Why Winging It Behind the Wheel Is the Best Way to See Sweden

With paper map and film camera in hand, an AFAR editor discovers the benefits of a tech-free road trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg.

Why Winging It Behind the Wheel Is the Best Way to See Sweden

The photographic evidence of an unplugged road trip

Photo by Jeffery Cross

Where’s our blue locator dot?

Staring down at the blanket-size map of Sweden, I knew logically that a piece of paper couldn’t reveal our coordinates. But it wasn’t until that moment, sitting in a rental car at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, that I grasped how completely technology had infiltrated my consciousness. Without that little blue dot reassuring me that we were at least facing the right direction, I couldn’t figure out how to begin. You asked for this, I reminded myself.

I had wanted to spend a week driving across Sweden without the help of technology. And fortunately, Jeannie, my travel partner for life, was game to forgo Google Maps for the paper kind, Yelp for actually talking to people, and our iPhones for an Instax instant camera with only 60 sheets of film. In that parking lot, I realized that traveling without technology would feel like hiking without shoes: Stripped of the comfort of our digital soles, we were going to be forced to move more gingerly across this foreign terrain.

It’s not as though I hadn’t done it before. I first went to Europe in 1997, years before Google eased (dominated?) our lives. I booked tickets via a travel agent and captured 10 days in France and Italy with a Canon point-and-shoot. These days, however, I wake up to news alerts on my phone. I listen to podcasts while walking to work, read my iPad on the train, text while waiting in line. I’m not a social media obsessive, though I dip my toes in regularly. In other words, I am your average slave to digital connectivity. But it often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and unable to shut down. And when I travel, I’ve increasingly felt that rather than exploring the world for the sheer joy of it, I’m traveling to have something to show.

“Wing it” became our mantra for the week. Don’t know where we are? Drive until we do.

After wrangling the map to a more manageable place-mat size, we still weren’t totally clear on the route. So we decided to wing it, and after a few wrong turns, we finally merged onto the E4 highway, feeling as though we’d climbed a very small, but critical, mountain.

“Wing it” became our mantra for the week. Don’t know where we are? Drive until we do. Don’t know how to pronounce ursäkta mig? Say it anyway and wait for a kind Swede to correct us. (It’s oor-SHEHK-tuh MAY, meaning “excuse me”—a good phrase to master during a trip.)

Gothenburg is the largest city in West Sweden.

Gothenburg is the largest city in West Sweden.

Photo by Craig Dennis/Flickr

On our arrival in Gothenburg, the largest city in West Sweden, we were swiftly reminded the region is at its peak in summer. We had come in late September, when many Gothenburgers shutter their adorable shop/bakery/stationery stores and leave shoulder-season travelers to fend for themselves. It was a Sunday—double whammy—and the city was barely operational. My resolve weakened. My fingers twitched, anxious for a hit. Shouldn’t we just ask the digital world what might be open on this quiet day? I pushed the thought away, and we walked down one cobblestone street and up another, past a lone open restaurant that looked vast and bright but impersonal, like the IKEA of brunch. A few blocks later, we spotted a group of people, even—could it be—a crowd? Yes, it was! We had stumbled upon a Sunday flea market on Masthamnsgatan Street. Rickety tables held records, T-shirts, and wool sweaters. Just beyond the tables, cafés overflowed with people. We stepped into Caféva and within 10 minutes were sitting in front of massive bowls of vegetable soup and slices of caraway-flecked limpa bread in a sunny, flower-strewn room that fulfilled all the Swedish fantasies I hadn’t realized I had. Victory number two.

We observed, rather than photographed, most of the beautiful things we passed...

We collected these minor successes as our trip went on. No one told us about the Smögen Whisky distillery in Hunnebostrand—we just found it. We couldn’t look up how to pay for an inter-island ferry, so we just drove on and hoped for the best. (Turns out it was free.) By the third day of our trip I felt, in a way I hadn’t in years, that we were creating every moment for ourselves, inhabiting each one fully. We observed, rather than photographed, most of the beautiful things we passed: the spectacular cable bridge that leads to the quaint island of Tjörn, a row of brick-red boathouses in Stångehuvud Naturreservat, a nature reserve with rolling hills of prehistoric granite. If something felt truly special, such as the spandex-clad septuagenarian who roller-skied past us one day, we’d snap an instant photo. But even those were only for us, unburdened by any expectation of social media “likes.”

In summer, Tjörn's population nearly triples with vacationers.

In summer, Tjörn’s population nearly triples with vacationers.

Photo by jbdodane/Flickr

There were also frustrations. The riddle of Stockholm’s parking signs. Trying to convert prices in my head. Swedish gas pumps. That said, the struggles were as empowering as the successes; each was a knot, like the ones we’d seen mooring boats in the Skärhamn harbor on Tjörn, waiting to be untied. A week later, as we drove back to the airport in the predawn hours, our map lying tamed and highlighted in the backseat, I didn’t need a blue dot to tell me where to go.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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