top of page

CITY OF

MY YOUNG HEART

 

One morning in late August the year I turned eight, I waited with my mother and sister at a tram stop along a busy road on the southern outskirts of Gothenburg. Lined with old converted mills, breweries, and apartment buildings, the road followed a stream that flowed north toward the river at whose mouth the city had spring up as a Dutch trade outpost in the 1600s. My father had secured a job in the city, which by the 1970s had become a major industrial center and port. A week earlier, my family had moved from Long Island into an apartment a fifteen-minute tram ride from the main downtown shopping district. Swedish city children took public transportation to school and my mother planned to accompany Camilla and me on the tram for a few days to help us learn the route.

         

I had never heard of danger befalling a child in our suburb on Long Island, but my mother and other parents hadn’t let their children go beyond the neighborhood alone. Every morning my mother had watched from the kitchen window to make sure that I got safely on the school bus at the top of the driveway. Several mothers had waited with their children on the street. In New York City, subways moved through dark underground tunnels, skyscrapers blotted out the sun, and muggings and violent crime plagued the streets. My mother had kept her hand locked around my wrist when walking between museums and stores. Gothenburg was barely a fifteenth the size of New York City and my parents had lived in one of its old residential quarters along the harbor for several years as newlyweds. They considered the streets safe for a child. 

         

Once the tram pulled into the station, we got on and went to stand by a window in the middle of the car. As the tram slowly made its way toward the city center, I looked out on a tidy order of five-story brick and stucco apartment buildings with occasional corner turrets, arched windows and entrance ways, and boutiques along the sidewalks. Eventually the tram reached a plaza surrounded by the city art museum, concert hall, and theater house and turned onto a broad store-lined street that people called the Avenue for short. The street led north toward an old stone bridge and the zigzagging defense moat that had once protected the early Dutch settlement. On Long Island, the windows of my parents’ car and the school bus had shown me places I couldn’t go on my own. As I looked out the window of the tram, the blocks of the city seemed to create compact quadrants whose layout I could easily master. 

         

With each passing block, the city wrapped its bustling scenes ever more closely around me. Snug between the window and a cluster of passengers to my back, I rocked gently back and forth to the movement of the tram. The steady metallic chugging of the car and turning of newspapers by people around me softened to a blur until I stood alone with the world outside the window.

My family had moved into a large redbrick apartment complex, which unlike the old, character-filled downtown buildings contained mostly efficiency units rented by students. At night, nearly all the windows in the complex closed with identical black-and-white-checkered curtains, which matched the black-and-white-checkered rugs, sofa cushions, and bedspreads that complemented a few pine veneer tables, chairs, and shelves in the apartments. Our three-story building was one of the few buildings with two-bedroom apartments and formed the center row of two rectangles of nearly identical buildings. We hadn’t brought much with us from Long Island apart from clothes and practical necessities and did little to personalize the small rooms of our apartment. As a young woman, my mother had used her savings from work to buy a sofa, two chairs, and a few other furnishings. We stayed in the apartment for two years, but her furnishings remained in my grandmother’s house or storage. 

         

To my childhood eye the complex held a maze of quads, stairwells, walkways, and green areas to explore, and none of the dreariness I would see in it as an adult. Its buildings rose up the hillside of a steep valley, connected by concrete walkways that led like spokes onto surrounding streets. After coming home from school, Camilla and I played on the grassy quad in front of the building, wandered around the complex, or ran up and down the narrow bicycle tracks that paralleled the staircases, as comfortably at home in the harsh shadows of manmade structures as in the curvatures of oaks on Long Island. When it rained, we explored the stairwells of any building whose door would open for us and visited the longtime partner of my father’s sister, who invited us in for cookies each time we knocked on the window of his first-floor apartment. 

         

The complex had few children, but a girl named Anna lived across the hall from us. Though Anna attended a different school, once a week or so Camilla and I knocked on her family’s door to ask if she wanted to play. Anna laughed a lot when with us and many afternoons when Camilla and I played alone on the quad I saw her watching from behind the curtain of her bedroom window. I hoped that she would join us, but she seldom did. The parents of my friends in Sweden taught their children to respect far stricter boundaries around family life than had the parents in our neighborhood on Long Island. My mother worried that Camilla and I would impose on Anna’s family if we knocked on her door to ask her to play more often. Anna’s mother, I suspect, might have told her daughter that if Camilla and I wanted to play, we would knock on her door to ask.

         

A boy our age with darker skin color and a mother who dressed in a sari also lived a floor below us. In the afternoons, the boy often stood in the shadow of the building watching Camilla and me play on the quad. On Long Island, a few children of Italian or mixed-race descent in our neighborhood and school had had darker skin color, and my parents’ friends had included an African-American colleague of my father’s and his wife. Growing numbers of workers came to Sweden from southern Europe in my childhood, as did eventually refugees from outside Europe. Yet Sweden was a historically homogenous country and immigrants remained poorly integrated, mostly living in suburban high-rise developments where few Swedes ventured. I can’t recall ever speaking to the boy a floor below us. As a child, I implicitly understood that while my family belonged, his did not.

         

My school lay on a steep street lined with apartment buildings and chestnut trees, in a homey wooden building with a stone foundation and wrap-around balcony and a yard with a tall, forested rock knoll that my classmates called the fortress. Second and third graders shared an airy classroom with creaking wooden floors and desks arranged into groups. Our teacher sat at a desk in the middle of the room and had short gray hair that waved in whichever odd ways the wind willed. Like us students, after entering the building she took off her shoes and padded upstairs in knitted slippers with soft leather soles. We called her by her first name, Ulla, adding Tant, or Lady, for respect. My desk sat by a window overlooking a large chestnut tree, across from the desk of a girl named Cecilia. Cecilia had large brown eyes and long dark hair and was calm, quiet, and poised, quick to smile but seldom to laugh. We became fast friends. 

         

Since my classmates lived in widely scattered parts of the city, Cecilia’s tram went in a different direction from mine. When I occasionally accompanied my friend home after school, we let ourselves into her family’s row house and, after having a snack, played marbles on the sidewalk or if it rained sat on her bed playing card games or stitching on felt animals and pillows that we began during craft hour in school. My family’s apartment didn’t have a television, but one or two afternoons a week Camilla and I watched a children’s program in a viewing room in a nearby building. Cecilia, I knew, didn’t watch more television than I did.

         

Our school’s curriculum emphasized practical learning and creativity and for many subjects Tant Ulla didn’t hand out textbooks, but instead guided us children in independent projects. Several mornings a week, I sat with sheets of colored construction paper on a carpet in the corner of the room writing short passages on Sweden’s history, government, plants, animals, and climate. To illustrate my passages, I cut out newspaper photographs of the Swedish Prime Minister and King and drew pictures of reindeers, spruces, Viking ships, and the small anemones and hepaticas that carpeted the woodlands in spring. I finally made a cover and table of contents, and then punched holes in the pages and threaded them together with a red ribbon.

         

Several afternoons a week, my classmates and I practiced penmanship while Tant Ulla walked around the room, leaning in over our shoulders to whisper words of suggestion and praise. My teachers on Long Island had demonstrated proper penmanship, but largely allowed students to lean their letters forward or backward or stand them upright at their will. The penmanship that Tant Ulla taught embodied a cultural ideal that prized conformity and precision. To guide us in forming the spines, tails, and loops of our letters at the right slant, she instructed us to use a ruler to draw pale diagonal pencil bars at light angles across the horizontal lines of the small notebooks that we used for practicing penmanship.  

         

While Cecilia’s eyes rarely strayed from the page, mine wandered frequently out the window and around the classroom. Dusk arrived by mid-afternoon in winter and the sky shone in a pale gauzy vault above the rooftops. Each time I returned my gaze to the classroom, Tant Ulla softly padded from desk to desk and Cecilia and my friends sat with their heads bowed in unison over their letters.

 

Most afternoons, after playing for an hour or so in the complex after school, Camilla and I left for a swimming, ice skating, piano, or dance lesson. Darkness had long since fallen by the time we made our way back home. My mother often spent afternoons weaving on a rag rug in the complex’s weaving cottage or vävstuga, a spacious, brightly lit room with two rows of floor looms and large windows toward the walkway outside. Occasionally, she went downtown to window shop, take a class, or have coffee with a friend, or she drove inland to visit my grandmother and other relatives in and around her hometown. Either way, on arriving home from school Camilla and I let ourselves into an empty apartment and poured ourselves bowls of rosehip soup from a store-bought carton in the refrigerator. My mother insisted, if weaving, that we knock on the window next to her loom each time we returned from an activity downtown, but she gave us a freedom to come and go that we hadn’t had on Long Island.

         

After dinner in the evenings, she often returned to the weaving room. My father read the newspaper or went downtown to hear a talk at the university or visit the library. Camilla and I read or played in the room we shared, if alone at home munching on candies and chocolates that my sister climbed onto the kitchen counter to reach in the cupboard. On Long Island, my mother had greeted us with a table set with glasses of milk and homemade bread or cookies when we returned from school. In the evenings my family had sat together in the living room or, in winter, a small heated study off the kitchen. My mother looked through recipes and knitted hats, sweaters, and mittens, my father read the newspaper, and Camilla and I played or finished homework on the floor. 

         

Every Sunday morning, we went to church. Neither of my parents ever spoke of believing in God, but my father had grown up attending church and on Long Island insisted on doing so as determinedly as my mother did on upholding Swedish holiday traditions and etiquette and serving elegant Sunday dinners and desserts. There, each sustained the rituals that connected them from afar to their families and home country. Other than my father’s family, like most Swedes, our relatives and friends in Sweden went to church only on Christmas and Easter. Living in Gothenburg, my family did too. The rooms and rituals that my parents had nurtured on Long Island hadn’t only brought us together as a family, I suspect today; they had filled an emptiness that didn’t exist in Sweden—a need for home and belonging that living in a trusted Swedish city with old friends and relatives nearby in and of itself satisfied for my parents.

         

Every other weekend or so, my mother, sister, and I visited my grandmother. My grandmother’s two-story yellow stucco home sat a short walk from the downtown of a small city that dated its founding to the early 1600s and a few centuries later had drawn on a strong tradition of home weaving in the surrounding region to develop a prominent textile industry. A tall woman with wavy chestnut-brown hair, my grandmother had once attended auctions to furnish her home in a formal style that reflected the aspirations of small-scale affluence in interwar Sweden: a crystal ceiling chandelier, large painting of a pheasant and hunting dog, coffee table, sofa, and chairs with ornately carved wooden rims, and boxy radio with four legs, a mesh front, and ivory buttons that produced tinny voices when pressed. She had woven rugs, needle-pointed pillows, crocheted curtains, tablecloths, and doilies, and embroidered her family’s initials onto sheets, towels, and dishrags. By now, several strokes had left her prone to setting the table with mismatched plates and utensils missing. Yet her home still bore the intimacy and weight of decades of devotion. 

         

We arrived on Saturday morning and entered from a back door off the cellar and my grandfather’s former tailor shop. My grandmother lived on the second floor and rented out small apartments on the first. After clambering up a steep staircase that led to a narrow hallway between the kitchen and spare bedroom, we opened the kitchen door to the sight of her making coffee and arranging oven-warmed cinnamon rolls and cookies on a platter. Before long, I sat down at the kitchen table at my usual place by the window. My mother poured the coffee as my grandmother took off her apron, straightened out her dress, and then sat down, looked at each of us, and said varsågod, please. I bit into a piping-hot roll with pearl sugar that crackled between my teeth. 

         

An hour or so later, my mother, Camilla, and I usually walked downtown to run errands in the small shopping district that hugged the town square on the eastern bank of the river. My mother stopped to greet old family friends and work colleagues, and later that afternoon we joined my grandmother in visiting relations from my mother's large circle of aunts and other relatives in the city and surrounding countryside. That evening, I sat on my bed between ironed white sheets embroidered with lace borders and my mother’s family initials looking out the window of the spare room. Old brick factory buildings lined the street leading toward downtown. As I watched the lights twinkle out the window, soft voices drifted from the kitchen across the hall.

         

Many evenings before going to sleep in our apartment, I sat cross-legged on my bed gazing out the window. A translucent glass bird that my best friend Cecilia had given me for my birthday stood on the sill and, in whichever direction I looked, solid brick walls rose with long rows of windows around me. On Long Island, as soon as darkness had begun to fall, I had drawn my bedroom curtains tight against the woods outside. Returning from the homes of neighborhood friends in the evening, I had taken the street instead of the path through the woods and run as fast as I could, afraid that a stranger would appear to harm me, or that darkness itself would. 

         

Now, I sat on my bed looking out at the rows of lit-up windows that closed with black-and-white-checkered curtains exactly like my own, mesmerized by the profiles of the people who came and went behind them and under the halos of the lamps along the walkways. The light and linear walls and human presence dissolved my fear of the dark. When I awoke at night I peered out from behind my curtain at the lights that still burned in a few windows, and then thought of all the people snug asleep in the buildings around me and drowsily pulled my covers back over my chin.

 

 

The neighborhoods around our complex contained a mix of streets lined with old three-story wooden apartment buildings with tall stone foundations, a popular building style in the city from the 1870s to 1940s, and up the hillside tidy villas and newer, taller apartment buildings. One evening a week, I walked twenty minutes uphill to attend Scouts in a building near the intersection of two busy streets. My mother would have worried had I not returned home on time, but I knew that if sitting in front of the loom she wouldn’t notice a fifteen-minute delay. A kiosk at which I stopped to by candy sat near the corner of the two streets. Our apartment didn’t have a telephone, but my mother always made sure that I carried enough change to call the police from a payphone should I get lost in the city. I scanned the sidewalks for more coins on my way to and from school. Stopping at the kiosk I could usually afford to buy a heel-sized candy box or, if I had a few more coins, point my way to a selection of candies from the bins by the cash register. As I stood in line between the grownups counting my coins and deciding what to buy, I felt like a girl not of ten but twelve or thirteen.

         

Having made my purchase I stepped back into the night, onto streets lined with orderly rows of apartment buildings and villas with lace curtains and begonias in the windows. A blue double bus slowly chugged up the hill. I looked at the faces on the bus and up at the windows of the buildings and knew that I belonged to an invisible community of people who called this corner of the city home. The feeling came over me even more strongly when, coming and going from school at the same time every day, I saw a familiar face on the tram or sidewalk and sensed without an outward nod or smile that the person recognized me too.

         

Like the firm geometry of the brick walls that contained me in sleep and play, the city streets with their buildings, buses, and people drew the weight of the earth solidly down around me. Living in the Gothenburg, my feeling of home lay not mainly in the rooms in which my family ate or slept, but in the trusted places where I spent my time in the apartment complex and city beyond. The same, I believe, was true for each of us. As I cut downhill through a park on my way home from Scouts, I watched my shadow emerge and grow and slowly fade and grow again on the pavement between the glowing lamp posts. On approaching our building, I slowed my steps almost to a standstill, wanting to make the embrace of the city last as long as I could.

bottom of page