Stockholm Journal

(Photo: Scanrail/Dreamstime)
Notes on the Swedish capital

When you fly into Stockholm, you fly into Arlanda Airport. This made me curious: Can you fly from Orlando to Arlanda? Oh, yes.

I have come from New York, however.

‐In cities all over the world, Uber drivers are immigrants. Stockholm is no exception. Obviously, there are problems with Uber. But the company has also done a lot of good for both employees and, of course, clients.

‐I behold the birch trees in Sweden and wonder: How can anything be so straight? It’s like Nature is presenting some kind of mathematical ideal.

‐An eminent diplomat, retired, says the following to me: “A journalist has come from America to write about Sweden and defense. I can’t figure out whether this is good news or bad news.”

Well, it’s both, in a way. The bad news is that Sweden has need to rouse itself, militarily, given Russian pressures in the Baltic. The good news is that Sweden is indeed rousing itself, or at least beginning to do so.

They have increased spending. They have moved troops back to Gotland Island. They have conducted their largest exercises in more than 20 years alongside NATO, and other, troops. There is a debate here about whether to join NATO, after all this time.

Yes, I have come to learn about all this, and report on it. But not here — not in this journal, which is just for breezy notes.

‐Many cities have old post offices — buildings that used to be post offices and are now something else. Aren’t they grand? Stockholm’s is (built in 1903).

‐Rest assured, McDonald’s is here. And Burger King. The “Home of the Whopper,” as it says on the window, is at home everywhere.

So, Stockholm is bilingual, having both McDonald’s and Burger King. But how about Burger Chef? Does that chain still exist?

I could Google but am moving on …

‐… to Subway and 7-Eleven. They are right next to each other, cheek by jowl. What world-bestriding companies they are (and useful, too — which is why they are world-bestriding).

‐Stockholm is dotted with every manner of eatery. You got Kebab House. You got MBQ, which stands for Mongolian barbecue. You got a charming place called “Polpette.”

Why charming? Well, “polpette,” in Italian, means “meatballs.” These balls are found in Italian cuisine. They are also found in Swedish cuisine, famously. And this place, apparently, gives you both.

I don’t try it. But I do have meatballs in a traditional Swedish restaurant, and they would bring tears to your eyes. But they pale in comparison to a blueberry-yogurt dessert — which could have you sighing for a week.

‐You’ve heard the expression “seize the day.” It has extra meaning in Stockholm in November. The sun sets about 3:30. You need to take advantage of that light. You appreciate it all the more.

I have seen Stockholm in the summer — bright, glorious, sparkling summer — and now I have seen it in November. November Stockholm seems more Scandinavian to me — classically Scandinavian, conforming to my image of Scandinavia. It is beautiful. A little gloomy, maybe, but beautiful all the same.

‐Inside Central Station — vast, gleaming Central Station, for rail travel — there is a mall. The place is bustling. When it’s pitch black outside at 4 p.m., the mall, or station, is a haven for life.

Or so it seems to me.

Mirabile dictu, as Bill Buckley would say. To use the john in Central Station, you have to pay — ten crowns. But you can use a credit card. And through you go.

Is there anything more disgusting than a train-station bathroom? They forgot to tell the Swedes, they forgot to tell the Stockholmers. The john in Central Station is nicer than some capitals’ best restaurants …

‐Swedish women are famous for their beauty, and rightly so. You have to ask: If so many look like movie stars, how do they decide who the movie stars will be?

I have an observation, however, and one that I have made before: The craze for tattooing — you might say, by this point, the tradition of tattooing — has gotten out of hand. I look forward to the end of it, maybe in a generation or two …

‐For years, I have said that the most underrated conductor in the world is Sakari Oramo, a Finn. He is the chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. They are playing. But with a guest.


‐At the opera, they are doing a new work, by a Russian-Swedish composer, Victoria Borisova-Ollas. It is Dracula — an opera on the classic Bram Stoker story. I will write about it in a post at The New Criterion.

How was it? Good (in brief).

‐The door at the entrance of the opera house says Drag — Pull. I love that.

‐Inside the opera house, I see a portrait of a lovely young woman — must be Jenny Lind, right? It is. (She was the “Swedish Nightingale,” world-famous in the middle of the 19th century.)

‐The opera house has a golden salon, Versailles-like. There is a bust of a distinguished fellow — Ludvig Norman. Not a name to me, I’m afraid. There’s another bust of another distinguished fellow — August Söderman. Sorry. No know.

But there’s also a bust of the Nightingale …

‐Where are Birgit and Jussi? (Birgit Nilsson, the great Swedish soprano, and Jussi Bjoerling, the great Swedish tenor.) Oh, they’re around. Bjoerling, for example, is portrayed as Manrico, the title character in Verdi’s Trovatore. But I don’t see a bust of either singer.

As I mentioned in a previous Stockholm journal (here), there are two alleys near the opera house: Birgit Nilsson Alley and Jussi Bjoerling Alley.

So they got that goin’ for them … (Echo of Caddyshack, as men of a certain age will know.)

‐Before an appointment, I am determined to be on time. I think of the Swedes as sticklers for punctuality. I think that, in part, because of what Kofi Annan once said.

The former secretary-general of the U.N. is married to a Swede. (He himself is Ghanaian.) Say that someone invites you to a dinner party at 8. In Ghana, Annan said, you might show up at 9:30 or 10. That’s the cultural expectation. His wife, however, would arrive at the house at 7:55, walk around the block, and ring the doorbell precisely at 8.

‐Here in Stockholm, there are Christmas decorations about. Too early? Too early in the second week of November? I would say. Whether you have Thanksgiving or not — I would wait until after Thanksgiving …

‐When we Americans are young, we’re taught that America is a nation of immigrants — which is certainly true. But you can be led to believe that this makes America unique.

While coming of age, I made a discovery: Rare is the nation that is not a nation of immigrants!

I’ve thought of this, yet again, while talking with people in Stockholm. I meet a distinguished Swede whose parents were refugees from Poland. I meet another distinguished Swede whose parents were refugees from Latvia.

Sweden has had lots of refugees and immigrants over the years. Vietnamese came. As in America, they became much-valued citizens.

‐A few years ago, I did a little report from Maine — where there is a Somalian population. Problems abound.

I wondered, Are they grateful? Are these Somalian Mainers grateful to be in America, as contrasted with their tormented native land? They won a kind of lottery, didn’t they? (Maybe they literally won the lottery — an immigration lottery — I don’t know.)

Here in Sweden, I think, Are they grateful? The people who have come from the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia? Do they realize how lucky they are, to be living in this free and generous country?

Or are they resentful? Do they feel shame at the contrast between Sweden and the countries they left? Or do they feel entitled, even superior?

Are they willing to assimilate?

These are big and terrible questions, and I understand they are being discussed openly now, after a season of political correctness and fear.

‐The Democrats are an interesting party here. They have their roots in Nazism. They are nationalist and populist. They are anti-EU and anti-NATO. Generally, they are considered right-wing. But are they left-wing? Does it matter?

There is a point at which Left and Right join …

‐I echo something that Radek Sikorski said to me not long ago: It’s a pity that the phrase “national socialist” has been taken by the Nazis — has been stigmatized by swastikas, world war, and genocide. Because “national socialist” applies to many people and parties on the scene today, including Madame Le Pen. It is the phrase juste. But it’s out-of-bounds because of the Third Reich.

‐In Sweden, plenty of people support the Democrats. Are they fascists? Well, some are, surely — but others are basically liberal-minded people who have turned to that party because they are fed up and scared. The “mainstream” parties should pay better attention to them, I think …

‐Here’s something lighter: Honest Al’s Barbershop. Yes, that’s what it’s called — and the name makes me smile.

‐Stockholm is watery, majestic, and intimate, all at once. It is an archipelago, this city. The royal and governmental buildings are truly majestic. (So are some business redoubts.) The city is intimate because of its nooks and crannies — its grace notes.

Stockholm is outstandingly beautiful, even artistic, I would say.

‐The afternoon is cold, dark, and rainy, but a bride and groom are having their pictures taken anyway. She is in bare arms. Both of them — the people, I mean, not the arms — seem happy.

‐In this age of bridges to everywhere — including to nowhere (as in Alaska) — I’m glad to see that there are still ferries, as here …

‐This I am not so glad to see: There is begging in Stockholm, as in other European cities — I mean, organized begging. Gypsy, or Gypsy-style, begging. Everyone at his post. Everyone punching the clock, so to speak.

Say this for the begging in America: At least it’s not organized (so far as I know).

‐In my hotel room — neat as a pin, and ingeniously organized — there are barbells. Little barbells hanging on the wall, in little racks. I’m glad they’re there (for other guests).

‐You don’t have to be far from the center of things to be out in nature. I happen upon a trail, and there’s a monument to a lovely young woman. Jenny again? Jenny Lind? Yup.

There is another young woman, this one a symbol of peace. She has been put up there by Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. I was fairly critical of this group in my history of the Nobel Peace Prize. (They won the thing in 1985.) To begin with, their Soviet leader was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. That was hardly a peace organization.

But I digress. She’s a lovely young woman, no matter what. (I’m talking about the monument.) Really beautiful. So is peace — which you sometimes have to arm to the teeth to have.

See you, dear friends. Thanks for joining me.



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A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.


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