On Being. Alone. – Part II

“It feels good to be home,” I noted after Anton had turned back from the railing and joined me to return to the calm warmth below decks.

“Yeah,” he responded tersely, a despondent smile shadowing his face.

I could almost sympathize. It had been ten months as of that day for me. I can only imagine seven years away from family and old friends. In a week, I would be headed home for Christmas, the one holiday I’ve never missed. Anton was truly on his own at this point, having gone through several iterations of annual celebrations in a foreign land.

On the way back to the cabin, I stopped at the duty free shop to pick up a bottle of the famed vodka. As I paid for the crystal clear bottle, I had a pang of awkwardness as I realized that a significant weight of the pack I’d be brining home was spirits. I shook the thought as I wrapped the glass bottles in dirty laundry to stuff them in the expanding pack that had come the better way around the world with me.

With my packed bag, I returned to the lounge to find Anton and four of the remaining passengers reclining anxiously in the deep bucket seats. I leaned the heavy pack against a chair and took a seat opposite one of the small round tables from Anton, who was in the middle of a conversation in Icelandic with one of the other drivers also taking the south road to Reykjavík.

When the conversation lapsed, he turned to me and inquired, “So what’s your plan?”

“Tag along with you guys, I suppose,” I responded flatly with a shrug.

“You know we’re not going to make it to Reykjavík tonight, right?” he noted.

“I know. I’m in no rush.”

“It’s going to be fucking dark out there,” he mused to himself staring out the window at the fjord wall as it passed by slowly. “And it’s going to be icy.” Turning to me he added, “If you want to get there safely, just take the bus.”

“That’s boring,” I retorted. “Either way, at least we’ll have a story.”

He scoffed. “Yeah, a real fuckin’ story.”

The other Icelander started up their deliberations again. I tuned out as the conversation blurred over my head. The snow-covered walls of the calm inlet slid by the window steadily. A road cut along a few meters above the waterline leading past a solitary powder blue house. It was a stereotypical four-window, peaked-roof residence facing the water with a shelter for family vehicle attached to the west side. A tractor and other machinery stood idle but recently used in what would be a front yard, shapeless under a blanket of old snow. Along road, a minivan passed behind the house. It stood still in the window as it rolled along the undulating roadway at the same speed as the ferry. I watched blankly as one stares into a fire, contemplating the solitary life these people must lead. With hundreds of meters separating neighbors along a dead end road, it is conceivable to live for days without seeing another human being. At the end of the seventh week of sleeping on couches and crowded trains, boats, and hostels, my patience for the ramblings and platitudes of replaceable strangers had begun to wear thin. How refreshing it must be to have a place where independence could be assured, where freedom was real, where silence was possible. The house passed out of view, and the car began to accelerate as an industrial fishery began to dominate the shoreline. The ship started to shudder as the engines backed down on the screws, slowing and turning the floating city as the captain eased his way toward the dock.

When the scenery began to steady, we collected our bags and started to make our way out of the lounge. As we emerged, I spotted Tarah and Jack on their way down the stairs and waved hello. Tarah shouted hello in her thick Australian accent, and I paused while the others made their way around the corner to the elevator.

“Did you guys figure out where you’re going?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tarah dragged out with in an ambivalent twisting of her face, “I think we’re just gonna catch a bus to the next place, maybe spend the night here. Did you decide what you’re doing?”

“Alright. Sweet,” I confirmed, “Yeah, I’m headed off with these guys. So, maybe we’ll catch up in Reykjavík?”

“Yeah, definitely. We’ll grab a beer or something.”

“Cool. See ya,” I offered in parting as I rushed off around the corner to catch Anton and the Icelander entering the elevator.

Just as I started to squeeze my way into the small elevator with my massive pack, Anton cursed  in the realization that this elevator was not going to take us down to the car decks. I backed my way out, and we turned toward the stairs from where I had just come. As we walked, Anton turned to me and said, “You should just get off the normal way. Easier with customs and everything. I’ll pick you up.”

“Alright. I’ll see you down there,” I confirmed and made my way toward the gangway on this deck.

Tarah and Jack were standing in the passageway near reception looking confused.

“Oh hey, guys,” I joked, realizing that I had just said goodbye.

“Oh hey,” Tarah replied. “Is this where we get off?”

The receptionist overheard the question and interjected, explaining that we would have to take the stairs down to the deck three and exit over the auto ramp.

Emerging from the narrow lower deck stairwell, we entered the cavernous freight bay just as the stern of the ship began to open as the ramp was lowered. Half a dozen cargo trailers lined one end of the nearly empty bay, and a few men in fluorescent jumpsuits prepared the deck for disembarkation.

“Are we sure this is right?” I asked skeptically.

“This is where the guy said to go,” Jack replied in his equally thick accent.

“Ok. I’ll trust you,” I responded cautiously. When I noticed another passenger standing by her rolling suitcase, I figured this was probably the right place. The ramp paused only a few degrees open, but the warning siren continued to blare in its cyclical surging and falling. I shifted the weight on my shoulders and tried to make myself comfortable, knowing that I couldn’t drop the bag on the wet deck. The discomfort had grown commonplace with the hours of such standing with all that I owned hanging from atrophying shoulders.

When the ramp finished its descent, deckhands on shore made their way aboard to help with the unloading. The first one on, walking briskly with a smile on his face, said something in Icelandic. At first, I wasn’t sure who he was addressing, but I quickly realized it was the woman with the suitcase, who was now approaching him. She responded, and when they met, they embraced with a firm hug and reuniting kiss.

Inside the processing house, we met an immigration official who asked if we had anything to declare. We all shook our heads and responded that we did not. He waved us along the passageway marked with “NOTHING TO DECLARE”, and we received a few smiling nods from the other officials waiting idly near their machinery.

As we entered a large waiting room in the shed-like structure, the chairs and tables only useful during the tourist summer season stacked along the outer walls. An old man with severe tremors met us and asked if we knew where we were going. Tarah and Jack muttered something about trying to go south. As the man explained about buses and accommodation in a voice that shook as much as his hands, I dropped by bags on a chair and checked for an internet connection on my phone. There was one, and I opened a message from a potential host in Egilsstaðir, just a few kilometers from here. He had some more information on travel, but he still expected me for the evening.

Hey, sorry for the confusion on about my plans, but I think that guy can take me to Reykjavík. I’m not sure how far we’ll make it tonight, but we’ll probably get past Egilsstaðir. Thanks for all the help!

I started looking for hosts in Reykjavík. I spent a few minutes reading a profile of a twenty-something woman with plenty of references. As I composed the friendliest request I could, I looked up occasionally expecting to see Anton roll up any moment.

Tarah and Jack seemed to have gotten all the information they could from the old man, and grabbed their bags. A woman had appeared, and they were thanking her for her help.

Tarah turned back to me for another goodbye, “Hey, we’re gonna go that hostel over there for the night. Drive safe!”

“Thanks! See you guys in Reykjavík,” I said with a wave.

When I finished the request, I figured customs must be taking a while, but I wanted to have a better idea of how much longer it would be. I grabbed my bags and headed out into the snow-covered street. Walking the 200 meters around the side of the building, I could see the line waiting for customs. The ugly red van with the trailer must be Anton, but he wasn’t moving. It would be a few more minutes. I returned to the warmth and began looking for more hosts.

The old man reentered the waiting room and trembled out, “The last car is coming through. Is this your friend?”

“A big red van?” I asked.

“Uhh.. yes. The van,” he confirmed. “If you stand out here, he can’t miss you,” he said raising a shaking hand toward the sidewalk out front.

“Ok. Great. Thank you,” I said with a smile.

Standing on the sidewalk, facing the garage from which the vehicles had been streaming, I contemplating holding out a sarcastic thumb as I waiting for my prearranged hitchhike. When the door opened, a gold minivan rolled out and stopped in front of me. The window was down, and in the driver’s seat was the Lithuanian man who had shared our cabin. He looked at me with a kind smile as if he wanted to say something, but he lacked the English to give the appropriate farewell. I gave a smiling salute and an “Adios!” and he waved as he drove away.

Now worried, I returned to the building to find the old man in the customs office.

“Was that the last car?” I asked. “Did the big red van with the trailer already go through?”

“Let me ask,” he said softly as he turned and walked deeper into the building.

When he returned, he said, “Yeah, he’s long gone by now.”

And for a moment, I was alone.

On Being. Alone.

To live without reflection is to be a rock and not roll.

As the ferry rocked and swayed its way toward the Icelandic coast, I sat wedged into the corner of the windowsill, peering intently along the port side of the ship to our mystical destination. Sheer walls of rock and ice rose thousands of feet straight up from the frigid waters. The slowly rising sun caressed their peeks in the late morning.

“Hey! Geoffrey! C’mon! I gotta show you something!” Anton said excitedly in his thick Icelandic accent as he burst into the lounge with his heavy coat unzipped and an unopened bottle of vodka in hand.

“What is it?” I replied as I started to get up.

“Just come on! Grab your stuff.”

“Alright fine. Just gimme a second.” I started shoving some of my things back into my backpack, but quickly gave it up remembering that there were only about eight passengers left onboard. “Forget it. No one’s going to touch it,” I muttered as I shrugged on my sweatshirt and began to follow him down the passageway to the forward stairwell.

“This is the vodka I was telling you about,” he said showing me the wide bottle of Reyka. “It’s the best stuff in Iceland.”

“You couldn’t wait until you got home?” I inquired, curious about his hurry to procure the liquor I was certain he wasn’t going to touch before he drove his rickety old van along the icy highways across the island.

“It’s cheaper here. Everything’s expensive in Iceland,” he explained more candidly than I knew at the time.

We walked quickly down the rocking passageways and took the stairs two at a time to the seventh deck.

“Is this the one?” he asked partly to himself as he peered around the corner. “No. Next one.”

We climbed to the next deck and rounded the corner to a wide iron door sealing out the cold winds. I followed him out the door and pushed it closed behind me. The water from the previous night’s rain rippled in puddles on the blue deck, a tiny replica of the white-capped waves beyond. Continuing forward, we climbed a ladder to the top deck. A high gunwale and the radar sail protected us from the winds, making a peaceful eddy from which we peered over the bow.

Unfiltered, untouched, unimaginable. The steep cliffs stretched along the entire western horizon. Their faces lit by a sun that appeared to be resting on the water to the south. It was impossible to grasp the scale if the jagged peaks, bounded by the countless waves below and the bluebird sky above.

Anton broke the stillness: “Can you imagine? Being a Viking in your little wooden boat? And you see this? There must have been that one guy: ‘Fuck it. I’m going back.”

I laughed and added, “Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing. It’s not exactly welcoming.”

I started wandering toward the forward rail. I wanted to see around the sail.

“It’s windy as fuck up there,” Anton warned me.

I looked back with a smile but continued. As I passed through the safety of our little shelter, the wind and ship’s speed combined in a wall of icy air that tore through my cotton sweatshirt. Leaning into the wind, I pushed forward until I grabbed onto the rail. Squinting against the gusts, I gazed from south to north along the entire inhospitable coastline. Not to be outdone, Anton came to rail on my right. Playing with the wind, he leaned into it with his arms spread wide, bending down at least twenty degrees before his weight overcame the lift. He tried again, a wide grin on his face, the vodka in one outstretched hand, eyes on the deck above which he was momentarily suspended. He looked happy. I could tell he was. He was almost home.

He caught himself from a fall once more and gave up the trick. Still smiling, he grabbed the rail and stared longingly at the coastline. Starting to shiver from the cold, I retreated to the calm safety of the sail’s wake. Anton remained, drawn in by the scenery. He had been away for seven years, only visiting briefly a couple times. It had been years since he last saw this. Norway, his temporary host, had been no suitable replacement. He longed for the vast landscapes, the unbounded freedom, the genuine people of his homeland. For a moment, he was lost in reflection of memories, of hopes, of a world once lost and now perhaps found. It was a moment I could not share. I would not understand. And for a moment, he was alone.

to be continued…

Awesome

Stunning. Breathtaking. Staggering. Majestic. Awesome.

Since I learned those words, I did not truly understand what they meant. Now, I do.

A thousand feet above the small town of Klaksvik, the second largest town of the Faroe Islands, I carefully shuffled down onto a precipice of frozen grass and rock. On all sides rose the steep, snow-capped faces of the fjord walls. The channel of water, the lifeblood of this island nation, bringer of food and spirit, cut through the walls to the southeast. Along this corridor of the gods streaked the first rays of the creeping sun, igniting the tips of the clouds above the distant sea before ending their cosmic journey across vast space in a radiant ricochet against the jagged peaks. The luminous scatter bathed the morning in a salmon glow, warming the frigid winter air and revealing the melodic and unhurried motions of the town below. My eyes stretched left to right futilely gasping to drink in the whole of the epic scene. They reached, like an infant toward his mother’s face, to the distant slopes, as the shadow receded one microscopic boulder at a time down toward the still waters of the fjord. So focused, so enraptured, so irreverent was I that I entirely forgot to breathe. My body became nothing; my mind became all. Resting there, high above, like a god gazing over his creation, I reveled in the glory of this morning. But I am not a god. I am but a man, small and insignificant, powerless and pitiless, impotent to comprehend to the magnificence of the universe. In my feebleness, I saw only my futility amidst the brilliance of mother nature, and all I could do was submit in praise of her majesty. My sight rippled with unclarity as tears came to my eyes; helpless was I against this awesome beauty.

DSC_0627

Parties Bore Me

They all gathered around me though none of them knew I was there. I sat alone at the center of the room as they collected in their groups, shouting to each other to be heard above the competing voices and 90s pop streamed through the computer by the darkened window. Each with with a drink in hand, they imbued each other with their thoughts while they imbibed themselves with relaxing elixirs. I too drank my barley and hops, but I knew that none of them wanted to hear what I had to say. Perhaps they didn’t want to hear what those speaking had to say, but they listened – or at least pretended to. It was the end of another demanding week, and they deserved the respite from their studies. The energy of the house party filled them with joy and excitement; it was a necessary time to share travails of the past and dreams of the future. From group to group, they conversed eagerly and easily, but I saw no value in the effort to cut in. I was just bored.

The home belonged to a temporary student of the art program of the Uppsala University’s Campus Gotland in Visby, a small Swedish town in the Baltic Sea. The town has a bloody yet fascinating history dating back to the twelfth century, and the city wall, which still surrounds the inner historic city, has stood for over 700 years. It is a beautiful sight, but most of its residents are temporary. The winters are cold, grey, and windy. Destination Gotland operates only two of its four 1,500-passenger ferries through the fall and winter, and tourism drops sharply. As a result, many of the city’s establishments close, and staff return to the mainland. This is the time most students are around, and for those like my hosts from Berlin, the city is quiet – too quiet.

There are only a handful of restaurants, and a few of those become clubs a couple nights a week. Most student parties are house parties, and they tend to consist of the same groups of people. Especially among the small group of Uppsala University graduate students, even a small dinner gathering turns into a full scale get-together because there just isn’t much else to do. At the end of the semester, as the days approach their darkest, the students start to get cynical about their temporary home.

Though none of the students had particularly positive things to say about living in Visby, I absolutely fell in love with the town. In the same way that Tallinn enchanted me with its preserved old city among its modern amenities, Visby continued to impress me with its picturesque scenery and time-transcending architecture. The common thread of student responses I received when I pressed for something positive was that the lack of activity kept them focused on their studies. The life on Visby may be quiet, but it’s exactly the life I like.

I left Visby four days ago. Yesterday, I crossed the small channel that separates Sweden from Denmark and found myself swallowed up by the bustling metropolis of Copenhagen. The hoards of commuting cyclists swarm the sidewalks, roads, and dedicated bike lanes. Though bikes probably outnumber cars in this city, there is no dearth of vehicles that create a deafening roar along the wide chasms of concrete and stone buildings. Even in the middle of the week in early December, establishments throughout the historic city overflow with tourists and residents. Walking streets through the expansive shopping districts choke with the flow of shoppers, and small villages of Christmas-themed street vendors dam the deluge to form a cacophony of music and chatter. The winding streets lead to various oxidized statues of important horsemen and the same series of shops and cafes that lead my directionless brain in circles. As I ran low on energy and patience, I struggled to find my way back to the city center, finally curling up over an overpriced hummus sandwich in an overcrowded cafe I didn’t buy anything from.

The sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and feelings that pounded my body and mind overwhelmed me. Like an electrical circuit, its breakers tripped by a power surge, I shut down. I wanted nothing more to do with this city or its people.


After a long morning of sleep and recovery, I headed back out, but this time I brought my shield and a careful mentality. Hiding behind the lens of my camera, I began to explore again. This time I pursued the natural areas and sparse alleys. Though statistics show Helsinki and Stockholm are more densely populated, Copenhagen gives the impression that the populations of both those state capitals had somehow packed themselves onto this island city.  When I began to fatigue, I retreated to a cafe to enjoy a basic meal amidst the rows of restaurants selling expensive meat-based lunches. I have now found my way to the Royal Library, an impressive structure along the river. Though busy, it’s quiet.

I have learned my lesson time and time again. I have been to a night club perhaps a dozen times in my life. Not once have I enjoyed it. Each house party has been an exercise in escape or bearing the time until it becomes appropriate to leave. These massive cities, particularly the Korean capital I resided in for eight months, march to a beat that is much too fast for my tempo. The energy overwhelms me, and big crowds bore me.

The last two countries of this journey comprise a combined population of about twice that of my rural hometown. From this perspective, it will be a good end.

Photo Update: Stockholm

Walking around Stockholm, there was something immediately obvious: this was not one of the homogeneous societies I had become accustomed to. In Korea, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, it was strange to see anyone who didn’t look predictably Korean. I even developed an eye for spotting facial differences between Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. As I passed through Mongolia, I couldn’t help but think that everyone looked like the stereotypical Mongol, and their shared heritage with Ghengis Khan and the Mongol empire is a proud one. Once I crossed into Russia, the faces made an abrupt change to the expected sharp features and light skin. Even through Estonia, Finland, and northern Sweden and Norway, people overwhelmingly fit the European stereotype.

Stockholm was very different. Particularly in the area where my host lived, the train was full of people of dark skin, light skin, curly hair, straight hair, religious attire, thick beards, hard features, soft features, big eyes, small eyes, long noses, crooked noses, on and on. I heard languages from the all-too-familiar accentless American English to unidentifiable Middle Eastern and African dialects.

This was exactly the feature I was on the lookout for when I arrived in Sweden. With the rise of anti-immigration sentiment across the US and Europe, there has been a lot of rhetoric coming through the media about the dangers of Sweden’s open-door policy. Sweden and Germany were taking the lead in hospitality toward the refugees fleeing the exceedingly violent Middle East. It seems, though, that people are fearing that Sweden has reached its limit.

The rise of the Sweden Democrats, a political party with roots in the Nazi Party, illustrates the rapidly changing opinions toward immigration. Recent legislation has clamped down on immigration numbers, reverting to an “EU minimum.” (I’m still trying to determine exactly what that means.) Border security has risen with officials checking documents of even the Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes who commute daily across what had been invisible borders.

The most credible fear I have heard is the problem of integration. With such a rapid influx of refugees, communities of these newcomers have sprung up, making neighborhoods much like the Little Italy or China Town of large American urban centers. This phenomenon is only retarding the process of integration of refugees as they find comfortable places without the need for learning Swedish or adapting to cultural norms. The economic and social impacts are still yet to be fully seen.

Based on my personal observations and conversations with locals, the influx has been mostly transparent. Social safety nets and public services are still in place and functioning normally. There are some levels of apparent homelessness, but from my observations, it’s far less than any large American city. Anyone in Sweden who needs  a roof and place to sleep can find one. The streets of Stockholm are dotted with beggars, but they are overwhelmingly old Roma women, a group that has been disenfranchised for centuries. I even heard the claim that these women are often on tourist visas, and will return to their homes in Eastern Europe after a brief collection of donations.

I’m unsure of the economic specifics, but from all observable criteria, Sweden is handling the influx of migrants and refugees just fine. Certainly it would help if they could share the burden with the rest of the developed world, but the recent decision to shut the door seems premature.

On my last night in Stockholm, I attended a rally protesting the new legislation. They chose the location because it was the same spot where government officials had gathered this summer to express their willingness to help refugees. Unfortunately, the number of motivated young Swedes willing to brave the cold to show their solidarity was pitifully small, perhaps a couple hundred at most.

It appears that Sweden has caved in to pressures of the rest of the jingoistic and fearful developed world. Their intentions were noble, but they just couldn’t go it alone.

 

Politics aside, Stockholm is a beautiful city. Its cobblestone streets and ancient architecture give it an exotic charm. Even at the end of autumn, the streets of Gamla Stan, the city center, were crawling with tourists.

Even though the light was limited, and the sun peaked only a few degrees above the horizon, I thoroughly enjoyed wandering this amazing city.