Stockholm in Winter: Experiencing the Low Season through Stieg Larsson’s Trilogy

February 25 – 28, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Scandinavia fascinates me. Between its Viking heritage (perhaps exaggerated), utopian reputation (or too good to be true?), minimalist interior design, the global phenomenon that is Nordic Noir, and the recent dominance in culinary notably led by Noma, this periphery of Europe doesn’t lack interesting plot lines. Especially when compares to the cradles of European civilizations like Italy or Greece and their perpetual debt crises. Scandinavia, with the possible exception of Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, is the rare corner in Europe where the present is as exciting as what has happened centuries ago.

While generally regarded as equals, Sweden is both the largest (excluding Greenland, an autonomous island within the Kingdom of Denmark) and most populous among the three countries. Its brands like IKEA and H&M are household names. And unlike other midsize European countries, Sweden can often be found on international headlines because of its progressive refugee policy.

Accompanying me on all the long flight and trains rides were the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson and the David Fincher’s version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my iPad. Corrupted, misogynistic, cruel… the country depicted by Larsson was not one the Swedish tourism board would agree to. Instead of tranquil lakes and serene islands, this fictional Sweden was a world where rapists and serial killers roamed free because of bureaucratic incompetence and crookedness.

I didn’t meet a serial killer who had raped his sister and wanted to cannibalize another man (at least not that I was aware of), but the Stockholm I encountered did contain bits and pieces of Larsson’s imaginary world. To make full use of my fresh memory of the trilogy, I am going to crossover my Stockholm stay with excerpts in the books. And when we are talking about Stockholm in the middle of winter, we have to begin with…

1) He had several miserable days in the middle of the month when the temperature dropped to -35°F. He had experienced nothing like it, not even during the year he spent in Kiruna in Lapland doing his military service.

Stockholm is gloomy and cold in winter

As to be expected, cold was the most used adjective in these books. To call the Swedish winter cold is actually an understatement – the average temperature in February is -3°C in Stockholm and a bone-chilling -9°C in Kiruna where I spent a few days to see the Northern Lights.

Layering is key. Most people dress smartly in Stockholm, so the best way to not look like a tourist is to wear a warm inner layer, then a sweater and finally a wool jacket with scarf and gloves.

2) Everything was closed. Hedestad was practically deserted, and the inhabitants seemed to have retreated to their Midsummer poles at their summer cottages.

Drottningholm Palace – only opens for seven hours each week from November to March

Hedestad was a fictional town along the Norrland coast where half of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo took place. For a town with only a population of 24,000 it was not a surprise everything shut down in winter. But to a large extent that’s the case for Stockholm too.

The Stockholm archipelago, arguably the capital’s most famous attraction, is a no-go zone as most ferry routes stop running in winter. Take a look at recommended activities on the official Visit Stockholm website – nearly all of them are outdoor based like kayaking or biking.

Even the city’s World Heritage Sites are not immune to closure. The regular ferry to the Viking archaeological site Birka runs only between March and October while Drottningholm Palace is opened for a mere seven hours on weekend during winter.

3) At 9:30 she had breakfast in the hotel bar: two cups of coffee and a bagel with jam. The cost was 210 kronor. “Are these people soft in the head?”

Near the end of the first book the main character Lisbeth Salander went to Zurich and was taken aback with the crazy price her expensive hotel charged for her breakfast. She might as well be describing her home town. I can attest how insanely overpriced everything is in Switzerland from stories recounted by my Geneva-based colleagues, but Stockholm should be right there on the expensive scale.

For example, in Stockholm it will set you back (1 SEK = 0.16 USD):

  • 44 SEK for a Big Mac
  • 21 SEK for a bottle of water
  • 190 SEK for airport-bound train
  • 100 SEK on average for museum admission
  • 120 SEK for a glass of wine

Two things save me money. First is bringing my own water bottle and drinking from the tap. (Natural for many, not so for someone who calls Hong Kong home.) Second is getting the SL card (115 SEK for 1 day, 230 SEK for 3 days) that covers all public transports within the city.

Another potential cost saver is the Stockholm Card. The one-day 495 SEK pass (795 SEK for 3 days) provides access to most of the major attractions and free public transport. But to break-even you have to accumulate at least 380 SEK and 565 SEK worth of attraction fees over one and three days, respectively. I think in most circumstances the Stockholm Card is a poor deal because of the many free things to do in the city.

While we are at it – try to stay dry while in Sweden. To combat alcoholism, the alcohol tax in Sweden is higher than most other countries. The tax on beer with an alcohol content above 4.5% and wine are 6.615 SEK/litre and 22.08 SEK/litre, respectively.

4) Normally seven minutes of another person’s company was enough to give her a headache, so she set things up to live as a recluse. She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace.

Stockholm City Hall

Lisbeth Salander was an antisocial recluse who couldn’t stand other people’s company. After a hectic couple of months at work, I didn’t mind a few days of downtime as well.

Cold, deserted, expensive. I haven’t had kind words to say about Stockholm. It is hard to label Stockholm as a crowd pleaser – the city is actually slightly off the beaten path as far as European destination goes and the Vasa Museum is the only must-see to speak of.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. The town was very compact; most places were within walking distance or a short subway ride away. Some attractions were free, like the garden at Drottningholm Palace and the Moderna Museum on Friday night. What I liked most, though, was scrolling at night from trendy Södermalm to Gamla stan, Stockholm’s beautiful but touristy historic centre that was best avoided during day time. The reward at the end of the long walk was having a magnificent view of the Stockholm City Hall all to myself.

5) “I’m not going to apologize for the way I’ve led my life.” 

An art piece where the inflatable ball inflates and deflates in a 5 min cycle

That’s Lisbeth’s life motto, which I am sure also speaks for many of her neighbours in Södermalm, once a working-class district that has attracted a bohemian crowd, a Swedish Williamsburg if you will. Though like its counterpart in New York the effect of gentrification was wholly apparent. Fortunately independent galleries, shops and cafés still populated the area.

Coming from Hong Kong, where the combination of high rent and the mentality of profit maximization have fostered an environment in which a credible way of living is narrowly defined, walking in Södermalm almost felt like visiting another entirely different planet. Many businesses, if you can even label them that, were mostly a form of self expression with little regard for profit generation.

Now, I am not here to advocate about the supposed superiority of the Scandinavian welfare system – a simple Google search will yield plenty of those. I happen to think the success of this system is not as easily applicable to other parts of the world as many have suggested, because of social, historic and demographic reasons.

But I am all for the continued existence of this place where I can bust in and out of galleries and shops without spending a penny in my pocket, and still be compelled enough to come back for more the next day.

6) “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”

Skogskyrkogården

List sucks. One of my most dislike sites is Buzzfeed, which is just a collection of arbitrarily generated lists of random topics. But for some reasons list absolutely dominates the travel industry. Each year you can find new lists by the NYT, National GeographicLonely Planet, and countless other publications telling you where to go in the coming year, with convoluted reasons such as “Glasgow is hosting the XX Commonwealth Games” or “opening of the largest bird park in Southeast Asia in Melaka”. Come on.

Then there is the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a list that brings real consequences to the tourism trade. Take the Iwami Ginzan silver mine in Japan for example. Before being inscribed on the list in 2007, the unheralded mine received 15,000 visitors annually, which ballooned to almost a million since. Every place UNESCO touches is gold, attracting people from all around the world to get a piece of these sites with “outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity”. I am hesitantly one of those suckers.

Two of them are located in Stockholm; Drottningholm Palace (one of hundreds of Versailles knockoffs in Europe) and Skogskyrkogården (a public cemetery that serves as the prototype for countless others). Just from the descriptions I knew going in they were not particularly interesting, but I had to do what I had to do. 

Speaking of uninspiring sites, Skansen, supposedly one of the better open-air museums in the world, didn’t do anything for me. I liked the pre-industrial era wooden houses. The zoo, aquarium, clowns, playgrounds and all the other kid-orientated booths? Not so much.

7) “Then I discovered that being related is no guarantee of love!”

Nordic Museum

On the island of Djurgården is the Nordic Museum, which according to its website is dedicated to “Swedish trends and traditions in areas such as home interiors, fashion, jewellery, table settings, folk art, textiles, dolls houses and much more”. I love museum as much as the next guy, but 18th century Swedish doll houses? 19th century noble tableware? 1970s ABBA inspired fashion? I only drop by because it was covered by my museum pass and it was located right next to the Vasa Museum. Improbably it turned out to be my second favorite museum in Stockholm.

Before we get to the awesomeness of this museum, let’s answer the obvious question first – why is the name the Nordic Museum when it is dedicated to all things Swedish?

The peace-loving image of Scandinavia is actually a relatively recent development. Until the early 19th century the union of Denmark and Norway had gone to numerous wars with Sweden, culminating with the ceding of Norway to Sweden in 1827. The union between Sweden and Norway proved to be precarious as the latter resented Swedish rule right from the beginning. The Swedish crown took a number of steps to appease their Norwegian subjects including the abolishment of viceroy in Christiania (Oslo).

It was under this political climate the Nordic Museum, originally named the Scandinavian Ethnographic Collection, was established by the folklorist Artur Hazelius in 1873. Later the museum underwent a name change and received the less politically charged term Nordic. Alas the union ultimately proved to be unsalvageable and broke up in 1905.

The Nordic Museum however has retained its name ever since.

8) “There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.”

Map of the Sami people (source Nordic Museum)
Source: Nordic Museum

On the top floor of the Nordic Museum is a half-floor exhibition on the Sami people, an indigenous people who populate the far northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The Sami, currently numbered at 80,000 (20,000 in Sweden), have settled in this area for more than 5,000 years.

Yet like the aboriginal people in Australia and North America, the Sami had suffered systematic discrimination for centuries in their homeland until very recently. These abuses included the absence of land right and general prejudice against the Sami culture and language.

What’s laudable in Sweden is its official stance is one of apology for the state’s past offenses. Among the exhibition at the Nordic Museum are some painstakingly detailed information and personal accounts of what these systemic abuses had done to the Sami people, such as a video of a mother explaining how she wouldn’t let her daughter spoke the Sami language because of fear of discrimination.

The Sami exhibition alone makes it worthwhile to visit the Nordic Museum.

9) “Dear Government… I’m going to have a serious talk with you if I ever find anyone to talk to.” 

Mention civil unrest and you will invariably think of the States, Paris, London and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, but the one place rarely mentioned is Sweden. For five nights in May 2013 the rest of the world was caught by surprise as a series of violent riots swept across several predominantly immigrant suburbs in Stockholm. When images of burnt cars and buildings dominated headlines, it was natural to ask – what’s going on in Sweden?

Sweden had always been a highly homogeneous nation, up to the 1970s. Since then the country has seen a steady inflow of immigrants, mostly refugees and asylum applicants from war-torn Middle East — in fact the country is one of the world’s largest recipients of asylum seekers since the outbreak of the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War. In 2013 alone Sweden had received more than 50,000 asylum seekers, translating to a whopping 5,700 for every million residents of the country. Currently it has a population of more than 230,000 who originated from Arab countries.

But not every one of these applicants is a heartwarming story. Integrating to a new country is hard, especially one with a very different language and culture. For a country renowned for its welfare system, there are a staggering number of beggars on the street, the vast majority of whom are Arab, Persian or African. The seeds of discontent are there for everyone to see – unemployed with little hope of improving their fortunes, these newcomers loathe their environment, and on occasions this collection of resentment would erupt just like it did in 2013.

Some asylum seekers could not even go on the street at will. More than 3,000 of them are in hiding because their permanent residency have been denied. They face deportation upon arrest, even though in many cases what await them at home are prosecution or even death.

That said, Sweden’s generosity should still be much admired. Many refugees from dangerous places are able to escape from the perils at home and attempt to reestablish their lives in one of the most peaceful and prosperous countries on Earth.

10) “You with your bourgeois conventions would never grasp this, but the excitement comes from planning a kidnapping. They’re not done on impulse — those kinds of kidnappers invariably get caught. It’s a science with thousands of details that I have to weigh.”

Martin Vanger, the irredeemably repulsive serial kidnapper/rapist/killer of the first book, went on a stereotypical rant where he laid out all his crimes in front of the captured protagonist before getting himself killed in the ensuing tussle. I can attest somewhat to his point – excluding the kidnapping part – about being passionate on an interest.

My passion for travel likewise requires a fair amount of planning. Balancing a career, a family and a habit of traveling is not easy. I have to put in extra effort at my job and at home to make up for my occasional absence. With a finite amount of time and money, much planning needs to go into how and where I travel. Sometimes my effort won’t be well rewarded – there are simply too many overhyped places in this world.

But stumbling upon Stockholm, even in subzero temperature, reminded me why I travel – to be captivated by places different from where I call home. I find myself much more excited about cities like Stockholm that has something to say about the present than places like Florence or Dubrovnik that rely almost entirely on tourism. As the capital of one of the richest countries in the world it has a cosmopolitan outlook but remains small enough to be easily navigable. Kind of like a cleaner and drug-free version of Amsterdam.

Stockholm was fun, but that’s behind me now. It is time to research on my next destination.

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