FT Life and Arts: On Stockholm

There’s nothing wrong with optimism, as long as you don’t get your hopes up. If one really wants something, it’s easy to put doubts aside. This time will be the exception; bad boyfriends changed into princes, strangely easy childbirth, jars of honey waved through in our carry-on luggage . . . surely, for me, it’ll work out.

So, although everyone warned me about the outrageous expensiveness of Stockholm, I knew better. They claimed that restaurants and cafés were beyond the means even of a Londoner, that beer was a tenner and wine was worse. Pshaw, I thought; I can cook. I have inner resources. With thrift, supermarkets and a reasonably cheap rented apartment, I would manage beautifully.

I was a fool. How do Swedes live? And, crucially, how can so many eat out? Stockholm is stuffed with hipster coffee-concepts; meatball-emporia; ancient panelled purveyors of venison, reindeer, herring; neo-Nordic pleasure-palaces where merry Scandinavians scoff Labrador tea, pineapple weed, raw shrimps and lovage, green juniper, cherry kernels, pickled cloudberries, forest leaves and the unbearably intriguing “Sean Connery dip”.

For the gastronomically adventurous, plant-obsessed, fermentation-minded omnivore, walking through Norrmalm and Östermalm is heartbreaking; one becomes a student again, browsing menus in restaurant windows while hoping for adoption by kindly millionaires, before walking sadly away. We became connoisseurs of modest eating: herrings on rye from the wagon outside Södermalm station, magnificent cardamom buns from the 7-Eleven, a wine-box from the official wine-supermarket and once, with our small glasses of house red, the cheapest starter in an allegedly affordable restaurant: smoked reindeer hearts.

Instead of café-culture, we gorged on art. Thanks to cunning Swedish design, nothing was dull, not even the Nobel Museum. Stockholm bristles with ex-palaces and former hunting lodges: the Thielska Gallery, in which miserable old Munch is mitigated by Anders Zorn’s lovely engravings of naked ladies; the Prince Eugen Waldemarsudde, where the late Prince’s own work is fabulously upstaged by the most, indeed, only exciting indoor flower arrangements I have ever seen; Josef Frank’s covetable prewar villas; the magnificent folly that is the Vasa ship, a vast 17th-century warship that sank on her maiden voyage and now glistens in a purpose-built museum under a layer of synthetic wax; tulips and Camembert and famous playwrights, all made beautiful by Irving Penn.

By this stage, I was determined to crack the mystery of Stockholmers’ salaries. If they earn, as is alleged, vaguely the same as the British, where do they compromise?

I think I know: first, clothing. Britain’s charity shops are heartsinking hodgepodges of kitten-jigsaws, soiled copies of Fifty Shades, comic egg cups, regrettable knitwear, acrylic pantaloons and worry dolls, all richly scented with personal odours and staffed by people too rude to work in ordinary retail. Lucky Stockholm is blessed with the compellingly stylish Stadsmission second-hand chain where, as in the best vintage shops, a floor-length tartan skirt and a copper jelly-mould and a silver silk blouse and mint-green brogues and a skein of brown-and-yellow ric-rac braid all seem equally covetable. By me. (OK, the skirt was a mistake.) The Stadsmission shops are thronged with marvellously glamorous adults; why would there be a stigma, when every dress looks so cool?

Second, recreation. Fit-looking slender old people are everywhere, zooming across zebra crossings in classy sportswear, complete with cross-country ski-poles. What’s more, unlike in London, whose sprawl is ringed by suburbs fading slowly into trim commuter villages, Stockholm is surrounded by a tangle of wooded islands. Fresh air and wilderness are a short bus journey away. As in Russia, summerhouses — from barely habitable huts to solid permanent homes — are normal; better still, there is plenty of coast to go round. We had lunch at the summer house of Disa, an intimidatingly well-read elderly journalist. “Will you swim?” she asked. “I do, every day. In the Baltic.”

She limped down a long rough path to a stony ledge; we followed, reassuring each other that we didn’t have to go in. The sky darkened and the wind ruffled the water; she nipped into her swimming costume. Sheepishly, we pulled on ours. A heron flew overhead. We could see no towels, no shelter, no steps.

“Where do —,” I began.

Too late. Disa had jumped in.

A key aspect of British parenting is berry-anxiety; trying to balance chemicals, food-miles, expense against the basic right of our toddlers to eat as many blueberries as they can stuff in their tiny mouths. No wonder Stockholm is full of happy-looking bright blonde parents with many outrageously blonde babies; wild berries are all around. Who cared if the buffet at Artipelag, the out-of-town exhibition space, was beyond the range of even an FT diarist; the undergrowth glistened with bilberries. Ripe raspberries grew forgotten in the fringes of palace gardens and by the river; I took to carrying a Tupperware container on every trip.

On the flight into Stockholm I had heard a woman, looking down on the shivering aspens and firs, the red roofs and endless water say: ‘Look, forest! We’re home!’ and the child beside her said “no, you are, mummy”.

I want to be that half-Swedish child, replete with berries, sea-swum and interestingly clad but still able to claim its British birthright: the joy of coming back to grumpy London, and walking into a restaurant, and sitting down