After spending a week in Toronto, I flew to Germany en route to Sweden. I arrived at the immigration booth and had the following conversation with the customs officer:
“Where are you going?”
How long?” he inquired.
“Not sure.” I said.
“Welcome to Europe,” he replied, handing me back my passport and waving me through.
And that was that. Just a perfunctory question or two in Germany and I was in Europe for an indeterminate time with no probing whatsoever into my intentions, finances, or hotels. Nothing. I’m guessing that the profile of a middle-aged Caucasian woman speaking English with a Canadian passport doesn’t raise any red flags, but it does make me feel slightly privileged compared to the welcome I suspect awaited the thousands of recent would be refugees.
But on to Sweden. I don’t know if it was the contrast to 10 weeks of driving around the USA or memories of unfortunate first encounters with airport taxi drivers or the clean streets in Stockholm, but I am loving this country. The 5 minute late departure of the flight from Frankfurt was the subject of no less than 3 apologies from the pilot, no immigration awaited me in Stockholm and the signs for the express train to downtown were in English and easy to follow. My credit card worked in the ticket machine, my seat mate on the train spoke perfect English and the directions to the hotel (go out of the station, turn left and walk for 250 meters) were accurate. Less than an hour after landing, I was happily ensconced in my downtown hotel.
Better yet, there was a bike share rack across the street. I hadn’t been on a bike most of the summer and was anxious to try Stockholm’s much vaunted cycling system. I bought a bike card (conveniently on sale at my hotel), went to the bike rack and got a bike. It was that simple. No idiotic written cycling test (as in Mexico City) or wait for a code/fob/secret password (like Toronto). Just buy the card, get the bike and go. Which I did – there were bike paths all over the place – in pale red on the road, on sidewalks with different stones or asphalt to keep us apart from pedestrians, some paths raised off the street, other times with guardrails to separate cyclists from the buses. We had our own traffic lights, crossings, passages under the bridges, even our own lane on roundabouts. Best of all, everyone – cars, pedestrian, other cyclists, even cab drivers – were kind and tolerant. No cars tried to kill me by turning right in front of me, pedestrians mostly respected the lines between bike paths and sidewalks and no crazy cyclists tried to recreate the Tour de France. Everyone was so relaxed, so non-aggressive, so kind. It becomes infectious. I started going around the idiot tourists who stood in the bike paths to get that great picture with an understanding smile. Cars stopped and gestured for me to cross the road even though there was no light or zebra stripes. I moved over for faster cyclists and waited for bike lights to turn green. Unlike Toronto, cycling here does not feel like a death defying act but an enjoyable experience.
Of course, I got lost. A lot. Stockholm is built on a series of islands, some of which are connected by ferries, other by bridges and most with unpronounceable names that were hard to decipher as I cycled over one bridge and onto another island. Google Maps was less than useful. Google Maps would tell me it was 12 minutes by bike away….just turn here, continue on ….street, then go left….etc., but the voice could not be heard on a bike and no cyclists had headphones on (or, for that matter, very few helmets) and once I spent more than an hour with no destination in sight, I turned to more traditional methods of finding my way. I asked people. Most of my conversations started with a polite:
“Hello, do you speak English?”
“Of course” would be the somewhat indignant retort.
After a few “of course” answers I changed tactics slightly. Instead of asking “do you speak English?” I switched to “Hi, can you help me in English?” which was met variously with “certainly”, “absolutely” and “for sure” but not once with “I don’t speak English.” As I said, everything was pretty easy here.
Food was the next order of business. Normally, liquor would also be high on the list, but my pre-trip readings had all warned of the extremely high price of wine. However, as a foreigner, I was entitled to bring in up to 4 liters of wine. Breaking my “no checked baggage” rule, I put a few bottles of Pellar Estates Pinot Grigio in my suitcase. Call me cheap, but the few times I ordered a single glass of mediocre wine in Stockholm, the cost was always over $20.
My principle foray into Scandinavian cuisine was a healthy indulgence at the hotel’s daily breakfast smorgasbord, including all I could eat smoked salmon, cured salmon, cooked salmon, pickled herring, liver pates and a variety of novel (to me) cheeses along with made more traditional omelets, bacon and breads. Good thing I like salmon.
My hotel’s flagship restaurant was Kitchen & Table, a concept by the Ethiopian born, Swedish raised and current Food Network expert chef, Marcus Samuelson, where local sourced vegetables are the stars and proteins ordered as sides. I treated myself to a Jerusalem artichoke served in a parsnip puree and caramelized onions, with braised lamb on the side. Delicious.
Within a few blocks of the hotel were numerous Indian, Italian and sushi restaurants, but nothing that served Swedish meatballs or reindeer. For those, I went to Ostermalm’s Market Hall, the main food hall. Both were available, but neither looked particularly appetizing. A food truck festival was happening nearby, so falafels won out.
Greetings in Sweden took me a bit of getting used to. Everyone uniformly says “heh.” Not, “heh heh” or the current millennial’s favourite “hey” but a guttural, throat clearing “heh.” The first few times it was barked in my direction, it startled me, like someone had caught me doing something I shouldn’t, but after I looked up the English translation (hello) and proper spelling (hej), I warmed up to it. I could not bring myself to use it, preferring “hi” to announce my need for English. Everyone seemed okay with that, because the Swedes I met were generally okay with everything.
So, having mastered the local transportation, food, wine, greetings and my lack of Swedish, I felt ready to tackle the sights. Next up, some museums.