RIP! A strap snapped and the squash bag was on the loose, sliding down the check-in area of San Francisco International Airport while somewhere across the concourse a flight to Denmark began boarding. I had a three week break until my next tournament, a couch set up for the next night in Copenhagen, and nothing planned after that. Strapless and sweating, I was on the plane. On to Scandinavia.
I first met Neha Kumar competing in two European junior tournaments ten years ago as teenagers. It's a funny friendship but like most ones through squash- a Canadian and a Californian who rarely cross paths during a year, never share the same school, state, or country, yet are brought together through our niche sport. We hadn't been in touch since our college squash seasons until one afternoon last fall when Neha sent a message offering up her couch if I was ever in the area. Nine months later, I was in the area.
Fresh off the twelve hour overnight flight I slid past the security entrance with Neha and into the United Nations Copenhagen headquarters, trying to kick the smell of plane food and sweaty jet lag and figure out the visitor badge as we headed for her office at the UN. I wanted to tell Neha's colleagues just how lethal their coworker's forehand was when we were 15 years old or how she can still beat most the guys I know but I did my best to keep it in. We wandered through the harbor after work and traded life updates, made guesses at where things will end up knowing well it's all just a guess anyway. I'd like to think these little moments and conversations with friends like Neha are the things I'll remember most when I look back on all this.
That weekend it was back to training. Tagged along to a local club championship event and on Saturday got on court with Jens, a former semi professional soccer player turned high grade squash player and fitness beast. During the day Jens is a bass baritone opera singer who freelances around Denmark. Singing is Jens' passion and sometimes the visibility can be tricky "but I know what the next year looks like so that's good." I wouldn't call myself an opera guy but I thought Jens' triumphant shrieks and rallying cries sounded quite soft and smooth as we chased around the court for hours. The opera singer and the other guy sparing at a near empty Kløvermarkens Tennis and Squashcenter on the edge of Copenhagen, backlit by a 10 PM Danish summer sun that refused to set.
I had never met Carl Trosdahl until the next morning, when I arrived in Stockholm temporarily couch-less. Minutes later, good news from my Dartmouth buddy Stoian: his best friend from high school in Norway is a cool dude with an open couch in Stockholm. Three different plans had fallen through and it worked out for the better because Carl was indeed a cool dude. That night we met up with some Swedes and headed underneath a bridge to Trädgården, a hip nightclub that, in between electronic house beats, was projecting the Sweden-Nigeria Women's World Cup match on the side of the bridge to hundreds of excited Swedes and a few ambivalent foreigners. Between beers and deep house against the cement underpass, Swedish chants and rallying cries, I surveyed our crew: Carl who I met that night, plus Josefine and her sister, both of whom I had met for a day hiking last summer, and Josefine's girlfriend Elvira. A Swedish dream team.
I was welcomed into training at the Stockholm squash club Roslagen, Josefine introduced me to fried herring and I powered through a two hour wait with Carl so he and his Tesla coworkers could show me the "best American burger outside of America" at Flipping Burgers. In Stockholm my last minute accidental roommate became a real friend as he shared what he had- his couch and Netflix, movie tickets and long park runs, beers and tacos at his go-to Mexican spot. It was mundane same old same old living and it was hard to leave.
Finland has approximately 2 million saunas and in my short stop in be country I wanted to see as many as I could. I was in Helsinki to stay and train with Jaakko Valhamaa, the Finnish #4 and world #187 who I first met in the New Zealand circuit of tournaments last summer. Jaakko finished his mandatory military service a year ago and has spent almost every day since on the court. We ate fish and more fish, trained with another Finnish national team player Tatu at the country's national training center and for recovery afterward, stopped at a sauna "club" along the ocean, where, for $15 euros, we alternated sitting amongst the regulars in a hundred and something degree traditional wooden sauna and dipping in the fifty something degree Gulf of Finland saltwater. After that, I didn't need to see any more saunas.
I spent the last night of the Denmark/Sweden/Finland swing with Jaakko and his mom, grilling salmon and roasting potatoes and sitting outside on their porch in the town of Espoo, a half hour outside of Helsinki. We sat in mostly silence, polished off milkshakes made with Finnish licorice in the flickering twilight of early summer daylight around us. Movie night and then off to bed, sleeping next to a trophy case of medals in the room of Jaakko's sister Jenni, the former European junior figure skating champion. Early the next morning I was on a boat heading for the Baltics.