Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 5

It’s difficult to say whether Paris’ famous style and self-assurance are particularly evident in the normal run of things. I mean, you certainly walk by people who strike you that way, but they’re not a majority, and since we’re obviously in one of the showcase areas of town, it’s hard to know whether you’re encountering everyday Parisians, or visiting Italians, or paid models (one can confidently conclude however that none of the people catching your eye for their stylishness are English). You do detect a greater overall assurance here…I don’t know if you’d call it a sense of entitlement, or rather one of history and context. The fact of so many bookstores and vendors prominently displaying very old and scholarly books, and even newsstands carrying magazines devoted to Proust and Pascal, suggests a refined collective awareness, even if that’s largely a self-aggrandizing myth worked on by the few on behalf of the many. As a counterpoint, the French are famously jumpy about protecting their economic entitlements, even when these make little sense and are plainly unsustainable (reportedly a wave of civil unrest may lie ahead over the proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62). I suppose all cultures have their points of enlightenment and self-delusion, but at least you mostly get the feeling the French know what they like; I’m not even sure that much holds in North America currently.

Anyway, we left the hotel around 10 am today, but only so we could get in a quick morning walk before heading to the airport. We walked along the Seine’s left bank again, past Notre Dame, until the flavor started to drop away a bit, then we came back along one of the inner streets. It took about an hour. We checked out of the hotel, and the final proof of its perfect location is that it’s only a couple of blocks from one of the handful of downtown stations with a direct rail link to the airport (without requiring a metro change). So we took that, and barely more than an hour later we were all through security…today everything moved very serenely, although of course this may not be any kind of comment on the airport’s overall relative efficiency. I expect we are among the few people leaving Paris after four days without having added a single item to our collective possessions – we did not buy anything at all. In this respect at least we know what we like.

Semi-ambitious vacation plans always involve giving up some time to logistics, and this was our fate today – for seven hours we were primarily in transit. But then, what happens on either side on such days is usually so memorable that you remember those slivers of experience long after your fuller but more conventional days have faded into oblivion. Anyway, my personal goal for such passages is always to maximize the time you spend doing stuff you would have wanted to do anyway. So today, in addition to this blog, I wrote a movie article, watched half of Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, made some progress on the sizeable magazine backlog I brought with me, and napped a bit. Oh, and talked to Ally. But back to those memorable slivers of experience: today, to illustrate, will always stay in our minds as the day we entered a new country, Sweden, and a new city, Stockholm. The inward taxi ride followed the usual pattern, at one point wrapping us up in stalled traffic, but then we broke out of that, and the old city seemed astonishingly quiet and slow-moving after Paris. We are staying in the First Hotel Reisen, right on the water, although at first glance it appears virtually all of old Stockholm is on the water, the mainland and various interconnected islands combining into sheer expanse, at various points suggesting a series of facades that can't possibly have anything behind them. In its immaculate mixture of colorful historicity, and in its profoundly civilized relationship with the environment, it reminds us somewhat of Bermuda, where we lived for a few years and where we met.

We walked the entire circumference of the island that looks onto the hotel - it holds the Modern Art Museum, and seemingly has quite a boat culture on its far side. At around 8 it seemed the sun was on its last legs, but then it stopped descending, and it wasn’t ultimately dark until long after 11 (since we are not that proficient at using the camera, our photos from this evening are a bizarre minute-to-minute contrast of shots that might have been taken at noon and others that look like we were fighting off nightfall). We saw many groups of people setting themselves up on the grass with bottles of wine, just taking it easy and enjoying the sights – this, you feel, is part of picture-book Stockholm living.

We walked a bit deeper into the city, encountering a few streets conforming more to the downtown glamor model (they certainly have the biggest H&M we’ve ever seen) but more often wandering down narrow old lanes that don’t seem to owe much to recent decades. You always notice the little anomalies – cafes and bars here don’t seem to have table service, although of course restaurants do (no sign of Starbucks here by the way)…maybe it’s considered more virtuous to earn your drink by lining up for it. It’s very plainly a small town by comparison with Paris – among so many wondrous world destinations, it never reaches the top of the must-visit list for most people. Which is largely why we came here (plus, naturally, so I can indulge my fantasy of being here to receive a Nobel Prize, even if one of the lesser ones).

We eventually ate in an authentic-looking old place – we started with reindeer meat with whipped cream (fine, but we couldn’t really see the inner logic) and then Ally had Swedish meatballs (even in Sweden, that’s what they call them, Swedish meatballs) and I had vegetarian lasagna, and we shared the whole thing so it ended up a pretty good mix (people who just stick to their own food are really missing a trick). We went back to the hotel – and when I say things like this, I always mean Ally got us back to the hotel, she has all the navigation smarts – and had another drink at one of the tables outside. And that was a pretty darn good first night in Stockholm. Tomorrow, logistics demand that we move on again, but we’ll be back for three nights next week, all geared up for ABBA sightings.

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