I arrived in Stockholm to find that my luggage would be arriving hours after I did. In a group of fifteen students I figured that the odds were high we wouldn’t all come out unscathed, and was not bothered that it was me who would take one for the team. We were studying corporate social responsibility; we would be meeting with airlines and various branches of the Swedish government to learn how they approached their roles in the places they operated. This particular airline would chauffeur my bag directly to my hotel upon its arrival. Quite responsible, in my eyes.
We headed to our hotel, located in the Globen City neighborhood, and settled in. My cohorts, happy to nap and unwind before our dinner reservation, went separate ways to their rooms. I, however, had never been to Stockholm and had nothing with me to occupy my time besides Swedish television, and decided to head out and explore. After weeks gallivanting blindly through Copenhagen, I had the confidence of a traveler accustomed to not knowing the language and figuring it out anyway. A good map and a subway pass is all I need, right?
I took the metro into the city center. Our reservation was in two hours in Gamla Stan, the “old town” part of Stockholm, one of the smallest, central islands located where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. Stockholm is made up of fourteen such islands, Gamla Stan being one of the first settled and designed, a beautifully preserved example of medieval architecture. I headed there, over a bridge from the T-Centralen metro stop, figuring I would find the restaurant and wander through the surrounding streets until dinner.
I exited the metro to find a beautiful park beyond the bridge before me. In early July, Stockholm is lush and verdant. The city is noted for its dedication to the environment and it shows it in its plethora of outdoor areas. I was immediately distracted. The park’s paths led me down to the water’s edge, where I ambled along, stopping to take in the city views and to sit on benches. Snapping photos and following intuition, I ended up at a giant brick building. Right on the water, it dominated the island’s end. It was surrounded by parkland, parts of it covered in ivy, and a golden tomb at its entrance raised high enough so that the person lying there still presided over Stockholm. I walked its circumference, posed for silly pictures with a graffiti-strewn Dala horse, and went on my way.
I walked further from the water, deeper onto the island. I came upon neighborhood bars and cafes, clever and space-efficient outdoor seating, and modern design shops located in century’s old buildings. This was a decidedly newer part of town, still old by Swedish standards, but it wasn’t screaming out “medieval” to me. I took the long road around a small park, dogwood trees in bloom, and began to wonder where I was. I should be getting to the restaurant soon. I referred to my map, searching for street names I saw before me. No matches. I walked a block, looking for a new cross street, and sat to find it on the Gamla Stan coordinates. I was off track entirely; I couldn’t find myself on the map at all. This is something that normally wouldn’t bother me, for I like to let a city guide me around without too many plans ahead of time. But I had twenty minutes to meet my friends, and had just figured out that I was completely off course. I found a bus stop, found the You Are Here arrow (it was written in Swedish but some things are universal), and made the realization that those of you familiar with Stockholm have already made- I was on the wrong island.
I had been traipsing around the island of Kungsholmen, the building I had stumbled upon was none other than City Hall. Silly Lauren, you might try reading those guide books you carry around. City Hall is where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet, is home to the gold-plated sarcophagus of Birger Jarl, the founder of Stockholm, and home of the Stadshusparken, the serene and lovely sculpture park I enjoyed that lines the water. I had stumbled upon the Swedish Capitol Building and didn’t know it.
I found the nearest metro station, discovered the quickest route from lost to found, and boarded. Upon exit into a clearly medieval place, Gamla Stan unfolded and I arrived in the Stortorget Square, where I met my classmates with five minutes to spare. We sat and ate Nordic fish with fresh summer potatoes and spoke about traveling in foreign cities, war crimes, strawberries, and climate change.
I walked back to the hotel with a small group of friends, finding our way across bridges and over islands. We stopped for beer in an open-air café and chatted about where we found ourselves. They were in the middle of a European tour, taking the summer before finishing their masters degrees to travel and get inspiration. Upon graduation, they opened a design firm together, residents:understood, in Washington, DC. I was on my first European jaunt that would spark an enthusiasm and desire I did not know possible in me. Neither I, nor my luggage, have gotten so lost since.
Main photo credit: Adam Moran Photography