Over the years, I have jotted many an Oslo journal. It seems only right to do a Stockholm one. Then, maybe, a Copenhagen one. And then we’ll have Scandinavia covered.
(Some people consider Iceland and Finland parts of Scandinavia as well. That’s impure, but not worth fighting over, in my opinion.)
Tell you something funny: I was scheduled to review a concert at Carnegie Hall, but then changed plans to go to Stockholm. Who is singing in that concert? Well, Anne Sofie von Otter.
As I board Icelandair, I have a memory: When I went to Europe as a student, it was via Icelandair — the cheapest flight you could get. You stopped in Reykjavik for a bit, then went on to Luxembourg or Frankfurt (in those days).
In Reykjavik, I think of Reagan. Why? Well, the Reykjavik Summit, October 1986, between him and Gorbachev. It was here in Reykjavik that Reagan refused to give up SDI. That accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
To me, the Icelandic landscape has always looked extraterrestrial. Or lunar, maybe. Anyway, out of this world.
Here in Iceland, there is another budget airline: WOW. Its chief color is violet. And the flight attendants have retro uniforms, complete with caps: violet.
Icelandic women in those violet get-ups? Holy-moly.
When I get to Stockholm, it is pouring rain. A chill rain. A local tells me, “Typical Stockholm summer.”
But listen: Rain or shine, Stockholm is really easy on the eyes. Better in shine, but still. There are 14 islands here, forming a striking archipelago.
When I look at Stockholm, I think, “Oslo on stilts.” Oslo is a smallish Nordic capital, this a big one.
Which reminds me: Why did Alfred Nobel ask Norway to administer his peace prize, when he asked Sweden — his native country — to administer all the others? I get into this in my history of the peace prize. I’ll say a little about it now.
Nobel never told anyone why he wrote his will the way he did — at least as far as we know. But we can guess at his reasons for turning to Norway, where the peace prize was concerned.
At the time — the 1890s — Sweden and Norway were in union. Run from Stockholm, of course. Sweden was the senior partner, Norway the junior. Norway was a poor country cousin. (They wouldn’t strike oil until the late 1960s.)
Sweden was something of a power — a force in the world. Norway, not at all. So Nobel may well have reasoned that Norway would be more disinterested — purer, more innocent — in the awarding of peace prizes.
One more word about Alfred Nobel: He was one of the most cosmopolitan people of his time. He lived and worked all over — not just in Europe but in America and elsewhere. Yet, at bottom, he was a Swedish patriot.
Such an interesting life, and man.
For years, Sweden has had a reputation as a socialist country, and a pacifist one. And yet, reputations sometimes linger past their point of being true. Sweden is full of enterprise, and Stockholm is a fantastic commercial city. Sweden boasts some of the most famous companies in the world.
(The names best known to me are IKEA, H&M, Skype, Spotify, and Ericsson.)
As for pacifism: This is a big subject — I have touched on it before — but consider one fact: Recently, Sweden reinstated the draft — thanks to Vlad.
I see some old friends in Stockholm — I mean, American enterprises. There’s a 7-Eleven. (Oslo is dotted with them.) There’s a Circle K, where strange things are afoot. (That’s a line from a movie.)
McDonald’s shows its flag. “250 Seats” in this one! And Starbucks shows its flag, or mermaid. A double-tailed mermaid. Funky logo.
In downtown Stockholm, there is a taco joint (at least one). Can it be as good as one in, say, San Antonio? I doubt it. But how about as good as one in Detroit? Why not?
The royal theater, down by the water, is a knockout. I mean, an absolute beauty. That’s from the outside. What must it be like in? I don’t know.
Nearby, there is a large, attractive monument to Berzelius. Who he? A chemist (1779-1848). (Nobel was a chemist too — and a chemical engineer.)
Throughout Stockholm, I see monuments to men I have never heard of. It just goes to show you: What is important to you and your countrymen — and who is important — may not be important to others. And vice versa.
As I look at the Nordic Museum — almost castle-like — I think, “The Scandinavian Smithsonian.”
Near the opera house, you have Birgit Nilsson Alley. (She was a soprano.) In Oslo recently, I was looking at Kirsten Flagstad — her statue, I mean. (She was an earlier soprano.) Tell you a story.
Nilsson once said, “I never got such good reviews as when I retired.” What did she mean? She meant, “When I was singing, it was always, ‘Not as good as Flagstad.’ When I retired, other people got, ‘Not as good as Nilsson.’”
Across the way from Birgit Nilsson Alley, there is Jussi Björling Alley. (He was a tenor. Great. Stupendously great.) (A little cold, but hell: This is Sweden.)
In Norway, it’s nice to be greeted with “Hi hi!” (In their language, this is spelled “Hei hei!”) In Sweden, it’s nice to be greeted with “Hey!” (“Hej!”).
Even nicer: the salt-licorice ice cream. You ever had any? I hadn’t. Paradisiacal.
There is a beautiful young woman with one arm entirely tattooed. Why? Will she later regret it? Will she be able to do anything about it?
While I’m criticizing: Why young women wear so much makeup, I’ll never know. It is really gilding the lily (or “painting the lily,” to revert to the original Shakespeare).
Everywhere I go abroad, older people tell me about their children in America: where they’re living, how they’re faring. Some of my friends hate hearing this, but honestly: America is a universal nation.
When the sun comes out — wow. (As opposed to the Icelandic airline, WOW.) Stockholm really sparkles. And that sun stays out late. Till about 10:30, these days.
I think of a song lyric: “Don’t let the sun go down on me.” When you have it for so long, you’re all the more reluctant to let it go.
Out on the streets, I hear a jazzy version of the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. I think he’d love it — certainly that aria’s popularity.
I’ll tell you what living is: slathering delicious chocolate on a crêpe — for breakfast. Tawmbout.
I was wondering: Are Swedish meatballs Swedish? Or an American concoction? They’re Swedish, all right: and awfully good.
Back in America, an old Scandinavian hand said to me, “Don’t miss the Riddarholm Church” — the burial church of the Swedish kings. He was so right. A combination of beauty, history, and thoughtfulness.
I meet a young woman from Malmö. Is it true? I ask her. Is it true about Islamicization, and no-go zones, and all that? No, she says. Not at all. There are good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, as in most cities, she says. But she has never felt unsafe in her hometown.
Big, big topic, and one that will be with us for a long while …
To City Hall, for an elegant dinner. What an elegant place. And it’s where the Nobel banquets are held. Greeting guests at the door are blond goddessettes.
The next day, I happen to return to City Hall, and brides are having their picture taken. Grooms, too. This is out on the patio, so to speak. On the patio, next to the water. (Remember those 14 islands.)
There are at least three wedding couples here. One bride has a white parasol, to go with her dress. The groom is in all-white too. Nice, on this sunny day.
On a building, I see the name Hammarskjöld — which of course puts me in mind of the U.N. secretary-general. Did you know that Bill and Pat Buckley’s maisonette on the Upper East Side of Manhattan once belonged to him?
A piece of trivia for you.
In Russia, Putin’s government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was especially glad to see them in Oslo the other week. And I’m glad to see them here in Stockholm, manning their booth.
I see a young man in a Detroit Tiger cap. I then see another one in a Boston Red Sox cap. These are Swedes, I’m pretty sure — not visitors. Do they have an allegiance to those teams? Or are they just wearing interesting hats? The latter, I think.
A trumpeter — a lone trumpeter — is playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” beautifully. It’s still got it, that song. Armstrong would grin. (Louis, not Neil.) (Although Neil might too.)
Swedish pedestrians wait patiently at stoplights — when there are no cars coming. My American legs can’t. They just can’t. (See? It’s not me, it’s the legs.)
As in every European city — probably every hamlet, too — there are Gypsy beggar women. I spot one, looking at some delightful Swedish girls, who are working on a dance routine. She is smiling. As I walk by her, she quickly reverts to form, putting on her sad face and making her hand motions. She has done this all her life, I wager.
But I caught her: caught her being human, out of her act.
In Versailles, they have a hall of mirrors, and they have one in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel too. In this fabulous room, Robert Agostinelli, National Review’s fabulous chairman, hosts a dinner. He introduces me to a friend of his: Ronny Grant, a jazz musician who has spent much of his career in Italy.
I have a question for him: Did he ever play with Romano Mussolini? Oh, yes, he did. This son of Mussolini — and brother-in-law of Sophia Loren — became a jazz musician. I discuss him in my book Children of Monsters.
Incidentally, Ronny Grant is the voice of Sebastian, the crab, in La sirinetta — the Italian version of Disney’s Little Mermaid. Check him out in “Under the Sea” — “In fondo al mar” — here.
On a busy avenue of Stockholm, you see an eatery: Papa Chubby, advertising “pizzeza & choco-kebab.” I can’t tell you much about it except that it seems totally up my alley.
Before I leave the city, I compliment a lady on her English, which is unusually idiomatic. She says, “Too much Jane Austen, and too many American crime episodes.” “Or enough,” I reply.
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.