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.