Spring finally arrived yesterday with a bang: out of nowhere a balmy, sunny day with nary a cloud in sight. You could almost see the buds burst open in front of your eyes and by the end of the day most trees actually had leaves and were a beautiful, vivid green of fresh growth. I even managed to ditch my jacket and jumper and wear just a T-shirt for the first time as well (a memorable event which was duly noted in my personal diary). Café owners rushed to dust off their outdoor furniture as the sun-starved Swedes came out in force in their skimpiest clothing to take advantage of every last second of sun as if it might be their last, which, according to one particularly pessimistic countryman that I met on a bus, it well could be (at least for this year).
Stockholm has been a lovely city with all the requisite quaintnesses that one expects: a plethora of palaces (the Scandinavians seem quite fond of their respective monarchies and Sweden is gearing up for a big royal shindig as crown princess Victoria will be getting married in just over a month to her erstwhile personal trainer), a bevy of cutesy islands and a pretty old town. Better writers than I (by that I mean actual writers) have written enough about the city for me not to be able to add anything noteworthy in terms of description, so I won't bother. Suffice to say that it is worth a visit. The one thing that struck me though, as I was strolling through the Gamla Stan (historic old town), was the throng of tourists. It was surprising as, so far on this trip, I have managed to steer clear of mass tourism due to various reasons: the weather, volcanic clouds and the simple fact that I haven't been frequenting tourist hotspots. So the abundance of camera-wielding foreigners somewhat unnerved me and I fled down some little side alleys that herds seem to have difficulty spotting.
|An assortment of varied food-in-a-tube|
One of the things I like to do when travelling is to visit supermarkets. To me, nothing embodies the differences and similarities between people more than a grocery shop. Supermarkets are always set out along the same general lines no matter where they are, showing how we are all fundamentally the same deep down; and yet there are small local differences. In China there are whole aisles of frozen dumplings with various fillings and live terrapins in the fish section; the Dutch love their Indonesian cuisine and so nasi goreng spices and satay sauce predominate; the Danes are particularly fond of liquorice, usually salty (don't ask!); and the Swedes are obsessed with food in a tube. If they can get away with it they'll stick it in a tube: from the classics such as tomato purée and mayonnaise to more esoteric concoctions such as "prawn cheese", horseradish, pâté and even caviar (well, they call it caviar, but it's just fish eggs in a salty tomato paste). Not always to my taste, but I certainly can't deny the practicality of it whilst travelling.
Although I like frequenting supermarkets I do set aside some time for more traditional cultural excursions such as visiting museums. In Denmark and Sweden I've been to a number of history museums. Often they concentrate on the Viking era as that is what brings in the punters. It seems that modern-day Scandinavians (or at least the subspecies that curates museums) feel the need to clear the bad reputation of pillaging barbarians of their forebears, which is fair enough, I suppose, although I imagine many visitors wouldn't mind seeing a little more blood and gore (or at least I certainly wouldn't). The emphasis is put on seafaring and boat-building skills as well as trade. One of the exhibits promoting the latter facet stopped me in my tracks. The display case was off to the side and not particularly emphasised and contained finds from a Viking-era house not far from Stockholm. Amongst the objects discovered were an Irish bishop's staff, some Arabic coins and a small, Indian Buddha statue. The statue itself was rather small and tatty, but it represented the possibility that a Viking, at some point, somewhere, met up with a Buddhist, possibly in the Middle East, is quite staggering. It reminded me of another Buddha statue that I had seen about 4 years ago in the museum in Lahore - nothing strange in finding a Buddha so close to India, but this statue, which was over 2000 years old, was crafted in a classical Graeco-Roman style, attesting to the exchange of cultures that occurred all those years ago. Both statues eloquently demonstrate that there is no such thing as a "pure" culture belonging to any one place or people, but that all cultures and traditions are influenced by, and influence, others, and that they are all inextricably linked. The sooner people realise that the sooner we can get rid of ugly cultural chauvinism.
|God knows how this Buddha managed to find its way into a Viking grave, but if it could talk I'm sure its story would be a fascinating one.|