September 20, 2010

Stockholm, Sigtuna and Skånes Djurpark

Arrival in the morning was perfect to get the most of my first day in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Walking along Vasagatan, I was taken from the central station to the waterside and the water took me to Kungliga Operan (The Royal Opera) where I planned to meet Lena. I found the stage door and signed in, receiving my security pass as Lena arrived at the door. She took me to her office where I could drop my heavy luggage before we set on about a tour of the opera house. My first opportunity for amazement was when we slipped through a warren of doors, finding myself right in the middle of an orchestral rehearsal for Rigoletto. The music was exciting and very polished, getting ready for the opening night a couple of days later. We moved on towards the back stage area and then to the under-backstage area where we found interesting contraptions like trap door riser platforms, the heavy mechanisms to change the rake steepness of the stage and even the very low pistons to sink the whole stage down for scene changes.
A quick wisp around these parts and into the stage manager's box where I saw first hand the gadgets and prompt lights to command the crew stationed around the stage in order to get everything technical in place around the singers. We also went further into the managerial hub of the opera, delving into costuming, the wig factory and the rehearsal spaces for both the opera and ballet both housed in the building.

This tour was just so thorough that I really felt engrossed with the lifestyle and environment of the people that worked there from day to day. I wish I could just roam into the auditorium to listen into current rehearsals in progress during the work day like Lena did. The music was wonderful and it really made me want to aspire to getting onto that stage as a singer. Maybe one day I will sing an opera there.

I went with Lena to the home of her daughter, Kajsa. I met her family and recent newborn. I was warmly welcomed into the newly furnished home in Täby and got down to important matters. Viktor and I drove down to the local pizzeria and soon we were sitting down to dinner marking the end of my first day in Stockholm.

In the morning I got a little chance to catch up with correspondence and got the first draft of the schedule for the Kings College London chapel choir which was to include an evensong at Westminster Abbey. While this was quite a cool introduction to a new day, I headed out the city and went out to some of the attractions around the old town (Gamla stan). I started with some of the magnificent churches like Storkyrkan and St:a Clara kyrka. Moving back to the city, I checked out the Kulturhuset where many local parliament members were giving speeches with the impending elections. Towards the end of the day, I picked up a 'Stockholm card' which is like a one pass entry to culture in the town. I went into the ballet museum and also the Nobel museum before everything closed. Without anything being open, I walked to the underground and made my way back to Täby. In true holiday fashion, I took a seat with Kajsa's younger son, Anton who promptly reminded me of my lost skill in the area of Nintendo. We battled turtles and spiked fiends together in an epic fight between good and evil until the evening came to an end.

The Stockholm Stadshuset is the home of the Nobel prize and was my next stop. I took the tour through the building, witnessing the unique illuminated space of the Blue Hall (Blå Hallen), the current venue for the giving of the Nobel prize. The stairs were specially made for gowned women to descend elegantly into the awaiting audience to claim their prize. We were told about all of the special sections of the wall that are used now as markers for the laureates to gaze at to quell the nerves of claiming their prize. One fact that surprised me was that the room houses the largest organ in Scandinavia with 10,270 pipes which could hardly be seen from ground level. The Golden Hall was absolutely stunning! With over 18 million golden mosaic tiles depicting figures from Swedish history lining the walls and roof, this really inspired especially given the fact that all of the artwork had to be finished in a mere 11 months. As well as these areas, the building also held local parliament which was housed in yet another magnificent room. We were told that it was often a popular wedding site as well with the shorter of the two available ceremonies being only 30 seconds long.

After a quick tour through the treasury and the crown jewels, I headed back to the opera house for a bit of a break where I watched some of the new production of Rigoletto. Following this wonderful chill out session, it was back on the tourist trail, browsing the National museum and its intriguing timeline of Swedish home interior design through the ages. I walked on to Skeppsholmen where I would board the boat Af Chapman. This converted trade frigate and navy training boat was sold to the city of Stockholm at the end of World War Two when the navy saw no further use for it. It was refurbished as a hostel and was officially opened in 1983. I headed to the opera in the evening and took my seat to see the Marriage of Figaro with a rather modern layout and brilliant singers.

Taking advantage of the location on Skeppsholmen, I went to the modern (Moderna Museet) and architecture museums in the morning. I found the architecture museum particularly interesting, spending over an hour in this relatively small set of exhibits. The history of the state's models in housing through the 20th century. The million project stood out as the dominant implementation of state run building and fostering of the standard three room apartment based on the model 2 adult, 2 child family.

The political party of the time was was the Social Democratic Party which has historically been the dominant party (this election may be the first it hasn't won in many). Its socialist values emphasized the need to raise the communal standard of housing by building 1 million new dwellings over the 10 years of the program. This meant that whole communities were built from the ground up, leading to a number of large identical apartment buildings which still characterize some Swedish areas to this day. This new historical knowledge made me better understand the background to one of these areas I had visited earlier just outside of Malmö called Rosengård. This is often regarded as a pretty rough neighborhood being the site of numerous riots and social unrest. One case of this was in April when a riot broke out with cars and families being set alight. Firefighters were called in but required the help of many riot police to get the fires out. The suburb has a typical unemployment ratio of close to 40% and is roughly 60% inhabited by migrants of Iraq, the former Yugoslav state, Lebanon, Somalia and Afghanistan. A fun quote from the Guardian: "Of the 1,200 students in the secondary school, eight are native Swedes". It seems like social problems in these sorts of estates, especially with high immigrant populations have been hot topics on the news with the election looming. The Swedish welfare state has been feeling increasing pressure recently and some think it will not be so successful this year due to these trends in immigrant influxes and the welfare payments they receive while unemployed.

Concluding my visit with some shopping, I gazed at the designs with a certain sense of homecoming, recognizing many things from home. I made my way back to Kajsa's home where I met up with Christer, one of Dad's oldest friends. We drove up to Sigtuna, between Stockholm and Uppsala, a beautiful area that still resembles the archipelago nature of Stockholm but with the stillness of lakeside land. We visited some sites from Dad's youth and I saw some of Christer's old army service photos where the resemblance was really quite striking, Dad being around the same age as me at the time. I was taken to the cultural centre of the town where they were preparing for a big annual run and it seemed so busy in such a small town centre which was mostly an environment of century old houses which had been preserved. There I was introduced to an old Swedish cafe called Tant Brun (Aunt Brown) with low dwarfish doorways and traditionally dressed waitresses. We had some sandwiches and a particularly good wienerbrod of course. With the limited time we had, the next stop was Uppsala where we made our way through the university town and towards the cathedral which had possibly the most ornate roof painting I have ever seen. How did the artists paint these intricate patterns so high above atop the ascending columns?

Today was election day so I followed the Sandbergs to the polling station at the nearby school. The results will be in and counted with the results coming to the media within 2 days time.

While having enjoyed the company of Christer and Britt, I had to move on to the next destination being Denmark. I was taken to Bromma airport where I said my goodbyes and hopped onto the bus-like airplane journey to Copenhagen. It wasn't more than an hour before I was walking out to greet my brother and Ajia once again. We went straight into the rural part of southern Sweden where we found things like elk and bears! While this was in a wilderness park called Skånes Djurpark, it was really quite a suprising array of forest wild life, many of which I had never seen the likes of in real life. After milling around the park till closing time, it was time to go and witness the outcome of the election back at Stensåker after dinner with Mormor.

It was election time and the verdict came out with a rather regretful result. On the back of an increase in recent anti-immigrant sentiment, the racist party managed to get a threshold vote of over 4% which means they will now have a couple of seats in parliament. What makes it particularly bad is that neither of the major party coalitions have a majority vote effectively granting the racist party balancing power in votes hung between both of the major parties. This will make for an interesting period in Swedish politics.

After a quick fling of tourism in Copenhagen with Niklas the following day, we met Aija in her lunch break at Cafe Norden for a little farewell lunch before heading to the airport. It would be the first time I would use my new Swedish passport and after spending the last 2 weeks touring through the country without the company of my parents, I felt I had soaked up enough of the land and culture to feel like a Swede. I have now eaten Kraftor and fresh apples in Huskvarna, recycled bottles with refund machines in Tranås, I have witnessed relics of its architectural history and have enjoyed the arts from the inside of other iconic buildings in the country's capital. I have been a grateful recipient of so much local experience and kindness from relatives I may have never seen or met before. Having had this opportunity to travel before my placement in London gives me a comforting sense of local connection with Europe as a whole, knowing that Scandinavia is only a stones throw away.

Now begins life in London as a student, a singer and a tourist. I hope I will get another chance to visit this country soon and with it being so close, I am sure I will come back and meet again before heading to the other side of the planet, home to Australia.

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