I’d forgotten how dark it gets in Sweden this time of the year. The Swedish practice of placing lamps in every window suddenly makes sense, and offers some redemption, but agan, I was reminded of how hard it gets to you to live for such a long time as the winter season is with so little daylight.

However, illumination as an art form is developing steadily; the view of the lighting over the Stockholm Globe arena from the plane as we were approaching the airport was one of the major aesthetical experiences during the whole 36-hour journey, actually.  Indeed, there are still plenty of those cold, ghastly 1970s style plastic boxes with built-in flourescent lamps around, which pass for illuminated signs and which almost killed good old neon some 30 years ago, but hopefully they will eventually become extinct.

Stockholm is also increasingly being cleaned up. Each time you go there, you notice a little something that adds to the general improvement of the total environment. Places are being refurbished, stores are shaping up, and it is now full possible to get a very good meal on the go, compared to when I used to live there in the mid-90s when fast food basically only meant hamburgers or dead-dog style hotdogs. Trendiness has hit the foodservice sector full force, and you can now expect to get a Thai chicken in a paper box from one end of the Central station and round off with a pot of 57-variant coffee and a carrot cake (yum) the size of Virginia at the other, should you need a snack between trains.

(Speaking of food at the Central station in Stockholm by the way, I was overjoyed to notice that the horrible, run-down, neglected and insolent excuse for a restaurant that used to be on the first floor overlooking the main hall – it was commonly known as Hyllan – has finally kicked the sick bucket, fried its last old slipper, passed on, gone to see its accountant, expired, ceased to be, joined the culinary choir invisible as it rests (hopefully) in peace at the scrapheap of catering. It was an ex-restaurant already in the early 1980s, and has been no more for many years before its closure. I should really have celebrated in some way. E-mail me some champagne will you.)

However, the main darkness that hits you is of another kind. It is that of the many poor and – probably – mentally ill that you see digging around in trash cans and rubbish bins looking for something useful; easily identifiable by their ragged appearance. I won’t say that you never see that in Brussels, but maybe the contrast between them and the general cleanliness of Sweden makes them stand out more than they do here.

I’ve seen many seedy areas in Belgium. I could take you to locations which even a rat would shun. I have seen beggars and street kids in the so-called “capital of Europe”. But never do you see so many bin-diggers here as you do in Stockholm.

It’s so sad that a country that prides itself so much about its general welfare can’t be bothered to help these people.

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