Monday, October 17, 2011

Stockholm: The Saga

I flew to Stockholm for Sukkot. By now I have the airport regimen down so well, I show up a bare fifteen minutes before my flight. The Bergen airport isn’t big enough to require more.

I spent the flight sandwiched between two ENORMOUS men. The first, who sat in the aisle, was simply tall and muscular. Then the window seat occupant arrived. It was Fezzik. He was so big, so enormously tall and with arms thicker than my legs, that I wondered how on earth he was going to fit into one seat. As he turned from side to side to buckle his seatbelt, his shoulders bulged up to fill the space. Then he subsided into his seat, arms folded, muscles sunk into themselves, and looked up, waiting for me to sit. Which I did, gingerly. And woke up half an hour later, even more gingerly removing my head from his elbow (that’s what it reached).

Upon walking into the Stockholm airport,  you walk straight through customs. The wall is covered in an enormous photo of Ingrid Bergman. “Welcome to my hometown,” she proclaims. What a welcome. Ingrid Bergman’s city: elegance and sexy mystique and that purring Swedish accent. Slowly, my ideals and ambitions trembled, shook, and fell with a crash. Now all I want is that the Columbus airport one day sport a picture of my face, saying “Welcome to my hometown.” With any luck, Montreal and DC will argue over the rights.

As the bus from the airport pulled into town, I saw Ryan Gosling on the sidewalk. Then I saw another one. And another. Wait, look, Brad Pitt! Not that I found him particularly exciting, compared to the Jude Laws moving purposefully over the Stockholm sidewalks. You see, all Swedes look like movie stars. They’re blond and chiseled and move with grace. That’s why sightseeing in Scandinavia is so much fun.

Stockholm is utterly beautiful. It’s the sort of noble-arabesqued-buildings-flanking-wide-boulevards-on-the-dark-busy-water city that some old European poet must have described better than
I can. Men three times the size of life rear up on horses pointing their swords so tourists know what direction to stagger in with their cameras held to their eyes which cut their memories of Stockholm up from a smooth stroll along the river into one hurried snapshot after another, a race against the other tourists walking between their lenses and the view. The sculpted faces on the buildings leer and grimace at the crowds in multi-colored stone. The river flashes granite-tipped indigo waves with ripples engraved finely on the surface. The dazzling low Stockholm sun sparks gleaming points of light into existence on the wharf, the water, the piles of dignified architecture with people streaming between them.
My friend Yael and I walked along the path on the island of Djurgarden. We picnicked on a dock near the enclosure where the king’s sheep are kept. Two men, rowing in a racing shell, clowned around near us. One of them yelled, in Swedish, “step on the gas!” We heard a clunk as the other pressed his foot down hard. As they passed us, they waved. “Heihei!”
“Hei-hei!” we shouted back. Everything is said here twice: “takk-takk! Ja-ja!” The Swedes are either deaf or super-polite.

The Vasa warship sank in the Swedish harbor in 1628, and was dredged back up and a museum built around it in 1961. The thing is massive, a huge pirate hull with ornate carvings and oppressively tall. The tour guide explained what everyone was dying to know: why it sank.
“It was built too top-heavy and too narrow. Twenty minutes after it was launched, a wind caught it and tipped it over.”
“So, three hundred years later they brought it back up and built a museum to celebrate their stupidity,” Yael whispered in my ear. And that was it for taking Vasa seriously.

One of the tour group raised their hands. “Maybe it was cursed.” No, you dumb-butt, she just said it was poorly constructed. Apparently human idiocy didn’t all drown in the Vasa; some survived well into the twenty-first century. The tour guide, however, smiled and nodded.
“Yesterday I was guiding a group of Catholic schoolchildren. They said it sank because it was about to be used against Catholic Poland in the Thirty Years War.” Gotta love those Catholic kids.

There are three synagogues in Stockholm, and they have much less security than the Oslo Jewish center. One had no guard outside, just a mezuzah and a small entrance. Another had an adorable little gate you could simply hop over into the yard with the sukkah. I spent the chag confusing the Chabad rabbi. He ever so nicely showed me how to shake a lulav, and I respectfully repeated the bracha after him. Then, a few hours later, while serving a platter of meat, he stopped short a moment across the table from me to listen to me argue an interpretation of Pirkei Avot in Hebrew. An amused smile spread across his face as he realized he’d guessed wrong (ah, frum! And living in Bergen?) and then continued down the table.

Yael blowing so the flag will catch wind
and I can take a picture
If I had a nickel for every time someone said "what are you doing in Stockholm?" "What??!! Bergen, Norway?!!!" I'd be making money in a very weird way (thank you Mitch Hedberg), and more importantly, I’d be rich. The rabbi of the Great Synagogue got a kick out of me, though that might also be two American accents greeting each other with relief in the wilds of Scandinavian inability to pronounce “th.” His is an interesting story too: it starts in KBY, meanders through performing gay marriages in Israel, and ends up in Stockholm leading a kehila of mostly old people. In, let it be said, the most gorgeous shul I’ve ever prayed in, albeit severely drafty.

On Saturday, walking home, we passed the changing of the guard at the King’s palace (the city one). A squad of four waited for their buddy to relieve the kid standing solemnly at his post. The two of them faced each other, and at the same moment sidestepped. In the same direction. Burning with embarrassed smiles, they stepped back and then did their intricate dance of switching properly. As the kid who was leaving his post turned with a half-pirouette to join his gang, his heel slipped a bit and his swivel turned into a lurch. Blushing furiously, he marched to his squad and they marched him off in step, likely to a disciplinarian’s office where he’ll be put on bread and water for three weeks for the heinous crime of amusing the tourists.

Living with a real Swedish family for five days was fascinating. The Mossessons live right by the Sykla river, so we walked along it, threading past joggers and old-lady power-walkers. In winter it freezes over and people go skating on the ice. There is also a ski-hill right by their house from which you can see all Stockholm. Miriam, Yael’s kid sister, taught me slang like “Ja-ba” (“Jag bare,” Swedish “I just,” slipped between every few words like an American teenager saying “like”), and that Norwegian is just granny Swedish (apparently saying “hyggelig” and calling girls “jente” went out ages ago). We listened to Ted Gärdestad and ABBA, and her parents grilled me about Jewish life in Ohio. I really have to get the number of the Columbus population tattooed in a hidden place so I can check it every time someone asks me. And then, you know, pray it never changes.

Yael is a good person to spend a three-day chag with. Most people besides my sisters would send me nose-diving into privacy after that much quality time, holing up in my own company for at least a week to recover, but she has the gift both of silence and the clever quip, so we settled into a quietly comfortable dynamic that didn’t grate.

At her father’s request, I made American pancakes Saturday night. Yes, apparently there is such a thing as American pancakes versus the rest of the world’s pancakes. Ours are fatter. Figures. Anyhow, after much fiasco with measuring (they wanted me to use cups labeled with “deciliters,” wth?), I produced true-blue Midwestern flapjacks, only a little extra salt, for their degustatory pleasure. Honestly, Americans may make real pancakes (you can’t call those limp Scandinavian crepe things “pancakes”) but Scandinavians know how to top them. Home-made jam, whipped cream, ice cream, chocolate syrup from real Swedish chocolate, it all flooded the pancakes and made them into fluffy edible plates (Rena, you’re the only one who’s going to get that one so I’m not going to offer proper attribution). We gorged ourselves and then watched Fight Club. To everyone who calls that a great movie, I’m simply going to say, “nuh-uh!” and let it stand. That argument’s at about the level of the movie. If you wanted a movie about societal materialism, don’t make the man a split-personality nutcase with a taste for gratuitous violence and a pathetic double like Brad Pitt (seriously, man, you’re Edward Norton and you want to be Brad Pitt?! Big hole in the movie’s logic).

Sunday we took a boat out to Drottningholm Palace, the palace the royal family actually resides in. The gardens meander on for miles of geometrically-pleasing shrubbery, and on the sides fade away into much pleasanter woodland beside a river (well, the trees were planted an uncannily regular distance apart, but every so often one revolted and wandered off the grid to create a more spontaneous landscape). The palace was huge and imposing, of course. The insides had enormous paintings on every surface, causing Sistine Chapel-like neck-ache and always, the nagging wonder of how they’d painted such large expanses of ceiling. We walked through the king’s bedchamber, where he borrowed a ceremony of the French and had people view his awakening. I found myself intrigued by the doors camouflaged into the walls on either side of the bed—to sneak mistresses in? Escape a revolution? A private library he wanted no prying eyes to see? The marble in the grand staircase proved to be painted on, and Yael and I found ourselves shocked when we realized that some of the bas-relief was, too. It looked extremely real. There’s some moral there, but I’ll let you worry about it.

Returning from Drottningholm, we made for Gamla Stan, flitting through the tourist shops and trying on Viking hats. A real live Viking ambushed us in the square, but I ducked adroitly around and turned to see him tell an impatient Yael that he could smell her fear, grr. She declined donating to his cause anyways. In the square between the king’s city residence and parliament, a woman shouted about belief in Jesus bringing heaven, but didn’t quite dare to offer the alternative through her megaphone; those who don’t believe in Jesus are bound for not-heaven instead of hell. In the shops, we sifted through troll knickknacks, Viking-shaped cheese slicers, and incredibly ugly trivets stamped with moose cutouts. I bought a Norwegian flag to hang in my room, and now that I’m packing realize it won’t fit in my bag. I’ll feel a right idiot carrying a flag through the airport. Thinking of other options… 

We walked back to Yael’s as the sun set over Stockholm, creating a lush watercolor backdrop for the stony hues of the river and city. At noon, the sun had been at its zenith, just high enough to slant directly into my eyes. Ironic that Scandinavia may be the place sunglasses are most necessary. Because the sun doesn’t rise very far, it’s a pain in the neck when it’s at its peak: perfectly eye-level. Still, while in Bergen I’ll wait to buy sunglasses—I don’t think there will be enough sunny days to really warrant the purchase.

I’m writing this in Arlanda airport. I navigated the adorably short-lined security without once showing ID (I love the Schengen countries), squirmed involuntarily as the guard tickled me horrendously by the metal detector, and passed through the ranks of bottles guarding the way through the duty free. Farewell to sunny Stockholm. A pile of work awaits my return in Bergen.

The Nobel Prize Building
She caught me mid-rueful laugh after I couldn't climb the horse
Stockholm at sunset

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent , bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did the sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

 (It could be about Stockholm, too). 


  1. Stockholm is one of my favorite cities and you have written beautifully about it. I am glad you enjoyed the place.

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  3. Oh, please, Dubs. Fight Club (the book) is interesting because of its wonderfully nihilistic assessment of blue collar boredom. The fact that the space monkeys attack the capitalist commercial influences is secondary to their motivation. It could have happened anywhere, to anything, which is the point.

  4. I think you distracted the guard. Be aware of your american female powers!