Getting by in the second most expensive city in the world
I figured Stockholm would be a piece of cake after Oslo (or, at worst, just more of the same) but two things are different. One, Stockholm is much, much larger and busier than Oslo, and two, we are very, very tired, which means we’re willing to compromise our budget-conscious ways slightly.
Make that three things: everything costs money in Stockholm, and I do mean everything. Even Oslo’s city hall tour is free, along with the Vigeland statuary park and a handful of minor attractions, but there is pretty much nothing for the cheapskate here. Well, aside from the views. Stockholm is, hands-down, the most beautiful city on earth. No joke, this place is painfully beautiful; it actually hurts a little. Venice is a slinky minx, Paris a grand lady, but Stockholm is the girl who broke your heart, the one you still feel a little twinge for all those years later. Yes, it’s that pretty, and then some. It’s unbelievably gorgeous and pictures don’t do it justice. So I won’t show any.
But as I’ve said, the beauty of the place isn’t the only thing that hurts around here. Back in the land of $10 bottles of beer and $40 lunches, you need to find the cheap stuff, and fast. There’s a burger chain called Max that lets you order from computerised kiosks; as much as I don’t like this it is substantially cheaper than most other options.
As usual, though, your best bet is shopping like the locals.
But, also as usual, you need to be careful. Sweden in particular has a bewildering variety of milk products alone, and note I’m not talking about dairy products, I’m talking about milk itself. Apparently there’s something like four different kinds of what we’d call buttermilk, all dissimilar in some important way and each with their defenders and detractors. Swedes throw themselves into passionate relationships with milk the way Spaniards are with futbol or Italians with coffee. Compound that with creams, cheeses, and other shit I’d never seen before and couldn’t figure out, and confusion reigns. But on the plus side, I’ve avoided accidentally buying gjær again.
More supermarket weirdness: I can’t find a cold beer in any SB store (the government alcohol monopoly). Apparently this is because with an extensive range of beers available, they can’t refrigerate them all, and to refrigerate a select few would be showing favoritism. Besides, selling cold beer is tantamount to promoting spontaneous drinking, which is akin to drowning puppies, and we wouldn’t want that. So all the beer is warm as well as expensive, which is why every weekend 1/2 of Sweden descends like locusts on Denmark, which does sell cold beer, while the other half is still recovering from their binge the week before.
Well, all this difficulty in obtaining a icy brew does mean you drink less beer, so I’ve got a big pile of Kronor burning a hole in my pocket.
Other observations on Sweden
I can’t say I’ve been quite as successful in navigating Stockholm as Oslo. While Sweden in general is better about signage than Copenhagen, Swedes have found their own particular brand of crazy to flummox the visitor.
Let’s start with the bus system. For those in the know, Stockholm’s bus system is fast, reliable, clean, comfortable, practical, all that. For the visitor, it’s a mindbending puzzle, the perfect premise for a mean-spirited Japanese game show or a particularly misanthropic David Mamet play. For starters, bus system maps are strangely hard to come by. You can go into Stockholm’s otherwise fine TI and ask for a bus map, but you won’t get one, just a resigned shrug and an apology. That’s bad enough, but when you get the same result from the bus driver and the bus station you know you’re off in the weeds. Eventually we found one, from a random city employee in the train station, pushing a wheeled cart full of maps around. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. Oh, and at the time we encountered this map-bearing godsend, we were with a friend of mine who lives in Stockholm — he registered surprised delight and snapped up two maps for himself like a fat kid in a candy store.
But that’s not all. In the United States (as well as most places I’ve been, come to that) bus stops in opposite directions of a line generally are located near each other — that is, the stops for the northbound #42 and southbound #42 on any particular block are more-or-less right across the street from each other. Not in Stockholm. Usually they’re not on the same block, often not even on the same street. The routes zig and zag like a soldier avoiding sniper fire, and the underground tube stations sprawl like mycelium networks, with entrances entire kilometers away from each other. In some cases you can actually catch a bus from one end of a train station to the other, provided you can find where the bus stops, which actually isn’t very likely so forget I said it.
About one in three Swedish adults seem to be pushing a baby stroller, partly because life here is wonderful and who wouldn’t want to bring more of it into the world and also because the Swedish state pays its citizens to have babies. Actually, the more children you have, the more you get, but it’s not linear, it’s exponential. “You get multipliers for more children, like a pinball machine,” as my friend Hans put it.
By the time those children reach adolescence, it’s time to allow them to wander about in public in pajamas. For a reason I can’t fathom, Scandinavians think it’s right jolly to parade their teenagers around in fluffy, zip-up PJs with slipper feet. I’ve seen this way too many times for it to be mere coincidence or the Wal-mart set on vacation — this is a home-grown pathology.
We’re leaving Sweden soon, and on to the emerging dynamo of the region — Estonia. Til next time, happy travels.