Monday, April 12, 2010

Oh, may I live, may I die in the North!

At the time that I started writing this (more than a week ago) I had just came back from a great Spring Break (or Holy Week, as it's known here) trip to Stockholm and Berlin.  Holy Week in Europe is sort of like a giant Chinese fire-drill: everyone leaves there city and goes to another one to hang out.  Madrid was basically empty when I got back on Saturday, mostly to the beach.  My boyfriend, Andrew, and two of our friends, Courtney and Jonathan, met me in Germany and we spent a few days in Stockholm courtesy of Ryanair.  At the risk of writing what would sound like a diary entry, I'll stay to the important points.

Arriving in Germany for my transfer in Dusseldorf was like entering another world.  The airport was clean, modern, and completely silent.  People talked only in hushed voices, quietly nursing a beer or sandwich.  No one was talking loudly enough for the entire room to hear, no one was smoking in blatant violation of signs, and even the Spanish couple that found it necessary to straddle one another to better make out while the plane was taxiing (no joke) learned some restraint.  Most read newspapers, which were, unlike in Spain where free 10-page rags are the norm, complete and varied.  I picked up my free International Herald Tribune (thank you, Lufthansa!) and breathed a sigh of relief that I was going to take a week's break from the most annoying aspects of Spanish culture.  Even the pleasant and considerate manner in which services were provided was a welcome break.  When our plane was delayed in Madrid-Barajas (as they always are), the friendly German flight attendants calmed down my seatmate who was going to miss his connection.  They apologized profusely even though it wasn't their fault, and although they said ground staff would be there to help him in Dusseldorf, they did their best to help him from the air.  It was so much better than Spanish apathy!

Some interesting (and uninteresting) points from Sweden:
  • Sweden is really cold.  When we arrived, the ice was still breaking up in the bay.  Piles of snow were also a common sight, even in almost-April.  Outside of the city, the ground was still completely covered.
  • When Ryanair said they were flying into Stockholm, they actually meant "nowhere near Stockholm".  Stockholm-Skavsta airport is actually 63 miles outside of the city and is not in the city, province, or county of Stockhom.  It takes a 90 minute bus ride - longer than the flight itself - to get into the city.
  • Stockholm has really odd hours of operation.  Things are only open between 10:00 and 4:00, if you're lucky.  English tours are almost universally only once a day, starting between 1:00 and 2:00, meaning that you can only see one thing at a time.  The notable exception to this is Ikea, which is open until 9:00 and has a free bus service.
  • Ikea also differs from the rest of Sweden in that it's quite cheap.  Sweden is not cheap.  Despite our best efforts to save money, we were at times caught completely off-guard.  One cafe even charged $6.25 for a slice of cake!
  • I actually kept forgetting what country I was in.  It feels so much like every other northern European country that I at times thought I was back in the Netherlands.  There's the same hushed sense of efficiency and unintelligible but clearly Germanic language.
  • Our hostel was on a boat.  We sang "I'm on a boat!" not infrequently.  Stockholm is full of hostels in weird places - on a boat, on a larger boat, in a former prison...  The hotel was actually a lot of fun and had a quiet 24 hour bar above it.  Logically, we never saw any Swedes there after 4:00 PM.  I'm not sure what they do with their time.  They only work 40 hour a week (36 if they have kids) and don't seem to go out except to get afternoon cake and coffee.
  • Stockholm is actually a fantastically beautiful city, especially in the sun.  There are a ton of steeples and many traditional buildings, or buildings in a traditional style.  Also, it's built on a bunch of islands, so you're always walking on bridges and it's hard to get lost.  The smallest one contains an institute for research on democracy and elections.
  • The degree of gender equality is startling.  Half of the strollers were being pushed by men and most bathrooms were not divided by sex.  One actually indicated that it was for use by both men and women with a drawing of two people wearing pants, except one had two circles on its chest, representing breasts.  Interestingly enough, though it seemed just as homophobic as the U.S. Eastern seaboard (more so than Berlin or Madrid).
  • Everyone speaks really good English, complete with colloquialisms and slang.  Even the street vendors and grocery store clerks.  I was really impressed. 
By far, the best part of Stockholm was the tour of the Riksdag, or Parliament.  As we came in to get a tour, the man in the front informed us that there were only four tickets left for the English tour.  "We're four people," I said.  "Yes," he said, holding the entrance stickers and if to prove that he was truly regretful, "but I only have four spots left.  I'm so sorry.  The rest will have to come back tomorrow.  I if could I would give out more, but I can't.  I wish I could let you all in.  I really am very sorry."  It was sort of touching.  The tour was let by a tall blonde woman with a meek demeanor and a great sense of humor.  Highlights included:
  • "The parliamentarians who choose to live in public housing have only very small rooms, but the basement of the buildings have swimming pools and laundry machines, for those who are addicted to laundry"
  • "We used to have two chambers of parliament, but it was so inefficient to have to go through the same procedure twice!"
  • (In response to a man criticizing the modern architectural elements to the building) "We think it is quite beautiful.  The Council of Beauty has approved it!"
Berlin was a totally different city in its own right.  Unlike Spain or Sweden, which were technically neutral (Spain, at least, really sided with the Axis and even sent soldiers, but whatever), Berlin was bombed to the ground.  There's really very little old or quaint left in the city, since everything was more or less build from scratch.  As a result, the city is modern and incredibly spread out.  Moreover, there has been a huge amount of reconstruction since the reunification, such that you can't even tell whether you're in the east or west.  The city is still very much under construction.  Not wanting to make an eyesore, though, they cover everything in fake facades that look like what they are trying to construct.  It's not really that successful a substitute.

The effects of the new construction mean that much of the city has a really modern feel.  As an example: monuments.  Germany had a difficult time getting over its role in World War II, and mixing it with modern conceptual art has made interesting effects.  Deciding that a single Holocaust memorial was not, the city decided to create separate memorials for each group involved, plus for anything that happened in a given place, all deeply conceptual. The burned book memorial, for instance, is a relatively small clear tile in the middle of the square where there were book-burnings, which looks down upon an empty white subterranean library.  The Jewish memorial looks somewhat like a graveyard, with passages on a grid between the stones that get deeper and deeper towards the center.  It is a favorite location for tag for German youth, I suppose with the added challenge of running from the police who try to stop them.  The most conceptual was the gay memorial, which featured a single large rectangular stone in a park with a small square hole in one side.  Looking in, one could see a one minute loop of two guys in 1930's dress making out.  This was the only one of the three with any sort of explanation, but it wasn't that close by and didn't really make a lot of sense

The best part of Berlin, in my opinion, were the governmental buildings.  The Reichstag is simply stunning.  Its dome, added in the 90's after reunification, is modern without being gaudy, like the European Parliament in Brussels.  It gives the feeling of being new without detracting from the historical building.  Moreover, it is located in a plaza from which one can see two other incredibly beautiful, super-modern glass government buildings and the super-modern glass train station.  I consider myself a connoisseur of government plazas.  I would say that Empire State Plaza, located in Albany, is still my favorite due to its absurdity, but Berlin is probably the best I have seen in terms of sincere effort.  We went up in the Reichstag one night.  It was a good opportunity to see the city, but I fear it couldn't compare to the tour of the Swedish parliament.

In any case, while I could undoubtedly continue writing this, I fear I lack the interest to do so (hence why it's taken me a week so far) and it wouldn't hold anyone's attention.  While I think I feel obligated to write about trips I've taken, I don't think they're ever as interesting to write about as they were to take, unless something crazy happens.  I think I just prefer to write about negative things (some have commented on my general tone), and fortunately most of my trips don't fit that category.

1 comment:

  1. 1. Too bad that Zurich isn't Stockholm. Sounds like Mean Monkey would be happy ther.
    2. I've been to Empire State Plaza loads of times and I cannot imagine what you like about it.