Five years ago I had the opportunity to live in Stockholm for a semester while doing part of my university studies at The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). I have great memories of that semester, and ever since I crossed the Öresund Bridge in June of 2013, I have been waiting for the opportunity to return to Sweden. Finally, I found the chance! Would it live up to my memory of it?
As the plane breaks through the clouds over the Baltic Sea and begins to descend over Sweden, I look with awe over the vast forests spreading out below, interrupted only occasionally by hamlets of Falu-red houses. When we make the final approach into Arlanda, all signs of civilization save the runway disappear beneath the trees and rolling hills. I remember Sweden as being a very wooded country, but seeing it again for the first time in five years, I am nonetheless impressed by just how sparsely populated and serene the landscape is.
Stepping out of the arching hall of Centralstationen (now with a scaffolding-free facade!), I emerged into the Monday evening rush of a city looking forward to a long weekend. Without bothering with the map, I follow my memory down to the shore of Riddarfjärden. There, the bold red brick tower of the Venice-inspired city hall rises as if directly from the water. A bit further along, an old man sits on the bulkhead reeling in a fish from lake Mälaren in the shadow of the Riksdag (Parliament).
Behind the Riksdag, the imposing facade of the royal palace hides a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets winding up through Gamla Stan. Visually, the Medieval old town, previously known by the name Staden Mellan Broarna (”the City Between the Bridges”), transports you back to a time when all trade between central Sweden and the outside world had to be lifted between Mälaren and the Baltic Sea at this tiny gatekeeper island. Of course now, though, the goods traded in Gamla Stan are tourist souvenirs and overpriced meals. But it’s a nice place to get lost and sit down for a fika.
Reaching the other side of Gamla Stan, I see, somewhat disappointed, that the reconstruction of Slussen seems to have made very little progress. It’s understandable, though, for such a big project. A lock, overlaid with a major intersection, pedestrian and bike lanes, metro bridges, and train tunnels – this was a masterpiece of civil engineering in its day that the city has outgrown.
One day, Slussen will once again be an elegant crossroads, but my immediate concern was that the food truck was gone. Nystekt Strömming, to be precise. What better mustard-and-dill-flavored snack to enjoy on the banks of Strömmen (the part of the Baltic Sea in inner Stockholm) than a fried strömming (herring)? Not to worry, I find it after a few minutes of searching, relocated to the other side of the construction site – I’m convinced that’s the only thing that’s changed here in five years!
I continue on my way, passing rows of austere buildings painted in pastel shades of every color. I stop to catch my breath when I reach Fjällgatan (”Mountain Road”) perched atop the heights of Södermalm, the ”South Island”. At this latitude with the sun so low in the sky, the view always seems to be best from the south. From up here, the composition of the city is apparent – an endlessly complex body of water winding through a cluster of islands and peninsulas, a place where fresh water meets salt water, where thick forests coexist within a modern city.
From here I can see the recreation island of Djurgården, whose forests and meadows form the start of a chain of parks wrapping around the city, past KTH and the neighborhood I lived in. Along the shoreline of the ”Ship Island” Skeppsholmen, I can see the assembly of sailboat masts where dozens of crews are preparing for the annual four-day sailing regatta to the island of Gotland and back.
I’m happy to have the opportunity to revisit this city. My ability to speak and understand Swedish is significantly better than it was five years ago, so I feel comfortable in Stockholm – the surroundings make sense to me. I’m also looking forward to a few weeks of fika and catching up with friends. The days are long, the nights bright, the weather perfect, and with the Swedish team performing well at the World Cup, a general feeling of excitement fills the city.
By the time the plane lifts off from Skavsta airport two weeks later, I’ve eaten more kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) and lösgodis (Swedish candy) than is reasonable, and I feel like I’ve had a chance to get settled in Stockholm for a time. Even after having lived there, and spending so much time since then visiting other places, I still consider Stockholm to be my favorite city, and I’m sure I’ll find reasons to keep coming back.
Once again the green landscape opens up below me. The towns and cities disappear into the shadows while hundreds of lakes – when the low sunlight catches them right – gleam like mirrors back up at the plane. Vi ses, Sverige.