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Monday, June 18, 2012 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.
Guided by bloggers through the hip side of Stockholm
By HENRY ALFORD
The New York Times
The view was peerless but not pierless. I was sitting on the patio of the chic Hotel Skeppsholmen, which, located on an island in the middle of Stockholm, seems to embody all that's good about a city that is roughly one-third water and one-third green space. I could see lawn, palisades, boats and ferries, very few tourists, Northern Europe's best-preserved medieval city, an amusement park built in 1883, important shrubbery, ducks.
I fell into conversation with a bearded, 50-something stranger to my left, who asked me how I had stumbled onto this little slice of heaven. "A blogger," I told him. Whereupon he snort-laughed as if to say: But this place is too exalted for the mere blogosphere.
"I'm sometimes the only person sitting out here," he told me. "It's Stockholm's best-kept secret."
"Better than the WikiLeaks bunker?" I asked.
"Well ..." he conceded, all mock gravity. "Maybe second best."
Guided by bloggers
What would happen if you traveled to a country you'd never been to and relied on suggestions from blogs and online locals instead of those from friends and guidebooks? Would you end up at a Star Trek convention? Trapped in a basement full of cat hair and moody Swedish folk singers? Not according to my visit at the Skeppsholmen.
I chose Stockholm for this experiment because it's a city with a wealth of bloggers. Try Googling "Stockholm bloggers" and then get back to me next month, when you've finished reading. A fictional character like the hacker Lisbeth Salander doesn't emerge from a vacuum — she's the product of much feverish keyboard tapping, and I don't mean Stieg Larsson's. My hope was that by taking tips from young bloggers I'd immediately be plugged into hipster Stockholm and neatly dodge any Millennium or Abba walking tours — or indeed, any activity that might shed a light on sulky fictional hackers or the troubled marriage of Benny and Anni-Frid.
If Sweden's uniqueness lies in its having long been a socialist paradise with a thrumming amount of business ingenuity — hello, Ericsson and Electrolux and Saab and Volvo and H&M and Ikea and Hasselblad — then perhaps it's not a huge surprise that this is a country where a certain percentage of the population likes to sit in cafes, lavishing their blog posts and restaurant recommendations with the kind of attention befitting a sickly dachshund. The average Swede drinks 4.5 cups of coffee a day. Cue frantic blogging.
Back in New York, I'd fallen down the rabbit hole of Stockholm blogs. I'd gravitated mostly to two jaunty ones that feature — as is increasingly seen in other city-based blogs, too — insider tips given by locals. The first of these was Nectar & Pulse (nectarandpulse.com), a company that allows you, at 6 euros (about $7.35) a pop, to buy local hipsters' insider tips to one of eight European cities and New York. Each of the locals — or Soulmates, as the site calls them — is identified by name and a title like "Shopaholic/Glamourgirl/Partyqueen" or "Breadbaker/Writer/Birdwatcher." Each Soulmate — most of whom are in their 20s and have a kind of boho gorgeousness that screams "pool party at Alexander Skarsgard's" — has filled out profile questions in which they describe favorite films, magazines, times of day and so on; seldom has one encountered more enthusiasm for Elle magazine and the films of Wong Kar-wai.
Before going to Stockholm for 12 days in April with my boyfriend, Greg, I bought tips from two Soulmates — the one who seemed the most like me (Collector/Photographer/Listener Kristofer Hedlund) and the one — or ones — who are the most like someone I secretly want to be (Bohemians/Pop-Princesses/Businesswomen Johanna and Nina Piroth).
I was mailed two handsomely produced, color-photograph-bedecked guides, each 5 by 14 inches and each bearing about 30 recommendations for museums, restaurants, stores and bars. Both brochures contained a sort of prose poem in which the Soulmates described a perfect day in Stockholm. After a day of looking at art and eating and clubgoing, the mustachioed and soul-patched Hedlund plunges (presumably naked) into the bay at sunrise. The pale, waifish Piroth sisters, meanwhile, do a lot of brunching and picnicking whereupon "the dancemood takes over" and they engage in "ugly, early-morning dancing" until dawn.
I'd love to tell you that, on any given day during our trip, the previous day's celebration of nakedness and dancemood prohibited us from getting out of our accommodations much before 8 p.m., but I recently turned 50. No, we hit 13 of Hedlund's picks and six of the Piroth sisters'. Hedlund steered us toward the wonderful Fotografiska, the photography museum opened in 2010 inside a huge Art Nouveau customs house on the water. We marveled here at Marcus Bleasdale's pictures of Uganda and Andre Kertesz's pictures of Paris, as well as at conference rooms named "Annie" and "Cindy and Sally."
We also enjoyed our Hedlund-inspired visits to the vegetarian lunch spot Martins Grona and to the well-curated Papercutshop, which sells books, magazines and DVDs. At the cavernous art gallery Magasin 3 down near the harbor, we went to an Ai Weiwei exhibition. We learned that in 2007 Ai had made a sculpture of 1,001 wooden doors from destroyed homes but that a wind storm in Germany had knocked the sculpture down. "It's better than before," he said of the artwork at the time. "Now the price is doubled."
Sticking to Sodermalm
Like Hedlund's picks, many of the places suggested by the Piroth sisters were on the island of Sodermalm, the formerly working-class enclave now host to Stockholm's bohemia. But if the seeming theme of Hedlund's Stockholm is "Places Where You Could Hand-Roll a Cigarette Without Anyone Looking Askance," the Piroth sisters' is more "Places to Have a Stylish Nervous Breakdown." At the vintage clothing store Lisa Larsson, hillocks of secondhand garments heaped on the floor suggested that Larsson's closet has been struck by an asteroid; at the wonderful Rosendals Tradgard, in a park, you buy your baked goods or lunch inside one of the garden center's hot, pressure cooker-like greenhouses and then collapse at a picnic table or on the grass.
A traveler could never rely solely on the Soulmates — when you are this beautiful, apparently, you do not traffic in practicalities like opening hours, phone numbers or prices; and you do not recommend hotels, because you are probably sleeping on the beach, a thin reindeer hide wrapped around you tightly, like a won ton. However, as a kind of gauzy inspiration, these guides provide aspirational guideposts and conversational fodder.
I loved — purely on the basis of his having listed Susan Sontag as one of his heroes — looking for signs of poserdom in one of Hedlund's choices of places to drink Fernet-Branca (the yuppie-ish but centrally located Kaken). I loved — when we took a Piroth sisters-inspired day trip to revel in the stark beauty of the island of Sandhamn — coming to the realization that my personal equivalent of "the dancemood" is the joy I feel when I play along with "Jeopardy" at home. And I loved — even though many of their picks could be found in guidebooks — knowing I was hanging with the cool kids. But I did not love being turned away from the restaurant P.A. & Co. three times because my Soulmate Hedlund didn't tell me I needed a reservation. Dude!
Less romantic but even more helpful than the Nectar & Pulse guides was the Spotted by Locals blog. Here, a group of youngish locals write short blog posts about their city. (There are 41 cities covered, all in Europe.) No perfect days here, and I don't know how any of these people feel about Wong Kar-wai or Fernet-Branca. But there is a good amount of information that you don't find in guidebooks, almost all of it graced with information like prices and opening hours.
We followed 15 of its suggestions, the greatest concentration coming from Natalia Urbanska, a contributor and culture maven who encouraged us to visit Stockholm's premier venue for modern dance, Dansens Hus. We saw a piece in which an ominous, air-inflated 25-foot cube of parachute silk — imagine an inexorable marshmallow — ingested and then disgorged dancers. Dancemood: regurgitant.
But Spotted by Local's best virtue is its practicality. Aaron Larsson, another contributor, directed us to Aplace Below, the Vasastan outlet of the clothing boutique Aplace, where last season's clothes, some by young Swedish designers, are reduced by 30 to 50 percent; we bought a dove gray raincoat and a quilted, shabby-chic suit jacket. We agreed with Anna Ostman that the second bar, not the first, at the popular brasserie Sturehof is the one to go to, and saved about $12 when, per her suggestion, we ate at Sonja's Greek on a Sunday night, when all entrees are reduced to 100 kronor (about $14 at 7 kronor to the dollar).
Aaron Larsson wrote that Judit & Bertil — a cozy Sodermalm bar that was the site of a political scandal a few years ago when Sweden's secretary of state was photographed kissing a journalist while on duty — is unblemished by tourists and that it has a "'dinner-at-your-alcoholic-friend's-place' kind of feeling."
I wholly concur, though, in my case, I was the alcoholic friend. Two aquavits under my belt, I fell, in plain view of Greg, deeply in love with the sly, stubbly 20-something bartender, a sort of Swedish Jude Law.
Pointing at the cocktail menu, I blurted at Jude, "What is smultron? It sounds like a pornographic robot." Jude, all smiles and indulgence, said, "It is not that. It is a wild strawberry."
Fifteen minutes later, I offered, "I see that your men's room downstairs has no door. Discuss." Jude: "There was a door on the old bathroom, but this is how the new one is. There is a second bathroom on this floor, with a door. It's not for me to make judgments about which you choose."
Where's the grit?
During our stay, details like the doorless bathroom — anything that bespoke chaos or randomness or decay — seemed particularly vivid to me. So sunny and practical are the natives, so clean and efficient are the city and its subway, the Tunnelbana, that I longed at times for any vestige of grit or darkness. New parents get 480 days of parental leave?! Everyone I talk to seems to have a summer house on an island?! When I told the bartender at Snotty — a bar for rock 'n' roll snobs in Sodermalm — that I could detect no condescension or attitude from him or his patrons, he proceeded to thank me!
Sure, I could point to the occasional sign of tumult — Sweden's Social Democrats, for the first time in more than a decade, were deposed in 2006 and replaced by a center-right coalition under Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt; we all know about Sweden's high suicide rate and the oppressive snowfall and the heavy drinking and the ever burgeoning school of blood-soaked fiction. And yes, I had envisioned having a mental collapse at Lisa Larsson and Rosendals Tradgard. But, overall, to a visitor like me, Stockholm's bright sun is fairly blinding. It can all seem a little too perfect.
I soldiered on. I had now canvassed the city through the eyes of seven strangers — a fact that had allowed me to find by Day 1 or 2 of our trip the kind of untouristed places that I sometimes only find by Day 4 or 5. (I was glad, though, that I carried a guidebook — I needed the maps; and when we stumbled onto a church, it was helpful to know when it was built.) But it was time to bump up my game: I needed to actually meet a blogger.
An American friend, having heard what I was after, put me in touch with Emi Guner, a 40-year-old mother of three who has lived in or near Stockholm most of her life, and who writes a personal, nontourist-directed blog called Letters From the End Consumer. Emi asked Greg and me to meet her at the Nytorget Urban Deli, a lively Sodermalm cafe at the back of a grocery whose offerings include miniature pineapples and saffron biscotti.
The wonderfully witty Emi — "Pickled herring," she allowed at one point, "is the Gatorade of the North" — was busily pecking away at the keyboard of her silver MacBook Air when we arrived.
Never before have I met someone who can so gracefully punctuate her conversation with helpful Web searches.
You like sweets? Here is the site of a great new caramel shop, Parlans, where the workers all dress in swing-era garb.
You're going to the medieval district? You'll definitely want to look at the windows of the lovely boutique Very Important Clothes.
You miss your cat back in New York? Let's watch this clip of Werner Herzog talking about chickens.
Bread and coffee
When I pressed Emi for the name of the amazing cakelike brown bread that restaurants kept serving us, I was startled to see her convey the words "danskt ragbrod" by pencil rather than IM.
I asked Emi if she had a theory as to why Stockholm has so many bloggers, and she said: "It might be partly our inferiority complex. We're feeling kind of alone, all the way up here in the north. We want to reach out and tell people that we're alive. We want to show people that we're on top of everything."
This naturally led to a discussion of hipster-riddled Sodermalm, whose cafes I had recently described to a friend as "laptoppy." Emi reported: "The Stockholm hipsters have gotten very nerdy about bread. And coffee is reaching Brooklyn levels."
On the bread front: "Sourdough has gotten huge, especially for stay-at-home dads. The bakery of this deli that we're in has a'sourdough hotel' where you can leave your starter when you go on vacation." (Sourdough starter needs to be "fed" to keep the yeast active. The "hotel" is a shelving unit that holds some 30 jars of customers' dried or live starter; the top shelf is labeled "Penthouse.") Emi said, "When I first heard about it, I thought it was a hipster joke."
Given her excellent taste in all things Stockholm, it seemed only appropriate to ask Emi what her perfect day in Stockholm would be. She said she'd start with breakfast at the Hotel Skeppsholmen; then go to either of the nearby museums of modern art or architecture; then sit outside and eat lunch in the Humlegarden; then go for a swim at the outdoor pool at the Eriksbadet sports center.
It was only the next day — when I'd peeled off from Greg and perched myself on the Hotel Skeppsholmen's patio — that I realized that Emi's perfect day ended in the late afternoon. What of her evening?
I struggled with this omission before finally realizing that it seemed just about right. You can plan a perfect day, and can put a perfect day in motion, but in the end, the best days are usually the ones that allow for the random. You put the building blocks in place, but then the wind moves them.
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