Taking bold risks in the world's safest country can sometimes pay off.
The single best instance of charity that I have encountered in Prague stemmed from a 13 year old’s mistake. I had always heard wonderful things about the Nordic countries' sense of community. One of the reasons that I decided to go to Sweden during spring break was to explore this part of their national identity. One of my professors, Monika Macdonagh-Pajerova, learned Swedish in the 80's specifically to flee the oppressive communist regime. Her stories, along with my stereotypes of Sweden, drew me to Stockholm. I was ready to spend the rest of my life there before I even got on the plane to depart.
It is almost impossible to describe the feeling of traveling from "not-your-country" to another "not-your-country." Traveling to and from the Czech Republic is different. For at least a small time, I can claim Prague as my home. Before spring break, all of my trips have involved either leaving from or returning to Prague. I could effortlessly explain my situation as "an American studying in Prague for a semester." This is not the case when you are traveling from London to Stockholm.
In the airport, I was immediately struck by how few English people were boarding alongside me. The RyanAir flight was made up entirely of Swedes. This should have better prepared me for the city of Stockholm, thoroughly lacking London's charm. No wonder so many Swedes wanted to leave it!
For those of you who have never traveled on RyanAir before, the process can only be described as barbaric. Hordes of weary travelers jockey for seats like herds of cattle driven from pasture. There are no less than three waiting rooms, checkpoints and security gates. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I believed that the seat next to me was vacant. There is no more exhilarating feeling in the world than counting down the minutes until the gate closes, and the seating becomes permanent.
To my chagrin, not three minutes before the plane departed, a family burst on the plane and was forced to scramble for seats. The mother and father sat a few rows behind me, while their 13-year-old daughter sat next to me.
This trip was the first time that I had ever traveled alone. Normally, I am very comfortable making new friends. On this trip, however, I lacked the support system of my NYU friends, so I was still getting the hang of socializing.
Forgetting my kindle in the overhead compartment, I occupied myself by aimlessly staring at the seat's headrest. After observing that the Swedish girl, Iulia, finished her TeenPeople magazine twice, I decided it was time to strike up a conversation.
Iulia's conversational ability greatly surprised me. Not only did she speak perfect English, but also she was able to discuss a wide variety of subjects from Justin Bieber to Broadway musicals (I'll admit, having a sister myself, I am quite versed in these things.)
I had heard a rumor that the airport I was flying into was very far, two hours outside the city of Stockholm. When I asked Iulia about this, she denied it. I dismissed the advice of my friend as uninformed, and finished my conversation with Iulia as the flight landed. Before departing into the oppressively cold Swedish night, I was sure to compliment Iulia's parents on her excellent conversation. Drunk with the freedom of traveling alone for the first time, I had not made any arrangements. I thought that everything could be arranged on the fly and my previous travel experience had prepared me for anything.
All of a sudden, as I waited on the non-EU passport line, Iulia's mother came frantically running up to me. She muttered something about her daughter being quite young and how she was wrong. I immediately assumed that my behavior had been misconstrued. Maybe in Sweden it was uncommon for older teens to talk to younger ones. Maybe the age difference was just too awkward. It was only when Iulia's mother, Rekna, said "do you want a ride with us?" did I comprehend her meaning. Indeed, I was at the far airport with no money, no plan, and no way of getting into Stockholm.
Rekna's offer saved me. Within 10 minutes, I was in the front seat of a Mercedes-Benz (my first card ride in months) discussing geopolitics with Bjorn, her husband. The two hours went by in an instant. Already, I had met two of the most awesome people in all my travels. Lekna called the hostel and informed them of my delayed arrival. She drew me a map from where they were leaving me to the hostel. She informed me of the best sites in Stockholm. Just like that, we arrived in Old Town, a hand was extended and they were gone without nostalgia, without accepting my gratitude, and without exchanging contact information.
Traveling makes you aware of such random acts of kindness. I can never repay Bjorn's, Lekna's, and Iulia's kindness. But on that day, I vowed to myself that I would similarly help lonely travelers as my token of repayment.
(the photo shows exactly how far fetched RyanAir's claim that Skavsta was in Stockholm really was.)