A love letter to Stockholm
Something extraordinary happens in Stockholm on Midsummer Day. The city empties out. Stockholmers depart for their summer houses, almost all the shops and restaurants close and the buses run a skeleton service.
All is quiet. The elegant buildings, in pale orange, dusty red and sunset yellow, bake in the long, sun-filled days. Footsteps echo three streets away and then are silent. There is no one here. It’s post-apocalyptic, and I love it.
My family are away on one of the islands in the sea around Stockholm, celebrating the traditional Swedish Midsommar: eating pickled herring, singing Små grodorna (the little frogs song) and being eaten alive by mosquitos. It’s this last bit I can’t bear: the bites make me swell up, and sometimes get a fever (called skeeter syndrome), so here I am, alone in the city.
I walk down to the water and let myself wander. An old American car – a raggarbil – cruises calmly by, its engine rumbling softly, its speed suited to the day. It’s like something out of a movie, but then so, too, is the empty city today. Time slows down in the silence, and my mind goes peaceably blank.
Afterwards, I’m not quite sure how the hours have passed. My family returns from the island, there are a couple of weeks of work and school, and then we’re packing for England. Midwinter is something else.
I moved from Liverpool to Stockholm six years ago to live with my Swedish partner. We arrived in autumn, and the days quickly shortened and the afternoons disappeared. The mornings were still there, and the lunchtimes. Then the day plunged into night.
This was a whole other climate, as far as I was concerned. It was so dark that I was worried about getting depressed. But what happened instead was that my life was renewed. The snow reflects all the light back up into the sky and doubles it. A single day of clear blue sky and sun on a frozen lake makes up for all the other gloomy ones.
My life slowed down in Stockholm. The outer dark instilled an inner calm. Winter here became a time for deep, focused work: time to fix the last draft of the old novel, time to write the first draft of the new. One February, I was on parental leave, pushing my daughter around the icy city in her pram, when I got an idea for a children’s story set in the deep Stockholm winter. I wrote it while she napped in the middle of the day, and it became my first published novel. None of this would have happened without Stockholm.
This year, there’s a false spring, and the winter returns. It snows bitterly in April. By May, however, we’re heading out to the islands in the Stockholm archipelago. There are an estimated 24,000 islands here. Most of them are little more than a rock poking its nose up out of the water, but others have been inhabited continuously for hundreds of years. It’s a four-hour trip to our island, but it’s comfortable and quiet on the boat, and there’s endless fika (which roughly translates as meeting up to drink coffee, munch on sweet things and chat). It’s another perfect place to read and write.
It’s cold, still, on the island. Too cold for mosquitos, but warm enough for me. We light fires and draw water from the pump, and it’s so dark and quiet that we sleep as if the world has stopped turning. The next day, in the harbour, we roll the rowing boat into the water. I count the lighthouses on the horizon, wondering if I’ve missed one, worrying about my eyesight. If the sun breaks through the clouds, we’ll swim in the chilly brackish water and, like everything else in my life here, it’s refreshing. It renews me.
Three weekends later, there are snakes on the sunny rocks and in the water – which I don’t mind so much. But, if it rains, the mosquitos will hatch, and I head back into the city on the boat, wondering how long it will be before I return.
This June, I’m invited to an event at Stockholm City Hall. It’s Sweden’s National Day, and there’s a welcoming ceremony for new Swedish citizens – which this year includes me. After five years, I’m a happy and proud Swedish citizen, father to a Swedish child, with another one on the way. And if this is a love letter to Stockholm and Sweden, it’s also a love letter to the woman who brought me here, who made my world anew.
We won’t be together on Midsummer Day this year. We never are. She’ll be on the island, with all the mosquito-proof Swedes, and I’ll be here in the empty city, listening to the quiet, reading Tove Jansson in the park.
You’re welcome to come visit, but not today.
It won’t be the same if you’re here.
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