16 August 2009

Schengen, baby!

Though every day in Paris is like a vacation, Karen had this crazy idea that she deserved a few days away from work earlier this summer. And so, anticipating that Paris might be hot and miserable in the summer (a false assumption, it turns out), we decided to head North for a few days. As Karen already mentioned, we spent the solstice in Stockholm, since we'd read that after the Santa Lucia holiday (mid Dec) through Christmas, the solstice was the biggest deal going in Sweden. Why not go up and see the stereotypically reserved Swedes party like it's 1999?

Our flight wasn't until early evening, so we spent the day in Paris enjoying ourselves at the Picasso museum before having lunch at a restaurant on the Place des Vosges, where the petite woman seated next to us hoovered up a football-sized serving of beef tartare in about 15 minutes, followed by a glass or two of vin rouge at a little outdoor wine bar in the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the in 3e. We were feeling no pain as we finished packing and headed out on the trains to the airport. Great relaxing start to a vacation.

Until I realized, nearly an hour into the trip to the airport, that I had left my passport sitting on the entry hall table in the apartment. Curse you, red wine! No way to get back home and out to the airport in time for the flight, and so my mind was racing to find any Plan B that would actually have me in Stockholm for at least part of the time Karen would be there.

Turns out that somebody had already taken care of Plan B for me, some 24 years ago. The Benelux countries and France and Germany, in the so-called Schengen Agreement (named for the town in Luxembourg where the agreement was signed-- yeah, I didn't know there was more than 1 town in Luxembourg, either) decided that it was silly to keep checking passports between countries that had otherwise worked so hard to reduce barriers between them. Since then, the agreement has spread to pretty much all EU counties (and some EFTA countries), such that there are no border controls at all between about 25 different countries in Europe. That means that flying between France and Sweden requires an ID more like a driver's license than a passport, and though I'd also forgotten my international driver's license, I wasn't quite moron enough to leave my French residency permit at home. So I should have been good.

That didn't mean I wasn't still stressing on the way to the airport, or while standing 40 minutes in line to check in. Rules in France are enforced the way they are on SEPTA trains, at the whim of the conductor, and I was convinced I'd be sitting at home alone that night after being laughed at by the evil ticket agents. But there were no problems, and it was with considerable relief that I munched my pretzels in the late evening sun over Denmark.

Things from there were pretty anti-climactic. We were looking forward to some partying the next day-- eating herring, a bonfire or two, and maybe doing some May pole dancing (since I'm led to believe it is not pole dancing in the way it would be on Columbus Ave in Philly). But those fantasies were put to rest quickly, when the young woman speaking flawless English who checked us into the hotel told us that all of the celebrations had taken place already that day and that the city would pretty well close down for the next day or two. 364 more days until the next outbreak of Swedish mirth.

Turns out it didn't matter-- there was plenty to enjoy over the next few days we were there. Often I travel and think a place is nice to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Stockholm was a nice enough place to visit, but I think it would be a nicer place to actually live. Though perhaps not the most intense or electrifying place in the world, the city is unusual in that it's actually set up for the quality of life of its residents: bike lanes, running trails, an emphasis on clean air and water, good beer, and polite and civically minded people. And (May) pole dancing. Sweet.

Without any more chatter, here are the pics. Didn't get any of the haircuts we got as stop #3 on the European Capitals Haircut Tour.

Evening sun in the old city, probably about 10 PM, still an hour or more before sunset.

Stockholm is really a series of islands, and the sea still features heavily in modern culture.

So much so that some Swedes apparently have trouble staying out of it.

Karen on a morning run, while I rode alongside on a clown bike kindly provided by the hotel. Her longest ever run (around one of the islands), and I got lost.

Obviously this isn't Paris...

Can't go to Sweden and not eat meatballs. Actually, they're not all that interesting, culinarily. And my (Norwegian) grandmother's were better than these, to boot. Also in the traditional food scene, we did a smorgasbord, with enough herring preparations to have one every day of the year. Herring for breakfast at our hotel, too, which is a little more than I could take. The yogurt and sour milk with muesli (and magnificent lingon and cloud berries) were more my speed.

Life imitating art?

Typical Stockholm street.

Stockholm's city-owned fleet of bikes, which connect to the rack through balls in the bottom of the baskets.

One of Stockholm's street-side bicycle pumps.

Traditional Swedish headwear, on the boat to Vaxholm in the archipelago.

Vaxholm, basically the gateway to the less populated portions of the archipelago. It's a major vacation destination for Swedes.

The Volvo Ocean Race was in Stockholm while we were there, and our boat to Vaxholm went ride through one of the in-harbor races. It was really cool to watch (and note the old multi-mast ship behind them).

Vaxholm Castle, 19th century replacement for others dating back to the mid-1500s, built to protect the sea route to Stockholm.

Your hosts.

The Vasa, in the Vasa museum. Big, expensive war ship built in the 1620s that sank 30 minutes into its first test sail. Oops. Raised in the 1960s and restored/conserved (for example, sprayed every day for 17 years with PEG before drying for an additional 9), it's now the centerpiece of a museum that is at least as interesting for what it explains about life in Sweden (and at sea) in the time as the ship itself.

Stockholm is insanely expensive, and the alcohol taxes are astounding even compared to the other high costs. So instead of drinking wine, which is mostly imported from France and served for 10x the cost here, we drank the more local beer. Baltic porters have always been among my favorites, and they were a lot easier to find there than in Paris.

Changing of the guard at the palace. Not sure what's up with the pony tails.

Though most of the food we ate in Stockholm was pretty forgettable, we had a very nice meal our last night there at F12, one of the many restaurants in town owned by Melker Andersson. No doubt about his nationality.

Stockholm at dusk is especially beautiful. Since sunrise was at 3:30 AM while we were there, we never sampled that.

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