“How are you feeling?” I’m asked. “To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it yet.”
The warm Berlin air hits my face as I leave the airplane. The stewardess says goodbye in Norwegian. I wish I could respond in Norwegian in turn, but decide to smile and exit the aircraft. On the plane, I had just seen white, bilious tops of thunderstorm clouds forming. Back down on earth, the sky looks grey. I grin. I know what it looks like from above. It feels like I know some sort of hidden truth.
We are herded onto a bus. The door traps my bag, and refuses to let go for the entire ride. I’m starting to sweat. I’m still wearing my trusty tech-wool sweater. It definitely begins to ring true to its name. I swear to god that everyone around me can smell the fact as well. We finally reach our gate, and pile out into the baggage claim area. My little red bike bag, filled with only 7.5kg worth of camping equipment, is thrown onto the baggage claim lane. My bike emerges later, from a black side door on the opposite side of the hall. I decide to put it back together right then and there.
No one is waiting to pick me up, so I’m not in a hurry.
“It’ll take as long as it takes!” I don’t know how I’m going to solve the problem of the missing wrench without my British and Estonian helpers, but decide that help as always arrived so far – my luck won’t have run out just yet. I unwrap my bike, lift out the torso, and the gear/chain falls straight onto the floor. Norwegian Air might have done a good job getting all of my luggage back to Berlin, but they’ve failed poor Red. I nearly fall head over into my box, attempting to find the tiny, 1cm screw that had become undone. It’s thankfully still inside the box, stuck between a hole in the cardboard. “See, luck is still with me!” I cheer to no one in particular.
I begin the assembly. My hands are black with grease. I get grease all over my hands, and shirt. I’m so unbearably warm. I ask a man to watch out for Red as I change into a shirt. Back down on my hands and knees, kneeling before Red, I begin to feel as if I should be taking money for the pictures being taken. “So this is Berlin,” one lady says. I welcome her to my beautiful, crazy home. A group of terribly intoxicated men from Portugal pass me by. They’re wearing costumes. One of them stumbles into the restroom, a friend is holding him by the arm to steady him. He’s in a pink bunny costume. One of the men outside is dressed like the Joker. Pink Bunny stumbles back out of the restroom, wiping at his chin. He points at me. “You’re so cool,” he hiccups. His friend gives me a huge smile and thumbs-up. I smile and the back tire settles back into place. “Trains, airports…. I could start making a living out of bike repairs!” I think to myself.
A man comes up to me. He’s wearing a yellow vest. He’s part of the airport security. “You’d better take your crap back out with you.” I let him know I will. “Welcome back home,” I grumble at his turned back. A cleaner walks up to me, and I ask him if there’s a dumpster close by I can throw my bike box into. He smiles when I tell him where I’ve come from, and what I’ve done. “Don’t worry about the box, I’ll take care of it.”
I finish putting Red back together. I’ve asked around, but no one has a wrench. I tighten the screws by hand, and silently pray that the tire will stay on long enough for me to make it home. I finally, about an hour after I’ve left the airplane, leave the baggage claim area.
I’m greeted by squeals of delight.
It’s my parents. I had called them from the airport in Oslo, and my mom had told me they’d gone hiking in the mountains. It’s a wonderful surprise. They wrap me in an enormous, loving hug. “We missed you,” dad says. “We thought you hadn’t made it,” my mom says. It seems my decision to put my bike together in the baggage claim area nearly cost me my surprise welcome. I check my phone. 5 missed calls, and multiple messages from my mom. My hands were too dirty to check my phone, so I hadn’t noticed a thing. “We were ready to leave, thinking you had stayed somewhere in Norway,” my mom tells me. The words stumble over themselves, they’re leaving her mouth in such a hurry. “But then we saw a man leave the baggage area with your box!” My mom had recognized the bike box from the pictures, and had run straight up to the man. “Did you see the girl who had this box?” she’d asked. That’s how they both realized I’d started to put the bike together, cheerfully ignorant of my welcome committee waiting for me.
My dad grabs Red from me to push it to the car. Red promptly falls over. “It’s … really heavy,” he says. I laugh. “Actually, it’s quite light at the moment, there’s no food or water inside.” His eyes grow big. Mom keeps hugging me. “No more adventures,” she says. “Don’t plan anymore adventures,” she repeats, on hand always on my head, my shoulders, my arms, my hands. It’s like she can’t believe I’ve made it back in one piece. We get to the car, and take Red apart once more to fit it. We drive along the highway, at 80km/h. I giggle. “We’re going so fast! And no one is going to run us over because we’re so small! Oh, the luxury!” I say as I pat the door of the car. We pass by the new BER airport. It’s still not finished. We pass by the city signs reading “BERLIN”.
I’m back home. My trip already begins to feel like a dream, as the steady stream of words from the driver’s seat washes over me.
I don’t even remember to celebrate opening the door to my apartment. I breathe in the stale air of an apartment that hasn’t been lived in for a while. I smile. I like my new apartment. I glance at the bed, but shove the thought of that empty side to the side. My mom is off to buy groceries for me as a welcome home present. She comes back with three boxes, filled to the brim. She managed to spend 120€ at the local Lidl. I gape at her. “Just… how,” I ask.
“Ah, you know, it’s just everything a tired, athletic body like yours needs!” she chirps.
She offers to prepare dinner while I shower, and wash my clothes. I think of Tomi, and how much he had longed to wash his clothes. It feels like he’s right there with me, as I pile the freshly washed pile of laundry on the drying rack. My sweater no longer smells of sweat, and woods, and desperation, and the North. It smells of laundry detergent. It’s odd. I take a shower, and brush my hair. I feel so delightfully clean. We sit down for dinner.
The pile of fresh tomatoes and lettuce in front of me is almost too beautiful to devour – but I do, with glee.
I finally have a plate full of pasta and tomato sauce sitting in front of me. I’ve been dreaming of this for weeks. My mom is pleased to see how much I’m eating. “Have you lost weight?” she asks. “I actually gained some,” I reply – I’d been surprised myself. “Oh, that’s just muscles,” she huffs, and puts another piece of bread into my hand. “Eat!” I do.
We settle into our beds. My parents sleep on the couch, and I get ready for my bed. The second blanket that I’ve used to cover the empty side is with my parents. It makes it easier to pretend that this is and always has been a bed for one. Before I go to bed, my mom asks me who’s been my favorite encounter on the road. Through the stories I’ve told, she’s fallen in love with the Swedes. I smile. Everyone I’ve met was so unique, so kind and helpful in their own way, that I can’t choose. I go through each and every person, their name, what it was like to be with them. I think of seeing Melinda in Lund, of telling of the things happening back home, and how tightly she hugged me when I cried about the man I missed. I think of the Lady On The Train, and how she opened up the doors of Sweden to me by telling me to knock, and made me feel like I would truly make it – because I had to. I think of the woman trapped in the elevator with me. I think of Matthias and Hanna, and how they welcomed me into their shed. I think of Johanna, and how she would text me almost every night, to give me adventure tips, and to make sure I was safe. I think of Annika and Jürgen, and their two crazy cats. Those two seem to be my mom’s favorites. “I loved the picture of Annika outside her house, in front of the old-timers,” she says. My dad chuckles. “Horse candy.”
I think of Dag and Lilly, of their little farm in the forest, of how happy they are with so little. I think of Ann without an “E” and wonder if she told Lydia she met me. I think of the ladies working at the Naturkompaniet. The list seems endless. Thea, and her children. The man from the cycle shop with Tessa, the dog. The old man who cried when he thought of his mountains, how much he missed them. The lady at the train station, who tried to tell me in Swedish that she was impressed. The woman in Gävle who was about to celebrate her daughters 4th birthday and wasn’t sure if she’d do a good job at it. The computer admin from Umea university, and his Malaria-studying wife. Shona, Oscar, David, Rozanne, and the climbing crew from Iksuklettring.
Jan, who told me in Töre for breakfast that I deserve to eat. The eleven kids in the Finnish woods. I wonder if the oldest kid did well on his ethics exam. I think of Sven, Inge and Roger – and their daily sauna nights as a family. I think of Johnnie, and wonder how his kayaking exam might have gone by now – or if he’s still stuck on the river. I think of Eimo, and whether I did done wrong to mistrust him as I did. Kari, and his fascination with armies and delight when he could take a picture of me. I think of Trygwa and his salmon-studying friend Matthias. Ivano, and how much I missed his friendly chatter once it was no longer with me. The German couple whom I’d met on a mountain, promised to meet again at the Nordkapp – and was able to keep my promise to. The entire gang up on the Nordkapp museum: Zuzana, Vygis, Rasmus, Diana, Hilda, Marion. How special they’d made me feel for making it to the top. Stein, and how he’d made me promise to stay strong. Jonathan at the airport. Walther and Roger and their basement. And all those people in between who I chatted with for a few moments, who allowed me to have a short insight into their lives. I couldn’t pick my favorite if I tried.
“How are you?” I’m asked. I don’t know. I guess the answer won’t be found in a single, straight reply. The answer will be found in new adventures. In new actions, in new combinations of words I find to describe what I’ve seen. What I’ve heard. What I’ve understood and felt. I look at that empty side of the bed. That aching feeling is still nestled deep in my chest. A feeling I’d like to let go of.
A brief smile passes across my lips.
I’ve made it to the Nordkapp.
I can do this, too.
The End…. or is it?