Most journeys start with a single step. Mine started early one morning in a sleepy neighborhood in Queens.
TRAVELING FOR TRAVEL'S SAKE
Birdsong rang out over the quiet Queens neighborhood of Sunnyside. Our bags were packed – full, and if not a bit precariously. The tickets – plane, train, bus – were purchased, travel outfits laid out carefully. It was the bleary morning hours of April 9, and less than 8 hours later, Mike and I were embarking on a journey of more than 3,000 miles.
But no amount of planning, packing, list-writing and errand-running can really quell your fears or prepare you for life overseas. I tried doing that once before, ahead of spending a summer in college studying in London. I diligently did all the research I could on the capital city, from reading every travel book and blog to ruminating again and again how to pack for The City’s infamous temperamental early spring and summer. And still, I ended up with half a suitcase of mostly unwearable (but cute!) summer dresses.
A few years of age and wisdom (emphasis on a few – I’m still young, I promise!) have better prepared me for all the trials and tribulations of prolonged international travel, but the best piece of knowledge I’ve garnered is this – just go with it.
That’s the philosophy that got Mike and I to Stockholm in one piece, I think. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, the reason why we’re spending some of New York’s most winning months abroad (and unfortunately saving our homecoming during the months that most people are busy drinking Manhattans in the Hamptons) is a matter of hard work – more on Mike’s part than mine. For his last rotations of medical school, Mike was lucky enough to get accepted into an exchange program Einstein has with Stockholm’s premiere medical university, the Karolinska Institute.
And when offered the proposition of living in Europe for such a long stretch of time, I knew I couldn’t say no. I made the difficult decision to leave my editorship at the Daily News to come onboard for the adventure of a lifetime (more on that later).
So, cue the birdsong, and our frenetic day of last-minute errands. Currency had to be exchanged. Snacks for the long flights had to be bought. My Tom Ford sunglasses had to be picked up from the optometrist (this is probably most important of all). Our flight left at 8:40pm from JFK that night, and the clock was ticking.
CHANGE IS IN THE AIR
All of the necessary errands got done without much of a hiccup, and we were off! One quick Lyft to JFK later, and Mike and I were queuing in front of Icelandair. I love the diversity international flights offer – it’s like a cross-section of New York, and our queue didn’t disappoint. Right behind us, there was an older couple with an entire set of Viking River Cruise luggage (guess they’re big fans of the “Downton Abbey” advertisements?). Behind them were two twentysomethings carrying EU passports and the biggest backpacks I’d ever seen. All heading to Reykjavik.
The hours before the flight passed slowly, punctuated by several crying infants and Obnoxious Phone Talkers, but then it was time to board. Mike and I got an emergency exit row (hello, legroom!) in the back of a very large Airbus. Unfortunately, my seat recliner was broken, so it was a very uncomfortable flight to Iceland. At least the airline played Bjork before departure.
I’m a firm believer in battling jet lag at every opportunity, and my grand plan was to pound some melatonin gummies right after takeoff, steal a few winks, and continue that sleep on the next flight to Stockholm. But there was no good way to get comfortable, so I simply dozed and re-listened to old “Serial” podcasts (still don’t know whether Adnan did it or not).
We touched down at sun-up along the icy tarmac of Reykjavik. The barren swathes of the Atlantic leading up to the equally void stretches of tundra were so off-putting to me, especially in my sleep-deprived state, I thought for a moment that I was dreaming in “Star Wars” and I was on the planet Hoth.
“Where are we?” Mike wondered aloud.
“The land of Bjork, Sigur Ros, and Siggy’s yogurt!” I managed to quip.
To make things even more surreal, we deplaned right onto the tarmac and had to walk about 200 meters in the powdery snow to get to the ultra-modern terminal.
We sure weren’t in Kansas anymore.
After an ill-advised latte from Scandinavian coffee chain Joe and the Juice (that would later end up mostly in my lap), we boarded our second and final plane of the trip. Gone were the familiar sounds of English, replaced by the beautiful, lilting Nordic languages. I could pick up a word here or there (barn = child, tidning = newspaper) but it struck me how over the next few months, we were headed to a Brave New World.
My new seat mercifully reclined, but thanks (or no thanks) to the aforementioned latte that was now drying on my J.Crew leggings, I was unable to sleep, and so passed the time by watching “The Shawshank Redemption” for the millionth time. Mercifully, it never gets old.
About the time that Andy is tunneling his way out of prison in a lake of raw sewage, I began to see the familiar shapes of land – cultivated patches of farm, small lines of trees – the patchwork quilt of the countryside. Strangely, it looked much like Ohio’s bucolic farmland. But, I guess, farms are just farms, wherever you go.
There was no ice or snow to be seen at the Arlanda airport (Thor be praised!), and our luggage came teetering down the carousel minutes after we arrived. Next stop was getting into the city. New York City planners take note: Sweden has an express train that jets travelers from the airport to the city center in less than 20 minutes. It’s clean, it's reasonably priced, it’s awesome. There’s no reason why we can’t have nice things, too, amirite? I’m looking at you, LaGuardia.
We finally arrived. Mike initially wanted to take the Tunnelbana, or T-bana, to our apartment, but I was vehemently against it – between the two of us, we had a WWE wrestler of weight to carry and even if we had elevators on our side, I couldn’t deal. So it was a cab to pick up the keys from the university, and another to our place, somewhere between Vasastan and northern Ostermalm.
How to describe our lodging? It’s kind of like living in an IKEA store.
Everything’s IKEA, more or less, from the plates and cups down to the couch and mattress, and everything is efficient as a Swiss watch. On first blush, the kitchen is Lilliputian, but everything, from the spatula to the colander, has a proper place. Even the refrigerator, squirreled away in a corner and posing as a cabinet, holds a good amount of groceries. And there is drawer space for days.
IKEA-ness aside, our flat is light and airy, with balsa wood walls, pine floors, and white cabinets. There are curtains festooned with pleasant-looking green ferns that serve as a divider between the living room and the bedroom, and a table sits just outside of the line of demarcation.
But the best part lies beyond the pine door into the bathroom.
We have – wait for it – our own personal sauna! Not one we share with the rest of the building. Not one we share with the floor. Our. Own. Giant. Sauna. Unfortunately, it seems like Karolinska’s student housing department invested all of its money in this unexpected surprise, because the neighboring shower mostly drains into the rest of the bathroom, requiring a mandatory squeegee session after every shower. But it’s a tribulation worth enduring, I guess. That, and we don't have access to the laundry room next door, and will instead have to schlep our soiled garments to one of the city's three laundromats in Eriksplan, a 30-minute bus ride away.
The first few days here were a blur, battling jet lag and culture shock. On our first trip to an ICA (the local grocery chain here, kind of like a Food Emporium or an Associated Supermarket), we must have looked like idiots, bickering over the meaning of any number of Swedish words on packaging (jordgubbe, for the record, is strawberry, while hallon is raspberry), or marveling over how everything from mayonnaise to caviar comes in a tube.
But, it’s nearly a week in, and I think we’re settling in nicely.
More on our Stockholm adventures soon!