Friday, December 16, 2005

Traveler's mental notes: Stockholm, Sweden

I was in Stockholm, Sweden the whole of last week, on invitation by the Swedish Embassy in KL. Was there to write on gender equality, road safety and Swedish design.

1. Went there with a writer from Star named Allan Koay. He's done a lot of entertainment stuff and interviews with personalities. Apparently, he's a star writer.

The embassy paid for hotel, transportation, per diem of Swedish krona 200 (almost RM100) per day... and sent us thousands of miles away from home to fend for ourselves. I am not kidding! We had never been to Sweden and there was no one to show us around. It was a new experience for these two journalists. But the embassy did make it easier for us by arranging for the interviews and providing us with maps and tips on how to get to the places.

2. Stayed at a small, cozy hotel. The first day that we arrived, it was still snowing. And when I looked out thru my room window, I could see what I thought was a park just across the street. I thought, "wow, we have a park near our hotel. maybe they've got an ice skating rink there!". The next day when the snow had melted, I discovered that.... "oh, it's actually a graveyard".

Our hotel's name is Kom Hotel but we affectionately referred to it as Kom-kom Hotel. For obvious reason. But if you're not Malaysian, maybe it's not obvious for you. Well let me tell you, kom-kom is a kind of Malaysian ghost.

The graveyard is very old. Some of the dead were buried there before 1900! Having said that, I'm happy to report that my sleep was peaceful. The Swedes don't seem to be bothered at all about living next door to a graveyard. That place is surrounded by apartments. People walk there in the middle of the night. To have a look at the graveyard, go to Allan's blog,

3. Eventually, I did get to go ice-skating, courtesy of the people from the Swedish sports administration. They took us on a tour of some of the winter sport facilities in the city, during which I jokingly asked them if a visit to a skating rink was on the agenda. They said why not! So they took us to this park (a real park this time, not a graveyard) where there was a makeshift skating rink and you could rent skates.

I believe I was the only Malaysian skating there. Allan did not join me. He wasn't in the mood I guess. He just had a fall and hurt himself. I also fell when I was walking to the skating rink. See, I was wearing these sports shoes becos although I brought a pair of boots with me to Stockholm, they were killing me becos they were still new. You know what I'm talking about. And when treading on the slush, I thought I was already extra careful when, in a split second, I saw my legs -- yes, both of them -- up in the air. Fell flat on my backside. Luckily I didn't hurt myself and the laptop in my backpack was ok.

The prospect of ice skating was actually quite scary for me at first. There was a real fear of embarrassment. It had been ages since I last skated and so I struggled for a good 10 minutes of so to stay upright. Fell so many times in all manners of awkward manouvre. For a grown-up, I must've looked really silly. But after a while, it was actually quite fun. Now I know what it was like when my son took his first few steps recently.

4. The days were short and the nights were long. By 3.00pm, it was completely dark. The first few days I was there, I felt mengantuk and wanted go to bed but when I checked the time, it wasn't even 6.00pm yet! The winter was really messing up with my biorhythm.

There was also nothing much on TV. You would think that Sweden is a land filled with beautiful blondes who nude-bath in the lake. Or at least it's something you hope to see on TV. Fat chance! I felt like in a communist country when I was flipping thru the channels. About 10 of them but they kept repeating the same ads and the same music videos (I'm having that Sean Paul music video in my head right now).

One night, I got so bored, I went out by myself and walked around the city. I walked fast in the cold, dark, rainy weather. One god thing about walking in winter is you don't sweat at all. That means what? I could wear the same shirt again the next day minus the smell. I must've walked more than 5km that night.

5. Things are generally expensive in Stockholm. A decent meal like kebab or fallafel costs SEK50 or more, which is equivalent to about RM25. So what we did every day was have a heavy breakfast and skip lunch altogether. We figured we could save some of the per diem to buy something -- DVDs (those classic Ingmar Bergman movies are VERY expensive there), CDs, books, souvenirs or some fancy stuff from DesignTorget (Design Market).

I got myself a so-called Tilt mug from DesignTorget. It's a special mug designed with blind people in mind. The base is designed so that it tilts when empty and becomes upright when full. As the blind person fills the mug with water and hears the thud of the base hitting the desk, he knows the mug is full. I thought it was a very clever idea. The mug even has a four-letter word on it spelled in Braille. No, I think it's TILT, not THAT four-letter word.

The mug wasn't exactly cheap -- cost me roughly RM90 -- but I thought the designer deserved the money.

6. I had never seen so many beautiful people in my life! Many Swedes have nice features and skin, beautiful eyes, and are tall, both the women and men. You can point your camera in any direction and snap a photo, and chances are, there will be one beautiful person or two in it.

Before we left for Stockholm, I told Allan my mission was to chat up a few Swedish blondes but in the end, I never talked to any. I had a hard time choosing.

7. On our last night in Stockholm (Friday night), we went to the famous Ice Bar. We were greeted by the PR manager, who told us "it was ice of you to drop by!" Ok, I made that last bit up.

8. Things learnt in Sweden. I learnt to dance! I discovered my passion for dancing while wearing less-than-proper shoes in a freezing Stockholm winter.

I learnt to say a few Swedish words. T-Centralen ("tee-ah-sentrah-learn") is sorta their version of KL Sentral. All their subways go there. Then, Radmansgatan ("rrrood-muns-gotten") which is the subway station near our hotel. So every day on the subway, we would hear "Nasta, Radmansgatan". Nasta means next and is pronounced "nesta".

DesignTorget is pronounced "design tor-yet".

I also learnt that all the gatans -- Fredsgatan, Drottningatan -- are streets. Everyone walks to go everywhere. Or they cycle or take the train. You don't really need a car to get around in Stockholm.

The addresses too are simple. The Press Centre, for example, is located at Fredsgatan 6 so as soon as you get out of the subway, first you look for Freds street, then look for door number 6. Then present your ID to the security and hope your name's on their list. If ok, then you have access to free Internet, hot chocolate and newspapers. I met Irene Fernandez there (yes, from Tenaganita) and told her it was a fine place for lepak. She just smiled. For a place that's part of the Foreign Ministry, the Press Centre is surprisingly very accessible.

Some words are quite funny, like the ones they use for entrance and exit: infart and utfart. I really don't want to know what you have on your mind right now. Kom-kom Hotel is another funny Swedish word.

Here's another one: in Swedish, bra means good. And no bra means even better. >:)