After the transfer through Finland, the Swedish added the novelty of automation to the mix: silent, immaculate, and largely self-sufficient. Multiple times, I approached the end of a corridor alone—the Scandinavian passengers from the plane having long since whisked off into the unerring efficiency of the Swedish machine in little “poofs” of blond hair and designer labels—thinking that I was trapped in dead ends of chrome and glass only to have the nearest wall slide open to reveal the way forward. This was accompanied by a sound remarkably similar to the ones that signified transportation on Star Trek, because apparently IKEA decorated the interior of the Starship Enterprise, which actually makes sense once you’ve been there, since the Swedish are really the only ones who stand a chance of looking good in those monochromatic jumpsuits.
This would prove a theme: the architects of Swedish infrastructure seem loathe to invite human input where there could potentially be none. The country as a whole is insistently and emphatically functional, self-sufficient in the extreme. My initial impression of the city, despite having disembarked from a many-houred flight and being a corresponding number of time zones out of my element, was anything but a blur. Stockholm struck me—courteously appeared to me, really—as a place where everything is lovely, pleasant, and just so, a paradise of goodwill and literacy and clear light. Sweden does have its depths of gray, its Nordic melancholy, but it seems foreign to the viscosity of experience and runny colors that New York offers in such profusion.
Instead, the clarity of the city and the air offer little to distract or compete with the main attraction: the people. I had heard this about Stockholm but doubted it, naively presuming it to be a myth built on exoticism and international stereotypes. But my overwhelming impression the first afternoon and every day thereafter, the most singularly striking aspect of the city, was the insane gorgeousness of its people. Not mere attractiveness, not so much an appeal as a type from one ethnicity to another, but the sheer individual beauty of each and every person there. Like models, all of them: six feet tall, blond, blond hair, faces drawn from the pages of Vogue and the clothes to match. I was overwhelmed, intimidated, and inundated. I had to stop doing double-takes of exceptionally beautiful people because I realized I was actually just checking everyone out. If the sartorial goal in New York is to see how assertively and impressively one can assert one’s own individual rules while still looking good, Stockholmers (-holmians? -holmites?) instead seem intent on beating one another at their own beautiful, beautiful game, aspiring as a whole to some angelic, transcendental, and collective notion of beauty. They’re all gorgeously in tune.
It’s this harmonious neoclassical ideal that stayed with me the most, the deliberate construction and vibrant clarity that leaves nothing but light to fill the spaces in between the things you see. Everything there comes through distilled by the limpid, pure light that hangs low in the sky. It is crystalline and unambiguous, straightforward in the extreme. Were you to hold a prism up in the air, I suspect you would not get the spectrum in its infinity but Roy G. Biv in all his specificity.
Before leaving Stockholm, I decided to take a day trip out of the city. I had—and still have—a vision of Scandinavian wilderness as a vast expanse of pine-treed precision and bucolic, deliberate thinking, due largely to a passing acquaintance with Bergman and Sibelius. And probably Vermeer and Tarkovsky. And possibly the five minutes of the American version of Insomnia I caught on TV once, which I’m fairly sure takes place in Alaska. Which is to say it was not a terribly rigorous or even terribly Swedish sample group, but such is the nature of preconceptions and the ways in which we make sense of things with which we have no experience. I also just wanted to get out of the city for a bit. Taking a vacation from New York and never leaving urbanity seems almost counterproductive.
Based on consultation with my guide book* and pamphlets from the ferry office, I decided to visit the island of Grinda: an hour and a half by ferry, for the more nature-inclined day-trippers, and with a clutch of cafes and stores in the center. So after a beautiful and blustery ferry ride that whisked by innumerable tiny islands, each populated with a few houses and people, I was dropped off on a small, spare wooden dock with a single dirt road leading into the island’s interior. My compatriots vanished immediately (those Swedes are nothing if not efficient), and after taking stock of my situation with equal amounts of dubiousness and enthusiasm, set off. The ferry wasn’t to return for six hours, so I had a while. The first four hours were cold and lovely; there is something to be said for hours freely spent watching the Baltic from a rocky cliff on a gray day on an island in the Swedish archipelago. There begins to be less to be said for it after the fourth hour, when you realize that the Swedish take the notion of the off-season seriously and consequently none of the aforementioned cafes are open or even really existent, and furthermore you haven’t seen another soul since you arrived on this windswept island a thousand miles from New York, and your chances of successfully extracting yourself from this theoretically peaceful and contemplative natural sojourn are beginning to look dimmer and dimmer.
So after exploring every inch of this island, and many of them more than once, I slowly disintegrated into a bundle of extremely cold nerves (let me tell you, October in Sweden is windy), searching for shelter and ultimately taking refuge in a small shack near the dock that seemed to exist solely to provide confused travelers like myself with some modicum of protection against the onslaught of wind. Judging from the decades of graffiti and myriad languages covering the walls, I had the dubious consolation of not being the first in this predicament. I also managed to find one reference to the ferry not coming when it was supposed to, and another to somebody swimming between the islands, neither of which did anything to comfort me whatsoever.
I also learned, during one of my innumerable verifications of the ferry schedule pinned to a post on the dock, that I in fact had to signal for the ferry by means of a circular metal signaling contraption, or the ferry would not come and I would be left alone on this godforsaken lovely island in Sweden. The contraption also warned that if it were too dark for the boat to see the signal, I would have to illuminate it with the nonexistent illumination device. And further wearing down my concerted effort at not freaking out was the painfully obvious fact that I was alone on an island in Sweden without any form of communication and no one knew that I was there and that if the ferry didn’t come I would have not few but zero ways to extricate myself from this predicament. Those last two hours were cold and worrisome.
Of course this saga came to a close when the ferry came exactly when it was supposed to, and I embarked along with the one other person who showed up fifteen minutes before the ferry, like a normal person would do for normally reliable public transportation, and as I keep saying if there’s one thing they’ve got down pat in Sweden it is systems of organization instituted by the government. So while to me, my four hours of melancholic contemplation followed by two of staving off freezing panic took place on the edge of the world, I’m sure from the Swedish point of view I was basically freaking out because I was in Wassaic and wasn’t sure if Metro-North was going to come on time.
And then I was safely on my flight back home, and barring any catastrophic disasters or totally unforeseen life changes, done with islands in Sweden for a little while. It felt safe to settle back into that familiar weight of missed and achieved opportunities, and it was suddenly so strange and so easy that this temporary world in the the Baltic exists a mere eight hours away from me and the people I know and their lives. In a way it makes it hard to believe in the superpersonal, international structures of power, those governmental coalitions that control vast swathes of the world. I flew through those swathes, those supposed boundaries, and there was nothing but air, beautiful people, eight hours of my life and changes in the landscape. Anyway, it’s things like this that remind you that perspective matters a great deal.
*it was Lonely Planet. What an odd name.
Friday afternoon, curated for your viewing pleasure.
and finally, some music: Ozomatli, “Can’t Stop”