My first thought was that I’m in Sweden for one more day, I’m up before nine, I’ll go for a walk and practice my Swedish on my app and when I come back we’ll talk and we’ll get over whatever the problem was and have a lovely day with his family. My second thought was it’s probably not wise to be looking at my phone while it’s intermittently slippy out and perhaps I should just listen to a podcast instead. I popped in my earbuds, said a somewhat grumpy goodbye and strolled out alone into the sun.
In an effort to see all there is to see – I’m greedy like that – I crossed the road in front of our house and down the path opposite, previously untraveled by us. As I reached the bottom of the hill the left turn seemed to head precisely where we’d walked yesterday and I would have liked to avoid it, but the right turn seemed to head back towards the main road, so I turned left. It was here that I opened up my map app and dropped a pin. I wasn’t really taking in the sights, I’d been there before and I was fully engrossed in an old episode of the Comedian’s Comedian podcast. It’s one of my most favourite podcasts and this was an episode from last year I hadn’t got round to listening to; the insightful and inquisitive Stuart Goldsmith interviewing the charming and (injoke alert) whimsical David O’Doherty. I highly recommend @comcompod and this episode is a corker. I noticed that my battery was only half full and remembered I hadn’t charged it overnight, but the podcast didn’t seem to be taking much of a toll on the power levels.
I headed down to the seafront, or archipelago or skärgåd, depending on who you ask. No tide, much ice, it’s beautiful and still and looks rather inviting. I wasn’t foolish enough to dip in a toe, realising that being alone precludes such activity – I didn’t know if there was quicksand or saltwater kraken or pernicious moose in the vicinity which might prematurely bring about my end.
For a sliver of a second my brain joked with itself about the irony of the fact we’d been in our cabin in the woods for about ten minutes on Friday night before we’d conceived and started writing a horror short. The story poured out onto the page and we ended up plotting a feature in the same vein and were pretty excited. In one scene the couple fight and the woman walks out alone into the woods, only for drama to unfold. Yet here was I, strolling out into the woods alone after a fight with my boyfriend, not knowing where I was nor how to speak the language, trusting only in my entirely unreliable sense of direction. I was breaking all the rules, but it was fine because I knew where I was going.
Whichever road we had taken the day before, today I chose the opposite route and as such followed many a dead-end, Finding myself on private property and trying to recall a surprising statistic I’d heard about Scandinavian gun ownership (from Michael Booth’s book ‘Almost Nearly Perfect People’, which I can’t wait to read). The podcast stopped abruptly and I opened up the phone, checked the map app and charted my route back home, which for me involves holding the phone upside down so I can tell left from right. It was easy; turn right at Dagens-blahgen, left at Soder-watsit and then turn right up Riktigs-vague-something-or-other. Fine. I rewound the podcast by 15 seconds and pressed play again.
I can’t tell you how beautiful, mystical and strange this part of the country is. Värmdö lies within easy reach of the city, barely 30 minutes by bus from Slussen and we were staying in the village of Boo. I already felt like a god, due to my 72 hour combined bus and train ticket; undoubtedly the best if not only value for money purchase of the whole trip at a mere 230 SEK. I struggle to imagine a commuter suburb in Britain which would even begin to compare, aesthetically or in terms of mood and attitude. We were staying in the Air BnB cabin of a man called Stefan, who was away for the weekend. He has a compact and modern two/three bedroom cottage and we had the adorable adjacent cabin. The rest of the buildings are a fantastic array of styles, sizes, colours and materials; from cuckoo-clock Swiss-style chalets, to pastel yellow traditional Swedish buildings which to me look straight out of Gone With the Wind – but they made them here first.
Then there are the modern cubes, the wooden boxes of contemporary design and sleek finish; stylish, minimalist (and, as if specifically designed to piss me off, even with a sledge slope on the roof in one instance). It’s a hodgepodge of styles, but there’s enough space here for each meandering twist of road or sudden valley, or slow incline over the escarpment to offer a breathtaking view, where the bricolage takes shape and becomes a unified landscape. It all fits, in part because there’s still a small scraping of snow which somehow binds each tableau by creating uniformity. It’s purely residential, not a shop nor a mechanic nor anything else in this enclave, though many of the residences retain the eerie quiet of summer houses during winter.
The podcast stopped again suddenly. As I turned on my telephone I noticed the battery had dropped to twenty-four percent. As I checked the map app I realised I’d overshot my dropped pin and had missed my turn. Weird. I hadn’t seen any of the landmarks I recognise. I had stopped knowing where I was going.
I turned off the podcast, thought it was probably best to save battery and headed back the way I’d come, to the last junction. I didn’t recognise it, but as we’d managed to totally walk past our own cabin yesterday, because it looked so different from the opposite angle, I assumed the same trick of perspective was playing out here. Everything looks so different in the snow. Also, I’d probably never been here before.
I retraced my steps and walked in a loop around where the cottage should be, but most definitely wasn’t. I checked the map, as I’d been turning it off between looks as it’s a massive battery drain. I composed a text to my BF, nothing too urgent for fear of panicking him as I had yet another realisation: I’m quite lost and my battery is about to die. I hope you have this sim card in, I don’t have your Swedish number.
I’d convinced him to buy a Swedish sim yesterday so he could speak to his mother. I was slowly watching the cards stack up against me. I had no way of knowing if he’d received the message so I thought ‘sod the 50p’ and decided to call. As it went straight to voicemail I was now sure his phone was on Swedish time. Meanwhile I was still walking to where I thought I should be and I had reached a sports field. I was now definitely in a place I’d never seen before. There was a pavement here and I hadn’t seen a pavement since we’d got off the bus. I was properly lost. I opened the map app and the phone leapt from 13% battery to totally dead and turned itself off. I swore out loud.
I had three options. I could head along this slightly more substantial road which was potentially headed to the main road and the only landmark I knew, the bus stop. I could head back towards the sea, as we’d seen a very distinctive area along the seafront, or so I thought. I’d stood on a rocky outcrop and taken pictures and I felt I was bound to recognise it. Or I could head back in the direction from which I’d come, try and retrace my steps and hopefully see something I recognised along the trail of breadcrumbs I hadn’t dropped.
I tried the latter option first, thinking it would be best to try while it was still fresh in my memory. Except it wasn’t. I didn’t recognise anything in reverse and all of the roadsigns I’d studied began to blur into one Swedish uberword which had neither sense nor usefulness. A nuance of Swedish roadsigns is that they label the road on which they stand, rather than the destination at which they will arrive. So I would come to a t-junction and have to choose left or right of the same option, with no clue as to where that would lead. It was only helpful to know where I was if I knew where that was in relation to something else.
I had seen numerous strollers, joggers and dog-walkers and I thought I might have to ask for help. I repeated over and over in my head, ursäkta, talar du engelska, and kan du hjälpa mig? Unfortunately, I now realised, I didn’t know my address. Or any street names. I didn’t know anything other than I was staying in a cabin owned by Stefan. I nervously avoided the next couple of people I passed, feeling utterly stupid and ashamed. I cursed myself for not taking a note of the address, for my arrogance, and most of all, for making us late for lunch with the family. So much for first impressions.
Walking round in circles, retracing my steps, was by definition getting me nowhere. I kept following my nose, thinking ‘this doesn’t look right’ only to confirm what I knew. I was lost. It didn’t look right as I was very far off track in an area we hadn’t walked the day before. My hypothesis was that I’d opened the map app, dropped a pin, but hadn’t located myself on the map on where I stood, instead the pin was floating over the perimeter of yesterday’s walk. When I’d gone back to look at the pin, it wasn’t even on a path. That should’ve been a sign, but at the time I was engrossed in the podcast and so incredibly dumb.
The sun still shone and I took off my scarf and jacket, remembering that feeling intense heat was a symptom of hypothermia. In my case I was fairly sure it was from a lack of fitness, but I wondered how long before I should try melting snow to drink and whether I’d recognise edible over poisonous berries. I didn’t feel that I was in danger but I did wonder whether I’d be brave enough to knock on a door, ask to charge my phone, enter a house. No one knew where I was. I listen to too many true-crime podcasts. Could I afford to be paranoid if someone offered to help? Could I afford not to? Overwhelmingly, as I tottered up and down narrow, winding, hilly lanes, my mind replayed a gif it had created of a slip on the ice, my lower leg going under me and my femur snapping and exploding out of my thigh in front of me. I saw this on a loop with every skid or misstep.
More than fear or hunger or concern I was rallying most against my own frustration. I slipped twice on ice, both times on the same section of pavement, both times cursing, both times as I went over and over my last known path, like someone stuck on the same bit of Rubik’s cube – every sequence of turns having the same outcome as the last. I was frustrated with myself, frustrated not to know the time and how late I was going to be, frustrated with my total dependence on my smartphone, frustrated by Swedish road-naming convention.
Circling had got me nowhere so I headed towards the sea. Luckily I quickly came to the realisation that I was up high and couldn’t get down low enough to see the coast, to assess whether I was near the spot we’d been before. I tried a couple of ways down, but people had put their stupid Swedish houses in the way and there was no obvious path. This was kind of a clue to me, that I was in unchartered territory. I knew the sea was south, of the cottage, by which I mean we had walked down a hill and in my mind that’s south. Now I look at a map it’s actually kind of incredible how wrong I was and how turned about I became. I think a lot about films like Open Water and 127 Hours, where people who seemingly know what they’re doing nearly die. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and what had once been the prettiest suburb I’d ever seen fast became a labyrinth of hazards and mishaps. That dropped pin was completely randomly placed, nowhere near where I thought I’d been when I dropped it. Why hadn’t I learned my address?
On the attached map, my cabin is on Storsvängen, the the t-juntion by the red pin. I thought I’d dropped the purple pin on Ekliden but as you can see it’s miles from there. So actually I wasn’t lost until I’d tried to find my way back using the map.
I decided it was time to try out my last option, head back to the main road, the bus stop, go back to where I began and walk the one route I know, the 700 metres from the bus stop to the cottage. I headed in the direction of traffic noise, feeling defeated as I came across a sports field and other landmarks, all of which were distinctly not things I had seen before. So I was heading away from where I needed to be, but hopefully back the long way round.
Finally I summoned the courage to ask someone for help. I know how it sounds, but I am one of those seemingly confident people who can address a group of students as a teacher, get on stage and talk to rooms full of people, but who would rather go home empty-handed than approach a shop assistant and ask where something is. That’s my specific social phobia and I’d already become an awful blustering mute tourist during my trip here, so overcoming this anxiety in the medium of Swedish was something I dreaded – least of all because I needed directions, but I didn’t know where to. The weight of my own idiocy was weighing me down as the friendliest-looking woman I could have hoped for passed me in the road.
Ursäkta! I shouted as she passed. Horrified, she turned to look at me, but didn’t stop. Talar du engelska? I wish I’d had the courage to start my conversation with anything more proficient than begging her to speak my language. Stiffly she replied yes, but I don’t know if I speak English well enough to help you. She did, as it happens, speak fluent English. I told her I was lost and the only landmark I knew was the bus stop. She explained that if I carried on along this road (with the sea on my left and towards the hum of heavy traffic) I would come to the main road. I should turn right at the t-junction and then a softer right after about one kilometre. I don’t have what I now think of as the Swedish trait of knowing what 1km looks like, or the square-meterage of a room, for example, but I thanked her and we headed off. In the same direction on the same road, of course, because this couldn’t happen without being as awkward as possible. I kept her in view as she trudged ahead, hoping that she might point me in the right direction once more before we parted. She slowed down and let me catch up with her and said “You know, if you take the left path at the t-junction, it’s not as quick but it’s a beautiful path back to the main road.” I tried not to cry, thanked her, and said I wasn’t actually heading back to the bus stop, it was a means to an end as I’d lost my way back to my house and didn’t know the address. She softened then, realising she was in the company of a higher echelon of idiot Brit abroad. Oh dear, she said, then don’t go left. Don’t you have a phone? She asked, helpfully.
She wished me good luck as we parted and I headed up the steepest hill I’d yet encountered. As I reached the top it bent to the right and the conditions became terrifyingly icy, where rivulets had hardened over winter weeks and there was a treacherous bend, which made me glad I was on foot and not wheels. I hoped hard that no cars would come as I teetered and skidded my way across it, back to the gravelly surface I was more comfortable with. It was then I saw the deer. He jumped out of the road up a bank into a garden. He stopped and looked at me, as if to say ‘twat’. He still wore his shaggy winter coat, but he looked young and confident and watched me without fear as I passed.
As I hit a larger, more main road I realised I was now at the other side of the sports field I’d come across before. Yet another circle. I asked for help a second time. A woman my age and an older couple who might have been her parents walked along with bags of what might have been recycling, but I’m interpolating. Hallå! I shrieked, with a touch too much intensity. Can you help me? My Swedish had left me now. They offered to try, in a more kindly manner than I probably deserved – I’ve been learning Swedish for two months only, but the least I should have done was try to speak it. But they out-languaged me as they out-everythinged me, in knowing where they were and what the heck was going on. Some other things had popped into my mind. Do you know Norrkärr? I asked. I’m not sure I pronounced ‘ä’ correctly, but I was saying norr-shar, so I’d nailed the weird Swedish ‘k’. They didn’t really know. I’m looking for a bus stop, on the main road, I said. The younger woman pointed, the main road was the other way round the school. And I explained the bus stop was under the motorway. Knowing exactly what I needed, they pointed me in the direction. Follow the road, she said, and the motorway will find you. More than necessarily sinister, I thought, but I headed off.
I was finally clear of the woods and hoping to be on the right track. We’d walked into the nearest town of Orminge on Saturday, when we’d found the buses ran only once and hour, and I hoped to soon recognise the main road. Thoroughly bored by the whole fiasco, as I came out onto the main road, I headed towards the nearest bus stop to find I was definitely on the wrong road. Orminge was in the opposite direction than I’d presumed and the 418 bus I needed didn’t stop here. So up was down and I was wrong in every possible way, so I carried on along Boovägen, because the woman told me to and said the motorway would find me there. I hoped really, really hard that the motorway would find me at a bus stop near my house on the road the 418 takes.
It did not. The motorway bisected the main road and I went under it and came out the other side still on the wrong main road. The 416 ran along this road between Slussen and Orminge, much as the 418 did, but it was a different road. I needed to find the 418. By chance, almost, my treasured travel pass was safely tucked into my phone case and not my purse. So I had no money, but I debated catching the 416 to Orminge and catching the 418 back to Norrkärr, but I knew they only went once an hour. Also, another Swedish quirk we’d discovered was that all the bus-stops tell you pretty arbitrary information about when the bus leaves a particular stop, not necessarily a stop at which you’re standing… and I didn’t know the time anyway.
I saw an old lady approaching up the hill, walking with sticks, and I slowly walked towards her in a way which I hoped was unintimidating, but which turned out not to be. I guess by now I had something of the wild woman of the woods about me. She had no idea where I’d find the 418 and she couldn’t really tell me where I was in a way that was useful. I asked her vad är klockan? And she told me it was 11:20. I’d been hoping we would catch the 11:11 back to Stockholm to meet the family for lunch, so I now realised how firmly I’d screwed the pooch and as we spoke I heard a bus pull up and I thanked her and ran to catch it. I tried to talk to the bus driver but I was frazzled and he didn’t speak English. I just kept saying numbers at him in Swedish, I think I was saying 480, but I’d given up. I took the 416 to Orminge and wondered what I’d do when I arrived there.
I tried my phone and after its melt down and well over an hour’s rest, it sprang back to life. Without hesitation I texted my poor boyfriend, who’d sent me half a dozen rather desperate messages telling me to stay put and text him road names and he would find me. We agreed that he would gather up all of our possessions and check out of the cabin and meet me at Orminge. I would have about an hour’s wait. I had no money so couldn’t get a tea or use the toilet (50 SEK) but the shopping mall did have a public library, open on a Sunday, with a small English language section and a book I hadn’t read by Amy Bloom. I was pretty happy about all of this. I settled down to read, exhausted and windswept, trying to work out whether this ordeal would serve as a metaphor for something larger in my life. My boyfriend sent me another message. He was so relieved I was safe. I realised now that he’d been worried about me. While I still maintain the most likely worst case scenario was being late for his family and this had actually happened. Meanwhile his mind had possibly run amok with dangerous scenarios, of killers and accidents and vertical drops off unexpected cliffs. He arrived as he said he would and by then I was calm to the extent of being somewhat frustrated at not getting to finish my book. I could find no greater allegorical meaning to what befell me other than to stop being a dick and not to wander off on my own without knowing where I need to get back to. I’m not sure I’ll ever really forgive myself. The family were all lovely, kind to me and unconcerned that they’d had to change plans and they laughed at me a little, which I needed. As it turned out, getting lost in the woods for three hours wasn’t even the worst or most awkward thing to happen to me that day, but the other thing isn’t the kind of thing I blog about.
I would recommend Sweden to anyone who has the option to go and the time to save a good amount of cash for spending there. I couldn’t fault the place, clean and friendly and big and a real mix of styles and influences. I was mainly visiting with friends or holed-up outside town enjoying chalet life and writing and I quite strongly recommend that too. What I don’t recommend is getting lost in the woods, but perhaps if you do, you might at least have the decency to extrapolate your experience into a lesson which might benefit someone, even if only yourself.