Location/Culture Reports

Location Report – Stockholm, Sweden

“It’s is not a city at all,” he said with intensity, “It is ridiculous to think of itself as a city. It is simply a rather large village, set in the middle of some forest and some lakes. You wonder what it thinks it is doing there, looking so important.”
- Ingmar Bergman, interviewed by James Baldwin

Setting: All of the travel guides I have about Sweden say the same thing about Stockholm: “Stockholm is without a shadow of a doubt one of the loveliest cities in Europe.” Having been there myself recently, I can agree wholeheartedly. Built on an archipelago of 14 islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, the city is connected by a series of beautiful bridges and waterways that add to the old world charm of the place. Within the city limits, one-third of the city is water, one-third is parks and open spaces, and the rest is made up of a mix of modern skyscrapers and old 4 and 5-story buildings in warm yellows, golds, and browns that make up the typical Scandinavian town.
Looking towards City Hall in Stockholm. (Picture by Biz.)
Looking towards City Hall in Stockholm. (Picture by Biz.)
Stockholm is broken up into sections, and for the casual visitor, the most delightful section to visit is the Gamla Stan (“Old Town” in Swedish), which is the oldest section of town, and includes the government and historical buildings, including the Royal Palace. Outside of Gamla Stan is a mix of the modern (shopping malls, cinemas, bars, and restaurants) and the old (harbors, open-air museums, street markets).

History: People have inhabited Sweden since the glaciers melted some 10,000 years ago. As I mentioned in the history of Norway, Scandinavian history tends to be all about the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland) invading each other, taking over, merging, splitting apart, and then invading and merging again. Despite their colorful Viking history, the country is known for its peace-loving ways. Sweden hasn’t waged war since 1809, when it lost Finland to Russia.

The conversion to Christianity occurred later in Sweden than in other European countries, and the pagan temple at Uppsala lasted until 1090. A period of intellectual enlightenment in the 1700s gave Swedish names to the Celsius scale (Anders Celsius) and the Linnaean nomenclature system for giving species a genus and species name (named for botanist Carl Linnaeus). Iron ore mining and world trading brought Sweden into the industrial age in the late 1800s. Compulsory primary schooling was instituted in 1842 to provide a more educated workforce for the growing economy. In 1905, the Norwegians voted to break the union with Sweden, and since then, the two countries have been separate entities.

Over the last few decades, a modern “cradle-to-grave” welfare system, a lax immigration system, and a controversial membership in the European Union has created tension in the society about Sweden’s place in the world. Today, Sweden still accepts a larger number of immigrants per capita than other European countries. Stockholm has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Europe, and you can find food of almost any variety just around the corner. The standard of living is very high, with universal access to education and health care.

Climate & Nature: Sweden itself has some of the last wilderness in Europe, and large tracts of unmanaged lands have been placed into a national park system. The country is studded with thousands of lakes, and much of the northern part of the country is forested. In the south, small family farms with pastures and tilled agriculture give the land a patchwork feel, while in the north, the Sami (Laplanders) move their reindeer herds among vast tracts of uninhabited, unmanaged land. Nearly a sixth of the country is north of the Arctic Circle, in the land of the midnight sun.
The Swedish countryside near Gamla Uppsala (Picture by Biz.)
The Swedish countryside near Gamla Uppsala (Picture by Biz.)
The climate varies considerably by latitude. The southern parts of the country are more maritime, with summer average highs in the 70s and highs in the winter around or just below freezing. In the north, it is considerably cooler with highs averaging in the 50s (summer) and -10s in the winter. Precipitation falls year round as rain or snow.

The People: Swedes have been the butt of Scandinavian jokes for years for their reputation for being dry and excruciatingly serious. Like many stereotypes, there’s a hint of truth in this, but mostly the cool exterior shouldn’t fool you. Under the strong sense of national pride and satisfaction, you’ll find a warm friendly people who will let their guard down and laugh like the rest of us. Like Norway, Sweden is a mix of the cosmopolitan and the provincial, with both a strong sense of their place in the world, but also strong ties to their pastoral past.

Interesting fact: Myths about the Viking god Odin have worked their way into the history of Santa Claus, as Odin used to travel across the sky riding on his eight-footed horse, Sleipnir, giving out rewards and punishment.

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