My head is dizzy as we zig-zag through the dense pine trees of the Swedish forest. The engine growls and we top 100mph as heavy rain beats down on the hood of the car. I'm in a red Mustang with a Swede and two Australians I'd met a couple minutes earlier. The Swedish heavy metal band that's blaring through the speakers is too loud. But it's keeping us all awake.
Flashback to a few minutes before, I had just landed in Vasteras airport, about an hour and a half outside of Stockholm. Nestled between the picturesque lakes and islands of Sweden, I had finally been able to relax - catching this flight was no easy feat. I left London 30 minutes behind schedule, trudged through the rain and missed the train I needed to catch to get to the airport. I caught the next train anyways, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Once in the airport I had no time to waste, but of course, my ticket didn't scan so I had to argue with Ryan Air reps for a couple minutes until they let me through the gate. Then came what seemed like miles of sprinting with luggage strapped both on my back and my chest. I was spent and I was stressed, but I'd made the flight.
Once we landed, I struck up some small talk with the guys next to me in the Passport Check line, who ended up being from Sydney and were also backpacking around. Knowing me for less than 5 minutes, they offered to have their Swedish friend give me a ride to my place in the city. Without even thinking about it, I thanked them immediately and loaded my bags into their red Mustang. Traveling for a couple weeks now, I've learned that all it takes to make new friends is just a couple minutes and an open mind - some small talk, a few laughs, and some "No way! I'm traveling for a couple months too!" This would never happen at home.
It was a gloomy day, but spirits were high as we all got to know each other in that ride through the forest to the city. After they dropped me off, I set off to grab a bite since I hadn't eaten anything but two croissants all day and it was now 4pm.
I had high expectations for this city coming into it - I imagined blonde supermodels walking down every street, canals intersecting picturesque buildings, and parks filled with stylish Swedes soaking in the sun.
There was none of that. It was Saturday afternoon and it felt like a ghost town. The streets were empty, most of the restaurants I had planned to eat at were closed, and it felt like the energy of the city had been sucked out. Coming from two bustling cities, Copenhagen and London, I was hoping to find the same buzz here, but even after three days, it just seems like a very mellow, quiet city, with a couple of main drags filled with tourists (imagine if New York just consisted of Times Square and a bunch of quiet suburbs).
I will say, though, that parts of the city are jaw-dropping. And I'm not just talking about the girls. Since it's built on a set of islands, and has similar lego-like architecture to Copenhagen, it's definitely picturesque. And although the streets aren't filled with Victoria's Secret models in every corner, every once in a while a girl with piercing blue eyes and porcelain skin will walk by you and make you weak in the knees.
Aside from the superficial beauty of the city, I had a hard time finding any real culture or personality here. Everyone is very mild-mannered, unlike cities such as Barcelona or even LA, where people are passionate and energetic and take pride in their city (multiple Swedes have asked me why I would ever decide to visit Stockholm - not a common question in any other big city). In the same vein, shops and restaurants are usually part of chains and have no unique qualities - every street looks the same.
The saving grace for my few days in Stockholm were the friends I'd made. I met a British bloke named Paul at the hostel, who was 32 and a serious traveler - he'd quit his job, traveled for 2 years, and had hit every continent. He told me that the underground metro stations in Stockholm we're decked out in art and were supposed to be super unique. I tagged along and we hopped on and off the train, stopping whenever we saw something cool outside the window. It was actually one of the more interesting things I saw while in Sweden.
And those kids I'd met at the airport? We ended up hanging out every day. They'd pick me up in their convertible, which was a great way to explore the different neighborhoods of the city, and we'd cruise to different lookout points, parks, and bars (shout out to Thiha for being a killer wingman). On one of our last nights, our Swedish friend invited us over to his apartment for a barbecue right by the lake. This is when I finally gave in to the slow-paced Swedish lifestyle. We cracked open beers, threw some racks of lamb, steak, and veggies onto the grill, and traded stories until the sun dipped below the water.