No, but life’s not fair.
Today’s featured image: Uppsala. It’s good to be back.
Bare skin littered the thick grass, brilliantly green in the afternoon sun. From the other side of the park, a salsa dance class laid a tropical background theme to the shouts and calls from the soccer fields. The heat of the sun brightened the transporting music, and I could hardly believe that this was Stockholm. The park bustled with the smiling faces and chatty groups of friends out for a Sunday stroll. The abundance of sunshine was not taken for granted.
I sat between my friends who had treated me to a delicious brunch at a classy little joint that allowed us to begin our day outside, and we had continued to soak up as much of sun as possible. Our conversation often lapsed both because of their severe jetlag and because of my frequent mental departure, my mind drawn away to the soothing sensation of the sun’s warmth and the shining beauty of the park’s colors.
Then Alex said something that brought a sudden realization. “They pick the sunniest day to sit in the shadow.”
“Huh? Who?” I asked, trying to figure out whom he was referring to.
“That couple,” he answered, nodding toward a couple that had huddled together behind a thick tree on the low cement wall.
“They wouldn’t be able to see their phones in the sun,” Gabriella chided. “They need to do their social media.”
My obligatory laugh came from the self-satisfying habit of mocking the social media addicts always glued to their phones. Though I often fall prey to my devices, I reserve a bit of superiority when I spot a group of friends ignoring each other to browse the lives of others. My train of thought sent me looking for another of these groups.
I didn’t see any.
Of the dozens of sunbathers, walkers, and diners of dripping ice cream, only a small handful was plugged into their mobile device. Almost all who were sat alone. Only one other pair stared at their phones instead of each other, and I couldn’t even be sure that they were, in fact, sitting together or if the angle just made it look that way.
“They’re all unplugged,” I muttered in disbelief. “For the first time in a while, I actually have a bit of hope for humanity.”
Just last week, I had discussed with my host in Malmö the topic of our technological infancy. We have only had these newfangled devices that keep us incessantly connected to the world of not-here for perhaps a decade. Can we really expect that people are just going to figure out how to harness this technology for their own benefit without falling into destructive habits? Of course not. But the constant chatter in many media circles about the perils of over-connectedness and the rapid rise of mindfulness indicate to me that the trend away from self-destructive social media consumption is reaching a broader swathe of the population.
Today, I found more evidence of my hypothesis. Droves of unplugged Swedes flooded the natural areas of the city to disconnect from their digital lives and experience the real world with real friends.
Occasionally, I see glimmers of hope for our species.
When the stale orange of the streetlights reflecting off the stamped and frozen snow of last week’s fall finally gave way to a gentle blue glow of the nearly full moon, the sensation of leaving the safety of civilization became palpable. Though I followed the tracks of many a hiker and their hardy hounds, each step took me further into isolation. The swish of my waterproof pants and thick down coat dominated any other vibration reaching my ears through the winter cap that felt thinner than ever as the temperature dove farther below freezing. My feet tread firmly and steadily along the single-track path that cut along the natural cleavage of the thin Swedish forest. At ground level, the moonlight illuminated fields of white, peppered by the narrow trunks of the towering firs. Though the light revealed all deep into the woods, a slight anxiety perpetually brought my eyes to look around, leaving my feet to find for themselves the trail of pocked snow. Overhead, the clear sky opened to a smattering of the boldest planets, stars, and galaxies that shone through the thick moonlit atmosphere. Looking up at the tops of the trees reminded me of my vulnerability as I tread defiantly among the sedentary giants.
As I reached the top of a gently sloping ridge, the trees gave way, and a sheet of snow opened before me. The trail split: straight to the north along the forest edge toward another city whose glow could be seen on the horizon or right to the east across the field and underneath two trios of power lines topping the wooden frames that stood among the forest timber. I chose to go right, keeping my view to the north open.
As I passed under the power lines, I stopped to listen. I had to settle my breathing that had become heavy with my rapid steps. But the ceasing of my own disturbance allowed the open world to flood in. Far to the north, the rumble of a jet engine cut across the sky, telling only audibly of the travelers’ presence. The power lines above crackled with barely audible electrical shiver.
I turned to the north where the twinkling lights of the next down lit a thin cloud layer that had covered the city. Above it, the night sky faded from soft gray to the black of vast space above. The wide horizon stood open, empty, still. The stillness began to pervade as the sound of the jet engines faded away, and the night air stood quietly in the tops of the trees.
The first to move was not the animated beings of the Earth but the energy of the sky. In a pair of smudges just above the northern horizon, the atmosphere began to glow a faint green. As the nebulous shapes grew in intensity, they grew in size and connected in a wide band that became more defined as it became larger. The upper edge grew sharper and then began to dance. It rippled from west to east like a curtain pulled rapidly aside by some invisible celestial hand. When it rippled back again, it spread to the west, growing there and fading on the opposite side. In a powerful curl, it darted across the distant sky, covering leagues in one effortless stride. The shape burned in a vivid display, but only for a moment. The ribbon faded from the east, and the thick haze of the atmosphere swallowed it up almost as quickly as it had appeared.
I stood beaming at the empty, still scene. I smiled brightly and fully, consumed by the joy of catching this fleeting glimpse of the aurora. The knowledge of being completely alone, kept company by neither man nor beast, amplified the passion of the moment. I smiled and I laughed. I laughed loudly and heartily, sincerely and unafraid. And then I began to sing.
Waves crash down upon our minds,
like the steady rhythm in our hearts,
That keeps us alive so we may find,
Where it is that we belong…
The alarm on my phone gently woke me as it had every day prior, and for a brief moment, I forgot that I was not in my usual bed. The few hours of sleep were surprisingly restful even though my initial attempt at sleep was unsuccessful. The audiobook of holiday stories I eventually plugged in did little to lull me off to dreamland, but my restless mind finally acquiesced around three hours before my alarm was set to wake me for the early morning flight to Oslo.
Quickly shaking the fog of sleep, I reattached my sleeping bag to my pack, slung the bags over my shoulders, and started the short journey back to the international terminal. The vendor with the sandwiches had reopened, and whatever prepackaged food was being heated gave the area a surprisingly appetizing aroma. I had no intention of stopping.
In the international terminal, the airport was surprisingly busy for 5:30 am. Masses queued for the bag drops and check in counters, families with carts full of luggage quarreled over repacking, and panicked travelers weaved through the crowd to catch their flights. Smug in my having arrived the day before for my flight, I walked lazily through the terminal and stopped at an empty bench to repack some of my things in order to squeeze my sleeping bag into the pack for easier checking.
Having successfully compacted my relatively small amount of things, I sauntered to another set of check-in kiosks. After punching in the code I had by now memorized, I was able to get a printed boarding pass, but the machine refused to provide me with a baggage tag as it appeared it was giving all the other customers. Looking around slightly frustrated, I located the SAS check-in area at the far end of the of terminal.
After making the excessively long trek out to the flagship airline, I noticed that the crowds of the other airlines were only the tip of the iceberg. The check in line (of which there appeared to be only one) backed up to the end of the serpentine area. Preparing my new boarding pass, I approached the attendant at the beginning of the line.
“Till Longyearbyen?” he confirmed.
“Ja,” I responded in the affirmative.
He pointed to an area of more check-in kiosks and said something too quickly for me to understand.
“Oh. um.. I’m sorry?” I asked for clarification.
“Oh! Yes. You can get a luggage tag from those machines and drop it over there. The line is much shorter,” he explained after seamlessly switching to English.
“Oh! Thank you!” I responded with a smile and walked quickly over to the machines.
Scanning my boarding pass, I entered the one piece of luggage, and the machine said Thanks! Have a nice flight!
Slightly frustrated, I tried again.
I looked about the area and identified a well-dressed man with a name tag. Assuming he was an SAS employee, I approached him to ask if I was doing something wrong. With a courteous nod, he stepped immediately ahead of another traveler to take the next machine. Repeating exactly the steps I just had, he arrived at the same screen.
“Oh. You need to pay for this hand luggage. You cannot do that here,” he stated plainly.
“Oh. Got it. Thank you,” I responded as I snatched back my boarding pass and stepped hurriedly back to the growing line.
As I approached the man with whom I had spoken just a few minutes earlier, I explained the situation, and he nodded in sympathy.
Remembering the notice on the travel reward booking site, I had partially expected this, but I failed to consider the complexity of the process. As I stepped into the line, I checked the clock: 6:05.
It was really only at that point did I realize that my flight was set to leave at 6:45.
Shuffling along the row, I glanced almost continuously at the clock. As the minutes ticked by, the extra layers I had worn to make space in my bag grew ever more uncomfortable. The lack of airflow under my thin rain jacket that enclosed the stack of sweaters trapped the moistening air over my core, down my arms, and beneath the heavy pack on my back.
Overheating, I tried to relax and shrugged the bag of my back and opened my jacket. Zipping the shoulder straps under their travel covering, I kicked the bag forward along to collect a layer of white dust on its front. As I rounded the corner of the third to last layer of the serpentine, I checked the clock yet again: 6:15.
How did I completely fail this timing exercise?
I tried not to contemplate the mistakes of the morning and focused on accepting this as a lesson learned. Granted, it was a lesson someone who has circumnavigated the globe should have learned by now, but I’ll give the defense that most of that journey did not involve airports.
Finally reaching the last half section, I prepared my passport, boarding pass, and credit card. Holding the large bag resolutely in one hand and wearing the other tightly on my back, I braced myself to rush the next available attendant.
As soon as the next customer gathered their boxy, colorful rolling bags and made space at the counter, I was approaching, tossing my large pack onto the conveyer belt. Handing over my boarding pass and passport, I waited impatiently as the attendant pulled up the flight information.
“Do you know when your flight leaves?” She asked in a half concerned, half condescending voice.
“Yeah. In about 30 minutes,” I responded with full condescension.
“25 minutes,” she rebuffed, matching my attitude.
Turning back to the clock I had stopped watching, I muttered a curse as I realized her estimate was actually generous.
“I don’t know if I can check this,” she said worriedly. “But let me…,” she trailed off as she turned to a colleague behind the counter. She began a conversation in Swedish that I only partly understood but knew fully conveyed this young backpacker’s incompetence.
After a short deliberation, she picked up the phone, hopefully calling someone connected with the aircraft I was hoping to get this bag on. The conversation extended to the point that I feared it would take us past any time limit I had not already breached, but when she hung up the phone, she looked confident.
“Ok,” she said clicking items on her screen. “You will need to take this special baggage just over there,” she indicated to my right with her eyes. “Go as quickly as you can, and then run back to security,” she nodded to my left.
“So, special baggage over there,” I pointed while she prepared the luggage tag, “and then back to security that way?” I confirmed, slightly confused, having noticed the security beyond special baggage to my right.
“Um… Yes. That will be faster,” she confirmed. “But you need to go now.”
With this final statement, she looked me in the eyes with a stern lifting of her eyebrows, and I understood that this may be possible, but it’s going to be close.
Like a thief making off with the goods, I snatched my bag and picked up my knees, accelerating to my right as quickly as the slick, dusty floor would allow. My boots bounced lightly along the surface and ducked behind the rows of customers at the counters that stood between me and my destination. When the path opened, I lengthened my stride and shot down the empty line chute as if through the end of a race.
Cross the finish line, I slammed on the brakes, coming up just short of another backpacker, a tall young woman in sleek traveling gear, laying her pack on the large independent conveyor belt. The attendant had just scanned the tag and was walking slowly back to his computer on a low desk to the left.
“Just a moment,” he said in heavily accented Swedish. “I need to confirm that it is okay,” he alerted the tall woman. I held out my bag expectantly, waiting for her to move.
“Okay. The bag is alright,” he confirmed, and I immediately threw down my pack and held out the tag as the woman stepped aside. The attendant unhurriedly scanned the tag and repeated the process. As he leaned over the computer, I bounced on my toes, ready to spring out under my lightened load.
“Okay,” he began to say and jumped at the starting gun.
The chute was still empty, and I accelerated out between the stanchions. Skipping between lines of travelers, I flew down the corridor back the way I had come. Entering the area of the other airlines, I scanned the signs for security. I needed to get to gate 4, but I had no idea of the layout on the other side of security.
The queuing area of two abandoned airline desks stood empty, and I juked around a stanchion to take advantage. As I approached the end of the area, my reentry to the flow looked blocked. A woman with a baggage cart a stroller stood at one of the ticket kiosks. Her things were spread, but the gap between the cart and the stroller was sufficient, if only just.
Leaping to get my hips over the handles of the stroller, I cleared the gap smoothly and caught my stride again as I reentered the flow. Scanning the signs to my right, I saw only “Gates 11-20”.
With the end of the terminal in sight, I began to doubt the woman who had told me to this way. Not wanting to risk the idea that this security gate would not connect me to the others, I halted, pivoted and turned back.
Back through the oncoming flow, back through the stroller gap, back past into the SAS area, back across the check in line, and around a group of other passengers into the security line, I hustled, my heart rate now racing and my under layer fully soaking with sweat.
The first line moved rapidly, and I used the moment to prepare my things; emptying my pockets, removing my computer, and chugging the water in my bottle. After quickly handing over my passport and boarding pass to the security agent, he smilingly waved me through. My brief bout of confidence ended rapidly as I scanned the lines: three of them, each 25 people deep and apparently not moving.
I looked up and spotted another line on the upper level. The stairs to my right were empty. I shot across the flow of passengers into the lines and up the stairs, two at a time.
Reaching the top with was also the end of the line, I recognized my fate. The situation was no better here, perhaps worse.
I’m going to miss this flight. I’m actually going to miss a flight for the first time in my life.
The self-pity lasted about four seconds until desperation set it in.
I strode past the line until I was within about four passengers from the front. Just hoping that everyone in the immediate vicinity spoke English, I announced, “I’m really sorry, but my flight leaves in about ten minutes. Would you mind if I cut in?”
Much to my surprise, the entire front section of the line apparently was made up of Americans who responded colloquially with such reassuring phrases as “Yeah, dude. Go for it.”
Tossing my computer into a bin, my bag in another, and my jacket in another, I shoved my things into the machine and strode through the scanner without waiting for the attendant. Fortunately, my belt was too cheap to be made out of real metal, and my boots apparently went unnoticed.
Without even trying to reorganize anything, I slung on my bag, wrapped up my jacket, and tucked my computer under my arm as a slid around the outgoing line. Rounding the corned for the stairs down, I slipped on the dusty floor but caught myself in a less than graceful clomping of feet. Thinking back to days of stadium training, I bounced down the stairs with the quickest feet I could muster and used the extra energy to spring out when I hit the floor.
Looking at the gate signs I realized my folly and the wisdom of the attendant. I was at gate 27, the exact wrong end. Winding my way around the shops and milling customers, I shouted mixed phrases of “Excuse me!” “Ursäkta!” “Sorry!” “Förlåt!”
The terminal split, and I lost sight of the signs that had 1-10 on them, but I kept moving. The terminal entered the duty-free shop, and I didn’t slow as I rounded corners around bottles of cognac and whiskey that cost more than my budget for this entire trip. With no indication, I bet on the left, and a distant sign proved me correct. The crowd thinned, and I hurtled down an incline.
Gate 4 came in sight, and the area was completely empty. Hearing my rapid footsteps, the attendant shouted, “Geoffrey?!”
“Yes, sir!” I responded, with some apparent need for excessive formality.
“You missed your flight!” He retorted.
“Fuck you,” I muttered as I approached with my boarding pass extended.
“Where have you been?” He asked with hands spread.
“Running!” I said instead of Shove it.
His colleague, more reasonably, had gotten on the phone to the flight crew. “Boarding pass,” he said, extending a hand. Scanning it with the satisfying beep, he handed it back, and I shoved off too fast, running into the closed and locked door to the gangway. I pressed it again, and it gave as the attendant hit the button behind his desk. Squeezing through the opening gap, I launched into stride again and rounded the corner, thundering along the suspended passageway, just to see the lead flight attendant apparently reaching out to close the door. Hearing and seeing me, he stepped back, and I ducked into the aircraft, only slowing once inside.
“Thank you,” I said breathlessly to the row of attendants whom I had nearly bowled over.
As I walked calmly down the aisle, the voice of the lead attendant came over the intercom: “Boarding complete.”
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…
Many of us, I least of all, did not expect to have snow so early in Visby, but most of the last week was a nearly constant snowfall. The city quickly went from autumn chill to winter wonderland to icy mess.
Last year I was somehow able to produce a significant amount of writing each week. Having seemingly nothing for yet another week in my new hometown, I took a look back at what I was writing this time last year. It seems I was much better at getting myself into shenanigans last year. I really have to try to make things exciting anymore. This time last year was I making a whirlwind trip to Japan, trying to find things to write about for a more professional blog, and continually getting myself lost in urban jungle of Seoul. Now, my biggest adventure is a 15km ride to township of less than a thousand people in the center of this quiet little island I’ve found myself on.
This doesn’t mean I’m enjoying myself any less. I can’t remember the last time I was this comfortable in a place. My house almost feels like a real home, the city actually gets quiet at night, I watch the incredible colors of the sunset from my balcony every night, I’m making friends with some great people, and I have ample time to study the things that interest me.
However, it’s much more tame. The challenge is to make it a challenge. Forcing myself to speak Swedish when I have the chance, exploring the city and the island in my free time, and taking up new hobbies like rock climbing are all that add excitement to this new life. Even keeping this blog up to date is a challenge in itself.
So, I don’t have much to share this week (again), but I do have a few photos. Enjoy!
I knew there was a catch. There had to be a catch. This place was too perfect. My room is small but clean and just big enough for all my stuff. The house is cozy and well-equipped. My roommates are fun, engaging, and mature. My landlords are incredibly kind. The town has been just lovely. It takes only a quarter of an hour to cross the cobblestone streets of the inner city, protected from the fully modern world by a stone wall that has stood for over seven centuries. Yet, within these walls, I’ve found all I need. On my first day I was able to secure a reliable bicycle that will be my means of touring the island and order the necessary part to repair my guitar. I had almost fallen in love with this city when I realized the catch: undergrads.
It was only a matter of time before I got sick. The pattern continues as my immune system crumbles after about a month in a new country. It hasn’t been horrible. I’ve even been able to tour a bit outside the city on my bike in the depths of the illness, and I think I’m just about out of it. However, not wanting to be sniffling my way through the first day of class, I’ve been strict about resting over the past few days. My neighbors, however, had other ideas.
I had shaken off the headphones that had helped lull me to sleep. I had turned in before 9pm, intending on getting a solid eight or nine hours of sleep. Yet, with my ears again exposed, my mind awoke to the shrill shredding guitars of death metal. The paper thin windows made it seems as though the party were on my balcony, not two doors down. I awoke feeling surprisingly rested, but a glance at the clock told me I would regret starting my day. It was just past 2 am.
The music had come from a different party last night, and it must have ended earlier because I was able to sleep through the night. This fest, however, was more persistent. With a cup of chamomile tea, I gazed at the stars from my balcony until the music subsided at nearly 3 am.
The strangest part of the episode was, however, that I kept my frustration in check. Perhaps it has been post-adolescent calming of nerves, but a significant factor last night was the fact that I was enjoying the music. As I tried to fall asleep again before resigning myself to tea, I found my feet bouncing in rhythm as they hung off the edge of the bed to the rapid thundering of Pantera. Yet, good music keeps me up just as much as bad at that volume. When someone finally had the sense to turn it down, I could only hope that this was only a final celebration before classes resume. Yes, I understand it’s Saturday night. I guess I’m just getting too old for this shit.
Anyway, I’ve used my weekend to do a bit of exploring and get some active rest. My trusty bike already has several dozen kilometers on its old wheels. I intend to make it worth every crown I paid for it.
Yesterday’s exploration took me south along the coast. I first located an ecovillage called Suderbyn. They are a sustainable community that strives to show how small communities can operate in harmony with their environment by growing their food using sustainable farming practices, generating their own power or tapping into renewable energy sources, and sharing their knowledge through local and international seminars. It was still early when I arrived, so I just read a few of the informational posters, but I will have to return to get a full tour.
On my way back, I detoured out to the coast to Högklint, the tallest cliff in the area from which much of Visby is visible. Already windy inland, the gusts whipped the straps of my bag violently as I tried to snap photos. Trails below me and anchors on top indicate that this area is popular for rock climbing. I plan to join a local climbing club (which has build a climbing was inside an old grain silo), so perhaps I’ll make the next ascent vertically.
This morning, I just went for a stroll through the city. It was very quiet on this Sunday morning; just the way I like it. There are ruins dotting the old city. They are mostly churches from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There were fourteen in all, but now only the large cathedral remains in tact and still holds services.
I wandered outside the wall on my way back. It still amazes me that the wall is in such good repair after centuries of neglect. It was originally erected at the end of the thirteenth century by the wealthy merchants to defend the city against the peasant farmers who would eventually be competed out of the trans-Baltic trade. The wall succeeded in protecting the merchants in an early fourteenth century civil war, but it did little when the Danes invaded in 1361. It was not siege warfare that brought down the city, but the display of brutality when the Danes slaughtered thousands of farmers (whose numbers had plummeted after the plague struck a decade earlier) just outside the walls. The people of Visby capitulated, and the island fell under Danish control for two centuries.
I’ll try to add these tidbits of history to these posts. This island has an incredibly interesting past. As a hub of trans-Baltic trade, it changed hands several times during the centuries when northern and eastern Europe depended on this trade route.
This is the first time all week that the sun was up before me, but it remained hidden behind a thick fog nearly all morning. I’ve been on a strict exercise regimen, but weekends are my time to rest. I decided to take a walk through the forest and bring my far-too-neglected camera. It was a morning well spent. Just to the west of the apartment where I’ve been staying is the Håga skagen (Hoaga forest). The map shows that it stretches only a few kilometers before the next town, but I could have easily gotten myself lost had I left the trail for too long. Even the trail seemed seldom traveled.
For the first time in a while, I feel I was able to capture the beauty of the seemingly untouched woodland. However, the one thing I was not able to capture was the stillness. Sufficiently deep among the trees and the fog, the sound of distant roadways dissipated and all that remained was was the occasional birdsong and my own heartbeat. I love that these places still exist even walking distance from a crowded block of apartment buildings.
Gently, the ripples of the surface of the fjord water splash against the jagged rocks of the seawall. On my perch atop the round dyke of dark rock, I gaze out to a mountain reaching out of the sea, its flat peak blanketed in downy white cloud like the tumbling snow of an avalanche frozen in time. But I struggle to remain with it in this moment. My mind yearns for a touch, a signal, a confirmation that I am not alone. It needs a Facebook notification. I reach into my pocket almost reflexively to give my reptilian brain its fix, but my evolved prefrontal cortex intervenes. I don’t need it. I now theres nothing there anyway.
My attention returns to the water. Beneath its surface, strands of kelp sway in the gentle current. My mind eases back into the slow rhythm of swishing water amidst the rocks, the murmur of passers by at my back, and the pulsing whirr of traffic. Yet underneath my forced calm is a thick, tangled anxiety, stretching deep into my psyche. The weight of its primitive nature holds it down, but when the tide goes out, it will smear the exposed surface with its unsightly, torpid weight.
I’ve been abroad for over two weeks now, and I’ve yet to be disconnected. My international phone service from Google has brought a new luxury to international travel, but it’s also taken out some of the adventure. The last time I was in Iceland, I needed to jump from wifi to wifi to connect to the outside world. Not wanting to pay the high prices of cafes for a secure connection, I either found public buildings or stayed at the hostel. If I left without a plan, it was up to pure chance to happen upon something out of the ordinary. Being such a touristy city, Reykjavík offers little for the stingy backpacker. Very rarely did I find anyone with whom I could connect. Podcasts and music blocked out the world through my earbuds as I wandered alone and snapped the occasional photograph of an unsuspecting stranger or non human landscape. I was alone with my thoughts and feelings even in the buzz of the city.
This time, however, I returned to a comfortable place by the water and, with my mobile data active, arranged a meeting on the fly. Although I’m very glad I made these acquaintances, this expedited form of rendezvous has set the tone for my current travels. As some of my family has noticed, I’ve been rather silent about my new life abroad. When I first cast off last year and during my winter travels, I seemed to have much more to say. This time, however, I just don’t have much to share.
This is not because my time has ben uneventful. Like in Iceland, I have been able to arrange multiple meetings with minimal effort. The difference is that I have already recapped the adventures. My host always asks about the plans I have made and my explorations of the city. My classmates engage in the obligatory smalltalk when I can share the travails of adaptation. I’ve even had my fill of intellectual discussion from the cultural and genetic aspects of libido to the precarious geopolitical landscape. This is not a place where signs read in a strange string of characters or where servers struggle helplessly to decipher my memorized and butchered phrases. No, this is a place of only slight discomfort in learning new customs and where my self-deprecating joke to follow my mistakes get a sincere chuckle. Though I’ve had to listen carefully to understand new accents and limit my use of idioms, I have mostly found ways to express my thoughts and feelings.
I’m sorry, readers, but you’re not my only audience anymore. I have listening ears all around me. What little my reflections produce find an outlet long before I can get to my keyboard, and I don’t have much to wrestle with that would demand the kind of reflective organizing I used to turn to. I’m comfortable here. This is now the second time I’ve lived abroad, and my new home is far more similar to my origin than my stint overseas. As well as externally, internally my life is in order. My priorities are in place and are congruent with my actions.
I just don’t have much to say, but I have a lot to do. I’ll do my best to recap the most eventful adventures, but for now, just know this:
I am exactly where I want to be. Just about a year ago, I mentioned to a close friend in all sincerity that I was the happiest I had ever been. I’ve returned to that state of mind. The daily challenges I face are only the welcomed exercise I must endure to continue on the path I have chosen. The life I have dreamed of for the past year is now a reality. This is literally a dream come true.