Greetings from Stockholm, where Mr and Mrs Emu have been spending their annual few days away from the offspring, in an attempt to rekindle their sanity. And where better to hang out than Stockholm, home of the darker side of European cinema, where the nights start drawing in at about 2.30 pm, and where every time you venture outside, it’s like walking into a freezer. And apparently, we got out just in time; get here in December and you start getting down to a couple of hours of daylight and minus 20 degrees.
But, given that our cultural knowledge of Sweden up to this point had been largely driven by the works of Stieg Larsson, the Abba back catalogue, Bjorn Borg’s adventures with wooden racquets, the Bluewater branch of Ikea and those really cool 1960’s Volvos and Saabs, we set about the business of getting to know Stockholm as well we could. So, with no further ado, here are the top 7 things to know about Stockholm, presented to you by a very impressed visitor:
1. The Swedish parliament is represented by 17 different parties. That’s 17. Given the fuss that the UK has recently made about an effective coalition, how could it possibly work? Well, in a couple of ways. Firstly, it splits parliament down into sub groups responsible for policy and process – each group represents all parties. Secondly, when parliament sits, the decisions are made by individual vote. The members of parliament actually sit together in order of constituency rather than in their parties. This seems incredibly civilised to me.
2. There’s a sense of reserve about the place that manifests itself in how people engage with you. There’s no unfriendliness as such, although on the scale of judging a city entirely on the basis of how many people say hello to you on a run, it would rate alongside Barking. Or Thetford. But the idea that people aren’t jumping about trying to impress you all the time is all good in my book.
3. Because the Swedes have been busy being tolerant for so long, some of the approaches that you see in other countries seems woefully old fashioned. For example, the idea of a gay-friendly bar or district is, well, a bit 1960’s. Everybody seems to be switched on to a fairly enlightened approach to the environment, without necessarily being a hemp-toting hippy. Although, of course, these would be tolerated…
4. There seems to have been a problem with alcohol abuse in the Nordic countries for years. It’s not as super-expensive to buy a beer as it used to be, but that’s in the context of everyone being pricey. And that, in turn, is partly because VAT is running at a standard 25% But the issue with alcohol was more a problem of abuse in the home, so the government decided to sell the stuff themselves, regulating the sales through their own chain of shops, that were only open until 3pm on weekdays. Rather worryingly, there are quite long queues outside the shops, but the recognition of alcohol as a drug that needs controlling is pretty neat. For a country with such a reputation for alcohol abuse, there’s no culture of drinking on the streets. A shame in a way as you could pretty much guarantee that your beer would always be cold.
5. Like many European countries, Sweden’s language skills put ours to shame. And it’s not just knowing another language, it’s being super-fluent in it. Ask someone in Stockholm if they speak English, and they’ll say ‘of course’, rather than ‘a little’. I got lost while I was out running, and had to ask directions. I’d been running for about 40 minutes, and must have looked a right mess.
‘Can you tell me how to get to Skeppsholmen’, I asked a pedestrian.
‘Certainly’, he replied, ‘and will you be travelling by foot?’
6. Because of the extremes of the weather, there seems to be a natural affinity with nature, so people get out and about when they can; the centre of Stockholm is littered with islands that have hardly any inhabitants that you can just wander, run or cycle around. And if you talk to someone about the weather, it’s like an audience with Michael Fish. except more fun.
7. According to Mrs Emu, who knows about such things, the classic blonde Nordic look is down to a genetic deficiency that took the kerotene pigmentation out of the hair. And apparently, the Nordic men were quite taken with this, and bred little genetically deficient Scandinavians for generations afterwards, thereby leading to a long lineage reaching all the way to the wives of many Premiership footballers. Mrs Emu, I might add at this point, is a brunette. Anyway, apart from all of that, there’s a pretty healthy and vital look to lots of the people we met. We walked around quite a bit in central Stockholm and beyond, and really couldn’t find any obese people to point and laugh at. Similarly, there was a marked lack of chavvieness, although, given that almost everyone was wearing a black anorak, who knows what hellish fashion might have been beneath?
So, if it’s so fantastic,why don’t you just go and live there? Well, it’s bloody freezing, you have to pay four quid for a cup of coffee, and you’d have to watch a lot of Ingmar Bergman films to fit in. But loads of stuff to learn, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for a visit. Just not in winter.