My faith in our distant Nordic cousins has been mercifully restored by the arrival of Joel and Mikaela, a sweet couple from the northern pinelands of Mother Svea. They own a Tepe house on the level beneath us. Joel is a tall, slim, handsome older man with silver hair and a laid-back charm. His wife Mikaela is the archetypal Aryan beauty, a blue-eyed blond bombshell. Their warm and kindly disposition is a welcome respite from the grumpy old Danes next to us. They invited us in for tea. Their grand villa is a picture of understated Scandinavian chic. We chatted away for hours, a delicious smörgåsbord of wit and wisdom.
I recalled my first visit to Stockholm when I was a hormonal adolescent. The little local grammar school I attended laid on the most incredible journeys designed to broaden horizons and expand the mind. One early morning in 1975 twenty or so sweaty boys boarded a train at Victoria Station and headed for the coast. We sailed on the morning tide to Flanders where we began our grand passage across the great North European Plain.
First stop Berlin. It was the height of the Cold War and we spent two days exploring the cruelly divided city, escorted through the wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Onwards east, our carriages were pulled by an ancient steam locomotive that choo choo’d through a flat, monotonous landscape. As we neared Poland our party was raided by a detachment of East German border guards brandishing Kalashnikovs. The mean-looking, chisel-chinned troopers in tight beige uniforms rifled through our belongings and ransacked the couchettes. Perhaps they were looking for Levi jeans. Calm was quickly restored and we continued our incredible journey. A brief stop in Warsaw precluded an excursion to the city. We continued on across the Soviet border to Smolensk where the entire train was silently raised from its bogies and placed onto a new set of wheels to fit the wider Russian railway gauge.
Second stop Moscow. Tsar Brezhnev was on the Soviet throne and we were tightly chaperoned by an over-painted woman in cheap scent. She was tailed by the KGB. Shops were empty save for Russian dolls, and strangers approached us in Gorky Park wanting the clothes off our backs. Moscow was drab but the metro was palatial. The Kremlin was magnificent and Red Square was vast and windswept. Lenin in his marble tomb looked like a Madam Tussauds’ dummy. The comrades around us looked fed up and miserable as they shuffled dutifully past the macabre exhibit.
Third stop Leningrad that was. The Venice of the North was a more visually pleasing spectacle with imposing baroque architecture painted in multi-coloured delicate pastels. The majestic enormity of the Winter Palace containing the Hermitage Museum was too vast to comprehend. As if Peter the Great’s grand imperial capital wasn’t grand enough we embarked on our fourth stop, a day trip to Novgorod, one of the most celebrated cities of medieval Rus. This ravishing city is twinned with Watford of all places.
Fifth stop Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland. This picturesque and verdant city reminded me of a mini-St Petersburg. Our whistle-stop excursion was all too brief.
Sixth stop stunning Stockholm where we expected to see a sex shop on every corner. It was the sexual repressed seventies when buttoned-up Brits were convinced that emancipated Swedes were at it morning noon and night. We were disappointed.
We steamed back to Blighty across the cold northern seas in a Ruskie rust bucket that saw service in World War Two. We shared the wreck with a party from an all-girl’s school in Scarborough. I watched the boys chase the girls and wondered what all the fuss was about. Our teachers allowed us to take a drink at the bar. Perhaps this is where my gradual but certain descent into alcohol dependency all began.
Final stop Tilbury Docks and back to earth with a bump. Three weeks for 150 quid which my parents saved for months to pay. All in all a fantastic adventure that was a little lost on a bunch of post-pubescent fourteen year olds whose main preoccupation was masturbation.
PS Perking the Pansies has few followers in modern Russia but I spied a lone flasher in Novgorod the other day.