic structure that is part of a well-planned development can revitalize an otherwise moribund district and improve the image of a tarnished city with positive international buzz.

continued in next entry, Bye to the Baltic

The Oresund bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen

Upp & About

…continued from Stockholm When It Sizzles.

Uppsala Cathedral, Scandinavia’s largest, in the rain

Walking around Uppsala

I guess Loki himself took charge of raining on my parade as the next day, the thermometer plunged 10 degrees, the skies grew overcast, and chill winds from the Arctic blew down to the Baltic. Thus began the coldest June in Sweden in the last 100 years. Just my luck. Now I finally understood these northerners’ love affair with warm sunlight, a commodity we Filipinos are practically raised to shun. But cold and wet was more how I’d imagined Sweden anyway, and this was an opportunity for a more contemplative expedition. So we took the train up north to Uppsala, Sweden’s religious (both pagan and Christian) centre. As a city, Uppsala is quieter and more academic than its more prominent sister down south, sort of like the Bibi Andersson to Stockholm’s Liv Ullman. Its rich heritage is well represented in the opulent displays at the Domkyrka (Uppsala Cathedral), Scandinavia’s largest; and Uppsala University, Scandinavia’s oldest. The cupola-topped Gustavianum shelters the world’s best-preserved anatomical theatre and cabinet of curiosities from the 17th century. Monuments to such notable natives as diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld and scientist Carolus Linnaeus also figure prominently in the city. A sweet treat and cup of fresh brew amidst dreamy-eyed students at Ofvandahls, a 130 year-old cafe, is the perfect capper to a jaunt round this university town.

Even the escalators at the world’s largest IKEA store are not spared as a venue to display this couple’s desire, to expand their nursery maybe

The next day wasn’t any warmer so we decided to salvage it with some retail therapy. At only around 6 Philippine Pesos to 1 Swedish Kroner, Stockholm turned out to be one of the most cost-effective European capitals I’d ever swiped my credit card in. This being the birthplace of Ikea and H&M, one can hardly visit without at least a peek into these shopping institutions. Swedish design from fashion to furniture has clearly vaulted to the top ranks of style setters’ esteem and so everything on sale was a guiltless good deal even in this time of crisis. I scored an awesome find for Father’s Day with a half-off watch by Axcent of Scandinavia and bath accessories from Hemtex to make Mom merry.

Wallets lighter, the long daylight hours still left enough time for more touristy clichés. This meant a trip to Stockholm’s soaring Kaknas tower for splendid views of the city and archipelago. At the foot of the tower stretch forests and fields, formerly part of a shooting range. An eerie vista of swaying wildflowers leads to the pet cemetery, the quiet calm making my hair prick up as the theme to Tales From the Darkside played in my head. That is, until some cross-country racers zipped by from out of nowhere, almost knocking us off the woodland path. Acting for all the world like Alice’s White Rabbit bounding off with an “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”, alarmingly fit Swedes of all ages ran around willy-nilly as they consulted their maps, watches and GPS, all while trying to avoid my click-happy camera’s sights. We ended up following them out of the woods on to a vast meadow filled with more racers and runners in addition to the odd horse-riders and kite-flyers — a wholesome, well-adjusted Wonderland if there ever was one.

Drottningholm Palace, the residence of the Swedish Royal family

continued in next entry, Turning Swedish

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Stockholm When It Sizzles

…continued from Sweden: Almost Asgard.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

First stop was Kungsträdgården (Swedish for “King’s Garden”). Filled with lightly dressed promenaders making the most of their walking and tanning time, this sprawling central park has something for every season, an ice rink in the winter, cherry blossoms in the spring, concerts and events in the summer. The outdoor cafes were all open, offering refreshing drinks and snacks, and unappreciated shade to park-goers while the going was good. With the gentle sunlight and fresh cool breezes of early June, you feel like you can walk the whole city for hours with just an occasional break for meatballs.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

I had yet to partake of a proper meal by then so I besought my guide to bring on the balls! We crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan, the city’s olden heart, where I was determined to make my hunger hold out until I could stuff my belly with the Swedes’ roundish meaty specialty (and I don’t mean babies this time). Unfortunately, we’d missed the lunch hour and so the kitchens of the more illustrious eateries had gone cold. But just down the main tourist drag, tucked in between shops selling postcards and horned Viking helmets, lay a charming little café that beckoned invitingly. In we went and their staff beamed with the pleasure of serving us. It was just the place for my first real meal in Sweden. The leather-bound menu was filled with Swedish-sounding dishes and the woodhewn interiors accented with Swedish-looking décor. Only one minor thing seemed slightly off. Based on their tight camaraderie and strong family resemblance, all the cooks and waiters seemed to hail from the same town, which by my best guess would be somewhere closer to Shanghai than Stockholm. As I enjoyed the yummy spheres of animal matter, I couldn’t help but wonder if they would do just as well wrapped in dumplings and dished out as dimsum. But dining there, deep in the ancient core of the Swedish capital, I was sure that when served with some gravy, lingonberry and the ever-present potatoes, these were balls that not even tennis legend Bjorn Borg would toss away. Reinvigorated by the meal, I had the energy to cross more bridges and climb a hill up to Bastugatan on Sodermalm, where I was treated to more lovely views from on high of charming Swedish architecture and sunbathing Swedes in various states of undress.

A film crew on a break from shooting a period scene at one of Skansen’s preserved traditional houses

Swedish meatballs

shrimp sandwich

With the weather getting hotter the next day, we tried to cool down by taking the ferry to Skansen. This extensive park is designed like an open-air version of “It’s a Small Sweden After All”, with transplanted historic houses and buildings from all over the country artfully arranged around typical Swedish flora, fauna and even craftspeople in traditional dress doing traditional things. I was impressed by the hugeness of the reindeer and the cuteness of the brown bear cubs, and couldn’t help but pay my respects to a majestic Siamese cat named (of course!) Bjorn Borg. But a lucky treat was stumbling onto a period film being shot right in the park. A heavy educational undercurrent runs through Skansen. Full of honest healthy fun it may be, but it’s also just not possible to walk through this outdoor museum without having learned something either scientific or historic. Most excursionists bring a picnic lunch or grab snacks from fast food stands but there’s a smartly appointed restaurant right in the middle, where you can gorge on smorgasbord or fussier cuisine, which is exactly what we ended up doing. Sipping cool sparkling water as the sun sweltered past the shade of the awnings, I made a quip about how much warmer it was than I’d wished, prompting my Swedish host to shush me in alarm. Apparently, such comments are heard as taunts by the Nordic Gods, and we would soon be in for it.

A potter at his wheel at Skansen

continued in next entry, Upp & About

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Sweden: Almost Asgard

Rush hour at Kungsträdgården metro station

Bleary from a restless night in Amsterdam, I boarded the extremely early morning KLM flight to Stockholm. I encountered a plane that was less than half-full, with the majority of my few fellow passengers being stereotypically calm, tall and blonde. Is this a portent of my days to come?, I mused. Was I about to wander into a real-life version of an Ingmar Bergman film set to ABBA songs, starring Greta Garbo as Pippi Longstocking and the Skarsgards as Vikings? If I drank enough aquavit and ate enough from a smörgåsbord, then jumped into a sauna, would the potent physiochemical reaction turn my Manila Bay black eyes to Baltic Sea blue?

The view of Riddarholmen from Sodermalm. The Riddarholmskyrkan, where Swedish monarchs are buried, towers over the Old Parliament Building and National Archives

I have to admit that Sweden is one of the more unlikely countries on my personal list of possible places to visit in my lifetime. It just seemed too up there and way too out there — the arctically stoic Scandinavians as exotic to us hot-blooded hispanicized Asians as we probably are to them — but that was before I knew any better. I’d had the pleasure to befriend some Swedes in Manila and they’d all been endearingly friendly, warm and welcoming, and now I had the chance to observe them in their natural environment.

A tree-lined path at the Drottningholm Palace gardens

As we descended onto Scandinavia, I wondered if my Holland haze had yet to fully dissipate since the richly emerald land masses below could, if you squint enough, pass for some parts of the Philippine archipelago. It was only as we approached the airport, which was surrounded by sprawling farmland and deciduous trees, that I began feeling pretty sure I wasn’t landing in Manila. Or was I?

As I shuffled into a relatively drab terminal that had seen better days, I wondered again if I hadn’t gone through the looking-glass right back to NAIA 1. Maybe my welcome to the capital of Scandinavia, among the first tier of the First World, land of Absolut and Volvo, may not be quite what I had envisioned. Were there cracks in the Tetra Pak?

A Hogvakten guarding the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan

Walking towards the exit, a series of larger than life-sized posters of Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Nobel lined the corridors as if to reassure us arriving passengers that yup, you’re in Sweden alright.

The airport-to-city bus helpfully displayed the temperature (a balmy 24 degrees Celsius) to confirm the sunny heat streaming through the windows, as furry brown bunnies hopped alongside us on the lush greenery spanning the highway. Where were the ice hotels and polar bears?, my tourist-from-the-tropics brain cried out. While my Swedish companion pointed out some royal estates and old cemeteries that we drove past as Stockholm-proper loomed, I was already wondering if I’d brought enough sunscreen to last the fortnight. But before I had any chance to get my bearings, we were already alighting from the bus at the central station, riding on the metro, dragging my heels and trolley wheels on a two-block walk, until I finally found a place to rest my weary suitcases again.

A nap then some strong coffee was all it took to make me feel ready to get out and explore. With the sun setting at almost 11 pm I knew I needn’t rush to catch the light. My thoughtful host had cleverly provided a week-long pass valid for use with almost all of Stockholm’s modes of transportation. As I flashed the pass at the calm, tall and blonde bus driver, Roxette’s opening line to their seminal Swedish hit Joyride (“I said hello, you fool…”) sparked through my musical memory circuits, and I smiled and thanked him with a sincerely grateful “tack!”

Sweden’s generous social benefits, including 16 months paid parental leave, help make encounters with rugrats such as these an unavoidable occurence around the country

At that odd hour, one thing caught my attention, or more accurately, I caught the attention of more than a few things — bouncing blonde blue-eyed baby things to be specific. I profess to no great fondness for human spawn, and I believe that they sense this perceived failing. Which is probably why as a group, they like to stare at me accusingly as if asking “how dare you not think I’m cute?” I’ve grown immune to this phenomenon among Filipino fetuses, but these Aryan infants were coming at me with a different tact and laser focus. And they were everywhere — strapped into backpacks, pushed in prams, bundled among the groceries. The Swedes were obviously getting it on, with competing teams of more and more attractive couples in a battle to breed the most beautiful babies. Whoever wins probably gets an exclusive Anne Geddes calendar, or maybe the cover of the next Cardigans album. Anyway, all of you fellow pedophobes have been warned.

continued in next entry, Stockholm When It Sizzles

Sun-loving Stockholmers by the waterfront at Riddarholmen

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