How are you doing, being by yourself, he had asked.
I was eating breakfast, by myself, sipping the rest of my tea and stared out the window for a bit before I picked up the phone to type a response: Sweden somehow makes it easier, I wrote. The people here are naturally more reserved and and their default mode is to kindly ignore you. Not in an uninterested or rude way, just politely letting you be on your own.
I had gone running the day before, first thing in the morning on a Saturday. The sun was finally out, and it felt good to be outside, running through the fresh snow, past the cemetery and into to the park. Gravel crunching under my feet, clean cold air in the lungs. I followed a path until reaching a little lake, frozen over and covered with snow. Stood on the little wooden pier, panting. Listened to the distant noises of the highway. Not a soul in sight.
In Spanish, she explained, there’s a difference between “estar solo” and “estar solitario”. The one means being by yourself, the other means being lonely. “What’s important is to not be lonely”, she pointed out. “And you aren’t.”
It was snowing, thick flakes cascading from the sky, melting on my camera lens. It had snowed the day before, and the one before that, never too much, snow like I remember during my childhood, probably tinted by memory. Back then, snow was something you threw and built snowmen of, not the brown sludge on the stairs of a Berlin subway exit. “I am sorry you have to spend February in Stockholm”, someone had written under my post announcing the trip. The statement stuck with me, somehow, but the more I kept thinking, February simply wasn’t an appealing prospect, no matter where. In Stockholm, at least, the winter was real.
When I stood on the pier by the lake the next day, a woman pushed past me, clipped metal skates onto her boots, and skated off across the ice.
On the subway, I was sitting across from an old Swedish man. An impossibly oval face, hat, glasses. Cleanly shaven, skin smooth and clean. We were at Gamla Stan, the sun was setting outside, but I doubt anyone noticed. He looked at me intently, not staring, not imposing, just a friendly man looking around. The only one on this subway car looking straight ahead instead of down at a device.
She had just left, on a bus toward the airport. Three days had flown by. You perceive time differently when it’s shared. I walk away from the bus, back towards the city where I will drink a coffee (no milk, thanks), and write some e-mails. When the café closes, I will step outside into the cold air. I will put on my headphones, take out my phone, swipe across the screen and then, a few seconds later, be connected to another familiar voice.