Castles

Ok. So, castles. I have finally realized that I don’t really get them. I have seen probably a dozen European castles in my life and they all seem exactly the same. The same dull tapestries, gold plated fleur de lis and empty bedrooms up and down Europe. The same blatant gluttony and greed fills ever state room, reception room, dining hall room, writing room, breakfast room, sun room, winter room, room for a room. I always pay the $20 cover price and then wonder what and why I am looking at what I am currently looking at. Castles are nice to look at from the outside and very nice to take pictures of if somebody you know is in it, but I really need to remember not to go inside. Unless I can see real princes in there, I’ll meet you at the bar when you’re done with your tour.

Blame it on the Cold War

This morning I woke up early in order to go down to the Russian Embassy and see about my visa. I scarfed down some swedish meatballs and pancakes with lindenberry jam at the free hotel breakfast and hailed a cab driven by a nice-looking man who reminded me of great-uncle or something and kept calling me ‘lady’, to Gjorwellsgatan street. We approached what the he told me was the embassy and I got out. And then I turned to face what may be the pinnacle example of ugly-ass Soviet architecture. All of the buildings were low slung with small vertical slits for windows. The material I’m pretty sure was all concrete. Now I’m not a carpenter or whatever but I can tell concrete when I see it and that building had nothing but cement and fly ash keeping it together. There were gates all around it and a couple of Ladas in the parking lot. I approached the gate, pressed the buzzer and was let into another area gated off. Once again I pressed a buzzer and was let into a kind of holding area, preceding an all white hexagonal room. It was kind of weird. Like I was in an Orson Welles movie or something.

I easily went through security and grabbed a ticket, watching as different numbers lit up on a board along with arrows dictating which door to enter when it was your turn. I didn’t have to wait long until number 18 lit up….my lucky number. Hmmm maybe I should consider changing that number because there was one slumbitch of a an embassy worker waiting for me in that closet. She asked me if I was stupid or if I really believed I could get into Russia with just a piece of paper that said “invitation to enter Russia.” She then proceeded to ask me how long I would permanently be here, here being where? Russia? Stockholm? Europe until she understood that I was a US citizen.

“Seven days,” she said, “Bring me back application, photo, passport and then maybe we give you visa in seven days. Good chance you get denied. You are an American in Sweden. Does not look good.” She said this while making minimal eye contact as if I could spy on her state secrets with just my eyeballs.

Well that’s great, I thought. How the hell am I supposed to get a passport sized photo here and even then they will probably just deny me? I left that weird, suffocating all-white hexagonal holding cell and made like a bat of hell for the center of Stockholm. As I started walking, however, my mood lifted and my dendrites started firing. (You see I do my best thinking when I’m walking….can be dangerous for fellow pedestrians)

I could just travel around Europe! I could have various friends meet me at various locations around Western Europe and slowly move my way back towards America. I had some money saved up and the money I borrowed from my dad needed to be paid back eventually anyway! I suddenly felt fearless and free! It was the first time in 22 years that I did not know exactly what I was going to do next or where I was going to be. I practically jogged back to the hotel, listening to Pheonix and daydreaming about traveling around Europe with my best friends just as we had always planned. I pictured us wearing berets and french kissing strange Parisians under the Eiffel tower and having Guinnesses with Italian men who we would compliment us all night long. And maybe, just maybe, going to Scotland for some Italian food.

This plan was so crazy that it might just work. I got back to the hotel. Skyped five different people, none of which answered, and proceeded to leave almost hallucinatory messages.

“ZOMG Kristina ok so like I don’t have a real visa or whatever did you read my blog? But like its ok because I’m free and  you have to come. Seriously you have to come here. Just get on a plane and go. Get your ass to Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam I don’t care just tell me where to go and I will be there. We don’t need a plan. We can just gooooooo. Ok call me back or email me or whatever. We have BIG. PLANS.”

Clearly the cold war is not dead and is alive and kicking in the form of visa policies. As one of my friends put it, “Mother Russia doesn’t love you, you love Mother Russia.” Supposedly they are not even helpful to their own citizens. Just ask Anna Politkovskaya.

So this was my new plan…..having no plan. Too bad it had so many holes in it…

Hej!

I found my hotel with little issue and after sending some e-mails to my school letting them know what happened I tried to get a hold of my parents. The stress of the situation was starting to get to me and I wanted to hear their advice. And I’m glad that I did. They told me not to stress, to go have a beer and discover Stockholm. So I showered, dressed in my white blazer, which always makes me feel better, and set off to make some chums in Stockholm.

As soon as I started down Kungsgaten and saw the lively nightlife of Stockholm, it finally dawned on me that the ‘visa mishap ‘o-10 was really a blessing in disguise and I quickly came to three conclusions about Stockholm, traveling and life.

One, Swedish people are really, really good looking. Like, all of them. Not an ugly face in sight. I don’t know if its their blonde hair and pale complexion, their skinny frames, or as my grandma likes to say, “their nice shaped heads”, but I suddenly felt like I was surrounded by Aleksander Skarsgaards closest relatives. And all of them seemed to be procreating. Well, good for them. If my husband and I are that fantastic looking, I’d be trying to make as many babies as possible too.

Second, Stockholm is f’ing sweet. The architecture is beautiful and many of the buildings are painted in oranges and terracottas which when juxtaposed with the water is quite nice. The city is actually made up of 14 islands, so their are bridges everywhere and beautiful riverside walking paths. The temperament is sweet-natured, the shopping spectacular and there is culture waiting for you around every corner. Starving from the stress of the day and the realization that I had not eaten in twelve hours, caused a continual gravitation towards food establishments. The comfort of a McDonalds or a Burger King beckoned to me in my still uneasy state of being stranded in Stockholm, but what kind of traveling is that? I am not some pansy traveler who frequents the only Applebees in the city- I am Kristen Steagall, world traveler and eater of blood sausage, crickets, stinky cheeses and things I cannot identify! So I grabbed a table situated on a pedestrian street next to a string quartet of teenage boys (all good-looking) playing Tchaikovsky and Mozart and ordered two Carlsburgs and a falafel sandwich. Not exactly a Swedish delicacy, but the city is flush with kebab establishments as if they are a firmly planted component of the culinary culture. Actually, the more I think about it kebab/shwarma/gyro places are kind of ubiquitous in most countries. Keep gettin’ it Isreal/Lebanon- I love those little falafels!

Third, that a city is a city is a city. What makes one able to handle a city like, say NYC, should allow them to handle any city. Walk with determination but be fine with wandering aimlessly. Is that an oxymoron? Oh well. Some of the best parts of a city are discovered on accident but you don’t want to look like you are tarting around on the sidewalks- so determination, yeah, walk with it. Stop to explore store fronts, weird statues, families of feral dogs, jkjk don’t touch those- rabies, restaurant menus, whatever. People in cities are usually too busy to be watching for other people making an ass out of themselves so don’t worry what other people think as you stop to look at what kind of litter people throw in Stockholm. Mmm, is that a toblerone wrapper?… Don’t be afraid to ask directions or advice on where to eat/what to see/what to do. People genuinely want to help you, especially if you are there to explore their city, which they naturally are proud of and want to show off! After an hour of walking around, I realized that Stockholm is the perfect city for aimless wandering, with lots of side streets offering mini-adventures for those who dare to take them. Sometimes it can take a little pushing, but really put yourself out there and discover!

I wandered down some alley ways and soon felt reinvigorated and remembered all the reasons that I love to travel. I’ve discovered in the past year that I like to have a plan, no actually, I need to have a plan. I used to believe that I was ok when the plan didn’t, excuse the redundancy, go according to plan, but now I’m not so sure because woof was I stressed when I found out my visa was wrong. I did not expect to be denied access to the country that I had been mentally preparing to live in for the past six months. I was not ready to feel the sting of inadequacy at the realization that I was daft enough not to recognize a visa- or lack thereof of one. I cried and I second guessed my capabilities as a young woman in that airport in Stockholm and had thoughts of turning around and going home!

But as my dad said to me in an e-mail, “bullshit kristen. charge on boldy.” And he is right. I was not raised in a household that admitted defeat! I was raised in a household that had me yelling “I am woman hear my roar” at soccer practices and challenging conventional wisdom at every corner. I am not a girl that gets discouraged at a little visa mishap. I am the girl who at age 16 flew herself to Colorado and went desert backpacking for three weeks with fifteen total strangers, battling tennis ball sized blisters, class five rapids and mistaking layers of grim and dirt as a nice tan. I am the girl who at eighteen flew home from Scotland alone, after spending some time with my friends, only to be escorted out of customs by a police officer for smuggling in whiskey underage. (Note of caution: when trying to sneak illegal substances over the border do not check that you had played with cows on a farm. They will most definitely pull you aside and give you a more thorough checking. Not exactly the pinnacle of stealth.) I am the girl who bushwacked her way through the Amazon to drink chicha with a tribal leader of the Achuar people and spent two months getting to know the ins and outs of Ecuadorian culture, meeting destitute mothers and ambassadors sons alike. I do not shy from adventure! I call it forward.

With this mentality reinstated, I realized that I had no limits! As long as I have my wits about me, my glasses and some money, the world is my playground.

I got tired though so I went back to my hotel. One more day in Stockholm and this time I will bring my camera!

Stuck in Stockholm

Part of me wants to blame it on my genes- my constant oversight of important details. The Steagall family seems to have a penchant for overlooking essential details while traveling. There was the time we showed up a day late when I was five for our flight to Jamaica and the time we arrived at a hotel in Costa Rica that had no record of our reservation, forcing us to sleep at  a campground with walls so thin we could hear everything the newly wedded couple next door was up to. There was the incident where upon finally spotting out hotel, we drove down an alleyway sidewalk in Rome, so close to cafes that we were able to grab wine glasses off the tables of astonished cafe goers as we merrily went along in our minivan and the time we tried to drive up to the top of Zermatt, a village at the base of the Matterhorn, despite the multiple signs telling us that we could incur a $1,000 fine for bringing a car into the city. Needless to say, there is never a dull moment during a Steagall vacation. In terms of my own sordid history of travel mishaps, I have bought plane tickets for the wrong month, shown up a day late for a train ticket, waited at the Guayaquil International airport for ten hours a whole day early for my brother when he came to visit me in Ecuador and now it appears I have traveled all the way to Stockholm only to be told that I do not have the right kind of visa to enter Russia.

I arrived at O’Hare yesterday with plenty of time to spare and things were going great. My parents waited with me in the security line, even getting me a chocolate milkshake from Haagen-Dazs as a sendoff treat.  My bags weren’t overweight (a feat considering originally I had convinced myself I need all of my american apparel lace leotards, shirts I hadn’t worn since senior year in high school “in case” I suddenly liked them again and four pairs of black heels…)and they didn’t charge me for bringing two. The flight wasn’t delayed and when I got to my window seat on the plane, I was surrounded by a group of 13 year old girls who managed to giggle the whole eight hours, showing me their fashion sketches along the way, which looked suspiciously like Bratz dolls; it was kind of endearing.  The flight did not seem long at all. I read some young adult science-fiction (my favorite genre) and took a nap. Once in Stockholm, I wiled away my six hour layover by grabbing a cappuccino and surfing the interweb, watching as the other travelers who stopped at the cafe ordered beers and champagne despit it only being 7am. This is a country I could get used to, I thought to myself. I took another nap and the morning flew by. This travel day was a piece of cake.

1:10 rolled around and it was time for me to board. I grabbed my things, hit the bathroom (do bathrooms in europe remind anyone else of campground bathrooms? with their cheap plastic doors and the weird handles? maybe cruise ship bathrooms are more reminiscent?) and headed for the plane. I handed my passport, ticket and “visa” to the ticket attendant and let my eyes wander around at my very slavic fellow travelers.

“Excuse me, miss?” asked the ticket attendant in a rich Swedish accent, “do you not have a visa?”

“Huh? What? Isn’t that it?” I say, pointing at the piece of paper in his hand that says ‘invitation to enter Russia’ in Russian, “that is all my school sent me.”

“Well you see dear,” he said “this is only an invitation. You need something inside your passport just like the last time you went to Moscow.” He shows me the full page sticker I had received the last time I had gone to Russia.

“Well that is all I have. Will they not let me into the country? What do I do? My school didn’t tell me I needed anything else. I thought that this time it was different because its a work visa.”

“I’m sorry dear but you will need to go to the embassy in the morning and try to get a real visa. This will not allow you into the country and I can’t let you on the plane”

He was kind as tears started to spill at the realization that I would not be arriving in Saint Petersburg in three hours time started to sink in. He walked me through the steps I needed to take to begin to rectify the situation. He told me I needed to go downstairs and go through customs, go upstairs to the ticket counter and change my ticket to Tuesday’s flight, go back through security, claim my bags that they would pull from the plane, go back through customs and then go to the tourism center to book a hotel and get a train ticket to the city center. He grabbed his razor scooter and scooted along as I jogged beside him to the escalator that would take me to the baggage claim. (For some reason all of the employees at Stockholm International Airport have little scooters they use to get around. Kind of like a bronze age version of police tootin’ around on Segways. It was bizarre but made me giggle secretly to myself every time these very serious officials passed me by on a scooter with a basket on it.)

After getting down to customs, I realized that I wasn’t paying very close attention to my attendant friend and was suddenly lost so I decided to wing it. I wandered up and down the baggage claim carousels looking for my big ass bags until I found them and carried them over the arrival services desk. There I meet my second friendly airport employee as she helped me figure out what to do next.

She told me a story of how when she was 18, she was trapped in Hungary, unable to travel any further because she did not have the correct paperwork. It was at the height of communism and she said she was scared shitless. I suddenly realized that Stockholm is not too shabby of a place to get stranded in Europe. (Does Sweden count as eastern europe? Hmm that seems a debate for another day. The term eastern europe can be a loaded gun. Implying more than just geographic location and contains hints of orientalism in it. But like I said…maybe another post.) We booked a hotel room in downtown Stockholm on Kungsgaten, checked one of my bags into the airport holding services, rebooked my flight and got me on train to my hotel.

This would be an adventure I thought as I watched the Swedish countryside quickly dissolve into eighteenth century buildings and bridges. This would be great. A quick little jaunt in Stockholm before I entered the land of blinis and vodka.