Hell

I went on my first-ever cruise for a friend’s wedding. I actually enjoyed it a lot, the all-you-can-eat food, endless activities and entertainment, no hassles with luggage. I sat in the front row of a comedy show, knowing full well that entailed. The comedian did an impression of me as a Chinese spy. And the audience had to guess which Asian country J is from (it took a while).

Even though the food was not amazing, I appreciated the upscale ambiance and excellent service by the waitstaff. We did all the onboard activities: the giant waterslide, mini golf, ropes course, mineral spa.

I had my worst karaoke performance of my life. Everyone clapped, because they were glad it was over. “You were slightly better than the girl before you,” J consoled. She was tone deaf.

On Grand Cayman, there are shuttles, more like small vans, that make circuits around the shore. You can hop on and off for a couple bucks. I hopped onto a shuttle and went to Hell, a small tourist trap area. There are interesting limestone formations caused by algae eating away calcium, leaving other minerals intact. I bet the place got its name from those stalagmites.

We couldn’t actually walk on or touch any of the limestone formations, we had to observe from a platform.

posing in Hell, Grand Cayman
posing in Hell, Grand Cayman

There was nothing else in Hell except a gift shop that doubled as a post office. The cashier, in a lukewarm and exhausted tone, told puns to each customer, like, “Have a hell of a time.” The building was covered in Bible verses, so as not to glamorize hell, but keep people on the straight and narrow.

Hell's gift shop
Hell’s gift shop

Hell was pretty boring. The most exciting thing was the chicken and iguana roaming the parking lot. They ran fast when chased.

We also stopped by Jamaica, Mexico, and some other ports, though frankly all the beaches were similarly pleasant. We won some Amazing Cozumel race. There was a team of elderly folk that was far better at solving puzzles, but we outran them in the end. Balloons fell from the ceiling. This was the first race I ever placed first in.

Cozumel
Cozumel

Stockholm History Museums

I knew nothing of Swedish history, but after visiting these museums, I have a firmer grasp on how much I don’t know.

Vasa Museum

Vasa miniature replica
Vasa miniature replica

The Vasa was an elaborately constructed military ship. It sunk in Stockholm’s harbor during its maiden voyage in 1628 because it was unbalanced and top-heavy. Water flooded into the cannon openings. Most people jumped off the ship, but some were unable to escape and drowned. A meeting was convened over the incident, and in stereotypical laid-back Swedish fashion, it was determined that no one was at fault.

Intricate woodwork on the Vasa's stern
Intricate woodwork on the Vasa’s stern

Somehow, despite sinking right in the harbor, people forgot where the ship sank.  No one marked the location or anything of the sort. But in 1961, the ship was recovered. Thousands of pieces were painstakingly attached back together. The ship has been chemically treated and is constantly moistened to prevent it from rotting and splintering.

Swedish History Museum

Swedish History Museum
Swedish History Museum

Despite the association between Swedes and vikings, only a small minority of Swedes were vikings. Most were farmers. Also, viking helmets did not have horns on them. The horns were added later when the viking was transformed into a symbol of nationalist pride.

Medieval Swedes were extremely vain. People of all social classes acquired jewelry and clothes to show off.  Women proudly wore their key(s) on the outside of their clothing.  The key opened closets, doors, and cupboards, symbolic of their running the household. The museum has a “gold room” with display after display of gold, imported and crafted coins, bracelets, necklaces, crowns. The collection is large because the government allocates funds to purchase antique metalwork.

In the courtyard, reenactors demonstrated medieval breadmaking and games. There was a personality quiz to determine which Norse mythological figure you were most like, such as Thor or Loki. I got Balder, a friendly chap most notable for dying from mistletoe.

One exhibit discussed the inherent bias in any museum. With a collection too big to display in its entirety, what gets shown? And who writes these narratives? How are the artifacts grouped together? Since Sweden as a country did not exist in the past, how should its history be explained?

Armémuseum

Cannons
Cannons

The Swedish Army Museum details the armed conflicts that took place in the country from medieval times up to World War II. Upon entering, there is a red room full of skulls and a diorama of fighting monkeys, suggesting that violence is part of human nature.  Throughout the museum, there are dioramas of citizens, soldiers, men charging on horseback, the impoverished cooking, starving in snow.

I was drawn to the trophy banners and pennants. The designs were amazing. For example, there was a blue Russian banner with a golden two-headed bird with crowns, except the shield had a saint instead of a man on a horse.  The bannermen would protect these flags with their lives. The capture of a banner was demoralizing to the group to whom it belonged, and anyone who captured an opposing force’s banner would be rewarded.

Stockholm Art

Stockholm is filled with vibrant art displays. Like Seattle, there is a city law that says each new building needs to allocate a certain percentage of its construction budget towards public art.

Metro Art

Stockholm’s metro stations are wonderfully decorated, whether by tiling, etched pillars, or colored concrete. Stockholm hosts contests wherein artists submit their proposals, and the winning artist gets to execute on his vision. Typically, the winning theme has some relevance to what is outside the station. For example, Kungsträdgården station has casts of the statues that were displayed at the palace. On another floor, there is imagery from an opera for the nearby opera house. A long, colorful flag is painted on the ceiling.

Below, a construction worker drew a goat, and people thought it was funny, so it was permanently etched into the wall.

Goat
Goat

T-Centralen station’s blue line is decorated with silhouettes of construction workers to honor those who built the station.

Stockholm metro art
Stockholm metro art

I visited stops along the blue line, which is newer and has these grandly-themed stations.

Moderna Museet

The Museum of Modern Art is a mixed bag, with some works by famous artists, amazing paintings, photos, and some rather forgettable works as well. There’s a room dedicated to Matisse’s paper cutouts, the largest of which was Apollo. But I felt a surge of excitement when I saw a small cutout, which I recognized from the cover of a piano book I had used in my youth. There was a disorienting painting of William Tell by Salvador Dali. Another painting I liked was a mural that showed a scene as if the people and furniture were constructed out of mirrors. There are sculptures outside too. The attention-grabbing sculpture is of vibrantly colored, playful figures juxtaposed to rusted sprinkler contraptions.

Fotografiska

Södermalm sunset
Södermalm sunset

Fotografiska is a photography museum. When we went, the main exhibit was “Like a Horse”, showcasing horse-themed photo series by 30 different photographers. One photographer took photos of children riding through gritty New York City, another photographer dressed up the horses with head accessories and took portraits.
There were portraits by Irving Penn. No matter the subject matter, each was shot in a studio of his with the same plain background. He was an expert in bringing out the essence and personality of his subjects, whether they be skulls, celebrities, or everymen, or marginalized peoples.

Stockholm’s Old Town

I crisscrossed through Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan) at least ten times, each time finding new hidden gems. Gamla Stan’s medieval feel is well-preserved. The traffic is mostly pedestrians, tourists, though some cars braved the crowded cobblestone streets.

These two buildings are photographed the most
These two buildings are photographed the most

As the center of medieval culture and history, there are a number of interesting museums in Gamla Stan.

Royal Palace

Royal palace sunset
Royal palace sunset

Stockholm’s royal palace is massive, even in comparison to other palaces in Europe.

Everyday, there is a changing of the guard ceremony for the tourists. Guards and the royal band march through the city on feet or on horseback, across the bridge, then to an inner courtyard of the palace. Though, once I saw the band arrive by coach bus. The band and guards have a choreographed routine as they play traditional songs as well as pop songs like “Hooked on a Feeling.” One instrument that stood out to me was a portable xylophone with the skeleton of a harp.

Medieval Museum

Parliament wanted to build an underground parking garage on one of the smaller islands adjacent to the royal palace. But as they were excavating, they unearthed medieval walls and artifacts. I don’t know how they were so surprised by their finds. People have been living in Stockholm continuously, how could they forget that people used to live there? So instead of a parking garage, they built an underground museum dedicated to Stockholm’s medieval history.

Medieval Museum
Medieval Museum

In the museum, I learned that Stockholm got its name from the wooden stocks that were placed in the surrounding water for defensive purposes.

In medieval times, Gamla Stan had limited housing stock. So Stockholm widows were a hot commodity, because by marrying one, you were able to move into her residence and live in the city. Women did not have much power or property rights. As a widow, a woman could work independently for 5 years, then by law she had to marry again.

Nordic rune
Nordic rune

There are Nordic runes in Gamla Stan, museums, and nearby islands. These vibrant stone carvings painted in red were typically commissioned by family members in remembrance of a deceased loved one.

Nobel Museum

Nobel Museum
Nobel Museum

The Nobel Museum is tucked in the most popular square of Gamla Stan. The small museum details the history of the Nobel prize. There are electronic kiosks that discussed past winners and the significance of their contributions. The temporary exhibit featured replicas of equipment used by the winners in their experiments. There was an exhibit on the life of Alfred Nobel and his invention of dynamite. And finally, there was a display of random trinkets from past Nobel laureates, such as a letter Albert Einstein wrote advising his son to use the Nobel prize money to buy a house.

Nobel Museum medal
Nobel Museum medal

Skogskyrkogården (The Woodland Cemetery)

I visited Skogskyrkogården, which, despite it being a relatively new 20th-century construction, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Woodland Crematorium
The Woodland Crematorium

The buildings had different architectural styles— the Chapel of Resurrection had clean lines with a Greek column entrance, the Woodland Chapel blended in with the forest with its earthy colors and pyramid roof.

The granite cross
The granite cross

From the entrance, I walked up a hill into a grove of trees, a place of meditation. Then I walked for a long time on a gravel pathway (Seven Springs Way) that cut through a forest to the Resurrection Chapel. Graves were arranged in neat rows in the forest, and a soft light filtered through the trees. The intent is to reflect on nature as you contemplate life and death.

Near the Woodland Chapel was the grave of Greta Garbo. I had previously never heard of the famous actress, but her named cropped up everywhere on my trip. It turns out she was one of the foremost actresses of her generation. First, I saw her on the 100 kronor. Next, in one of the hotels we stayed at, we were assigned to the “Garbo room.” Pictures of her lined every wall. The hotel bed was a canopy bed that she had once used. And the largest portrait of all, of Greta’s confident, piercing gaze, was hung over the bed. When I first arrived at the hotel room, I found this shrine to her unsettling, and was unsurprised that no one had specifically requested this room. But then I got used to Greta staring through me and came to appreciate the room’s quirk. At Skogskyrkogården, her grave was a prominent circular plot with a wide berth of grass, her signature in gold carved into a red marble stone. The plot, isolated from the others, felt rather lonely.

Across the street of the entrance to Skogskyrkogården was another cemetery. Each plot was clinically labeled with a number and which maintenance group it was in. One grave was covered in flowers and stuffed toys. There was an etching of a young boy’s face, and the years showed he was only five.