One Foot, and Then Another

Long exposure of a tree and purple-brown sky

When I woke up for the second time yesterday, I had a hard time getting going.

I’m glad to be in New York; I’m glad to be visiting my friend. But even though I’ve been here several times, even though this is the opposite of traveling alone, I felt the difficulty of self-initiating. After more than an hour of obsessing over subway routes and possible late lunch locations, I finally ejected myself from the apartment at about 5 pm. (This is what happens when you have to recover after a red-eye flight.) I walked to the first lunch option, but everything was $18. Dizzied, I looked down the street, which is now full of clever little cafes and outdoor tables and all sorts of stuff, a sharp difference from ten or even five years ago. Where. Where would I go. I was very hungry and at the end of my ability to make decisions. Where to go.

I walked another half block, saw the words “red eye” under the coffee menu and the words “vegetable panini” under sandwiches, and figured that was good enough.

But even then, sitting in that most ordinary of situations (if 5 pm lunch is ordinary to you), I felt the familiar frisson of anxiety that always falls on me, at least for a little while, when I land in a situation where I don’t feel on top of everything. This is an old thing, a way I lived until my mid-20s, where I expected mastery of myself in most situations and would hate myself for a while if I didn’t have it. The heightened stakes of travel and expectations resurrect what I’ve pushed out of my brain in most other situations. I sat there, a gentle summer breeze saying hello, happy people walking by, feeling blurry with new-place overload, breathing deeply, waiting to acclimate. I think this is as much a travel tradition for me as the Hallucinatory First Day.

I texted my mom; I texted my friend; I read nerd fiction. I ate my sandwich and then sat, deliberately taking up space for a bit, watching people walk by, and reminding myself that openness and time were, in this situation, a gift.

And then I headed to Manhattan.

The three-hour chunk of time ahead of me was daunting, but I reminded myself that I was in one of the greatest cities in the world. If I ended up killing 90 minutes reading in a cafe and watching people, that in itself was worth the trip. Instead, I wandered into Central Park, looked at people, wandered through terrain, and then stumbled on a world-class orchestra playing just an hour from when I arrived.

It was during said show that I took the picture at the top. First by myself, and later with my friend, I listened and I watched, and – most importantly – I inhabited, and I reminded myself that, even in these dark-as-fuck days, the world is still generally on the benevolent side (if only just, sometimes). I played with my camera’s settings, and I listened, and I began to relax into what the next week may bring.

If yesterday was any indication, it’s going to be pretty great.

Bike Locks in Copenhagen and Thoughts on Feeling Safe

A lone bike, unmoored, in Copenhagen

I noticed it on my first day.* You can’t help but notice the bikes in Copenhagen – among other reasons, if you don’t, you’ll likely be run down by one. They are legion and ubiquitous (and the separated-by-a-curb bike lanes look fan-fucking-tastic). Behold:


This is actually not the best example, but I neglected to get a picture of the bike horde by Nørreport because I was too busy trying to figure out where the hell my next train was whenever I was by there. But you get the idea: bikes bikes bikes.

Here’s what’s not ubiquitous: redundant D locks attaching said bikes to a fence or parking meter or bike rack or any fairly stationary object that would be hard to cut through.

I have an Oakland state of mind right now. The advice for being a cyclist there goes as follows. Choose one:

  1. Find the bike of your dreams and then either store it with BikeLink or take it indoors with you wherever you go, or:
  2. Buy a $200 beater that’ll get you where you need to go and assume that shit will get stolen at some point.

There’s an in-between step, which is two D-locks used in the way described by an official BART sign I see at MacArthur station most mornings: one securing the front wheel to the frame, the other connecting frame and back wheel to one of the previously mentioned stationary objects. Even this is not considered necessarily adequate; it’s just what we have to work with.

So to walk around Copenhagen and see this actually kind of blew my mind.


The fence is RIGHT THERE.

If this happened in Oakland, someone would be along in about ten seconds with a truck and a quick route to a closed warehouse. It feels like walking through a video game and spotting loot. You have gained one bikeTwo bikes. Like 400 bikes in the space of a couple of blocks.

Now, it’s not that they’re completely unsecured. What I mistook at first for a rear brake is actually a clever little lock. Can you spot it?


This bike was on the island of Slotsholmen.


Is it locked to the rack? Of course not. It’s just there to correct the bike’s posture.


Instead, there’s this. Arrow added because it was, at least to me, subtle before I picked up on what was actually happening.

There are a couple things going on here, as best as I can tell.

First, it’s not Oakland. Or San Francisco or New York, come to that. I had an interesting conversation with a Swedish friend while I was in Stockholm about social pressure in Scandinavia (which led to speculating what elements of that fed into the creation of Midwestern Nice). If you lift a bike on the street and someone sees you carrying it instead of pushing or riding it, you’re going to look mighty suspicious. That’s not to say bike theft doesn’t happen – apparently it’s fairly common, but more people seem inclined to have a series of shitty bikes, so your heart and bank account don’t break when your latest beater goes missing. You have a bike for a while, then it disappears, and you’re stranded. You get mad. But maybe you’re drunk and need to go home another time, so you liberate an unlocked bike from someone else, ’til we find our place on the path unwinding.


Fair, fair. However, there’s also another element, which I think has to do with living without fear. This came up when I talked to the front desk person at my hotel when I checked out my last morning in Copenhagen. She mentioned that Americans in particular seemed to freeze up when instructed to just leave their bags, unsecured, behind and by the front desk if they wanted to pick them up later. I confessed that I’d had that exact reaction, even though, deep down, I knew it would be fine. “They ask me if it’s safe, and I tell them, well, sometimes I do go to the bathroom or the back room,” she said. She shrugged. “Nothing’s disappeared yet.” And indeed, there was my stuff when I returned from my canal boat ride.** There was my wallet, returned to me by kind people.***

Risk and trust. It’s a game and a balance that seems to have gotten really difficult for Americans in the last several years. I don’t claim to know exactly why, though I suspect a culture of fear and anger, with media that feeds it, has played a key role. Bad things might happen. They probably will sometimes. But most of these things are survivable. It’s hard to remember that, though, when news networks have 24 hours to fill with the most sensationalistic stuff possible. If all you’re hearing about is terrorism and little white girls going missing, the world’s going to start looking like it has sharper teeth than perhaps it actually does.

When I leave the U.S. these days, it’s a metric I pay attention to. The time I climbed an Icelandic glacier, ice axe in hand, with no waiver signed. When I feel paranoid when I suspect everyone else is calm. When I feel protective of my own little domain of stuff and dignity as I cross through unfamiliar spaces. The streets I choose to walk down, those I avoid, what inspires my discomfort. And, sometimes more interestingly, the streets I do choose to walk down. The process of listening to valid fear and hearing anxiety that will keep me from doing interesting, nourishing, important things.

There’s still no way in seven hells I’d lock up my future bike in Oakland with only that tiny black cuff. But it’s an interesting exercise, reading one’s fears and assumptions within a new context, asking yourself who has the right of it and who’s living in a delusion.

I guess I mostly choose to treat my life as the beater bike. I keep it safe and do what I need to for things to be ok, but in the end, it’s something meant to get me from one point to another. If I don’t get to see and do the good shit while I’m going about my life, what’s the use at all?

*Well, my first full day. My actual first day, I arrived in Copenhagen from Stockholm midafternoon, a carefully thought out move designed to give me an extra chunk of day there. Maybe I could go to the Designmuseum? Take a walk in the daylight? See an extra neighborhood, yeah? I laid down to rest after walking from central station to my hotel with 30-plus pounds of shit on my shoulders and woke up ten hours later at about 2 am. So much for that. At least I got to see snow?

**No pictures from that either. It was raining pretty hard, which made for some pretty smears of color as we motored around, but shit pictures.

***I have since discussed this with friends, though, and we agreed that the great wallet walkabout would have ended very differently in other cities, among them London, anywhere in France or Italy, San Francisco, Oakland, and probably Seattle. You win some, you lose some, and ideally you’ll strategize based on how these situations are likely to go based on where you are.

On the Caper I’ve Come to Call “Wallet Walkabout”

A Vete-Katten box and a fancy soda on a bench on Stockholm Harbor

This is a story about fear, problem solving, and redemption, and it begins with a picture of a cake box and a fancy soda on a bench.

On my last day in Stockholm on phase one of my trip, I set out with no real destination. I’d spent the previous day touring the city hall and Vasamuseet with two friends who seem to visit Scandinavia with similar timing and aim to me. I decided to balance out this companionable day by spending the next day with no real plan, just wandering and seeing where my moment-to-moment likes and inclinations would take me.

I ended up having a mildly revelatory breakfast sandwich with kaviar paste and sliced egg, paired with my very necessary morning coffee. I wandered through Vasastan, past Vasapark, and then took a walk to the central station to stake out where tomorrow’s train to Copenhagen might leave from. From there, I walked to the more western part of the harbor, that edge where Norrmalm and Östermalm meet, where the hotels get fancier and I felt suddenly and not unpleasantly underdressed. I turned my phone data on for a moment and checked out where I was, wondering if something unplanned and worthwhile was nearby. Indeed there was – Historiska Museet was about a quarter-mile away.

I spent a nice couple of hours there and then haunted their lobby for a half hour, using their wifi to text with my best friend in one of those little social oases that made my solo trip so entirely joyful. By then, it was about three, and I knew I needed to get going if I was going to do anything else in the daytime hours. I wandered deeper into Östermalm and noticed some hot air balloon-shaped signs along the edge of a building. I headed inside and found one of the wonderful food halls that apparently are a thing in Scandinavia in particular and Europe in general. It was there that I saw a Vete-Katten kiosk and remembered that a friend with solid recommendations suggested making a point of going there.

Vete-Katten pastry box with ribbon

I got a chocolate torte instead of a princess torte (a rookie error to be sure). Many of the stalls are full of beautiful seafood and somewhat less-beautiful meats, all raw and waiting for someone talented to turn them into wonderful things. I just bought a fancy-looking French mandarin soda, picturing a decadent little snack on some likely bench on Stockholm Harbor.

Cake and soda acquired, I headed out the door, walking past department stores and late-afternoon throngs of people to get my sugar fix.

Vete-Katten box, no ribbon

A few things to know:

  • By this time, I had taken to wearing my camera under my coat, just to keep it out of the way. This means that getting it out and putting it back involved a fair amount of fidgeting.
  • I was getting a slightly The Misfit-style feeling of forboding from laughing gently at signs warning me of pickpocketing, considering what I had learned and heard about Swedish crime rates.
  • It was cold on that bench. My hands hurt after a few minutes. But there was no seating in the food hall not committed to the various cafes, so it was what I had.

But I was charmed by what I’d managed to collect, and I’m always charmed by the involved packaging of certain European pastries, so I stuck it out.

Vete-Katten chocolate cake

Barely pictured: the tiny piece of shiny tape the woman at the counter applied to ensure the cake wouldn’t shift during transport. Not pictured: a fork, because I didn’t have one. I ate it, cold-fingered and chocolate-dusted, with my hands.

And then, cake dispatched and clever soda gone, I set off for Moderna Museet, hoping to squeeze one last well-regarded destination into my last full day in Stockholm.

I walked along the harbor the way I’d come, tracing along sidewalks that blended with the adjacent driveways under a layer of packed-down snow. I walked briskly, because I walk briskly and because I just wanted to get out of the cold, back into a museum where I could shed my lumpy coat and walk around unimpeded for a couple hours.

About 15 minutes from the bench, I performed a ritual gesture that I performed about ten times more than usual after this day: I patted all my coat pockets and took inventory.

Right upper: flat key, sunglasses, ticket stub. Right lower: phone. Left lower: empty for hand. Left middle: guidebook. Left upper: unzipped, with about 19 kronor in coins, not even enough for a subway ticket.

What the fuck.

I performed it again in defiance of any kind of logic, panic now rising. Left upper: walletless.

Shit. Fuck. That it was unzipped left it ambiguous as to whether I’d been pickpocketed or if the wallet had fallen out during all of my camera futzing. This defused any possible fury at myself or some random and left me only with panic and practical concerns.

I patted the pocket again like some hopeful, feckless amateur magician, but it stubbornly remained empty. I interrogated my jeans pockets but found them similarly empty – I usually carry my wallet in my back pocket, but I don’t when I travel. Because of pickpockets and, on this trip, because I was afraid the base layer under my jeans would keep me from feeling if anything fell out of one of my pants pockets.

I had one reassuring thought: that morning, two days later than sense would dictate, I had taken my spare Amex, the one with cash withdrawal privileges and a PIN, from my wallet and left it in my bag at the apartment, as had been the plan all along. Their site promised it would work at the ATMs I’d seen all over. Well, I’d soon find out.

First, I retraced my steps. I jogged as best I could on the snow and came back to my bench: nothing. I retraced my steps to the food hall, all the way to the sympathetic guy at the treat counter where I’d bought my soda, where I’d last seen and touched my wallet. He was sad for me but couldn’t help.


I touched the inadequate coins in my pocket, felt the newly forming heel blisters that had sprung up while racing back and forth, and steeled myself for the walk home. It wasn’t far – maybe a mile and a half – but an unplanned walk and one my feet were not very pleased with.

Back at the apartment, I sat down and made a list of what I needed to cancel. My BECU debit card. The SPG Amex. The Chase card holding my next three hotel reservations. Oh god, the phone calls. And I’ll need to replace my driver’s license. That too would be a mess – I still had my Washington DL, but I was in California, and I had no idea of how to start fixing that one. Airfare would surely be involved. Shit.*

I got on Google Voice (blessed art thou amongst traveler-friendly technologies) and canceled the first two cards. But the Chase, the hotel reservations… Sigh. It could wait a minute.

I decided to go try my luck at the ATM, the success or failure of which would determine a lot about the coming days. There was one about two blocks from my flat; I shuffled over and got in line with people who looked to be just getting off work. I approached and chose English. I asked for about $200 in SEK. And… it worked. It worked, and I felt myself unclench just a little.

I stopped at the nearby convenience grocery on the way back to the flat. I bought this as consolation food.

Sad person food from a Swedish grocery

You have to get by somehow.

As I was taking this picture, my phone buzzed in my hand, the vibration suggesting it was a Facebook message.

Could it be

Did someone

Oh man

“Sorry this is very random but is there any chance you’re in Stockholm today? We found a wallet and you look like the girl in the driver’s license photo.”

“Oh my god,” I wrote back. “Yes.”

A British couple had come upon my bench in the 20-odd minutes between my departure and return, and beneath it, they found my wallet. Could I meet them at the central station in 30 minutes so they could give it back?

Oh my god. Yes.

I put my sad snacks aside, reassembled my outdoor gear, and half-sprinted out of my building. After a little frantic texting (well, frantic on my part), I found them and they handed me my wonderful, ridiculous, beloved Couch wallet. I offered beer money as thanks (the better to reward their goodness without requiring them to pass an unplanned hour with an overexcited, loquacious American on the downward slope of a two-hour adrenaline spike), but they said no. Sweetly and kindly and in a way that let all of the softness pruned away by the last couple of hours begin to return.

We parted ways with as little awkward spurting of repeated thanks as I could manage, and there I was, wallet restored, all cash retained, and me with an evening ahead of me.

I’d left my data on in all the hullabaloo, and my phone buzzed once more – my local friend. Did I happen to want to come to her place for dinner? She was making soup.

“Yes please,” I wrote back. “I’m going to be a little scattered when I get to your place, but bear with me, please. I have a story for you.”


*Dearest California and Washington,

I have since changed my driver’s license over and am in complete legal compliance in every possible way.


A Boat, a Boat, I Stayed on a Boat in Stockholm

Af Chapman hostel, a boat on Stockholm Harbor

I had a couple options for my last night in Stockholm. I’d done Stockholm part one, been to Copenhagen, and had an unlikely stop in Järna, and now I had one more night to plan.

“Stockholm strange hotels?” I asked Google.

Some rigging on the Af Chapman

“Yeah, we got you,” Google replied.

Some of the deck of the Af Chapman in Stockholm

I briefly considered Jumbo Stay, on account of I could have slept inside a fucking jet engine, but the location was the clincher. My flight wasn’t until 3:30 on Monday afternoon, and while I knew I’d arrive semi-freakishly early, I didn’t want to wake up at the airport.

(I did pass it on the highway, and despite being airport adjacent, it is a surreal thing to see a 747 so close to the road.)

Af Chapman with ice shards on the water

So I chose the “strange hotel” Google yielded for me: Af Chapman, a hostel partially based on a boat moored on Skeppsholmen, one of the city’s museum-filled islands. I made sure they had private rooms, and once that was assured, I was sold. For about $65, I secured a private room with a shared bathroom. Not all the rooms are on the boat, as more lodging is in the building across the street, where breakfast, laundry, lockers, and other useful things can also be found. But I crossed my fingers and, fresh from Järna, made my way to the ship.

Masts of the Af Chapman

I’d walked right by it earlier in my trip, but I was busy being in that phase of things – where is the museum, where is the ferry – so I didn’t check it out. Instead, as I walked up, bag-laden in the way that happens eight days into a trip abroad, I saw a boat and thought, Please let that be it.

View of Stockholm Harbor from the Af Chapman deck

It was. And, better still, my room was ready for me, despite it only being just past noon. (There are perks to traveling in the off season.) Enormously relieved, as I’d already been awake for about seven hours at that point, I flounced across the street and into my room…

Officershytter door on Af Chapman

…Officershytter 1.

“Shytter” is Swedish for “quarter.”

The more you know.

Bed in Officer's Quarter on Af Chapman

The Af Chapman is not wheelchair accessible, and it would be difficult for anyone much taller than I am – at 5’8″, I did fine in this bed, but friends 5’11” or taller would probably have felt like aggressively folded origami by the time morning came.

Still, adorable, right? All those drawers, plus a little step up – I felt like I was mounting a horse. That bed was at about chest height on me.

The better to see through the porthole at the end of the bed, as it turned out.

Stockholm at dawn through an Af Chapman porthole

I woke up around six am the night I stayed there, first by the low creak of the shifting rigging of this 1888 naval ship, and then… ice. Sheets of ice, dragging along the hull, so beautiful in the thin light of the dawn that I sat so still you would’ve thought I was afraid of scaring it off.

That porthole could be opened too – I tried and then quickly realized that was not a great idea in February. In Stockholm. Surprise.

The room also included a sink and a cute li’l desk next to the second porthole, where I wrote postcards on my last morning, only some of which were headed, “Captain’s log, 22 February 2016.”

The walkway connecting the Af Chapman to land

And then: land ho.

Breakfast was good, but it is well established now that I like an included Scandinavian breakfast. It was strange to come from my fairly empty ship to the main hostel building, filled with 18-year-old Italians and the guy 50 years older than everyone else and staid older couples taking a nice, long trip and… me. Lockers and laundry and hostel business.

I preferred my vessel.

The Af Chapman at night, from across the harbor

I did the math. It wouldn’t be hugely more expensive to live on this boat than to live in my fine Oakland abode. I’m sure the cats would get used to it.

In the meantime, if you go to Stockholm and aren’t too attached to predictable lodging, go go go to Af Chapman. It’s relatively inexpensive, extremely conveniently located, and a remarkable buoy of mood. I’m sad today. But… oh shit, remember when I slept on a boat in Stockholm and watched dawn creep over the thin ice of the harbor and I was snug in bed and had an unobstructed view of one of the world’s prettiest cities? 

Yeah. That was pretty great.

One Epilogue, Shambling and Ambling and Admiring the Moooooooon

I bookended my trip to Sweden and Denmark with two somewhat expensive dinners. I didn’t have dinner at all in Copenhagen, and I had more than one early night in Sweden, so it kind of equaled out, in that way of strange trip math.

The first night, I woke up at ten pm after a surprise six-hour nap and headed to the best-reviewed restaurant that was also going to be open for another hour (meaning I chose from two options and elected for the one that sounded the most Swedish). I talked them into making a one-person herring sampler platter, despite the menu saying that two herring lovers were required. I realized there was a $20 American beer on the menu. I ate myself stupid and ambled home happily, about $70 poorer but pretty satisfied with my choices in a pinch.

On the last night of the trip, I went to Fotografiska and then walked, sore of heel but glad of spirit, to Akkurat, which my guidebook promised held all manner of splendid Belgian beer. I sat at the bar (one thing I would have never done a few years ago) and had a nice, intermittent, meal-long chat with the bartender (another thing I would have not even thought myself capable of a few years ago). I started with a Cantillon sour, and even just typing those words makes my heart thud with the most expansive happiness. With that in my hand (and rapidly going into my belly), I studied the menu. It was then that I said some of the gladdest words I have ever said:

“I would like the kilo of mussels, please.”

They come in kilos.

Also: I can dispense of a kilo of mussels quite handily.

In the interim, my friendly bartender gave me a sample of a local IPA that he swore didn’t have the boring DNA of most IPAs (shockingly true), and I tried a local brown ale too. The Cantillon still sang in my veins, and I wanted to try even more of Stockholm’s finest, as I was very pleased with every local beer I had.

There was only one problem: if I had any more beer, the certainty of me being able to get home on my own two increasingly unsteady legs was going to diminish severely. To put it plainly: shit was going to get messy if I had any more.

So, in a deeply responsible move that I still grieve, I paid my check and swayed out, heading back to my boat/home for one last glorious night.

Darkness had fallen, and I meandered along Stockholm’s harbor, as leisurely as a person can be while deeply, seriously needing to pee. The moon was gently embraced by wispy clouds just this side of iridescent, and the water lapped against the seawalls in a way both pleasing to my ears and exacerbating to my bladder. I pulled my camera out and began to test the steadiness of my hands.

The Af Chapman across Stockholm Harbor

Behold, my ship – for one night at least. I like longer exposures (these are all a quarter of a second or so) because this is closer to what the world often looks like to me. This depth and richness, the glowing of the lights over the water: this is how it was.

The moon over Sodermalm and Stockholm Harbor

Gently blurry and glowing with warmth, I had just finished nine days across the world on my own, nine days where I proved to myself that I am capable of getting myself places, of finding wonderful things to do, of connecting with people wherever I go. I am more than able to create my own rich and nourishing path. And I took a joy in choosing my own direction from moment to moment that even I, comfortably solo visitor of movie theaters and restaurants alike, couldn’t have predicted.

And, animated with the joy of discovery, the pleasure of the previous days, and the singing ABVs of some of Europe’s finest beers, I walked myself home for the last time that trip.

Stockholm Harbor at night

I was fine. I was going to be fine. More than fine, as has become my refrain.

I walked from one island to another until I reached my boat. It was perhaps 8 pm. “You can go pee and go lay down for a bit,” I told myself, “and then you can go back out if you want.” I didn’t, and I didn’t want, as was my pattern throughout the trip. I’d had my day, and a morning of some last wandering was more important to me than one more bar, one more chilled wander through the darkness in some misguided quest for more and enough and making it worth it.

It was enough, and so was I.

One Reason I Will Be Going Back to Copenhagen

I’ve come to be very fond of traveling in the off season. I dislike heat even more than I dislike crowds, so it works well for trips to Europe.

However, there are drawbacks.

The entrance to Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen

This is an entrance to Tivoli, the second-oldest operating amusement park on the entire earth. It is beautiful, or at least its tall parts are. Because I was there in February, I only got to peek at towers and spires tall enough to be visible over its containing walls and gates. I had the same feeling about Skansen in Stockholm, where the animals were mostly in hibernation while I was there. I’ll save it for next time – another year, another season.

There were a few other things I missed while in Copenhagen, so I’m already looking forward to going back. (I kinda already was when I was there, when I saw how beautiful it was and how relatively few hours I had there.) The current list includes:

  • The Dome of Visions
  • Having dinner, like at all, because I didn’t, not in the entire three nights I was there. Travel schedules are weird.
  • Drinking a flood of Mikkeller beer (though I did at least make it to a bottle shop)
  • Roaming more and taking in even more of the endlessly intricate buildings
  • The National Museum of Denmark – by the time I’d arrived, I was kind of historied out, so I focused on art
  • More pastries*

But Tivoli rubs the most right now. I have a deep love of theme parks (and themed parks), so it’s a pretty major bookmark.

As ever: in time.

*I just finished watching The Great British Bake-Off, so I’m kinda feeling this way about every single place I go to ever, including San Francisco for work. More pastries. Always more pastries.

A Million Years Ago in the Pacific Northwest

Cherry blossoms and a path on the University of Washington campus

Ok, more like two.

In the way of travel fast and slow, I’m seeing what it looks like when spring awakens in this new place in which I find myself. We have blossoming trees here too, though they’ve been de-petaled somewhat with the buffeting rain of early and mid-March. I’m watching spring, and I can’t help but think of Seattle, where I spent my last eleven springs.

The University of Washington fountain and Mount Rainier

I was relieved when I realized I was falling in love with something about the Bay Area – anything about the Bay Area. We never do think we can love again, do we? Not until we do. How many loves do I get? I feel myself unfolding in Oakland and think enough. We get enough, if we’re lucky, and I seem to be.

University of Washington quad and blooming cherry blossom trees

These pictures are from my final quarter at UW, as I wrapped up my UCD certificate, counting down my last few weeks on campus. I knew I was coming to the edge of something, but I didn’t know what. I wouldn’t for another year.

I’m glad to be where I am. Seattle and I didn’t have an acrimonious end; instead, it was the boredom of one person overstaying. But I see people’s pictures of the UW quad on Facebook, the trees exploding in pink flowers once again, right on schedule, and I see my old world moving forward without me. And I move forward here.

I finally got my California driver’s license. My old Washington license has a picture of me at 21. As I sat at the DMV and waited to prove myself, I looked at the old picture and found that I don’t look remarkably different – more round-faced then, I suppose. I was wearing my magic green shirt, the uber-flattering v-neck that featured in some of my senior pictures. A beaded necklace I made myself. My hair at some in-betweeny length. (It’s usually at some in-betweeny length; that hasn’t changed.) I tried to see myself in me, and I asked myself what my 32-year-old self would say to 21-year-old me given the chance. Would I avoid this guy or go to Paris sooner or adjust certain expectations? Would I have pursued programming sooner? What would be useful advice that I could have acted on then?

In the end, I decided that I’d tell young me two things.

  1. There’s a really great therapist downtown, and it might be good to get started sooner than later.
  2. Do not trust your dad. Even if everyone else does.

The rest? It all happened more or less as it needed to.

Eleven springs, a million blossoms, a fresh start, and nearly no regrets. Not bad.

Young plum blossoms at a farm in Santa Margarita, California

I took this picture a couple weekends ago; some things don’t change. I probably have a hundred-plus pictures of blossoming trees on my computer at this point. You might see five percent of those, if I catch up with my travel writing backlog.

In the meantime, I keep on as I have been. Even on a ranch filled with antelope and goats and zee-donkeys, there I am, camera in hand, looking for the right way to show you a flowering tree.

Wherever I go, there I am.

Surprise (to Me) Humanity in Altar Carvings at Historiska Museet

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

If you go enough places in a short enough span of time, weird preferences emerge. Mine is that I’m kind of… over… cathedrals, something I’ve explored a little before. They are beautiful and historic and many things, yes. But I am not Catholic, and too many of my friends who were raised Catholic had some really terrible times because of it. It’s hard for me to walk into a building created with money gathered by means I probably would consider questionable at best and have a jolly time looking at the lovely ceilings. In my last couple of trips, I’ve backed off of considering historic churches as a better use of my time in a place.

Sweden is now nearly 500 years from their last Catholic days. Even before I learned that, moving through their religious spaces felt… different to me. Part of it was recognizing some visual vocabulary from my own Lutheran upbringing – the way hymn numbers were posted on the walls, for instance, gave me some unlikely flashbacks to a certain church in Columbia, Illinois in the late 80s and early 90s.

But there was also a different sort of humanity in the altarpieces I saw. I noticed it for first time at the Historiska Museet, the Swedish history museum. This exhibit included pieces from the 12th to 16th centuries, before the reformation, but it still felt… different to me, as compared to contemporary religious art I’ve seen in other countries.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

My last proper art class was my freshman year of college, and I honestly didn’t enjoy it very much. I always fear that I’ll be talking out of my ass when addressing things like this on the blog. But small details, like the perfect pattern of carved curls above, keep me wanting to bring these little humble bits to you.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

Like, I have to imagine this looked like someone the carver was not on good terms with. Like the “stereotypical Pole” carved into the ship at Vasamuseet or the man-faced dog at Waiting for the Interurban, this face is too specific not to be aimed at someone. I’d do the same, were I in this line of work.

Religious carving and painting at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

I loved the combination of this over-it Jesus and his pissed-off, gilded companion. I truly don’t know if I saw these little moments differently because I was alone, because it’s a visual tradition that’s a little more familiar to me, or because I was able to get uncommonly close to these centuries-old pieces. There were occasional guards, but most of these had no protective glass or plastic. I was able to circle and get (respectfully) close, seeing carving marks and paint strokes in a way I seldom or perhaps never have.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

So often, I find the faces in pieces like this to be stylized enough that the humanity is gone, which I think robs these stories of a lot of immediacy. I liked this hopeful Mary and her grape-holding baby, the shared roundness of their chins. There’s a warmth I haven’t often seen, or at least not been able to perceive.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

I also enjoyed how strange and graphic it got sometimes (which also reminded me of the Memling Museum). The ribs on that demon, the little seal ears of their giant friend, the blasé boredom of the blond woman in the front. “Naked devouring?” she’s thinking. “Sure, if we really must.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

I think people who believe in demons and such are kinda fascinating. I wonder if they still picture guys like this or if their visualizations have changed with more modern influences. Do they look like the dog-gargoyles from Ghostbusters? Like horror movie monsters?

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

Because the good guys could be awfully strange-looking too.

Religious carving at Stockholm's Historiska Museet

Maybe it’s a result of the different kinds of artisans in Sweden, or Sweden’s current more secular ways – or just my own mood that day. But I enjoyed this room of altarpieces in a way that religious art has rarely touched me. Historiska Museet was a bit of an accident for me – “Oh, hey, it’s 2 pm and I seem to be near a major historical museum” – and ended up being a grand surprise full of Vikings and art and layered queer history and all manner of surprises.

I had a similarly enlightening time at Iceland’s national history museum. Time to track down the American version, I think. It’s a strange thing to travel over the top of the world, only to be reminded of how weird it is to get to my age without visiting my own country’s capital.

In time.

The Height of the Winter Arts: Skiing at Stockholm’s Royal Palace

I haven’t lived somewhere with a properly dramatic winter since my last semester in college in Boston, which was… oh, December 2003. Been a while. Seattle got somewhat winterlike now and then, with the occasional snow that went past fleeting and decorative into dramatic and sometimes hilarious. Even there, I missed the pragmatic and sometimes really fun ways people dealt with Really Serious Winter. Since moving to California, that longing has only grown and probably is my current most tedious recurring topic of conversation.* So while a trip to Sweden and Denmark in February justifiably raised some eyebrows, it ended up being so wonderfully well timed.

You can’t stay inside for five-odd months at a time, so the people of Scandinavia just… take it in stride. Sometimes literally – one of my favorite sights was seeing people walking their big, hardy dogs or pushing children in very well-insulated strollers down sidewalks covered in stomped-down snow. I didn’t grow up with sidewalks, so I don’t know if people of my area of the Midwest would’ve done it if they could have. Either way, I was just charmed to see people going, “Well, we need sunshine, the dog needs to pee, and the sprog has to get used to it sometime,” and thus they don their many cold-weather layers and take a wander through the neighborhood.

I saw skaters on neighborhood ice rinks. People playing hockey. Sledders and so, so many joggers. And then, only on one day, skiers in almost the center of the city.

A snowy slope and skiers behind Stockholm's Royal Palace

My first morning in Stockholm, I had a long wander, as is my tendency. I pick a destination, usually a museum some moderate distance away (an hour’s walk is a good bet). Then I meander my way there in the most interesting way I can manage. That day, I started from my AirBnB in upper Norrmalm and walked past Vasapark, through more central downtown and the Central Station, and then stopped at destination number one, an art exhibit at Konstakademien (Konstnären, the natural feminist slant of which kinda blew my mind, to a point that I’m not sure if I must write about it here or if I couldn’t possibly properly represent it in words). After that, I crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan and paused to take pictures and choose my own adventure.

It was then that I heard screaming.

It’s a strange thing, hearing screaming and seeing that no one around you is alarmed.

So, curious but not afraid, I began to follow the sound. I walked along the water, up some snowy stairs**, and found myself behind the Royal Palace, which was my primary destination for the afternoon. I’d arrived a little prematurely and just in time to see something that was, to my eyes, amazing and strange and wonderful.

Screaming in joy. Because… skiing behind the Royal Palace. Huh.

In Seattle, people once sledded down Denny Hill on a mattress.

This was a little better.

Were I a skier***, I too could have had my chance, and for free at that. Well, if I cobbled together meaning from this tent correctly. Never guaranteed.

A free skis tent behind Stockholm's Royal Palace

But I am me, even when I’m in Sweden. I was not dressed for it, and I also hate skiing, something that remains true even in some unlikely, extraordinary place. Instead, I watched and had one of so many moments on this trip where I felt full and glowing with the joy of having made good decisions and being in a place so right in that moment.

I think I need to make a point of getting to snow and cold next winter. “Tahoe,” people here have said to me, confidently, when I’ve told them of this longing. So Tahoe perhaps. Or maybe another wonderfully timed deal, from Norwegian Air or some other airline willing to take strange people to unseasonal places. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll keep this admiration for people who embrace winter and do it right, whether that means putting your baby in 14 layers of clothes and blankets and taking a walk to grab fika, or just keeping your winter sports gear at the ready in case the snow is just right in the park or, you know, behind the Swedish royal family’s official administrative offices. As you do.

*I’m trying to stop, friends, I truly am. The approach of spring should help. I hope?

**You can probably preface any outdoor surface I describe in this post as “snowy,” so I’ll let it be implied from here.

***Reader, how I am not. How much I am not.

The Stars My Destination

Long-exposure photo of stars and the horizon in Santa Margarita, CA

After driving for a long time on long country roads, black expanses set off by glowing yellow markers on either side of miles-long double yellow lines,

Long-exposure photo of a field at night in Santa Margarita, CA

it is a pleasure to get where you’re going, to walk in a darkness illuminated by the sounds of crickets and shifting pigs, to walk away from the porchlight to the faint glow in a gently hazy sky.

Ranch cabin at night in Santa Margarita, CA

To find a friendly fence post, to do three- and 15- and 30-second exposures (in roughly the opposite of the order of the photos here) and get a dreamy preview of what awaits you in the morning.

I miss the stars. My one non-city night in Sweden and Copenhagen was overcast, so no stars then either. But tonight, and perhaps tomorrow? I’ll remember the constellations that are too often, for me, swept away by light pollution.

It took two hours to get out of the Bay Area via the interstate. These stars are won.