Stockholm Syndrome

Scandinavia as a region is not known for being cheap, and Stockholm is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It was an unsettling thought – the progressive price increases hadn’t let up since I left Thailand. However, Susanna had assured me I’d only really need two days each per city to the see the best bits of both Stockholm and Copenhagen, so I could take small comfort in the fact my time in this expensive area would be relatively brief. Aside from being expensive, Stockholm was also renowned for being a beautiful city – both in its physical aesthetic, and the people who lived inside it. “Stockholm is such a fashionable city,” Susanna had told me in our discussion about my future travels. “Everyone there is just incredibly good-looking and so well dressed. I swear, if you lived there you would have to spend nearly your whole paycheque on clothes just to keep up with the fashion.” From what I’d seen of Swedish men during my time in Australia, I can’t deny I was more than a little excited to be entering this supposed treasure trove of eye candy.

***

Unlike the trip over from Helsinki, navigating the Stockholm upon my arrival was not such smooth sailing. From the map in my guide book I could see that the port was a fair way out from the main city. Actually, that’s only half true – I could very easily see the city and the part of Stockholm I was trying to get to. As the crow flies it would have been a relatively short walk. The problem was that it was across a huge gulf in the river that ran through the city. Later, a local would tell me that Stockholm is known as the Venice of Scandinavia – I hadn’t heard the term before, but by the end of my stay I certainly believed it. Unfamiliar with the public transport system that didn’t even really seem to come down this far in the first place, I was forced to catch a taxi. I asked for the meter – he said there was traffic, and offered me a price that would supposedly be better. He asked for it Swedish Krona – I only had Euros. It was a complicated exchange that didn’t even seem to be helped by the fact he spoke English, but in the end I think the price was fairly decent. I tried not to think about it to much – You’re in Stockholm now, I said to myself. It’s not going to get any cheaper than that.

During my time in Helsinki, I had attempted to search for Scandinavian hosts in Sweden and Denmark, so far to no avail. While I was still desperately clinging to the hope of finding a host in Copenhagen, I resigned to the fact that I would also be paying for accommodation in this beautiful, expensive city. I arrived at the hostel without a reservation, hoping for the best. The hostel had a nautical theme, and a large number of the beds were located in cabin dorms, inside a renovated ship docked out the front in the river. Lucky, they still had room in the 17 bed dorm, located on solid ground and considerably cheaper. Check in wasn’t until 3pm though, so I used the shower, dropped off my bags in luggage storage and set out to explore the city. Stockholm lived up the expectations. Everyone just looked so good. Even people who weren’t conventionally attractive were so well dressed that walking down the streets felt like being an extra on a TV show or movie where the detail in every single background character had been so meticulously planned. The fact that I had been wearing the same tired clothes and repeated outfits for nearly two months didn’t do wonders for my self esteem, and a mild paranoia kicked in where I felt as though just being there was letting the city down, and lowering its standards.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

***

Like most cities in Europe, Stockholm had a travellers pass, the ‘Stockholm card’, that you could buy which provided you with either free or discounted entry to many of the city’s attractions, and free unlimited use of the citywide public transport. At first this excited me – regular readers will know how excited I get about good public transport – but further investigation revealed that Stockholm as a city didn’t really have that much public transport. In fact, it just wasn’t a very big city. There were also other passes that gave you access to public bike stands around the city – you swipe the card, the bike rack unlocks a bike, and you can ride it anywhere so long as you return it to another stand somewhere in the city within three hours. However, all these options were only really of any value if you were there for at least 3 or 4 days – the bike pass itself came for a minimum of three days. Given I was only staying for a maximum of two nights, it hardly seemed worth it. I wasn’t planning on visiting a huge number of museums, and I wouldn’t be straying too far from the city centre, which was near enough to my hostel. And so began my extensive walking tour of Stockholm.

Traversing the city by foot was actually a great way to see the city, in my opinion. With the exception of the Gamla Stan area, whose streets mirrored olden days of the 12th Century, there was a quaint, modern beauty to the streets of Stockholm. Clean, refined and operating like a well-oiled machine, it fit the model of typical Scandinavian efficiency that they were generally well known for. Crossing the road was easy because the cars drove slow and steady, but once again locals seemed reluctant to even contemplate jaywalking. I visited a few of what appeared to be the major sights – I honestly didn’t know that much about Stockholm, and had never heard of any ‘must see’ attractions. There was the Riddarholmen Church, a beautiful old building that was home to a large number of tombs, mostly containing nobility from Swedish royal houses. After that was the City Hall, which included a huge tower that provided 360 degree views of the surrounding city. When I went to buy a ticket to go up, the attendant gave me a warning. “The elevator is broken today, so you’ll have to climb the stairs the whole way.” I couldn’t help but laugh – the building looked so old I hadn’t even expected it to even have an elevator. I’d been climbing up the steps of every attraction from the Great Wall of China to St Isaacs Cathedral, and a took a moment to think of Kaylah as I assured the woman that I would be fine with the stairs. It would have been she had wanted.

Riddarholmen Church

Riddarholmen Church

The interior of Riddarholmen church - complete with token scaffolding.

The interior of Riddarholmen church – complete with token scaffolding.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

There were a lot of stairs though – the upper reaches of the tower, where the elevator didn’t go, was a narrow red brick hallway with a pointed ceiling, which went around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around to the point where I thought that I was trapped in some kind of magicians trick and I was going to end up at the bottom of the tower without ever having emerged at the top. I finally reached the summit though, and it was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view gave me a better understanding of the city’s layout: the different islands and peninsulas it was composed of; the wide river and multiple canals that divided them up; the obvious architectural distinctions between the old city and the newer parts of Stockholm. It was a cold and windy day, but I stayed up there for quite a while drinking in the sight. Unlike St Petersburg, Stockholm was a city that was quite beautiful from both the street level and from an aerial perspective.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

***

My second day in Stockholm had substantially better weather, clear blue skies and wam, invigorating sunshine. I set out into the bright morning to explore Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. It was a tiny, charming area of the city, with narrow cobbled streets that were sloping in all directions, with some so steep I was actually a little out of breath after climbing them. This was the picturesque Stockholm that looked like it could have been lifted out of a fairy tale, or a children’s storybook. I wandered around the narrow roads until I got to the palace, where I had arrived just in time for the changing of the guard. A whole bunch of Swedish soldiers marched out of the main courtyard, half of them comprising a marching band on horseback, while another set of guards moved in to take their place. I joined the throng of tourists that had gathered to watch, thoroughly impressed by the ability to play their instruments on horseback, more than anything else.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

There were lots of sightseeing tours in Stockholm, most of them by boat. It seemed like the most obvious and easiest way to see the city, dissected as it was over and over again by the multiple canals, but as I examined the list of tours and respective prices, I couldn’t help but feel it was such a grossly touristic thing to do, not to mention they seemed far too overpriced. So instead I spent my afternoon on an island called Skansen. All the islands of Stockholm are joined by bridges, so I strolled through the more modern streets of the city until I reached Skansen, an island almost completely made up of greenery: forests and parks and grassy clearings and trails through the woods. There was even a theme park with a few rides, but I had a more leisurely afternoon in mind. Everywhere there were people exercising, going for their afternoon and evening runs, and I followed along the roads that ran along the outside of the huge island, stopping to admire some of the statues along the way, before turning inland and hiking off a short way up into the hills. It was like a slice of natural heaven, completely isolated, right in the middle of the city. You would never have guessed it though – there was only the faintest sounds of the city in the distance, so quite that you really had to strain your ears to even notice them. I found a sunny clearing at the top of one the hills, and took a break to sit down and work on my blog. There’s something about that kind of natural environment that really gets the creative juices flowing. Or maybe I was just so far from any kind of distraction – it’s hard to be sure. All I know is that I spent a long time hanging out on that island. It was as though the weather was trying to make up for the unusually long and cold winter, and I was more than happy to enjoy the penance it was paying.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

Skansen selfie.

Skansen selfie.

***

It’s hard to really say what I did with my nights in Stockholm, because there was really so little of them. I’d spent longer than I’d realised on my first night pouring over maps and timetables, trying to get a better idea of where I was going in Europe and when I would be there, to potentially avoid some of the anxieties I’d had upon arriving here. When I decided it was time to start thinking about dinner – I’d assumed it was approaching six o’clock – I was shocked to see that it was already well after nine. The days were so long that I was literally forgetting to eat. I was there during for a Monday and Tuesday evening, so I decided to give checking out the nightlife a miss – it would probably be, yet again, very expensive, and to be honest the city wasn’t really inspiring a party mood in me. I hung around the hostel and chatted to a few travellers – a few nice and friendly people, a couple of shy and quiet ones, but no one of particular note, or anyone I attempted to stay in contact with.

I guess I spent a lot of time on my own, reflecting on how far I’d come on my journey, and how it was really only a fraction of how far I still had to go. After the close confines of the Trans-Siberian the solitude still felt like something of a luxury, though I knew sooner or later I was going to get sick of being alone. But Stockholm had definitely been a suitable city for solitude and contemplation – the gentle and non-confronting beauty was the perfect background for being alone with my thoughts.

The Transition: Singapore

A lot of people seemed pretty confused when I told them what the first stop was on this round the world tour of mine.
“Singapore? But that’s not an actual destination, right? It’s just a connecting stop over?”
Assuring them that it was indeed my first destination, I was queried as to how long I would be staying in the city of Singapore, on the tiny island country of the same name.
“Five days?” my uncle had exclaimed. “Well, that’s plenty of time for Singapore, I reckon. You wouldn’t want to be staying any longer.”

I suppose these reactions aren’t completed unjustified. Singapore isn’t exactly a hotspot for backpackers and partying 20-something-year-olds: alcohol is expensive, laws regarding drugs are terrifyingly harsh, and even male homosexuality is technically illegal (though those laws are not as strictly enforced). However, my reasons for visiting Singapore were on a slightly more personal note. An old high school friend of mine named Timothy lives there studying musical theatre, and I had timed the beginning of my journey so that I would be able to stop in Singapore and watch him perform in one his final productions before he graduates from his degree. I’d also visited him once before, so as well as already having seen a few of the typical tourist attractions such as Universal Studios and the night safari, I was descending into an environment that I was already semi-familiar with, with knowledge of where I would be going but not exactly what I would be doing…

Singaporean flag on top of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, formerly Singapore's first police station.

Singaporean flag on top of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, formerly Singapore’s first police station.

***

The first thing I noticed when I hopped off the plane at Changi Airport, other than the overwhelming humidity, was that one of my two travel money cards was missing. The one that I could find refused to work at any of the ATMs that I could find at the airport – because that’s just the kind of luck that travelers have, right? Luckily, my travel SIM card did work, so I got in contact with Tim and hopped into a taxi to head over to his apartment. The taxi accepted card payment and, much to my relief, this time the temperamental card decided to work. After heartfelt greetings and stressful explanations, I called my mother in Sydney to confirm that I had left the second card at home. While still a little annoyed at myself, I felt a wave of relief in knowing that it was safe, and not out racking up an illegitimate bill somewhere else in the world.

For the rest of the evening the two of us caught up and exchanged stories, as reunited friends usually do, so it wasn’t until the next day that I set out into the city as an explorer. After a lazy brunch with Tim’s family, who were also visiting Singapore to see him in his graduation show, Tim had to return to college for rehearsals and then preparation for that evenings performance. But he only had one set of keys to his place (his family were staying in a nearby hotel – I was the designated couch-surfer), and negotiation worked out that he would require them today. So I set out into the muggy afternoon, knowing I wouldn’t be able to return home until after that Friday night performance.

Without a doubt, the first thing you notice in Singapore is the humidity. Sydney was trying its hardest to make me sweat when I was back home, but it really doesn’t even come close to the sheen across my forehead as I wandered down Orchard Road. It eventually gets to the point where you abandon even attempting to look fresh – it’s hot, it’s humid, and no one expects anything less than a giant ball of perspiration. On this particular afternoon, however, the humidity reached breaking point, and a monsoonal thunderstorm was unleashed upon the city. Rain bucketed down as I scampered into a 7-11 to buy a cheap umbrella (although I’d already been dripping wet with sweat), and the skyscrapers and shopping malls turned the streets into huge metallic tunnels that boomed and echoed with every clap of thunder. I ended up passing through a lot of those shopping malls to avoid the rain, but the air conditioning inside was so chilly that I would continually have to drag my damp self back into the natural air so that I didn’t freeze to death.

One of the many small gardens that break up the mass of buildings along Orchard Road.

One of the many small gardens that break up the mass of buildings along Orchard Road.

The number of shopping malls in Singapore is astounding. I saw virtually every label I know, and plenty more that I’d never even heard of. The thought of walking through them with the intention of actually shopping seemed particularly overwhelming, but the prices in Singapore aren’t exactly competitive on an international scale, especially within South East Asia, so I decided to put off any intended purchases and try again in a more favourable economic climate. Something that I did take a particular interest in was the amount of greenery that fills the streets of Singapore. You won’t go a block or two without finding a small park or garden, or a huge tree holding its own among all the modern architecture. Tim mentioned that it might have been some sort of initiative of the city in order to maximize the space in the city without turning it into a stock standard concrete jungle void of any real kind of natural elements. Then there are buildings like the School Of The Arts, Singapore (SOTA), with its extreme proximity to the surrounding trees and surfaces covered in luscious vines and foliage, which are perfect examples of just how seamlessly this city is able to integrate the man-made and natural worlds.

View from below of the School Of The Arts, Singapore.

View from below of the School Of The Arts, Singapore.

Later in the afternoon, after the thunderstorm has passed, I emerged from the malls and headed south on the MRT train system (which, I must add, are insanely efficient that it makes Sydney’s CityRail look like even more of a joke), down to Clark Quay to take one of the boat tours that operated on the river. The leisurely trip took us on a guided historical tour, down to bay with some impressive views of the equally impressive Marina Bay Sands, a relatively new casino, bar/nightclub and hotel. I was happy quietly taking my own photos, but I couldn’t turn down the offer from the friendly and enthusiastic staff to take some photos of myself with the scenery, and so I ended up with my first, of what I’m sure will be many, awkward solo holiday snaps.

"Hold the flower, hold the flower!" the river tour guide shouted eagerly. I'm still not sure what the building is, but the towering Marina Bay Sands is visible behind me.

“Hold the flower, hold the flower!” the river tour guide shouted eagerly. I’m still not sure what the building is, but the towering Marina Bay Sands is visible behind me.

On the river tour, with the Singaporean CBD in the background.

On the river tour, with the Singaporean CBD in the background.

The Merlion, a popular tourist attraction in the bay.

The Merlion, a popular tourist attraction in the bay.

***

After the tour, I strolled around the streets of Clark Quay, but the ritzy upmarket restaurants and bars didn’t feel like the best option for a sweaty, lonely backpacker, so I jumped back on the MRT and looked for a new destination (Did I mention how efficient the MRT is? No, really, maximum waiting time for a train going anywhere is about 6 minutes – you don’t even look at the timetables and plan ahead, you just go!). I had intended to alight at Marina Bay and explore on foot what I had seen from the boat, but following the instructions on some of the signage, I alighted at Bayfront and found myself on the other side of the towering Marina Bay Sands. Instead of being greeted by the water, I found myself in Gardens By The Bay, an area of roughly 100 hectares of reclaimed land that has been transformed into a huge garden, but with a futuristic twist. The area is sprinkled with structures called the Supergrove, which look like huge wire frames in the shape of trees that are slowly being taken over by a climbing garden. By this stage it was dark, and the odd structures were twinkling and shining with bright, multi-coloured lights, though I was unable to ascertain just what they were, exactly – other than the central and tallest Supergrove tree housing a Chinese restaurant on the top floor.

The Supergrove trees in the Gardens By The Bay.

The Supergrove trees in the Gardens By The Bay.

If I’d thought that the design of Orchard Road had been the integration of modern technology with the natural world, then this little number had taken it to whole new level. There were a couple of ticketed exhibits in the Gardens By The Bay, but they were closing by the time I had arrived there, so I just settled for wandering around in the muggy air and soaking in the beautiful, illuminated sights. Without the harsh equatorial sun beating down on you, the climate was actually kind of pleasant, and with the mood-lit surrounding, I realised given the right company, the setting would have been quite romantic – I began to wish I’d had someone there to share it with. From there, the solitude of my day finally caught up with me, and I decided to call it a day and head back to the city and wait for Tim to arrive home.

***

The next day was Saturday, and that evening I would be attending the Tim’s show. He was busy for most of the day with a matinĂ©e performance, so I decided to continue the theme of exploring the paradoxical man-made natural environments of Singapore by visiting the Botanic Gardens. I don’t know what I was expecting, but you can colour me impressed. The gardens are huge, but they also feature an extensive collection of plants from all kinds of environments. There were walks through rainforest areas, gardens of cacti and other desert plants, hundreds of varieties of flowers and orchids, scented gardens full of beautiful and invigorating floral fragrances, and even an area dedicated to plants and herbs that have medicinal properties, categorised by their purpose and function. I spent several hours wandering through the gardens, taking pictures and studying the plants, and I found it quite fascinating. I live in the heart of the city back in Sydney, and while the area does have its share of parks and greenery, there’s nothing quite like the Singapore Botanic Gardens. As the afternoon continued, though, the weather cycle of the previous day repeated itself, and I was caught in another torrential downpour. Having seen the best that the gardens had to offer, I called it quits and headed back home – luckily I had the keys to the apartment that day, so I was able to dry off and spruce myself up for the theatre.

Tree from the rainforest walk in the Botanic Gardens.

Tree from the rainforest walk in the Botanic Gardens.

Arid environment/desert plants.

Arid environment/desert plants.

One of the hundreds of varieties of flowers in the Orchid Garden.

One of the hundreds of varieties of flowers in the Orchid Garden.

Some giraffe statues in the Orchid Garden - figured I should have at least a photo or two with myself in it.

Some giraffe statues in the Orchid Garden – figured I should have at least a photo or two with myself in it.

***

The performance was excellent – it was especially a thrill for myself, considering I knew almost all of the starring cast. Gypsy is probably one of my favourite musicals, but this isn’t a musical review so that’s all I’ll really say on that topic. However, the shows after party was the setting of what was probably the biggest culture shock in Singapore. The party was held at a bar down at Marina Bay Sands, a swish little place called South Coast, which is owned by a lesbian couple who are originally from the central coast of New South Wales – small world, huh? After Tim’s brother bought a round of drinks, I approached the bar to take my turn. I ordered a cider for myself, one for Tim to congratulate him on a fantastic final show, and beer for his brother to repay the drink he bought me. When the bartender added up the cost, I was barely able to stifle a small shriek when he told me the total was just shy of $50. That’s in Singapore dollars, but even with the conversion, it was a hefty bill that I wasn’t expecting. It cleaned out all the cash in my wallet, to say the least. Alcohol in general is just more expensive in Singapore (pro tip: DUTY FREE!!!), so when you go out to nicer places it can only be expected that it will be more expensive.

Luckily for me, this was a musical theatre party. There was no shortage of homosexual men, and I worked the room to my advantage and scored a few frozen margaritas free of charge. Drinks turned to cocktails, cocktails turn to shots, and before long I was sitting there at the bar convincing myself that now was not the time to be sick. I kept it together, thankfully, though in retrospect I’m just a lot more grateful I wasn’t footing the bill of whatever had gone down. As the bar closed around us at 4:30, those still standing stumbled through the hotel lobby to the taxi rank. I may have accidentally given Tim a hickey, and shared a few cheeky moments with one of my suitors in the back of a taxi, but it was all harmless fun, and Tim and I eventually stumbled back into his apartment very close to sunrise, and spent most of the rest of the weekend sleeping off our hangovers.

***

The rest of my stay in Singapore was quite relaxed and mellow, spending time with Tim, his family, and his classmates. We visited the bar at the top of Marina Bay Sands, sipping on some expensive cocktails while enjoying the panoramic views of the 57th storey, but that was the only other tourist-type activity I did. On my previous visit I had wandered the streets of Little India, experiencing the dramatic cultural shifts at every turn of a corner. The extent of the multiculturalism in such a small geographical space is actually quite amazing. Though this time around, I spent my remaining time with my friends, now that they had the stresses and pressures of their show behind them.

Tim and I with our cocktails on top of Marina Bay Sands.

Tim and I with our cocktails on top of Marina Bay Sands.

Panoramic view from the 57th level of Marina Bay Sands at night.

Panoramic view from the 57th level of Marina Bay Sands at night.

As I reflect on the five nights I spent in Singapore, I would say that it was a good place to start my journey, because while it was in a completely new country, eight hours away from my hometown, it was still full of places, people, and experiences that still felt quite familiar. It was a good transitioning period, where my life was a strange mix of the schedules of other people and my own freedom from any specific restraints or responsibilities. In a way it didn’t even feel like the real adventure had begun yet – it was just one last pit stop before I threw myself into the real unknown. It took me away from my home, but not quite out of my comfort zone. I watched other people go about their daily routines while I woke up on their couches, and the fact that I was not going to have that kind of regularity for the next nine months was able to slowly sink in, rather than simply being thrust upon me. A couple of times I felt lonely, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wanted to steal a few kisses in that taxi, but that can only be expected within the first week of leaving your old life behind, and something I’m sure I’ll get used to in time. Now the transition phase is over and I’m truly setting out on my own, and while I’m still a little nervous about the rest of what South East Asia has in store for me, I feel like my time in Singapore was an adequate stepping stone of preparation.

So onwards with the adventure – Bangkok, here I come!