Dec 29, 2015 : Stockholm
Today I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden by way of Oakland, California. The plane flight was uneventful but noisy with babies. Throughout the ten hour plane flight I probably got less than an hour of sleep – which in the excitement of travelling to Stockholm, I barely felt. However, I can recognize the lack of sleep in my writing. On the plus side, I spent almost the entire flight learning Swedish.
After we finally arrived at the Stockholm airport, Mo and I bought the cheapest meal we could find since we had not eaten anything during the flight. Our first meal abroad was a very cheesy bread pastry and a coffee from 7-11, which is everywhere here in Sweden.
Revived by the food and coffee we bought a bus ticket to downtown Stockholm. We exited the bus in downtown Stockholm late in the evening, and despite all shops being closed, we decided to explore the city.
We had been warned that it would be cold in Stockholm, but it was only 0 degrees (32 degrees Fahrenheit) – just cold enough for the snow not to melt. Downtown Stockholm was a winter wonderland of a city. Thin blankets of snow felt more ornamental than cumbersome. There was no wind to freeze our faces, no snow sludge to collect on clothes, and no precipitation to make us wet. Besides the perfect weather, I had never felt safer in a city. Most impressively, many of Stockholm’s parked bicycles did not have locks on them. They were simply left outside, apparently vulnerable to thieves and weather.
Wandering through Stockholm at night felt like wandering through the pages of a warm fairy tale. The empty buildings and abandoned streets were clean and glistening with ice and snow. As this was right after Christmas, every single window had a traditional Swedish candelabra in it, lit by warm LEDs. Many windows also featured large paper lanterns in the shape of stars. Sometimes we would stumble upon torches set on the ground, still on fire, burning silently outside of entry ways.
As this was a weeknight, people were relatively scarce on the streets. While many of the people we saw were Swedes, a large portion of our fellow night-wanderers were Arab refugees, which could be found scattered upon every other downtown block.
I did not expect such a strong presence of refugees, both men and women – many elderly – roaming the magical Stockholm streets. Many of the refugees carried or were surrounded by piles of IKEA bags which I assume held most of their possessions.
Upon leaving a subway station, I came across a group of young Syrian women who had set down their IKEA bags in the front entrance. Before stepping over the pile of blue and yellow in order to leave the station, I locked eyes with one of the women. She was younger than me. Her hair was covered with a colourful hijab. Her face was beautiful, made up as if she had just come from a wedding or celebration. But her body was covered in drab, dirty clothes to protect her from the winter.
I opened my mouth to say something but realized I did not have the vocabulary to express anything I felt to her. Her bright eyes said the same thing to me. What else was there to say? If I knew better Arabic I would have said, “I am here for you. What do you need here? What can I do?” But that would not have been the whole truth. I was not Stockholm to help her. I was going to where she had just left from, traveling the route of the refugees in reverse.
The experience did not leave me feeling completely empty. That moment of communication with the Syrian woman alleviated a major fear I had regarding my purposes for travelling to Turkey. Promoting communication is, by far, the biggest asset I have to give to alleviate the refugee crisis. I am not rich, I am not a politician, and I have no connections with NGOs. But I do have my film and writing, my ability to organization, and my patience. However, if those assets are not useful due to major cultural and linguistic barriers, there is nothing I can do to help. Being able to have a complex moment of communication by just using eyes gave me hope that I can work through the cultural and language barriers that I will encounter with Arabs, Afghans, Africans, and Turks on a daily basis.
The next day Mo and I woke early – well we actually didn’t sleep due to the revving motorcycle in our dorm that took the form of snoring person, but we decided to leave our bed around 6am. We wandered the still-quiet streets among refugee families and Swedes going to work. After travelling across the old-fortress island, which looked even more fairytale-like in the light of the rising sun, we travelled back to the hostel for a cheap breakfast. After breakfast we gathered our belongings (everything we owned) and waited in an indoor mall for our bus back to the airport.
The indoor mall was filled with even more refugees who were keeping warm and dry. We sat down to an African woman for a few minutes while waiting for the bus. Beside me, she sang hushed songs to herself, or perhaps us. When I stood up to leave, she stood as well, as if to follow us. “Are you going?” she asked in quiet English.
“Yes.” I said. “And you?”
“Yes” she said very quietly, from some far away place. I looked in her eyes and saw nothing I could recognize. She opened one of her bags to show me something, but all I saw was cloth. Sensing I was about to dive into a rabbit hole I backed off, smiled at her warmly, and walked away. She watched me leaving as if she expected me to turn around and come back. But I didn’t.
Now, as the sun sets in the Stockholm airport, less than 24 hours after we arrived, we are leaving – this time to Istanbul. And then to Izmir, our new home.