Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stockholm : Serene yet Scintillating



Illegal polish immigrant stuffs 20 scotch bottles in his bag, starts his journey by canoe to Sweden. Once he arrives in Stockholm, taking advantage of Sweden’s high duty, he profits by selling 19 bottles in the black market at double the price. Now the remaining bottle comes into the play. He starts drinking while circling around the police station. Police promptly arrest him. First Charge: Drunken Driving; Second Charge: Illegal Entry in Sweden. He gets a punishment of two-month imprisonment that is equipped with heater/air conditioner, Laundry, Newspaper and even paid daily wages. Once his sentence is over, with the Govt money, he is safely back in Poland. The smart earned Swedish moola makes him enjoy Poland at leisure for another six month. Afterwards another business trip would begin to Sweden.

If one were to ask me ‘what’s so special about Stockholm?’ I would struggle for an answer. There is nothing spectacular about this city. Normally any big city in the world has an event, place, or cuisine that one associate with it, Stockholm has none, yet it evoked nice memories of my 4-night 5-day visit I made this month.

At 7am on Sunday, Stockholm Airport was almost deserted with the exception of two immigration officials and customer support counter. Ground to ceiling Posters of Sweden Celebrities welcomed me as I passed through corridor outside the customs. I knew about Bjorn Borg, Alfred Nobel, and ABBA but did not realize that Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Anders Celsius (centigrade fame) too were Swedish. They all welcomed me with smile to Stockholm and ushered me an airport bus that had only three other passengers besides driver. The journey was drab and boring with Pine trees along the side of road stood still as if being dreadful of impending winter. Valvo, Benz and Audi zoomed past with one thing in common – a hook on the car dickey to straddle a bicycle. I arrived at the Stockholm Grand Central station and I wondered if this place would ever match even fraction of the excitement as that any railway station in Europe. Instead of taxi, I opted to travel by suburban train, as I knew my room might not be ready by noontime. I took two stairs down to reach suburban railway line and as I entered the underground, life seems to have started buzzing with activity. Familiar signs of McDonald, Cyber café, Flower shops started beckoning me. People scurried past me in all directions to reach their destination. One good thing about being in Europe, you develop a familiarity with Asians. This person looked at me as if I had come from his neighborhood. He was not sure if I was Arab or Indian, for me he looked Turk. He was Kurd and proud to be Kurd as one Kashmiri was when I had met him in Abu Dhabi. My ‘Shukran’ was wholeheartedly reciprocated by ‘Afwan’ in welcoming me to this new place. I got down at Mariatorgot railway station that was just a block away from my Hotel RIVAL.

Hotel RIVAL is part of the verdant rectangle that houses water fountain in the center with benches around for people to relax. As I entered the hotel, I thought of hotel in Hamburg that I had stayed two years ago. Interiors of the hotel looked like a movie set out of Bollywood. Walls plastered with vibrant colors, designer steel chairs, multi-colour woven carpets, glass capsule elevators with Madonna portraits hanging in the corridor. The bar and the reception were separated by waiting room that had Hotel logo and its facilities written in different colors and fonts. Winding stairs extended the Bar to the mezzanine floor that housed b’fast in the daytime and became bistro in the evening (I had to look at dictionary to know the meaning of bistro!!). Wine glasses along the bartender table served as lampshades. The room was small but cozy and above the bed was a huge blow-up of a black and white photograph depicting a woman beside a water stream .The entrance door made in gray colour resembled like a security safe but luckily it operated with a key card and not by metallic spoke wheel. The hotel has an adjacent theatre with cafe and a bakery but I did not get chance to visit. During my stay I started admiring the innovative ideas and designs that they used in décor, it is no wonder IKEA took birth in Stockholm. In bedroom, Iron board stood vertically on slider that moved along the door cabinet. Iron was hooked on the board in a bracket that was fitted to the plug with a timer knob. A mechanism underneath the board made it horizontal to that turned board horizontal. An amazing space saving design that is sure to caught up in dense metropolis. Plasma TV was hooked on the top of work desk that also housed DVD player and stack of CD’s. Movie DVD’s were available at the reception. Two layered heavy curtains came handy to keep away long sunny days that extended upto 10pm. Bathroom fittings were small, elegant and functional. The bathroom had another set of speakers so that guests, while taking shower, can sing along the songs that they can play from CDs stacked. The only item that did not bear anything unique was ‘toilet paper’. I wonder how they spared this piece by not printing some cartoon characters or jokes. I was amazed by the creativity that has gone to make this hotel so refreshingly different but this genre of hotels known as ‘independent boutique hotels’ are becoming trendy and popular in Europe. As I rummaged through hotel booklet, I realized that Benny Anderson of ABBA owned this Hotel Rival . Now it made sense to have ABBA CD prominently kept on CD rack and ‘Rock & Roll’ ambience.

I was happy to have arrived on Sunday and that gave me scope to do gallivanting Stockholm. As I crossed the bridge to another island, place was buzzing with people but everything was orderly, sedate. Office goers were dressed in immaculate black suits, moms pushing pram with infants either in their sleep under the hood or sitting erect absorbing everything that was going around them, visitors just lazing around or sitting on benches reading a book or soaking under the sun, toddlers feeding ducks while a group of old men playing chess with human size pieces. I imagined Akshta in such a place.Her restlessness would corrupt the well-behaved kids of Stockholm. Every second shop was clothing and accessories and it seemed every item was a designer item that pronounced newest arrival in Swedish language, traffic islands spruced with colorful flowers. Everything around me was in Swedish and yet there was nothing foreign or alien about this place. Everyone spoke English and was willing to help. Red sign of Kebab Corner restaurants was the nearest that I could relate to Asia. In a matter of few hours, I was looking at Stockholm from discerning eyes of a designer.

Stockholm is all about innovative design that is exclusive. There is no place for the ‘run of the mill’ or mass produced commodities. Every product is processed, packaged, presented in unique manner. Be it a fabric, a candle, a book rack or a dinner plate- every piece is captivating by its colour, shape and pattern. These products are not exclusivity of any specialized stores but almost every next-door shop. French and Italian designers may be in plenty but I think Swedes must be their prime consumers.

Various bridges around the islands made me realize that I am in a country similar to Indonesia. Sweden has 24,000 Islands well connected by bridges, public utilities while Indonesia has long way to go. Perhaps, answer lies in disproportionate population. 240 Million Versus 9 Million. Only after I studied the map, I realized that I had walked past Gamla Stan (the old town) that had labyrinth of twisty little streets and alleys of cobbled pebble stones with facing green top architectural and sculptural masterpieces. Sitting on a bench, eating Mac burger I watched Royal Palace, Stadshuset - Stockholm's City Hall City Hall building that awards Noble prize.Walking past the island that housed my hotel to Stockholm, I could see on my right side ferries that took tourists to Finland but I was not sure that was Baltic Sea or the Lake Malaren. And also I am not sure which of these three island of Gamla Stan– Stadsholmen,Riddarholmen and Helgeandsholmen I visited from my Island My hotel was Sodermalm island .

King Gustav is one personality that stands out in Stockholm. Royal palace, Royal Garden, Royal Graveyard and His statues – every square in Stockholm bear his imprint. I was not keen to spend my precious days in studying about him .I prefered to walk around. Stockholm has 70 museums and they range from modern art, space science to music. The only indoor place I visited during my stay was Vasa museum. This is about a ship that was designed to attack Poland in 1600 but sunk within an hour of its inaugural journey. The ship was taken out after 300 years, restored and made as museum. It was not very massive as I thought but the carvings were intricate. Ambience was dark and I was not that keen to taste Swedish reindeer cuisine so I opted out to walk around and have Mexican food instead of Indian. Previous day I had Thali at ‘restaurant that had every gods and goddesses on wall and belted A R Rahman songs but palate vaguely tasted Indian.

I did not meet polish immigrant in the city but the above story told by Swede long ago – perhaps well before communist wall broke – made me experience Sweden’s elegant lifestyle, liberal human values and high tax structure.Its unlikley that I would have visited this place on family vacation but destiny gave me a chance to sample Scandinavian elite lifestyle. High taxes in Sweden mean, in a financial year, upto August Swedes work for tax collector and for the remainder year for themselves. Nevertheless, they get high quality free education, healthcare, pension and generous paternity leave. Everything about Stockholm is expensive but classy. People are relaxed and give lot of space to others. No wonder this place is so sedate and tranquil. The only blot on this cultured, elegant , tranquil Swedish lifestyle must have been assassination of Olof Palme.

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8 Comments:

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6:42 PM  
Anonymous prabha64 said...

I am not surprised milind. I know u can do this I really enjoyed reading it. I appreciate ur patience in giving such a description of the place. khudos.
Prabha

6:04 PM  
Anonymous Jinsi said...

As always fantastic reading thank you Milind for sharing Sweden with us through your eyes, Its all the attention to detail that I like - I wonder where next your adventures will take you. I hope we get to hear of them. Bye for now keep traveling and enjoy..............

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Pravin said...

I lived every moment of the description. I am heading for Stock for sure. Do they have job for a Pathologist?

6:05 PM  
Anonymous raven said...

wonderful composition

6:05 PM  
Anonymous brenda said...

What an excellent description. Milind, I feel I can actually see the city through your eyes.

6:06 PM  
Anonymous melissa said...

Always pleasant to read your reviews! Thank you for taking me there through your eyes!

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Jam said...

I was there but many many years ago. Spent a few days in a youth hostel (an old ship converted) which was named "af Chapman". Managed to visit the Museum and stroll around the city. Can't remember much of it except the "free living" of the youngsters there. Gave me a bit of a cultural shock!

6:07 PM  

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