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.

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.

Stockholm’s City Hall: Vikings, Italians, and Looming Pseudo-Medusas

Stockholm's city hall's exterior from the street, with EU flag

Stockholm’s city hall (Stadshuset to locals) looked like a staid brick building as I approached it, walking carefully along the icy sidewalk and hoping for a cafe where I could get second breakfast. (I was in luck there. Thanks, Sweden.) I like seeing millennium-old skeletons and grand history and all of that, but I also have a love of the everyday when I travel.* That includes municipal buildings, so I didn’t need to know about any grandeur in Stadshuset for it to be worth putting on my list for my time in Stockholm.

Looking toward the water from Stockholm's city hall courtyard

Walk through an arched doorway, and you find yourself within a wide courtyard. There are cobblestones under that snow. Beyond the arches you see here, there’s a green space (well, white when I was there) that meets the water, allowing you a wide view of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

Looking down into Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

The tour (100 SEK, or about $11 at this writing – typical for museums and tours, I found) starts in the Blue Hall, which you may know as the place where the Nobel Prize banquet is held each year. Oh, only that. It’s a wide space, but the tour guide took a little glee in telling us how each guest gets only 50 cm of dining space – except for those being honored and the royal family, who get a palatial 60 cm. It is snuggly for sure.

When we were there, it was just… quiet, that lovely exaggerated hush from people being respectful in a high-ceilinged room. Oh, and why is a clearly brick-walled room called the Blue Hall? The architect’s original idea was the glaze the walls blue, but the brick (deliberately aged to make it seem like a more ancient space than it is) was pretty enough that the glaze idea went, but the name stayed.

The building has a few mid-process switcheroos like that.

Looking up from within Stockholm's city hall's Blue Room

This room is meant to evoke an Italian palazzo. I dig it.

Arched ceiling in the tower of Stockholm's city hall

From there, we ascended the stairs that Nobel Prize winners descend on the night of their banquet. We paused in the middle of the building’s tower, which is open for more detailed tours in the winter. These are the thousand arches (and, uh, one balloon).

Rådssalen ceiling

Next was the Rådssalen, where the city council gathers. Just take a second and compare this to the Blue Hall. I feel like the architect went for beauty and variety at the risk of that certain staid awe we like in our public buildings, but managed all of them anyway.

Rådssalen ceiling detail

The ceiling was inspired by Viking architecture, and I did very much wish I could lie down and stare up at it, maybe with a fire nearby. I don’t think about nesting much these days, but I did bookmark this in my head for if I ever own my own place and can do what I like with the ceilings and walls.

Oval Room at Stockholm's city hall

After that, we walked through the Oval Room, which is closed on Saturdays so Stockholm residents can get married in it. It’s lined in centuries-old Belgian-made tapestries, and it just feels lovely and warm in there. It’s up there, I think, with San Francisco’s City Hall and a pink Elvis-driven Cadillac in Vegas so far as rad places to celebrate your union.

Gold Room at Stockholm's City HallThe finale of the tour (and this is saying something for a tour that started with oh just the room where the Nobel bloody Banquet is held) was the Golden Hall, made of millions of tiles and about 10 kg of gold, sandwiched ever so thinly between tiny panes of clear glass. The post-banquet ball is held here, but I feel like even that scintillating company would pale a bit next to the very vivid tales going on in the enclaves and on the walls.

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

There are the Greek and Roman references that seem to pop up throughout the older Swedish decorative arts. (They’re frequent at the Vasamuseet, for instance.)

Stockholm city hall mosaic detail

Yeah, this is familiar enough. (Excuse the pictures: art made for imposing and impressing doesn’t translate very well from a 5’8″ perspective, but I love these enough that I don’t care. They reminded me wonderfully of the art in Seattle’s Greek Orthodox church – surprisingly human and cartoony, considering the contexts.)

Eric XII and a woman with surprising spheres

But then it gets into local stories. I wish there was a tour that just told the tales being depicted on the walls. The tour guide gave some pretty great highlights, but then there’s this little scene. I’m not saying I’ve never taken the position of the woman in the back, but never in the presence of some grey-blue demon fellow with a pointed tongue.

Well, not yet.

Funeral procession detail in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

This one echoed a long illustrated scroll I saw at the Royal Armory. Humans have always loved a good funeral, I suppose.

Queen of Lake Mälaren in the Gold Room at Stockholm's City Hall

At the end of the room, the Queen of Lake Mälaren looks benevolently (and, let’s face it, a little dubiously) upon us. She was controversial, apparently – her hair too Medusa-like, her looks insufficiently dishy. I think her expression is perfect – how else should you look if you find yourself the caretaker of a city while holding a scepter and wearing a see-through shirt that turns your boobs blue? “Yeah, well, this is today, isn’t it? Right then. Better get to keeping this city from being smudged off the earth.”

Here’s a little more about some of the symbols and stories going on in this wonderful, wonderful space.

Bye, Gold Room!

And then it was time to go.

We descended the stairs back into the Blue Hall. I couldn’t quite keep my gaze on the star on the wall, too afraid was I of tumbling down the marble stairs and landing in the pile of performance fabrics that I’ve been since arriving in Stockholm on Saturday. That’s a thing with going from California to Sweden in February: it’s very easy to completely stop trusting your feet, as the ground very much has its own agenda.

I write this on a train to Malmö, where I’ll catch a second train to Copenhagen. I like it here so far. I’m not sure if it’s the secondhand Scandinavian exposure I had in my 11 years in Seattle or residual goodwill from my trip two years ago (!). Those two trips bookended a period of some of the greatest upheaval I’ve experienced in my life so far, so I can’t help but wonder what’s waiting for me when I get back to Oakland next week.

In the meantime: sensible design, a culture of beautiful collaboration, and awe at other people’s mythologies.

*A highlight of yesterday: seeing how cool Stockholm recycling is, with bonus laundry scheduling mechanism. More on that another day.