Home from home
GO STOCKHOLM: DEIRDRE VELDONand family swapped Dublin for Stockholm on a home exchange holiday
'I VANT TO BE ALONE, I vant to be alone,” chirps the seven-year-old daughter as she skips down the avenue. She and her sisters are on the hunt for Greta Garbo’s grave in Stockholm’s woodland cemetery, Skogskyrkogården. Amid tens of thousands of pert headstones, at last they find it and do a little dance of jubilation right there on poor Garbo’s earthly remains.
Garbo’s resting spot unearthed, as it were, we cross off another cultural goal on our very first family house swap.
The trip is the upshot of blowing the entire annual holiday fund on a desperate sun-seeking trip to Portugal earlier in the year and nights upon nights spent fiddling about on a home exchange website. Failure to follow through can be a problem with house swaps, but nothing paints up a proposition and focuses the mind like a tiny budget.
We plump for Sweden because it’s cheap to get to and it seems a wallet-friendly way to see a country with a high cost of living. Crucially, we have found a Swedish family who seem half interested in the package we’re offering.
We know little about house swapping and less about our co-swapees, except that there are two daughters and the father is a policeman, while the mother works in a legal job, possibly in a prison. Let’s hope nothing goes wrong then.
On disembarking at Skavsta airport we funnel through the glassed in walkway and spy intending passengers for the return flight to Dublin on the concourse below. We haven’t a clue what our swap family look like, but try to spot them anyway. We alight on one family group with frantic waves. Slowly, their faces clear in recognition and no little relief that they have exchanged their precious home with real people, not hoodlums intent on emptying it. There’s a lot of thumbs-upping. Short of holding up flash cards asking “So, how does the washing machine work?”, there’s not much more to be said, so we move on.
“Ours” is a typical Swedish suburban cul de sac, with modest, pretty clapboard houses at close quarters. This little enclave is teeming with well-behaved, white-haired children. Our new neighbours are friendly and helpful.
The gentle air of communal living has us come over all warm and fuzzy. One resident family has put up a trampoline on a patch of ground beside their house and declared it for general use by locals. That’s us, now. When one of our girls gets a scrape bouncing, the trampoline guardians are ready with a pink plaster. We are flummoxed.
It is scarily easy to slip into someone else’s life. And they yours, I guess. We arrange ourselves in their living spaces, around their kitchen table, in their sauna. For once, we fret about the weather at home. It matters that our swap family are enjoying themselves.
The children call it “the upside-down house”, which is no commentary on the state of it, but a reference to the novelty of the kitchen being upstairs. They root out toys and dress-up outfits and are soon parading around the house like mini Swedish princesses.
We have traded our fat and fluffy house cat in Dublin for Mesung, a tortoiseshell athlete, with a proclivity for night-time hunting and sleeping close to, and ideally on, the heads of full-grown humans. It seems ungracious not to let her.
This house, like many others in Stockholm’s suburbs, is on the edge of a mature forest, crisscrossed with well-used cycling, running and walking tracks and, to the joy of some in our party, dotted with playgrounds.
The lakes in the woods are a revelation. We discover the pleasure of tootling along to the lakeside to spend the afternoon swimming, sunbathing and picnicking, in benign air and water temperatures. As some lakes are inaccessible by car, scores of bicycles are propped up, unlocked, alongside. There’s even a sandy patch.
This is part of the outdoors lifestyle adopted by many Swedes from the first sign of spring. We get stuck in. Every day, we raid the local supermarket and pack up a picnic to bring with us.
Although foodstuffs in shops and supermarkets are somewhat more expensive than we are used to, it’s manageable, while eating out is much more of a financial commitment. We dine out some evenings but baulk at paying €15 for an ordinary glass of wine with a meal.
We devise a new game: spot the Systembolaget. These are liquor stores with the exclusive government licence to sell alcohol (over 3.5 per cent proof). But the Systembolaget proves a shy and elusive creature. And, as it’s unseemly to drag three children around in search of what is, effectively, an off-licence, we drop it. We are now better, healthier people.
The outdoors lifestyle and incidental leisure amenities are so good, we almost forget to sign up for the tour of kiddie culture. The five-day Stockholm card entitles us to free travel on the city’s buses, underground trains (Tunnelbana), numerous ferries and entry into many of Stockholm’s cultural and leisure attractions. We are now compelled to “do” child culture at a frenetic rate.
On the island of Skogskyrkogården, we visit Skansen, a petting zoo, aquarium and open-air museum; pleasant to wander around for an afternoon. The theme park evokes Swedish life of yore. The best bit, as voted by the children, was playing old street games, including skipping and using wooden stilts (impossible). Close second was when a Lemur jumped on my back – okay backpack – in the monkey house. Oh how they shrieked. On the down side, the reindeer were super smelly.
The Vasa museum is truly impressive, even for small children. The entire building is constructed around a salvaged warship from 1628, which sank on its maiden voyage. The ship’s shell is hewn with grotesque and fearsome carvings entirely wasted on the enemy, although they survived remarkably well for more than 300 years under water, before the ship was salvaged.
Nearby is Junibacken, a children’s museum dedicated to literature. The focus here is firmly on Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish writer best known for the Pippi Longstocking series of books. There are play areas, but it’s all about putting in the two hours’ wait to get on “the story train”. Once on board, our “carriage” glides through a selection of beautifully-constructed mini-sets from Lindgren’s works. Our last stop on Djurgården is Gröna Lund, a funfair with unfeasibly thrilling rides, including the highest Free Fall Tilt in Europe.
We head out of town to the Tom Tits experiment. It’s a science museum with more than 100 clever, engaging experiments, all of which make fun games. We like the one where the adults jump on a mat, causing water to spurt out of a pad, all over the children.
Our swap family have had to return for a wedding, so we spend the last few days on the island of Vaxholm; one of the hundreds in the archipelago near Stockholm. It’s picture postcard pretty with a curving beach at one end and at the other, a lively harbour, marina and selection of shops plying superbly tasteful arts and crafts. Fittingly, and after a holiday spent testing, it is on Vaxholm we discover, at last, the superlative ice cream of the trip.
PLACES TO STAY
Stockholm Hostel, Alströmergatan 15, Stockholm, tel: 0046 070-156 55 25 stockholmhostel.se
Artroom, Rådhusgatan 18, 185 31 Vaxholm, tel:0046 070-594 60 99 artroom.nu
In you’d like to consider a house swap, the website Deirdre Veldon used was intervac-homeexchange.com
Tom Tits Experiment, Storgatan 33, Södertälje, tel: 0046 08-522 525 00, tomtit.se/english
Skansen, Djurgårdsslätten 49-51, tel: 0046 08-442 80 00, skansen.se
Vasa Museum, Galärvarvsvägen 14, tel: 0046 8519-548 00, vasamuseet.se
Junibacken, Galärvarvsvägen 8, Tel: 0046 08-587 230 00, junibacken.se
Gröna Lund Tivoli, Allmänna Gränd, Djurgården, tel: 0046 08 -587 501 00, gronalund.com