Sweet Memories of First Visit Bring Me to Stockholm a Second Time


  The af Chapman, a full-rigged steel ship. Originally called Dunboyne and launched in February 1888, it made several voyages between Europe, Australia and the west coast of America. The Swedish Navy bought it in 1923 and named it after the shipbuilder and Vice Admiral Fredrik Henrik af Chapman. It remained part of the Swedish Navy until its retirement in 1947. After its retirement, the Stockholm City Museum saved it from being dismantled. Permanently moored at the western shore of Skeppsholmen islet in Stockholm, it is now part of the af Chapman youth hostel. Rooms on the ship are more expensive than those in the shore section of the hostel. Though expensive, they get sold out faster because of its locale: The ship floats on placid waters and, when viewed from the shore, has Stockholm’s famed Old Town (the Gamla Stan) and the Royal Palace in the background.

July 15, 2009—Wednesday
Stockholm is one of the cities in the world I am looking forward to visiting again and again. My first visit to it was in the summer of 2008. Sweet memories of that visit came to mind, as I got off the plane after an all-night flight from New York to Stockholm. In fact, it was those memories that made me put the Swedish capital on my European itinerary a second time.

In 2008, I had arrived here by train from Oslo, the capital of neighboring Norway. I had arrived a day earlier than originally planned, and at an hour that any first-time visitor to a new place should avoid. The unplanned arrival happened because of a spur-of-the-moment decision I made while in Oslo. I decided to cut short my scheduled three-day stay in Oslo to two and utilize the one day thus saved to visit Bergen on the west coast of Norway. I planned to return to Oslo the next day and then proceed to Stockholm, the next stop on my 2008 itinerary.

The belated decision to visit Bergen was made not because it is the second-largest city in Norway, but because it is reputed to be more beautiful than the largest, which is Oslo. There was one more reason, and a more important one. Most travel writers have said that an Oslo-to-Bergen, coast-to-coast train journey on a summer day is the best way to enjoy the scenic beauty of Norway.

I immensely enjoyed the train journey, all right. But my plan to stay overnight at Bergen fell through. The day of my arrival coincided with a much-publicized, open-air music concert by Eric Clapton; and all hotels, motels, and hostels in the city had been booked weeks in advance. I had not known until then that the British rock star enjoyed that much popularity in Scandinavian countries. Disappointed, I took a train back to Oslo the same night.

Back in Oslo early the next morning, I was left with two options: spend one more day in Oslo or leave for Stockholm right away and add another day to my already-scheduled three-day stay in that city. I chose the latter.

I was hoping to take the train leaving Oslo at 7:30 a.m. It would bring me to Stockholm at 2:00 p.m., giving me sufficient time to search for a place to stay one night. My hope was dashed when I heard that the 7:30 train was fully booked.

“Should I buy a ticket and get into an unreserved compartment?” I thought about it for a moment, and then decided against it. After an all-night travel from Bergen to Oslo, I was in no mood for another six-and-a-half-hour train journey, standing all the way. I bought a ticket for the next train to Stockholm, which was scheduled to leave Oslo at 3:38 p.m. Little did I know at the time I bought the ticket that there was another disappointment awaiting me.

Just two hours before the train was to depart, an announcement came on the station’s PA system that all train services from Oslo up to Kongsvinger, a station in Norway close to the Swedish border, were canceled because of track work. The announcement also said that passengers would be transported by bus through the section affected by the cancellation. From Kongsvinger, they could continue their journey, by train, to Stockholm.

Seated next to me on the bus from Oslo to Kongsvinger was a woman from the Philippines, who was working in Oslo. She worked for the Thon Hotel chain in Norway. When she heard from me that I was a little nervous about arriving in Stockholm around midnight and without any hotel reservation, she told me not to worry.

“There is a youth hostel called af Chapman,” she said. “Though a hostel, it’s an exotic place. Part of it is an old ship permanently anchored, and the other part, which is on the shore, is like any other hostel. Go check it out. The place is always sold out, especially in the summer. But there could be some last-minute cancellations. Try your luck. And it’s only walking distance from the Stockholm Central Station, which will be your last stop.”

She made the place more appealing when she said that she and her Swedish boyfriend had spent “some very interesting nights” there. (She had just been divorced from her Norwegian husband, marriage to whom was what brought her from the Philippines to Norway five years earlier.)

It was close to midnight by the time I reached the Stockholm Central Station. The Filipino woman had got down at the previous station. Because she had told me that the hostel was at a short distance from the station, I had decided to walk rather than take a taxi. Very soon, I realized that the distance was too long to walk. Though Stockholm is one of the safest cities in the world, wandering around at midnight, in a strange city with no one in sight for blocks and blocks, would make any first-time visitor nervous. On the way, I inquired at a couple of bars that were open and made sure that I was walking in the right direction.

After a good 45-minute walk, I reached the af Chapman hostel. Yet another disappointment was awaiting me there. “Every room at the hostel has been taken,” the lady at the reception desk told me. On hearing from me that I was a total stranger to the city and sensing my nervousness about having to go around in the dead of night, looking for a place to stay, she and her colleague offered to help me.

The colleague called up another facility, which happened to be another old ship converted into a hostel, and checked whether there was any room available there. I was relieved to hear that there was. He also called a taxi and told me how to get there and how much the approximate taxi fare would be. I was overwhelmed by the Chapman staff’s warmth and hospitality and their eagerness to help a stranger in distress. The distress instantly disappeared.

A year later, on this July morning, memories of that heart-warming experience went through my mind, as I walked toward the immigration-clearance area of the Stockholm international airport. The tedium of the all-night flight had already gone.
Tirade against President Bush
The line was pretty long. As I inched forward, my mind wandered through another memorable experience I had during my 2008 visit to Stockholm: a conversation on the subway with a Swedish social worker.

Marlene worked with children (ages 1 to 5) of newly arrived immigrants and refugees in her country. Working with the poor and helpless in the world was not just a job for her, she told me. It was her life’s mission. “We Swedes must help others,” I remembered her saying, “because we are in a position to do so.” She also said that most people who needed help were in the desperate situation they were in for no fault of theirs. “Look at those coming from Iraq,” she added. Then she launched a tirade against President George W. Bush and the American invasion of Iraq.

“I am glad that countries like Sweden opened their doors to refugees created by that invasion,” I had told Marlene. “These countries could have easily said no. After all, they didn’t create that problem.”

“No,” she had said, “we wouldn’t say no to those helpless people. And we wouldn’t allow our government to be that inhuman.”

“I can vouch for that,” I had replied. “In the couple of days I have been here, I was touched by the compassion and generosity of Swedes.”

A rapport did develop between Marlene and me during our half-hour conversation. When the train arrived at the station where she had to get off, she said, “I would have enjoyed talking with you more, but for a commitment I have made to my friends.”

The commitment was an evening out with her girlfriends. “It’s a girls-only party,” she added. “Otherwise, I would have asked you to come along. We have the blessings of our boyfriends to go and enjoy.”

“You have my blessing too,” I told her. “Go and enjoy. Life is very short.”

My mind was still with Marlene when my turn came to proceed to the immigration counter. Looking at my address in Sweden that I had written on the immigration form, the lady immigration officer said, “You have chosen a beautiful place to stay.”

“I did it mainly for another reason,” I told her. “I had a memorable experience with the staff at af Chapman last year.” I briefly narrated the experience and then added, “I had decided then and there that if I ever came back to Stockholm and had to rent a place to stay, my first choice would be af Chapman.” This time, I had booked the place weeks in advance.

The immigration officer stamped my passport and gave it back, saying, “Welcome to Stockholm.” Just the kind of Swedish gesture I had expected. But what she said next surprised me: “Be careful about your wallet all the time. There are pickpockets around.”

That was something I had not associated with Sweden. I thought to myself: “This is the penalty a country pays for being so humane and generous toward the less fortunate in the world.” Lately, criminal elements from other countries have been sneaking into Sweden, taking advantage of that humanity and generosity.

I was still at the airport, now waiting at the carousel to pick up my checked-in bag. A larger-than-life picture on the wall caught my attention. It was the picture of a statue of Birger Jarl, the founder of Stockholm. The picture itself was more than sufficient to make anyone feel welcome to the city. So its caption that said “Welcome to my hometown” was superfluous.

I couldn’t resist the urge to take a picture of that welcome sign. I looked around to see whether there were any security personnel nearby from whom I could take permission. I had to be cautious, airport security being overly strict since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. When I couldn’t find anyone, I asked a man standing next to me, waiting for his baggage, whether there would be “any objection to my taking a picture of this.”

“How long are you going to be in Stockholm?” he asked.

“Three days,” I said.

“Go to the city hall one day,” he said. “The statue of Birger Jarl that you are seeing in this picture is there in front of the city hall. Instead of taking a picture of a picture of the statue, why not take a picture of the statue itself?”

“Good suggestion,” I told him and put my camera back in my pocket.

(This is Chapter 1 from the author's recently published book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. Chapter 2 will be published next week. The book can be ordered online at amazon.com, xlibris.com, prabhakarantravels.com or at Barnes and Noble.)

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