This must have been the most incidental place I’d ever bid farewell to another twelve months, each year whizzing by faster than the one before; a warning I’d been given in my youth, but was finally beginning to not shrug off. But why was I here? A question my father had also begged to know. “Why go to Stockholm in the middle of December?” “Why not?” is all I could come up with. “I just hope there’s enough for you to do there for a week,” he relented.
I arrived on a wintry evening just a few days after Christmas. My introduction to the country was a familiar wallop of snow, but with an impatient and unfamiliar night. I glanced at the time to make sure I hadn’t arrived later than my E-Ticket promised. It was 4:45 pm, but looked as if it were midnight. It was the kind of darkness that had settled in it’s seat and kicked up its feet. It had been night for a while.
After several days of wandering through the waterfronts, alleyways, and museums of this movie set of a town, I felt as if I’d gained all the bearings I needed. It was a city as navigable as say a Boston, but without the distinct personas. “Are the people there nice?” I was asked upon my return. It was a predictable inquiry, one I’d come across often in all my years of globetrotting. No matter the flag flown, or how spicy the food, what people longed to know more than anything was simple in its prose: Are people in other parts of this world decent?
“Yeah, they’re nice enough,” I said. "I mean, I don’t think they’re especially nice. They certainly weren’t not nice. They just seemed kind of stoic, you know? They walked and looked straight ahead.” Of course, days after my journey I wondered how fair a grade this was for a place whose time zone I’d spent less than a week meandering in.
As the last day of December approached I tried to figure out what to do to ring in the new year. The angst that usually accompanied this date during my youth was thankfully absent. It was as my parents called it, “Just another night.” Still, those December 31sts often led to a panic, a sort of mental stampede. But now I was older and had seen my fair share of fireworks and made enough toasts to make sidestepping such reveling a comfortable alternative. Or so I thought...
I decided to catch an outdoor concert where a quasi-famous DJ from London helped ring in the New Year with blaring house music. As I looked around, I saw mostly young men who appeared to be immigrants from Central Asia. Many almost looked as if they could be my younger selves, maybe even brothers from another life. I laughed to myself as I considered another group of people labeled by society to be on the fringes I could be mistaken for. I thought back on a memorable trip I’d taken with a dear friend many years earlier and how he’d ribbed me for being detained by customs in a small Wellington Airport. He was half convinced their grounds for suspicion was that I was Maori. I wished in that moment he was here to share in the joke, but mostly I suppose, I just missed my friend.
A few minutes into the show I took a peek at the time. It was barely 10:00 pm, but not barely cold. Would I make it til’ 12:00 am? I wondered. What took place was a spirited debate. A contest was broadcast in my mind’s eye as two warring parties tried to convince me to stay for this once in a lifetime experience - new year’s in another country, while the other side dangled before me the comfort of a bed seemingly miles away.
I envisioned the barrage of regret I would have when I shared the tales of this cold city. “You were in Stockholm for New Year’s and just went to bed?!” I could already hear them saying. In the end, I decided it wasn’t worth standing around for two hours freezing my tail off just so I could say, “I was there.” After all, I’d decided that part of the beauty of getting older was not having to utter such words, even preferring not to. And so I headed home.
I zigged and mostly zagged my way back to Luntmakargatan Street. Perhaps I thought delaying my new year’s slumber would bring about a change of heart. But time didn’t tick fast enough towards twelve and it certainly didn’t warm my toes. Too late. I gave you a chance, I thought.
As I neared the street that would take me to my hotel I saw in the corner of my eye a young man holding a giant map. He must have been 16 or 17 years old and would have undoubtedly been robbed on the spot in just about any other city. He looked so desperately like a tourist that if he’d auditioned for the part on a sitcom the casting director would have asked him to take it down a notch.
Just as we were about to cross paths a group of well dressed Swedes cut across almost like a quite stream. Surprisingly, he let them pass and decided I might know better. Or maybe, he took solace in our relatable appearances; two souls undoubtedly from other places.
“Excuse me, do you know how to get to Old Town?” “Uh, yeah,” I said. I glanced at his map before I was reminded that such things were as foreign to me as the countries I’d visited. Days before I'd even decided to leave my travel book in the room, opting not to schlep it around, namely so I could keep my hands in my coat pockets. I’ll just find what I need to find,” was my unofficial traveling motto. And it always worked. Walk long enough and far enough and things come to you.
My theory had worked as far back as my college days. I recalled one fall evening visiting an ailing grandmother during a visit to New York City. Mary Maccarone, my father’s mother, the world’s most devout Italian Catholic, which in itself was quite an achievement, was beginning to part ways with life. Not seeing her on this visit was simply not an option for my 20-year old self. Yet, I knew virtually nothing about how to navigate my way from Manhattan to Breezy Point, Queens. Back then phones were not considered smart. Yet, somehow I made it to her home so I could quietly sit with her the same way I did 6 months later after she passed. The grandmother who’d help me with my homework during California visits and who I'd sit beside watching Bonanza and I Love Lucy, didn’t say as much, but I could tell was grateful for my company. And when it was time to drive home the only way I found my way back to the Big Apple was by using the Empire State Building as my North Star.
Unfortunately, Stockholm wasn’t New York. But I wanted to help this young man. “Follow me. I’ll bring you to the street that’ll take you there. You’re going to see the fireworks, yeah?” “Yes,” he beamed. As we walked side by side he began his questionnaire. “Where are you from? How long have you been here? Did you travel alone? What do you do?” “I’m an actor,” I told him. “Really?!” he asked. “Me too. I’m going to be on a series back home in Thailand.” “That’s great,” I said.
As we reached the corner I explained all he needed to do was walk towards the music. It sounded more poetic than it really was. “You’ll have lots of fun,” I said. “There are many young people like you there.” He looked at me quizzically as people often did when I said those words.” “What about you? You’re still young.” Yes, maybe, I thought. “Do you want to come with me to watch the fireworks?” he asked. “Oh, I’m okay. But thank you very much. You go and have fun.”
I turned to make my way home somehow still unsure what to do for a day on the calendar I’d decided was inconsequential. As I started to delve back into my mental maze of straying thoughts I heard the same voice say, “Hey, do you want my phone number? You know, in case you ever come to Thailand?” I nearly wondered aloud why a 17-year old boy would want to keep company with a man twice his age on the off-chance he visited the land of hot, or hotter. Perhaps it was different in Thailand. In fact, I was sure in that moment that it was. This young man was their finest ambassador. He was kind, but what touched my heart the most was his genuine and still unbridled earnestness. I hoped desperately he'd find some way to protect at least a sliver of that.
“Uh, sure.” As he typed his number in my phone I knew I’d never see him again, but feared hurting his feelings, perhaps my greatest fear in all of life. But I saw in him not just the same oval eyes and olive skin, but a reflection of who I once was, or sadly who I could still be: the me that said yes to the everythings before I knew more about those everythings.
Now as I neared my hotel the soundtrack of years of personal help CD’s ringed loud in my head. I heard self-help gurus and authors practically falling over themselves to demand I answer the bigger questions life seemed to beg: “Will you be glad you went?” or “Sorry you didn’t?” Those bastards! I thought. They’re right. When is the next time you’re ever going to be in Sweden? And for New Year’s? I couldn’t go home now.
And so I turned on the feet I could no longer feel. I walked on now familiar streets. I slowly approached the waterfront just in time for the show. I looked up and saw bright red, blue, green, violet, orange, yellow, silver, and white lights dance in the blackness accompanied by raucous, but beautiful noise. A smile slowly spread across my face. It was less joy than relief I suppose. Here I was, anonymous in a strange city, under a giant brisk sky, right where I was supposed to be.
Diane, a 74-year old writer originally from South Carolina, shared this bit of advice with me: "Work to stay in the present moment."