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Chapter 17

LIFE IN STOCKHOLM.


The Swedes are proud of Stockholm, and justly so. No European capital, except Constantinople, can boast such picturesque beauty of position, and none whatever affords so great a range of shifting yet ever lovely aspects. Travellers are fond of calling it, in the imitative nomenclature of commonplace, the "Venice of the North"--but it is no Venice. It is not that swan of the Adriatic, singing her death-song in the purple sunset, but a northern eaglet, nested on the islands and rocky shores of the pale green Mälar lake. The Stad, or city proper, occupies three islands, which lie in the mouth of the narrow strait, by which the waters of the lake, after having come a hundred miles from the westward, and washed in their course the shores of thirteen hundred islands, pour themselves into the outer archipelago which is claimed by the Baltic Sea. On the largest of these islands, according to tradition, Agne, King of Sweden, was strangled with his own golden chain, by the Finnish princess Skiolfa, whom he had taken prisoner. This was sixteen hundred years ago, and a thousand years later, Birger Jarl, on the same spot, built the stronghold which was the seed out of which Stockholm has grown.

This island, and the adjoining Riddarholm, or Island of the Knights, contain all the ancient historic landmarks of the city, and nearly all of its most remarkable buildings. The towers of the Storkyrka and the Riddarholm's Church lift themselves high into the air; the dark red mass of the Riddarhus, or House of Nobles, and the white turrets and quadrangles of the penitentiary are conspicuous among the old white, tile-roofed blocks of houses; while, rising above the whole, the most prominent object in every view of Stockholm, is the Slot, or Royal Palace. This is one of the noblest royal residences in Europe. Standing on an immense basement terrace of granite, its grand quadrangle of between three and four hundred feet square, with wings (resembling, in general design, the Pitti Palace at Florence), is elevated quite above the rest of the city, which it crowns as with a mural diadem. The chaste and simple majesty of this edifice, and its admirable proportions, are a perpetual gratification to the eye, which is always drawn to it, as a central point, and thereby prevented from dwelling on whatever inharmonious or unsightly features there may be in the general view.

Splendid bridges of granite connect the island with the northern and southern suburbs, each of which is much greater in extent than the city proper. The palace fronts directly upon the Norrbro, or Northern Bridge, the great thoroughfare of Stockholm, which leads to the Square of Gustavus Adolphus, flanked on either side by the palace of the Crown Prince and the Opera House. The northern suburb is the fashionable quarter, containing all the newest streets and the handsomest private residences. The ground rises gradually from the water, and as very little attention is paid to grading, the streets follow the undulations of the low hills over which they spread, rising to the windmills on the outer heights and sinking into the hollows between. The southern suburb, however, is a single long hill, up the steep side of which the houses climb, row after row, until they reach the Church of St. Catherine, which crowns the very summit. In front of the city (that is eastward, and toward the Baltic), lie two other islands, connected by bridges with the northern suburb. Still beyond is the Djurgård, or Deer-Park, a singularly picturesque island, nearly the whole of which is occupied by a public park, and the summer villas of the wealthy Stockholmers. Its natural advantages are superior to those of any other park in Europe. Even in April, when there was scarcely a sign of spring, its cliffs of grey rock, its rolling lawns of brown grass, and its venerable oaks, with their iron trunks and gnarled, contorted boughs, with blue glimpses of ice-free water on all sides, attracted hundreds of visitors daily.

The streets of Stockholm are, with but two or three exceptions, narrow and badly paved. The municipal regulations in regard to them appear to be sadly deficient. They are quite as filthy as those of New-York, and the American reader will therefore have some idea of their horrid condition. A few trottoirs have been recently introduced, but even in the Drottning-gatan, the principal street, they are barely wide enough for two persons to walk abreast. The pavements are rough, slippery, and dangerous both to man and beast. I have no doubt that the great number of cripples in Stockholm is owing to this cause. On the other hand, the houses are models of solidity and stability. They are all of stone, or brick stuccoed over, with staircases of stone or iron, wood being prohibited by law, and roofs of copper, slate or tiles. In fact, the Swedes have singularly luxurious ideas concerning roofs, spending much more money upon them, proportionately, than on the house itself. You even see wooden shanties with copper roofs, got up regardless of expense. The houses are well lighted (which is quite necessary in the dark streets), and supplied with double windows against the cold. The air-tight Russian stove is universal. It has the advantage of keeping up sufficient warmth with a very small supply of fuel, but at the expense of ventilation. I find nothing yet equal to the old-fashioned fireplace in this respect, though I must confess I prefer the Russian stove to our hot-air furnaces. Carpets are very common in Sweden, and thus the dwellings have an air of warmth and comfort which is not found in Germany and other parts of the Continent. The arrangements for sleeping and washing are tolerable, though scanty, as compared with England, but the cleanliness of Swedish houses makes amends for many deficiencies.

The manner of living in Stockholm, nevertheless, is not very agreeable to the stranger. There is no hotel, except Kahn's, where one can obtain both beds and meals. The practice is to hire rooms, generally with the privilege of having your coffee in the morning, and to get your meals at a restaurant, of which there are many, tolerably cheap and not particularly good. Even Davison's, the best and most fashionable, has but an ordinary cuisine. Rooms are quite dear--particularly during our sojourn, when the Diet was in session and the city crowded with country visitors--and the inclusive expenses of living were equal to Berlin and greater than in Paris. I found that it cost just about as much to be stationary here, as to travel with post-horses in the Northern provinces. The Swedes generally have a cup of coffee on getting out of bed, or before, a substantial breakfast at nine, dinner at three, and tea in the evening. The wealthier families dine an hour or two later, but the crowds at the restaurants indicate the prevailing time. Dinner, and frequently breakfast, is prefaced with a smörgås (butter-goose), consisting of anchovies, pickled herrings, cheese and brandy. Soup which is generally sweet, comes in the middle and sometimes at the end of dinner, and the universal dessert is preserved fruit covered with whipped cream. I have had occasion to notice the fondness of the Swedes for sugar, which some persons seem to apply to almost every dish, except fish and oysters. I have often seen them season crab soup with powdered sugar. A favourite dish is raw salmon, buried in the earth until it is quite sodden--a great delicacy, they say, but I have not yet been hungry enough to eat it. Meat, which is abundant, is rarely properly cooked, and game, of which Sweden has a great variety, is injured by being swamped in sauces. He must be very fastidious, however, who cannot live passably well in Stockholm, especially if he has frequent invitations to dine with private families, many of whom have very excellent cooks.

My Swedish friends all said, "You should see Stockholm in summer! You have passed the worst part of the whole year among us, and you leave just when our fine days begin." I needed no assurance, however, of the summer charm of the place. In those long, golden evenings, which give place to an unfading twilight, when the birch is a network of silver and green, and the meadows are sown with the bright wild flowers of the North, those labyrinths of land and water must be truly enchanting. But were the glories of the Northern Summer increased tenfold, I could not make my home where such a price must be paid for them. From the time of our arrival, in February, until towards the close of April, the weather was of that kind which aggravates one to the loss of all patience. We had dull, raw, cloudy skies, a penetrating, unnerving, and depressing atmosphere, mud under foot, alternating with slushy snow,--in short, everything that is disagreeable in winter, without its brisk and bracing qualities. I found this season much more difficult to endure than all the cold of Lapland, and in spite of pleasant society and the charms of rest after a fatiguing journey, our sojourn in Stockholm was for a time sufficiently tedious.

At first, we lived a rather secluded life in our rooms in the Beridarebansgatan, in the northern suburb, devoting ourselves principally to gymnastics and the study of the Swedish language,--both of which can be prosecuted to more advantage in Stockholm than anywhere else. For, among the distinguished men of Sweden may be reckoned Ling, the inventor of what may be termed anatomical gymnastics. His system not only aims at reducing to a science the muscular development of the body, but, by means of both active and passive movements, at reaching the seat of disease and stimulating the various organs to healthy action. In the former of these objects, Ling has certainly succeeded; there is no other system of muscular training that will bear comparison with his; and if he has to some extent failed in the latter, it is because, with the enthusiasm of a man possessed by a new discovery, he claimed too much. His successor, Prof. Branting, possesses equal enthusiasm, and his faith in gymnastics, as a panacea for all human infirmities, is most unbounded. The institution under his charge is supported by Government, and, in addition to the officers of the army and navy, who are obliged to make a complete gymnastic course, is largely attended by invalids of all ages and classes.

Neither of us required the system as a medical application. I wished to increase the girth of my chest, somewhat diminished by a sedentary life, and Braisted needed a safety-valve for his surplus strength. However, the professor, by dint of much questioning, ascertained that one of us was sometimes afflicted with cold feet, and the other with headaches, and thereupon clapped us both upon the sick list. On entering the hall, on the first morning of our attendance, a piece of paper containing the movements prescribed for our individual cases, was stuck in our bosoms. On inspecting the lists, we found we had ten movements apiece, and no two of them alike. What they were we could only dimly guess from such cabalistic terms as "Stödgångst," "Krhalfligg," "Simhäng," or "Högstrgrsitt." The hall, about eighty feet in length by thirty in height, was furnished with the usual appliances for gymnastic exercises. Some fifty or sixty patients were present, part of whom were walking up and down the middle passage with an air of great solemnity, while the others, gathered in various little groups on either side, appeared to be undergoing uncouth forms of torture. There was no voluntary exercise, if I except an old gentleman in a black velvet coat, who repeatedly suspended himself by the hands, head downwards, and who died of apoplexy not long afterwards; every one was being exercised upon. Here, a lathy young man, bent sideways over a spar, was struggling, with a very red face, to right himself, while a stout teacher held him down; there, a corpulent gentleman, in the hands of five robust assistants, was having his body violently revolved upon the base of his hip joints, as if they were trying to unscrew him from his legs; and yonder again, an individual, suspended by his arms from a cross-bar, had his feet held up and his legs stretched apart by another, while a third pounded vigorously with closed fists upon his seat of honour. Now and then a prolonged yell, accompanied with all sorts of burlesque variations, issued from the throats of the assembly. The object of this was at first not clear to me, but I afterwards discovered that the full use of the lungs was considered by Ling a very important part of the exercises. Altogether, it was a peculiar scene, and not without a marked grotesque character.

On exhibiting my matsedel, or "bill of fare," to the first teacher who happened to be disengaged, I received my first movement, which consisted in being held with my back against a post, while I turned my body from side to side against strong resistance, employing the muscles of the chest only. I was then told to walk for five minutes before taking the second movement. It is unnecessary to recapitulate the various contortions I was made to perform; suffice it to say, that I felt very sore after them, which Professor Branting considered a promising sign, and that, at the end of a month, I was taken off the sick list and put among the friskas, or healthy patients, to whom more and severer movements, in part active, are allotted. This department was under the special charge of Baron Vegesach, an admirable teacher, and withal a master of fencing with the bayonet, a branch of defensive art which the Swedes have the honour of originating. The drill of the young officers in bayonet exercise was one of the finest things of the kind I ever saw. I prospered so well under the Baron's tuition, that at the end of the second month I was able to climb a smooth mast, to run up ropes with my hands, and to perform various other previous impossibilities, while my chest had increased an inch and a half in circumference, the addition being solid muscle.

During the time of my attendance I could not help but notice the effect of the discipline upon the other patients, especially the children. The weak and listless gradually straightened themselves; the pale and sallow took colour and lively expression; the crippled and paralytic recovered the use of their limbs; in short, all, with the exception of two or three hypochondriacs, exhibited a very marked improvement. The cheerfulness and geniality which pervaded the company, and of which Professor Branting himself was the best example, no doubt assisted the cure. All, both teachers and pupils, met on a platform of the most absolute equality, and willingly took turns in lending a hand wherever it was needed. I have had my feet held up by a foreign ambassador, while a pair of Swedish counts applied the proper degree of resistance to the muscles of my arms and shoulders. The result of my observation and experience was, that Ling's system of physical education is undoubtedly the best in the world, and that, as a remedial agent in all cases of congenital weakness or deformity, as well as in those diseases which arise from a deranged circulation, its value can scarcely be over-estimated. It may even afford indirect assistance in more serious organic diseases, but I do not believe that it is of much service in those cases where chemical agencies are generally employed. Professor Branting, however, asserts that it is a specific for all diseases whatsoever, including consumption, malignant fevers, and venereal affections. One thing at least is certain--that in an age when physical training is most needed and most neglected, this system deserves to be introduced into every civilised country, as an indispensable branch in the education of youth.

I found the Swedish language as easy to read as it is difficult to speak correctly. The simplicity of its structure, which differs but slightly from English, accounts for the former quality, while the peculiar use of the definite article as a terminal syllable, attached to the noun, is a great impediment to fluent speaking. The passive form of the verb also requires much practice before it becomes familiar, and the mode of address in conversation is awkward and inconvenient beyond measure. The word you, or its correspondent, is never used, except in speaking to inferiors; wherever it occurs in other languages, the title of the person addressed must be repeated; as, for example: "How is the Herr Justizråd? I called at the Herr Justizråd's house this morning, but the Herr Justizråd was not at home." Some of the more progressive Swedes are endeavouring to do away with this absurdity, by substituting the second person plural, ni, which is already used in literature, but even they only dare to use it in their own private circle. The Swedes, especially in Stockholm, speak with a peculiar drawl and singing accent, exactly similar to that which is often heard in Scotland. It is very inferior to the natural, musical rhythm of Spanish, to which, in its vocalisation, Swedish has a great resemblance. Except Finnish, which is music itself, it is the most melodious of northern languages, and the mellow flow of its poetry is often scarcely surpassed by the Italian. The infinitive verb always ends in a, and the language is full of soft, gliding iambics, which give a peculiar grace to its poetry.

It is rather singular that the Swedish prose, in point of finish and elegance, is far behind the Swedish poetry. One cause of this may be, that it is scarcely more than fifty years since the prose writers of the country began to use their native language. The works of Linnæus, Swedenborg, and other authors of the past century must now be translated into Swedish. Besides, there are two prose dialects--a conversational and a declamatory, the latter being much more artificial and involved than the former. All public addresses, as well as prose documents of a weighty or serious character, must be spoken or written in this pompous and antiquated style, owing to which, naturally, the country is almost destitute of orators. But the poets,--especially men of the sparkling fancy of Bellman, or the rich lyrical inspiration of Tegner, are not to be fettered by such conventionalities; and they have given the verse of Sweden an ease, and grace, and elegance, which one vainly seeks in its prose. In Stockholm, the French taste, so visible in the manners of the people, has also affected the language, and a number of French words and forms of expression, which have filtered through society, from the higher to the lower classes, are now in general use. The spelling, however, is made to conform to Swedish pronunciation, and one is amused at finding on placards such words as "trottoar," "salong," and "paviljong."

No country is richer in song-literature than Sweden. The popular songs and ballads of the different provinces, wedded to airs as original and characteristic as the words, number many hundreds. There are few Swedes who cannot sing, and I doubt whether any country in Europe would be able to furnish so many fine voices. Yet the taste for what is foreign and unaccustomed rules, and the minstrels of the cafes and the Djurgård are almost without exception German. Latterly, two or three bands of native singers have been formed, who give concerts devoted entirely to the country melodies of Sweden; and I believe they have been tolerably successful.

In these studies, relieved occasionally by rambles over the hills, whenever there was an hour's sunshine, and by occasional evenings with Swedish, English, and American friends, we passed the months of March and April, waiting for the tardy spring. Of the shifting and picturesque views which Stockholm presents to the stranger's eye, from whatever point he beholds her, we never wearied; but we began at last to tire of our ice-olation, and to look forward to the reopening of the Gotha Canal, as a means of escape. Day after day it was a new satisfaction to behold the majestic palace crowning the island-city and looking far and wide over the frozen lakes; the tall, slender spire of the Riddarholm, soaring above the ashes of Charles XII. and Gustavus Adolphus, was always a welcome sight; but we had seen enough of the hideous statues which ornament the public squares, (Charles XII. not among them, and the imbecile Charles XIII. occupying the best place); we grew tired of the monotonous perambulators on the Forrbro, and the tameness and sameness of Stockholm life in winter: and therefore hailed the lengthening days which heralded our deliverance.

As to the sights of the capital, are they not described in the guide-books? The champion of the Reformation lies in his chapel, under a cloud of his captured banners: opposite to him, the magnificent madman of the North, with hundreds of Polish and Russian ensigns rustling above his heads. In the royal armory you see the sword and the bloody shirt of the one, the bullet-pierced hat and cloak of the other, still coated with the mud of the trench at Fredrickshall. There are robes and weapons of the other Carls and Gustavs, but the splendour of Swedish history is embodied in these two names, and in that of Gustavus Vasa, who lies entombed in the old cathedral at Upsala. When I had grasped their swords, and the sabre of Czar Peter, captured at Narva, I felt that there were no other relics in Sweden which could make my heart throb a beat the faster.


Bayard Taylor