Our trip to Sweden was a rushed affair at the end of August, back to back against our family summer vacation to the Eastern Balkans. We arrived home only to drop off the kids at their grandparents and flew out the very next day. With my husband on business meetings, I was left alone to wander around the streets of Stockholm without the bubble of commotion I was accustomed to. It was both serenely relaxing and empty, my thoughts echoing in my head where their noise used to be.
In the lovely cold drizzle that is Swedish summer, I spent all day exploring the old city of Gamla Stan and its beautiful alleyways, churches and architecture. I used the Lutheran churches as landmarks, their steeples rising above the residential and commercial buildings in clean geometric lines. Their interiors lack the heavy, baroque adornments favored by the Orthodox and Catholic and seem airy and light by comparison. In fact the only dark place was the Vasa Musuem which I thoroughly enjoyed once my eyes grew accustomed to the dim interior and I stopped crashing into people.
It was at the outdoor market where I truly fell in love with the country. Here were fruits and vegetables that would be worth their weight in gold in the hot climate of Israel. Stalls sold mounds of delicate, perfectly shaped berries, rhubarb, chanterelle mushrooms, frilly dill and fruits imported from warmer areas of Europe. The market was much more toned down and tame than the ones I frequent in the Middle East. There were no pushy crowds, yelling or the musty odors of summers without rain. Vendors certainly were not calling out on megaphones that their rhubarb was half price. Instead they chanted “Hey, hey, hey” just loud enough to get people’s attention. I wonder how the Swedes would react to Middle Eastern market tactics.
In the evening I discovered that Swedish food is much more than lingonberry and raw herring. At the delightful Italian Swedish fusion restaurant called Sally’s I tried my first ever reindeer fettuccini and pondered the differences between Swedes and the rest of humanity. The gregarious Australian sitting next to us put it into prospective. He was an immediately likeable and chatty fellow that proudly told us of his gold medal win that very day for breaking the world record in a swimming competition (butterfly no less for age group 60-64, quite impressive). A typical reserved Swede wouldn’t start conversations with complete strangers, much less make eye contact, especially not in candle lit romantic restaurants.
I am diverging from the topic of food but the subject of eye contact is fascinating. While walking down the streets of Stockholm we realized that we could immediately tell Swedes from immigrants or tourists by a simple staring test. A Swede, with a personal space of 5 km, would immediately divert their eyes if they accidently came in contact with ours, looking anywhere – sideways, up, over their shoulders, down at their watch but never at us. It’s a wonder they don’t bump into more people. The others will linger for a few seconds, standing you up, perhaps before diverting. It is a curious cultural difference.
All this walking and staring made us very hungry so we hopped over to Stockholm’s very own food court, Saluhall. It is a fabulous place for a food lover with both traditional and exotic flavors from around the world. There are a dozen different types of pickled herring, Swedish meatballs and dumplings that look very much like Middle Eastern potato dumplings (potato kubba). Vegetables, fruits, salamis, fish and even entire little piglets are offered for sale. I was told that Sweden’s culinary diversity has greatly expanded in recent years, influenced by the large immigrant population, many from Iran and other countries in the Middle East.
As another November heat wave washes over the country I dream of Stockholm’s wonderful dreary summer hoping that I will visit again.
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