I was so tired when the plane landed at Arlanda last Friday that I don’t recall feeling much except relief to see the familiar landscape of Sweden in spring, with lush green trees carpeting the ground below. After flight delays, portaging three bags (including a duffle bag to wrangle), weeks of tasks and chores in preparation for what I think of as my mini-move, I was ready to arrive in Stockholm.
I caught a taxi home with all of my luggage, watching as the familiar scenery passed in an exhausted haze. But the drive in by taxi revealed evermore construction in the city, from ongoing projects to new. The roundabout at the north gate is still a mess, but wow, the apartments a block from our building have risen from the granite below, shiny and glass-fronted, while I was away! The apartment was the same — such a welcome sight! — as was my street. How nice to open the door and step inside to home.
I’ve spent the past week looking for the familiar and the new. I might be noticing more than usual the influx of Roma beggars: I was familiar with their presence when I left, but on my return, I am finding it overwhelming to see one or two outside of every supermarket and metro station entrance. All women of all ages, they still cry piteously, “please” in English, and say “hej hej” in Swedish. What a difference from the older white men begging in Boulder, who perhaps have mental issues or veteran status, and hold their cardboard signs at major intersections’ street corners and on the main pedestrian shopping drag hoping for handouts.
More pedestrian in my own life is the difficulty in remembering some basic things, like how to use the chip on my Swedish credit card (I keep swiping, not inserting the chip; the bank machine ate one of my cards on Tuesday after I entered the wrong pin code too many times) or open a window (push the lever *up*, then turn the handle!). Yet how easy it is to slip back into other habits — like making coffee with a 2-cup Italian cooktop espresso pot, versus my 12-cup countertop coffeemaker in the US, or finding my way through town on my bike.
Getting on my own bike to pedal to my office on Monday morning was a revelation — I had missed this bike. It is so light and fast compared to the heavy clunker I was borrowing in Boulder and straining to get up hills. (Yes, it was exactly the same model as my beloved bike that was stolen when we first moved here — change is good sometimes.) My posture was completely different. The gears shifted perfectly, and best of all, the brakes didn’t squeal.
I felt amazed at how small the city felt as I crossed it so easily; while I will miss the quiet paths in Boulder that meander by streams, well away from the road and cars, the many bike lanes here in Stockholm make it so easy to traverse. I couldn’t believe how pressed I had felt to get somewhere quickly here on my bike before. Still, my sense of road rage remains, as healthy as ever when drivers cut me off; I think drivers in Boulder hate cyclists, but bikes rule in that town and they seem to give them more space there than in Stockholm.
Seeing my colleagues and my old office when I stopped by on Monday was also revelatory. They were happy to see me, and I, them — it was so easy to fall back into conversation, as if I had never left! My Swedish colleagues refer to that kind of experience as a “parenthesis,” an episode that has taken place outside of one’s regular life, and feels as though it did not happen. I cannot think of the phrase in English that fits; Swedes also say “it felt like a dream,” which may be the only way I can translate this concept into English.
When I left, I relieved that I also felt much less stressed to be in the office. The last time I really worked there, before I began packing up my office to go to Boulder, I was probably head down to the computer, trying to figure out what to work on and fighting with mental deadlines and deflated ambitions. I needed a break. Now, I feel much less burdened by these worries. I’d had a true break from them with my Boulder sabbatical, and seem to have come back refreshed.
Which led me to ruminate: Humans are nomadic. We need a change of scene. The same commute, the same work every day is mind-numbing to our neurological structures. We need to mix it up. We need parentheses. And hence, the brilliance of the Swedish sommarlov: leave work and home for a few weeks in the summer, and renew.
For me, living abroad at home and my migration back was my renewal, I hope. I want to hold onto this feeling of wonder at my surroundings, and a sense of context regarding my work and life. Still, I am tempted to take the summer off anyway! It finally arrived today, weather-wise — I left a rainy, El-Niño-soaked Colorado to come to a cold and rainy Sweden, the worst May since the 1960s for the whole country, and the worst in Stockholm for over a century!
I will miss sunny Boulder — or at least parts of it. It’s good to be home. It feels a bit like I never left. But I keep noticing differences, and I will continue to post a few more thoughts as I transition back to Swedish living.