June 22, 2010

Sweden: “If you had a pay laundromat, someone would make a lot of money!”

(Actual quote from a real Swede.)

[Unfortunately, the internet crashed before I was able to post yesterday’s combined entry, so I’ll try to recall as much as possible and make it a triple entry.]

It seems the Swedish penchant for politeness can also be witnessed in their driving: if you even think about crossing a street, the cars will stop. Bicycles are justly and effectively treated as semi-vehicles and semi-pedestrians. They have separate lanes, but cross with the pedestrian crossing signal, and rush hour is full of commuter bikes. They all wear helmets and carry their bags in bike baskets. The locking mechanism for many bikes is just a number-code entry clamp on the back wheel, so it isn’t big or bulky. Very efficient.

Most people are also very conscious of litter. There is very little litter in the city – no heaping piles of garbage, and I saw a man drop a tiny candy wrapper, notice 15 feet later, and go back and pick it up. People will go out of their way to find a trash can. Outside the local Konsum (the grocery chain – I bought a reusable bag that says “I look good and make a difference”) is a set of five different recycling bins; people will stand outside sorting their recycling.

Today was also a marvelous day, 70s and sunny, and Swedes were all outside lounging in public parks and picnicking. Apparently picnicking and camping are the national pastimes, and most restaurants will pack up a lunch for you to eat outside. We would eat outside here, but the deck is tiny. Part of the Swedish design ethos seems to involve doing the most with a very small space (with various palaces as exceptions); we saw some vacation homes today not much bigger than this apartment despite being situated on private islands.

Anyway, on to the actual events.

On Sunday we started at the Vasa Museum, which was sincerely one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. In 1628, the Vasa, the brand-new flagship of the Swedish navy, sunk after 20 minutes of sailing. During its construction, the master shipbuilder died AND the king decided to add a second gundeck. The cause of the sinking, apparently, was too little  ballast – with the new deck, the ship was too tall, requiring more ballast, but the hold (designed for a smaller ship) couldn’t fit any more. Out of 100 men on board, approximately half died. Additionally, the ship was also loaded with cargo, which also sunk. Quite unfortunate for the Swedes, not to mention embarrassing.

Fortunately for pretty much everyone in the last 50 years, the salinity of the sea in Stockholm’s harbor is perfect for preservation of organics. In 1956,  a researcher in a rowboat with a homemade core sampler found the Vasa by himself and then enlisted a salvage company and the Swedish navy to dredge it up. Over the next few years, they were able to move it up to shallower water and then into an indoor space where it could be cleaned and prepared for preservation. The videos of it are amazing – every handful revealed something new and amazingly preserved. (Think Titanic but older, better preserved, and more awesome.) You don’t have to wonder, huh, what’s that hunk of metal? because everything was so well-preserved. They even found the bones of sailors still wearing leather boots and hats.

Anyway, after the salvage and conservation with propylene glycol, they moved it to the current hangar-like museum, which is HUGE. Let me tell you that even after watching movies like Master and Commander and seeing all those other historic boats – slave ships in the US and the Jesus boat in Israel – I had no idea how big this would be. It’s 68 meters long, and the stern rises 45 feet above sea level (and there’s at least that much below). The museum was probably as high as a 15-story building (it had 7 museum-height floors), and the signs instructed us to imagine that the top two-thirds of the masts were there, as they were not recovered. The outside of the building had fake masts to replicate how tall it was. Seriously, two decks of cannons (not including the light cannon on the top deck). Additionally, all the detail was preserved – carvings along the sides of Roman emperors, lions, and cherubs, and even buckets on the bow for sailors to go to the bathroom. It was pretty impressive. (See vasamuseet.se for pictures)

Afterwards, we went to Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum (1891). This is pretty much Sweden’s Disneyworld – except that all of the buildings are real historic homes and shops from all over Sweden, disassembled and reassembled timber by timber on the site of the World’s Fair. I could have spent days here. We saw farmsteads, manors, craft shops demonstrating old techniques, a Sami camp, a country church, reindeer, elk/moose, wolves, wild boar piglets, and more. My favorite was a minute house for farmers – it had one 8×10 room for the family to cook/sleep/huddle in, a room for the animals, and a room for storage, all about four feet tall on the inside. The roof was sodded, which kept it warmer in the winter. This reminded me of my favorite story from the Book of Virtues, in which a man hoists his cow up on to the roof and then is pulled up the chimney when the cow falls off. Neither Dad nor I could remember what the virtue presented in the story was, only that it was hilarious. Another (larger) house had a skylight – clearly the penchant for skylights in this country started early.

Monday we ended up buying a combination ticket (save 60kr!) to the palace, so we saw the Tre Kronor Museum, Gustav III’s sculpture collection, and the Treasury. The Tre Kronor Museum housed information from the original palace on the site from the Middle Ages. Construction began in the 1200s (by Birger Jarl, I believe), and was added to over the next four hundred years. In the early 1680s, they decided that the palace needed to be modernized in a Renaissance style (the Renaissance hit late here). Unfortunately, that palace burned down in 1697, leaving only the medieval north tower remaining (hah!), and was promptly rebuilt to be even more Renaissancey. The museum went under the new palace and into the North Tower, and was on a suspended wooden walkway so we could see cobbled streets and things underneath. There were various showcases of things they’d found in excavation, the best being a pair of medieval shoes. I really have no idea how they walked on cobblestones all the time in those leather shoes – it’s unpleasant even in my Campers.

In the Treasury we saw the crown jewels, which were shiny but not as impressive as the chest that formerly held them, which had 29 elaborate locking mechanisms.

Today (finally) after some confusion [see endnote] we went to the Nobel Museum. Apparently it is not common knowledge that the Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm, as Alfred Nobel was Swedish. The museum had small banners of each Nobel winner that circulated around a track in the ceiling, and exhibits about the life of Alfred Nobel, the inception of the prize, and various Nobel winners. Although housed in a historic building, the exhibits all featured LCD monitors and digital art, and it was Exploratorium-esque inside. Nobel made his fortune with his inventions of nitroglycerin-based dynamite, explosive gun cotton, silent explosives, and other things that go boom (or don’t). He apparently thought that people were too good to use dynamite in war, which makes him both extraordinarily hopeful and extremely naïve. Since he had no children, he decided to further his interests in science and peace by bequeathing his fortune yearly to individuals or groups who made advances in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. The museum featured some personal objects from a few of the winners including Amartya Sen’s bicycle and Hemingway’s letter opener. It also had the most helpful and interesting shop clerk, who told Dad that the top he was playing with would not spin forever as it violated the second law of thermodynamics. He also gave book recommendations – the shop had all of the works of the Nobel Literature Prize winners as well as one called “What to Do When Your Spouse Wins a Nobel” (written by the wife of a 1998 winner). I bought one about how science is misused in the media.

After that we attempted to go to the medieval museum, but decided that we only had time for one more today, so went to the Halwyll Palace. This palace was somewhere between a mansion and a true palace; it housed the Count and Countess von Halwyll, one of seven of their homes. One must take it for granted that a king and queen are rich. I mean, royal palaces are just huge. But this… the Countess told an architect to build her a house, and build her one he did. The piano arrived but it didn’t match the drawing room so they just had an artist come in and made new parquet siding for it, tralala. Each room just kept getting bigger and bigger and grander and grander. They had an attic, but needed the space so they turned it into an art gallery and bowling alley. They had five guest bedrooms all in row, and three whole rooms to store their china. They had a car, a horse and carriage, and a sled (instead of a carriage for winter). It was unbelievable and fantastic. There were also items belonging to the family around the house – gloves, dresses, guns, shoes – and the tour guides were dressed as maids and butlers from the early 20th century. More interestingly, the Countess had planned from the start that she would give her house to the state as a museum, so every single thing was numbered and catalogued. Spoons in cases said “Gr III: F.n.2” and matched an entry in a ledger. Sofas, pots and pans, the carriage, even the designer piano all had numbers. Also, Stockholm apparently got into the running-water game a bit late, and the family was reluctant to give up their “earth closets” in favor of flushing toilets. Every night the “night soil man” would come by to empty the buckets from the earth closets, and to encourage him – in addition to a salary – they left out a dram of whiskey.

In the afternoon we took a boat tour of the archipelago. Apparently 70% of Swedes own boats, and many have houses on these little islands. Occasionally the islands are very small, with only one house on them; it would be nice to have a private island, I think, but not very useful for most of the year, as the sea freezes. I wonder if they have to skate to get to their homes.

For dinner we brought food home from the Ostermalm Saluhall, sort of like the Swedish Dean and Deluca’s. We got Swedish meatballs, potatoes and onions, and fresh bread.

Swedish meatball count: 12.5

Best Swedish names so far: Gunnar, Jerker, Birger Jarls

[endnote: Swedes, like the Greeks, are allergic to work. Shops are open 10-6 on weekdays and close early on Saturdays. Often they are closed on Sundays and often on Mondays. Sometimes they close early or don’t open at all for no reason. Museums tend to be open 10-5, unless they are open 12-4. Or not at all Sundays and Thursdays. Restaurants are open from 11-1 and 5-10, but can close unexpectedly. Sunday is restaurant blackout day, and occasional Mondays and Thursdays. But at least they all get pensions and free healthcare.)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s