Land of the Vikings and beautiful blonde boys!
Article & Photography by Kevin du Plessis
We all have so many dreams when we are young, we see beyond the here and now and imagine ourselves doing great things despite the discouragement sometimes heard in the patronising “Yes, my child, dream big for all of us” laced into the voices of our seniors. And then as our experiences in the world start to play out harsh realities we lose touch with our goals.
But sometimes believing in yourself and taking chances can open a world of opportunity. One such glimmer of hope in my life was receiving a photography prize from the Embassy of Sweden in Pretoria. “Swedish Innovations in a South African Context,” that was the theme of the competition, and my image won the number one prize that secured me a short photography residency in Sweden, home of the beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed Vikings.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d never even crossed the border, and now I was planning a trip to the other side of the world.
Let me tell you about Stockholm, the city that reignited my confidence in doing what I love, and instilled in me a permanent wanderlust.
This beautiful Scandinavian city is stretched over no less than seventeen islands that are connected by fairy-tale bridges, ferries, trams, bicycle lanes and one of the most unique underground systems you will ever get to experience (also known as the longest running art exhibition in the world). The ease and affordability of public transport made it so easy for my limited budget to see every little corner of the city and drink in all of its wonder. It’s here that I first saw how proud the Swedes are of their language, everything is in Swedish, the cool voice on the trains, signs, directions, everything. But that turned out to be a blessing on its own because most people are only too happy to help you figure out where you are going, and it means that you are also meeting new faces all the time.
On my very first day I saw another Swedish face that I actually think I was quite lucky to have seen at all. Who else but the crown princess of Sweden, the next leader of the monarchy. She drove past me in a convoy through a crowd of Swedes all waving their flags and smiling all around me. Day 1, and I had already seen a princess and she had waved at me, I felt a bit like a character in The Princess Diaries!
Yes, Sweden has a monarchy, and this of course means that the city is studded with inspiring architecture and museums connected to the royal family and the country’s rich history.
You should also know that Alfred Nobel was a Swedish man with great vision, and that to this day Sweden is the country that hands out The Nobel Prize to worthy candidates all over the world, they are a progressive nation that believes in innovation and the goodness of humanity. Do yourself a favour and look up Swedish inventions on Google. The three-point safety belt, Bluetooth, safety matches, dynamite, the pacemaker, the zipper, GPS, and so much more. You can visit the Nobel museum and even the hall that the Nobel Prize ceremonies take place in annually!
If you are a lover of contemporary art and especially photography, Fotografiska is a must. This large state-of-the-art meeting place for contemporary photography hosts four major exhibitions and twenty smaller ones annually. I spent such a long time appreciating it’s exhibitions, that I even skipped lunch that day! Luckily it has a restaurant on the top level that specialises in amazing seasonal dishes, so I had some dinner before hitting the streets again. While I am still rambling about the attractions, I cannot neglect to mention the Vasa museum. In 1961, 333 years after it sunk just a few miles off-shore from the city, the Vasa was salvaged and has painstakingly been restored to its original glory, with 95% of its parts being original. This is the most visited museum in Scandinavia and attracts around one million visitors a year. The Vasa is also the only preserved 17th Century ship in the world!
I could write an entire book about all the attractions. The Royal Palace and official residence if His Majesty the King of Sweden (one of the largest in all of Europe), Moderna Museet, City Hall, and tons of other gems. But I am quite eager to get to the night life!
Sweden is not Spartacus’ number one most gay-friendly travel destination in the world for nothing! First, let me say, there isn’t much “night” to go around in the summer months. With Sweden being that high up north on the world map, its summer days are endless with only 3-4 hours of darkness (if you could even call it that). So when the clubs open their doors at 23h00 chances are it will still be dusk. My favourite hangout by far was King Kong, “Release the gayrilla in you!” which is a basement club with two bar areas and two dance floors, one space for contemporary playlists and one for schläger (a bit more on that later). It is here that I met their hostess, renowned bearded drag queen Madame Heinz, and shot a portrait of her, my first image to be acquired by a reputable art collection, The North-West University Art Collection in South Africa. “Madame Heinz,” as it is rightfully titled, is also the first LGBT work of art in this collection.
Torget, the Swedish word for “street,” is one of the oldest bars for the LGBT community and is located on the Gamla Stan, or “Old Town,” island. Torget is the perfect place for pre-drinks, being centrally located, and they can also help you plan your nights out and are happy to share tons of info on gay Stockholm. Among my other favourites were The Secret Garden, Side Track, and on Friday nights Limbo at Mälarpaviljongen. For all the gay stuff, get your hands on a free copy of the monthly Swedish QX which is distributed to all LGBT spaces and places in the city. QX also supplies lots of really cool Pride merchandise. I got my hands on one extra large rainbow flag, which became my favourite scouvenir from the trip.
Why I chose to go to Sweden around Midsummer instead of Pride season, I will never know, but it did afford me the chance to experience probably one of the proudest of Swedish traditions. Midsummer is celebrated on the longest day of the year when the sky does not darken, this year on 19 June. Generally the city’s population leaves the city for the country-side or archipelago to celebrate this holiday but some do stay to celebrate at Skansen, and I am happy to say that I got to experience both balled up into one. Skansen is an open-air museum and the official Stockholm zoo, hosting a large variety of native animal species. This is where I saw the raising of the maypole, an integral part of the fertility festival. The legend goes that after this, on their way home, girls and young women are supposed to pick seven different species of flowers and lay them under their pillows. At night, their future husbands would appear to them in a dream. I didn’t go to sleep that night, so sadly my husband still remains a mystery. It was, however, worth it because after Skansen I was off to a small lake on the outskirts of Stockholm with a Finnish friend of mine, and I had the pleasure of staying with her godmother in a charming Swedish cottage. We skinny dipped, made large bonfires and ate traditional herring. I was even lucky enough to receive free salsa lessons on account of one of our hosts being a born Chilean.
Earlier I mentioned schläger (a type of popular European music that focuses on love and feelings – in other words, pop). I learned about this word dancing through the night on Midsummer and if you are any kind of gay worth his salt, you should know at least a few ABBA songs by heart. ABBA is to this day still one of Sweden’s most precious exports and my favourite schläger singers. The official ABBA museum is located in the city and is well worth a visit! There are tons of places that also have schläger performances. They wear more sequins than the drag queens, would probably refuse to perform without a fan to make their blonde hair billow in the wind, and they sure know how to sing Dancing Queen!
Another interesting fact is that the Swedes have state-run liquor outlets called Systembolaget, it took me some time to figure this out, which was probably good because it kept me out of mischief. But the good news is that beers under 3,5% volume are available at any store.
I took thousands of pictures, met many new friends from all over the world, fell in love with how beautiful the boys were and how sexy their melodious language sounds when spoken. I am so grateful to The Swedish Embassy for sponsoring my first over-seas trip, and mostly also because it was Stockholm I got to visit. There is nothing like travelling to open your eyes to the bigger picture and give you perspective on life and humanity. The Swedes did a great job of convincing me that I will be a life-long traveller and I cannot wait to visit them again, perhaps next time to see the Northern Lights and stay in one of their famous ice hotels higher up north.