Steve In Stockholm

Even in the rain, Stockholm is the most picturesque international city I have ever witnessed. A four-hour train ride from Gothenburg on the eastern coastline, Stockholm holds the banner of Sweden proudly. The city’s interweaving waterfront boasts the classic Scandinavian pastel-colored buildings, including several grandiose state houses and art museums incorporated into small islands amidst the ocean channel. Society meets scenery, as thirty minutes meandering west of the central train station leads you smack into a luscious green park split by the ciy’s majestic river.

Exuding an unmistakable aura of old Europe, Stockholm at the same time shares commonalities with modern urban locales. The public transit system includes brand new subway trains, trams, and energy-efficient buses. Most palpable are the outward sprawl of neighborhoods, rendering Stockholm larger and more difficult to navigate than Copenhagen, its similar but smaller Danish counterpart.

But let me backtrack for a minute to our departure from Lund. We spent a delightful day along the western coast at another cousin’s summer home in Frösakull. Elias dragged me on a beach run, for which I was ultimately grateful because my warm sweat eased the pins and needles of the ocean when I took a plunge into the water. Everyone in Sweden has a summer cottage. I convinced it’s mandatory once you turn 45.

Then after Frösakull, Gothenburg, a very proud second city – perhaps a Chicago to Stockholm’s New York. Our most memorable scene there took place at a Levi’s store. Naturally we had to escape the rain, and what better way to pass time than peruse clothing stores. Elias and I are both of the leaner variety, which in America hampers our clothes shopping significantly; it’s rare to find the slim jim items. In Europe, however, we are fairly regular, and Levi’s happens to be the bee’s knees for stocking skinnier fits that do not exist in the U.S.

You know where this is headed. Elias couldn’t resist. He also added a snazzy pair of gray corduroys, or “Manchesters” as they are called out here. But of course, high prices gave Elias pause for quite some time before buying. The sales lady was very friendly and quite understanding of his indecision, though she added a sarcastic jibe that “you have to buy something while you’re in Sweden.”

Another customer, a curmudgeony American as it happened, overheard the comment and snapped back at her. “That’s your sales pitch? What a stupid comment. That doesn’t rationalize buying anything at your store. So the economy of Sweden will fail unless he buys your Levi’s?” Then the grumpy man stormed out of the store as we all watched somewhat incredulously. I quickly apologized to the sales lady for his rude behavior. He must have forgotten a cardinal truth of traveling: to the local eye, you represent not just yourself but also your country. And I was not about to let America have a bad name on his account.

Speaking of America, Swedes love to talk politics. Their right wing is almost assuredly more left than the American left, but I won’t get too much into the details. I’ve noticed from talking with all of Elias’ relatives that Sweden is economically quite dependent on the U.S.; that is to say, I had not realized that our markets so strongly impacted them. The current economic environment is not great, although Sweden has seen extremely favorable exchange rates recently on account of the weak dollar. Back when Al Gore won the presidential election, the exchange rate was 11 SEK to 1 USD. Today it’s 6.4 – 1. Ouch for me.

My friend Ross Eustis agrees the city is quite expensive, but remarked that Oslo was “like thirty percent even more expensive” than Stockholm. I think I’ll be staying out of Norway. Had I been in town a month ago as Ross was, though, I would have joined him at the Oslo Jazz Festival despite the hit my pocketbook would have taken. Ross plays jazz trumpet and has begun his yearlong musicology project as a Watson Fellow. Over the course of twelve months Ross will visit major cities on five continents and immerse himself in the local jazz scene, investigating how national culture has penetrated the form while playing and listening to music as much as possible. An inspiring dude, for sure.

I asked Ross how his project was coming along so far, and he had some interesting observations to share about the Stockholm jazz scene. His most telling anecdote centers around a jamboree of aspiring teenage musicians who convened several weeks ago in the city center to share their original compositions. In the U.S., Ross says, “chops” (instrumental virtuosity) reign supreme as the marker of a good player. What he noticed at the jazz fair, however, is that these young Swedish musicians are focused on ”producing original work” – including several “really great” compositions – and therefore display much less of the bombast which so widely characterizes American players. Somehow this distinction Ross noticed is not at all surprising.

Two closing footnotes. When I meet someone new and explain what I’m doing, the invariable question I get is “why Sweden?” Why did I come to Sweden of all places? Because I wanted to. I’ve wanted to for a long time. Ever since I was in Budapest as a high school freshman, enraptured by a phenomenal adult Swedish choir’s private performance in a church courtyard for our youth choir. Ever since I heard D’Angelo’s performance of Voodoo “Live at the Cirkus” and met several young Swedes who told me R&B is all the rage in Sweden. Ever since Erik Westberg came to Wesleyan to guest conduct our choir ensemble. If those reasons don’t add up, here’s my short version: because. Why Sweden? Because. But hey, I’m open to other international options. I met two Germans the other day in Stockholm and they suggested I ditch Sweden for Belarus solely because there “you can buy a pack of cigarettes for 30 cents.” They know me too well.

Lastly, for all of you furniture shoppers out there: IKEA is actually pronounced ee-kay-uh, not i-key-uh. Hands down the most life-changing factoid I’ve learned over these last two weeks.

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