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I moved to Stockholm for work, just in time for what I imagined to be winter. Little did I expect that the skies decided to send a welcoming committee in the form of a Snökanon (Snow Cannon) bombardment, dropping over a foot of snow overnight just before I arrived. When my plane touched down, I was greeted with the sight of a snow covered landscape. Apparently, the expression “Snökanon” is a local expression for a sudden bout of snowfall, not unlike what happens when a snow cannon is used to cover a hillside with snow.
Given that the sudden appearance of snow (apparently uncommon in Stockholm this time of year) seemed to have thrown road traffic into chaos, I figured I could get away with taking the Arlanda Express (great schedule, fast 20 mins ride) into town, transferring to the T-Bana metro and then hoofing it the rest of the way to the apartment. Little did I expect, it turned out that the streets were icy from the snow (ah yes, silly me) and what was a simple 4 block stroll turned into a sweaty exercise in dragging a couple overloaded luggages through slushy streets and getting bogged down in soggy puddles. Astounding that the wheels survived the mistreatment, but survive they did.
Now, having visited the city 3 times previously, namely in Spring, Summer and Autumn, I have finally finished the set with a taste of what’s barely Winter. Stockholm with a layer of snow is quite a transformed place, with the bright white stuff bouncing the urban lights and giving the city a cheery glow where it would have normally been somewhat gloomy. I begin to comprehend something of the minimalistic Scandinavian aesthetic with the snow coverage, where the white blanket forces a certain starkness to the landscape, accentuating features that previously blended into the detailed busyness of the rest of the environment.
And thus this post marks what’s effectively the first week since my arrival in Stockholm. However little time has passed has proven to be transformative in its own right, opening the mind to ways of thinking that were previously blocked off by living in a different place.
When I visited Brisbane previously (more on that in a future post), I was struck by how boring the place was, in Singaporean styled consumeristic terms. It is a place where shops close early, there are limited opportunities for consumption, and the largest expense one is likely to have would be to hit the cafes and enjoy some nice meals. Yet, it was also readily apparent that the appeal of a city extends beyond its physical appearance and its material comforts, into the personalities of the people that populate it and the value they bring to one’s life from getting to know them.
Stockholm is similar in that while there are the more central parts of town that open late, the concept of late extends to shopping up till 8pm, and the rare supermarket that opens past 11pm. Much of the rest of the city will shut down closer to 6pm. Yet, it is precisely this limitation to the endless cycle of consumption (work-life balance, if one will) that forces one to have the time to stop and truly decide for oneself what one wants to do with the evenings. Would one wish to go roaming about the quieting streets as the city settles down to ready itself for sleep, or to hang out at a friend’s place, or perhaps to get some personal work done before one’s own bedtime.
Now one may think that the sentiment is silly, for one can choose to consume or not. It should ordinarily be a trivial choice. However, the presence of options presents opportunity costs to one’s usage of time, and not necessarily limited to one’s personal choices. For example, one may choose to stay home to process photos, or go out with friends, or go catch that latest movie, or wander aimlessly in a supermarket, or have supper at a MacDonald’s, or roam about the city bar hopping.
One finds ways to fill one’s after work hours with consumption, leaving little for everything else. Yet, the active decision to forgo consumption comes at a greater price, because it is now at the cost of social time, or missing that new release, or a myriad other ways of having a good time. It is this endless cycle of consumption that numbs the mind, and makes it challenging to pursue other productive activities. I remember the conversations I had with friends, where they lamented that there was no time, and that they would pursue their interests at some unspecified later date. It puzzled me at the time, because we all had 24 hours a day, and worked similar hours. How could one not make time for personal pursuits? And then after some thought, it occurred to me that perhaps it was this increased marginal cost of choosing to be productive instead of consuming, that evenings were scheduled with enjoyment to the point that it crowded out everything else.
So here I am, living in a city that enforces a certain comparative asceticism. Already it is apparent from the effort of trying to live like a local, that choices are made regarding one’s time, and that in the absence of commercial enjoyments, one is now forced to consider alternative activities and consciously design one’s evenings. It has suddenly become an option to simply choose to settle in early and get more sleep, because there is now a possibility since sleep does not have to compete with enjoyment.
I fully expect that as time passes, more will be revealed and I must say that, for those who are able, do consider living overseas for a stint. The change in environment, pace of life, social circles and all that experience gained from the culture shock will be worth it.