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So: WHERE'S THE PLACE? Stockholm, Sweden's fine watery capital, laid out on a web of islands at the core of the great archipelago. Time of day? Middle to late morning. Month? Let's see, the start of October, 1993. How's the weather? Cool, overcast, with bright sunny periods and occasional heavy showers. Who's coming on the journey? I think it's best to wait a bit and see.
The fact is that the Swedish summer season — the super-physical, island-hopping, boat-building, skinny-dipping, crayfish-eating, love-feasting, hyper-elated phase of this nation's always rich and varied manic cycle — is reaching its dank autumnal end. Smart white tourboats with perspex carapaces still cruise the narrow canals of Stockholm's Gamla Stan, the Old Town. Noisy guides are megaphoning out their wonderfully gruesome tales of the Swedish Bloodbath. But now they are not very many, just an end-of-season few. On the ruffled waves of the city's inner harbours, dinghies with multi-coloured sails tack back and forth, hither and thither, up and down. But this is positively their final flurry; they'll all be winched out of the water and put into dry dock in a matter of a few more weeks or days.
In the neat windswept parks that surround the harbour, the leaves flop wetly, the last open-air coffee or sausage stalls are starting to hammer down their shutters. Here and there groups of men — some sporting summer shirts, but most in puffed-out winter anoraks — play chess with man-size pieces. Small crowds of children and various time-wasting persons,walking little dogs, gather round as they menace black with white. On the benches, at the few final tables left outside the few final cafés, hopeful people sit with their chins elevated. Blank-faced, mystical, they're staring at the sky, hopeful of gathering a last sight of that most precious of all the northern treasure hordes, the sun. Aware of just how desirable it is, the sun keeps showing and then going, in a sequence of short sexy glimpses: now you see me, now you don't. It drops patches of gold dazzle onto the green-brown copper roofs and spires that cap and crown the grandiose national buildings over the water, the buildings of a big old empire: the Swedish Royal Palace, the Storkyrkan Cathedral, the Parliament Building. A bit further over in the panorama is the modernist City Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are awarded to the sound of a gunshot intended to celebrate Sweden's two most noted gifts to humanity: the sweet dream of universal peace, the big bang of dynamite.
A brooding Nordic gloom wafts through the air. Euphoria is over, winter depression starting. Yet why? Everything here is so neat, so satisfying, so wealthyish, so burgherish. Civic, that surely has to be the word. Everything suggests a common social virtue, a universal sobriety of mind, a decent respect for order, an open-faced moral clarity. Just democracy, expensive simplicity — the things of which so many people have dreamed. You'll find the same spirit everywhere you go. For instance, in the small clean efficiently modern bedroom of my nice little hotel on Storgatan, which looks out across the courtyard into the small clean efficiently modern rooms of innumerable well-fitted apartments. Both bedroom and bathroom are packed with gentle philosophical instructions — inspirations to citizenship and virtue, all couched in the liberal language of secular religiosity. `Please help us save the world. In Sweden we love our beautiful lakes and seas and wish to protect them. Use only official soaps, and use your towels for at least two days.' `Condoms and the Holy Bible are provided in your bedside drawer, for your physical and spiritual content and protection. Please make use of them with the compliments of the management.'
As I walk round, everything is like this. Liberal, simple, decent, without irony. The streets are clean, straight, neat, tidy. The food: crisp, clean, fresh, fishy. The coffee: dark, scented, thick, excellent. The air: brisk, sharp, pure, windy. Quality rules, yet not ostentation. It's the middle way. Nothing is too pompous, or too tacky; too blatantly conservative, or too vulgarly radical. This exactly matches what the Swedes like to say about themselves: nothing too little, nothing too much. There is plenty of wealth, but how very quietly it's spent. In the smart shopping streets the well-dressed shoppers stroll. Dark-coloured Saabs and leather-seated Volvos swish by. The cars have their lights on, the drivers have their belts on. The litres may be many, but the petrol's lead-free and the pace is sober; in fact everyone drives at a blatantly considerate, a truly civic sort of speed. The elegant pedestrians — tall girls in their leather thigh-boots, healthy men in their loden topcoats, universal cyclists theatrical in their arrowed helmets and Day-Glo Lycra (always in Sweden there are these reminders that it is healthy to be healthy) — stop, with the same consideration, to let them pass. Then suddenly, thanks not to some officious red light but to justice, reason, fairness and decency, the vehicles all stop in their turn. Whereat, with just the same polite consideration, the pedestrians and the Lycra cyclists, carefully, appreciatively, cross the road to the other side.
The crisp smart goods in the stores are just as well ordered, just as considerate. Don't imagine it was some chic fifties Swedish modernist with a doctorate in design from Paris who invented all these bleached white woods, pure colours, honest straight lines that deck the smart lofts of the known world. Swedish style was born from the Swedish soul: nature, the outdoors, the woods, winds, sea, rocks, spray, all of it shaped into function by the piney, craft-loving, shipbuilding, homesteading old Nordic soul. Look at it. Those carpentered chairs — so straight-lined and thoughtful. Those handmade tables — so crafted, sturdy, square-edged, crisp-grained. Those woven fabrics — bright yet so restrained. Everything modest, homely, truthful, under-stated. Yet, lest some unfortunate misunderstanding occur, all this simplicity is expensive beyond belief- especially if you're a wandering foreign tourist like myself.
But, as I'm discovering, the most expensive thing in this decent, pleasant, unpretentious liberal country is money itself. I'm in a bank in a clean tree-filled square at Storgatan, just up the hill above the harbour. An exceedingly nice bank — plain, modern, open-plan, white, computerized, smelling of fresh coffee, flied with nice people. So nice I know something is missing: the demonic rage of money, the danger of coin, not to say the angled security cameras, bullet-proof screens and Kalashnikov-toting guards that modern banking needs. The Land of the Bears is, I recall, famous for its banking. It went with a central role in the Hanseatic League, the mastery of Baltic trade, the role of financier of European wars. If my imperfect memory is right, it was Sweden that devised the notion of the National Bank. Above all, it went with a decent supply of the things money is made of: minerals and paper. To use the mineral reserves of the Upplands, the Swedes dispensed with precious metals and invented the decent plain democratic copper coin: a great invention when you wanted a loaf of bread, though if you wanted to buy something really expensive — one of those Swedish tables, for example — you had to go out shopping not with a purse but a horse and cart.
So why (I'm asking myself) am I having so much trouble in performing a normal economic transaction, a simple act of rates of exchange? I've come to this handsome blonde bank because I want to change English pounds for American dollars. In the world of money it's a normal, rational request. At a handsome blonde desk a handsome blonde teller sits, tapping away at her handsome computer console. Like everyone I've met since I flew into Arlanda airport this morning, she's serious, kind, courteous — civic, that has to be the word. That is the Swedish way. The Land of the Bears has always felt a bit like an enlightened Islington primary school, with tundra. First she asks me for my papers. Passport. Driving licence. Travel insurance. Health insurance. Social security number. Fine: I have paper, therefore I am. She enquires about the traffik, the devise, the curso, the cambio, the change I'm after. How will I pay? I hand her a splendid walletful: Visa, American Express, Diner's, Barclaycard, Master Charge, British Airways Executive Club. I have plastic, therefore I shop. But not, it seems, in modern Sweden.
`Nej, nej,' she says.
I offer bankcard, chargecard, Eurocard. I flash a gold this, wave a silver that. I lean forward against her scented blonde hair and murmur a splendid little secret: my pin number.
`Nej, nej,' she says, staring at me bemused, `if you would like money, you must give me some money first.'
`But this is money,' I say. `Money as we now know it.'
`Nej, nej, not in Sweden,' she says. `This is not money, it's credit. I need good money. Don't you have proper English pounds?'
I look at her amazed. The year, as we've said, is 1993. This is a highly advanced nation. A glorious new millennium is to hand. Then, if computers don't crash and planes fall from the sky in the great turnover of numbers, we will all become part of Euro-Europe; that will be the end of the old age of rates of exchange. Francs will fade, Deutschmarks dissolve, escudos expire, lire lapse, the krona will crash. Even the great British pound will pass away, as in their season all good things pass away.
I for one will mourn its passing, shed a big wet fiscal tear. I madly love coin and currency, paper and print, guineas and guilders, sovereigns and sovereignties, ducats and crowns, farthings and forints, cambio and curso, cash and carry. True, here in 1993, Sweden has still not yet elected to join the European Community, but we all know it's just a matter of time. And true, with all those fir trees in the forests, all that paper in the papermills, all that copper in the Upplands, it has a vested interest in money as it always was and should be. But Sweden is modern, paper money isn't. Still, if that's what she wants, that's what she'll have. Money, yes, I remember I had some once. I dig deep into my wallet, and there it is: a small wad of British notes for general circulation. George Stevenson — Mr Puffing Billy — in his stovepipe hat looks proudly out from the fives. Charles Dickens, creator of one of the world's greatest fictional galleries of speculators and peculators, looks out from the twirls of the tens. Michael Faraday, who invented the electric lighthouse, guards the security of the twenties. The Queen is present. Nothing could be more reliable.
`Will this do?' I ask.
`Jo, jo, tip top, tack, tack,' says the teller, smiling, taking and counting them.
There's quite a long line of people standing behind me now. But this is decent liberal Sweden, so nobody murmurs, and no one complains. The teller tip-taps her computer; presently she hands me a fresh wad of notes.
`Tack, tack,' I say, and look. They're Swedish kronor, elegant and colourful, not what I wanted at all. `Nej, nej,' I say. `It's not right. I want American dollars.'
`Jo, jo, dollars, tack, tack,' says the teller, taking the notes back. She checks them carefully, to make sure I have not done them a mischief, returns them to the drawer, tip-taps her computer. The line behind me has grown longer, reaching into the street. Nobody utters, nobody shows the faintest impatience. The teller reaches into her drawer again, counts out a few crisp American greenbacks, and hands them to me.
`Tack, tack,' I say.
I look. And I look again. This wad seems curiously small. In a matter of minutes, a hundred British pounds have traded into forty American dollars, a very remarkable rate of exchange.
`I gave you a hundred, you gave me forty,' I complain. The line of people waits.
`Jo, jo,' says the teller.
`It can't be right.'
`Jo, jo, it's right,' she says. `Tax. You made three changes. Each time you pay a tax.'
`I didn't make three changes, you did.'
`But in Sweden everything is changed through the krona.'
`Why is it changed through the krona?'
`Of course, so you can pay all the tax.'
Now in Istanbul or Athens, even in London's Edgware Road, this would look extremely suspicious. But this is Sweden: the higher society, the moral kingdom, the land of liberalism and utter honesty. I glance round. The line behind me reaches right across the street and is blocking the traffic; in fact this part of Stockholm has come to a total standstill. No horns bleep, nobody utters, no one even coughs.
`I don't want to pay the tax.'
`Everyone likes to pay tax.'
The teller smiles at me, the line of people behind me nod in agreement, all with that beautiful, open, Swedish reassurance that tells me money belongs to none of us, is granted on loan to us from the mother state. So don't we feel that much more human and decent, that much more ... civic, when we know we're being swingeingly taxed?
Now what, you could fairly ask, am I doing here, in the world's most moral kingdom, trafficking British pounds for American greenbacks? Sweden lies on no familiar route from Britain to America. But America's not where I'm going — or not for many pages yet. In any case America long ceased trading in greenbacks. Even plastic is nearly finished; money in America is already virtual money, post-money, non-specie; it's plastic, smart chip, computer debit, electronic cash. But I'm on my way to the true land of the Almighty Dollar, the real nation of the greenback, at the far end of the Baltic: the CRS, what's left of the Russian Union and the great empire of the tzars. To prepare my journey, I have carefully read, on the morning flight over from Stansted, a book by a famous eighteenth-century traveller there, the ubiquitous Comte de Segur, French ambassador to Catherine the Great just before the French Revolution — which to her eternal disgust and dismay he warmly supported, at least for a while.
Even at that date, he was struck by the unusual nature of the Russian economy. `Here one must forget the rules of finance one learns in other countries,' he noted. `The mass of banknotes, the realization that there are no reserves to back them, the use of strange and unusual coinages, the kind of thing that in other lands would bring immediate collapse or revolution, here cause no surprise at all. The great Empress Catherine could, I've no doubt, turn leather into money should she wish.' Well, plus ça change; as it was, so it is now. To this day the rouble is a strange, only part-convertible currency, a set of roguish numbers, a con man's fancy that has never truly replaced barter in silks and camels, icons, part-worn dresses, Turkish drugs, old lampshades, surplus nuclear missiles, loaves and fishes, live or dead souls. In the hard heyday of Communism, the special shops for the nomenklatura traded, of course, in dollars — which then generally drifted westward to Switzerland or bought fine real estate in Nice. Now, in the fine new free-market era, when the nomenklatura prefers to see itself as the mafia, no smart Russian hotelier, sommelier, blackmailer, bribe-taker or capitalist oligarch would dream of trading in anything else. Avoid the rouble; it's dollars or nothing. That's what all the hardened travellers say.
And, someone has carefully warned me, it's best to carry your dollars into the country with you. These days nobody in Russia knows what money is worth; they just know it's a mad and ridiculous invention no one can get enough of. That's why it will be difficult to make a fair and reliable exchange in the grand and noble banks of Petersburg, and probably not even on the Russian ferry I'm booked on and which will be taking me there tomorrow night. Which is precisely why I'm standing here in the blonde bank at Storgatan, evidently rescuing without knowing it the entire Swedish tax system and its fine welfare economy. I take my tiny wad of dollars and stuff them in my pocket.
`Tack, tack,' says the blonde teller, looking at me ever so sweetly.
`Tack, tack,' I say just as sweetly back, and walk out: out of the nice blonde bank into the fine bourgeois air; past the patient unending line of stalled philosophical customers which now extends almost as far as the harbour; into the tree-filled square at Storgatan, now completely gridlocked with polite Volvos, feeling different, poorer, wiser on the instant, as, for some reason, foreign travellers often say they do ...
Posted February 18, 2003
Two parallel stories: 1) an british philosophy professor who is invited to participate to a research trip to St Petersburg following the footsteps of Diderot. 2) Diderot's trip to Russia and his interviews with Catherine the Great. It might sound like a very serious subject and it is, however it is told with tons of humor. After all Diderot was not exactly boring, he was cynical, naughty and funny! The best book I read in 2002.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.