Today’s my birthday. It’s good day, a happy day, it makes me feel special. Today’s my day all day long, so there’s a little more spring to my step, and my posture’s a little better than usual.
Some time ago, about ten years ago, I decided that I’d never work on my birthday again. Since everybody else was always telling me how it was my day, why not then make it my day for real. On December 8, I don’t do work – writing this isn’t work, this is just me talking to you – and instead, I do whatever I want.
(Almost. I mean, I do have to run Daughter’s ringette practice, and those garbage cans don’t move themselves onto the curb, do they?)
Now, you may think that’s the best idea you’ve heard this year and I happen to think it’s in the Top 10 of my ideas, too, but it’s one thing to have an idea and a completely other thing to execute it. There’s nothing worse for me than to have all options open. Many a time have I stood outside on the pavement outside or house trying to figure out whether to go to the gym or for a bike ride. I go back and forth between them in my head, walk back in to see what Wife thinks, and when she just shakes her head, I make up my mind on the spot – “gym it is!” – only to turn back 15 steps into my walk to the gym, and go back home and get on my bike.
Wishy-washy, is what Charlie Brown would call it.
And he’d be right.
Anyway, usually on my birthdays when I don’t work, I take the subway down to the Stockholm Old Town, sit at a coffeeshop and read a book, or write something that’s not work. (Like this). The Old Town’s my haven in the city, with all its old buildings and narrow alleys, and Christmas markets and small coffeeshops.
It’s nice to have a full day just to yourself. It’s not like I sit at a coffeeshop in the Old Town, reflecting on the year gone by, with rain beating the windows – although sometimes I do. Mostly my day off is just a way for me to shake things up a bit, and do things I don’t normally get to do. Only, if you always go to Old Town and have a cup of coffee, it sort of loses its meaning.
And that, my dear reader, is why I changed things up this year.
I decided to walk to the Old Town. Again. (I had never done it, I just decided again).
Last summer, while riding my bike one day – I probably should have gone to the gym that day – I listened to a podcast in which a British man was talking about a British poet, a famous one, who used to walk, or hike, really, and the write poetry about it. He spoke about the lost art of walking so eloquently that I decided to do it, too.
Not right there and then, because I was on a bike, but some day. So, the next day, I set out to walk all the way to downtown Stockholm. The edge of downtown is about 12 kilometers from our house, so i figured I could walk there in about two hours.
I packed my backpack – a book, my laptop – and I set out to walk to town. Downhill, then left, then right, then uphill, and the rest would take care of itself, I figured. I walked down the hill, and I didn’t turn around, and I walked up the next hill, with some sweet tunes in my ears. I didn’t turn around until the next uphill. Well, first I stopped to think. Then I took three steps forward, four steps back, then three forward again. I looked ahead and I looked behind me.
And I wondered what Wife would say.
Ten minutes later, I walked back home.
This morning, when the rest of the family had left for school and work, I packed my backpack – a book, my laptop – and set out to walk to town. I had all day, it was my day, so if I wanted to spend five hours walking to town, then that’s what I’d do, I told myself as I closed the door.
“Except, you can probably do it in an hour and a half,” I heard myself say, and I nodded. I was probably right.
Ten minutes later, I passed the Point of No Return, the place where I turned around last summer. I raised my fist in celebration and kept on walking. I was listening to a hockey podcast, trying to make those clever observations the British writer had talked about in the podcast I listened to last summer. Oh, those traffic signs in Sweden are blue and yellow, while in Finland they’re blue and white, and in Denmark red and white – just like their flags.
Maybe it wasn’t poetry, but it was something. It was worthy of a tweet, I thought.
When the hockey podcast ended, I switched to another one, and kept walking. I walked past the police academy, and down the hill, through the golf course. I looked at my phone to see the time. I had walked an hour, and since I was walking along my usual bike route, I knew that I had reached Halfway Point. A little later than I had anticipated, but on the other hand, I was still going strong, and I had made all those interesting observations.
(Like that I hadn’t seen any other person, not even on the golf course. Not one person.)
Another uphill, another podcast. I chose Stuff You Should Know. Maybe that made me feel adventurous when I got to the part where the bike lane is blocked and instead of turning left to the park, I climbed over it and kept on walking. The good news was that at the end of the road there was a chance to learn more stuff I should have known: the bad news was that it was the end of the road.
I walked in the ditch for a hundred meters – noticed a blue bucket and a red gas can lying there – then jumped over the rail and down to the bike lane that went underneath the highway. (Yes, highway).
From there, I could (almost) see the edge of downtown. Funny, though, how your mind doesn’t really understand distances, except in an abstract way. Just as I had imagined the entire walk as simply of a set of six – maybe seven – blocks without realizing each of those blocks was going to take me at least 20 minutes to walk, I still couldn’t understand how far downtown really was. After all, I could already (almost) see the edge of it.
But I kept pushing, I walked past the group of kindergarten kids like a man on a mission, and I leaned forward and remembered how I had once leaned forward in a blizzard in Helsinki on my way to school. Back then, I was about eight years old, and imagined I was Prince Charming. Today, I was Indy Jones. (If you think Indy is a dated icon, you don’t know or remember Prince Charming).
And then, suddenly, after a 90-minute trek, there I was. On the edge of downtown.
I wasn’t finished. I made a new decision. I was going to walk all the way to the Old Town. Another three kilometers? Four, tops. Easy.
I crossed the street and kept on walking past the kids old kindergarten, past the restaurant named after a character in “Dallas”, past the man in a cowboy hat and the coffeeshop that used to be my office. I marched past a buddy’s old office, past a guy putting up letters on a marquee, past the old movie theater I took a photo of my Dad at last weekend, past a hotdog vendor, the candy store I used to walk to during lunch break when I first moved to Sweden until I saw the Parliament house.
That’s where I stopped because I realized I had walked right by a great record store and because I felt something in my shoe. Something that felt a little bit like blood. But then I started to walk again, under the bridge that connects the old and the new parliament building, and past the coffee shop where I once sat an entire day with Wife (when she was Almost Girlfriend), and then up the hill towards the office building where we worked when we met.
And then made another turn, walked across the market square, the scene of the Stockholm Bloodbath, now where the Xmas market is. I walked through the crowd, not seeing anything or anybody anymore, simply determined to walk through it all. My foot was starting to bother me, so I limped down the hill, and then to the left until I came to the coffeeshop where Wife (then Girlfriend) and I used to go during out coffee and lunch breaks.
I walked in and ordered a cappuccino.
“To go?” the barista asked me.
I smiled, and told her no.
“For here,” I said – and sat down.