Into The Dark

21 Dec 2007

In the cold, still air the sound is penetrating. Tick - tick tick. The ice is breaking.

I look on, not so much in horror as in careful preparation. Depth of the water, temperature, windchill, distance from help, all variables I need to solve for. But the dog's owners, our hosts for the impulsive weekend in Stockholm, don't seem concerned. Chica scampers back to their side; he knows what that sound means, too.

There are frozen puddles and lakes everywhere, but hiking up to the top of the artificial ski slope, built on a former dump site, is as close as we get to snow. Even then it won't compact well enough for snowballs, although we throw some packed ice lumps (and Chica eats them). I learn that there are several different types of snow. The long stalactites hanging from the ski-lift cables make it seem colder than it is.

Although the snow is lacking, we do encounter carollers in the streets. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sounds, well, hilarious in Swedish. Almost as hilarious as I sound trying to speak it.

In fact, I quickly give up on the language. By the end of the trip I'm rolling up to sandwich bars and drawling "G'day, I'm after a coupla sandwiches.. I can't read the labels, but I can point". Accosted by a street evangelist who eventually gives up with "Oh.. you don't speak Swedish. What a pity. Jesus loves you anyway", I refrain from pointing out that Jesus didn't speak Swedish either.

The Christmas markets are exactly as we expect, although I'd have preferred jovial red-nosed Englishment to stern Swedish shopkeepers. The best markets are at Skansen, a sort of "Pioneer Village"-turned-open-air-museum. We find it entertaining during the day, but magical at night. Magical, and absolutely bloody freezing.

Our lunch is not just "London frozen", which is where you take it out of the freezer, and it's still frozen at lunch time. Instead, it's "Stockholm frozen", which is where you take it out of the pantry thawed, but it freezes in your pack. The friendly man with the Swedish-American accent and the ridiculous moustache recommends the baked herring to me at a cafe; judging by the reaction of other locals, it's not really a national dish, but it is delicious.

At the wine & spirit museum we discover a "smell organ"; dozens of spices arranged with buttons that provide a quick whiff. Lyn scares the daylights out of both of us by pressing an innocent-looking button that fires up a bottling plant; their museums are hands-on, here. And the free audioguide uses infrared transmitters to stay in sync with your location. It's organised.

Actually, the whole country is organised. At a supermarket checkout, we struggle to clear our groceries from the conveyer belt quickly, to avoid holding up the line behind us. The operator simply clicks a guide rail over into its second position, so that it channels the next buyer's goods into a separate holding area, and keeps serving.

Oh, and she has a machine to give us our change, so that she doesn't have to count coins. Even the tube has this effect. True, it doesn't have the same reach or frequency as the London version - nothing does - but it's smooth and silent. Our hosts live fifty metres from the tracks, and behind their double-glazed windows, we can't hear a thing.

The double-glazed windows are the least of the luxuries in the apartment we stay in. It's full of clean, sharp edges, usable spaces, unobtrusive design. The couch folds smoothly out into a bed without threatening to cut off my fingers, unlike any convertible couch I've ever used. The kitchen cupboards have tiny shock-absorbers, allowing me to close them silently when I do the dishes in the morning.

These are small things, but I find them exciting. Maybe it's the recent months I've spent working on a poorly-designed software project, but it's so refreshing to be among people who've thought about these problems, and solved them.

This place is like Singapore with a soul.

And what a soul it is. It's irresponsible to generalise an entire culture's artwork from a weekend visit. But I found the pieces I encountered in Stockholm to have more depth than the ones in Oslo, although lacking their incredible clarity and detail. Norway sees, and Sweden feels.

Till Gerhard's exhibition at Gallery Loyal was a particular highlight for me. The pieces are whimsical, fantastic, yet dark. And what Lyn describes as "splatters on a perfectly good painting" successfully carry across the "magical" idea to me. It's another world, visible from this one only with some distortion.

Perhaps it works for me because I really do see things that way. The protagonist's visual overlays in Stranger Than Fiction, and the momentary inserts in series like Scrubs and Ally McBeal, are really how I see things. Obviously I'm not the only one.

Araki's exhibition at Kulturhuset had a few similar photographs. When not taking roll after roll of naked Japanese women tied up in "artistic" poses, he experimented with allowing his film to go mouldy, or intentionally damaging it. The result is fascinating borders on the photo where the realistic connects with the heavily distorted.

The Kulturhuset was, in fact, the trip highlight. It's a very large multistorey building in the dead center of town, containing a library, 'world news cafe', multiple galleries, two cafes, playground, activity center, chess corner, theatre and who knows what else. It's all free, and as a result it's a perfect place to hang out for a few hours, reading, writing, or just staring at the view. The place reminded me strongly of Higher Ground, without the tumbleweeds. I've never found anything like it anywhere in London; here, pulling out a laptop anywhere but the office or Starbucks is frowned upon.

We spent a lot of time there, and not just because, sick as usual, we were too exhausted to do anything else. There's also the issue, of course, that it was dark by 2:30, and everything was closed by 5. Unless you're hitting the nightlife - which is apparently excellent, and which I regret not having the energy to do - there's not much to do but sit and read and think.

Reading material for this trip was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Halfway through, I now understand tappets, but I still don't understand Buddha.