A Summer in Stockholm

 

For three months in 2015, Gunship Revolution VP and professional house guest Marthy Angue was commissioned to provide design and IT for an international conference celebrating the Filipino community in Europe. The following is the first entry in a series accounts retelling how an unusual freelance project led to an adventure of continental proportions.


It was, by most accounts, an unusual proposal, strangest still that I had made it. It was not an unusual project brief - graphics would be needed for an international conference to be held in Malta six months hence- and we were discussing costs over coffee at an SM Starbucks. Of course, the discussion came down to the question of "how much?" and, given the kind of math I'd need to run through for such a major project, the obvious answer would've been "I'll run the numbers at home and email you a cost plan first thing, morning." It had been a pleasant afternoon discussing details with Ms. Hansen and Ms. Reyes though and I had been of the humour to jest that perhaps they could just take me along in lieu of the usual fees - not the wittiest way of waffling out of complex calculations, certainly. 

I must admit that it was a tad surprising finding myself alone at Schipol four months later, waiting for the next flight into Stockholm.

Wait... how did I get here?

Wait... how did I get here?

FIRST IN A SERIES OF TRAVELOGUES

I skyped my mother moments into finding WiFi at Amsterdam, ducking into an empty stairwell behind the carts of tulip knick-knacks. There are few experiences so quintessentially Filipino than flying halfway around the world from home; modern technology has completed that journey full circle to make it seem like we hardly even parted. Come to think of it, between one piece of carry-on luggage and another stowed somewhere between planes, I very nearly managed to bring my entire life with me: all my friends and family as well as my entire livelihood )special thanks to Gunship Revolution's Kriss Sison for the Mac Mini the Christmas before) was held securely across my small bevy of gadgets, padded under several wads of clothing.

AT HOME IN STOCKHOLM

It was unreal, stepping out into Arlanda's Arrivals hall and not suddenly wake up in Cavite City under especially intense air conditioning. Instead, I found Ms. Rachel Hansen waiting to pick me up and take me into her home, ready with a jacket and some fruit for the drive into Stockholm. Even then, I was wondering when I was going to wake up but Stockholm does have a dream-like quality to it that only intensifies in the remembering.

Every once in a while, there would be swans. I realised it was not a dream when I punched one and it did not wake up.

Every once in a while, there would be swans. I realised it was not a dream when I punched one and it did not wake up.

The apartment was on the North end of Stockholm, past the red brick towers of the old Olympic Stadium, in a neighborhood that reflected the Swedish passions for design and nature to breathtaking perfection. I must admit that writing this floods me with emotion - the memory of Ms. Rachel showing me around the rooms for the first time is one of the fondest memories I have of anything. I have similar fond memories of Ms. Hansen's fridge which, compared to Cavite City's rather limited fare, now appears in mythical colors in my mind. Along with her daughter Aina, who was a similarly deft chef, and the house cat Kitty, they provided me with a place that I would always remember as home.

Quarter past ten in the evening.

Quarter past ten in the evening.

Of course, there had been much work to do: Ms. Hansen invited me over on behalf of the European Network of Filipino Diaspora and we had two months to help prepare their largest event to date. I had set my workstation in the room, mainly finishing up designs for the event's Souvenir Magazine. Articles and ads gradually came in from all corners of Europe and I'd incorporate everything while I helped myself to shrimp cocktail from the fridge. I had been used to working nights but I needed to adjust: it was around Midsummer in the Arctic and "nights" consisted only two hours of actual dark. In a similar way, Ms. Hansen introduced me to a Swedish way of doing things, notably the rule that I should take at least six hours a day to walk around town. As rules go, this was not a difficult one to comply with.

WALKS TO REMEMBER

Our neighborhood mascot was hipster deer. It was very apt.

Our neighborhood mascot was hipster deer. It was very apt.

Stockholm, much like and perhaps more so than any other capital city in Europe, is a city for walking. For one thing, Stockholm was very nearly uniformly flat save for a few extra-credit hills and slopes. I had arrived early in June and the weather was crossing over between a cool spring and a mild summer. Norra Djurgarden, the neighborhood surrounding the apartment, had once been a lushly forested royal hunting ground and my first walks with Ms. Hansen were a primer on wildflower identification. Elderflowers for tea, lilies of the valley for aroma, lilacs frothing in streams down trees and vast yellow beds of cowslips blanketing the green grass: color seemed to burst out of every corner that would yield and I was agog to take it all in. 

There was some greenery back home of course but it was hidden behind yard fences or cordoned past city limits. In Stockholm, the forests and the gardens were a public trust and took a lion's share of public space. Ms. Hansen herself could make dozens of pies out of the blueberries she collects from the forest each year around spring. Which reminds me: the forests were quite certainly clean enough to eat off of despite the fact that everyone was welcome to traipse around these woods at their leisure. Perhaps everyone was more careful with these forests because it belonged to them as much as the next person. There was no reason to go about uprooting flowering bushes you already felt like you owned either (unlike some parks closer to home.)

Now, six hours a day was quite a lot of time for walking and I did fancy myself as a fast walker, but Stockholm was a vast, vast city to walk through. From the apartment to the city center and back would take about as long for a moderately brisk walk with intermittent breaks for food, sight-seeing and window shopping. In that time, you've alternated between grand neoclassical townhouses, unique moderist gems, futuristic office blocks, striking industrial-age landmarks, gloriously gothic churches, and an incredibly well-preserved medieval city punctuated by parks, gardens and wide public squares. To put it into comparison, a six hour walk through Cavite City will likely take me two municipalities out of Cavite City before rounding back home with an early case of Miner's Lung.

And because Stockholm was built on an archipelago of fourteen islands, it's got loads of boats too.

And because Stockholm was built on an archipelago of fourteen islands, it's got loads of boats too.

Owing to the towering heights of the average Swede, Stockholm almost feels like it was built at a slightly larger scale than, say, Manila or Hong Kong. It may have been the longer strides, I thought although I did get used to it in time. Then again, it could also be because I stopped getting lost and taking longer routes than I should've. I suppose I could have taken the buses or the trains - and Stockholm's public transportation system is almost mind-bogglingly efficient to the average Manila commuter - but I felt there was so much more to see on foot. Ms. Hansen had also suggested Stockholm's citiwide bike rental program but... well, actually, there was no excuse not to try it out and I definitely will if I ever get to return.

THE LATEST KIND OF MODERN

Eat, my fine feathered friends!

Eat, my fine feathered friends!

Between the efficient transportation, the sanitation, and the fact that there wasn't an ever-present sense of impending danger from standing around in public, Stockholm gave the impression of being a model modern city. Tax rates are notably high but so are literacy levels, standard of living, standard of health care, and civic order. All cities have their problems of course (my first walk with Ms. Hansen featured at least one high-speed police car chase along scenic Strandvagen) but there was also this general impression in Stockholm that people are working on solutions and that trust and cooperation will see everyone through in the end. Watching the courteous give-and-take of traffic during the height of what they called "rush hour" from a burger joint whose "vermin problem" came in the form of majestic sea gulls, I'd believe in that too.

I didn't get to compare Stockholm with the rest of Europe's major capitals until much later but my first walkthrough of downtown Stockholm had been an easy eye opener. Stockholm wasn't one of those cities you see in every other TV special trying to go somewhere exotic and I quickly realized that the city wasn't going to be a bustling megalopolis like the Romes or the Parises of pop culture. Stockholm was much more laid back and relaxed, much less interested in spectacle than places to sit down. And yes: most of the finest experiences in Stockholm - people watching over lunch or fika (the celebrated Swedish coffee break), sunbathing in the grass at Humlegarden, just staring at the downtown bustle by from the wide windows at the Kulturhuset or the deck of the AF Chapman - are best enjoyed sitting down and I wish I had sat down more often.

Relaxing on the deck of the AF Chapman: up there in the five happiest times I've ever been.

Relaxing on the deck of the AF Chapman: up there in the five happiest times I've ever been.

A TIME AND A PLACE

Midsummer Day in the Skansen Open Air Museum: the coldest I've ever been.

Midsummer Day in the Skansen Open Air Museum: the coldest I've ever been.

For a city that experiences half the year in near perpetual darkness, it certainly knows how to enjoy the months it has basking in near perpetual sunlight. I don’t believe I could have come at a better time though even midsummer daylight didn’t preclude the chance of a sudden shower. As Ms. Hansen would say though, so long as you have an umbrella, there’s no reason to let the rains damper your trip.

HM Carl Gustav XVI and son, moments after I realized they were passing by. They're like Sasquatch that way. Fancy Sasquatch.

HM Carl Gustav XVI and son, moments after I realized they were passing by. They're like Sasquatch that way. Fancy Sasquatch.

Indeed the trip had been eventful from the first week on: there was National Day, Midsummer (a quintessentially Nordic celebration), and even a royal wedding. Royal museums had free entrance, special areas of the palace were opened to the public, stores jacked up the price on Swedish flags: it was an unbelievable welcome. I even managed to get close enough to nudge the King of Sweden; this is at least three times closer than I’ve ever been to the mayor of my hometown if that’s saying something.

A CITY OF MILDER PLEASURES

The sign's in English so you KNOW it's authentic.

The sign's in English so you KNOW it's authentic.

One area of the culture shock for me had been with the rarity of malls around Stockholm in contrast to the dense retail labyrinths I was more used to. Stockholm didn't need large air-conditioned spaces though so it made sense; instead, shops and restaurants mostly ran along tight pedestrian streets and formed tight shopping districts of varying levels of fanciness. The few malls Stockholm did have were smaller and more specialized though my one visit to Sweden's iconic (and properly immense) Ikea was comparable to a thorough romp around Megamall. In the end, my shopping chain of choice ended up being the used goods store Myrorna. Ah, so much cheap stuff, so little baggage allowance.

What Stockholm lacked in malls, it made up for in museums. Or, at least, it made it up to me. I have always loved museums even as a child and much of the allure of Europe for me had been in the incalculable wealth of history and culture exhibited in its museums. Books that catalogued ancient treasures, Renaissance architecture and Impressionist paintings were all I had of my father when he was off working as a commercial artist for Saudi Aramco and I had sustained a deep-seated longing to witness these cultural icons up close. Stockholm hadn’t been on the lists of more popular cities with great art treasures the way London, Rome or Paris were but as my first European city, it made for a perfect sampler of what was to come. It was in Stockholm that I finally got to meet a Rembrandt up close - a powerful personal moment - and was where I gazed into an authentic Egyptian mummy for the first time. Statuary from Ancient Rome and Feudal Japan had niches in Stockholm and so did the works of abstract artists like Picasso and Brancusi.

Nothing like a picnic with a bunch of massive concrete Picasso lawn nudes.

Nothing like a picnic with a bunch of massive concrete Picasso lawn nudes.

That being said, I think my general unfamiliarity with Swedish culture actually might have been a boon in my case given how much Swedish history and culture came as a surprise to me. I had heard about the Vasa - that 17th century warship that was so utterly massive it keeled over on its maiden voyage - but having seen in person, dredged up, restored and displayed in one of the World’s finest archeological museums, I’m surprised it isn’t often counted with Tutankhamen’s Mask and the Terra Cotta Army among the world’s greatest historical artefacts. Aside from the Vasa, Stockholm also devotes museums to its viking past, to its financial heritage, to its biodiversity, to everyday items across centuries, to the city's extensive history before and after it became the nation’s capital, to the winners of the Nobel Prizes (which originated from and are awarded in Stockholm) and to its royalty. The open-air museum Skansen, the first of its kind, even manages to have exhibits of entire buildings uprooted from their original locations and plopped together according to era.

This includes a collection of functional windmills.

This includes a collection of functional windmills.

Outside the museums, the streets themselves are replete with history and culture. On my first walk into town, Ms. Rachel had shown me the site of the 1956 Olympics, a monument to the great Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus, and even the square where the word “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined. The epicentre of Stockholm’s history however is obviously Gamla Stan, the old city, where houses and churches dating back to the Middle Ages share an island’s worth of space with the lavishly decorated Royal Palace, Sweden’s centre of government, cobblestone streets lined with colourful souvenir shops, and at least two Hurry Curries (my choice of quick Indian Cuisine in Sweden.)

These colorful buildings are available as salt and pepper shakers at souvenir shops.

These colorful buildings are available as salt and pepper shakers at souvenir shops.

FATHER AFIELD AND BACK AGAIN

Or just eggs with Kalle's comes-in-a-tube Caviar.

Or just eggs with Kalle's comes-in-a-tube Caviar.

Work progressed much better than I would have imagined given the fact that I was encouraged to explore the city at the same time. It felt a bit like how Stockholm shops close down around six in the afternoon so everyone could go out and roll around in the grass or go fishing on the crystal clean rivers. I’d finish a chapter or I’d lay out a poster then I’d step out drink-in this amazing city and burn off more calories than I was taking. And then I’d go home to a home cooked meal, either by Ms. Hansen or Aina and a bottle of Herjunga’s Apple Cider.

As idyllic as that place was though (and I have never been one to exaggerate memories, mind), we did have some variety. Once, Ms. Hansen took me out to see her country home up north in Norrtelje, on an island barricaded by stately pines and oaks. On another occasion, Ms. Hansen, Aina and I took an overnight cruise across the Baltic Sea to Estonia - a sentence that would have made absolutely no sense to me back in 2014. Shortly before our departure for the conference, Ms. Hansen even sent me to meet her sister Ms. Bergersen in Oslo (another story for another time) to explore the Norwegian capital.

In my three months in Europe, I would leave and return to Stockholm twice more: back and forth from Malta and back and forth for my whirlwind tour of the continent. Each time, it felt more and more like coming home. The central terminal, the bus to Hjorthagen, the neighbourhood with its manicured lawn, the apartment door, the elevator… and finally, that warm place with a wide bed and a fridge full of cold steak, assorted cheeses, and Kalle’s Caviar for hard boiled eggs. Ms. Rachel would say hello. Aina would too. Kitty will approach and say hello in her own way -

That was how I remember the last time I went home to the apartment. I had walked around Stockholm one last time but I had to come back early to pack my bags. The next day, I would say goodbye to Ms. Hansen, fly back to the Philippines and carry on as I’ve always had.

STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

The view from City Hall.

The view from City Hall.

Then again, I don’t think I’d ever be the same after that experience. Certainly not after the whirlwind tour. Certainly not after Malta or Oslo. But most of all, certainly not after Stockholm. Beyond even the kindness and generosity Ms. Hansen has accorded me, she has also shown me a vision of what could be: of a city suffused by that same kindness and generosity. A city that fostered creativity and efficiency the way Ms. Hansen fostered my services. It was also through her that I was able to meet the rest of the European Network of Filipino Diaspora, an organization that opened my horizons across the breadth of the entire continent. In three months, she has given me more to write about than I can write for the next three years and should I continue these stories on, I dedicate them in gratitude.

In the end, I believe she has come to embody the best of her home: the belief that an investment of trust and kindness can bring out the best in people. Perhaps I was given the chance to call a place like that home for a while to help me make my true home a place like that too.

Article may also be found in Roots and Wings - Summer of -2016 issue, a Sweden-based magazine of which Marthy Angue is Associate Editor.