The axiomatic 6:00 a.m. Ryanair flight is always a pleasure. This time the esoteric carrier have decided that the airport serving Stockholm – Skavsta – resides 100 kilometres from the city. It’s a not-too-painful 80-minute journey north through the blue-hued fog of a cold November morning.
Dropped off slap-bang in the centre of Stockholm, it’s quite the overwhelming sight: a metropolis-like wintry city, the CBD extending out into its rivers, the sleek deco even encompassing the outskirts of its historical old town taverns and crannies. Cleanliness permeates, but not of a soulless kind; this is eco-friendly Scandinavia at its most aesthetic.
Disappointment presents itself in the guise of Systembolaget, the government monopoly of a drinks store – the only establishment where alcohol over 3.5% can be purchased. It’s a Toys R Us of liquid goodies, but the prices the most shocking I’ve seen on three continents (almost put together). Nonetheless, Jim Beam Honey and an assortment of ciders are purchased, my passport provided as proof that I am indeed 26 years old.
I’m staying at City Backpackers hostel on Upplandsgatan, situated beside a monument square, a gnarly Lidl – I love you, Lidl – 5 minutes away. Not too pricey (for Stockholm), free Wi-Fi, kitchen facilities, hot showers. It’s decent, and there’s even a sauna, but I’ll pass on the love as there’s a lot of wrestler-like hairy fellows loitering around the porch area wearing only towels. Always a nice introduction. An intended nap in my dorm becomes a 6-hour sleep, and I wake to find it’s evening, the sunset missed.
I embark upon a stroll down Drottninggatan, a modern-as-can-be commercial shopping street, bustling and loud, the length of which must be two miles, that segues over Riddarfjärden bay to Helgeandsholmen, and then the Gamla Stan district, definitely several centuries more ‘Old Skool’.
The darkness further intensifies the strange quietness of this part of the city, my footsteps echoing off the cobble streets and into their adjacent dwellings, the murmur of near-but-distant parties a respectable low. Proceeding to Västerbron bridge, the moonlight drifting on the somehow repressed choppiness of the waves below, I spend half an hour taking landscape photos I envisage will make magazines. This becomes a pipe dream after the not-working flash bulb.
After a quite breathtaking view of the city’s competing milieus from Kaknästornet TV tower – steam ships (I think) even approaching the estuary from afar, tiny figures by the mini-port feeding swarms of seagulls local cuisine – I end up in the densely populated Södermalm district. This culminates in a bottle of Hoegaarden in a bar called ‘Honey’, the cost of which at £8 is more than I make in an hour as a wage. I head back to the hostel, content that I’ve definitely put in over 50% effort in conducting some proper sightseeing. I open my first bottle of cider …. All hell breaks loose.
The nectar enters my equipoise like a snarling match to a furnace; I find myself half-pissed after two of them. There’s characters in my dorm: Italians, Valerio and Francesca, and Germans, Andreas and Markus. They’re also drinking indigenous treats of the ethanol kind, and subsequent to heading downstairs for a common room Basshunter-themed piss-up that embraces additional party goers (is this a party?), and then to an adjacent cafe within the hostel compound (right word?) that weirdly contains more alcohol amongst the coffee condiments, I am quite inebriated.
I’m struck by the castaway oddness of a Finnish woman, who with legit ice blonde hair is the first one I’ve come across who matches the much-alleged ‘physical blueprint’. 19 years old, her whole life ahead of her, travelling, working, not sure about career direction, I’m truly envious, wondering why I was such a bedroom-dwelling computer game-playing bum at that age. Self-awareness does not make a nice drinking experience … so I drink up and quit the introspection.
The guy from Napoli, Valeria, is blessed with a globalised sensibility and speaks flawless English, his staccato interests encompassing the band New Order, the politics of football fandom, the omniscience of US military bases around the world, the film style of Kubrick, and the wrongness of 2.5% cans of Rekorderlig. You will always find sources of useful information in these hostels.
Other discussion and banter was I suspect merry and topical. Lying back on my bed around 5:00 a.m. eating a bag of nuts and raisins, unable to make my bedsheets, and posting gibberish on facebook about girls with dragon tattoos, must serve as evidence of this.
The next day, after a run, a morning snack of cottage cheese and tuna as a protein-centric alcohol killer, a viewing of a Manchester United game in a pub complete with a watered-down Magners for £7.30, a trip to Aldi, and a stroll around a market full of fruit and veg, I realise I’m still pretty ropey, i.e. drunk, from the night before, and make an executive decision to ‘get back on it’. I therefore hit Systembolaget a few minutes before closing time, and acquire two bottles of wine and a 10-pack bundle of cider.
The alcohol is so pricey I convince myself it’s designed this way so as to put limits on my personal consumption. There are a few things I should be doing otherwise: Some other galleries, rumours about a money museum, and a party on a boat that just sounds a little too highbrow for my sensibilities considering my level of intoxication.
On my way back to the hostel I write a memo in my phone as a reminder to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and other modern Swedish films when I arrive home in Edinburgh. There’s clearly more to this land than what Bergman has informed me. His gloom and all-round depressing ‘world view’ must stem from Systembolaget; that prohibition on joy can only produce such works as The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960).
Were rampaging Vikings even prevalent here? I really can’t see it; I’ve seldom come across such neat, well-groomed, and, dare I say it, attractive people. Swedish women are really something. Every generalisation is true. I sometimes find myself cowering away, unable to look at them; on streets they pass by and I’m struggling with the notion that such things – über-intellectual models – exist. They are born for cinema – movie star cinema.
With the inclusion of more ‘revelers’ from Switzerland and Iran, the evening takes on more expansive music, integrated chain smoking, the visit to a few local pubs, and the realisation that I depart on the 6:00 a.m. bus to the airport for a one-day stop-off in Frankfurt before I head back to Edinburgh on Monday afternoon. I say goodbye to my new-found facebook friends. We’ll meet again (a few of us actually do).
A nap on the bus to the airport, morning snack of houmous and oatcakes in the terminal cafe, the look in the mirror at my drink-ravaged features and subsequent self-effacing maneuvers onto the plane, and I’m nap bound again. At Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, another Ryanair classic, I jump on the mandatory 100 km-outside-the-city-bus, George Michael’s Cowboys and Angels playing on a loop as I drift in and out of consciousness. No one is talking so it’s not worth making the effort; it’s too early for socialising.
Frankfurt: Sleek, Art Deco high-rise buildings channeling Wall Street, and underneath them packs of hobos sharing warm beer around a morning fire as a junkie sits beside them injecting heroin into his foot. Sublime. After this lovely hello, and a salad-and-booze-shop from a compulsory Lidl, I am able to check in to my hostel. I’ve stayed at the establishment before (summer 2011), and on that occasion there was an attempted dorm robbery or something of that ilk after one of the shady characters who hang around Hauptbahnhof managed to sneak in the building.
My feet on the balcony – cold bottle of Becks in hand, bag of amaretto and bourbon beside me, the golden gleam of the brick apartments opposite, and the next-door hum of buzzing engines – I feel this is the right place for me, a kind of pseudo-throne I could sit on and be content at paying £10 a night for it until my money ran out and it’s time to get a job in the hostel bar or join the homeless outside. What dreams take me away.
I soon appear to be drinking with two Mexican guys visiting from a work trip to Trier; they’re wine makers and know their stuff. I sample a bottled concoction and it’s apparent their skills are on a par with their erudition. The amaretto is destroyed – mixed with the Kentucky bourbon in a plastic mug with ‘I Love NY’ on the front lifted from the kitchen shelf. We’re joined by an Australian who looks like John Pilger, and a Japanese chap who doesn’t say much but drinks a lot of shots. I partake. Big mistake.
My salient memories are a pizza shop and a ten-minute attempt to try and figure out how the bottle opener in the corner works, a ride in a taxi, posing for photographs by a bridge, and being ejected from a mansion party. These are subsequently revealed to be legitimate memories, forever embedded in facebook photographs, the tags immediately removed.
I wake up. I have 26 minutes to catch the bus. I skip the shower, leave half my clothes behind, check out, run across a busy road – narrowly missing a cursing bicycle – and make the bus two minutes before departure. Packed, people are really looking at me; perhaps it’s because I appear to resemble something that’s wandered out of the woods after a few years.
An attempted freshen-up in the airport and another nap. My phone battery is dead and I have not even a euro left – there is nothing else to do but ‘people watch’ and I am in no state for that to be reciprocated. Boarding, I shuffle my way into a window seat near the back, close my eyes, and anticipate a shower, meal, and perhaps a glass of water back in Edinburgh. Until the next time, hostel Europe, farewell.