Like life, I am unhinged, as large,
In an apartment high above
with streaked windows like doors
This dream becomes
solid as the ground I stand on
Lick my fingers clean from an unconscious song
I have been thinking a lot about my time in Sweden lately. Of course, here and there I think about Stockholm, abbreviated and embroidered on every facade of the city – train stations, street signs, guidebooks – as STHLM, chic and straightforward, not unlike its people. I see the city as surely as I see water in all its forms; the numerous islands and bridges and river inlets that make up the city and create an openness that is rare in European capitals.
‘Water is the nerve of Stockholm. It opens up the sky and lends a glow to this incredible fairytale city of the north, not far from the Arctic Circle. Stockholm is the city, it is always the same, everything changes, people come and go…’
But although STHLM is immediately identifiable to the cosmopolitan traveler, it is my humble town of Linköping that I miss the most. It is the fifth largest city in Sweden but the city name and its pronunciation (lin-sher-pin) is usually unheard of. And I too, did not hear of it till it became part of me.
I remember arriving in my tiny square space and spending that night on a threadbare and musky IKEA mattress, the room startlingly dark and all my possessions contained in two luggage cases, that feeling of lightness of being (but also an acute emptiness) unfurling in my chest. I had arrived at Linköping after applying for an exchange program on a whim with my then-boyfriend, picking the place only because it seemed like a whimsical, faraway town to runaway to if only to escape the sticky Singaporean heat. In that moment though, it did not seem at all appealing. I missed my own room, my home.
After a night of crying, I refused to stay in the stagnant and decrepit state of not belonging and thus unpacked, sparse as the shelves looked under my five or six possessions. At least I tried. And I tried the next day, and the next day, and the next. And as the weeks passed, I began to develop a routine and I slowly felt the previously hostile walls of the room begin to mould around my daily activities – or perhaps I was changing myself to fit the contours of the room itself.
Every day after art history or political science class, I would park my pink bike outside my dorm, unlock my door and hang my coat and scarf on the rack next to my bathroom (coat, left; scarf, right). I would shake the snow off my boats and leave them to dry between the radiator and the front door. Then finally, I would stumble into my tiny bedroom and collapse onto the sheets to thaw from the minus five-degree weather.
I began to decorate, dragging a white table and chairs and boxes of abandoned books from the college residential halls into my room. Piles of research papers and discarded poetry collections began to form little towers on my study table. I grew accustomed. Every morning I would wake up, turn my body to the right and gaze at the blue-grey shafts of light that slid between the blinds and made their way into my room. It was almost winter then and the sun would climb up lazily into the sky at ten in the morning and then melt away again into the horizon by four in the afternoon. I liked that fluctuation of dark and light; it suited my introverted tastes.
Rydsvagen 254 A17 58438
But when did this room become “home”, exactly? I can’t remember which weekend trip I was coming back from, perhaps Oslo or London, but I do know that it was in the dead of the night and we were exhausted from lugging our bags from train to bus, bus to plane, plane to bus again. And I remember this moment so clearly – as we approached the Ryd intersection and went separate ways to our own student apartments, I turned to whoever I was traveling with then and said, okay well, see you later, I’m going home. Home.
The four-letter word hung in the dark intersection, crystallised in sleepy breath. And for me, that inherent moment of the sense of home shifting within my mind’s eye was monumental and I felt a rush of yes, the other-home sweetness and warmth, the belonging, like when a person fits her arm into the crook of her lover’s and it sits there snug… like when there’s a catch between bolt and key, like when you’re no longer suspended in air.
Almost immediately I felt a little guilty, as if I was cheating on my own room in Singapore, but then I reassured myself with the thought that my old room would understand. There, there. It wouldn’t mind one bit. It would want me to feel at home in another place, at least for a certain period of time.
I took many pictures of the European cities that year, stunning sights and historical monuments. I took pictures of the celestial lights in the midnight Scandinavian sky, of the deep velvet forests I hiked in, of the people I had met. I took many pictures at an attempt to remember, but now when the names of towns and municipalities and street names are slipping off the edges of my mind, all I have to do is close my eyes and think about my room, my little twelve square meters of home. It is the one thing I can’t forget.
I guess the thing that I’m getting at is this: you only have one birthplace but you can have more than one home. Even though I’m back in Singapore right now, I am always wondering what my next destination will be and whether it is a place where I could one day reside and make my own. And as I recollect memories about my time in Sweden, I also find myself feeling fluid – like water, like the rivers of Stockholm, like that sense of home.