I have wandered all over Stockholm. I have walked from one island to the next, getting lost within the city streets, feeling the wind of the canals, and wishing the weather was a bit warmer. At the end of the day, my feet always hurt.
Hana spent seven years of her life living in Sweden. She first arrived in 1943 after a dramatic escape from Denmark (a story that I will soon share) and spent the final two years of the war here. Since the country was neutral, she felt unaffected — there were no ration cards, she didn’t have to fear her own identity, and she had the freedom to move around. She was able to receive a nursing degree by making an agreement with a school to exchange cleaning services for her education, room and board. She left in 1945 upon hearing a rumor that she could attain citizenship in Denmark. This wasn’t true and eventually she returned to Sweden in 1947, still lacking a national identity. She integrated herself into life in Stockholm; she made friends, played tennis, and joined a ski club. She lived here until 1950 and at that point immigrated to the United States.
I arrived here about two weeks ago, knowing that I wouldn’t be spending as long as I wanted exploring this country, but hoping to make the most of my time. I came from an incredible five weeks in Denmark where I touched the core of Hana’s story and experienced what I assume to be the most meaningful part of my own personal journey.
Upon arriving here, I felt aimless. And this unsettling feeling has been painfully persistent.
Being aimless for me creates anxiety, an emotion I fear and have battled with since I was a teenager. Aimless is not the same thing as being bored, but lacks the excitement of freedom. Aimless is that feeling of knowing that there is something to do, see, and experience, but not being sure of where to find it. It lingers at my fingertips, consumes the minutes of my day and tucks me in at night.
Now, on my last day here in Sweden, I have no choice but to give some attention to this aching feeling. I had hoped that it would have gone away as my time here progressed, but it has only became stronger.
I haven’t been impressed with my own artistic vision here and I haven’t found some unexpected significance in one of Stockholm’s 14 islands, but I have had ample time to reflect.
Hana had no money, no belongings, and no friends or family. She had no plan nor time to prepare for her immediate immersion. Did she feel aimless? Or was survival enough of a purpose to keep her distracted?
I am forced to ask myself these questions right now because unlike from her life in Czechoslovakia and Denmark, I do not have as many journals or letters to narrate her experience for me. I don’t know if she had a diary at this time to safeguard her inner thoughts.
I know that she eventually found happiness here. She found her place within the Swedish culture. She once told me that she “wandered around a lot” when she was here. So, within that simple statement, I can give my own wandering a purpose.
Last night, I had my weekly phone call with my mom and after bouncing between talking about this project, the impending task of writing a book and the more personal matters in life, she reminded me of something my grandmother always said, “Your feet still hurt even if the person next to you doesn’t have feet.”
Hana was wise in that sense. The fact that her adolescence was ripped away from her and traded in for trauma didn’t result in her diminishing or challenging the pain of others. She had perspective from an early young age. It was part of her spirit and it was part of ability to survive.