Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sara's Smile

I have seen the future, and its name is Sara.

The funny thing is I don't know all that much about her. We were in Stockholm, and taking a day trip to an outlying island in the archipelago. The capital of Sweden is made of 14 islands itself, connected by 57 bridges. But that's nothing compared with the dots of land sprinkling the sea on the city's east side. Exactly how many islands is debatable, with headcounts ranging from 14,000 to 100,000: the general consensus is around 24,000. But ask almost any Swede, and they will have their favorite and gush rhapsodically about it.  

We were on our way to Utö, which sort of rhymes with "pewter." The island sports a hotel, a few restaurants, a mining museum, a bakery, a miniature golf course, a tennis court, and plenty of hiking and biking trails. But when we were there the first week of September, all but the hotel were already closed for the season. No matter: the trails were well marked, the view of the Baltic sea was breathtaking and the herring was delicious.

To get there requires a train/bus/ferry combo from the center of town. If you speak Swedish, it's likely not much harder than going to the Jersey shore from Manhattan. But at least for this English-speaker, the danger lay in spraining my tongue as I tried to confirm the directions with the ticket taker at the train station: "So I take the Nynäshamn train as far as Västerhaning, then catch the bus to Årsta brygga, where I get a Waxholmsbolaget ferry to Gruvbryggan. Right?" Go ahead: you try it.

We managed the first leg no problem, and were looking for the bus stop. On an hunch, we aimed for a spot where people were congregating. There were a bunch of young teenagers loaded with camping gear, and what turned out to be a club of pensioners on a day trip. I approached a woman in the second group, and asked if they were also headed to Utö. It took her a moment to decode my pronunciation, but then she smiled broadly, confirmed it and invited us to follow them.

While we waited we chatted with the pensioners about travel and such. When the bus came I chose a set of two seats facing two others, hoping some of our new acquaintances might join us. But down flopped 2 young girls, jabbering madly with their friends. They piled sleeping pads atop duffel bags, and settled in for the short ride to the ferry.

Turned out they were middle schoolers going on a field trip. Sweden is a very homogeneous country; most people walking down the street are blond and blue-eyed, and the locals we spoke to confirmed it as well. Diversity means people with long hair and short hair. In that light, both Sara D and her pal Sara H stood out not because they were wearing tie-dyed shirts that said "North Carolina," but because both were dark skinned with a mix of features.  

Sara D was the chatty one. Her family was from Kurdistan. They had been in Sweden a year, and she loved it. She especially liked that girls were equal to boys. She spoke 5 or 6 languages (she wasn't sure if two dialects of Arabic counted as one or two). She said her old home was a difficult place in which to live, but she loved the freedoms and ease of her new one. And while she wasn't sure what she wanted to study later, she knew she wanted to be a boss. She told us about her studies, quizzed us about our trip, lighting up the entire time. Unfortunately, when I asked her, she also realized she had forgotten the marshmallows for that night.  

We often say that with all the problems we have today, our best hope for the future lies in our children. They have a different world view than we do, one that looks past many of the divisions that separate us. When we say that, we usually think of our own kids; nothing wrong with that reference point. But now when I think of what's ahead, and the kind of person that will make a difference, my kids will be joined in my mind by another. For we can only hope that the future is also partly shaped by people like Sara D.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to travel and meet people. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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