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Spin the Globe: Steven Petrow Succumbs to Meatballs (and ABBA) in Stockholm, Sweden

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent advice columnist Steven Petrow with 24 hours’ notice to the Scandinavian birthplace of ABBA and a certain meatball.

LET ME START with a confession: I’m more than a bit neurotic, and the very thought of taking an unplanned, spontaneous trip to an unknown destination terrified me. Still, I’ve long been inspired by the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

In this case, how could I not? When my e-ticket arrived, it took just two clicks to discover my destination: Stockholm. As in Sweden. Sweden. A lovely place, but home to numerous triggers that could send me straight back to psychotherapy: Swedish meatballs (I once binged on two dozen in a 30-minute scarf-athon, never to consume another); Viking gods and goddesses (how can anyone’s self-esteem survive in a nation of A-listers that include sex kitten Ann-Margret and Calvin Klein model Marcus Schenkenberg?); and ABBA (synonymous with coming out for this onetime dancing queen).

Fourteen hours after departing from home in North Carolina, my flight touches down in the Swedish capital right at dusk—just before 3 p.m. On the sleek express train to the city center, I’m awakened from a nap by the catwalk entrance of a young couple with their newborn son. Model mom is in kitten heels and black jeggings, with a silver blonde chignon; hunky dad sports a two-day growth, a slim-fit jacket, and cobalt skinny jeans. After my 4,000-mile journey, I’m the ugly, and tired, American. I hate them (and baby “Bjorn,” too).

I check into the Lydmar Hotel, which sits cozily between the Grand Hotel—where the Nobel Prizes are awarded—and the National Museum. My stylish roost features a porthole looking out on the Strandvägen, the equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Despite my jet lag, I’m eager to meet up with renowned designer Dick Lundgren, who has promised me a night out on the town. At exactly 6:30 p.m., Lundgren collects me in his sporty Bimmer and speeds off, refusing to yield at crosswalks and zipping the wrong way down a one-way street. In the crisp night air we whip through Gamla Stan (the old town), past the Royal Palace and the Opera House and over a bridge to Skeppsholmen, the island where I’ll later visit the Moderna Museet to see photographer Cindy Sherman’s vaginas and penises—pictures I’m told were banned from her recent U.S. exhibit. But now I’m famished and ready for an authentic Swedish dinner. Will I have the char? Reindeer? Elk?

“Do you like Pakistani food?” Dick asks, and before I know it, we’re on the interstadden to a suburb 20 minutes from downtown. At Punjabi Masala, we eagerly devour superb chicken tikka, lamm chaanp, and seekh kabab (fortunately, not a meatball’s in sight).

The following day I head out to visit the “unsinkable” Swedish warship Vasa. In a titanic oops, the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. It was brought to the surface in 1961, a feat celebrated as an example of the ingenuity that is woven into the Swedes’ DNA. In fact, I’ll be witness this day to more Swedish genius, ranging from Virtuous Vodka, an organic oxymoron that comes in raspberry, bitter lemon, and other flavors, to the “Hövding,” a high-tech personal airbag for cyclists that masquerades as a high-style scarf. With these tiny inventions the Swedes have solved two of the world’s gravest problems: the hangover and “helmet hair.”

During the first couple of days, I’m an enthusiastic sightseer, despite 30-degree temps and a wintry mix of precipitation. But much of my time is consumed by daily adventures to Stockholm’s fine restaurants. At Chef Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren (“Food Bar,” the one-star Michelin sibling to his more formal two-star Matsalen), I’m on the verge of panic as the advice of the Lydmar Hotel’s concierge echoes: “You must have the moose.” Taking Mr. Emerson’s words to heart, I overcome my fear and order “seared heart of the king of the forest.” Within seconds I am bragging on Facebook: “I’ve just eaten ‘alg’—that’s moose to you!” to global applause.

My next food-related crisis moment occurs at Restaurang Volt, where my gay man’s “eating disorder” goes into high gear when I’m told that the sourdough is served with house-made butter and “whipped pig fat.” Still, I’m relieved when the first delicate bite completely amuses my bouche.

Next up, crab with “virgin butter,” a term house manager Johan Bengtsson explains wryly: “Oh, it comes from the Butter Viking in western Sweden. It tastes like sour cream and butter—quite light!” Who knew the Swedes have such a sense of humor?

Curious as to the absence of meatballs, or köttbullar, I ask why. “I never have them in a restaurant,” Johan replies. “They are home food.” He flirts with giving me his personal recipe, then pulls back, confirming the stereotype of Swedish men as a mysterious species. Still, I realize I’m starting to hanker for köttbullar. Is this how personal growth happens?

After these extraordinary meals, I’m sorely in need of some exercise. So, on the third day, I traipse through central Stockholm, past the Atelier Restylane (ah ha! the Swedes need a little facial filler, too) to the Yogayama studio. Again, I’m anxiety ridden: How will I fare in an all-Swedish class of upward and downward dogs? Will I find myself in a bind I can’t escape? My bleak Bergman vision proves unwarranted, as I enter a snow-white design dream.

But wait! It turns out that I’m in a straight man’s Viking fantasy, as the class consists of nine lithe Nordic beauties—and me. Ebba, the size zero instructor, starts off by dedicating her practice “to thinness.” Or at least that’s what I hear as I see the nine yoginis nodding in agreement. Ebba goes on to explain, “Every day I struggle to maintain my thinness…” Filler is one thing, but now I’m thinking the Swedes have taken their beauty obsession too far.

As the class winds down, Ebba asks us to rededicate our practice. It’s only then, when I’m finally accustomed to her Swedish lilt, that I realize her devotion is to “stillness,” not “thinness.” StillnessI  know I can do; thinness, not so much.

I’ll need as much stillness as I can muster during my remaining two days, as I try to ignore ABBA trending in my Twitter feed (“40th anniversary plans announced”) and the can’t-miss bus shelter ads for ABBA: The Museum. So far I’m holding out, not willing to take a chance on them.

Then, in a moment of weakness, before I can change my mind, I’m the first in line—and then deep in the bowels of the mod museum, karaokeing to the tunes I once scorned. Then, it’s down the rabbit hole of memory for me, reliving my closeted past when I was looking for a place to go. After all these years, what do you know, the museum delivers on its promise: WALK IN. DANCE OUT. And I am in the mood for a dance.

On my last day, I’m ready to confront my biggest Swedish neurosis: Yes, I would eat köttbullar once more in this lifetime. And this time, I wanted the best. Among Stockholm’s numerous contenders, I choose Prinsen, where the small meatballs are smothered in a cream sauce, with sides of lingonberry, pickled cucumber, and potato puree. Savoring rather than scarfing, I find my gluttonous youthful grudge is all but erased, and I am, in a moment of catharsis, freed from my past. On my way out I profoundly thank the maître d’, who, like ABBA, doesn’t miss a beat. “They’re just like Ikea’s,” he says, “but without the horsemeat.”

Indeed they’re funny, these Swedes.

With the clock ticking down, I visit the Nordic Spa on my final day. A chalkboard greets me: SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS ONCE & FOR ALL. PLEASE TALK TO THE RECEPTION. For the first time in a long time, I realize I have no problems. Instead of getting a massage, I head back to the Lydmar for a final Virtuous cocktail, and, with my earbuds implanted, download “Dancing Queen,” layering memories of my first boyfriend with those of the past five days, having the time of my life.

Planning a trip to Stockholm? Check out the AFAR guide to the Scandinavian capital.