Notes on Stockholm


Extracts from the notes of Nikolai Oksotavich, a Russian émigré who fled to Stockholm in 1973. In 1981, he was found dead in the toilets of a public library. Coroners could find no cause to think his death suspicious.

Machinery functions particularly well. Outboard engines make no sound. I am told this has something to do with the quality of the light.

Young people do not share houses, but live alone in one-bedroomed apartments with floors that look like frozen lakes of pine. Instead of curtains they hang gauze, allowing passers-by vague glimpses into their private lives.

People’s hair turns blonde in the summer and white in the winter. For this reason, it is impossible to estimate anyone’s age.

A pan of water takes around twenty minutes to boil. I am told this is due to the relative proximity of icebergs.

In bars, all smoking must occur inside special booths of curved glass, from which the smoke is removed by extractor fans. These also serve as memory booths. If you spend five minutes inside, you’ll remember the circumstances that led to every cigarette you’ve smoked.

Water has an oddly viscous quality. Sometimes a raindrop will hang in mid-air for several minutes, only falling as you turn away.

A conversation can begin at a bar with the woman standing next to you mistaking the shadow on your arm for a map of the Baltic coastline.

The empty hours are conducive to perfecting techniques of poaching eggs. Poached eggs have no shape or form. It feels like cooking ghosts.

It is impossible to know what anyone really thinks of you. You practice smiling in the mirror. When you shake hands, you find yourself holding on a few seconds longer than is socially comfortable.

Machinery functions less perfectly the further you travel from Stockholm. This is also true of human organs: in particular the kidneys, lungs, and heart.

If you leave your bicycle unattended in the street for more than a day, it will make its own way down to the sea, and quietly drown itself.

If you ever find yourself walking home at five o’clock in the morning, every other person you meet is returning from a one-night stand. They politely avoid eye contact, but treat one another with care. If, from your physical appearance or demeanour, it is sensed that you didn’t get laid, someone may touch your elbow lightly at the bus stop, in condolence.

In winter, the clouds have icicles. When spring comes, they fall like frozen spears.

Poached eggs are best eaten alone, behind a window covered in gauze. This way you can enjoy the shadows of trees, the pale underwater light. Watching the sunlight slide across the walls brings silent happiness.

The Swedish king is believed to dwell inside a frozen waterfall. They pushed him in there when he was a child, before the water froze.

No matter how many times you try to memorise the map of Sweden, you cannot fix it in your mind. When you try to sketch it freehand it looks like nothing at all.

Perhaps the world’s suffering will not end until everyone has slept with everyone.

The ferry to Finland takes two days, and you must sleep on the frozen deck in a special rubber suit. The sea grows steadily thicker the closer you get to the Finnish coast. As the shoreline looms into view, the ferry moves just a few inches an hour. Through the gritty air you can see the lanterns glowing in the towns, and the people moving on the quays, dragging wet knotted tangles of rope behind him. You can wave, but they don’t wave back. Once, you think you see a girl’s smile, though not directed at you. And then the captain turns the ferry around. It’s time to go home.