I'm an intermittent visitor to Stockholm. An accidental expat. My wife got a job that thrills her here, and I come frequently (or as frequently as possible, in these pandemic times) to support her. We're from New York, though – upstate, these days, a rural area about 150 miles north of the city – and I grew up in Brooklyn. Each time I arrive, that bird – a digital bird that tweets whenever one enters the lobby – reminds me of the curious quiet of this sombre town, compared to the one that I grew up in.
My experience of street life is of being jostled. Psychic jostling, if not physical. When you walk around the streets in New York, jostling is constant. You really can't keep to yourself, even though you might not talk to anyone. Walking in New York is an inherently social act – you are interacting by taking up space, by crossing someone else's field of view. They know you're there, you know they're there, and, whether you actually speak or not (which of course, most often, you don't), you've interacted.
Here, though, in Stockholm, the bird – tweeting alone in the empty lobby – reminds me that the street feel is the opposite. A walk down the street in Stockholm is a private act, no matter how many people there are on the street with you.
I remember that one of my earliest introductions to this took place about a year and a half ago when I, still very new in this town, walked in the part of a sidewalk labelled for bicycles. The rider on the bike that came up behind me and nearly mowed me down didn't say anything, didn't ring a bell, didn't beep a horn, nothing. It was lucky for me that I happened to turn his way – and was thus able to get out of the way, just in time – or a collision would have been inevitable.
It wasn't until later that I realised that that reticence to interact is baked into life in this city. It showed me that there is so little desire to communicate with strangers that people won't even warn you to get out of the way of their bikes.
In our lobby, the bird, cheeping from a speaker near the ceiling, may be related to artwork. There is a plaque on the wall, separate from where the birdsong emits, and several large colorful photos, printed on glass. An artist's name. The words “Green Leaf”.
It may be related to that artwork (there is a bird in one of the photos), but the relationship isn't entirely clear. Even on the artist's website there's no mention of a digital bird with this artwork. I mean, it says, “pictures of glass mounted on a wall” (a weird Google-translate formulation of what probably says “pictures on glass”), but no mention of an audio accompaniment of any kind, avian or otherwise.
Each time one enters the lobby, though, the bird tweets insistently, over and over. Imagine one of those clocks that tweet at you to mark the hour, but instead of doing it once an hour, it does it every few seconds, without stopping. Most of the residents in this building seem to pay it no attention – just some minor background noise, signaling lobby arrivals and departures.
But to me, every time I arrive back in the empty, minimal, very Swedish lobby, the automatic birdsong doesn't feel like background noise – instead, it feels like a reminder about life here in Stockholm. This muted city, dressed in dark colours. “The loneliest city in the world,” according to a recent article in a local publication, because so many of the apartments in this town are occupied by one person, living alone.
Is there really a digital bird in every Stockholmer's apartment building? I don't know – but I can't help thinking so. What would greet them if not?
This article was written by The Local's reader Ken Appleman. Would you like to share your story about life in Sweden with The Local? Get in touch with our editorial team at [email protected].