The beloved summer sun showered over the girl as she walked her usual path through the horse gate. Her curly hair is wrapped loosely with a tie low on her head, pressed against her neck and lower back. Stereotypically enough, her consistently apathetic hair showed even brighter blond in the summer months. She always felt more comfortable in solid shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt. That’s always how it was seventy kilometers out of Stockholm. In recent years, however, she had gradually recognized herself falling into habits that preoccupied the local student population. H&M, kaffee, obscure music. Maybe she too imagined seeing the world. Imagined, yes, but she loved her horses, and the lakes, and the meadows, and the forests. This for her was Sweden.
I have seen this girl many times riding my bike around Uppsala. When I first got to Sweden everyone told me I needed a bike. A few days later, I walked downtown and bought this bright orange, wobbly thing. By week one, I had a flat tire; by week two something started incessantly squeaking. I thought about dumping it into the river.
I pass the girl as she guides a horse across the yard. I’m supposed to be meeting my friends at one of the “nations” of the local university. It’s basically a student pub named after a Swedish region. My grandparents came from a town in central Sweden, and I thought about joining that region, only to actually join the one with the most international students.
“Hej hej!” Nikolina calls out to me as the nation comes into sight. She fiddles with her bag and tosses her curly dark hair. She watches me with those piercing blue eyes as I drop my bike next to the front stairs she’s leaning against. Nikolina is from Bulgaria, and she made sure to point it out to me on a map when we first met just in case I couldn’t put Eastern Europe in place. “Your farfar- how was it?”
My “farfar”, my father’s father, met me in Stockholm over the weekend. At eighteen, he knelt down in a covered forest, one of those lush, mossy green ones, and prayed. Then he hopped an actually boat, and moved to the United States. Over the weekend he eyed everything in Stockholm- all those little streets leading to the water, all the different kinds of people living there- and told me when he was growing up he only knew one kid with brown eyes.
I came to Sweden because of him. I thought I’d go back to this place and feel a surge of identity. My first week, a couple of girls rang my door bell and stared questioningly when I professed to them that “Jag talar lite svenska.” Oh my name- yes quite Swedish. But I’m not Swedish. I really have no idea what I came to this country looking for.
Nikolina and I walk through the front doors together and I feel my body relax as music strums from an acoustic guitar. The place is packed with students, all of whom I’ve come to recognize other these bright and dark months. The room is filled with people from all over the world that I was fortunate enough to meet. I’m exactly where I should be in this moment in time. Two of my closest friends- a Czech and an Austrian- attempt to dance; all wrapped up in a melody that flows from plucked strings. What a wondrous thing, to be human. The room is decorated with the flags of the world. In a room filled with so much diversity, they are the salient feature of each person. They hang unperturbed and motionless in the commotion. The American flag was ripped sometime ago.
That was the moment I left with. I thought of it entirely as the train rolled to the airport. A women came to help me check in for my flight to Chicago. She asked for my passport in Swedish, and I hand it to her. She eyed the blue cover and paused. “Do you prefer me to speak in Swedish or English?” she asked.