HAVE LOVE, WILL TRAVEL: Scandinavian Edition

Yeah, so, this was my view tonight in Turku

We literally spent weeks if not months researching airfare deals for this summer’s excursions. Scandinavia came together because of a new budget carrier called AirBerlin, which flies from JFK to an assortment of European destinations via–you guessed it–Berlin. This was all fine, except for the part where we left an hour late, so we landed an hour late. This was even fine, because we were automatically rebooked onto a SAS flight, and I was so placid about this issue that I walked to the connecting flight singing the opening riff to “Zoo Station” until my companion realized what I was doing and rolled his eyes so hard they almost fell out of his head.

It was, quite honestly, all fine until we landed in Stockholm… only to see the dreaded See baggage agent regarding delayed baggage sign on the baggage carousel. This left us standing in our first European queue of the trip along with a handful of other AirBerlin casualties, texting our friends in the GA line that we would probably not be queuing tonight, as well as frantically emailing our AirBnB host that we were running a little later than we expected.

It helped that the SAS baggage agent said, “This happens all the time, they’ll be on the next flight, we’ll have your bags by 9pm, you’ll have them in the morning.” But still, jet lagged and running on fumes is not the best state to be making your way through a new city to buy socks and a couple of t-shirts and some replacement toiletries, instead of the plan of dumping our bags at the flat we were renting and running up to Friends Arena. And it also collided with our Saturday queuing plans: while staying in someone’s flat certainly saved us tons of money and I love being in an actual neighborhood, it also meant that we had to wait around until the missing bags were delivered instead of just telling the delivery company to leave them with the bellman.

They sell Bruce-only magazines in Swedish at the grocery store

But, you know, we were in Sweden and we seeing Bruce Springsteen in Sweden. His photo was on all the newspapers, there were Springsteen magazines on sale next to the cash registers at the grocery stores. Everything you have heard about Sweden and Bruce is absolutely, 100% true, and it made me sad I had waited so long to come and see it for myself.

Your kind of love drives a man insane

Google Street View is such a godsend when planning travel to a new place. It doesn’t eliminate mistakes or take the entire sense of adventure out of traveling, but it does give you a leg up on finding your way around for the first time in a new place where you don’t speak the language. It also doesn’t help you figure out which of the many different train platforms is the place you want to go for the commuter rail, as opposed to the long-distance rail… and during rush hour on a Friday in Sweden you can’t just count on “follow the Springsteen shirts” either.

But we made it, and we made it to the show, and into the pit, and even ran into friends in the process. I started to run out of steam by the time we made it to “the Rising” but we stuck it out in the center through that, and then LOHAD, before moving out to the side where there was room to breathe for the end of the show. The people around us thought we were crazy during “Mountain of Love.”

See, the Friday show wasn’t in the original plan. The whole trip arose after the shows in Finland were announced. We figured out that we could see both Sweden and Finland in a week; we were going to leave on Friday night, see Stockholm 2, go to Finland, come back for Stockholm 3. But then I didn’t feel comfortable arriving on show day. I said, “Maybe we should leave on Thursday.” “Well, if we’re going to get there on Friday, we should just see the show Friday night, too.” “Wait, there’s a show Friday night?” Like I said, we hadn’t been watching this run of shows because it was at the start of the tour; it was only the small arena show that made us change our minds (and now, how glad we were that we did).

My favorite random person we met at the shows in Sweden was the older gentleman who overheard our accents and was delighted to talk to a Springsteen fan from New York. He said he had been a fan since 1975. I asked him if he’d seen Bruce back then. He said, no, he didn’t, and that he was probably the only person in Sweden who would say that he hadn’t been there – because the venue held 500 people and at least 150,000 people swear up and down that they were there.

I took a boat and I took a plane

I realize I will insult everyone in Finland by saying, it took me about an hour of research to realize that we could skip Helsinki and not miss all that much. (Having to skip St. Petersburg, only three hours by train from Helsinki, was another matter, but as Mr. Radecki pointed out, “They put people like you in work camps, we’re not going to Russia.”) We could have flown both ways but there were also ferries, and the ferry went straight to Turku, the city where the show was actually happening. The boat cost something like 62 Euro for both of us AND a cabin with a window. Yes, it took all day, but after jet lag, two shows, and then running around seeing everything in Stockholm on Sunday, I was happy to get some extra rest. Keep in mind, this is a boat on the Baltic Sea and not Royal Caribbean to the Bahamas. There was a small outside deck in the back that was mostly there for smokers, because it was COLD outside.

Apparently this boat is a big party boat on the overnight sailing, but during the day, it was mostly Finnish people coming back and buying cartons and cartons of beer and other beverages in the duty free, and a handful of people wearing Springsteen shirts and taking advantage of the cheap and direct crossing.

We did take advantage of the seafood restaurant once we finally decided to venture out of our cabin again:

This was lunch on the 11 hour ferry ride

Total time from docking, to getting into the rental car, to having numbers inked on our hands at the arena was less than 45 minutes. The car rental wasn’t cheap, but there was no other way to get out to the arena except to take a taxi, and at 20 Euro each way, that would have added up quickly. Plus, with the car we could ferry friends and visit the local mega grocery store.

If visiting local grocery stores seems like a theme in our travels, that’s because it is. Buying drinks and snacks and even the occasional lunch or breakfast helps travel money go a long way, plus it is just absolutely fascinating. In Scandinavia, it was also the only way to keep the budget down. We had lunch the first day we were in Stockholm, just upstairs at the main department store because we were exhausted and starving and needed to eat something at that very minute–and it cost us $50. A three-day travel pass was $75. Dinner at a burger joint after the show on Friday was $30. On Saturday, once we’d gotten our luggage back and had our own clothes again, we hit the grocery store and played “hey, what do you think THIS is?” and bought prepared meals to eat after the show, because we had the flat and a microwave. In Finland we just picnicked, except for night two after the show where we found the 24-hour burger joint and figured out how to order by listening to other people ahead of us order.

[Finnish was completely incomprehensible and nothing was in English. This was how we managed to embarrass ourselves in the grocery store by not understanding that we had to weigh our fruit before bringing it to the cash register. Swedish by comparison was much, much easier, in terms of trying to recognize patterns and context. For the record, no one in either country sounded remotely like the Swedish Chef, which eliminated any tendency to make “bork bork bork” jokes. PROBABLY FOR THE BEST.]

The Finnish grocery store had the biggest salmon department I had ever seen, and more kinds of herring than you ever knew existed. They also appear to have a thing for Pringles, based on the enormous displays and large advertisements we saw while driving around. I do not have similar observations about the Swedish grocery stores we were in, because they were smaller, in-city stores that are like any small, in-city grocery store anywhere, to be honest.

We ended up being able to see some of Turku, even though every Finnish person we met made the same kind of jokes I would make about being stuck in, say, Boise, Idaho. It’s a university town with quite a bit of history, being the oldest town in Finland. Mostly I was interested in the Russian influence on some of the older buildings and architecture. I didn’t get to see anything Russian-landscape looking until we took the bus to the airport in Helsinki, but then at least got the glimpses of those thin birch trees interspersed with pine forests. (I know this is probably movie-Russia or stereotypical Russia, but my mother made me watch Dr. Zhivago a lot as a kid. Sorry.)


So look for me walkin’ just any old way

It was a 15 minute drive from the hotel to the arena in Finland, and the check-ins this time out were a reasonable 4 per day, and no overnight check-ins. (Much of this, I hear, is coming from the organization, because none of the promoters want multi-day queues any more, or hordes of fans showing up 10 times a day or in the middle of the night.)

The rules of the list!

Friends Arena, in an adjacent suburb of Stockholm, was an entirely different story. This was a brand-new arena, located next to the commuter rail station. This would have been great if there was a connection from the rail station to the arena. They are building one, but it is not finished yet. You can cross over the rail line on a new bridge, but not connect to it. Before you think I am whining for nothing, here is a helpful satellite view:

Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 5.31.34 PM

This isn’t even a big deal if you’re just turning up and going to the show. But imagine walking that multiple times a day to check in for the GA line, which was located in the park just adjacent to the venue. There is a bus that runs from a nearby metro station, but the bus only ran 3 times an hour, and if you missed the bus or the bus didn’t show up, you were even further away from the venue than the suburban rail station, with no time to walk and very little time to find a taxi. (And the taxis were rip-off central. Even Swedes complained about the rip-off taxis.)

This is the kind of situation that makes a girl from Brooklyn very, very nervous. However, this is Sweden, where the buses and subways run on schedule. Exactly. To the minute. When we showed up for the first check-in after getting our numbers and saw two Swedish girls standing there with numbers 12 and 13 on their hands, we realized they would not be gambling with such low numbers, and learned to calm down when the bus was on time, every single time.

There was a return bus at about 15 minutes after the hour, but if the check-in ran long (like it did the night Jake Clemons showed up), or when there were more announcements than usual that had to be transmitted in both Swedish and English (lingua franca in the queue), we had to hoof it back to the commuter rail. However, short of camping in the park, it wasn’t like there were any hotels or accommodation immediately adjacent, so staying near the Central train station was actually about as smart as we could have gotten about the whole thing.

However, it is no wonder that my jet lagged dreams the week after coming back were full of queues and long dusty walks.

I learned that in Sweden and also in Finland, there is a law that gives anyone the right to camp on public land, which is why people could set up tents in a public park adjacent to the arena with impunity, or in the field next to the parking lot.

(Of course it goes without mentioning that it is somewhat flabbergasting to a New Yorker that a bunch of 20-30 year old kids could set up tents in a park in a major city and be perfectly safe. On that front, you go, Sweden.)

I travel from Maine to Mexico

On the second week in Stockholm, I was able to leverage hotel points to get us into a nice hotel minutes from the Central train station. Of course, these were the days where all we did, pretty much, was go back and forth from the hotel to the queue and back to the hotel again, with stops at the grocery store. When you travel, you learn that a day is actually a very long time, and we fit everything we had wanted to see into our one sightseeing day. So we could catch up on the sleep we didn’t get in Finland and do some shopping.

Doing the back and forth, it doesn’t take long before you start to feel like you live there and are commuting. You start to calculate the best entrance into the metro, the quickest access to the commuter rail, what car to ride in so that you exit closest to the staircase. You feel smug taking out your transit pass while others are standing in a line waiting to buy a ticket.

It is, however, absolutely exhausting. I realize that commuting back and forth from the venue to your hotel is not camping outside for eight days but anyone who says there is no effort in queuing for shows any more is just plain wrong. It might be less effort, and a different kind of effort, but there is still plenty of effort involved.

One Direction were at Friends Arena while we were in Finland, and were clearly staying at our hotel in Stockholm, based on the teenage girls camped outside when we arrived. The next day, we ran into a small horde of 1D fans at the grocery store in the basement of the train station (which is such a brilliant idea I cannot even begin to tell you. Not an artisanal market, a regular grocery store.), clearly buying provisions for the train ride to Copenhagen and the next show.

“They’re like your second cousin, twice removed, if you think about it,” said Glenn, after a few minutes of watching them buy water and gummi bears and sandwiches and snacks, laughing as they stuffed everything into their backpacks.

All I could do was nod in agreement.

(When I told my niece about the girls in the train station, her response was, “I am definitely going to follow One Direction some day,” so let me apologize right now to her mother because it will be quite obvious where she gets that from.)

Next stop: Milan!