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Dispatches

Richard Neutra, Perspective Rendering, Unidentified Residence, c. 1954. Courtesy the artist and Edward Cella Art + Architecture. Via Artsy.

Home Sweet Sweden

In a life of perpetual movement, the moment arrives when you find yourself desperate for stillness.

At naptime I lie with my toddler son in our brand-new IKEA bed in a very old bedroom of a red house in the Swedish forest, with peeling floral wallpaper, rough, unfinished floorboards, and a white-paneled ceiling. My son rolls all over the bed—back and forth, up and down—while I sing night songs to him as he tries to peek through the holes in the paper-thin blinds. And then, mid-roll, he sleeps suddenly, and I let my guard down and join him almost as dramatically.

These sweaty naps break the spell of adulthood, and I always wake in the same half-dreamy state as my child. We are cozy, then grumpy, and I am unable to adjust to the world outside—to my other kid or my wife or the fact that I have anything to do but sit on the kitchen sofa and look at dust particles swirling in the air.

What do you do when, in the middle of a life of perpetual movement, you find yourself desperate for a place of stillness? And what if you’ve already moved across an ocean for your daughter’s sake, but it hasn’t been quite enough, and now there is another baby, too?

These are questions that focus the mind. At least, they did for my wife and me. And as I searched for any good answer—after a dim and dreary Nordic winter, facing a long Swedish paternity leave, still at the start of a new career, with no network in the city, no place to go home to—I was drawn into a kaleidoscope of places and moments. I was left grasping into my past, one that had receded and washed away, both by my actions and by pure chance.

We were not searching for just more space; we needed to bring time into our space, and bring spaces into our time.

And what I found in my past became one reason why my wife and I decided against upgrading from our claustrophobic 590-square-foot apartment in Stockholm’s suburbs but instead bought a 115-year-old summer cottage of about the same size in a clearing near the hamlet of Marma on the banks of a manmade fjard of the River Dal.

In our purchase, we hoped to condense the stillness of a score of forests we’d seen the world round (even, in my wife’s case, this very one, many years ago) into a narrow stretch of trees two and a half hours north of Stockholm by two commuter trains. We were not searching for just more space, though; instead we needed to bring time into our space, and bring spaces into our time.

And it worked.

 

The British geographer Doreen Massey says, “If time is the dimension in which things happen one after the other, it’s the dimension of succession, then space is the dimension of things being, existing at the same time: of simultaneity. It’s the dimension of multiplicity.”

In our mobile age, memories of home are, for many, a mosaic. We relate to one place with warmth because it reminds us of a single night on a road trip 20 years before, while another place haunts us because it feels the same as the place where we learned that a good friend died an early death. We are shaped by the histories of these places also—by the events that made them as they were when we encountered them, that made them ooze comfort or despair. We are buffeted by hurricanes started by a thousand butterflies the world over.

I’ve been awakened as a high schooler by the bells of grazing sheep in suburban California, while the smell of burning wood evokes eastern Croatia in the mid-1990s, and damp, rotting leaves under my feet come straight from a stretch of reclaimed woods of the Hudson Valley where I ran sick and feverish after writing about funerals after Sept. 11. It was a little simpler when I was young, but, still, if you asked me as a teenager where I was from, I’d quickly tell you that while I’d lived in the Bay Area for years now, I was born in Colorado and started school in Buffalo. And then, if you let me keep going, I’d say that my parents grew up in Michigan and that’s where both sides of the family still mostly lived. “So my family is from Michigan,” I would say and stop there.

I traced these Michigan roots through a farm in Hunters Creek, which is an unincorporated section of Lapeer, which is a small town in the thumb of the state, east of Flint and north of Detroit. It is where, as a child, I spent a few weeks each year at my grandparents’ farm, which had two barns, two silos, a WWII-era jeep, and a pond where we caught bullheads by the bucket load.

At the farm, I jumped down stairs, swung on a hammock high into the trees, played ping-pong in the barn and knocked billiard balls together, and once or twice each trip we’d ride in my grandfather’s old Army jeep. My grandmother made me toast, and I drank orange juice, and I would read for whole days in the enclosed porch. Later, as a teenager, I played basketball on the second floor of the bigger, emptier barn and went running down the dirt road until I reached the creek and turned around. I also got ready for football season by doing curls with cinder blocks, pull-ups in trees, and squats holding big rocks. Then when I was 18, a few years after my grandmother died, my grandfather sold the farm. I went to college, and my parents moved to LA. I was launched into the world, and Lapeer was never replaced.

 

I can’t say exactly how our old house and big lawn in Marma saved my family, but it was already happening the first summer, a slow accumulation of quiet and sun, mixed in with guests, blueberries, and the greasy fries at the grill by the little beach down the road. My wife picked mushrooms, and we all picked blueberries, wild strawberries, lingonberries, and raspberries. We mowed a lot of grass, and we fought waves of mosquitoes that snuck into the house through a carelessly opened chimney flue. The guns blazed at the firing range more often that year, which reminded me of Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s, when there was sporadic gunfire most Friday nights. It was all different for my wife, of course, who had once lived nearby, and spent much of her childhood on a farm about half an hour away across the river. While Marma was a blank slate for me, a place to attach my past and consolidate my memories, for her it was familiar and aspirational and a homecoming and an escape.

This spot in Sweden was for me a blank slate, open enough in space and time to encompass my present and my past.

Our house is what they call Falun red with white trim, as a Swedish country home is required to be by unspoken societal decree. It lies just off the old two-lane highway running north to vast Norrland, between the river and the railroad and an army firing range, all in the shadow of power lines running south to light up Stockholm. The bathroom has water but is in the barn, and the lawn—moss-covered at the top and rougher and with more dandelions at the bottom—slants down towards the fjard, which we could not see through the thick pines (though they’ve now cut down the trees, giving us a glint of water in the afternoon sun). There used to be a huge, mound of sand overgrown with giant weeds in the far corner, which we moved by hand over two summers, and a hedge of prickly, weedy raspberries that my wife hacked into shape and that still forms our fence on one side of the lot. The house came fully furnished, with a Bible and deed from the 1890s, wood stoves from the 1920s, phone books from the 1950s, and Archie comic books from 1986.

The first time we came to stay, I immediately felt the tension of hard years start to dissipate, and suddenly, after decades, Hunters Creek came alive again, as if Marma and Michigan were superimposed, and I could choose to take off one layer and only look at the other. It was a sort of reality hyperlink from Sweden to memories of swinging in hammocks, eating corn in the fields, and jumping down stairs, with no homepages or search engines in between. When my mother visited, she even said our new cottage and our barn reminded her of the farm in Hunters Creek in the mid-1960s, before I was born, when it was the kind of place with an outhouse and only party lines on the telephone.

For the first three summers in Marma, I was either heading into, on, or just off long-term paternity leaves the likes of which people cannot truly understand in the U.S. I had to feed and entertain the kids and follow them around, and it was boring and exhausting, but it also provided a steady white noise and a certain level of easy but loving interaction that served to quiet the mind—almost a Zen of the sandbox, so to speak.

In whatever time was free, I slowly wandered beyond the property—with or without children in tow—and I came to see that this spot in Sweden was for me a blank slate, open enough in space and time to encompass my present and my past. It was a place beyond the exurbs but not beyond civilization. You could go for a run and pass broken-down gates, rusty tractors or fields being retaken by the forest. But it was not a dying land, either, close enough to bigger cities—Gävle, Uppsala—to thrive on the edges of the urban economies. I could search for adventure in places like this—climbing mountains of gravel in a nearby quarry by the train tracks or following a trail through clear-cut fields to a little campground. All of it marked by human effort but still not dialed in to the hustle and flow of post-modern life.

 

In Sweden, a summer home evokes family and a humble history, the ideal of the midnight sun, Midsummer’s Eve feasts, and wild strawberries strung on a blade of grass. This is how Swedes have reacted to the way modern communications technologies annihilate space and warp time—they hold on to the forest and nature and their obsession with a capricious sun. In this, they, unlike Americans, have not yet completely forsaken the pause, the catching of your breath that used to be summer in the industrialized West.

This makes Sweden fertile ground for traveling in time—either reversing its flow or simply pressing pause on the present. It was only a historical accident that the Swedish countryside was littered with small, rustic cottages; many, if not most, were built as homes for poor tenant farmers who scratched out a living on someone else’s land. These were the people who starved to death during the famines of the 19th century and who fled to North America by the hundreds of thousands.

The old farms were abandoned as permanent dwellings starting as far back as the late 19th century with the process accelerating during the country’s rapid industrialization. Then during Sweden’s post-World War II economic boom, these homes of hard work and poverty were converted to places of leisure. And because there were so many of them littered through the expanse of rural Sweden, todayit does not require the same amount of privilege and wealth to own a second home in the Swedish woods as it does to buy the equivalent in the American backcountry.

It became easy to question whether the stillness of a summer was worth the rest of the year cooped up in the city.

The houses in our clearing outside Marma have a slightly different story—built when the army and railroad came to the area and home to poor loggers and railroad workers. Our house is drafty, and the floors are frigid in the winter, with an old capped well in the backyard, near a stand of lilacs. There are old bottles on shelves and my kids dig up old trash in the lawn—bottles, cans, screws, shattered china. We are convinced there are ghosts—friendly ones—that we catch in a shadow of a reflection off the window or in an odd sound during a quiet afternoon nap. And now, six years after we first arrived, we have added our accumulated history, with issues of the New Yorker in English from 2008 and a couple abandoned laptops and a roomful of children’s toys from Stockholm, rearranged in a room in which they’ve never been used.

As the years passed, our cottage became less secluded, less set aside. I brought a smartphone and a laptop, and while we spent one summer with nothing except the newspaper, now I angled the phone for a weak cell signal to read articles and check e-mail and even work. We finished hauling stones and sand, and I finished changing diapers and moved on to trying to teach the kids baseball in the backyard.

And it became easy to question whether the stillness of a summer was worth the rest of the year cooped up in the city. We were fine, but fine was starting to feel like settling. The clever compact living solutions in the city could no longer keep up with a family of four, and the walls closed in on us, especially late in the winter.

It was the end of our baby bubble, and everyone goes through it, though perhaps the ending was more dramatic for us, since we’d had our heads trained with particular focus down on the ground, one foot in front of the other, for so long. We looked out a few years and saw the parental leave ending, started to see that it might not be so easy to make it financially anymore, that something would have to give even in safe, stable Sweden.

And more and more, our slice of Marma evoked only itself rather than the shimmering images of the past. And, you know, it is all so Swedish, with the red house and the white trim, the IKEA couch, and the sky that never goes dark during the summer. The mosquitoes are smaller than in Michigan and their bites do not itch as much, though there are seemingly many more ticks. We have snakes, though not very dangerous ones. There are also massive anthills that rise four to five feet tall in the forest, and most of all, there is a fjard, not a pond, and I do not like to fish anymore.

At what point do you stop moving and let the echoes and layers build in a single spot?

There was also the whisper of California—a return for me, a leap into a sun-drenched unknown for the rest.

My American friends thought we were mad to consider moving. No one leaves the security of Sweden once you’ve got it. Plus, from abroad, during the recession years, the U.S. seemed complicated and unsure, more than a little scary. Yet it also seemed that Stockholm could not hold us as a place—perhaps it did not evoke enough of our past?

So last summer was the first one in which we caught the slow commuter train from the airport, not from Stockholm. I worked from Marma much of the summer and took the train into the city for business. We rented and borrowed cars, which broke the spell of isolation in the woods. I had hurt my feet, so I couldn’t walk anywhere, and I rode my new-ish crappy city bike, instead of the rusty, reliable fixed-gear bike we had found in the barn when we bought the place. It was still home, but not the same kind—more vacation, less retreat from the world.

And California turned out to be complicated in its own right and I worry about living in the echoes of maybe one too many places. I tell myself that perhaps the accumulation of shallow yet intense times and places can match the deep associations of my ancestors, who did not wander far and for whom each knoll and fence post was loaded with memory.

 

Wallace Stegner once described a certain type of American:

Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.

“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” says Robert Frost’s poem. Only in the act of submission is the sense of place realized and a sustainable relationship between people and earth established.

They say that moving does not solve your probems, that you cannot run from yourself. I think a lot now about the sadness of California, the edge of the continent where so many melancholy souls realized that their demons had followed them to what they considered the edge of the world.

California is not an edge anymore, as people bounce west, south, or back east, or to Korea, Honduras, or Sweden. But it remains an edge psychologically in the collective myth of a migration that was once one way and that ended at the ocean. It feels like a place of hustle and retreat, and this spooks me, since we just arrived, partially chasing the sun and a network and a sense of expanded possibilities. At what point do you stop moving and let the echoes and layers build in a single spot? Can we find enough of our past places here? What will remind us of Marma? What will remind me of Lapeer, of Croatia, of even this part of California in the 1980s?

We hope to keep Marma as the link between space and time, to keep us all Swedish and American, to keep both safe and with a horizon brighter than the dark Nordic winter. My grandfather does not seem to yearn for Lapeer, though he clearly misses it. Instead he knows why he left for North Carolina at 71, his late-in-life reinvention story.

We are all on a road of shifting meanings, struggling to find something stable in our heart, to find stillness in the chaos, as we march toward what looks so much like an eternal quiet. But the journey also opens up the possibility of going deeper than what Manuel Castells calls the space of flow, of achieving a state of mystery where we linger in our happiest moments. And so far, California is all good; not easy at all, but good.

Yet for all my new engagement in Northern California, Marma will be forever and ever where my family was saved and in many ways forged, where I stepped off and let my places merge and settle and become one place, not on this earth but in my soul. And when I die, I am convinced that I will turn a corner in the Marma yard and see my children chasing each other in the evening summer sun.

Whether it is for real or not, it will be a moment beyond time—and not the only one in our Swedish oasis. But I also can’t help but question whether there will be more, or whether as I age and my kids turn into teenagers, these summery images of Marma will become just a tile in my mosaic memory, a treasure to hold onto as I either continue to swoosh through the network, or if I’m lucky, settle into yet another home, this one also beyond the buzz. 

Nathan Hegedus recently moved from Sweden to California, largely to escape the Swedish winter. His most recent essays have appeared in The Morning News. More by Nathan Hegedus