Mr. Smiley, The Royal Swedish Hospitality

One morning at The Royal Palace Square in Stockholm. A perfect time to enjoy the breeze, deep fresh air inhalation, and the sound of silence in a place that attracts millions of tourists every year, where the sound of chattering crowds in numerous languages would eventually – inevitably – arrive within an hour or two. A very few people walked around the square aimlessly, in distant, drowning themselves in a grandiose palace that stood gracefully before their naked eyes.

Meanwhile, I felt like I owned the stage: the square. I imagine being one of the royal family members wearing a beautiful gown, stepping on the cobble stone pavement wearing the signature Cinderella’s glass shoes, covered with the red carpet heading to my chariot. All the guards bow on me, I bow on them back as a sign of respect and gratefulness to their service and loyalty.

royal palace cannon
the royal cannon

Speaking of the royal guards who have been protecting the Royal Family since 1523, I think I have to end my princess diary daydreaming. Having passed by the alley to the main square, one of the guards on my left side suddenly attracted me in the way I would never have expected. No, no. It wasn’t like encountering the sexiest man alive or a rock star.

Indeed, he undoubtedly has a very well-built posture and robust under the blue uniform he was wearing, the kind of physical condition that a guard or a soldier should have at least.

Although the shadow from the front peak of his “pickelhaube” prevented me from looking at his eyes, I could see both ends of his lips slanted upwards, forming subtle smile, which was calming and soothing, delivering a warm welcome to the imposing residence of the Royal Family.

It was an expression of his enthusiasm in serving the country. He was born with it. Smiling is part of the job description. That’s why long hours of standing still didn’t turn him to be a grumpy man.

May be.  Just may be.

there he is. though not that obvious, he's quite a smiley guy
there he is. though not that obvious, he’s quite a smiley guy

Who is this man really behind that subtle smile, when his shift is over? A divorced man, a father of two or still in a mission to get Mrs. Right? My curiosity wasn’t that far until I wrote this. Suppose I knew more, it would be an additional information that could spice my story up.

Then, along came the Brit chappies in their mid 20’s. One of them was trying to make a conversation with this blue-uniformed young man – let’s call him Mr. Subtle Smile, or Mr. Smiley, in short – while keeping the distance to respect the Royal Guard’s territory as he got used to with The Queen’s Guard in his country of origin.

With a pronounced English accent, he asked for Mr. Smiley’s approval to take a picture somewhere near the spot where he stood. Without saying a single word, Mr. Smiley created an imaginary horizontal line with his white-gloved index finger, showing the border line where he and his chappies could strike a pose. My guess was they were allowed to stand about 1 to 1.5 meters from Mr. Smiley’s position.

royal guards at work in the morning
what’s in those bags?

The chappies made fool of themselves with funny gestures, poses and silly mimics to each other in front of the camera. They took turns to take pictures to make sure that everyone got captured in his “foolishness”. Other people who passed by turned their head to look at the chappies. They chuckled, smiled, laughed. Or at least got entertained a bit.

Despite being entertained, I was more curious to see Mr. Smiley’s reaction towards the silly chappies rather than what they did. In this situation, unfortunately, Mr. Smiley couldn’t do much. While on duty, he was prohibited to make “unnecessary” movements and sounds, from leaning his body to one side of the leg, scratching his back, to covering his mouth with his palm while laughing.

But I know one thing. He couldn’t hide his feeling that these chappies in front of him were actually hilarious and entertaining.

So he smiled. This time was a big smile. Not that subtle Monalisa smile. And not that joker-styled exaggerated smile either. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that all the muscles around his lips, jaws ans cheeks contracted harmoniously to form a crescent smile that really came from the heart. He tried so hard not to laugh and finally succeeded.

pretty lady in her uniform
pretty lady in her uniform

For him, smiling was the safest way, even the only way to express his emotion without distracting his job. For me, a picture of a fierce (body)guard in my head instantly faded away.

I’m asking myself now. Was he smiling when I passed by, before the chappies had made silly poses? Or I was still daydreaming?

No matter what the answer is, If he looks like smiling even though he didn’t mean to, it implies that I labeled him right: Mr. Smiley.

I considered him as an additional Swedish hospitality. A guard doesn’t always need to have a sullen face or a sharp-knife eye gaze, after all.

Last but not least, trust me on this. Changing guards is not the only thing that makes a bunch of Royal Guards are worth waiting for….

... as well as this lady....
… as well as this lady….

 

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Medieval Break Time at Kaffekoppen

As soon as our ship disembarked in Stockholm at 8.30 am, the clock was ticking. We had to remind ourselves to be back to the ship before 2.30 pm as it would sail to Copenhagen after that. If only we could “freeze” the time a little longer. Visiting Gamla stan, means old town in Swedish, was the wisest decision we made in an inevitable situation since it’s reachable in about 20 minutes on foot from the harbour.

Kaffekoppen

That morning, solitude conquered the old town discovered over 700 years ago. Passing through the alley, surrounded by warm-colored medieval buildings with beautifully carved gates, signboards and statues, the shop windows were still dark with no one behind closed doors. The sound we heard merely came from the morning breeze and ourselves speaking a language that (hopefully) only us could understand.

We walked at a snail’s pace as if we had all the time in the world. The map was nothing but a huge piece of paper with scaled graphic images folded in our hands. Following our own hearts lead us to major attractions in the area, such as Nobel Museum, Stockholm Cathedral and The Royal Palace quarter.

I said to myself, “Get yourself a cup of coffee!” Giving ourselves a reward, we sat on wooden chairs in the outdoor area of a café in the main square of Gamla stan. It took me 5 minutes to find the name of the café, that actually placed on my left side, hand-written on the window with gold marker, almost invisible because of light reflections from the sun. “Kaffekoppen”, it says.

The indoor dining room turned me back to the time when medieval era was in reign, shown in a modest way. Unlike the building’s eye-catching salmon pink façade dated 1650, the walls and ceilings are left unpainted. The source of lightning is candles placed on each dining table and the main display (while some others are not burned for safety reasons), apart from sunshine passing through the window and the opened door. The pantry has Romanesque-styled groin-vaulted ceiling, but using bulbs for functional purposes.

a lady in solitude – i swear i didn’t mean to snap her!

The presence of the later version of vintage decorations, from old packaging of Omo, Mars, Lipton, old photographs, used bottles until sketches of a coffee cup signify a harmony between medieval and modern art.

I heard a senior barista instructing her new assistant how to run a coffee machine – in English. May be a good proficiency of Svenska is not compulsory to work in a touristic place. I assume that the new assistant is a foreign student doing a part-time job to support her living.

It reminds me of good old days of a student’s life…. meeting people and making friends with people all around the world while earning some money!

cappuccino made with love

Our drinks came in an impressive presentation. Served in a bowl as big as that of chicken soup, my mochaccino was the best I’ve ever tried in my entire life. No kidding! I also zipped my dad’s cappuccino, topped with a foam and made with love. Like any other Swedish coffee, it kept us awake to continue the walking tour.

the best mochaccino ever!

Later on, we searched something less appealing but undeniable very important: toilet! Not necessarily to go that far, it took a few more steps to the cafe’s basement where lies a cellar vault with empty seats. Nobody wanted to miss the nice weather.

There’s only one “double-you-see” (or WC, a synonym for toilet. Non-English speakers may pronounce it differently), so please be patient and line up!

cellar vault

While waiting for my turn, I observed another intense medieval ambiance delivered by dim lightning from candles. Now I can imagine how legendary figures, from Robin Hood to Rembrandt, merely counted on candles to do their activities at night before electricity was invented.

underground exit door

The rear part of the room are guests’ wall of fame, where the bricks are full of scratches from sharp objects, forming letters, numbers, and heart shapes to mark their presence and a shout out about their relationship status.

Indeed, exploring a medieval town and house was the best thing that happened to us. And we hated it when a glimpse of life in middle ages had finally (unfortunately) come to an end. In present time, we only had 2 hours left to wander the rest of the alleys and visit more shops, while heading back to the harbour where the ship docked.

A German bible quote from Psalm 37:5 on top of the café’s entrance gate reveals the moral of our quick journey to the Swedish capital, “Befiehl dem HERRN deine Wege und hoffe auf ihn; er wird’s wohl machen” (Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it)

May we didn’t simply follow our hearts and mind to choose the right destination. May be it wasn’t really a coincidence. May be, we unconsciously heard Him whispering in our hearts, obediently followed His voice without questioning, felt it right when our two feet stepped forward and didn’t look back. May be that’s why we didn’t need any map. May be…that’s what I think.