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June 29, 2004 -> Chilling Out in Sweden

It is hard to imagine two countries more different than China and Sweden . We had just left China : dirty, chaotic, crowded, and cheap. A few days later we were in Sweden : clean, orderly, spacious and expensive. Sweden was just ranked the second-best country in the world to live in (after Norway ). Swedes may complain about the high taxes – complaining is something of a national pastime – but most recognize the benefits of their tax kronor. “This is probably the best place in the world to have a heart attack,” said Stefan. I was happy to hear that, particularly when I looked at my first dinner bill.

After US$3 dinners for two in China , US$8 appetizers in Sweden were fiscally hard to swallow. We reverted to my post-university Scandinavian dining strategy: crisp bread and tubes of flavored cheese - cheap, convenient, and basically non-perishable. Swedes are wild about food tubes. Cheese, caviar, pate, chocolate, jam, whatever, all crammed into a toothpaste tube to be joyfully extruded later. We were eating so much food from tubes that we felt like astronauts. A pint of beer costs US$4-6. The room rates at hotels are extortionate. Even the youth hostels charge around US$60 for a double room, if you can find one at all. Thankfully, we already had a place to stay.

We met Stefan and Annette while ‘on safari' in Kenya , and promised to look them up when we were Sweden . Nine months later, we sent them an e-mail to say that we were coming. We had hoped to meet up with them for dinner and get the inside scoop on Stockholm . We certainly had not expected them to offer us a room in their flat, but were overjoyed at the invitation. I felt a bit squeamish about staying so long (we had a week to kill while we waited for our Russian visas) but we never once felt like we were imposing. Oddly enough, they seemed to enjoy our company! They gave us great advice on exploring Stockholm , took us to their holiday home in the north, and even dropped us off at our ferry at the end of our visit. We had a wonderful time, made new friends, and learned a lot about Sweden and Swedish culture in the process.

The Swedish ethos is difficult to pin down. In many respects, the country is very liberal: a generous social welfare system, a permissive stance towards immigration and refugees, a relaxed approach to marriage, legalized abortion, etc. Yet it is rigidly conservative with regards to drugs and alcohol. Marijuana is illegal, even for medicinal reasons. Most alcohol (light beers excluded) must be bought at the state monopoly - System Bolaget - which charges prohibitive rates as a policy. The Swedes are also quite patriotic, in a flag-waving way that reminded me of the USA . Swedes have a reputation for being staid and unfriendly, yet I have always found them very gregarious, if not overly emotional. They are the ‘Big Fish' of Scandinavia , but the arrogance that the Danes and Norwegians discern is not apparent to a foreigner.

It was shaping up to be one of the coldest summers in Europe in many years. Nori and I were wrapped in heavy fur-lined parkas, our hands inside thick mittens. The moisture in our breath crystallized as it hit the freezing air. I had been hoping to show Nori the sunny side of Scandinavia , and here we were, at risk of hypothermia. After ten minutes, we knocked on the freezer door and were let out. We had paid fifty kronor each for the privilege of visiting a simulation of the famous Ice Hotel in northern Sweden . Outside, the cobbled streets and alleys of the Gamla Stan (“ Old Town ”) in Stockholm were gleaming. It had been very cold during our first few days in Sweden , but summer had finally decided to stage an appearance.

Central Stockholm is built on 14 islands connected by 53 bridges. “But they are not pretty bridges,” complained Stefan. That may be, but walking the bridges is an excellent way to get a feel for the city and its islands. Each island has a different feel. There is the inner-city island park of Djurgoerden , full of green spaces and jogging trails, in addition to many of Stockholm 's top tourist attractions like the Vasa Ship Museum and Skansen, the gigantic open-air museum. There are the narrow, crowded alleys of the island of Gamla Stan , where tourists buy moose souvenirs and sip cappuccinos amongst beautiful, old buildings. There is the tiny island of Kastellholmen , lorded over by squat citadel that has flown the Swedish war flag for many centuries. Each island offers new views of the city, its channels, and the sea.

On a sunny day, Stockholm is stunning. The brightly-painted facades of the waterfront buildings glow with direct and reflected light. The gilt steeples and domes flash like lighthouse beacons. The waterways, always busy with scuttling craft, fill with private yachts and sailboats. Locals flock to the numerous city parks to picnic and relax. No can afford to take a summer day for granted. “Last year, summer came on a Wednesday,” Stefan complained. And summer days in Sweden are like two summer days elsewhere. The sun would not begin falling until eight, and there would still be light at midnight . Even early-birds would struggle to rise before the sun did, at four.