Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t like being stuck in one place for that long. So the thought of a 3-hour train ride is about as appealing to me as a cricket bat to the testicles. However, the only trains I’ve been on before have been in England (with the exception of Vienna’s metro system). But my first experience with Swedish trains made me realise just how bad Britain’s rail system really is.
I won’t go into a whole rant about the disaster that ensued after the privatisation of British railways, but I will briefly highlight some of the differences:
1. In Britain, booking a train journey is a bit like trying to beat Real Madrid on FIFA 10 playing as Accrington Stanley on the hardest level. If you were to attempt it once a week, every week for your entire life, then maybe once or twice it might all go well without a hitch. On the other hand, my Swedish ticket said there would be a train there at 12:42, and there was a train there at 12:42. It also said we would arrive at 15.50. We arrived at 15.50.
2. Swedish trains don’t have nutters on them.
3. Swedish trains don’t smell of piss.
4. I’ve only travelled first class in Britain a couple of times. The only difference I’ve managed to spot is that in first class you get a piece of cloth on the back of your seat that says “First Class” on it. I travelled second class in Sweden and it was comfortable, had loads of legroom and was spotlessly clean. Easily the nicest train I’ve ever been on. The first class section must have been a Hilton on rails.
So, thanks to Swedish efficiency and the help of a good book (I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti), I rolled into Stockholm on time and in relative comfort.
That was until I disembarked the train at Stockholm Central Station.
Still with my big fucking bag which weighed about five tonnes, I walked along the platform and up some stairs and got caught up in a meleé of bodies going this way and that, the only way I could keep from being pushed over was to walk single file, and as fast as I could possibly go lugging that bloody thing around. (Note to self: In future, travel light. Or at least invest in a decent backpack.)
So by the time the flow of people spilled out into the concourse, my right arm was really hurting (I hadn’t even been able to stop for a moment to change hands). I found myself in a long hallway with lots of cafés and eateries adjoining it, with people rushing relentlessly all around like drugged mice in a laboratory all trying to find their way out of a maze, pushing past me and babbling in about a thousand different languages. It was chaos. If you’ve ever seen the sanitarium scenes from Midnight Express, that’s roughly what it was like.
I eventually found my way out onto the street, across the road and into a “Tourist Information Centre”. However, rather than providing helpful information to bewildered tourists, they seemed to be more interested in selling excursions and coach tours and tickets to high-end art exhibitions and concerts that were going on in the city. The place was full of American tourists all seeking that unique Swedish experience with all the comforts of home. You had to take a number and wait – about twenty minutes – before finally seeing someone.
I had received a text from Bjorn advising me to buy something called a “Remsa” which is the cheapest ticket for getting around in Stockholm. It costs 180 SEK (About 16 quid) and according to Bjorn should cover the rest of my trip. When my number was finally called, the saleswoman eventually gave me my Remsa but not before attempting to sell me a Stockholm Card, which gives you unlimited travel on the metro, buses, and trams, and also includes entry to a few museums and a discount on one of the boat trips around the archipelago. That one cost 500 SEK (About 45 quid). So I took the Remsa instead and picked up a free map of the city too. She explained that I would have to queue up and get my Remsa stamped each time I wanted to travel. There were sixteen blank rows on the card.
“So that’s sixteen journeys, then?” I asked her.
“Yes.” came the less-than-enthusiastic reply.
‘That’s a bargain’, I thought to myself as I fought my way back through the tourists and onto the street.
I wouldn’t have minded doing the boat trip as it is supposed to be really nice. However I was on a budget and wanted to see the real Stockholm rather than spend my weekend being herded from one place to another with a load of Americans and an English-speaking guide. But if I go back to Stockholm I think I’ll do it next time.
I had a couple of hours to kill before meeting Bjorn at Skanstull metro station, so I thought about locating it on the map and walking the whole way. Despite having my bag with me and being on my own in a city I’d never been to before, it still seemed like the better option than to descend once again into the bowels of Central Station, and I’d get to see a few sights on the way. So I set off along one street which was less busier than all the others that led off from where I was. However when I popped into a newsagents to buy some snus and ask directions, the guy told me that it was quite a long walk. So I asked for directions to the next station instead, which was only a few hundred yards away. The guy at the station took one look at me and my bag before I even said a word.
“English??” he asked. (How can they tell??)
“Yes, but nobody’s perfect.” I replied.
He stamped it in the second row rather than the first. I pulled him up on what I thought to be his mistake, and he informed me that each journey took up two spaces on the card rather than one. So when I had asked the lady earlier if it was good for sixteen journies and she replied “Yes”, what she actually meant to say was “No, only eight journies you stupid tourist. Now give me your money and get out.”
Still, I got to Skanstull and wandered about for an hour or so. I went into Design Torget which is a shop I’d seen on Anthony Bourdain’s Sweden episode of ‘No Reservations’. They sell really cool stuff that no home should be without, such as mousemats with TV test cards printed on them and ice cube trays which make letters that spell “Ice Ice Baby”.
Bjorn eventually turned up, and we went to grab a bite to eat at a kebab shop. It was a bit crowded but the food was slightly better than your average English kebab. Now refreshed and finally in the company of someone who knew his way around, I was looking forward to going back to Bjorn’s, dumping my huge heavy bag and maybe getting changed before hitting the town. Hard.
However, Bjorn had other ideas, and was ready to get started on the sauce straight away. We walked up to a really nice bar on the hill, with views all over the bay area. I took a couple of photos but they came out a bit blurry, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. It was nice, trust me. I can’t remember the name of the bar but Bjorn informed me that it is a popular music venue and a lot of famous Swedish musicians have played there over the years. Sure enough, the interior was lined with photos of various people who have headlined there. The only one I recognised was Robyn.
The local beer was called Falcon and was rather nice. We stayed for a couple and then headed back the way we had came so that we could meet up with Bjorn’s girlfriend Sanna and a couple of his other friends. We ended up in a bar called Marie Levean’s. Here’s a picture of the outside (taken from when we walked past again the next day).
Peter and Marie had just tied the knot a week before. Bjorn was their wedding photographer. Jakob is in a band called Woodnote, and Bjorn is working on their album cover. A regular jack of all trades is Bjorn. He even did some of the special effects for the last Harry Potter film.
Pretty soon more drinks and revelry followed and as I looked around the bar I became aware of just how many beautiful women there are in this country.
Marie Levean’s is a cool place, kind of a hang out for Stockholm’s trendies. Maybe not the sort of place I’d go to in England, but in Sweden the people are a lot less pretentious. Peter seemed impressed with my Swedish, almost as impressed as I was.
We decided to go round the corner to a British pub called the Bishop’s Arms. It was a really nice pub. Normally British and Irish pubs abroad can be a bit tacky, but this place felt proper authentic and had a menu of draught beers and ales that would put the average British boozer to shame.
Jakob got me to listen to one of Woodnote’s tracks on his iPod. Fucking brilliant, and I’m not just saying that. They sounded really polished, as if they must rehearse every single day. I wouldn’t mind seeing them live if I’m ever in town when they have a gig on. Peter and I got chatting and realised we have a couple of things in common – namely a shared passion for Led Zeppelin and Arsenal Football Club (after my family, the two things I love more than anything else on the planet).
When it came time to go home, I realised I’d lost my Remsa. I was pretty annoyed, and almost had the entire contents of my bag out on the pub floor looking for it. I know it’s only 180 Kronor but I get really wound up about things like that. It only had one bloody stamp on it too.
Still, never mind, I thought. We said goodbye to the rest of the guys and took the metro and then a bus back to Bjorn and Sanna’s place. I was pretty knackered by this point, and was relieved that the journey only took about 20 minutes. In London it takes at least half an hour to get anywhere, if you get good bus karma that is. If you’re coming back from Camden on the N253 you’re looking at a good hour at the very least.
Now that’s what I call a view. This is virtually right on Bjorn’s doorstep (Not literally, of course, otherwise him and Sanna would get wet feet pretty often!!)
We walked up a trail through the woods where we spotted a snake.
The poor thing was dead and being eaten by a wasp, but Bjorn said he hadn’t seen one of those for years. I recognised it instantly, it is one of only 3 species of snake in Britain. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you… the Slow Worm. They’re harmless and don’t bite, but you’re lucky if you see one in Britain nowadays, although my friend Will recently had one in his garden.
Sanna jogged past us a while up the trail, enjoying a good workout. It’s the sort of place I’d go running every day in if I lived there. There are some really nice routes and no chavs throwing stones or burning cars like you get around Vicky Park.
On the opposite bank, there was a small stream which flowed into the lake. Again I have to stress, this is all less than 20 minutes away from Stockholm city centre. Proper nature, not your fake nature they put in public parks in London. The water looked so clear you could probably bottle and sell it.
We eventually came closer to civilisation. Across the bridge from the South Side of Stockholm we found ourselves on the next island down from Gamla Stan (The Old Town). Sanna had sent us out on a mission: to find some cantrell mushrooms and black chevret cheese for tonight’s dinner. Bjorn and Sanna are vegetarians, much like Marie in Gothenburg, and my friend Kim who I was also hoping to see at some point while I was in town. We stopped off at a newsagents which was also a betting shop to put a bet on the days’ football matches. I fancied West Brom to draw 1-1 with Spurs and Arsenal to beat Bolton 3-1.
Our trip into the centre took us through Gamla Stan, where I got a few good snaps.
One of the backstreets of Stockholm, complete with raised walkways:
Bjorn on a walkway:
At the top floor of this building is a restaurant with views all over Stockholm, accessible only via the elevator on the left.
This was my most favourite picture of all the ones I took in Stockholm. This is a view just as you walk onto the island that is Gamla Stan. This could almost be a postcard photo, don’t you think?
This is the Presidential Palace, opposite the Royal Palace.
And this is a sort of artistic project conceived by an eccentric English woman next to a hot dog stand between the two palaces. Apparently she felt that the two buildings were quite dull so it would be a good idea to add some colour by hanging a pink and orange rope between the two buildings. I’m not too sure…
A moat near the Palace. Apparently if you fall in it’s very hard to get back out as there aren’t many places where the sides are low enough, and there are apparently quite strong undercurrents sweeping out to sea. Not that you’d think it from looking at this photo:
A street scene in Gamla Stan:
An old church in the centre of town:
These banners were to highlight a protest against the U.S. for the renewing of the embargo placed on Cuba, and also to mark the anniversary of the U.S. backed military coup in Chile led by General Pinochet (There is quite a reasonably sized Chilean community in Stockholm). The date this photo was taken?? September 11th.
We finally found the food hall where we picked up some black chevret cheese. We also had a taste of a few other cheeses including one which was bright green, flavoured with pesto and was delicious!!
A couple more general street scenes:
This is Bjorn’s favourite statue. I actually passed this on my own when I’d arrived the day before, but now Bjorn told me the background behind it. I forget the guy’s name who it is supposed to be, but he was a well-respected poet in Sweden and apparently he loved to smoke. So much so, in fact, that until recently fans of his would walk by and stick a cigarette in his mouth. This has now been replaced by a permanent brass cigarette, I guess so that kids don’t steal the real ones.
After wandering around for most of the day, we decided to head back and catch the end of the football. Peter and Marie were joining us for dinner, and I was looking forward to sampling some of Sanna’s cantrelle mushroom pie with black chevret cheese. West Brom vs. Spurs was still 1-1, and Arsenal were 2-1 up, so my bets were both going okay. I just needed Arsenal to score one more, which they did soon afterwards. However my luck ran out when Carlos Vela scored another with just 5 minutes to go and ruined that bet for me. Must of been the only time Arsenal have ever scored and I wasn’t happy about it. Still, The Baggies held Spurs to a draw so at least I won one of my bets. Peter and Marie arrived, and we had a couple of beers before tucking into dinner. It was delicious – in fact, we all had seconds. Then there was apple crumble which was spot on as well. There is never a bad time for apple crumble. I reckon we would have polished off the rest of that if it had not been for someone realising how late it was getting and that we really should be leaving soon.
We got the train to Mariatorget in Södermalm to meet up with Jakob. We were off to a music festival where one of Peter’s friend’s bands would be playing. We arrived at the place and paid about 250kr to get in. The band that were playing when we walked in weren’t all that. In fact they were dreadful. So we decided to check out the boat across the road which was also part of the festival, and had a Swedish stand-up comic performing. However by the time we arrived his set was just finishing. From what we gathered, he wasn’t all that either.
We made our way back to the main building where we saw a couple of fire eaters perform, and then another band who were a little bit better but still nothing to write home about. So thus far, we weren’t overly impressed. Peter’s friend’s band were next on. (I can’t remember their bloody name either!!)
They were the best band we saw that night, but in comparison that’s really not saying a great deal. I’ll try to sum them up without stretching the truth just because they were a friend of a friend’s band: They were kind of indie rock, but with the emphasis firmly on indie. A professional sound, however their songs sounded repetitive. None of them were bad musicians, far from it in fact. However on the whole, I think their downfall could be that they just sounded too generic. In fact, their outfits were the most memorable part of the set!!
After their set, we decided we’d leave and go on somewhere else. As they left the stage, a heavy metal band came on to tune up. Although so far we had seen 3 bands, a fire-eater and a comedian and were not impressed, now I kind of felt like sticking around to see if it was going to get any better. At least it would be my sort of music, I told myself. However, I remembered that I would be flying back tomorrow evening, so I made a judgment call to go with Bjorn and Jakob and see a little bit more of Stockholm while I had the chance.
The three of us said goodbye to Sanna and the newlyweds and headed for an English pub in the centre of town. Again I was impressed with the selection of draught beers on offer. They even had Stowford Press, a very good cider which you don’t even see in England that much. While in the pub Jakob and Bjorn told me a bit about their experiences touring round South America. Bjorn and Jakob go way back. They’re sort of like the Swedish version of Butch and Sundance.
We also talked about the Swedish winter. I inadvertantly bought it up as I casually mentioned that I wouldn’t mind living in Sweden one day. However according to both Bjorn and Jakob, I wouldn’t last more than a couple of weeks as soon as winter hit. I told them that I didn’t think the cold and the darkness would affect me. They didn’t seem to agree. Hopefully one day I’ll find out.
On the way back I had to go and do something I’d seen on Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Sweden’ episode. I had to go and have a tunnbrödsrulle. This is the late night snack of choice for the Stockholm resident, and ties in with my philosophy on travelling: “Drink where the locals drink, eat what the locals eat”.
It’s basically a flatbread filled with one or two hot dog sausages, mashed potato, salad and shrimp sauce, as well as a load of other optional ingredients. So I went for one with everything on it. The verdict?? Pretty damn tasty, although practically it’s not the easiest dish to eat, particularly if you’re walking along or standing up on a train. There was a heap of mashed potato involved and a large percentage of it ended up on my hands, around my mouth and on the floor. But tasty nonetheless.
The next morning we ate a traditional Swedish breakfast: little pancakes, like blinis, only sweet, accompanied by fresh cream and three different conserves: blueberry jam, strawberry jam and something called cloudberry jam. Cloudberries?? Who ever heard of a cloudberry?? Well apparently they are native to Sweden and grow near swamps. They’re a kind of amber colour and are reportedly an acquired taste. Well, I acquired a taste for them straight away. They’re lovely. Initially sweet with a honeyish taste, at the end there’s a slight bitter aftertaste which is actually welcoming as it takes the edge off of the sweetness.
I wrestled with my suitcase for about half an hour until I finally got the bugger to close, then played Civilisation for a little while on Bjorn’s laptop. We decided to go into town and do a bit more sightseeing. Our first stop was the newsagents-cum-bookies at the tram stop near Bjorn and Sanna’s place. I handed in my betting slip and was given 80kr or so, enough to buy a can of Ramlösa sparkling water and a couple of tins of snus. (Incidentally, the Ramlösa was only 5kr. In England it would easily have been a quid. Who says everything in Sweden’s expensive??)
Just as the tram came along I got a text from Kim that read something like this:
“Good afternoon! I hope you haven’t left yet. If you’ve got some free time I’m taking care of our three-legged dog. I’m around near Hornstull subway station if you wanna go grab a coffee or something”.
I’d been texting Kim the day before, hoping to drag him along to the music festival, however he’d been busy. He’s now a father, and his son Tiger is already 7 months old. Time really does fly. The last time I’d seen Kim was about a year ago in London when he was still with The Guilty Ones and was on his way to the Rhythm Factory in Whitechapel to support Pete Doherty. So we decided to go down to Hornstull.
Kim was there with his whole family: His girlfriend Nova, his sister Hannah, little Tiger and even Nina their three-legged dog he’d mentioned in his text.
So we caught up over a few soft drinks. It was good to see Kim again, and to meet the rest of his family. We didn’t get to hang out much when he was living in London but I’m glad we kept in touch. He’s a top guy.
After we said goodbye to Kim and all his lot we headed for the metro. My time in Sweden had come to an end, at least for now. I said goodbye to Bjorn and Sanna and thanked them for putting me up. Then I headed to Central Station and got a ticket for the airport bus. I had just enough time to stock up on snus and grab a bite to eat. I lost my ring in the bus station toilet which was a bit of a downer. But the biggest downer of all was having to return to London. For the whole time I was on the coach to the airport, then in the airport bar, then waiting at the boarding gate, then on the plane, and even on the Stansted Express back to Liverpool Street, I was thinking about Sweden. As I’d mentioned before, I’d returned from here six years ago thinking the same thing. I had tried to use this trip to test if those feelings still held true, but this trip had thrown up more questions than answers. Could I live here?? Should I live here?? What about the winters?? Could I handle it??
As I walked through Liverpool Street station towards the bus stop for the final leg of my journey home, I heard some shouting and a police siren echo through the building from outside. Then as I got to the top of the escalators there was a tramp quite casually having a piss up against the side of the Cornish pasty stand (which thankfully was closed, however he was no more than a few yards away from the small crowd of people waiting for the bus stop). I’d been back in the country five minutes and already I hated it.
My mind was saying “Take me back to Sweden, please!!!”
One thing became clear: I don’t know where my home is any more. Maybe it is in Sweden, or maybe it’s somewhere I haven’t been yet, somewhere far across the globe. But it certainly isn’t in London.
In conclusion though, I thoroughly enjoyed my short time in Sweden. Catching up with old friends, meeting new ones, drinking in Andra Långgatan, experiencing my first proper fika, seeing Stockholm for the first time and just generally having a blast. Stockholm is nice, and I wasn’t there nearly long enough to get a proper feel for the place, but I’ve gotta say that on the whole I think I prefer Gothenburg. But Sweden as a whole will always have a place in my heart and I know I’ll return there some day. I just damn sure hope it’s soon.