Look, I’ve always wanted to visit Sweden and its renowned art collection at the National Museum. So, when a travel agency in Kent said they could organise a weekend city break in Stockholm, I thought, “It’s now or never.” It was legal, as safe as anywhere – with the usual precautions – and it was reasonably priced.
hus, I spent last weekend exploring the Swedish capital, set on a series of islands on the northern Baltic Sea. And it was lovely. I wandered around the fabulous museums, visited churches where they are still singing Sunday hymns (five for each service), rode in the gliding trams and immaculately clean trains, and sat in numerous restaurants and cafés, where I watched Swedes, of all generations, talking and laughing.
The Irish pub, by the way, is alive and well in Stockholm: two “O’Leary” bars (one next to the beautiful Central Station), a Limerick Bar on the Drottninggatan, by the junction with Olof Palmes gata (Guinness 64 krona – just over €6) and another further along the street, The Auld Dub.
Stockholm is just as beautiful as it’s reputed to be, and there’s a lot to see and do. But perhaps the most rewarding experience of my Swedish weekend was that it seemed like a sojourn in normality.
It’s well known that Sweden has taken a different approach to coping with the coronavirus than other European countries: it has not (yet) imposed any lockdowns. There are no daily bulletins about infected cases, hospital admissions or deaths. There are no “Covid marshals”. There is just a quiet “nudge” from the health authorities to wash hands often with soap and water, take care and stay at home if feeling unwell. There are some signs advising social distancing, but Swedes seem to do that naturally.
And the most striking aspect is that people do not wear masks. In three days walking around Stockholm, I glimpsed just two exceptions – both older women, in a busy shopping area (and the shopping areas were doing a lively business). I am neither pro-mask nor anti-mask. I comply with regulations and wear a face covering where required to do so. I kept my mask on standby in Stockholm, in case I thought an inside location was crowded, but because things were well ordered, that seldom arose. Moreover, I came to feel that it would be impolite to mask my face when Swedes, generally, were not doing so.
And the psychological effect of being bare-faced seemed so positive. Swedes have a reputation for being almost neurotically shy and reserved (Danes make constant jokes about having almost-autistic neighbours). But to me, as a visitor, Stockholm people couldn’t have been nicer, kinder, or more open or welcoming.
Service was delivered with a smile. Street directions were voluntarily offered as I peered short-sightedly at my paper maps (I still do paper maps). A woman stopped me in the street to admire my brightly woven Irish tweed cloak – “It’s beautiful! So colourful!” Shop assistants were chatty and helpful. Galleries and museums were run by friendly staff who explained the layout. Strangers at tram stops gave me hints about directions.
I wondered if this exceptionalism from the rest of Europe – in keeping the human face open – had had the effect of changing the Swedish reputational character, from dark and gloomy Nordics to a norm of social engagement and cheerfulness. There’s another shift in national reputation, too. For decades, Sweden was characterised as a conformist nanny-state, a politically correct nation. But now, Sweden seems the opposite: a relaxed society where citizens are trusted to behave sensibly without being bossed about. It’s Ireland and Britain that seem dictatorial and over-controlled.
There probably are Swedes who feel that regulations should be tougher, and some who feel frightened of the globally increased Covid numbers. But, trawling through the TV channels in my hotel, I couldn’t find any Swedish reports on the “gloom and doom” scenario (only from CNN and BBC World, where it was non-stop). Ice hockey and Engelska Antikrundan (Antiques Roadshow) seemed to be big favourites. There surely are reports about Covid, but it doesn’t leap out at you at every turn. People have died, notably in care homes, and there must be mourning and concern: but it doesn’t feel like it’s dominating every waking moment.
The National Gallery was, indeed, stunning, featuring Sassoferrato’s famed ‘Virgin in Prayer’, Rembrandt’s striking ‘St Peter’ as an old man with a worn face, and rooms full of Dutch and French classics. And delightful Swedish domestic genres from Carl Larsson and Amalia Lindegren, as well as terrific displays of Swedish design. Ikea clearly grew out of a great tradition.
We are now facing into a long winter of fear and isolation, and periods of virtual, or actual, lockdown. But every time I feel glum, I’ll remember standing on the bridge over the harbour at Djurgården, watching families walking together in the crisp Sunday-morning sunshine, and the panorama of Stockholm all around. It’s been a tonic!