Stockholm’s skyline from Södermalm is something special that ensnares your senses with the same sort of soft-spoken estranged quirkiness you’ve seen in similar European cities or in the smaller surrounding suburbs encircling them. You know the kind of suburbs I mean. The ones where you end up celebrating the New Year because your long-distance girlfriend’s friends live in city-skirting cottages. The ones where you’re quickly forced to accept that the WiFi just isn’t gonna work so you connect to Baileys instead. The ones where people mostly don’t speak English and you finally file that three-day Duolingo streak you achieved in 2013 under ‘non-functional’.
Also filed under ‘non-functional’ is the Katarina Elevator, the second thing to catch your eyes when you’re treading November puddles across the bridge into Södermalm — the first is an impromptu paste-up anti-Trump exhibition tied to the hashtag #PensForFreedom. When you’ve had a sensible chuckle at The Donald redrawn as various memes and fascist figures, you hop on the free roaming data your phone plan has blessed you with, Google ‘bridge elevator soda mall’, and tap ‘did you mean: bridge elevator södermalm’. You read that the local hard hats closed the lift in 2010 because it had rusted into a death trap. Sounds fun, you think.
Though the lift itself is closed, the span of bridge between its peak and the heights of Södermalm is still open and littered with throngs of tourists as awkwardly monolingual as yourself, so you summit the substitute lift-shaft: a string of wooden steps zig-zagging from the lowly lock up to where the lookout kisses the cliff. Walking out into the elements, you instantly start to visualize all the photos you’re gonna take, and the double-tap-baiting hashtags to go with them. There are lengths of metal wiring above the hip-height barriers, so you grip your iPhone extra tight and slip it between the safety cables.
Why is there a large Coca Cola sign fastened to the façade of that building? It doesn’t look like a factory. If it is a factory, well, damn, cute factory. There’s a huge Heineken sign a few buildings over, too. It makes you want to go buy a pint, until you remember Stockholm booze prices. Either way, you’re gonna do some cool shit with the red and green of the signs when you edit these photos in Lightroom and VSCO later. Snap, snap, snap. Oh, and there’s the Stomatol sign you read about on Atlas Obscura. It’s the oldest animated sign in Sweden. It still lights up at night in the same way it has since 1909. It’s a tube of toothpaste.
You’ve never been this excited by an animated illuminated tube of toothpaste.
Yellow and orange have always been your favorite colors. You’ve convinced yourself it’s because they’re attention-grabbing shades which make people stop and look at your photos on Instagram, but deep down inside you know it’s because a few of your crushes have had the slightly manic pixie dream girl tendency to wear bright colors. Now it’s time to crush on some buildings, because the Stockholm city skyline you see from the bridge is a beautiful blend of fall hues. Why the endless layers of yellow and orange architecture? You’d Google it but your phone has died because the battery got too cold.
There’s something bothering you about a few of your cityscape photos, and you realize it’s a construction site in the corner. A jagged hole at the center of a crossroad bordered by a clashing blue tarp. You look out, and notice for the first time that the cityscape is dotted by a whole web of these pockmarks. It’s like taking a selfie and gradually counting all the spots on your face. People regurgitate the cliché that living life through a camera or a screen stops you from seeing the beauty in the world, but if anything, it just helps you see the shitty stuff faster.
The dot-to-dot of building works reminds you of Berlin. That time your other long-distance girlfriend said the German capital’s like one big eternal construction project. That’s a cute and endearing observation, you think. It’s a shame you only saw Berlin from one of those open-top double-decker tour buses. Why did you do that? You’re better than that.
You made up for it, though, by completely eschewing public transport in Sweden. You and your travel companions walked everywhere. Heck, you didn’t even ride the funicular to the top of the open-air museum-zoo hybrid Skansen, and funiculars align perfectly with your love of ageing quirky technologies, Tom Scott videos, and not climbing hills. You even skip the metro when the snow settles and turns the ground into an icy deathtrap on your final day in Stockholm. You throw on your warm clothes, right? Nope. Somehow, you’ve become known as the guy who always wears shorts, and you can’t just break a two-year streak because global warming isn’t doing its job properly.
Your friends fly back to the US. Two days later, Trump gets elected. No amount of warm clothes can help with that coldness.
You’ve still got seven hours in Stockholm by yourself before you board the Arlanda Express and head to the airport, and you’ve made plans to meet up with another friend in Sweden. She’s Latvian, and you’ve only met her once, at a garden party back home in Portsmouth. You’re pretty sure you got really drunk and miscommunicated an opinion about national stereotypes in a way that insulted her, but she still wants to see you, so that’s nice. You flick your access card into the old suitcase the hostel have fashioned into a deposit box and walk out into the snow, and for the first time in two years, you feel like it isn’t working out between you and your shorts.
It quickly becomes apparent that your thinly-soled Dunlop canvases have no grip, and your feet threaten to quit their job and let gravity fill the vacancy. You start walking slowly and carefully, but realize this probably makes you look cold. Cold? You can’t be seen to be some weak human with feelings and senses. You’re a hardened shorts veteran. So you speed up, even though this triples your chances of slipping up and breaking an arm. You’re aware this is stupid, because the European Health Card in your wallet expired in 2014. But the Nando’s loyalty card in front of it is still valid, so there’s a silver lining.
You’ve got your go-to response to “aren’t you cold wearing shorts in this weather?” locked and loaded on your lips: “nah, it’s a warm summer’s day every day in my life.” You’ve been saying it ever since it made a guy smile while you waited for a train in Amsterdam one time. Nobody asks, though. They laugh from afar instead, sometimes at you, sometimes with you. One guy mutters something that sounds like “idiot” under his breath, but he was probably saying something in Swedish, like the Swedish word for “idiot.” Another guy says he’s from Bulgaria and follows you down the street asking for money. He doesn’t even acknowledge your shorts.
Drottninggatan, Riksgatan, and Västerlånggatan slip into one another, and you unsteadily slalom between tourists stopped in their tracks by Gamla Stan’s glowing maze of souvenir shops. “Consumer whores,” you mutter under your breath, making a mental note of a Dala horse you simply must come back and buy later. Soon, you shuffle into Slussen, Södermalm several slippery steps away. Your eyes flicker between the Katarina Elevator and the architectural lasagne behind you in Gamla Stan. There’re still two hours before you’re due to meet your Latvian friend, so you clumsily clamber uphill like a kid going the wrong way up a slide.
The Coca Cola (‘Drink’ is spelled ‘Drick’, you realize), Heineken, and Stomatol signs, the endless layers of orange and yellow, skyrocketing spires of verdigris patinas, the caverns of construction cryogenically comatose, and the railway bridge threading through. It’s all capped in a thin film of frost and snow, and the part of your brain which cries at Love Actually every Christmas sheds a little tear at the sight of the once-fiery fall-colored façades doused to a blend of beiges by the icy whites and chilling blues of this overnight refrigerator of a city.
You’re what people who ask “is your email address all one word?” call a ‘millennial’, so you abide by your natural instinct of instantly Instagramming the view, forcing yourself to tap out a caption despite the fact that your frozen fingers are refusing to move with the same stubbornness as you insisting on avoiding long pants.
After quickly dismissing the idea that the Stomatol sign might make a rad tattoo, you turn to walk off the Katarina Elevator bridge, venture into Södermalm, and hunt down the coffeeshop your friend has picked out. Your final lone thought is that ‘Stomatol’ and ‘Södermalm’ might very well sound similar, but you daren’t tell anyone in case that sneaky umlaut screws everything up.
Over matcha lattes and sweet teas, you and your friend open up new worlds to one another. You drown her in social media advice that’ll help with the launch of a humanitarian podcast she’s working on, and she unlocks an interest in fine dining you didn’t know you had parked in your brain’s overflow garage. Her interest in artistic cuisine is partially sparked by her boyfriend working as a chef at Buckingham Palace. Your interest in social media is partially sparked by that one time a picture of you sitting on the kitchen floor clutching a toaster to your chest went moderately viral.
You fly home, slip on some jeans, nod with satisfaction at the 83 Likes you got on the snow-capped cityscape photo, sit down to watch Chef’s Table, and wonder why you didn’t ask your Latvian friend whether her boyfriend ever petted the Queen’s corgis.