If we are fortunate, we may experience during our lives a handful of significant events that profoundly change or influence us. Some call these milestones or game-changers. I am lucky to have had a few, but none so profound as when I set off to explore a foreign land completely on my own. The lessons were many and shaped my early adulthood.
Shortly after graduating high school and one day after celebrating my 18th birthday, I boarded Scandinavian Airlines headed for Copenhagen, Denmark. I had a backpack, travel journal, Pentax camera, Sony Walkman, lots of traveler’s checks, a train pass, an all-weather jacket and a good pair of walking shoes. No agenda for the next six weeks, and no reservations anywhere (except for the youth hostel when I first got to Denmark).
The plane tickets for the trip were my big graduation present from my parents– a significant reward for completing my primary education before pursuing my higher education at the University of Southern California.
Why Scandinavia? My only answer to my impulsive decision was “because I wanted to go somewhere the rest of the family had not been.” I had been to the UK when I was 13, my parents traveled all over the world, and my siblings all through Europe. No one had pursued the Nordic countries. The only goal I had for the trip was the romantic idea of having a cup of tea on top of a mountain while watching the midnight sun sit on the horizon.
It was an incredibly challenging and rigorous solo journey, much bolder than I had anticipated. Probably much more ambitious too. I mean, I had pumped gas at the local Chevron station, loaded and emptied the dishwasher, raked the leaves in the yard, picked the fallen plums off the ground and made it to soccer practice on time, but had never had to be solely in charge of myself for six weeks in a foreign land. I learned that I had a lot to learn about responsibility.
After a few days exploring Copenhagen, I followed the train lines that twisted and snaked their way north through the country to sites previously unknown to me. I ventured into parks, museums, town squares and cathedrals. Once I made it to Norway, I began my pilgrimage to the Arctic Circle. Along the way, I learned about Norsemen, Viking adventures and Norwegian daily life. I also learned that I really knew nothing about where I was.
This trip served as a clear separation between my childhood and the start of adulthood. I had to quickly let go of the structure of high school and having a daily routine and schedule. I had to make it out there all alone. By not being at the beach all summer or keeping in touch with those who wrote “Here’s my number, keep in touch” in my year book, I only had the horizon and the test of making it through unfamiliar places to prepare me for college life.
It got lonely at times. Northern Sweden had a shortage of folks who spoke English.
Sundays were the worst. Small towns shut down, and I was too young to appreciate just walking in the flower fields and too reserved to get out and start conversations. I learned that I better become more outgoing and resourceful.
But there were many grand adventures.
I traveled with folks from all over the world. A few days together here and there and then we would go our own way. I watched the now famous Live Aid concert broadcast in a hostel in Norway with a great guy from New Orleans. Traveled on a ferry to Sweden with a German. Bunked with an Israeli who had been slipped some hash and then borrowed my Walkman to listen to his music to “get normal again.” I learned that people from other places on the map were fascinating and could teach me different perspectives of the world.
I walked long, empty roads and miles through town centers and neighborhoods. I slept in hostels for $7 per night, including a continental breakfast. One spot was in a former ballet studio with rows and rows of snoring travelers. I was handed a number and told to go find a mattress. I slept holding my Walkman and passport really close to me that time. I even embarrassed myself once by trying to explain the difference between a Democrat and Republican to a native Swede. The older, snobby Americans sitting around made me feel like I failed my government class. I wasn’t invited out on the town that night by the rest of the group. Maybe I hadn’t paid enough attention in class.
I survived on the continental breakfasts, fruit for lunch from the town open-air markets and a good dinner in local restaurants. My budget grew each day, and I was able to ship home Danish sweaters and (porcelain) plates to family and friends. I learned how to manage money and plan ahead.
One night I came back from a boat ride on the fjord (which took much longer than anticipated) and had nowhere to stay. I was told that all the hostels were sold out. It also was beginning to rain, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would be huddled under a random overhang all night. I took one last chance at a place up the street. Just across the small river I saw an old woman in the yard of her fairytale house, which happened to be a hostel. I walked across the bridge and told the woman of my plight.
When I looked deep at her, I saw my grandmother’s face, so I knew I was going to be OK. She went into a room of snoring travelers and pulled out a mattress for me to sleep on on the dining room floor. I learned to never give up too early.
After a short time, I easily made my goal of being up above the Arctic Circle and found a café where I had hot tea as I watched the midnight sun. I learned that no goal was too silly to pursue.
My biggest adventure came towards the end of the trip. I was traveling with eight others on a ferry from beautiful Stockholm to Turku, Finland. Once I arrived at the hostel located outside of town, I dropped off my backpack and headed into town rather than taking a much needed nap.
As I walked back, two roads from opposite ends of the woods converged in the middle of a field. A local man and I came to this crossroads at the same time. I nodded and said hello. He responded in Finnish, and I said that I only spoke English. He then spoke in English and explained that he had just come from the factory and asked if I had too.
As we walked, we started talking. He asked, “Where you from?”
“California,” I said, and we made some general talk about my plans for my trip and what I wanted to see.
Then he asked “Where in California?”
“Oh, not Long Beach?”
I almost laughed, I was so surprised.
“Well, yes, actually Long Beach.”
He went on to explain that he had a son, older than I was, that had been an exchange student years ago but couldn’t remember the school’s name.
I started listing off schools: Lakewood? Poly? Wilson? And then I said Millikan.
“Yes! That was it! But you wouldn’t have known him.”
I took a chance.
“Did he graduate in 1976?”
“My brother graduated from Millikan in 1976.”
We kept walking into town on this dirt road, keeping up small talk and marveling at the coincidence of his son attending the same high school as I had.
“He ran cross-country, here is his name and phone number. He’s an actor in Helsinki– call him when you get there, and he will show you around. I will tell him that you will call him.”
Turns out, Marku Neiheiman was close buddies with my older brother Matt; they ran cross-country together at Millikan. What are the chances? I learned that it’s a smaller world than I thought.
I made it to Helsinki, and Marku spent the entire day showing me around his great city. We even threw paper airplanes off the top of the Olympic Stadium. After an incredible time, Marku wished me well and sent regards to my brother. I learned that the kindness of strangers does exist and is well worth accepting.
I eventually made my way back to Copenhagen to end my trip. I shipped my packages home and felt like I had already put high school behind me.
Once back in Long Beach, I realized that I had a lot of learning still to do but was thankful for the experience that taught me just how much I didn’t know. I packed my clothes again and set off for my dorm and new adventures with other fellow travelers seeking knowledge, personal milestones and game-changers.