Swede surrender

A fall on the escalator, tryst with cops, missed trains, misplaced baggage and lights without switches… But nothing would stop Nishiraj A. Baruah from exploring the 14 islands that make Stockholm

 

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We are all trembling. Shaken to the core. People stop dead on their tracks. Frozen with horror, as Mala Vaishnov, Editor Verve Magazine, falls head first on the upwardly mobile escalator. I watch helplessly from the top, my big suitcase in hand. I can do nothing! If I leave the suitcase, it will tumble down the escalator hitting everyone like a roadroller. This, even as she loses grip of her own suitcase which now bulldozes over her. C P Surendran, the resident editor of the national daily DNA, Mumbai, on the steps right behind her, tries to hold the suitcase, but the high velocity momentum of the heavy suitcase is too big for his small frame. He falls too, the combined weight of the suitcase and Mala all over him. Those behind on the escalator are too shocked to react! It happens in a matter of second, as horrified railway passengers who are about to board the escalator stop on their track. It is a curious sight as Mala and CP move up the escalator slowly, suitcases over Mala and Mala over CP, sprawled out awkwardly, with Mohit Batra, head of Scandinavian Tourism in India, holding onto one of the bags and reaching out for Mala’s hand with the other hand, their bodies motionless, looking like a classic European sculptural masterpiece. Mala, head resting on the steel steps, reaches the top, as we lift and pull her by the arms, then the suitcases, and then CP. They are unable to speak, shivering, as CP now squats on the floor, an immense pain needling his upper thigh. “I think I may have broken a bone,” he says at last. We help both of them settle down in a Cafe nearby, massage his afflicted part, get him a leg guard from a chemist, few pain killers and make him drink brandy.

If only we hadn’t changed trains at Malmo (Sweden), if only we hadn’t missed the direct train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, this disaster would not have happened.

After the trauma, comes the comedy. As we ruminate on the train over the incident, CP, relieved from the pain somewhat, gets his sense of dark humour back. “The Swedes may have thought that’s how Indians travel by escalators – not vertically, but horizontally sprawled out!” he says. 

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More drama is in store at Stockholm. Just when we are about to start off in a cab for our hotel, a police van comes charging, red light flashing, siren blowing and breaking the midnight silence, and blocks our cab. “Get down. Get down. You cannot go in this taxi,” says one policeman. “Turn off the engine,” says another to the driver. “Take your luggage out!” the cop orders. We are thoroughly puzzled. The cop now says something to the driver in Swedish at which he immediately speeds off. Now what! Turning his attention to us, the cop then shows us a parking lot where all the taxis are parked. “Take a cab from there,” he says. It takes us a while to realise that cab who offers to take us is not supposed to take passengers from the roadside.

Finally we are at our hotel lobby, but not before another round of confusion. When our luggage are being identified, there is one particular red duffle bag that foxes us. “Is that yours?” we ask one another. No, this red bag belongs to none of us. Where has it come from? It is then that Sonia, an anthropologist in our group, puts her hand on her mouth realising what she has done: In the haste to unload the bags from our first cab, she pulled out the red bag as well – only that it isn’t ours, but the taxi driver’s. What to do now? How do we return the bag? “The cabbie knows that we are staying in Nobis hotel. Maybe he will come here looking for it!” someone suggests. So we leave it at the concierge desk and head for our rooms. It was a long day of misadventures and it’s only appropriate that we deserve all the rest if we are to enjoy Stockholm tomorrow.

But little do I know that I have to spend what remains of the night clapping my hands, snapping my fingers, whistling and singing! Well, for a hotel that prides itself on its designer tag, things have to be different, right? Only that, it’s entire focus seems to be on lights and lamps and how they are lit. The first casualty are the switches. Or the lack of it. When I need to go to the loo, I have to get up and clap two times. And lo, the loo lights are on! The table lamp comes beaming only when you lovingly touch a computer mouse-like mound on it. The bed lamp glows only if you caress the cheeks of the rotund bulb, as if it’s your midnight mistress. Others glow when you blow a whistle or flick your fingers. If there are over-sized circular lights in the lobby, lampshades in the room look like robotic arms, floor lamps that double as stools, and lights that change colours. I remain busy playing lights and shadow, sitting upright, throughout whatever is left of the night.

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Okay, Stockholm is a high-on-tech, alright, but now I want to enjoy the city by day. Known for its scenery, this is a city made of 14 islands that are connected by 57 bridges, by night the water reflecting the brilliance of the city. Wherever you go in Stockholm, the waters are there, the leafless trees branching against the redbrick buildings. The city is also about history and architecture.

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We literally dive into its history. Our first stop, the Vasa Museum, tells the story of a royal warship ship – how it was built, how massive it was, how very powerful, and how despite being so loaded with boastful claims, it sank before it actually fought any battles that too just a few yards away off the shore. How this 1628 ship was finally recovered and restored from the sea bed 333 years later is another story, even as it now stands in all its ancient glory – dark and deep and dim. So why did the ship sink? Mathematics, my dear. It was too tall for its width.

At the Bistro Nobel in the Nobel Museum, a curious sight greet us. Guests are turning the plastic chairs upside down, looking carefully at the bottom before they take their seats, a grin on their faces. Is this some strange Nobel etiquette? Soon I find myself turning my chair upside down too. It’s then that I see: The bottoms have the signature of various Nobel laureates who have come here and sat in these very chairs! My chair was graced once by the famous bottom of .Mikhail Gorbachev. The Nobel Museum is, of course, the most famous of Swedish institution. Photographs of the laureates keep appearing one after another from the ceiling and almost as if to greet us Indians, a film on Rabindranath Tagore is now being screened at the theatre. When the inventor of the dynamite, Alfred Nobel, died, he left a huge fortune, but no children. So he donated his wealth to the Nobel fund. “Oh I can spend the whole day here!” says Sonia. “And I will be dead by the end of the day,” I counter, museums not being of any particular interest to me.

Next we visit the City Hall where the Nobel Banquet takes place every year on December 10. I stare at the imposing ceilings, walls, pillars, windows and let out the mandatory ‘wows’ and ‘awesome’s! This is a fascinating building and an institution for sure. The Royal Palace, the official residence of His Majesty the King and one of the world’s largest palaces with more than 600 rooms, is next on out list. It has opulence writ all over.

However, nothing can beat the beauty of what lies outside: The she-sentinel guarding the entrance breaks into such a smile for the camera that I can be forgiven for believing for a moment that she is actually an innocent village belle in polka dotted frock plucking berries from her farm and not an armed -to-the -teeth, no-nonsense soldier guarding the entrance. Men may build the Taj Mahal, but can anyone better feminine charm?

While I leave you with that question, the king and queen, meanwhile, command genuine admiration from the Swedes for their grounded behaviour. A favourite tale happens to be this: Once a man started flirting with an attractive woman at a pub. “What do you do?” the man asked. “Oh,” the woman said, “I am a Princess!” To which he said, “Oh yeah, you are right! And I am Alexander the Great!” They continued their flirtatious rendezvous throughout the night. Next day, when the guys wakes up, the first thing he sees in the newspaper is a photo of himself with the woman he met at the pub. The headline read: Who is that man with Princess of Sweden?”

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Soon we are off to ABBA The Museum, housed in the Swedish Music Hall of Fame (SMHOF), a musical meeting place with exhibitions that highlight the Swedish cultural heritage. Here you can listen to Swedish popular music from the 1920s to today. ABBA is to the Gen Then what Swedish House Mafia is to the Gen Now. A little while later, I find myself onstage as the 5th ABBA singing Dancing Queen live on a microphone along with the four hologramic members that make the band. At another place, I appear in a ABBA music video. For souvenir, I buy a guitar-shaped bag for my little one, while others in our little group buy CDs and ties with ABBA trademarks. “I can spend an entire day in the museum,” I say, loud enough for Sonia to hear. Sonia simply smiles, refusing to live upto my bait. If museums are this cool, then I shall never complain.

Soon, I and Sonia head separate ways. She goes looking out for old books in antique bookstores and vinyl records in music stores while I go walking over cobbled stones for knives and daggers (for my collection) in the old part of Stockholm. The shops with arty windows display interesting antiques and curios. “Can I help you?” a pretty sales girl asks. “Yes, can I buy the windows?” I say. She seems puzzled, but when she realises that I am actually kidding, she is highly amused, “Oh, these are not for sale!” And wait a minute, isn’t that a Ganesha? What is this huge woodwork doing here! It’s for sale, of course, sourced from a city supplier. At another store when I am about to pick up an overcoat, the salesgirl, spotting my bag from the ABBA shop, exclaims, “Oh you visited the ABBA museum! How is it? Is it good?” It is nice educating a city resident about a local attractions. It is nicer when our common love for ABBA helps me get a discount.

When I land in Sigtuna, a tiny medieval township in the outskirts of Stockholm, at Lake Mälaren, why do I get this feeling that I know the place already? Or have I met someone who resembles Sigtuna? You see, I have a habit of personifying a place – Birmingham, a city I visited recently, seemed like a wannabe Page 3 socialite and in Sydney I felt like being in the electrifying presence of a gorgeous woman in stilettos. While I am yet to figure out Stockholm, I now realise that Sigtuna is actually like someone in my group. Yes, Sigtuna is like Sonia Nazareth, or vice versa. Wearing a fairy frock, her angular face framed by her voluminous hair, this pretty and petite anthropologist has a forever smile and listens to you as if you are the most important person on earth. It’s the same with Sigtuna, a fairy tale town complete with quaint shops, cafés and restaurants. Small, cute and quiet, it welcomes you with a warm hug, glowing in the dark in yellow light from the shop windows and street lamps. Sure, Sonia reminds me of the bejewelled Eric Clapton woman who sets out for a party in a cocktail gown, asking her companion, “Do I look alright?” We visit a small church and the candles that lit the tombs in the church graveyard add an element of mystery to it. Yes, Sigtuna can be very welcoming, but just like Sonia, it is elusive and can keep you guessing, as you yearn to discover it more. And again just like Sonia who manages to look fresh, the smile never leaving her even after a tiring day out, Sigtuna retains its postcard perfection despite travelling through the ages – it is the oldest town in Sweden, its buildings, roads and lanes virtually unchanged over the centuries.

Much as I would have loved to spend more time with Sonia, I wish I could spend some more time in this fable called Sigtuna.  

But then if I did, I was in danger of falling in love with both.

 

BOX 1

Must do in Stockholm
Panorama tour of Stockholm by bus.

Don’t miss Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s oldest attraction and one of the best preserved medieval city centers in the world. Walk through small winding streets lined with stores full of handicrafts, antiques, art galleries and cafés.

Visit Vasa Museum. The Royal war ship Vasa was rescued from the seabed and is now presented in all its glory in this purpose-built museum. (Vasamuseet.se)

Visit ABBA The Museum at Swedish Music Hall of Fame. This multi-media museum will bring the legendary band ABBA to life. (Smhof.se/AbbaTheMuseum.com)

The City Hall is where the Nobel Banquet takes place every year on December 10. (Stockholm.se/stadshuset )

Visit The Royal Palace, the official residence of His Majesty the King of Sweden and one of the world’s largest palaces. It is quite fascinating when you hear the stories that went round here. (Royalcourt.se)

Excursion to the oldest town in Sweden, Sigtuna located at Lake Mälaren with medieval churches, castles and rune stones from the Viking Area. (DestinationsSgtuna.se)

Seeing Stockholm from the water is an enjoyable must.

SkyView is the world-class attraction that takes you to the top of the world’s largest spherical building, the Ericsson Globe, a Stockholm landmark.

Make sure to rub the head of Stockholm’s smallest work of sculpture, if you love the city and come back again. Made of wrought iron, and named Boy Looking at the Moon, it is fondled by crowds of tourists every year, as the shiny head shows, and given coins and goodies, while Stockholmers occasionally knits neckerchiefs and caps for the boy to wear during winters. Stealing these coins means bad luck as the child sees everything but forgets nothing.

BOX 2

Food
Try Italian at restaurant Caina at Nobis hotel. When I asked for pizza for dinner, the waiter was horrified. You don’t ask for pizza in a fine dining Italian restaurant, even as he was heard mumbling under his breath: “How can anyone ask for pizza here! It’s almost as if I have committed a crime. And when I asked for Tabasco, the waiter hears me wrong and gets me Expresso.

Visit the Berns Restaurant for its old world sophistication and hi energy: Sprawling with hundreds of diners, the red light lit restaurant has a Victorian look with large chandeliers. Our dinner dragged on for hours and drunk on wine I was dozed off on the table.

Try Vegetarian lunch buffet at Herman’s restaurant. Tired of easting European cuisine all along, it was almost like the comfort of home food when I spotted Thai food on the buffet spread (Hermans.se)

Lunch at the Bistro Nobel at the Nobel Museum (NobelMuseum.se)

If you are in the mood for Indian, try Indian Garden restaurant at The Södermalm area, but I must warn that Indian food here comes in European avatar (IndianGarden.nu).

People
People are English speaking, always ready with a smile, helpful and respectful to Indians. There is a large immigrant population, many of whom run taxis. Unlike many other cities, the cabbies talk very fondly about their adopted city. Says one One Pakistani cab driver, “If you are starting your career Stockholm is good place to stay. But if you are well settled, don’t come. Stay where you are.” The city is extremely gay friendly with the rainbow flag fluttering from various establishments (meaning gays welcome). I didn’t spot any beggers, so when a lady came forward with a “do you have some kroner?”, it came as a surprise. The bitter winter is only one thing city residents complain about.

BOX 3

Helpful hints

Getting there: I flew Air India from Delhi to Dubai. AI doesn’t fly to Stockholm. So I chose to fly Emirates. With limousine service, hi-tech entertainment system, flat beds and a fine food and wine menu, it’s Business Class is the best in the route.

Party scene: Throw in a weekend during your trip to see city nightlife at its best.

Shopping tip: Make sure you ask for the purchase receipt while buying items which will be required for VAT returns in Arlanda Airport.

Stay at
Nobis Hotel, Stockholm (info@nobishotel.com; web: NobisHotel.se)

Getting around: A cycle friendly city, you can rent cycles at various points. Cyclists – men, women, kids – are smartly dressed and look stylish in overcoats, hats and shades. Being sprinkled over 14 islands, and with its constantly changing viewpoints, Stockholm is perfect for two-wheeled discovery. Bike lanes run throughout the city, for convenient, safe cycling. On my part, I walked, and walked, but never got tired thanks to the little surprises awaiting every corner of the pebbled street.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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