On my recent study tour trip to Sweden, I wrote several pages of notes, on the go. When I travel, wherever I travel, I like to write a kind of travelogue. It’s something I’ve always done. My intention, on typing up my notebook, was to try to separate out my travelogue writing from my play and playwork observations and reflections. However, doing this just chopped it all up too much and removed some aspects of context. So, I keep it all in together. These notes should be read in conjunction with the previously posted overview: Notes on Swedish socialisation and social competency
May 4, 2012
This is a long time in coming. Sweden, the tip of Scandinavia. My second time through Copenhagen and this is a swift pass through – efficient, clean, quick. We’re in and out in no time. At the train station in Copenhagen the woman at the desk switches easily to English, but it throws me when the credit card charge comes up in Danish Kroner (DKK). I don’t know why but something made me think it would be in Swedish Kronor (SEK). Maybe it’s because I’m the beancounter on this trip and I’ve been thinking in English Sterling and SEK all week in preparation. Whatever, I’m thrown and I don’t know if we’ve got a good deal. I make the others wait so we can go accost some guy at the information desk to ask about the rough DKK-SEK conversion rate. It turns out we’re good. Eleanor’s the person most confident to talk to the locals. She starts off apologising that she can’t speak the guy’s language and he says, ‘You’ll learn.’
We’ve been talking about going over the Øresundbroen (the bridge from Denmark to Sweden) for a while now, but in the event it’s an underwhelming experience. The train track is below the road deck and, even with just the last vestiges of evening light still hanging in the sky, the view is not spectacular (the concept, for me, of building a huge bridge that spans the Sound is). It’s no time before we pull into Malmö Central Station and then on to Lund. Difficulties will always arise when travelling abroad and this trip’s no different: Lucy’s first up the corridor of the train but we can’t figure out how to open the door between carriages. There’s a small picture with a hand on it, but it’s non-specific. We look at each other, but none of us know. Finally, Lucy (literally) pokes a man sitting nearby and gestures as to how to open the door. He waves his hand in front of it and it slides open. The symbol and the action bear no relation.
At Lund, we fall up and out onto the main road. I sit and feel quite tired now. Whilst we wait it suddenly occurs to me that we’re in Sweden now. It’s always a small feeling of ‘how strange’ when stepping out into a new country. Gareth, who owns the guesthouse where we stay, picks us up. Everyone’s quiet, travel-tired no doubt, as he drives us through the equally quiet streets of Lund: a University city, he says, of some 450,000 students and only 25,000 local residents. He says it’s very quiet when the students go home. Even quieter than this? His guesthouse is along a residential road, off of what he says is the area where all the professors used to live when they were paid more than they are now. His guesthouse is warm and homely and he chats for a while before disappearing to attend to some pre-arranged business. Gareth’s wife, Karin, is pottering in the kitchen. Others said, later as we ate, thank you (to me) for getting us here. All I had was my little black notebook of information – I don’t feel I did any leading of sorts. Yet, this is what I have been today. At dinner we talk of this and that, as a group forming will do. Later, we sit around upstairs, lounge; there is laptop exploration, guidebook consultation, poking around on mobile phones. Today is a grace day: forming, arriving, finding out small things (milk is mjölk, not the pouring yoghurt in the milk-shaped carton in the fridge!) The day has now drained me – so much covered in sixteen hours or so: a buzz from one country, through another, to a third. Pristine efficient Scandinavian system; a tired car trip through quiet, empty student streets; empty of any concept of what this country holds for us, perhaps.
Gareth, our host (and landscape architect), drives us round Lund after breakfast. He shows us a ‘fritid’ (freetime) after school provision, though it’s a Saturday and there are no children around. He explains it as a place where children do activities after school. So, not really ‘freetime’ after all (Linn, his daughter, doesn’t know why they’re called this either). It has the feel of a kind of natural adventure playground space, though without the adventure structures. It’s an outdoor space where children are led in creative pursuits – painting, building wooden structures, etc. It’s our first experience of anything in the Swedish scheme of things with children. Gareth narrates a stream of useful information all day and tells us how children don’t go to school until the age of six and there isn’t any pressure to pass exams: rather, it’s a continual monitoring of progress, and everyone graduates. He takes us to a school that’s on a housing estate and with a local park and green next door. There are no fences around the school. There’s an unfenced pond designed into the school grounds – something that probably wouldn’t happen at home.
There’s a dirt zone under the trees that, effectively, acts as the boundary, but it’s a nominal boundary. I like the idea of no containing space, but thinking about it, how much would Englishness kick in and cause an anxiety of needing to ‘keep children in’, ‘control’, ‘protect’, any or all of the above, with this sort of set-up back home?
In Malmö, Gareth takes us to some of the parks – the city is known as the Park City – and the themes for each are, perhaps, now nicknames: ‘the Rainbow Park’, ‘the Spiral Park’, ‘the Sound Park’. I think I was expecting more of these places. They’ve been designed, for sure, but we find out later from Linn that the Rainbow Park was designed on a whole narrative of light and dark and trolls and forests and suchlike. To me, it has a rainbow slide . . .
but I didn’t connect the blue mounds as representing ‘river’, the white shapes as ‘mushrooms’. I wanted to put a few planks in the place and walk away, watch the way the children might place them between the designed mounds and create their own play narratives. The Spiral Park I’m not inspired by at all. I stay in the van and talk with Gareth.
The Sound Park . . .
has an initial novelty value, but I’d imagine once the children have jumped on the noisy pads or tried the whispering dishes, then they’d go off to play in the trees or on the swings – which is what the few children who are there are doing. One child climbs the harp instrument arranged in the part-fencing at the edge of the park. This is not a barrier, more a vertical plane on which to place things.
In Malmö’s Lilla Torg (square), we’re left to fend for ourselves as Gareth goes to park the van. We can’t find the bakery café he recommends to us: us incompetents in a foreign land! We realise we don’t have a mobile contact for him. Sweden is probably the easiest country in Europe to get by in, in language – everyone speaks English. So why is there this reticence to ask the locals where to go? Eventually we find Gareth and he discovers that the place we’re looking for has moved and it doesn’t exist any more. So, we’re not quite as incompetent as first seemed.
Malmö seems unrushed, as does Lund, as perhaps is the rest of Sweden. It doesn’t feel like there’s that many people in the country – there’s not: ten million across a huge area. The spaces in the cities of Malmö and Lund feel sparsely populated. Everything feels well-cared for, kept, though not obsessively so (Gareth said the grass in the gardens of the allotment huts we walked through was cut but not shorn, left a little wild). Bicycle riders give cursory attention as they cross roads from cycle tracks, and cars go about their businesses in no seen aggressive ways. We drive through Malmö’s streets and I have a feeling of there not really being an ‘edge’, not like in other big cities (this is Sweden’s third city). That edgelessness is not to suggest a negative. The city comes with a reputation, according to Gareth and Linn, of having immigration issues, but it doesn’t present as a feeling or show this to me.
Gareth takes us a little way out to the coast, at the harbourside. I see the mad mischief of the Turning Torso building from various angles as we get closer.
It’s the focal point of the regeneration area. When we’re close by, walking down the quayside, I keep looking up at the twisting bizarre apartment block, not really getting my head around it. From one vantage point parts of three of its façades are all facing the sea at once. It’s more than odd. I wonder how the architect could have come up with such a drawing – I want to straighten it out – let alone how the engineers actually managed to build it.
Gareth takes us through the housing complex, which he describes as an architectural competition. There are empty streets, not designed for cars, with houses all different, clad differently. He turns into an alley and we come out in a courtyard: three or four storeys of wooden railings surrounding a designed marshy pond and hardstanding area. Light falls in on one side and casts a soft shadow. Two women sit on a decking with two children. They’re relaxed and welcome us in. I look up and around: it’s like a square version of Shakespeare’s Globe. I imagine the galleries filled with people looking down on the courtyard play.
We drive out of town, soon on the road north to Lund, red and yellow garish signs that must attack the senses of drivers. Earlier, I stood on the grass at the shoreline in Malmö and looked out at the distant Øresundbroen . . .
and, farther out, there was the edge of Denmark. I realised, as I walked across the grass towards the shore, that sixteen years ago, stood somewhere up on the Danish coast, I looked out at Sweden over the water and thought to myself: someday I’d like to go there; someday I will. Here I was, sixteen years later – strange, odd, how things work out sometimes.
Back in Lund, Linn comes upstairs as we sit around the communal lounge talking about the day. I can’t resist asking her: how do/would the youth of Sweden rebel, brought up in seemingly safe and agreeable Lund? She doesn’t really answer my question and I’m not sure it’s understood, in social comprehension, despite her fluent English. She says she prefers the English education system of ‘choices’. Later, I think she must mean A-levels or suchlike. In Sweden, apparently, children learn what they must learn (and everyone graduates now). Preconceptions of Swedish education start to crumble at the edges a little. There are playable spaces in designed parks and public spaces in general, and children are maybe not deemed as socially unacceptable here as they might be back home, but I have no idea about how Swedish education, as a system, works insofar as what it creates of children. Perhaps we’ll find out later in the week.
to be continued . . .