Eating and drinking my way through life and learning all the while

My birthday in the land of the free

If you’d asked me where I’d be spending my birthday in 2020 at the beginning of the year I’d probably have said New York, in the USA, the land of the free. I love going away for my birthday, and I had vague plans to combine a work trip, with the New York marathon and birthday cocktail bar crawl with my husband.

But this is 2020, marathons are no longer a thing, nor is transatlantic travel for now – and increasingly neither are bars. The past few years, I’ve had some great birthdays in Berlin, Dublin and Barcelona – all of which are now under lock down with bars shut.

My husband is confined to the city of Madrid due to COVID-19. Had I stayed in London, I would have been just ahead of the lockdown but the Tier 2 restrictions would have meant I couldn’t enjoy a drink with anyone outside my household, as my household is currently just me that would have been a pretty shit solitary birthday.

So instead, I decided to take myself off to the land of the free, no not the USA, Sweden.

There I stood a chance of being able to have a drink at the bar with a friend in Stockholm and pretend for at least a night that life was semi normal.

I made a last minute decision to put on my Out Of Office for the first time in almost 9 years. I decided to have a proper day off, cancelled my morning conference call, muted politics and COVID-19 news on my social feeds and prepared to have a day of pretending the world wasn’t going to shit.

My family were organised and had sent me packed with presents to unwrap. I’m still a big kid when it comes to birthdays and Christmas, there’s genuinely nothing I really need any more but it’s always nice to unwrap something right!

I was able to recreate my birthday tradition with my husband, albeit remotely, of a bubbly breakfast. Word to the wise, it is harder than you think to secure a bottle of Champagne in Sweden due to monopoly laws, restricting off premise sales, most government monopolies shut at 6pm. It’s highly illegal for anyone to sell you a bottle to take away, luckily my hotel was able to fix me a bottle for enjoying on their premises.

Two glasses? Yeah sure I said sheepishly, knowing full well I would just be needing the one, but trying not to sound like a lush. Drinking a glass of wine with lunch or a cocktail on a Tuesday is enough to have you pegged as a borderline alcoholic in Sweden, a country that still has quite an old school binge drinking weekend kind of drinking culture. Restrained in the week, unless abroad, they go a little crazy at the weekends and Wednesday is the little Saturday, equivalent to our Thirsty Thursdays in the UK.

I did good this year on the present front, scoring a birthday haul of whisky, books, winter running gear, yoga socks, smellies and sweets. I felt suitably spoiled.

A long video chat, half a bottle of Champagne and a little siesta later, I went to meet a friend in Stockholm for pre-theatre drinks and a bite.

I took a few more calls from family – received some wonderful good news and then headed to the Royal Swedish Opera House.

We were to be two of only 50 people in the audience to enjoy the Opera – Prima Donna – a Rufus Wainwright production about an ageing melodramatic opera singer anxiously preparing for her grand come back who falls in love with a journalist interviewing her.

This is Sweden so the Opera started at 19.00 on the dot, due to a kerfuffle about tickets at 19.01 we were too late to enter the stalls and so were led upstairs – where the view was still pretty special to be fair.

After the interval, which consisted of a glass of water in the once bustling bars that were now empty, we were led to some of the best seats in the house in the stalls.

The theatre was magical and for a few hours – the real world didn’t exist instead a fantastical world appeared before my eyes in this stunning old theatre – the set was incredible. I quite enjoyed not actually understanding exactly what was going on, I sometimes find the translations at an opera distracting, I’d rather have a vague idea of the storyline and just feel the emotion of the music and imagine what’s being said. My Swedish speaking friend was chuckling throughout, so evidently the dialogue was funny, I found plenty funny without understanding a word – including the pretty brilliant foot fetish scene.

The stage at Kungliga Opera House Stockholm

This was my second opera in COVID-19 times and interestingly it was quite different than the world’s first socially distanced opera I experienced in Madrid.

While in both experiences the audience was certainly socially distanced – in Stockholm there were only 50 people spread out among a theatre that could fit 1,200. Here, there was no social distancing on stage, nor masks for the musicians or audience – but this is Sweden and it seems to have different ideas from much of rest of the world on how to deal with this virus.

With no curfew in place there was time for a nightcap and so we headed to my new favourite bar in Sweden ‘A Bar Called Gemma‘ – a cute craft cocktail spot that opened in May 2019. It has a gorgeous menu, that’s beautifully illustrated and divided into different cocktail making styles – shaken, thrown, stirred, carbonated etc. Each page has a non alcoholic option, that is definitely not an after thought, but I stuck to the boozy options and started with a Carbonated – Bright Lights – Kyro dark gin, white wine, bittersweet orange, olive and spiced berry and finished the night with a stirred elegant number – Rosa Lynn, made with house blended light rum, Martini Ambrato, Hibiscus, Champagne mead and Sencha bitters.

As I headed home I checked my social feeds and was blessed to receive an abundance of messages from friends and fam around the world.

This birthday was strange but it was also surprisingly nice to celebrate my birthday in the land of the free and thanks to the power of technology I didn’t feel solitary or sorry for myself.

Big thanks to everyone who took the time to wish me well and to Joy who kept me company and was a gracious host in this great city of Stockholm.

I hope the world is in a very different place for my big birthday next year and more of the world is free.

Next step London. I just hope given the national lockdown that starts tonight I can still get back in and then out! Wish me luck!

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