08 May 2018

Arriving

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I came up from Copenhagen to Växjö in the snow. Or, it came to snow as the train pulled into Växjö on Easter night and I found my cab after going up and down the wrong set of stairs. Everything was quiet on campus, where the cab dropped me off at the castle and where I checked into a small cottage on the edge of the castle grounds. The window in the bathroom above the toilet had a large, clear glass window that looked out on the lake, and I wondered if people could see in.

I had made a mistake in telling everyone I was coming a week later than I actually could come, causing a sort of Swedish trouble I couldn't properly gauge as an American having spent too much time in the UK. I can’t seem to take anyone at their word about their feelings. Because of this error, the next day was lost — a holiday, Easter Monday. I still woke up early, and ran around the lakes on campus. And then I wandered into town to buy fruit and bread and have an early fika.  I sat at the table in a cafe away from the square, where we, Yoko and the kids and Chris and me, had sat at in the summer, and I slipped into the hum of nostalgia I knew would follow me on the trip, as I walked up and down the main road of the city. The experience felt oddly internal — I didn't make eye-contact with anyone, except a man my father's age, as we both tried to reach for the coffee jug at the same time, smiling and apologising the way you do when you're not confident in a language.

There were two young American women sat at the table across from me, Macbooks open, planning for the next part of a trip, to go further east towards Russia with the money they had left and I thought that it must be Spring Break in the States. I listened to them the way you fantasise when you're young and imagine meeting other young people abroad, but then remembered suddenly that I was old to them, probably, that I wasn't their peer. The fantasy fell flat as it awkwardly required me to confront whoever I was, a mid-level academic in my mid-thirties, sitting alone with a cup of coffee and a roll. What was I doing in Sweden anyway — I could see myself trying to explain and falling into some convoluted story that wouldn't include simply being on break from college, because they would say college as Americans, not university. My story, as it might need to be told to a stranger in a Swedish cafe, goes too far back.

I was there for the rest of the week and every morning I ran around the lake and meditated and then had Swedish breakfast in the castle, cutting thick slices of bread and cheese, and piling on muesli and eggs and biscotti. I drank too much coffee and found my way to the centre for post-colonial studies where I was meeting people and stood at a borrowed Ikea desk and transcribed a debate between a Muslim scholar and an incorrigible old Christian apologist. I apologised daily for having made a mistake in telling everyone when I was supposed to come, but it didn't matter in the end. People bought me lunch and we talked and talked about everyone's work, about the Qur'an and computer-assisted learning and polemics and translation and America and Sweden and the UK. Another cup of coffee and fika here and there, before it was Saturday and I was again on the train back to Copenhagen thinking I would be back in a month again, and it didn't need to be anything but routine.

The plane was on time. We descended into Amsterdam and I stepped out on the tarmac in the sun. The first beautiful day in the city this year, someone said. My flight to Birmingham left later in the evening and I made my way towards the connecting flights, before suddenly turning around and heading the other way, to the city. I know Amsterdam well enough, I thought, I can have pizza and beer on the canal and wait for the plane there. I took the train in and walked up, through the heavy tourist armaments at the front of the station, towards Vondelpark. I didn't get that far, instead collapsing in a pizzeria and ordering a beer. I ate and took my time wandering back to the airport and my flight home to Birmingham, sunburnt and bloated and satisfied.

There are absent memories of a backpack version of me, if he was ever even real. I feel like I was in Germany one summer, trying to sort out train tickets, but I know that I wasn't. At 21, I was already settled in Japan and then married with a baby at 24. It all happened so fast — I ended up in Europe only after I became an academic, and had two kids by then. I remember taking the train in Spain, but I was a PhD student then with all sorts of attachments. I was never that young, was I. I never chatted anyone up anywhere.

It doesn't matter, it turns out — if you just keep going the adventure doesn't have to end. Perhaps you get old and don't get to have any sort of regrets, if things worked out anyway. I remember thinking this for the first time, coming out of the chunnel from Paris into St Pancreas, our trip to France finished. France was over for the time being, yes, but England goes on and on. The kids were small then and I was younger, but it's the same. It goes on and on.
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