[OK, so, this was a year ago. And I never finished writing it, really. This is mostly a scoop of the daily emails I sent John as it was happening. For various reasons, I never did a full write-up and I didn’t post a set of pictures. I wasn’t happy with the trip, maybe because of other stuff going on then. I wrote maybe five paragraphs about it a month after the fact, and a few pictures went to Instagram, but that’s it.
Here’s what I did finish. I’ll clean it up a bit, but it isn’t complete. This is just for completeness, and to clear out my queue. -J]
Hello from Stockholm. Actually, hello from 40,000 feet over Iceland, where I’m a couple of hours into a ten-hour flight back from a week in Sweden. I usually write these trip reports while I’m still in town, but I didn’t have time. And now I’ve got nothing but time, so here goes.
This has been a weird trip. I had to take this week off, based on my work schedule, because if I didn’t take vacation, I wouldn’t get another chance until October. Last year, the same thing happened, and I drove down to LA for a week, to try and write and to see old ghosts. Now, I’m not writing, and didn’t want the nostalgia. And I wanted to leave the country. I hit Expedia and tried to find what cities were a direct long-haul flight from SFO. I’ve already done Amsterdam and Frankfurt. London, too. Dublin was a thought. Dubai was way too expensive. Zero interest in Paris. I think Copenhagen and maybe Zurich were on the list, but neither clicked with me. Then I ran the numbers on Sweden, and gave it a think.
I’ve had some interest in Sweden forever. Back when I was writing about death metal, Sweden was pretty much the home of the genre (although there were a lot of artists from Tampa, and some in California, too). At the start of the first wave of death metal in 1991 and 1992, I interviewed a lot of bands, traded tapes through the mail, and knew maybe a half-dozen bands from Stockholm. I didn’t know if the youths into extreme metal were at all representative of the country as a whole. I guessed not; it was probably similar to the outcasts in the metal scene in the US being an example of American society as a whole, which they very much were not. So Sweden’s always been in the back of my head. And I like Germany, and Sweden seemed to have some similarities, as far as a strong economy, progressive society, and old history. So, why not visit?
I got a good deal on the flight and the hotel, then promptly forgot all about the trip, too busy with work and school to do any planning. I bought the Rick Steeves book, but didn’t even look at it. Right before the trip, I googled a few basic things, but not much more. I had a wide open plan. Famous last words.
* * *
The flight out was okay, although I slept maybe four hours the night before, woke up way too early, and worked on a paper as I waited for my 0500 departure. I drove to SFO, dumped my car there, and took a short flight to LAX. Ate some lunch at 0900 and then got in the big plane to jump across the top of the globe and back down. I can’t sleep on a plane, so I paid €25 for the spotty Wi-Fi and bothered people online during the whole flight. I ended up landing at Arlanda airport the next morning, effectively losing a day. That’s when the fun began.
First, I waited an hour for luggage. The airport is almost minimalist and has nothing in it. It’s not like there’s a Cinnabon and McDonald’s every ten feet, because the idea of making people eat five thousand calories an hour to maximize shareholder value just hasn’t come up yet. Coca-Cola is sold in a ten-ml bottle. Why would someone want a gallon of it in one sitting? Everyone smokes, though. Later that day, I saw an 80-year-old woman on a bicycle, smoking.
After I got my luggage, I took the Arlanda Express to the city. This is a bullet train that goes 125 MPH and gets you from the airport to downtown Stockholm in about 17 minutes. Everything about that was cool, and the train itself was as clean as a Disney monorail in Japan.
I got to the hotel and had six hours to kill, which was just swell because I smelled like a homeless person and felt like my face was covered in KFC. Dropped off my bags and started walking, just the camera backpack and the big gun out, the Canon 5DS with a giant L lens on it. On the surface, Stockholm’s a 16th-century Euro city that’s never seen war and has been thoroughly modernized from a good economy. But as I walked around, a few things were apparent. First, it was Sunday morning, so everything was closed. Second, the city’s been sort of locked down to stop the homeless situation. It’s not as apparent as the anti-homeless stuff you see in cities in the US, but you can’t find a public toilet anywhere, or a place to sit down for a while and relax. It feels very safe and sanitized, but cold.
The people – also a bit cold. I thought everyone spoke English here. Well they do, but not by default. Everything is in Swedish. Signs are all Swedish. Everyone speaks Swedish. Everyone speaks Swedish to me. I don’t know if it’s my looks, or that I’m not in a big pack of people so they assume I’m not a tourist, but in restaurants and such, people are just rapid-fire blasting Swedish at me and I cannot parse it at all. It sounds goofy, like the Swedish chef or some Monty Python skit, and I am just sitting there going “yeah! sure! coca-cola!” or whatever, hoping they will eventually realize I am the stupid American and switch to dumb-people language. People are somewhat cold and standoffish. Well, not somewhat – totally. I’m hoping if I go to a few record stores, the people will talk metal or jazz and calm down a bit. [They didn’t.] Otherwise, this trip is going to be just museums, long walks, and school.
The bathroom situation – there are pay toilets, but I had no coins and no money. And no banks were open. I eventually found a small urban mall and went to the Ikea (of course) which had futuristic pay toilets that took credit cards. A swipe of the plastic gave me access to a little cubicle toilet that was spotless and played bird/nature sounds. It was bizarre. It turns out everything in Sweden takes cards and the thousand bucks of US cash I brought with me was useless for the trip.
I ended up at a fake British pub in a mall, eating far too much Swedish charcuterie that tasted all salty and bizarre and took an hour to show up. Reading memes. Wondering what the fuck was going on. Went to take a piss and the bathroom was about three feet by three feet with a trio of the low-hanging pissers with no walls. A guy who looked like Jethro Tull’s roadie was in there, and immediately launched into “blorgenforgen slusvshen fiergon sclurben!” and I was like yeah I’ll wait outside.
After six hours of walking, I checked in at the joint. Hotel was okay, and I took my much-needed shower. Blacked out for an hour, had no idea what century I was in. Went walking and looked for dinner. I was in a weird area where there are a lot of offices and everything is either lunch places you go to drink and be seen, or places you grab a sandwich and go back to the office. It’s all closed by five. I walked for two hours and ended up back at the 7-Eleven and scored a pre-made salad and some ice cream. Ended up walking twelve miles for the day.
I am not awake. The time difference is fucking me. Last night I would sleep three hours, wake up, start texting people in the middle of their day, sleep two hours, etc. I probably need to get out and walk a bit after it warms up, find a museum or something.
More pictures later. I have not sorted everything. The sun is really weird at this latitude, and you’d think with the long days you would have tons of light, but what it means is you have like ten seconds of perfect light, and really long shadows for the rest of it. I’ll figure it out. Or not.
* * *
Exhausted. Can’t nap. I was up until 2 belting out a paper, then I think I woke up at about 730. I got the paper done though. If it goes through, that’s another class over.
Yesterday was a bit of a non-day. I walked to this shopping district about twenty minutes south, because there is this record store called Sound Pollution that is infamous with the death metal scene. Small place, half the size of my apartment, and I got there when it opened, so it was largely empty. The guy working there just looked like a straight older gentleman, not the long-haired metalhead I expected. Most of the stock was new and not collectible/old, but they did have a wide range of things. I’m completely out of this scene and just listen to the same dozen albums from the early 90s, and Swedish people won’t chat, so I was a bit overwhelmed shopping, Texted Ray, who was still awake, and I tried to confirm rarity on a few records. Bought a few things, but I have no way of playing them, so that’s cute.
Saw a TGI Friday, which was empty. I was tempted, because I could sit down, eat fried food, and maybe get a Coke bigger than a thimble. I went down a side street and found an OG Swedish restaurant, the kind with the antlers on the ceiling and the look of a Scandinavian hunting lodge. Lots of bizarre game meats and whatnot. When in Rome. I ordered a reindeer meatball plate, with the lingonberries and the potatoes pressed into a ring. Some kind of cream sauce, the usual. Not bad, but I also got a slice of Swedish chocolate cake, which was like 5000 calories and I barely stumbled home.
Alternated between unconsciousness and doom-scrolling on my phone. All of my ads online were turning Swedish, and so were my Google search results. Also I’m used to scheduled ads and news stories breaking during the day, Then I went to a Burger King next door, because I had to force myself to eat at 5:00 or it would suddenly be midnight with everything closed. No cash registers – just big touchscreens and card readers. I got some weird chimichurri burger. Got back here and burned the evening on that stupid paper.
Not sure what I am doing today, but I need to get out of the room now. I feel like I’ve walked too much right in this central area and need to get out. I also don’t feel like I’ve taken a decent picture yet. I should try harder today.
* * *
Trying to get rolling. I slept almost 8 hours last night, albeit in two shifts. I really can’t hack the sleep situation, and will probably get used to it the day before I have to flip back 9 hours again.
Yesterday I took the subway out to the big Westfield mall in the suburbs. The train was immaculate. You could do open-heart surgery on the floor. Perfectly clean, no distractions, no problems, and it also seems like I have a perfect five bars of 5G everywhere in this country, even when underground. Subway stations are absolutely surreal, giant caves blasted deep underground like a Star Wars base, painted up like modern art masterpieces. The mall was insane. Built in 2015. 1.1 million square feet. Three floors. Zero vacancies. Two full grocery stores. Maybe 250 stores. No anchors, but it had inline stores that were as big as a typical Macy’s in the US. Busy on a Tuesday afternoon, probably about as crowded as a Saturday at a good mall in California. So that was cool. It also involved about 15 minutes of walk each way through a suburb that was very Swedish, or reminded me of when I was in Nuremberg walking in the suburbs. Lots of very clean and modern flats in ten-story towers, mixed in with old chalet-looking houses.
Slept in the afternoon. The time difference is getting very depressing, re keeping up with friends online. I wake up, and they’re about to go to bed. I top to check my phone during lunch, and everyone’s asleep. I go to bed during their afternoon. Etc.
Went walking last night, and on a goof, I went to Pizza Hut for dinner. It was more of a sit down place like a bar or bistro, with EDM music playing and beer on tap. I got a personal pan pizza and it tasted identical to one I’d get in the US. THey had a bunch of weird stuff on the menu, but I didn’t want to fuck things up.
Meanwhile, I have been here four days and still haven’t seen a cop. No homeless encampments. No litter. No drama. Things just work. Too bad the people are so eh.
I think I’m hiking over to that Vasa ship museum if I can wake up. Everyone told me to go to it, so I guess I will.
* * *
I’m at the point in a solo trip – always happens around day 5 – when the depression becomes overwhelming. I’ve done everything and I’m sick of all of it, and looking forward to the dread of having to pack it all up and wake up at 3am for the flight back.
I went to see the Vasa yesterday. Big warship from the 1600s, where the king built it as the pride of the fleet even though everyone said it was an idiotic idea, and then the fucking thing sank before it cleared the harbor on its maiden voyage. They found it and raised it in the 60s, restored it, and now it’s indoors. It’s interesting to see, but I had no patience to walk around reading all the displays about what kind of food sailors ate in 1632 or whatever the fuck. I went next door to the viking museum, and that was even more of a bust. It’s a place not much bigger than my apartment, where you walk around looking at various plaques and timelines, with the occasional sword or hand-woven blanket. Then, gift shop. People here are ga-ga about the viking thing, the way people from South Boston are hung up about Irish heritage and won’t shut up about Guinness. Saw a few guys with their arms covered with rune tattoos pawing through all the books and fake swords in the guest shop, and realized this whole thing wasn’t for me.
Was just looking at the import from yesterday and this 5ds camera is not great. It’s too heavy, and the high-mp sensor means it’s impossible to get good shots that aren’t blurry unless you’re on a tripod. Absolutely not the camera for walking around. I am almost tempted to trade it back in when I get home, maybe get a small mirrorless for the next trip.
No idea what I am doing today, but I really need a long walk. At least I’m getting in my steps. But I’m thoroughly sick of the area right around the hotel, and I’m too lazy to take a long train ride out to nature or whatever.
That paper went through, so another class is done. I’m now at 64% completion. The remaining three classes are all ball-busters, and no more papers. And then the capstone. I am 60% confident I can finish by the end of November, but it all depends on how fast I can finish this finance class. I watched an hour of the omnibus video, and it’s all more or less stuff I know already from accounting. Famous last words.
I have that 8am flight and I just got an email from Finnair saying to get there 3.5 hours early due to them not knowing how to run an airport here. It’s a 30-minute train ride away. So Saturday is going to be fun.
* * *
More no sleep last night. I sleep like two or three hours, then wake up and spent a couple hours doom-scrolling, then maybe sleep a few more hours. I am delirious today.
Yesterday was a lot of long walks. I went to this record store district to poke around, and there were a lot of cool stores, but I don’t buy vinyl, and when I want to listen to something like Miles Davis, I usually just type “Miles Davis” into Apple Music, listen to it for five minutes, and then I’m bored of it. No need to spend $300 on some special mono-mix obscure European pressing.
I went to this mall that wasn’t really a mall – the name “Gallerian” means two things, and one is the situation where you have a dozen of stores and a grocery in the first floor of an office building. (Sorry, the “E” floor. The first floor is on the second floor.) Anyway, I bought a coke zero from a coffee place, sat down in the chairs in front of it, and two minutes later, a security guard comes up and starts yelling at me in rapid-fire Swedish. I guess you can’t drink in a mall, even though they sell drinks and have chairs and tables in front of the place selling the drinks? OK whatever. They do not fuck around here.
No museums. Sick of museums. Not sure what I want to do today. I’m so sick of this camera, and just realized new Canon gear is about 10% cheaper here, although maybe they have some insane sales tax. Part of me wants to pick up a Canon 6Dii just to get something that works more like my Rebel as far as metering and program mode. I swear the best pictures I’ve taken on this trip are with my phone.
Some big clusterfuck with checking in to my flight this morning. I had to call Finnair and get them to walk me through it. I think I’m checked in, but who the fuck knows. I fully expect them to say I forgot to file my 824794-D22 or whatever, and I’ll have to wait in line for three hours. I also forgot that I have four hours in LAX this time. And when I land, I still have to drive home from SFO, during rush hour, on no sleep.
I haven’t even started the return-to-work dread yet, but I’ll probably get to that later.
I have spent very little money on this trip. I have a thousand dollars in twenties in my computer bag, and it turns out Sweden is 100% cashless, so that was a wasted effort. And I still have cash from my early 2020 Vegas trip in my wallet, so I have no idea what to do with that when I get back.
* * *
On the plane on the big hop west. We just got our little omelette patty kit and I ate that in three seconds. I woke up hourly last night, sort of got 6 hours in, but they turned the dining room into a disco on Fridays, the most annoying hotel trend ever. So I heard the boom-boom-boom until about the time I woke up, which was 0300. Showered, packed, and got to a 0435 bullet train to the airport. About an hour of lines and nonsense and I got to the gate. We left maybe a half hour late. I’m back in the window seat, with slow internet and 9:26 remaining. Then a four hour layover (but I have to clear customs) and a short hop to SFO. I will get my car out of long term parking just in time to hit Giants traffic.
Did absolutely nothing yesterday. Walked ten miles and took a bunch of pictures, but nothing phenomenal. Ate dinner at McDonald’s and it was largely identical to what I remember a quarter pounder to be from the last time I had one. And they call them a Quarter Pounder in Europe. Sorry, Quentin Tarantino.
* * *
I’m back. What a brutal fucking trip home. No sleep, of course. When I got to LA, I cleared customs very fast. They asked if I had any food, and I said no, and they stamped my thing, next. Not even the token “welcome to America.” There was this whole clusterfuck of a maze to get through for the connecting flight, getting my checked bag and moving it out of security to another place, then going back through security again. LAX has terminals that are by letter, number, and gate number, and I don’t know the taxonomy, but you have to actually leave the building to move between them. When I got to terminal 5 with four hours to spare, I asked the TSA agent if there was food in there, and she said sure. I got in, and there was a See’s candy, a news stand that was out of water, and some salad place that had one person working and the line was immobile. Absolutely no place to sit down, and it was one of those environmental air conditioning things where it was 90 out, so they air condition down to 87.
I said fuck it, left the secure area, found a cabbie, and told him to take me to the Taco Bell by my old house in Playa. I was going to play nice and say “let’s go through the drive-through and I’ll buy you lunch” but the guy was an old russian dude who looked like Boris Yeltsin and had no idea what I was talking about. I went inside and the service was so slow, I thought I was still in Sweden. Sat in the dining room and inhaled my stuff. A guy came up to me in a winter coat – not a good sign – and asked for some money to buy chicken because he hadn’t eaten in two days. My Ugly American “go fuck yourself” system wasn’t turned on, so I gave him ten bucks. He proceeded to bolt and not get any food. Welcome to America.
Took an Uber back to the airport, and by that point, I’d completely hit the wall. I just wanted to get on the plane before I blacked out, which I did. Woke up just in time for landing, and then I forgot that SFO from the local gates to the baggage claim to the parking garage is literally a five-mile hike. I then could not find my car, even though I had a GPS-tagged photo of it with the sign number in front of it. I hit 101 just as Giants/Pirates traffic was piling up and it took an hour to get home. I think I made it until about 7:30 then blacked out. Back up at 3.
The Apple Watch measures each hour you stand every minute, with my usual goal being 12 hours a day. Yesterday, because of the time change, it registered 28 hours for the day. Nice.