Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hej from Sweden!

 The scene felt strangely familiar, even slightly cinematic in a distinctly “Bergmanian” way. Transported by ferry through the Stockholm archipelago, we shared the late morning journey to the island of Vaxholm with a rather large, highly fashionable and affluent gift-bearing Swedish family which seemed to span several generations and who spent most of the trip laughing, chatting, and otherwise enjoying the beautiful landscape which surrounded us. Absorbing the cool, late summer air as we moved out of Lake Mälaren, past dozens of wooded islands and closer towards the Baltic Sea, I could understand why the Stockholm metropolitan area was awarded the title of European Green Capital by the European Commission. Aside from how clean and fresh this area seemed, there was an intrigue and mystery associated with the sheer number and vastness of these islands that stretch from Stockholm well into the Baltic Sea.

Disembarking from the ferry with our fellow day-tripping passengers, I was instantly reminded of the settings of so many films from my favorite director, Ingmar Bergman; an ambiguous island characteristically, if not physically, remote from the outside world, maintaining a built environment almost architecturally indistinguishable from its surroundings and embedded in nature. Perhaps this actually was the start of a Bergman film and this family was at the center of the story, venturing to the grand estate compound of great-grandparents to celebrate a milestone anniversary, but where events would unfold which would reveal deep familial resentments, uncovering years of animosity, self-doubt, and psychological trauma, exposing the inevitable emptiness and loneliness of the human experience in an otherwise existential world devoid of meaning. Or maybe I have seen just one too many films by one of the greatest and most prolific directors of all time and my visit to his homeland got the better of my imagination.
The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, 1957

This island excursion to Vaxholm was the second day of our city break to Stockholm over the three-day bank holiday weekend and a perfect way to explore the surrounding areas. Aside from the many island-hopping opportunities, there is plenty to keep the visitor busy in Stockholm itself. This European capital is by far one of the most progressive cities I have visited and combines the modern with the old in a manner that only the cool and chic Swedes are capable of doing. Situated across 14 islands, the major sites are easily accessible by foot. 
Most of the historic landmarks are located on the island of Gamla Stan, which is where we stayed and is a convenient, centrally located hub in which to base yourself and explore other parts of the city. Aside from the history and the culture of Gamla Stan, just south of the island is the artistic and bohemian district of Södermalm, home to some of the city’s most interesting boutiques, independent galleries, and cheap eats. North of Gamla Stan is Östermalm, the city’s primary commercial shopping and business district. We spent most of our time in Gamla Stan and Södermalm cruising through the medieval alleyways lined with restaurants, bars, and shops.
When we booked our trip several months ago we could not figure out why we were having so much difficulty finding accommodation. Although we knew that Stockholm had a reputation for being expensive, and even a bit exclusive, it seemed absurd that we could not find any available rooms. Hotels, B&Bs, and flats were all booked well in advance and it was only when we arrived in Stockholm and saw hundreds of people roaming around the city with matching teal colored messenger bags that we understood why. The global congress of cardiologists was being hosted in Stockholm and over 30,000 of them were in town. If anyone were to suffer a heart attack that weekend, I’m sure they would be in good hands. Much to my chagrin and with no other options available, we were able to book a private room in advance at The Best Hostel Stockholm located in Gamla Stan overlooking the water. As it was my first experience staying in a hostel, and much to my surprise, it was not that bad at all and in fact, the location could not have been better. Interestingly enough we even met a couple of Australian cardiologists who, booking last minute, were forced to stay at the same place which was occupied not just by young backpackers, but by families and old people as well who were in our predicament. However, in all sincerity and coming from a non-hostel traveler, for the price, location, and relative quality and decent amenities, I would highly recommend this hostel to anyone traveling to Stockholm.

Scandinavian Europe is consistently known as one of the most expensive regions in the world and Stockholm especially so. While it is admittedly expensive, that should not turn the traveler off of a visi here. Things can be done within a reasonable cost bracket. For example, instead of buying several rounds at a bar, simply pop into a Systembolaget during their operating hours and stock up on a few good quality, reasonably priced bottles of wine. If you do plan to go for a drink or two, stick to pints of beer which are not too differently priced than here in London. It is possible that cocktails may easily make you go broke. When deciding on restaurants, we were able to identify several great options that were also in the London price range. Because of its location on the water, Stockholm has a terrific selection of fresh seafood, especially salmon. On Monday  we opted out of traditional Swedish meatballs, meat and potatoes for lunch and headed for a small, informal sushi restaurant in Östermalm with surprisingly positive results. Keep in mind that while things are expensive here, if planned properly, there is no reason to break the bank. If you are in Gamla Stan and need a caffeine boost before heading out for a day of sightseeing in the Old Town, I highly recommend a visit to Albert and Jack’s at 24 Skeppsbron for fantastic, reliable, and inexpensive coffee and pastries.
Purchasing alcohol in Sweden is an extremely unique experience and can only be done through one of the state-run Systembolagets. While the supermarkets do sell low-alcohol beer, if you want anything over 3.5 percent (wine, real beer, or spirits) it must be purchased through a Systembolaget which are usually only open for about five hours a day. After taking a number at the front of the store, you peruse samples of the available selections of beer, wine and spirits behind an enclosed glass case, note the serial number on your ticket and present it to the attendant at the counter once your number is called. Within a few seconds he presents you with your selection from a warehouse in the back of the store. The whole sensation is a strange combination of post office, liquor store, and designer shopping.

Although I made an honest attempt at assimilation into the Swedish fashion sense, I realized that my face is not built for the ultra-trendy glasses the Swedes are made famous for. It is well worth noting that, generally, Swedish people in addition to speaking impeccable English and being highly educated, are also very attractive and are well coordinated with the city which itself exudes the same distinctive sleek and stylish confidence. 

 Sweden, aside from being one of the most progressive countries in Europe, also enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world with low rates of crime and very stable economic and political conditions. So instead of our short Swedish excursion becoming a symbolic meditation on life straight out of a Bergman film, it was a long vibrant weekend inspired by local high style, new ideas, and of course very good Systembogalet-purchased wine as well as an opportunity to pay homage and provide a quick nod to one of the most important names in cinematic history.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

36 hours with Friends from S.F.

This weekend we played tourists (again) with friends visiting from San Francisco. Keenan's friend from his S.F. office and his girlfriend stopped through London on their way to Greece to attend a wedding of an ex-colleague. We've seen Andrew a few times this year during his business trips to London, but we've not met his lovely girlfriend until this weekend, so that was fun! We had a great time with both of them this weekend.

Our friends landed in London on Friday afternoon; and as per usual with visitors, we did the obligatory Southbank to Trafalgar Square walk to see London's major landmarks - The London Eye, Big Ben, Parliament, 10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square, and Chinatown. That evening we had a fun dinner at Sitaray, a lively Bollywood-themed Indian restaurant in Holborn/Covent Garden. Sitaray has a set menu of 5 to 6 different starters, followed by endless amounts of kebabs, tandoori chicken, curries, and lentils. It's ideal for large parties as you can reserve booths named after famous Bollywood actors. Jetlag caught up with our friends so we picked up a few bottles of French wines and spent the evening in catching up on life in general and got the update on other mutual friends.

On Saturday, we got up early and made our way to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington to visit the dinosaur, human biology, and earth exhibitions. After the museum, we split up with our friends for lunch as they had reservations for afternoon high tea at The Brown's Hotel, and met them later at Fortnum & Mason to pick up gifts for their family and friends. Randomly, Keenan ran into another ex-coworker who has been in town for company training at F&M. Random. But it was nice to catch up with him, if only for 5 minutes on Jermyn Street! From there we visited The British Museum, followed by some retail therapy along Regent's Street, where our friend picked up a beautiful tie from Burberry for the "Big Fat Greek" wedding. We had a long dinner at The Albion at The Boundary Project in Shoreditch -- one of my favourite things to do with friends -- leisurely dinner. The food was yummy and the company was great!


Below are some photos from the weekend at the Natural History Museum and The British Museum! It's always great to see old friends from the Bay Area!!

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Review of “Ghost Stories” – Duke of York Theatre

Before getting started on a recent West End play that we saw with a group of friends, I want to take a moment to highlight a very key difference between myself and Lily which might shed some light on how different we are from one another. Although she admits to believing in the possibility of existence of ghosts, she has no interest in them, generally views such topics as a waste of time and productivity and is not afraid of them. Alternatively, whereas I don’t believe in ghosts whatsoever and find their existence entirely implausible and based on ancient superstitions, I enjoy a good ghost story from time to time and, admittedly, but only occasionally, become unsettled or scared by them.

“Ghost Stories” which plays at the Duke of York through to November has received a lot of hype and mixed reviews. We haven’t been to a show in a while, so when my friend asked us if we were interested in going along with him, I answered without much thought or consideration, “Sure, why not”. Upon deliberation with Lily after the show, I agree that perhaps I should have curbed my enthusiasm a bit and thought it through before committing ourselves to what you will soon see as an endurance test for the disappointing and mundane.

It was only after seeing the show and doing some research that I found out the creative team behind “Ghost Stories” is actually accomplished enough to justify us having had higher expectations. Jeremy Dyson (of the acclaimed comedy, “The League of Gentlemen”) penning the play and Sean Holmes of the Royal Shakespeare Company taking the lead as Artistic Director were meant to be a dynamic duo on the stage. So perhaps the most frightening bit of the show was that these two experienced West Enders could produce something so painfully campy and overwhelmingly gimmicky, filled with the typical Hollywood conventions that have destroyed the modern horror genre, and have received so much publicity in the process.

To be fair to the set design, the mood started off nicely. The entire Duke of York Theatre, which we had been to before for another play, was entirely unrecognizable and completely transformed into an atmospheric, dark and creepy lecture hall for which the audience was meant to be an integral part. The use of sound and pitch was especially notable, unmatched by any other show I have seen thus far, and suited this type of performance very well. Where the performance fell short was with everything else.

The plot was thin, the development a bit convoluted, and the writing could have been tremendously improved. The story follows a lecture by a skeptic professor who studies the impact of supernatural folklore on the psychological experiences of people who encounter them. In fact, his lectures were the most interesting bits of the entire play and having learned a few interesting historical facts, intertwined with some watered down western philosophy and anecdotal psychological studies , I felt like I was sitting in a Berkeley lecture hall, only to be interrupted and annoyed every ten minutes by another poorly constructed ghost story. The three main tales had the potential to develop these intellectual themes further which would have enriched the overall story, but they were instead reduced to set around prolonged tension building with a jumpy and anticlimactic finale. I would not be at all surprised if this is adapted into another bad Hollywood horror flick in the next several years, resurrecting the careers of the likes of Freddie Prince Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gehlar. The twist at the end was a bit dramatic and overdone, seeming out of place for what was otherwise an incredibly slow and non-moving storyline. At that point, too little too late and nothing could have made up for the fact that, at moments, it was so boring I wanted to cry.   And although I caught her dozing off a couple of times, what was Lily's critique?  I quote, "It was just dumb."

To mix it up we tried a show that we had hoped would be a bit more light-hearted and entertaining, but for the moment I think I will stick to my heavier, moody West End plays. Overall though, a good night out with friends, so all was not lost.

In another update, it seems summer is now officially over in London. It was a good run with almost two and a half full months of dry, hot, and mostly sunny weather and you can’t really ask for much more. To be honest I welcome the cooler, fresher air and light rain at the moment as it means I don’t have to endure the sweltering heat of the morning and afternoon Tube commute. I’m sure that I will no doubt be eating my words in a few short months once the ice and freezing conditions take over the city.