by Claude Bornel
My forehead leaned at the window as the airplane started to descend. With a bird’s eye view, I saw a pear-shaped white cloud floating closer. I saw the ocean, many islands, and a forest getting closer and closer until the tires hit the runaway. Breathing a long sigh wasn’t enough to relief my uneasiness. It became obvious that my fear of flying wasn’t the problem. I was anxious about how my reception would be.
I passed the sliding doors at the arrival area and looked at the people waiting. A mid-age couple waived at me and a young man about my age held a handmade sign reading Jefferson Andrews. They were tall, seemed to be in good shape. Their blonde hair contrasted with their reddish tanned skin.
“Welcome to Stockholm,” the older man said. “I’m Johan; my wife, Sigrid, and this is our son, Matt.”
We greeted each other. Johan took my backpack and Sigrid, my 20 inches carry on. They lead the way to their car in the parking lot, as I walked along with Matt. The temperature was hotter than I expected. I took off my hoodie and looked at how bright the sky was.
“What time is it now,” I said.
“It’s one fifteen now and the sun will be up like that past 10pm,” Sigrid. “We didn’t have a hot wave in the summer for many years.”
I nodded and sat on the back seat of the Volvo with Matt. He kept his face turned to his window most of the ride to their house.
“We are happy you came for the student exchange program,” Johan stated.
“It’s my first international trip,” I replied. “I’m excited too.”
“Awww,” Sigrid expressed sentimental approval. “Did you sleep in the flight? You look tired.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“It’s better if you do something or go somewhere until the jet lag kick in,” she said.
“Matt can take him for a walk around,” Johan interjected. Matt answered something unintelligible in Swedish. He didn’t seem happy with the whole situation.
One hour later, we had arrived in their apartment in the suburbs. I had dropped my belongings in the guest bedroom, and I had joined Matt at the door. He was ready to go, except for his glared eyes and eyebrows together in the middle of his nose.
“You can take him for an ice cream in Gamla stan, for example,” Sigrid suggested.
“There is still enough time for a museum,” Johan added. “The Vasa is a good choice for a first comer, but ask him if he likes music. The ABBA Museum would be perfect.”
“You are not going to start talking about Agnetha, are you,” Sigrid inquired.
Matt opened the door and left his parents talking. I said bye and went after him.
It took a few minutes for us to walk from his home to the nearest subway station, Hallonbergen. At the cashier, Matt bought a blue card and gave it to me. I thanked him without him saying a word. I read the letters “SL” in the plastic card. I repeated Matt’s motion of touching the card on the top of the ticket barrier to open the gate.
I wondered why Matt’s attitude was negative toward me, and I wanted to find a way to break the ice. But going down on the escalator, I couldn’t help noticing a drastic change in temperature. I had entered in a walk-in freezer without warning.
“I should have brought my hoodie,” I said, trying to provoke a reaction. “The air conditioning is very cold.”
Matt ignored me for a moment, but sighed and gave in. “Not air condition. Is natural temperature underground.”
His stumbled English was undeniable. “I can see you’re not happy with me here. What’s wrong?” I observed his demeanor changing. He looked to me, instead of over me.
The train came and we hopped inside. He started by explaining that his parents wanted him to improve his English, but he didn’t. One of the reasons why they brought me to Stockholm was to encourage Matt to speak. It upset him.
“We’re in the same boat. I mean, train,” I said and he chuckled. I told him I didn’t want to come, either. But my dad and my mom kept saying I would regret in the future if I had missed this opportunity.
“Worry too much no good,” he said. “It’s why we do fika.”
“Do what now?”
“You don’t know fika,” he said and I shook my head, seeing him excited talking about it. He described fika as an important part of the Swedish culture. It meant to make time in the day to be with friends or colleagues and appreciate the good things in life. “We have coffee or tea and a little nothing to eat.”
We were at Västra Skogen stop. A multicolored mosaic captured my attention while passengers hopped on and off.
“Those designs are so cool.”
“Almost every station has art decoration.”
Matt stammered through his words but conveyed his point. Some art pieces promoted discussions about women’s rights, education, and deforestation. He was proud of saying that Sweden had eradicated poverty as a welfare society. So, the people were very passionate about those social issues.
“I didn’t ask you,” I said. “Where are we going?”
Following his father’s suggestion, he was taking me to the ABBA Museum. But I noticed him shifting his gaze to the floor while he answered.
“Did you have other plans for today,” I said.
He confessed another reason for his frustration. Because Matt had to keep me company most of the time, he wouldn’t be able to hang out with his friends for most of the summer. “They will be today in Rålambshovsparken,” he said.
“How far from here?”
“It’s the next station.”
“Let’s go there, instead,” I suggested. “I’m okay meeting your friends.”
We were ten minutes away walking distance from Rålambshovsparken. I found a coffee shop on the way and asked to stop there for a second.
“What is so cool about the ABBA Museum,” I said while we waited in line.
“My father had a big crush on Agnetha when he was young.”
“One of the singers?”
He nodded. “And my mom is jealous.”
The blonde woman at the cashier called us and we placed our orders. One cappuccino for me, one green tea for him and a few pastries to sample. I gave her cash, but she didn’t accept it.
As we left the coffee shop, Matt explained what happened. Sweden was transitioning to become a cashless economy. “Some stores take card or smartphone transactions; no more paper.”
“We have some serious tech catch up to do in the US,” I said.
Our beverages were still warm when we arrived at the park. It consisted of a great lawn space in a triangular shape facing a lake. We found Matt’s friends among lots of people there. He introduced me to them and they received me like an old friend. We talked, we drank, we had a little eat together and it didn’t take long for me to understand what fika was all about.