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October 15th, 2010

Adventures in Europe, Chapter 3: Stockholm

The day after it departed, our enormous floating hotel and overpriced shopping mall cruise ship pulled into port in Stockholm, Sweden.

I say "pulled into port," but the reality is closer to "crawled slowly into port with the gingerness of an 18-year-old virgin undressing a girl for the very first time, halfway expecting to find a bear trap underneath her bra strap."

My parents decided to take one of the ship's many shore excursion packages. We debated for a while which package to buy--the Stockholm Old Town Tour, the Stockholm Water Excursion, the Stockholm Syndrome Tour. I voted for the last one; everyone else who had been on it really seemed to like it. (One reviewer said "After taking this tour, I fell in love with Stockholm, but I don't know why!") My parents didn't listen to me, though--they felt that if I wanted to be drugged, bound, and thrown into the back of a van, I could do that when we got to Russia.

We ended up doing the Old Town tour. Stockholm is splattered across several islands; Old Town is the central island, where past royalty built their palaces, plotted coups, and lost wars.

The bus disgorged us in front of the Storkyrkan, an ancient Protestant church right across the street from the royal palace.



Our tour guide was very, very enthusiastic about the Storkyrkan. You see, the Storkyrkan is the place where the Swedish crown princess had just got married. And the Swedish crown princess's wedding was a very beautiful thing, you see, and the whole country was just absolutely delighted that Parliament had agreed after eight years of courtship to give her the go-ahead to marry her beloved personal trainer, you see, and when they got married in the church it was on TV, you see, and there were all these flowers, and...

Now, personally, she seemed just a little too enthusiastic about it all to me, like maybe she needed to adjust her Ritalin dosage a bit. I'm not suggesting that it wasn't a gorgeous ceremony, mind, but frankly, getting that invested in someone else's marriage seems more than a bit...weird to me. You see.

Of course, needing to have an act of Parliament in order to get hitched also seems a bit weird to me, so what do I know. Ah, those whacky countries with their whacky royalty!

Her enthusiasm for the Storkyrkan didn't extend to actually taking us inside. We did, however, get to see this statue outside of it:



The statue celebrates the victory of St. George over the Dragon, where "St. George" was apparently some mercenary who came into Sweden to champion the causes of Truth, Justice, and Lutheranism, and the Dragon was the Catholic Church. It's all very complicated, but apparently some dude rode into town and offered to help Sweden fight in some battle or other if they would in exchange agree to worship some invisible guy the way he wanted them to instead of the way some other dude wanted them to, and they said OK, and he did, and he won, and they all converted to his invisible-dude-worshipping ways, and they put up a statue filled with symbolic imagery, which they then spoiled by explaining it at great length to any tourist who will listen. Or something.

So yeah. Dude hitting a dragon, which represents the Catholic Church, from the back of his horse, which represents the Power of Truth, with his sword, which represents his penis.

The statue is a stone's throw from the Royal Palace itself. Not that I would recommend throwing stones at it, seeing as how it's guarded at all times by an ever-rotating contingent of palace guards drawn from all branches of Sweden's formidable military.

This guy was on duty when we passed through the gates:



I know some of the folks who read my blog have a military background. You guys will recognize instantly that the formidable headgear this guy is wearing sends a clear and unmistakable message: this is a man with whom you should not fuck.

For those of you unversed in the military arts, almost the entire history of military endeavors comes down to hats. Throughout history, armies have poured vast resources into researching and developing the hat. The hat is how you can tell the power of an army. Armies with cool headgear almost invariably triumph over armies with less cool headgear. Spikes, buckles, shields, feather dusters, and all sorts of other accoutrements have been used throughout history to send clear messages to the opposition: Our hats are far more grandiose than yours. Prepare for annihilation.

The history of the West looks something like this:



So it is clear, even to a casual observer, that this guard is someone you simply don't mess with, unless you wish to dine upon your own spleen forthwith.

Now, about the Royal Palace.

I have no pictures of the inside of the Royal Palace. Photography is strictly forbidden within the Palace, for reasons of national security. I can't tell you what I saw, but I can tell you that there is some serious, weapons-grade ostentation in there. The Royal Palace is the Swedish national stockpile of ostentation. How much? Well, the OUTSIDE of the Royal Palace has waterfalls built into every corner, and gold-plated engraving in the stone:



Once you get within those walls, we are talking about a level of ostentation that induces heart arrhythmia in the very young or the very old. We're talking about ostentation the likes of which a mere grasshopper like Lady Gaga can scarcely even begin to comprehend.

We're talking about gold inlays in the doorjambs and frescoes on the ceilings. We're talking about marble hand-quarried from the deepest forests of Brazil by nude young maidens between the ages of 18 and 24 (inclusive) who come from all-female tribes of bellydancers and who have never known the touch of a man. We're talking about dining rooms that could swallow up a 747 and fart out half a dozen Piper Cubs. We're talking about bedrooms where one could comfortably host a game of rugby, with enough room on the sidelines for three Roman orgies, a military procession, and the entire team of Budweiser Clydesdales.

Today, the Royal Palace is a museum. And one of the residences of the royal family. And the place where official ceremonies and receptions are held. And the site of the annual Nobel dinner. And the official meeting place of the heads of state. And a site for public lectures. And a ballroom. And state apartments for visiting dignitaries. And another museum. At the same time. And you thought Graceland was over the top.

The palace is divided into sections, with the western part representing the king and the eastern part representing the queen. The king and queen, each accompanied by the Royal Academy of Spelunkers, could wander for years in this place without ever once crossing paths--making it by far the most successful example in Western history of how the artifice of the royal architect is instrumental in maintaining harmony within the Royal Family and, so, within the nation.

The bill just for dusting the place comes, I'm told, to about two decimal places greater than the entire gross national product of half the world's nations. This has led to a crisis within Sweden, as thousands of antiquities-dusters, fleeing the collapse of the Soviet Union, have swarmed across Sweden's borders seeking jobs within the Royal Palace. The fiercely protective and politically connected Swedish Brotherhood of the Ancient Duster, Sweden's trade union representing national dusters, wipers, washers, cleaners, and others, has used its considerable influence to generate a popular backlash against the foreigners with their cheap synthetic Chinese-made feather dusters. With billions of krona at stake, this chapter in Sweden's turbulent political history is still being written.


Stockholm is a picturesque city.

The Old Town district/island is filled with narrow, picturesque cobblestone streets lined with picturesque buildings under a picturesque sky. Seriously, it's so picturesque you could take a picture of it. An actual, literal picturesque picture.



These picturesque streets all lead to the town center, Storatorget. The Old Square is about as picturesque as you can get, what with its beautiful old fountain and its charming, colorful old buildings and such.



The place is steeped in history, pigeon droppings, and blood. Back in the early 1500s, one of Sweden's leaders, Christin II (or "Christin the Raving Psycho," as his followers affectionately called him), decided this very town square would be just the place to take all of his political opponents and chop off their heads. The picturesque roads ran with the picturesque blood of his picturesque fallen enemies, whose picturesque entrails were left scattered about the picturesque square as a warning to others. Ah, those whacky countries with their whacky royalty and their whacky mass-executions-in-the-town-square ways!

Today, it's a good place to stop for a sandwich.

It's flanked on one side by the imposing facade of the Nobel Museum, dedicated to celebrating over a century of achievement in medicine, peace, physics, chemistry, literature, economics, and irony. (Little known fact: Henry Kissenger is the only person ever to win a Nobel Prize twice in the same year, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his work on helping to keep the war in Viet Nam alive, and the Nobel Prize in Irony that same year for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.)



The Nobel Prize itself is named after the man who went down in history as being the man who didn't want to go down in history as an arms dealer who invented dynamite and smokeless gunpowder, so decided after he was dead to leave his money, which he himself no longer had any use for, to establish a series of prizes for people whose work most benefitted mankind each year and Henry Kissenger.

After this part of the tour, which as per usual didn't involve actually going into the Nobel Museum, we hopped a boat for the water portion of the tour. Our tour group broke up at this point, with those who had opted for the Stockholm Syndrome package being hit over the back of the head and tossed into the back of a nondescript Chevy panel van, and the rest of us herding into a tour boat.

Stockholm from the water is an interesting blend of old and new, with bland apartment buildings across the water from ancient palaces that serve as monuments to decadence that would make Larry Ellison blush.



From the water, we passed by the Riddersholm Church, about which I can find very little. It appears to be an ancient church with a long, hard iron steeple thrusting proudly into the sky to symbolize the grandeur of God. And also the architect's penis.



Stockholm is ringed with locks, which are used to manage the flow of water into the sea. I'd never actually passed though a lock before, and it was all very exciting. One minute we were at sea level, and the next, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we were fourteen feet above it.

When the locks were first built, a small but vocal group of people opposed this new technology. They were concerned that the engineers and ironsmiths were playing God, tampering with nature by changing the level of water to suit their own whims; and they were worried that if the engineers made a mistake, they might accidentally create an unstoppable army of giant mechanized killer robots, who would travel through the lands in an orgy of death and destruction. Today, the descendants of those same people say something similar about genetically modified food.

While we were passing through the lock, this kindly old gentleman stood on the bank catching fish:



It had never occurred to me that a lock might be a good place to fish, but apparently it's as easy as catching fish in...well, in a large walled chamber with movable gates in the front and back that let fish in but don't let them back out very easily.

Before we returned to our floating hotel, we passed by the home of the American ambassador to Sweden.



The American ambassador to Sweden presides over such important official duties as "attending parties," "attending state functions," "telling the Crown Princess that she looks good in that hat," and "drinking brandy." In exchange for four years of selfless service to his country under such harsh and grueling conditions--a job for which he must be eminently qualified, and own a tuxedo--he spends his off-duty time here, in quiet contemplation of the money he spent and the palms he greased to attain his position, where he can use his not inconsiderable talents toward the betterment of his fellow man. Much like Henry Kissenger.