There are no ugly people in Sweden. Nobody is overweight and no-one is badly dressed. Swedes seem to exude an understated grace and style with an effortless and genteel humility not present in cities that are equally modish. Rome immediately springs to mind, which somehow manages to offset its intrinsic panache with a self-congratulatory air. In the formal side of the city, the men all look as if they have been dressed by Ralph Lauren with narrow cut suits and perfectly folded pocket squares. Clean cuts and jutting jaw lines make way for quirky plastic sunglasses and leggings in Södermalm, the beating Boho heart of the city just south of the old town. I imagine it is what the inside of Agyness Deyn’s head looks like, it really is that cool. In between, there is a beautiful clean city with an abnormally low crime rate, few homeless (official figures estimate that there are about two but I managed to count at least six) and a bracing freshness from the clean sea on which the Stockholm archipelago sits. To give you an idea of just how clean this water is, anyone can pitch up with their fishing rod – no licence required – and catch salmon and sea trout which they are free to take home and eat. There are areas of peaceful greenery (over 2/3 of the city is greenbelt and there are a massive 38 parks) where Stockholmites take a lunchtime respite from the buzz of the workplace, there are over 100 museums and art galleries and countless bars. Restaurants serve food from all the far flung corners of the world, hardly surprising considering that the Swedish culinary heritage is somewhat limited, delicious but limited, thanks to the harsh long winters and the inability of the frozen land to yield substantial crops for a vast proportion of the year. It is a liberal, easy-going city where recent immigrants seem to exist happily alongside the Nordic residents.
Can any city be so absolutely utopian? Of course not. All this glorious perfection comes at a price. A painfully, almost prohibitively expensive price. Everything is about 25 per cent more expensive than we would perhaps be used to. It’s like the entire country is a branch of Waitrose. Every time you are presented with a bill there is a frisson of surprise, a thought they may have got it wrong then a realisation of where you actually are resulting in a shrugging of the shoulders and peeling off another wodge of bank notes from a rapidly decreasing stack. But with such effortlessly beautiful people around you begin not to care and almost feel obliged to pay over the odds to compensate for your own inadequacy: ‘sorry for sullying your country, have some more krona.’ Don’t get me wrong, the Swedes are friendly and welcoming but being surrounded by so much blonde hair and well-fitting clothes is certain to bring on a slight self-consciousness in anyone. And I’m even half Swedish so I dread to think how the average Iowan or Japanese tourist must feel.
There will be more of the food later, I just think it is important to contextualise and create a sense of mise en place before launching headfirst into herring and knäckerbröd so this is little more than a gentle introduction and brief summary of our first meal in this Hythlodayian paradise. We had hot dogs. In fact we had four hot dogs. The first was good (a kokt korv – boiled sausage) but lasted approximately four seconds so we had another of those before moving on and venturing towards the old town where we passed another street vendor selling similar wares. For reasons of comparison we chose the grilled variety this time which proved to be far superior. Just to make sure, we had another to galvanize our opinion. I should also add that we had not eaten a thing since 6am that morning and as it was fast approaching 6pm we felt justified in indulging in some vaguely gluttonous behaviour. Somehow, I think the Swedes may not have approved.