When I travel, I like to be a flâneuse, to walk and wander somewhat aimlessly, to soak in the atmosphere, sit in cafés on squares and observe both the tourists and the locals, and let things happen; not for me vigorous hikes or organized tours or even the audio headsets. So I generally travel alone, as this aimlessness is deeply frustrating to others who prefer a planned agenda, with lists of things to do and see.
On my latest trip I decided to go to Stockholm, because I had not been there in fifty years, and couldn’t really remember much about it, and also because I imagined it to be a good place for the solo woman traveler: safe, efficient, woman-friendly. I booked a room on a floating hotel, which also matched my state of mind: even if the ship would not be leaving port, I would have that illusion of traveling onward, a comfortable mixture of drifting and destination, and indeed there were a few windy moments when the ship rocked ever so slightly, and I felt a momentum in my thoughts.
I made some plans nevertheless, to structure my flânerie, allowing for the forecast of sun and wind. I returned to Skansen, the outdoor park and museum, a perfect place for ambling and daydreaming; I remembered it as magical from fifty years ago and it was unchanged, as far as I could tell; only the season was different. Small children in bright pink reflective vests followed their teachers while magnificent geese waddled everywhere, very much the rulers of the place. There were views onto the water and the city in an early spring sunshine; young fathers on paternity leave congregated in the café for their children’s snacks, strollers and baby carriages neatly parked in rows at the entrance.
I took the tram back to the city center and got lost, almost sorry to be trapped among modern architecture and massive construction sites after a long morning in nature and an illusion of a simpler past. Finally I found Drottninggatan, the main pedestrian shopping street, which I knew would lead me back down to my island and hotel. Another perfect causeway for people-watching and drifting on impressions: while many of the shops were the familiar chains you find everywhere, and I could have been anywhere, therefore, I knew I was in Sweden and that its reputation went before it; I saw nothing to refute that, only people going quietly about their business, no shoving, no rushing, a sense of reserved friendliness and helpfulness, if help were needed.
This impression lasted all through my three days in Stockholm. I went out to the Waldemarsudde museum, which was filled with flowers and eager pensioners, like myself, gathering for lunch at the museum café; this was their favorite place, they assured me, I must come again. As at Skansen there were views onto the city and a walk by the water to the tram; all conferring a sense of well-being, along with the bright, low-angled sunlight; even the brisk wind was intermittent, bracing. I found myself again in the modern center, did some shopping, wandered slowly back down Drottninggatan to the old town and my boat.
The last morning I was very tired: all my walking had caught up with me and I was sorry my plane was so late in the afternoon. One last short hike up the hill to the square by the Nobel Museum; a café armchair in sunlight. Local children were on a sort of scavenger hunt with their class. I eavesdropped on passing tourists and heard Dutch, Spanish, Finnish, German, Greek, Arabic. I left regretfully; the sunshine, the unassuming hospitality, the ease of being a woman alone. Or a woman, full stop. Astrid Lindgren, Greta Garbo and Birgit Nilsson on the bank notes. All those young fathers doing their share – I had seen more of them during my walks. This is how society is changed, I thought. By example. Quietly, slowly. Small things like a country’s currency; larger ones like paternity leave. (The Nobel Museum is not exemplary, but then it is global, and it is a reminder of what remains to be done.)
By half past two I knew my flight was delayed; I attributed it to the low-cost carrier and the late departure from notably erratic Geneva airport. I sat and watched a small team of construction workers rearrange a corner of the area where my gate was located. A ginger-haired young woman in a reflective vest and sturdy hiking shoes was sticking squares of green striped carpet to a dusty floor. The men were mostly standing around, apart from one who was drilling panels into the wall. Their conversation was desultory, calm.
Finally I went to stand in line; the other passengers were getting edgy, impatient. A frazzled French mother was doing what she could to calm her tired young son; she had another toddler in an airport stroller. In answer to the son’s pleading she explained that the flight was delayed, then out of the blue: “It seems there’s been a glitch, there’s a truck that ran over some people in the center of town, we don’t know, maybe it was an accident.”
She didn’t want to frighten her son; I could appreciate her hope, which I shared, that it was an accident. I checked my tablet: the BBC reported a lorry clearly targeting pedestrians on Drottninggatan then slamming into the Åhlens department store on the corner. Three people were reported dead, at that point.
With hindsight, it was as if no one knew, apart from the French mother and me. Ground crew were smiling and calm, passengers no more irritable than anyone who has been waiting for two hours would be. I felt calm, even numb, as yet unaware of the resonance of the event, but anxious to know, and to let others know I was at the airport, about to board.
We finally took off; I was next to a Swedish woman and her son; she spent the entire flight reading fashion magazines; he played games on his phone. Most of the passengers seemed to be Swedish families on their way to the Alps for skiing or tennis. Some were fidgety, moving around the cabin to talk to others they knew. I gathered some were speaking about the incident, but they didn’t seem distressed. The view of the Alps was among the best I’ve ever seen, in a late afternoon rosiness. Stockholm seemed very far away.
But as I reconnected with the world in Geneva and messages started coming in, I felt an immense sadness. For those who had died, their families, the injured. And yet again, to a degree, for a country’s loss of innocence. But I also felt a doomed nostalgia for those three sunny days where I’d wandered in an illusion of a kinder, better world—of course I had known all along, reading the news from Syria or Washington, that there is no such place—but briefly, Stockholm had been that place for me. A part of me was sorry not to be there still, perhaps inconvenienced, trapped in the city without transportation or a place to stay, but also given an opportunity to know it even better, in a different and deeper and more meaningful way. As it was, place and time had ordained things otherwise, and I am grateful for that. But even now I keep wandering along Drottninggatan as it was on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, and I am frustrated, half-blind, as if I had lost, or missed something in my aimlessness.