A few days ago I wandered Stockholm, taking random photos in the foggy twilight and generally just enjoying a chilled, late-autumn afternoon. The old buildings, cobblestone laneways, quaint little parks sandwiched in between stunning architecture and meandering traffic; the lights that twinkled in windows and doorways and festive trees surrounded by young families and squealing children; on the waterfront, with creaking old boats and the straining mooring ropes, a chill wafting in from the bay and the fading skyline disappearing into the darkening mist.
There have been many times – whether out on a wander, or heading in to work, or on the subway, or sitting in some late night café, that a sudden realization pierces through and snaps me into a sharp-focused reality: I live in Stockholm. Rationally, I know this. But there are times where the magnitude of that reality hits home, and I picture a big map of the globe, with a little push-pin inserted somewhere over Stockholm with a flag noting “You are here.” Coming from a relatively obscure city in Canada (more often it’s easier to just say I live close to Toronto), at times it still amazes me that somehow, inexplicably, I find myself surrounded by strange accents, foreign words, captivating sights that seem lifted from an old Bergman film. Europe – at least this little corner – is not foreign anymore; it’s home.
I lived in Dubai for a few years, and frequently had the same, sudden thought: How the hell did I end up in the Middle East? I could look out my office window and see the Burj Dubai, recently crowned the world’s tallest tower and an icon of the UAE’s ambitions; or drive down Jumeirah Beach Road and see the Burj Al Arab, arguably the first icon of Dubai and easily its most recognizable structure thus far. Had I traveled there for a vacation, seeing those identifying symbols of architectural achievement would be awe-inspiring and amazing, but wouldn’t stop me in my tracks. I’d expect to see them, just as I expected to see the pyramids of Giza, the Rock of Gibraltar, the Basilica in Barcelona, or even simple windmills in Holland, a chocolate shop in Belgium, the Rockies in Alberta, or an ice road in Yellowknife. They are temporary sights to behold, to photograph, to check off the list of things I want to see; but it’s a completely different sensation to realize that these things aren’t attractions per se – they’re in your backyard, things you pass on your way to work, almost inconspicuous against the greater backdrop of life. It’s those times – like seeing these images for the first time again – that reality hits and I realize I live here now.
Sometimes it’s not even a particular building or monument or postcard-famous sight. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, a general surrounding, a vibe in the streets. A couple of weeks ago Jill and I spent the day in Gamlastan, milling through the throngs, browsing print stores and window shopping, strolling through the Christmas market, getting lost in the alleys. At one point in the evening I was sitting on a set of steps, looking out over a crowded square lined with age-old homes, candles flickering in the windows, random faces glowing with seasonal cheer (and no small amount of glögg, I’m sure), and it hit me: I live in Stockholm. This is still a foreign country to me, a mystery to be enjoyed, explored; a cultural milieu that was only ever accessible on grainy war-era movies or tourist brochures, distant and seemingly contrived, but with an inviting aspiration of what life might be like.
But it’s here, it’s real, I’m here and still amazed at that fact. I don’t want to lose that random sensation, but with time and increased familiarity I fear it’s only inevitable. Until then I’ll keep staring up at the buildings, through soft-lit windows, at passing faces and crowded squares and sidewalk cafes and darkened pubs and cobblestones and archways and rolling parks and 3pm sunsets, at times amazed, at times lost in mundane thought, at times just trying to get home, and at times – when I’m lucky enough – realize that this is home. And then I’ll smile.