Starting Out

All contents © 2020 Philip Semanchuk.

Photo of Stockholm's subway, the Tunnelbana

In the Tunnelbana, a string of bleak faces passes by. As the train accelerates, they smear into a film, 24 frames per second, 24 faces per second. Me on the platform, I'm glowing, still warm from America like bread fresh from the oven, radiating heat from the North Carolina summer. I went to a sauna with a Swedish friend. The temparature inside was 50, 60, 70, I don't remember, Celsius didn't make sense to me at the time. Anyway, it was broiling hot, and I felt right at home. I felt like I was at a daytime Bulls(1) game in Durham, sweating a salty river. My Swedish friend had to take breaks for cool air. I didn't think life in North Carolina would prepare me for anything in Sweden, but it did.

When I first got here I was high on travel euphoria. For a month and a half I was fresh bread, I was a grinning glowworm. Guessing at the meaning of signs, advertisements, the newspaper -- everything, really -- was a delight, a game. If it rained on me, it was Swedish rain and I was happy. I even smiled about my job, although that was a bit harder. And just a week after I arrived here I met a woman who became my girlfriend. She was beautiful and thought the USA was a stupid place. I agreed. We got on like a house on fire as my friend John likes to say. More heat.

I stayed in youth hostels and at my girlfriend's flat. I went to museums, parks, cafés, restaurants, dance clubs, and bars. I spoke English and Swedish and French, went to some hockey games, combed the city for decent tortilla chips (no joy), learned how to pronounce skjorta and sjukhus, went rock climbing, and had an impassioned conversation about Philadelphia Cream Cheese. I froze my ass off. I met a million people. I survived on roasted peanuts and raw spinach, exploded chestnuts, fed wild apples to ducks, combed the city for mustard greens (no joy), learned how to ice skate, had sex on a kitchen floor, and took the Party Barge to Finland for a day. I saw ringtail lemurs, danced to James Brown, played pool, and saw 18 herons nesting in a tree. I took subways, ferries, busses, trains and taxis and with my feet I learned the city. I went out with strangers and came home with friends. No doubt about it -- this was a very, very good time. There's a great line buried in the muddy vocals of the Superchunk song Keeping Track -- "All of this is so exhausting, but I don't want it to stop".

Maybe it was because I finally found a flat and got some stability in my life. Maybe it was cosmic rays, or lack of Mexican food. Whatever the cause, in mid-November reality hit me upside the head, serious as a heart attack as they say in North Carolina. In the space of one horrible week I exhausted my patience for being illiterate in Swedish, I quit the job and I lost the girlfriend. I sang along with Muddy Waters, "She lied to me, she didn't tell me everything / And now it's nine below zero, she put me down for another man". To add insult to injury, George W. Bush became my president. Talk about being kicked when you are down! On the October morning when I left North Carolina, I said goodbye to my cat, goodbye to my friend who drove me to the airport and I can tell you I shed some tears while on the plane. General departure blues. Well, in mid-November, I started crying again.

Now this is all normal, expected even. When you move to a new country where you don't know a soul, you guarantee yourself some frustration and heartache. It took a month and a half for that to catch up to me, but it did. So in mid-November when reality struck, I was pissed off and tired; I considered going back to North Carolina again. I had known this would tempt me eventually, so before I left the USA I had already decided I would stay in Sweden for a year no matter what. But I thought about going back to North Carolina anyway, just for comfort.

I thought about stepping out of my front door into the glorious sauna heat of August, about friends and family, places, events and memories. I got a warm feeling. I got wistful. And I got a surprise -- I don't want to go back. Maybe someday, but not soon. This is no insult to what I left behind. My wise friend Nicole pointed out to me that an old life is like a favorite piece of worn out clothing, remembered fondly but no longer wearable. Saffire The Uppity Blues Women said, "I'm cleaning out my closet, I'm no longer sentimental / Forget about experience, I'd rather have potential!" I dig it! So I am digging in, like I dig into bread fresh from the oven. It is hard to imagine anything tasting better.



1. Scientific studies have shown that minor league baseball is better for you than television. If you live in Durham, go see a Durham Bulls game. Check out your local team if you live elsewhere! [back]