~ Stockholm Bebis
Thursday. I'm sitting at my local Wayne's Coffee (the Swedish equivalent of S'bux), the one halfway up Götgatan for anyone who knows the 'hood, and I count three babies under a year old here inside the café, and strollers have been passing my window at the rate of one every 45 seconds or so. I'm really not exaggerating. Have the Swedes always been so fecund? Perhaps because the weather is beyond perfect and everyone is outside - sunny and uncommonly warm, one of those insane Stockholm days that makes me want to drop everything and move here, and maybe a little bit because I've developed babyradar, which beeps whenever there's a little human or another preggy in the vicinity.
It could be that most people time their mammaledighet (maternity leave) to coincide with summer too, although in Sweden, maternity leave can actually last up to two years. Of that, at least the first year is at 80% of your salary, and paternity leave is very common (in some cases, required for the mom to get full benefits) as well. Finland's benefits are similar, and Norway is the most generous in the E.U. Call me a commie, but this is where the U.S. has it all wrong: I'm sure everyone has a friend or co-worker who has worked all the way up to delivery, then was back at the office with baby in daycare three weeks later. Sure, everyone claims that they "just want to get right back into the swing of things," but come on, now, would anyone really turn down another couple of months if they could afford it? (Besides maternity leave, the other thing the Scandis do right is summer. Everyone has a small place out in the country or in the islands, where they spend at least four of their many, many weeks of vacation. But maybe it does get out of hand: last week, we passed a locksmith's shop that had a sign saying "Summer hours 10-2. Closed for lunch 11-12:30.")
Feeling a bit wired now, having forgotten how insanely strong Swedish coffee is. Although the Finns are worse: when my in-laws make coffee, there's no question that the brew is strong enough to melt rubber, and I'm accustomed to diluting to something like an 8:1 milk-to-coffee ratio. Because I knew that I would be out on the hunt for an internet connection today, I didn't make coffee at home so I could have a latte in the café instead. But after a couple of hours of being up and about sans caffeine, I started to get a headache. It kind of surprised me because I never thought I was addicted to my one cup a day.
Having lived here on my own for a year after college, I'm used to hanging around Stockholm by myself without getting lonely, but I found myself really missing Mik last night. I suppose that after three years of marriage it's only reasonable that I've become addicted to him too. I went to see a modern dance thing in an area called Skeppsholmen and afterwards walked across this bridge with a great view of the old town and in to Stureplan (posh restaurant/club area), where all the outdoor restaurants were completely packed. It was probably 10 pm by then, but I saw quite a few small babies with their trendy mums and their mum's girlfriends for girls' night out. Brings to mind that line from Sweet Home Alabama, where Drew Barrymore runs into a high school friend and coos, "Look at you, you have a baby… In a bar." After a pretty full day of walking, I started to lapse into the Unsightly Waddle so it was time to hop on the bus and head back to the apartment.
Friday. Had big plans to check out a couple of my favorite museums after shopping this morning and "office hours" at Wayne's Coffee, but by 3 pm I was so incredibly tired that I thought I'd go back home and just put my feet up for half an hour or so. Carrying a laptop around all day really cuts down on your mileage. But putting my feet up and watching sailboat racing on TV didn't really do it for me, and neither did half-stretching out on the couch, so I crawled in to bed to read and of course passed out for a couple of hours. By the time I woke up the museums were closed and I had missed the performance art/theater thing I wanted to check out (taking place in a fountain), so I just "made" myself some "dinner"* and tried to catch the last few rays of sun from the balcony.
[*On this trip, I've continued my love affair with Swedish packaged foods. Every time I'm in Stockholm, my first stop is always the grocery store around the corner from the apartment, where my shopping list hardly ever varies: eggs, Kalles Kaviar (mostly extender), Bamse flatbread, tomatoes, soft cheese, spreadable liver pate (again, mostly extender, so OK for baby), strawberry cream, and milk. A new discovery this year was ready-made pancakes, to be warmed in melted butter and doused with sugar and lemon. Anyway, that was dinner.]
Saturday. Finally made it to both the modern art and architecture museums and the second performance of the thing in the fountain today. The fountain thing was just plain weird, but both museums were great as usual, and Kofi Annan happened to be at the art museum. When Mik, who's back in China, traveling and Karaoke-ing for work out in Xinjiang province, called, I told him how I thought I had worried Mr. Annan's security detail because I had sort of stalked him discreetly for a few minutes as I tried to decide if it was him or not (he seemed, as all famous people do in real life, too short). Mik said he didn't think that the UN Secretary General's bodyguards would be seriously concerned about a pregnant lady eyeing him suspiciously in the middle of a Lars Englund exhibit. I guess he had a point, but I was enjoying thinking of myself as potentially dangerous there for a while:
Pregnant woman held by UN Security for questioning
30-year-old captured at corner hotdog stand
Anyway my hips feel like they would shatter or pull apart completely if I were to be chased by secret servicemen, so now's not the time to begin a career as a stalker.
I'm baaaaack. I sort of feel like I've been on extended video rewind for the past couple of days, retracing my route in reverse from Stockholm to Åland to Helsinki and then all the way back to Beijing. Lucked out once again on the ferry ride and had a gorgeous day to enjoy the view of the archipelago, and then had a nice quiet evening in Mariehamn. Then it was the early morning puddle-jumper and almost a full day of putzing and eating my way around Helsinki. Helsinki to Beijing, I sat next to a couple of Swedish businessmen who were illegally nipping into their duty-free whiskey and yammering on loudly throughout the flight, but once again, the all-Janet-Jackson radio channel on Finnair saved me. Dopier than usual upon arrival in Beijing, I'm still surprised I could string enough Chinese together to give directions to the cabbie. As I zoned out in the taxi, looking out the window into the smog and snarled traffic, I caught a whiff of an unmistakable scent and could only sigh as I faced a difficult choice: cabdriver gas, or rush hour exhaust? Baby, we're back in Beijing.