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.