Staggering down the crowded city street, my head shifts left, right, up, behind, and forward until all of those directions seem the same. It all seems the same. The stretched out streets, jagged buildings, cafe here, park there, and clarity nowhere. Reaching one street, I check the map and realize I’ve been going the wrong direction for several blocks. Turning around, I question whether I read the map right. But of course it is in a language that looks like gibberish. I’m too proud to ask for help and be the damsel in distress. This isn’t distress, I’m just lost. It’s ok. My pride is worth wandering a couple extra miles, maybe.
How I eventually reached my destination is a mystery, though finding it was usually a smack in the face sensation. “Oh. Duh. There it is.”
I would have been fine if that was the end of my foolish wandering. But even once I reached the place I was staying, new problems abounded. The laundry machines had cryptic symbols, the kitchen policies were unspoken, and when I attempted to go grocery shopping I couldn’t even figure out where the door to enter was (eventually I realized it was a doorway with a different name over the top which is why I thought it was a separate store).
The beginning of my second week was spent repeating this wandering scene across Stockholm. Similar challenges were present on my first international venture in India, but I didn’t expect them to occur in Scandinavia. Somehow I believed that a similar culture to the United States and cleaner streets would make traveling a breeze. Needless to say, I was wrong.
The harsh reality of international travel is that no matter where you are, confusion and self-conscious fumbling are practically inevitable. Although there are people who seem to be naturally at ease in the whimsical setting of trial-and-error travel, I am not one of those people. Frankly, I think those people are secretly clueless too, they are just better at maintaining a confident air of undisturbed enjoyment.
Despite the awe-inspiring Instagram pictures and glamorous destinations, many of us prefer not to mention these moments of helpless wandering. It is understandable, because when you return from a grand trip overseas and are asked how it was, you don’t really want to say the truth: “Well I probably offended a number of locals, fumbled around foolishly, and altogether made an idiot of myself. But the sites were beautiful!”
That is the honest description of how my second week in Scandinavia went. Yet the redeeming part of such honesty is being able to say by the end of the week I was not fumbling around quite as much.
My second week in Scandinavia was my first in Sweden, and I began in Stockholm ready to take a break from the academic mindset by being a tourist for a few days. The paper map of the city became my best friend as I wandered through the city and acclimated to the tourist condition. A tourist is often confused, often lost, often in need of help, but thus always appreciative of the smallest joys.
Traveling alone is new to me, causing feelings similar to those on the first day of school or even two weeks in when you still question where your next class is and who to sit with at lunch. I often wondered as I walked if this would be different for an extroverted person, or someone who is good at talking to total strangers for extended periods of time. But I think that oversimplifies the situation, skill is relative to desire, and my desire to socialize with strangers is still low. Why, I’m not sure, but I chose not to feel bad about it and allow myself the time alone.
In the Nordic Museum I discovered everything from the history of furniture styles in Sweden, classical doll houses, folk arts and crafts, as well as a special exhibition on the Sami people (the indigenous group in Scandinavia that I am doing research on). The combination of historic and modern cultural artifacts seemed to represent a similar trend in the Nordic people’s mentality: tradition is respected, but never in the way of progressive change.
At the Vasa Museum, I gazed in awe at the massive ship that a king built with more loft than logic. It took two years to build up its grandeur and less than two hours to sink after its departure. It symbolizes the ambition of 17th century kings, as well as the way they were blinded by that ambition. I couldn’t help but wonder what a museum 300 years from now would display from our current period of ambitious mistakes.
The next day I perused the Royal Palace, primarily wondering what the real rooms they live in look like (and if they have IKEA furniture too). I later find out there is a whole separate palace on another island, so that doubles the questions. I then become convinced that the entire allure of people’s interest in royalty is the mystery that surrounds them.
The palace I visited is situated in Old Town Stockholm, a picturesque island off the mainland that also contains several other museums, storybook scenery, the Parliament building, and most importantly, the Parliament Library. I am going to devote a later post to all the libraries I’ve visited in Stockholm, but I just want to say this one was my favorite. Here is a sneak peak:
Midweek I took the short train ride north to Uppsala where I would be visiting the university for a full week. Uppsala is actually the fourth largest municipality in Sweden, but to any American it is a typical university town with a small central area of beautiful old buildings and countryside close by. According to the Uppsala Kommun the population is just over 200,000.
Despite the manageable size of the city, my feelings of insecurity surged back as I walked through the expansive university campus. Uppsala University, founded in 1477, is the oldest university in Scandinavia and, status-wise, it is essentially the Harvard of Sweden.
My first appointment was an invitation to join a breakfast meeting at the Centre I’d be working with. Although I mistakenly showed up half an hour early, my feelings of foolishness eventually faded as I met everyone and was surprised to find that I was already better at answering those pesky questions about what I was doing there and why I don’t have my PhD yet. By the end of the meeting I was given a key to an office space I could use and settled in almost convinced myself I belonged. Keys can bestow that kind of self-delusional power.
Still, for the first time since arriving I felt ok about where I was at. Very little had changed since the beginning of the week: I remained just as inexperienced, confused and often in need of help–but I felt like I had fully adjusted to my academic research and occaisional tourist foreigner status. Juxtaposed with that harsh reality of international travel is the rewarding moment when you finally find a sense of comfort, whether that be with the place or with yourself.
After two days of work I spent the weekend seeing the few tourist sites in Uppsala, including the tallest cathedral in Sweden and a visit to the anatomical theatre that looked like a mini version of the circular courtroom in the Ministry of Magic. So again, Sweden maintained a certain mystical quality amidst the modern furniture and H&M stores. Cobblestone streets mingled with generous bike lanes and electric busses in a serenely Scandinavian way.
But as I have been learning, things and people in Sweden aren’t always as perfect as they (or their hair) look. More on that next week :)
(**This post covers the week from September 14-21. Again I apologize for posting this so late, some recent moments of unexpected travel confusion postponed my good intentions. Check back next week for that story!)