There’s a lush spread for breakfast at the hotel: perhaps it’s a smörgåsbord! Sleeping, or rather waking, in the cubicle room is a strange experience – I wake but don’t really know what time it is because there’s no light or sound to tell me. There’s a very dull, dim and distant traffic noise, I think, but it could just be hotel air conditioning noise.
We duck out just round the corner to T-Central, off of Kungsbron, and wend our way towards Thorhildsplan, where we’ve arranged to meet Eva at the University campus, but there’s a train broken down and we have to detour: the Stockholm underground isn’t so difficult – three lines, red, yellow, blue, and you can work out easily where to go. It’s not so big. The breakdown doesn’t seem to cause too much problem: people just get on with it, find alternatives. Eventually, we find Eva at the University and we’re given a talk by Malin Rohlin, head of the institute, about the history of childcare in Sweden. I piece it together: the work cottages of the 1800s (social training for the poor) to the system here today (social competency). It seems that ‘fritidspedagogues’ (perhaps roughly equivalent to our teaching assistants) work from 8am to 1pm or 2pm in school, then they just carry on, after the teachers have finished, with the supporting of the children’s play. It’s much more fluid than our system. ‘Socialisation’ in Sweden has a positive connotation not a negative one.
Later, at the school we visit (Sköndalsskolan), past Södermalm, south, I see staff in casual wear, t-shirts and the like, interacting with the children with respect, and quietly. Kaspar, a staff member, is dressed in black with dark glasses and long hair. He reminds me of a stereotypical biker. Sven, the music teacher, is passionate about his subject and he has rooms in what is, loosely, the youth club area for 10-12 year olds. Sven is proud to tell us of the children’s musicianship and plays us what the children have created. It’s hard to get down on paper but he just hangs around after school and the children do what they want to do in what he calls his ‘music jungle’ (the room has plenty of plants, drums, ukuleles, guitars, keyboards). It feels right. The whole place feels right. The classrooms are clean, though not cluttered with children (perhaps because the day we’re visiting is the national day to celebrate the child and they’re mostly all outside in the playground, playing).
One of the classrooms has its own built-in platform den. It’s a small touch but, I think, a notable one.
We’re shown a series of classrooms by fritidspedagogues but, after a while, a classroom is a classroom. A Somali-Swedish pedagogue catches my attention. I watch her knelt down with a small group of children, putting shoes on or the like, in the background. She’s quietly spoken. She looks up and knows she’s being watched, searches us out and smiles expansively.
Eva travels with us, by bus and train, back to Slussen and leaves us with promises to meet up again tomorrow night. The women of the group head off to the ferry towards Skansen on the island of Djurgården. Rich and I have had our fill of walking and ‘doing’ though – we walk off towards the T-bana again and head one stop up the underground to Gamla Stan in search of beer. We find a pub full of Germans: a dark place on the corner of Stora Nygatan and Gåsgränd. We drink outside and hang the price. We talk and watch the people go by. We head off in search of more beer, not really knowing where we’re going, ending up on Vasagatan, reflecting again on ‘averageness’ and the relative positives or negatives of the Swedish way of things. People here just seem vaguely satisfied with their lot: not smug or arrogant or depressed – just averagely OK.
There’s one busker on the underground and it takes a while to realise that this is the first busker I’ve seen. There are some beggars but not so many as to be anywhere near intrusive. People on the underground just go about their business. My first impressions of Stockholm were that it was edgier than Malmö, but after being here a couple of days it’s not really edgy at all – everything’s relative. Stockholm is comfortable, small enough, big enough, diverse enough, good enough. It’s a ‘good enough’ city. It’s comfortable, a comfortable capital. Yet, it doesn’t seem to have a rawness like other major cities have. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. I sit here now, in the hotel lobby, in the window, on comfortable seating, on Kungsbron, watching people of Stockholm go by: I’m smeared by ingesting strong, expensive Swedish beer and OK-ness.
We follow our itinerary to the strange outdoor school on Lidingö island. Eva has looked after us with routes to take. We leave in good time and find our modes of transport. Our notes tell us where to leave the bus and we stand out on the main road on Lidingö having conversations about which way is south and which way north. Perhaps this doesn’t bode well for being out in the forest, as we’re planned to do. We have an address but we walk up and down blind alleys. Eventually, after asking locals, we cross a field that’s adjacent to the boat moorings, and beyond a bluff is the I Ur Och Skur Utsiken Skola base building. As we come down the road, we meet some Swedish children who are ridiculously excited to meet us, hanging out on the platform just above our head levels. The girls squeal ‘Teeeem, Teeeem’ (Tim) as they run off to find the group leader. They must have been given forewarning that we were coming to visit. Tim is a calm man with a way of talking that suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing. Eva had prepared us to come in outdoor clothing: rain or shine we’d be outside today. Some of our group’s clothing may not match up to Tim and his colleagues’ all-weather preparedness. We make our own lunches, as the children have also done, and Tim invites us to join the group around the corner as they all sit down on a wide circular bench. The children sing us a song. When Tim invites each of us to say who we are, I decide to tell the children in Swedish.
Soon we’re off on a trek. We’re aiming for an area of forest about twenty minutes’ walk from the base. As I’m talking with some of the girls at the back of the walkers, who are already strung out, I start counting my footsteps out loud in Swedish. This, I think, seems to impress the children: maybe not so much my research of their words for numbers, more the fact that I’d bothered to try to speak parts of their language at all. At Sköndalsskolan, in the youth club rooms we visited yesterday, where Sven kept his ‘music jungle’, I was pleased to use my longest and favourite Swedish phrase with some of the children sat at the computer screens, wondering at me. Jag talar bara litet Svenska. They laughed.
When we get close to the area we’re going to stop in, I see a steep hill up into the trees. Tim stops to put down the handle of the platform trolley he’s been lugging along. He leaves it there at the base of the hill and he and the other staff load up the stuff for the children’s lessons. They take it all a couple of hundred yards up into the forest. The children are trusted to make their own way. I stand at the bottom and just watch the way one of the children, who’s in a sort of wheelchair, is pushed up the hill by his support worker. I wonder if physically disabled children in the UK always get such due regard to access ‘difficult’ places. The support worker is tireless all day. She really helps this child engage in exactly the same learning and play opportunities as all the other children, across exactly the same steep and uneven terrain.
Out in the trees, we observe, join in, are, just with the group. They’re split into three groups and one of the groups – the whittling and making things group – is manned by Frederik.
Frederik is the fritidspedagogue, and it shows. I observe him being spontaneously engaged by some of the children in a play frame that requires him to smash fir cones across the forest with a length of wood! None of the other staff seem to pay this any undue attention.
The other lessons are to do with using the natural resources to learn about fulcrums and balancing, and about weights and cantilevers. Rich and I watch on, amused, as some of the children seem to get the point of this lesson quite early on and are more interested in eating the wild berries instead. They pick away as they stand or sit around, listening to the teacher. Later, the teachers tell us that the children have known from an early age what’s good to eat and what’s not: so they’re trusted. When the learning is done, the children make play use of the rough and ready constructions in the trees.
Out of nowhere, two of the girls (about 10 years old) bring me a strip of plaited rope and pine cone offering. ‘For me?’ They say yes and I really don’t know where or why this comes from. I wonder if it’s anything to do with the fact that, earlier, I tried to speak their language. I feel immensely privileged.
Later, in the Czech restaurant in Södermalm, Eva tells me that yesterday at the school the children were saying about me: ‘he’s so cool.’ It’s a privilege but I don’t know why I’m seen as ‘cool’. Perhaps because I look different.
We walk back with the group and take our leave before we get back to the base building again, saying our goodbyes and climbing up the embankment to the road in the gathering rain. In the afternoon, we trek out to Sollentuna on the commuter train and Billy’s there when we arrive. It’s beyond the call of duty as he ferries us in the car from Sollentuna station, in the pouring rain, up to the outpost that is our last planned tour visit. Billy sits in the car and waits for us as we walk down a long road from the car park to the base building of an outdoor education centre, a forest school. Hanna meets us, and despite the dripping rain, is ridiculously cheery! She’s used to the outdoors, I suspect. There are no children here and, in all honesty, the group are all tired. Lucy does us all proud by firing questions to Hanna, saving us from all sinking into a soggy, tired silence: the week having caught up with us, not to mention the weather – which has been kind so far – and the trek out to Sollentuna after the travel out to Lidingö and back to T-Central in the morning.
Later, at Medborgarplatsen, on Södermalm, Billy’s there again to meet us. He pops up at various transport hubs, his flip-up phone in hand, talking in some quiet conspiracy on it, ever faithful, to take us or guide us on our way. We eat in the Czech bar. A salute to Eva and Billy.
Rich and I then go with Eleanor to Vasagatan to drink beer. Rich and I carry on and talk till the early hours, trying out the local brews on this our last night in Sweden. Stockholm is definitely a place to come back to. We talk about averageness, nonetheless. It is a theme of Sweden and we really can’t define it in terms of an English word that has both positive and negative connotations. We make our way back to the hotel in playful mood. Sweden is good enough.