By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly
Four minutes is all I can take. It’s not jetlag. Or culture shock. It’s just hot. I’m in a sauna. In Malmoe, in Sweden.
Guidebooks and everything, they talk about this. You go to Scandinavia, and you go to the sauna. For the coziness. For warmth and safety, inside, when outdoors is a pile of snowflakes. But the early sensation in the hot box is acute familiarity: This feels exactly like Southeast Asia at the peak of hot season, before monsoon. I can’t. I bolt, for the shower. Wash off the hot.
Sweden? Really? “Yeah, you know? I want to go somewhere cold, for a change,” I’d said. “Won’t it be expensive?” “Yeah. No. Well, I’ll cook and stuff. I’ll be staying on a boat. Anyway, I want to feel the feeling of winter.”
A young woman from Hong Kong studies in Lund. She told me she, too, wanted to be in Sweden, for the cold, and a chance to see snow for the first time. Was that so strange, to want to be around that which you didn’t know, to seek newness, to sample with smell and touch what it’s like to be far, even multiple continents away from the regularity of one place, and one alone? It’s human to be curious. To seek inspiration, to keep asking questions, all the time.
My first question is why, living in a place that’s hot all year, I still own clothing from a past life in Seattle. A wool coat. A brown zip-up sweater. A hoodie, some turquoise gloves, plus a warm hat that covers the ears. “You just don’t know when you’ll need a hat like that,” an elderly lady had said.
“Keep it all. You’ll be glad for it, when you get to the next place, and it’s fierce cold, you know you will.”
She was right. In Malmoe, these give me the insulation I needed to venture to town. By foot. By cycle. By bus, once I got a commuter pass. Learning the route means fixing a routine, and so I start showing up regularly at a Greek place for lunches, and going to the same person at a place with an orange awning to buy Swedish coins and notes. (After the second visit, there’s small talk, like we’re in a village somewhere off the coast of Ireland, maybe Kinsale. It’s comfy, it’s human-scale, like the chats in lines at post offices with people you see regularly would be.) I go to a little café that’s great for people watching, and when I ask, “Who comes here?” the answer is, “Weird people,” and a chuckle. I keep going.
On one of the three tables inside, a stamped label says, “No laptops except at the bar. Talk to each other!” I do this. I interrupt people mid-“fika,” a ritual for late afternoon, meandering conversation that lingers happily over espresso and cake.
On my return journeys to the harbor, I notice how the season is changing. It’s so subtle. Skies darken earlier, bit by bit, and as they do, the redness of berries in the low trees grow more vivid. Crows of a silky fluency in their motion begin to ink the skies, penciling poetry among the branches.
Silhouettes turn the edge of a page that is fall, and as they do, I get used to a few things. Snowdrift. Filtered coffee. How the walls are translucent in the shower stall. I find places for the basics, like button mushrooms, brie, yogurt and eggs. I buy toothpaste (‘tandpasta’), and a yellow, star-shaped chunk of organic soap.
Before heading over to Denmark for the rest of my stay, I will need to say a few goodbyes. Some live on their boats all year, some just in the summer. Boats in the water, or boats hoisted, on land. Some good chats have happened here, in the kitchen, in the living areas. Life, philosophy. This was the journey I was on.
Flights from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia are broken up, with layovers.
But these give you time to pause, and consider honestly the feeling in your gut. A ripe time for the test: Is it nicer to go away, or to come back to a place? When you take a good look at the things you care about, the things you value, and you sketch a matrix of what makes it easier to enjoy those things and the place or places that give you joy, the tally gets simple quickly. You can tell which direction is best. Here in Phnom Penh, I’ve almost mostly switched from greeting people with the jovial, “Hey!”, to a more subdued, “Suos’day.” In the in-between space of readjusting and reminiscing, I’m enjoying the confusion. Both ways are cozy. Both are good. (end)
Dipika Kohli can be reached at email@example.com.