Last weekend I returned to my alma mater to attend a friend’s graduation ceremony. Though it was a busy two days, without much of a chance to see any significant amount of the campus, it was dizzying how immediately and how naturally everything came back to me simply by being there. I’ve been out of school for two years now, and yet every time I find myself back at my old university, it’s like I’m back where I belong, and no time has passed at all. Even as we drove through it on the day of the ceremony, everything I caught in glimpses passing by was exactly as I remember it. There are the dining halls; I can taste each one. There are the dorms where I would visit my friends, where we would study and watch shows and movies late into the night; just there up the path is my old building, and I can feel the cool night air lightly blowing past me as I walk back to it for the first time all day. There are the paths I took every day to class, so familiar I’m confident that I could still walk them blindfolded. And tucked away out of sight, there are all the little hidden spots that only the students know, some of them which only I know — the spots where secrets and memories live.
A nondescript breezeway overlooking a courtyard. A tiny, stuffy room on the 11th floor of the library tower. A clearing with a tree by a quiet pond. The top of the hill where we watched the sun rise and set. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the worst part of town with some of the best food you could find. These were my smultronställen, my wild strawberry places.
A “wild strawberry place” — what a lovely concept. In a way, it’s a bit like a combination of hiraeth and hygge: a place that’s highly personal, that you feel an emotional attachment to, where you feel the most comfortable and in tune with yourself. There are distinctions, though: a smultronställe tends to be a specific, existing physical place that you’ve been to before (rather than one you imagine or yearn for, as in hiraeth), with the implication that it’s a place you discovered, and that not many people know about (rather than being an environment you create, as in hygge). It’s also not necessarily limited to just one place — you can have multiple smultronställen. I definitely feel that I do. In college, there were all the places that I either discovered or that happened to me one way or another; nowadays, since I’m still relatively new to the city where I live, I’m still finding new wild strawberry places scattered around as I explore. They are the modest yet delicious restaurants, the unique and charming little shops, the quiet parks with lovely views. And of course, I would be remiss not to mention my family’s summer cabin here: tucked away in the woods and barely on the map, yet the most pleasant and welcoming place to those who know how to find it, it’s about as perfect an example of a smultronställe as you could ask for.
In a way, a smultronställe is a place that’s uniquely yours: whether it’s unknown to other people or merely difficult for them to find, whether it’s tied to some sentimental value or it simply evokes a positive feeling by you being there, the way you experience it is yours alone. It could be a place that excites you or one that calms you, one that brings you joy, warmth, peace, memories, or simple contentment. And the imagery. I don’t know what it is about the thought of a wild strawberry patch, but somehow it’s the perfect image for what it represents: a peaceful, pleasant, and undisturbed place where you are one with your surroundings.
As much as it sometimes seems like there’s nothing new left in the world, nothing left to discover or explore, no sense of wonder or excitement or adventure, there are still places that remain pure. We simply don’t hear about them because, well, they’re undiscovered. A wild strawberry place is something to be cherished and protected. It’s a place that is appreciated for the sheer fact of what it is, not for any artificial hype built up around it or for any supposed expectation of how you “should” experience it. It doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s word. It’s just yours, and the rest of the world melts away around it. When I’m back on my old university campus, I’m a student again, imagining the day when I’ll march to Pomp and Circumstance. When I’m at the summer cabin, I’m a kid again, seeing it through the same wide eyes and with the same unbridled excitement that it’s always brought me. In your smultronställe, the strawberries are always just as sweet.