My weekend away to Stockholm has been enlightening. Part relaxing, part educational. Part self-affirming. Being careful not to reveal too much of my sometimes dark interior, here are a few thoughts I leave Sweden’s capital with.
Blue skies make this city. When the sun is diffused from the clouds, Stockholm’s streets are dark. The bleached colours on the exterior of the buildings give the old town at least a tired looking feel. Those same buildings hug the small alleyways in between to such an extent that darkness can pass over them and the people who stroll up and down them.
And the darkness can be draining. Less malevolent, more realistic. ‘This is just how it is,’ it seems to say, ‘this will pass, but you’ll just need to get used to it for the time being.’
No one complains. I’ve not heard a single Swede talk about the weather – in part because I don’t understand what anyone is saying. In my mind I figure their psychological make-up means they’re already quite well-prepared for this eventuality to the extent that to even reference it in every day conversation would be to talk about the banal. Maybe us Brits could learn a thing or two from the Swedes, if that’s the case.
When the sun breaks through however, Stockholm is transformed.
Suddenly, the old town makes perfect sense. Those bleached colours begin radiating light. Blues, burnt oranges and reds. Pride, enthusiasm and stateliness emanate. From a distance the buildings cut into the blue sky with the same satisfying confidence a brand new craft knife blade slices through card. Pictures are easier to take. My Panasonic Lumix deals with the vast expanse of blue well. Everything gets its due attention. Focus is easy. Appreciation flows.
The distinct, deliberate lines between roof-line and sky hint at unshakable foundations. A brave, aspirational central core now reveals itself. No room for doubt. This is how we truly are.
I’m falling into a trap. I’ve not talked to anyone especially. Not made any real attempt to dig around under the skin of even one Swede whilst I’ve been here. I’ve stayed in a hotel with a worldwide-renowned brand stamped on the outside, that looks out onto this scene.
I’ve seen it at all hours. During the night when gently-paced traffic moves silently in and out of central Stockholm, and first thing in the morning when the inactivity of the water below has combined with the overnight drop in temperatures creating a patchwork of layer of ice across the water ahead.
The sight of that ice has a peculiar effect. It doesn’t have the immediate thrill associated with an overnight snowfall. The world hasn’t been transformed into a magical world.
Instead, the ice – only to be seen in the stiller waters of the city – suggests that city is in this area at least, in stasis. Is it healing itself? Or is it doing the best it can to make the uncompromisingly urban appearance of this part of town into something vaguely attractive?
On the day the sun comes out, I go for a walk in the old town again. The colours ring out. The shadows of the building all the stronger. All wander at the same pace they did when the cloud was there. But this time there’s a sense of purpose. Every corner reveals either colour where the sun is shining onto a building or – most striking of all – an escape route to the sunshine. The effect is both dazzling and reassuring. The path to momentary release is this way.
I follow one of these alleyways out towards the water.
It’s late afternoon. The sun has been shining all day and there on a wall at the water’s edge is a line of people, wrapped up warm and staring into the sunlight. Some people sit on their own, drawing on a cigarette. The traffic passes by behind them. They pay homage to the sun. Give thanks for its restorative powers just as the buildings of the old town behind them store up its raise and radiate their colourful warmth back on to the city’s occupants.
There is a pace here. An acceptance of how things are. It will be cold. It will be grey. But it will be sunny. We can’t have the benefits of the latter without the former. And we will all feel the benefits together. We will connect because of nature’s cycle.
All of this has a healthy effect on me. At least I think so.
It brings on a surprising amount of reflection on my part. I’ve travelled to a foreign country for a weekend away with a total stranger. Far from being a strange thing to do, it has been a rather nice – and easy, it has to be said – way of making a new friend. Conversation hasn’t been difficult, even if I did allow us to fall into the trap of talking both about the Eurovision and about the BBC.
But there, the opportunity to get an alternative perspective on both is a healthy thing. Sometimes – just as I experienced in my previous role at the BBC Academy – one can only really get a sense of what colleagues in such a large organisation do by leaving the usual environment and connecting outside of London.
My past is littered with examples of how I’ve got to know colleagues who sit at the same collection of desks as I do better on location than in the office. I seriously doubt I would have got to know Richard Gordon that well had we gone for the occasional coffees like I joked about in last Friday’s post.
And where Eurovision is concerned – and specifically Melodifestivalen – the conversation wasn’t dull. Far from it. If you’re looking for detail and even more passion for this weirdly important yet inconsequential television show, then Richard is your man. A spectacular attention to detail I run screaming from. Some of us just like those broad brush strokes. Where Eurovision is concerned, I’m more than happy to tap into the detail from a reliable source as and when I need it.
But I begin my journey home with renewed resolve. Work-related things have permeated my ‘me time’. That is both a sign of commitment to my role and pride in my work. But it’s also a warning. The mental transactions which follow even the lightest of reconnections with work leave me a little bitter. Social media only amplifies that – my own consequent thought processes, I mean.
And the solution – potential solution – is to mitigate the impulsive nature of the medium with a more considered approach.
The analogy would be this: don’t jump off the diving board into the pool thinking it will probably be OK when you hit the water; pause before jump to determine where the sides of the pool are, how deep the water is and how you want to appear to everyone else around as you dive in. Let’s avoid splashing the spectators when you hit the water such that you’ll clamber out of the pool feeling proud of what you’ve done instead of doubting everything all the time.
And that demands time. Time to think. Time to reflect. And sheer force of will to resist the impulsive nature of the likes of social media.
Just as the Swedes have to wait for their moment of sunshine, so the grey time which precedes it offers a chance to protect their core. Pace. Resilience. Certainty. It pays off when the sun shines. That’s the pay off. Simple and restorative. Reliable.