The man at the New York souvenir shop was just trying to make some chit-chat. He was the one greeting us as we walked into the “bobblehead store” which is what Son calls all those souvenir shops now because that’s where he happened to buy his Abraham Lincoln bobblehead doll.
This time, he couldn’t decide whether to get a Kennedy or Clinton, or maybe George Washington so he didn’t buy anything which is why we were hanging around the front door, waiting for Wife and Daughter.
“Where are you guys from?” the greeterman asked Son.
“Oh, we’re from, em, Sweden,” replied Son, and then looked at me.
“And Finland,” he added.
Now, if I’m traveling alone and people ask me where I’m from, I always say “Finland”, but that “I live in Sweden now”. When I’m traveling with the family, I most often say that we’re from Sweden, always making a mental note to myself that technically, we have traveled from Sweden. Sometimes, I add that I’m actually a Finn, but most often I simply don’t want to engage in a conversation, so I let it slide. It’s not important.
The other day, I sat in a meeting with some people I work with, and with a new person in the group, we did the usual presentational round, and, just as usual, I did my shtick about being a Finn in Sweden. And at one point, I told the newcomer, who had moved here six months ago, that I moved here in 1998.
He let out a whistle – which I took as a compliment.
Surely a guy who looks like he’s twenty-seven couldn’t have moved here for work sixteen years ago. But just as I always tell people that while I had taken a plane from Sweden to their country, I am actually a Finn, I always share one other important piece of information.
“Except for a two-year stint in Finland. I moved there with my then-Girlfriend, now Wife, and our then-fetus, now Son,” I added this time.
And yet, while Helsinki still holds the top spot on the all-time list of cities I’ve lived in, Stockholm’s fourteen years is the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I turned 18. It’s longer than I lived in Helsinki as a kid, and my eleven consecutive years in Stockholm is now the second longest streak of my life.
When I first moved here, I was young, free and single – also the catchy title of a music video show on Sky Channel in the 1980s – but I didn’t know much about the city. I had been to Sweden once, as a kid, to play hockey, but we spent most of our time in a Stockholm suburb, and only did a quick bus tour through town before getting back on the ferry. I did learn that there are over 500 rooms in the Royal palace. That, and the fact that the Globe arena was a state-of-the-art hockey arena were the only things I knew of Stockholm when I moved here.
I didn’t know the subway lines, I didn’t know the geography, I didn’t know what the good neighborhoods were, or what the bad ones were. I didn’t know what a magical place the Old Town is, or what a majestic building the City Hall is. I didn’t know Stockholm was big enough to have distinct neighborhoods with their distinct vibes, like a real city.
I didn’t know how beautiful the Kungsträdgården park is in the spring when the cherry trees are in bloom, or how beautiful it is in July when you sit on the steps with your friend and look at people having fun, or how beautiful it is in December, during the Xmas market, with a skating rink and all.
I didn’t know about the cute coffeeshops, and I definitely didn’t know that one day, I’d have a favorite summer coffee spot on the island between the sea and the lake or that on Fridays I’d have gelato at a small Italian place across the street from the Finnish school.
Stockholm is a city built on a dozen islands, which means that there are numerous bridges connecting the different parts to each other. In my first week here, I somehow always managed to be on the wrong one, looking out to the one I should’ve been on.
I also managed to get three parking tickets, right outside the apartment I was initially staying in, next to the bridge that connects one of the islands to the mainland, right behind the gym I’d later go to for years, a few blocks from where Sister-in-law would live, and diagonally across the street from the park where Son rode a horse once.
On my first morning in Stockholm, I decided to go for a walk and get to know my new hometown a little bit. I got out, and with the gym behind my back, walked straight up the street that cuts across the big island, just south of the Old Town.
I walked past the subway station, past the apartment building Wife and I once looked a new place in, past restaurant Corso which I always found amusing since one of my best friends lived in Korso, Finland, up the hill, past the grocery store, past the building where a magazine I worked on was printed three years later, past the skating rink where both Son and Daughter have played bandy, the rink where D and I went for a lunch skate a couple of times, the skating rink we were at when we got a call from the real estate agent that our bid had won us the house I write this in.
I kept on walking, making sure I stayed on the same, straight street, until I came to the McDonald’s, figured it was as far as I’d venture that day, because I didn’t want to walk too far from base camp. It seemed to me downtown was that: too far. So I went for a Big Mac combo, without realizing I was just three blocks from the theatre where Son was performing all last spring, and about five blocks from Slussen, the subway station where I kissed Wife for the first time, and an easy twenty-minute walk from my new office.
On the morning of my first day at the new job, I took the subway, and on my way towards the Old Town, I kicked myself for not doing a trial run because I was suddenly unsure whether there was a subway station in the Old Town to begin with. I decided to play it safe, and got off at Slussen. I could always walk from there, it couldn’t be too bad.
I got off the train, turned left and took the escalator up, then another flight of stairs, until I came to street level. I didn’t recognize the street, but took a left and kept on walking, past the coffee shop where I interviewed the famous dancer almost all the way to the barbershop I used to go to before I realized I was going in the wrong direction. I turned around and walked back, past the entrance to the subway, down the hill, until I saw the Old Town in front of me.
I walked past the Chinese restaurant me and my colleagues always had lunch at, past the comic book store I take Son and Daughter every once in a while, across the street where the Post Office used to be, past the design store that is now the English bookstore, I walked up the hill to the big square, the scene of the Stockholm bloodbath, cut left to the Royal palace and its 500 rooms, walked past the Finnish church, and just outside the office, I stopped to admire the view over the bay. On the other side, there was the Grand Hotel, and the National Museum, with its restaurant and coffeeshop – and its cookie buffet – that made it onto a Best of Stockholm list I once wrote.
Little did I know that a few years later, I’d be standing at that same exact spot, listening to Wife tell me about her first visit to the doctor, confirming she was pregnant.
After our trip to New York, I had to renew my passport, so I went to the Finnish Embassy on the east side of town. It won’t be like my old passport, because the cover’s a little different, and there’s a new photo (in which I hopefully won’t look like a robber), but most importantly, this time it won’t be issued by the Helsinki Police Department like all my previous passports.
This one will be issue by the Finnish Embassy in Stockholm – and that’s perfect.
The next time somebody asks me where we from, I’ll just say, “Stockholm.”
Even though I’ll probably add, “but I’m Finnish”, too.