Give any Swede a chance and he or she will raise a glass to you, launch into a lengthy toast, and, if you are really unlucky, you will be expected to sing, from a song sheet you have already been handed. I blame it on the long dark nights, the cold, the totalitarian, Kafkaesque rules under which Swedes live… The biggest solecism you can commit is to fail to look a Swede in the eye when you are being toasted. That means bad luck or worse, bad sex, for the next ten thousand years. Yesterday I was at a wedding in Orebro – a town which is part stunningly beautiful, centering around a medieval castle and a fine river, and in part hideously ugly, filled with the worst kind of 1950s concrete jungle architecture – largely in the style of a shopping centre I once visited in Barnsley.
The toasting and speeches lasted from 4pm until alcohol finally came to my rescue and delivered me into blissful, toast and speech-free oblivion some time after 11pm. That’s the great thing about Swedish aquavit. One glass and your legs get disconnected; two and your brain starts shorting out… And the next morning it delivers the mother, father, brothers and sisters of all hangovers… To be honest, I prefer funerals to weddings, but that’s a long story, for another day’s blog….
Don’t get me wrong, I really like Swedes a lot. The stoics who resist the temptation to flee to warmer climes, more benign tax regimes, more tolerant societies and remain behind, making up the nation’s 9m or so population, are lovely people, generous and warm hearted. Their countryside is beautiful, their prawns the best on the planet, and their towns and cities have an air of calm that I have rarely found anywhere else. Stockholm where I have come to meet my Swedish publishers, is one of the most stunning looking cities of the world. As well as being one of the coldest. It is late May, well into their summer, and the temperature is struggling to hit 10c in the noonday sun. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s immortal words about another great city surrounded by water: “The coldest winter of my life was a summer I spent in San Francisco.” He should have gone to Stockholm!
And all those petty rules do little to warm your heart. Cross a road on a red light and you’re off to a penal colony. Want to smoke a cigarette with a glass of wine on the balcony of your hotel at 10pm? Forget it. You can smoke your cigarette, or your Cohiba out there all night, but you have to take your glass of wine inside at 10pm and drink it in the bar. Want to buy a bottle of wine on a Saturday? In your dreams. You should have thought about that on Friday, you alcoholic pervert you. System Bolaget, the state controlled liquor shops, with interiors reminiscent of surgical appliance wholesalers, are resolutely shut all weekend.
Stockholm is on the same latitude as my old home city, Toronto, where the drinking laws were equally draconian. Sweden is under an historic Lutheran influence, whilst English Canada has long suffered the privations of a Scottish Presbyterian heritage. Personally I’ve never quite got comfortable with the hypocrisy of a religion that makes the imbibing of alcohol compulsory in its churches, but a sin anywhere else.
It’s a shame, because Sweden really does have a lot to offer. With Emmanuel Swedenborg, they had one of western world’s first intellectual mystics and serious researchers into the paranormal, Axel Munthe wrote one of the most magical books of the 1920s (don’t miss his awesome house, Villa San Michelle if you go to Capri), Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, two of the greatest actresses the world has ever seen (Ingrid Bergman co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, one of my top 10 all time favourite films), Ingmar Bergman, one of the greatest, if sometimes bleakest film directors (see The Seventh Seal) , Erik Carlsson, undisputably the greatest rally driver of his era. And of course their famous exports, Abba, Volvo, Saab and, undisputed king of flatpackland, Ikea.
Best of all, Sweden broke the biggest taboos of prurient post-War western society. It both legitimized pre-marital sex and produced some of the best-looking creatures on the planet with which to enjoy it. And to further enhance the experience, Swedish company Duxiana created the best beds in the world on which do it. It may not, now, be the best endorsement, but the first thing Tony Blair did when he got elected for the first time was buy a Dux bed so he would sleep well. Perhaps he should have stayed in it.
In my posts I’m going to give the names of hotels and restaurants – and the odd tourist site – that I’ve either really liked or really hated. Here goes with Sweden:
Must see sight in Stockholm: The Vasa Museum. The Vasa was Sweden’s Titanic. But unlike our own great doomed ship, the engineering behind the Vasa was so crap that it never even made it out to sea. Overcrowded with sailors and gunner crew, this new flagship of the Swedish fleet, intended to be the greatest and most terrifying warship the world had ever seen, capsized and sank on its maiden voyage, in full sight of the Stockholm shipyard that built it. It is now a national treasure, brought to the surface and placed in its own museum. Hauled up from many fathoms down on the seabed, a testament to something I can’t quite fathom… But really a great museum to visit, for all ages. Even if, like me, you are not a museum junkie. See this site for more info about the Vasa.
Peter with Elk in Stockholm’s Food Hall: foodie heaven!
Must eat places in Stockholm: The hot dog is the national snack, available on a good street corner near you. To be eaten bent double against the elements, tissue paper flapping, mustard and ketchup spattering over the cream linen jacket you are wearing because some wazzok told you it would be hot.
Eat a seafood lunch in the food hall in Stockholm – it is total foodie heaven. This is their equivalent to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York. Simple ingredients of the very best imaginable quality. Not cheap, but worth it.
For dinner, go to Pontus By The Sea on the Old Town harbour waterfront, sit in the wonderful, spacious room (with covered exterior for smokers), order their Tuna sashimi, and go for a main-course portion of their cured and blackened salmon starter. Drink their Pouilly Fuisse with it, and the world is going to rather a long way north of OK.
My delightful Swedish publisher, Marika Hemmel of Damm Forlag, took me to Sturehof restaurant in Stureplan, one of the oldest and most famous of Stockholm’s restaurants, and it was ace. I started with seared scallops then had their seafood ragout. Sublime. Cannot recall the wine, but it was Spanish, yummy and I got very smashed.
I also ate, memorably, in Prinsen. The British/Armenian 1960s industrialist and bon-viveur Nubar Gulbenkian once said “The best number for dinner is two – myself and a good waiter.” We had one of the greatest waiters ever in Prinsen. French, of Algerian extract, the man was a model of charm, attentiveness and assessing our tastes. I had the classic, exquisite Swedish caviare starter, löjrom (one of the dishes I would order for my last meal) followed by slow marinated pork. Foodie nirvanah!
Stockholm hotel: Stayed in the Hotel Rival. Co-owned by Abba superstar Bennie, we got off to a shaky start with a room that felt like a monk’s cell. After threatening to leave we were given a beautiful room – and one that did actually look like one of the rooms in their brochure and on their website. (Tip: British people are known for not complaining, so tend to be given the worst rooms in hotels. Always demand to see another room if you are not put in the Presidential suite from the get go) After that everything soared. The staff were constantly delightful and helpful and the place is smart, well located and cool. It reminded me of the W on Lexington in New York.