Stockholm Visit Worth More Than A Nobel

NPR's Joe Palca attended the Nobel Prize ceremony this year. He has this snapshot of what Nobel week for an American reporter in Stockholm is like.

December isn't the height of the tourist season in Stockholm; there are only about five hours of daylight during the winter months, and the temperatures hover around freezing.

But there is one compelling reason to visit Stockholm in December: Each year, on the 10th of the month, the Nobel Prizes are handed out.

It's a week choked with events honoring the Nobel laureates — concerts, tours, dinners. The Wednesday night reception at the Nordic Museum is fairly typical. The laureates and several hundred well-wishers wander around, eating canapes and drinking champagne.

It's easy to spot the Nobel laureates, because they are at the nucleus of a halo of fans.

"This is Joe Palca. He's my friend. He's an NPR reporter," Nobel laureate Carol Greider says, introducing me. "He's following me around." Greider is the winner of this year's Nobel for Medicine, and she and I really are friends. We met on a bike trip 17 years ago. The gaggle surrounding her now wants to know how she decided where to go to grad school.

"Actually, I applied to a number of different graduate schools, but as I've said, various places. I was dyslexic, so I didn't do very well on standardized tests. So I only got into two of the, I think, 10 places that I applied to for graduate school," she tells them.

One of those was the University of California, Berkeley. While she was in graduate school there, she discovered an enzyme now called telomerase that is crucial for cells to keep dividing. It was her graduate work that won her the Nobel in Medicine, along with her graduate advisers Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak.

The really big event of Nobel week is the Nobel Banquet — a sit-down dinner for 1,300 people. To attend, you must wear white tie and tails.

Jarl Dahlquist has been solving men's formalwear problems for 40 years. I needed everything: jacket, trousers, suspenders, vest, shirt, shirt studs, cuff links, dress shoes and, of course, the white tie. After we assembled a costume that fit, Dahlquist explained how to put it all on and advised me to give myself plenty of time to get dressed.

I asked what was the fastest he had ever seen someone get dressed. He said he helped a client do it in 11 minutes. "The taxi was waiting," he explained.

The banquet is held in Stockholm City Hall. There are more than five dozen tables to accommodate all the guests.

Dinner was smashing. Lobster consomme with shellfish tartar; truffle-stuffed quail; and a lemon-and-fresh-cheese mousse with sea buckthorn sorbet.

After dinner, Carol was supposed to exit up a grand staircase on the arm of Willard Boyle, one of this year's physics laureates. But Dr. Boyle is in his 80s and a bit frail, so at the last minute, he decided to take the elevator rather than the stairs, leaving Carol without an escort. The Swedish king's son, Carl Philip, recognized the problem, and in a perfect display of noblesse oblige, took Carol's arm and escorted her up the stairs. "I was saved by a prince," Carol told me afterward.

A magical week.

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