Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Stockholm rumination.

I’ve told you before about the day in 1983 when my life changed forever.

A few months later, I visited the public library for a completely unrelated reason, and walking down the aisle, happened to pass the travel section. The first title that caught my eye was “Europe on $25 a Day,” by Arthur Frommer.

This prompted a double take. Was it a misprint? A scam? Could it really be true? Skeptical but suddenly curious, I checked out the book and took it home, poured a beer, and started reading.

Cue the orchestral swell and unleash the starburst.

For most twenty-something males, it would have required the woman of their dreams running bikini-clad across a beach during a rainstorm to elicit such a response as Frommer’s book did from me, for in it, there were clear and solidly reasoned tips for how to do Europe right … and for longer than a week.

More than two decades later, much about a trip to Europe has changed, and I needn’t enumerate the list of ATM availability, cell phone usage and flights price lower than trains to make the point that one must always be sufficiently nimble to adapt to altered circumstances.

At the same time, the fundamental things still apply, and in spite of being far more financially secure now than in those far-off days of youth, I still can’t bring myself to follow the tips generally provided in the typical “travel” section of the Sunday New York Times.

A case in point: “Going to Stockholm," by Denny Lee (Sunday, August 6, 2006; may require registration).

There’s a template of sorts for articles like this, and accordingly, Lee provides the accustomed overview of the target destination before proceeding to tips on hotels, eateries and activities.

For a place to sleep, he offers the Grand Hotel ($514 per room, per night) before descending to a lesser priced luxury choice at around $200). Two “intriguing” budget hotels are mentioned in passing, but without quoted prices.

For the “hottest” dining in town at present, Lee directs the reader to a $100-plus meal for two, “wine excluded.” Budget travelers are introduced to Stockholm’s hot dog stands for hangover-reduction meals running closer to $10 a plate.

So far, nothing about Lee’s article is unexpected, given the free-lancer’s understandable aim to write in accordance with the NYT’s target readership in mind. That he mentions “budget” options at all is somewhat miraculous.

However, the Curmudgeon takes issue with this comment:

One place to avoid is Kvarnen (Tjarhovsgatan 4, 46-8-64-03-80;, a wood-paneled beer hall that charges a ridiculous coat check fee (15 kronor), even during the summer.

Having been to Stockholm only twice, I can’t speak for the ambience in the Kvarnen, and it may well be a place to avoid for reasons of smoke, perfume or stale beer. The web site shows nine beers on tap, most of them imported, with prices in the $8 (a glass) range that are entirely typical for Scandinavia, where cheap beer is hard to find outside of crates of supermarket-vended bottles.

But wine up north is expensive, too, given that none of it is made in Sweden, and consequently all of it must be imported. Even with generous EU wine subsidies, you might as well double the price of the $100 meal to include a decent bottle of wine – and if you’re prepared to pay that much, why not spend it on indigenous Swedish-made beer and spirits?

Furthermore, as odd as it may be to charge 15 kronor for a coat check, such a practice obviously is intended as a cover charge, in this case a cover charge totaling $2, which the author – who began by recommending a $514 hotel room – inexplicably finds outrageous.

My fondest memory of Stockholm in 1985 is roaming the city’s many islands during the late July warmth, and noting how very different the more comprehensive sunbathing habits are there compared with the modesty demanded of the Bible Belt.

The city quite possibly isn’t the best place to drink inexpensive beer, but voyeurism remains a very affordable pleasure, I hope.

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