Headed North – Part I

The glass doors at the top of the escalator from the express airport train opened gracefully as I approached slowly, hesitant but not yet tired under the weight of my pair of bags strapped over my shoulders like a military utility vest. Terminal 3 was welcomingly bright and impeccably clean, but its lack of rubbish was matched only by its lack of visitors. Only the swish of my pants and the squeak of my rubber soles on the polished granite floor echoed in the wide, low-ceiling room as I slowly shuffled over to the electric timetable on the walls. Curious to see if my flight may be posted, I perused the three screens, but none of the destinations matched my search.

The doors swished open again, and I turned back to see a casually dressed young Asian man step through, head bent over his cell phone, and stride away quickly with his rolling suitcase humming along behind him. As I followed him with my eyes, I turned fully around to watch him disappear through the next set of sliding doors into the passageway to terminals 4 and 5. When he was gone, I examined the area again, looking for a good place to make my homestead for the next several hours, but the wooden benches and stone floors offered no enticing options, so I decided to follow toward what seemed to be a terminal named “Sky City”.

Behind the next row of sliding doors, the long hall glowed almost overbearingly with a mesh of bright white lights over the windows that looked into the parking garage. Averting my eyes, I followed the passing faces of the photos on the wall, each with the phrase “We are Arlanda!” inscribed beside it, accentuating a short description of baggage clerks, pilots, ground operations crew, flight controllers, and so on. The diversity of smiling faces bespoke of the Swedish pride of their openness and tolerance for the multicultural background they so love to extoll, but their efforts – whether sincere or motivated by a need to appear cosmopolitan – have always felt a bit hollow for someone who struggles to keep track of the rapidly shifting cultural and ethnic makeup of the United States.

Several dozen paces later, the portraits ended, but the hall and its lights continued through another set of sliding doors. This time the wall sported only random patterns of stained glass in windows that apparently overlooked nothing interspersed with wide murals of typical Swedish geographical features. Losing interest, my eyes fell to my hands that clutched the small red pack hanging from my shoulder straps like a small child. Though more durable, this pack would be as dear to me over the next few weeks as any child to its parent, as it contained, by monetary value at least, the vast majority of my things.

The next set of sliding doors, which opened just a moment too late for me not to break my stride, opened into Terminal 4, and I realized the airport wasn’t quite dead yet. A few passengers milled about, probably getting ready as I was, to make the most of the overnight stay before an early morning departure. A middle-aged man in a loosely tucked white uniform shirt of the resident vendor cafe pointed with the sterile metal tongs gripped between the fingers of his plastic-disposable-glove-clad hand at the immaculately displayed but disappointingly filled stack of sandwiches behind the glass, and the exhausted customer considered thoughtfully if he wanted the brown or the off-white bread, both necessarily laced with substances that make it possible for the stack of barely-edibles to remain undisturbed in the display case for an amount of time he probably wouldn’t want to know.

Behind a row of metal and glass turnstiles guarding the entrance to the escalators, a clerk leaned heavily on his podium, head sunken into his shoulders as he scrolled the likely illicit smartphone through some social media to keep his mind engaged as he awaited the passengers of the final flights of the day. The barrier reminded me that I had neglected to check in for my flight earlier in the day, and I ambled over the bank of electronic check-in machines.

Punching in the confirmation code as I read it off the email still open on my phone, the machine displayed in Swedish what appeared to be an error message. After hitting exit button and starting over, I tried again. Same result. To be sure I was reading the Swedish message correctly, I tried one more time after changing the language to English, but no, my language skills had not failed me. I needed to contact the staff. With several hours remaining to solve my problem, I put off the panic and decided I might have better luck at the international terminal where my flight would be departing from anyway.

The next passageway was shorter and less interesting, and I soon found myself in a familiar area where I had hurriedly bought a ticket for the train to Uppsala when I had arrived in Sweden nearly six months prior. The brightly lit area still hosted customers of the local cafe, and the train station attendants smiled courteously as they helped the late arrivals. The sound system blasted cliche Christmas hits that competed with the music and lively discourse of the eatery and drinkery on the second level above me to the right. The comparative wealth of attractions here signified that I must have found Sky City. An earlier recommendation noted this as the place to find somewhere comfortable to sleep, and I immediately began the search. Already, however, the conglomerate that I would be spending the evening with had begun to stake out their territory, sprawling over long benches and laying out bags on the few padded seats. Seeing nothing of interest, I decided to perform what evening routine that I could as I found my way to nearest restroom.

Trying not to feel awkward as I spit out the toothpaste in the nearest of the long row of sinks, I tried even harder not to touch anything that wasn’t necessary. Although I know my bathroom at home is in no way germ-free, the thought of the global plethora of bacteria that was sure to coat every surface kept me conservative in my movements. With teeth brushed and face briefly washed, I felt I’d be as ready as I could to try to sleep in the brightly lit and loudly musicked hall.

A continued search through the area revealed no better places to lie down, but a saunter underneath the airport Radisson revealed a pair of circular couches that looked especially cozy. These two had already been claimed, but like trying to place to place that other card in a game of memory, I thought back to where I’d seen another during my walk. It hit me as I remembered the stale sandwiches, which I saw just after stepping around just such a couch that a few minutes ago was not occupied, so I decided to return.

When I rounded the corner of the vendor, the man in the white shirt had drawn down the gate for closing and was sweeping up the tacky tile floor. Behind the brightly lit glass, I could still see the stacks of sandwiches, untouched, uneaten, and unrefrigerated. Fortunately, my stomach was full; even better, the couches were not.

Not even attempting to change or make myself any more comfortable, I laid down my large bag, unsnapped the sleeping roll to serve as a pillow, wrapped my childlike bag in my arms and curled up around the couch, smearing the fold of my wool-knit cap over my eyes, and did my best to sleep.

to be continued…

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