There was a local bus from outside the hostel to the port for the big ferry to Stockholm. This was an entirely different class of ferry from the ones around the Archipelago. It held a stream of semitrailers as well as lots of cars. There were ramps like at airports to get on to the thing. It was also verging on cruise ship status with its casino and duty free shops. Of course I spent all night between the two. In the waiting area before boarding, a retired woman travelling on her own started up a conversation with me. Finnish but living in Sweden for many years and now with grandkids there, she’d been home to visit family and friends in Finland. I watched her bag while she went to the bar. She said, “I’m really thirsty,” as she downed her pint of beer. When it came time to board and we were trying to figure out which gates to go through, we compared tickets and lo, we were in the same cabin! Later that night she also sprung up easily to the top bunk to sleep.
I went up to the sun deck at departure. Soot spewed out of the chimney stacks, at times thickly, and I wondered if this really was more efficient than flying. But then, I’ve never seen anyone try to fly a stream of semitrailers. The hallways were long and characterless. The cabin was small and cramped with four of us, luggage and the toilet room squeezed in the corner. I ate my crackers and cream cheese with a Russian doctor and her rolls and cheese slices. She’d learnt English a while go but didn’t get any practice to keep it up. I think she said she was a doctor in dermatology research. We managed enough conversation to know that we’d like to have had more.
The ferry arrived early in the morning to the north east of Stockholm city centre. It felt strange to have no border control. I wasn’t complaining about that but I wasn’t keen on becoming familiar with yet another currency. There were signs to the metro but either one was missing or I missed it. Then when I got out at Central I couldn’t tell which exit I needed to get to the main station to leave my luggage for the day. When I’d walked above ground for about ten minutes I thought I must have got out at the wrong station, but no, just the wrong-est exit. I knew Stockholm was going to be expensive. That’s why I was catching the train out that evening instead of staying a night. Still, I did a double take when I saw how expensive the luggage lockers were but I wasn’t carting my bags around for the day.
I wandered south from the station to the old area of Gamla Stan. Tall old orange-yellow buildings crowded narrow cobbled streets that curved gently. On some buildings there were bits of iron visible on the outside walls that looked like they threaded in to hold the building together. Wider main streets were full of still closed tourist shops.
It was about 8:30 am when I began looking for a toilet. The cafes and bars were closed. I went to the metro station where a woman in the shop directed me to the café upstairs. It still wasn’t open when I walked past two hours later. I found a funny little free standing toilet building on an island between roads. I didn’t have enough coins for it and following the directions on the sign to send a text to a number to get a code didn’t work. At about 9:30 I found a coffee shop that was open but didn’t have any facilities. I was getting frustrated. At 10 another coffee shop and bar started to set up their tables and chairs for the day. The first fellow sent me inside to use their bathroom but the second fellow refused to open the bathroom door saying they weren’t open for another ten minutes. Who opens at 10 past? I went outside to wait and saw a little door into a bakery that was clearly open and had a toilet. I also got the hot chocolate I’d been planning on from the bakery instead of that man at the coffee shop! I couldn’t get over how late everything opened.
Somewhere around this time I became aware that I was in a bit of a bad mood. I noticed how much rubbish there was on the streets, especially that there were cigarette butts everywhere that would undoubtedly wash into the sea with the next rain. The election posters cable tied to the hand railings all about the place didn’t help. I’d seen a fellow near Central Station picking up pieces of rubbish one by one. He looked like he was paid by the council or someone to do it. They needed about ten of him driving street sweepers for a week to clean the place up. I wanted to head south to another area of town but the footpath went all over the place. I figured out that I probably needed to go down a dark stairwell that had broken perspex panels that were covered in graffiti where they weren’t missing completely. I wasn’t sure how wise using the stairwell was but could see light at the bottom and people moving around. It got me where I wanted to go and later I found out that whole bridge area was in the process of being completely rebuilt. That might explain why it wasn’t getting tidied up, but as someone in town for one day it only added to my poor impression of the place. I don’t think I would have been as disappointed if it wasn’t so expensive and supposedly so stylish with such a high quality of life.
I endeavoured to shake off my bad mood. There was a nice view over the water, back towards the old area and all up and down the area. The sun had come out and the water and sky were blue. The Finnish woman on the ferry had said that if I wanted a taste of daily life in Stockholm then I should go shopping. The guide book mentioned a shop that sold their own label of organic fair trade jeans so this is where I was headed. I had to do some rough calculations in my head before I got there to have an idea of what price tags would make me turn around and walk back out of the shop. It turned out they were very reasonably priced and the staff helpful. I walked out with my first pair of new shop jeans and instructions on not to wash them for at least 6 months. A little retail therapy because it didn’t go against my conscience improved my mood.
I went back to a square near the dingy stairwell to join a ‘free’ walking tour where you tip the guide at the end. He was a good tour guide, getting us around to a number of different types of places and with lots of stories to tell. The most memorable was about a 12 year old boy around the time of the witch trials. He made up a story to make friends with the other kids in his new town. As other kids started to tell similar stories, local women were rounded up and killed as witches. At some point someone realised that the first boy’s stories weren’t consistent, he confessed, and was hung and his body parts put up on the walls around town. The tour guide’s partner won’t let him use the story to scare some discipline into their young kids. We’ve come a long way.
I was surprised by the poker machines in Finland, but even more surprised by the presence of a few beggars in Helsinki. There were more in some parts of Stockholm. Mostly young women in headscarves. One on her mobile phone. At the pub for a beer after, the tour guide explained to those of us left that this was a result of the experimental admission of Romania and somewhere else to the EU. He wasn’t comfortable talking about it. I wasn’t in a position to judge it, I just hadn’t understood it.
I went for dinner at a vegetarian buffet down the road. It was expensive, surprise surprise, and I didn’t really enjoy the food. There went my mood again. On my way back towards Central Station I stopped and sat by the water for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun. It was peaceful, if a little on the cold side. I probably hadn’t been having enough still time and was getting fatigued by learning a new system of everything every few days.
For once I found my train and platform with ease. This was the leg where I’d booked the cheap non-refundable, non-changeable seat, and immediately afterwards, sworn because I’d forgotten I’d decided to pay extra for another sleeper and had booked a seat instead. At least it was a window seat so I had something to lean against. I slept surprisingly well. Apparently we stopped at a station for 40 minutes during the night and I had no awareness of it. I had another nice conversation with the young woman sitting next to me. She’s currently studying nursing and hoping to get into medicine. Where are all these people coming from? It’s funny how you can have such open conversations with people you’ve barely met.