Friday, 14 April 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Stockholm'

The opening line is the most difficult to write. Will the others surely follow? Two possibilities. 
“Now is the Winter of our Discontent / Made glorious Summerby this son of York…”
Alternatively, and my choice, “Mama Mia, here we go again…”
Northern Europe. We’re in Sweden. A nation with thousands of coastal islands and inland lakes, along with vast forests and glaciated mountains. Stockholm spreads across 14 islands. It has more than 50 bridges, as well as the medieval Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Moreover, a special guest runner this morning. Let me introduce her. Please meet Fernando. “C’est voulez-vous, and you have, er… very cute shoes Fernando…”
No snooze cycles. 0531 hrs. 13 degrees. The first day of September. The year 2016. Winter is coming.
“Good morning Fernando, you look bright and breezy this early hour.”
“Hi, Mark.”
“Fernando, a name I’m not familiar with?”
Fernando laughs, “It’s not my real name, you said to use a codename, remember? You said link it to Abba.”
“Whoa, don’t let the readers know I've scripted this. I’m happy you’re my Stockholm Guide this morning...”
“Mark, we discussed all this yesterday. That sound, can you hear it. The music?”
“I can… what about you, can you hear the drums, Fernando." 
Fernando smiles, “Haha… come on, let’s run…”
We’re planning for an hour this morning. ‘Fernando’ is originally from Helsinki but has lived here six years. She proposes a real smorgasbord, “Gamla Stan and then east to Djurgarden?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“What would you like to see, Mark?”
“Fernando, for me, culture all the way please.”
“Good, I have some treats… the Vasa museum, Sweden’s most famous ship from the 17th century. Sank 15 minutes into its maiden voyage. The Titanic of its day. Laid at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for 300 years. Now lovingly restored.”
I nod, “Um, OK.”
“The Royal Palace, see over there?”
“Er, OK.”
“Also, Parliament perhaps, again over there in Gamla Stan?”
I nod, “OK.”
“We'll see the Skansen museum featuring 500 years of Swedish and Scandinavian history?”
I nod again, “Interesting.”
“You must know of the famous author, Astrid Lindgren, one of the most famous children’s authors in the world. She wrote of Pippi Longstocking. She sold millions of books all over the world.”
I half nod this time, “Um, vaguely…”
Fernando is on a roll, “What about the Alfred Nobel Museum, who funded and began the Nobel prizes?”
I nod, “Top fellow.”
Fernando sighs, “Of course, and I suppose… there’s always, the Abba Museum…”
“That's more like it, come on, let’s go…”
Joking aside, Stockholm is beautiful. Lakes, paths, forests, history, islands, boats, trams, bridges, the water, magical, has everything and more, just stunning.
Following a quick stretch, it’s north, a short distance, into Gamla Stan. We run past and around the Royal Palace, Parliament and the historic streets. 
We head back south. Fernando is sprightly and enthusiastic, “You know of the ‘Stockholm Syndrome?”
“I have a good ikea,” I reply, “It’s when everything costs a fortune and the price of watery beer beggars belief.”
Fernando ignores me; we deviate over to the square where forty-three years ago the term was first coined at the end of a bank siege. Four workers were taken hostage after a messy robbery. Six days later when the stand-off ended, the victims had formed some positive relationship with their captors. 
We run south-east along a cobbled street with commuter boats, to serve the islands, on our right; to our left some extremely expensive real estate. Oh, and a pink truck with a gorilla heading to Rwanda.
Over the bridge into the park village, a village within a city. A blue tram crosses towards us. Fernando tells me autumn is here and how she loves the sound of leaves beneath the wheels of a tram. We reflect on the first day of Sept being symbolic in this part of the world. Was another summer gone?
“Do you watch Game of Thrones, Mark?”
Fernando hasn’t stopped talking since we started stretching 30 mins ago.
“I’ve heard of it.”
Fernando informs me, ‘Winter is Coming’, was the title of first episode/series. The motto of the ‘House of Stark’. People in the north always strive to be prepared for the coming of winter. As a metaphor, make the best of the good times (summer) the bad times will come around (winter), and we must be ready.
Sweden’s geographical location means cold, dark winters. In dark winter above the Arctic Circle, this means only three hours of sunlight a day. 
The pace remains healthy as we pass, in close succession, the Skansen Museum.
… the masts of the ill-fated Vasa rise through the trees and the roof of the building housing it.
Fernando is patient and jogs on the spot while I take the snaps. A bright red Viking ferry comes into port as we discuss famous Swedes born in Stockholm. I need three. I settle on… Alfred Nobel, Ingrid Bergman and Benny from Abba.
… THERE IT IS; it emerges nearly 40 mins into the run. No words are necessary.
We run along the water, all of which runs into the Baltic Sea. A magnificent sunrise from the park…
I reflect on how much I’m liking Sweden. A world leader in many areas. Given the population is only 10 million? 
The best place to grow old. Third best country to be a mother. Second best country for youths. An unsurpassed record of success in the Eurovision Song Contest. The fifth happiest country in the world. One of the first countries to ban smacking children. Three years off for maternity/paternity leave. Some say the best healthcare in the world. Environmentally advanced. The shortest working days in Europe, outside of the naturally idle southern Europeans (& France). They seem to start work about nine-ish, and finish about three-ish, earlier if they've a boat to catch to the islands; and Fridays, well, anything goes. Ten week’s annual holiday, the list goes on.
OK, some 'facts' might be tongue in cheek… I mean France isn’t completely idle for starters. So, how do the Swedes pay for all this? What’s the secret? Must be more to it than just tax and prohibitively expensive alcohol?
I am here nine days, so difficult to make an informed judgment. I think, and to their credit, they’ve only figured out the work/life balance thing. Perhaps they work to live; maybe they’re less materialistic and utterly happy with their lot?
We leave the village and start the push back to the hotel. We complete the run in under an hour. Fernando seems as fresh as a daisy and still chatting away. Brekkie time and a local treat - cinnamon buns. Oh, and like me, they’re coffee fiends. Put good coffee and buns together, magic.
In Sweden one only works four hours a day, meaning plenty of time for navel-gazing. I'm a method writer; I reflect further the work/life balance and what it all means. My mind wanders over to West Africa. I'll soon be back at the other end of the scale following this little jaunt…
There's a saying in Freetown, ‘that lack of money means a lack of friends; that if you have money at your disposal, every dog and goat will claim to be related to you’. I’ll be broke by the time I arrive back… going to miss that goat.
In closing a sing-song? 'Thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing… Thanks for all the joy they're bringing. Without a song or dance, what are we? So I say...
Fernando, you’ve been special, a real pleasure, the best guest runner ever.
My number one city run is now Stockholm. An enjoyable experience. Visit if you've never been.
The next post is entirely different. West Africa. ‘Early Morning Run in… Ouagadougou’.