Dateline: 17.39 18 Aug 1996
Location: Sweden, Stockholm, Kronobergsparken
is a city of contrasts. Which is not saying much, or in fact anything at
all, since the human eye picks out only unusual things and the mind likes
to classify things in as few boxes as possible, preferably as polar opposites.
So it should come as no surprise that in the early gray hours of the morning,
when the sky was still overcast, I was struck by how bland everything looked,
a combination of Communist dust-covered regularity and the cliche-layered
urban landscape of Tokyo hit by a plague. Streets everywhere paved with
black & white tile mosaic, and equally inevitably covered with a layer
of grime and black pools of former bubblegum, the perfectly straight street
surrounded by shops hawking all kinds of junk, rows of flags and banners
and whatnot crossing above one's heaed - but next to nobody alive in the
tunnels of metal, plastic, and concrete. Then again, it was Sunday on a
central shopping street, but I did not realize that until later.
Later on, I was astounded by how sleek everything was: the picturesque
twisty little medieval alleys of the Gamla Stan (without the un-picturesque
medieval complement of dirt, shit, rotting garbage and gruesomely mutilately
beggars on the streets, that is), and perhaps even more so by the ultra-eleeeeet
cobalt blue tunnels and perfectly designed, implemented and mounted direction
signs of the blue T-Bana, most of all the cavernous complex deep in the
bowels of the otherwise quite unremarkable T-Centralen. And there were
also lots of pretty parks, quite a few (really) big buildings and even
signs of civilization scattered between the McDonaldses. Viewed dispassionately,
the necessary conclusion is that Stockholm is just like Helsinki, only
bigger. Does something that is not only quantitatively but qualitatively
different exist? That, my friend, is one of the questions I'm setting out
to answer... with any luck by tomorrow in København, but somehow
I doubt that.
Possessing the external appearance of the proverbial
Nordic Viking in the country of the proverbial Nordic Viking, without speaking
the language of these proverbial Vikings, can be a pain at times as everybody
assumes that what looks like a duck must quack like a duck, and is usually
astonished upon finding out that the apparent duck can only gobble like
a turkey. On the flip side, not knowing a host country's language does
assist in maintaining an ironic distance to it; Swedes, English-speaking
or not, probably find the incidence of words like "SLUT", "BAD", "LUST"
and "EJ NED" in signs far less amusing than I do. Yet I suspect that they
are aware of it: if not, why would Stockholms Stadsteater conspicuously
advertise in a publication for tourists that this season they are performing
"SEX SCENER", instead of using the numeral 6?
There is a peculiar sense of desolation when you find
yourself in a strange city in a strange country, alone, with 4 SEK (~1
DEM) of the local currency left, night setting in, 4 hours to wait until
your train leaves, and nothing productive to do; you want to go to the
bathroom but need one more SEK to pay for it, and you're hungry but the
plastic of the packet of cold cuts is impossible to open and, if you did
get it open, it would dribble meat juice all over your bag. Having seen
all you can see for free, the only thing left to do is to go re-see a place
from a different angle, the differing angle naturally being a less desirable
one or you would've used it in the first place. So you wind up in some
random park, supposedly well-organized into geometric shapes, but in reality
looking about as attractive as the municipal garbage dump. When will gardeners
realize that nature is random, and a good park crafts the minimal order
imposed by human needs on top of this randomness so it fits in, not just
drawing circles and lines on paper and planting plants to match? All parks
will get weeds, crawing birds and candy wrappers but only in a too-orderly
park do they look hideous.
But I was writing about desolation. An essential ingredient of
the mix mentioned earlier is that the feeling must arrive within 24 h of
departure, so that the traveler can grok that there's (in my case) well
over 500 hours more of it left to go. Absolute freedom = absolute responsibility.
It'll be interesting to see how long this booklet lasts.
At this speed of writing, not very long. It's also an interesting method
of recording for one used to word processors. Once the ink is smeared on
the page, there's no delete-key to remove it, and instead of plotting and
crafting the only way to proceed is to write entirely ex tempore, unsure
of the way the sentence will end - or what the next word will be - when
you start writing it. This is probably reflected in the jaw-breaking average
length of these sentences, but tant pis, non?
Jani à la carte
dimanche le 18.8.
* * *
une baguette avec saucission aux olives
une boite de jus de groseille noire
des pommes "Granny Smith"
The best 4 SEK I ever spent were the ones I just spent
in getting into the toilet rooms at Stockholm's railway station. Imagine:
the privacy of your own cubicle, for as long as you want, the full complement
of personal services, not merely the obvious but a sink (with hot and warm
water, too) and you very own hot-air hand dryer too!
Oh, you think I'm writing this facetiously and I really think
this was a ripoff, eh? Obviously you have never Interrailed. God
bless the man who let me in although I was a crown short.. even if he refused
to utter a single word, and instead managed to convey "OK, I'll let you
in just this once, but I can't tell the machine that so pull the bar in
and slip past while I look through my fingers" with hand gestures and a
Two hours to go. Time to calculate the topography of
my navel for the 17th time, I presume. I am caught between the horns of
a dilemma: my Bamse Klubben minibag contains nothing to do but is painless
to lug around, whereas the industrial-strength rucksack has enough to keep
me amused 'till next century (or millenium, in this case) but has a weight
and flexibility of the same order of magnitude as your average elephant.
The obvious solution would be to get X interesting things out of the rucksack
and put them in your minibag, but once open the locker will refuse to re-lock
without another 20 SEK (now this is a ripoff), which I naturally
do not have. Catch-22.
Chilling at any place full of the teeming masses of
humanity is always fun. 17 million little worker ants scurry back and forth,
oh-so-purposefully, while the little Buddha sits crosslegged on his bench
and observes with a calm smile. They may be in a hurry, but he has time
I could launch into another digression about time-killing, but
Pink Floyd beat me to it. And it probably wouldn't be a digression in the
first place, since if there's any golden thread in this rambling account
it's news to me! This stuff is precisely what you'd expect to get, one
hour before the departure of a train, when yours truly is doped on tiredness
(lack of sleep being generally acknowledged as the cheapest deliriant around)
and an overdose of salt from downing 10 slices of olive-encrusted sausage
on bread. Yummy, but enough to replace a week's electrolyte losses. And
now, it's bag-fetching time.
The day's budget
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