Things were going well as we arrived in Stockholm on the MS Romantika.
Tim decided to take Vanessa for one last visit to the children’s play area on the ship. After Romantika docked and they hadn’t returned, I got worried and went to find them. Vanessa, it turned out, didn’t want to leave the play room. She resisted putting her shoes back on and started showing signs of a meltdown. Given that she’d had plenty of sleep and it was only 10 AM, this was surprising. I haven’t mentioned any other tantrums until now because she didn’t have any until now. We were getting spoiled and clearly she needed to whip us into shape.
She proceeded to have a huge fit all the way back to our cabin. Of course neither of our keys worked as we tried to get back into the room to retrieve our luggage as she yelled in the narrow, claustrophobic hallway. We frantically got a housekeeper to open the door for us. In our cabin, Vanessa kicked off her shoes, pulled off her socks, fought her jacket and tried desperately to avoid being secured into the stroller. Eff it, I thought, she can go without her shoes in the stroller. Pick your battles, right?
As we wheeled her and our luggage back into the hallway, one man stared at us in concern. The staff manning the exit looked at us uneasily but fortunately didn’t pick up the phone to report our screaming barefoot child.
The walk from the ship to the terminal seemed liked an eternity. It’s a good thing it was a covered walkway because it was snowing outside. By the time we got to the terminal, Vanessa came to her senses and decided she wanted her socks on after all. Poor thing, she looked a little defeated as we put her socks and shoes back on.
Tim spent a few minutes trying to find a reputable taxi while we watched the snow fall. He found one willing to take us to our hotel for an agreed upon price, consistent with what we were told to expect to pay. We piled into the taxi and the driver handed Vanessa a lollipop (part of his ruse, it turns out). Tim had showed him a map, which included a printed address to our hotel in a well-known area of Stockholm. The driver also had a GPS system, so there was no excuse for how he claimed to think we were going to a different street than we were. He pretended to be confused but drove the few blocks farther to the hotel with no trouble finding it. Then he said we owed him almost double what we had agreed. Bastard.
This is how taxis rip off customers. They are deregulated in Sweden and they can charge whatever they want. Tim argued with him and told him he was in the wrong business if he couldn’t find his way around as a taxi driver. The guy wouldn’t budge. Bastard.
We arrived back in Stockholm on Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is a Christian holiday that falls on the Thursday before Easter.
In Sweden, Maundy Thursday, or skärtorsdagen, is a hybrid between Easter and Halloween. It is known as the day of witches (or hags) and is connected to old folklore. Children dress up as hags with blush on their cheeks and freckles penciled onto their noses. They wear colorful scarves and aprons. It is utterly adorable. The little hags go around asking for treats with little baskets and brooms.
Getting in the spirit of the holiday, we dressed up the girls in scarves and aprons and did their makeup before hiking over to Djurgarden Island where Skansen is located. It’s an open air museum and zoo up on a hill and it had specially activities scheduled for Maundy Thursday.
Skansen is simply fantastic. It is full of traditional Swedish buildings from different parts of Sweden before the industrial era. There are farm animals, a children’s museum, a zoo with exotic and native animals (we saw reindeer!), amusement rides, food stalls and activities like pony rides and horse-drawn carriages. The island provides lovely views of Stockholm. It has lots of trees and grass, making it feel far from the city. And yet, it was within walking distance from our centrally located hotel.
After checking out a few things we found where they were making hag brooms. Each of the girls got their own broom and Vanessa delighted the broom makers by excitedly hopping around on her broom. She did not, predictably, agree to keep her hag outfit on. Or her coat.
The weather was overcast and in the 30s. A big difference from the near 80 degrees we left in Northern California. Because Vanessa refused to wear her coat (but had her Viking “horns” hat on) she got chilled. An employee attending the fire for cooking your own sausages noticed and said, “Perhaps the little Viking is cold?” She kindly offered us a wool blanket to wrap her in while Vanessa ate her lunch.
That night at our hotel, which was awesome, by the way (despite its awful name: Clarion Collection Hotel Wellington), we had dinner smörgåsbord style. Yes, the hotel served guests breakfast and dinner this way. Not as a restaurant but as part of the room price. It was a relaxing way to dine with small children because we didn’t have to order food, wait for it to arrive, wait for the check, etc. Plus, there was an area with couches and games (the lobby, duh!) that Vanessa could go to when she inevitably finished her meal much earlier than us. This is because we spend the whole first part of the meal getting her food and helping her eat. It’s when we finally get a chance to take that first bite that she announces she’s ready to get up. Of course.
The food was good, with enough familiarity to be comforting and exotic enough to be interesting. There were sprouts at every breakfast and whipped cream, unsweetened, accompanying every dessert.
We liked Skansen so much we went there on Friday, too. The funicular was operating so we had a nice ride instead of the exhausting trudge of getting both girls up the hill using our own power. Vanessa got to ride a pony and we went inside two of the traditional buildings, a small house and a schoolhouse. They were full of old furnishings and had women in traditional dress sitting in the rooms. It was cool.
The weather was sunny and clear, by far the best weather we had on the trip. My favorite part of Skansen is the old-fashioned buildings. They range from primitive huts to elaborate buildings, most made of wood. Many of them are simply beautiful. Some had sod roofs, just like Al Johnson’s restaurant in Door County, Wisconsin, but I didn’t see goats on any of them.
The Vasa Museet
On Saturday, we slept in, had a nice breakfast at the hotel and then made our way under a cold grey sky to the Vasa Museet. This museum houses the Vasa, an ornate warship that sunk shortly after beginning its first voyage in 1628. It was King Gustav II Adolf’s vessel and, as king, he wanted to appear powerful. The ship was a piece of art, laden with carvings and beautiful paint.
Jean Baptiste Colbert said of the Vasa:
Nothing can be more impressive, nor more dedicated to glorifying His Royal Majesty, than for his ship to bear the most magnificent decoration that has ever been beheld on the oceans.
Unfortunately, the Vasa was just too pretty. On her maiden voyage she keeled over and sank in the middle of Stockholm harbor after sailing just over 1400 yards. So maybe nothing can be more impressive than a beautifully decorated ship but nothing could be more embarrassing than to have said ship immediately sink as your kingdom looks on expectantly.
Apparently it was a simple breeze that knocked her over. I say good for the Swedes for turning lemons into lemonade 333 years later. They pulled her up, sailed her back to land and put her on display in a great museum.
Easter Sunday was our final full day in Sweden. I had hoped to have lunch at a popular food hall but they were closed. It was a rainy day and we got wet walking to the Biologiska Museet, the Biology Museum. It is housed in what I considered to be the most beautiful, interesting building in Stockholm.
The museum itself wasn’t much, with three levels of taxidermic animals native to Sweden set in dioramas. Vanessa liked it quite a bit. She loves animals and is very bright. “Mommy, that’s a badger coming out of a hole and that’s a lemming over there,” she told me excitedly.
(As much as I focus on her difficult side, which makes for an interesting travel blog, Vanessa is actually lovely to be around. She is energetic, engaged, social, intelligent, and super cute.)
After the museum, we went back to our hotel where our luggage was being stored and then walked about a mile to the Arlanda Express. Tim thought it’d be good if we moved to a hotel near the airport on our last night so we’d spend less time traveling on the big travel day. This was a smart move because it took us a while between getting our luggage and arriving at the airport hotel.
The walk from our hotel to the train station took us through downtown Stockholm. There was a much bigger variety of ages and ethnicities than what we saw at Skansen. It was a fun, but tiring, walk.
One thing that is noticeable about Stockholm is its wonderful aesthetic. The old buildings are gorgeous, some understated, some ornate. Many of the window displays were tasteful and creative. Textiles are big there. In Ahlens, a large department store, among the pillows and curtains, there were bolts of fabric in lovely patterns and colors. Imagine Macy’s or Nordstrom’s with fabric by the yard.
There was one last thing we had to do before leaving Stockholm: get our hands on Dala horses, Dalahästs. I had been shopping around, comparing prices. None of them were cheap but the most affordable ones I found were in a Swedish grocery store called Hemköp. In fact, they were half the price of the ones I saw at Skansen. Maybe they weren’t hand painted in Dalarna but I couldn’t afford to be picky. Luckily, we passed a Hemköp on our way to the Arlanda Express. I waited outside with the girls, who were both asleep, people watching while Tim picked up a couple of horses for me. In true Tim style, he returned not only with the horses but pockets full of Kinder Eggs. I half expected to see a bottle of beer in there, too, but there wasn’t.
I didn’t notice this but Tim picked up on the fact that all the beer in Swedish grocery stores is 3.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) or less. Sweden has a government alcohol monopoly on everything higher than 3.5% ABV. There are government-run liquor stores where you can get stronger, heavily taxed, alcohol. Even beer that Tim is familiar with from other countries, that normally has higher ABV, is specially brewed at 3.5% ABV for export to Sweden. This explains part of the reason people were carting boxes of beer and liquor off the ferry when we arrived back in Stockholm.
Our last night in Sweden was mellow, with dinner in the airport hotel restaurant and a romantic comedy on television. Obviously we really know how to have fun.
Our trip home went pretty well. We did have to get up at 4:30 in the morning, which is never fun, but it wasn’t too bad. Vanessa only fought it a little. Our flight had a change at London Heathrow.
At one point while at Heathrow, I got quite angry. As we were going through Heathrow’s security (we already went through Stockholm security–why do we have to do it again?), a female employee started badgering me about infant food/formula before I had even fully walked up to the place you put your stuff into bins. I told her I didn’t have any and she repeatedly asked me, obviously not believing me.
As she asked, I was digging in my bag for the liquids I did have, infant medication and contact lens solution. This woman, who honestly didn’t appear to be very bright, took the infant medication over to some other person and came back to tell me it was over the limit. It turns out that Heathrow has different restrictions for liquids than the U.S. or Sweden. And if the bottle size was over the limit, even if the amount of liquid in the bottle was clearly under the limit, you couldn’t take it through security. This, I thought, was mindlessly stupid and rude. Our airline security has come to this? I can’t take water with me, I have to take off my shoes, my jacket, my scarf, my baby, and now I can’t even take things that other major countries allow through security.
It didn’t help that the lady told me this information and then held the bottle at me like I was supposed to give her permission to take it away from me. When I objected to her taking my infant’s medication, she said I should have gotten a doctor to write a note (as if that would really make any difference in security). Well if I had known they had different rules, I might have done that. But I didn’t know I needed to. So that was an extremely helpful comment on her part. Not.
She kept repeating that she was going to take the bottle away. Did I have a choice in this I didn’t know about? Then she zoomed in on my contact lens solution. It was too big, too, of course, even though it was the travel size you get in the U.S. She repeated her inane announcement that she was taking it from me. I finally said in a bitchy voice, “I heard you the first time. I do speak English, it turns out.”
For those of you that know me, it takes a lot for me to be rude to strangers. I was thoroughly pissed at this point and was loudly objecting to the fact that they were taking my things that had passed through security in the U.S. and Sweden. Thanks a lot, Heathrow. You owe me 20 bucks.
Going through security caused me to get all sweaty and gross. I was looking forward to a shower when I got home. When Zara threw up on me during the flight from Heathrow to San Francisco, I really looked forward to a shower.
To amuse Vanessa during the landing when she had to go against every fiber in her body and actually sit in her seat, I blew bubbles with my gum and let her pop them with my finger. My mouth got tired of all the blowing but it worked to keep her entertained during a tedious part of the trip.
The traveling we did in January has paid off, Vanessa was much easier to travel with this time.
It was glorious to walk outside of SFO after our long trip and feel the warm spring air. As much as I enjoyed the more wintry weather of Sweden and Estonia, the pleasant California climate was a sweet welcome.
By the time we got back to our house, we had been awake for 23 hours (minus a cat nap on the plane). Besides being exhausted, we were grungy and hungry. In a fog I made a quick dinner, knowing it’d help us sleep if our stomachs weren’t growling. After a refreshing shower, we tumbled into bed and slept hard. That is, we slept hard until Zara woke up at 2 AM. Ah, jet lag, you merciless mistress.
I am of Swedish descent on both sides of my family, so it was especially fascinating to see a little bit of Sweden. I felt a swell of pride in my ancestry when I saw the elegant buildings and the beauty of the Swedes. In my travels so far, everything before this has seemed abstract, like this is other people’s history, not mine. But in Sweden I experienced a certain ownership to the place.
There is a story in my family about a great-great-great Swedish grandfather who was the town blacksmith. One day a bear came into town and my great-great-great grandfather, the story goes, hit the bear on the head with his hammer and scared the bear away. From then on, his name was Bjorn (bear in Swedish). My great-grandmother, a Bjorn, married a Larsson (now Larson, because the folks working at Ellis Island were in the habit of eliminating repetitive letters in names). And that’s who I was until I married a Beck.
We had a terrific trip, better than I had hoped with our two toddlers. Vanessa has been to ten countries now and Zara has been to six. Not too shabby for a two-year old and a one-year old!
Next up: Great Britain, Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia this summer.