A friend of Scandinavian descent has visited Sweden the past two years and his stories whetted my appetite to visit this lovely country. Sweden has so many pleasant features, such as no visa requirement; no customs hassle; the majority of inhabitants speak English well; people are helpful when asked for directions; pleasant summer weather with sunlight past midnight; efficient public transportation; tasty food, especially if one loves seafood; a tolerant society; and a love of animals so much so, that dogs are allowed on public transportation and in restaurants.
It took me a while to get used to a common greeting, “hej,” pronounced “hey.” One usually removes their shoes when entering homes.
Punctuality is important, so be early for any meeting.
Drunk driving is not tolerated and incurs a mandatory jail sentence, so a designated driver is usually present in a drinking group. Alcohol is expensive, so it is a good idea to buy some duty free before arrival for either personal consumption or omiyage. Alcohol is sold only in state stores with limited hours.
Public toilets cost 1 kroner (about 16 cents) so one should always carry change. One side of these buildings have free urinals for men.
The official religion is Evangelical Lutheran, but in practice, the country is very secular. The government is a parliamentary democracy with the King mainly being a ceremonial figure.
The Vikings were feared warriors in the distant past, but Sweden has maintained neutrality for almost 200 years without being involved in any war. This might be one reason for this socially conscious country’s prosperity.
A major problem for tourists is the high cost. Karl Ekström, the Stockholm Visitors Board press coordinator, was very helpful with good advice. He provided me with a Stockholm card that all visitors should purchase. It provides free transportation on all public transportation and free admission to about 80 tourist sites. It can be ordered online (allow two weeks delivery) or at tourist centers.
Hotel accommodations cost $200 a night and up (hostels were cheaper) and food prices were much higher than in the United States. Part of that is attributable to the strong kroner vs. the U.S. dollar. Fortunately, I stayed with a couch surfer who not only provided room and breakfasts, but also was my guide to visiting Stockholm using public transportation.
I was amazed at the latest computer equipment he had and I noticed wide use of iPads and iPhones everywhere. I learned that Sweden is the second most Internet connected country, exceeded only by Iceland. The government provides special programs to encourage seniors, but still the 10 percent that do not use the Internet are mostly these seniors. Credit cards are used for almost every purchase and require a personal identification number (PIN). I had no problem using my card that had no PIN when merchants realized I was an American.
A unique hostel is located right at the airport inside a converted 747, but it cost more than $300 a night for a hostel with shared bath. You can read details at: http://gizmo.do/ppL98 or view the hostel at: www.youtube.com/watch’v=UIcUe_IVISs.
There is a train from Arlanda Airport (main airport) in Stockholm that will whisk you to the center of Stockholm in 20 minutes for approximately $76 round trip for adults 26 and older. Youths up to age 17 ride free with adults. Seniors and students fare is around $40 round trip. If you have more time than money, take the bus at half the cost but twice the time. If you have the Stockholm card, it allows free travel on the bus.
Stockholm, capital city of Sweden, means log island and consists of 14 islands connected by bridges so water can be seen everywhere, leading many to describe Stockholm as the Venice of the North.
My couch surfer host, Arne, took me to the City Hall where the banquet for Nobel laureates is held. A sign listed tour times and the language that would be used. There were 13 hourly departures and during three of them Mandarin tours were also scheduled, but none for Japanese. The interesting tour was made more enjoyable when I asked for a headphone for hard of hearing tourists.
A free hop on hop off bus using the Stockholm card provided a good overall layout of the city where I
hopped off to visit the Vasa Museum, which houses a 300-year-old warship that sank 15 minutes after it was launched. It was recently dredged from the sea and restored. It is a beautiful ship with elaborate carvings. It sank because the King insisted on certain measurements even though lumber had already been cut for another size. The original shipbuilder died before completion and there was confusion as to who was in charge. A test for stability before launch revealed marked instability but the shipbuilders were not in attendance for the test. The ship’s cost was 5 percent of the gross national income and led to severe economic problems.
Skansen is a popular outdoor exhibit area that recreates Sweden in days past with people wearing period costumes and demonstrating how life was lived then.
A must visit for me was the Nobel Museum. I had a popular organic chemistry professor at UCLA, Donald Cram, who won the prize in 1987, and it was my way of paying homage to him. The tour, self-guided or with a docent (recommended), tells the life of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who invented the blasting cap and dynamite. He never married, although he had three women he apparently loved, but they married others. A French newspaper mistakenly wrote an obituary that named him rather than his younger brother, who died while visiting in France. The headline read the “Merchant of Death is Dead” and this may have been the impetus to create prizes for physiology or medicine, chemistry, physics, and literature so he would leave a better legacy. The Swedish National Bank funds the Nobel Prize for economics. The Nobel Peace prize is given in Norway and the reason for that locale will be left to the reader to learn.
Cosmopol Casino happened to be a short walk away. They usually charge 30 kroner for admission, but entrance is free with a voucher from the hop on-off bus tour. As usual, high house advantages for table games, slot machines and the few video poker machines made this Las Vegas resident cringe.
Stockholm has three UNESCO World Heritage sites: Birka, one of the first towns; Drottningholm Palace (a well-preserved royal palace); and the Woodland Cemetery, all of which I missed because of time constraints, as they required a day trip to visit. I did visit the Royal Palace in central Stockholm and witnessed the changing of the guard, the rooms containing the Treasury (not as impressive as the British Crown Jewels) and a long hallway patterned after the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
I made a visit to the Sky View that is a capsule that goes up the side of the globe shaped hockey/entertainment area (like half a “London Eye”) for a panoramic view of Stockholm.
A dinner at a restaurant to taste Swedish meatballs, lingonberry sauce and potatoes was $40. How fancy can meatballs be? Ostermalms Saluhall is a large market that dates back to the 19th century. Several publications had given the impression that the food would be reasonable there. A mixed plate of herring fried, pickled, with tomato sauce, in a salad, and another with roe on top washed down with draft beer was $40.
The best idea to save on food costs is to have the daily lunch fixed price special called dagens rätt (the daily lunch special) served at many restaurants. I wanted to try a typical Swedish lunch and had fried mackerel with lingonberry sauce and mashed potato, which cost $70 for two, but it was at the upscale Café Opera. Sushi is very popular here, but the best places seemed to be closed in July for holiday trips by the owners. I did see a group of young Japanese who live here parading in a plaza accompanying their friend dressed in a negligee as a custom that the groomsmen inflict on the groom the day before the wedding. Thai and pizza are also popular.
The Internet is a valuable source of information. Put Stockholm or other destination in the search box at About.com for cost saving tips for restaurants, best free places, budget hotels, and similar suggestions. An alternative idea is to take a Scandinavian cruise. You’ll have a fixed cost for meals and rooms, but the cruise lines frequently gouge passengers on high priced tours. Scour the Web for independent tours at each destination to compare prices versus the cruise ship tours.
My friend who stirred my interests in visiting Sweden insisted I visit the Sami people in the far northern reaches of Sweden Stockholm so I reluctantly left beautiful Stockholm in order to insure my travel funds would last.
(To be continued with visits to Samiland and Norway)
Las Vegas Tidbits
Good Japanese restaurants are springing up like mushrooms following rain. One of the latest is Kyara, which bills itself as a Japanese tapas restaurant, and it is a good way to describe izakaya to those unfamiliar with the Japanese term. Kyara is located at 6555 South Jones Blvd., (702) 569-4405, and is open Tuesdays through Sundays, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. You will need a car to get there from The Strip. High taxi fares from the Strip make that mode cost prohibitive.
Yasuo Komada is the owner and he also owns Naked Fish Sushi in West Las Vegas. I wasn’t as impressed with that restaurant, whereas I can highly recommend Kyara with its tasty low priced small offerings.
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com.