Last year, I spent a lot of time at the The National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, doing research for an article series I was working on, and almost every time I walked back to the train through the city tunnel comes out to Olof Palme’s Street. And every time I was there, I thought of my high school Swedish teacher because I think I remember her saying that it might be smart to read up on Olof Palme, because it was possible he was going to be an essay topic in our high school finals.
“Now that he got assassinated and all,” she said.
That may be a false memory because I can see on Wikipedia that by the time the Swedish Prime Minister was shot in downtown Stockholm, my and my classmates had already left school for our study period during which we were supposed to cram for the final exams.
Maybe she told us that during one of the visits back to school when we had our “pre-finals”, or maybe she never said it at all. All I know is that I did not brush up my knowledge on Sweden or Palme, and instead, focused on biology and history of Finland.
Sweden, Palme, and the prime suspect, Christer Pettersson of Sollentuna, seemed so far away.
Seventeen years later, Sweden and Sollentuna had become much closer, all the way into my home, in fact. I was living in Helsinki, for sure, but that time, I shared the downtown Helsinki apartment with my pregnant Sollentuna Girl.
We had met a couple of years earlier in Sweden, and now she had taken a leap of faith with me, and moved to my home country for a while. She had showed me her Sweden, the open-minded, welcoming, caring, tolerant, and optimistic Sweden, just like herself. To me, she – and her family – were Sweden.
We moved to Helsinki in May, and that summer, I showed her my hometown like she had showed me hers earlier. We saw the sights, we rode our bikes around town, and we had picnics behind the Olympic Stadium.
And like most Scandinavian town and cities, Helsinki is never as beautiful as it is in the summer. But in all Scandinavian town and cities, summer is followed by fall. That fall I went back to work while Wife (I’ll call her Wife, although you know she was Girlfriend) stayed at home, working a little, and getting ready to becoming a mother.
One Wednesday night, after I’d got back from work, we heard on the news that Anna Lindh, the Secretary of State of Sweden has been stabbed in a Stockholm department store. Of course we both knew the store. It had one of my favorite candy stores in the basement, and since Wife disliked it for all its poshness, she liked to shake her head at me for wanting to visit it.
But, naturally, the department store is not the story, the stabbing is. The Secretary of State, who used to take the commuter train to work in Stockholm, was rushed to the hospital, and … that’s all we knew. Wife was distraught. Not only had Ms. Lindh been her favorite politician, a strong and smart woman, she had now been stabbed in Stockholm, at NK, just like that. We followed the TV news for as long as we could, but finally went to bed. Then, Anna Lindh was fighting for her life in the hospital.
The next morning, I rode my bike to work as usual, but had barely made it to the office when my phone rang. It was Wife.
“She’s dead,” she said, crying.
I hung up, told my colleagues that I had to leave, and then rode my bike back. I knew there wasn’t much I could do, but I also knew that I didn’t want Wife to be alone so I rode my black bike through the city as fast as I could and when I got home, we hugged.
Another madman had created havoc in downtown Stockholm.
That time, the assassination hit home for me, too.
Last Friday, I was sitting where I’ve been sitting every Friday afternoon for the past six, seven years: the gelateria next to Son’s and Daughter’s school, having our week-ending Friday ice cream. Now that they’re both bigger, their school ends at different times, so I met with Daughter there first, and sat outside with her, talking about our days.
I usually drive to the school on Fridays so that we come home together, but last Friday, I rode my bike to town, and after Daughter had finished her ice cream, I sent her home on the subway. Then I got on my bike, and rode it to my favorite coffee shop to buy some coffee beans. On my way back, I sent a text to my agent in London, and added a photo of one of my favorite views from that part of Stockholm, and then got back to the gelateria, wondering what the police helicopter was doing, hovering over the city.
Son and I were chatting when I got a text from London: “Heard about the vehicle incident all ok?”. I looked out the window and saw a police car drive by, I remembered the helicopter, so I got online to see what was happening. Saw a headline of a car ramming into people. Sent a text to Wife.
Wife: “Where’s Son?”
Me: “With me.”
Wife: “Good. Tell him to stay off social media. Never correct info.”
Me: “Daughter home?”
Me: “We’re heading home now.”
At this point, we knew nothing, so I was going to ride my bike home, and put Son on the subway, as usual. Before I had gotten on my bike, though, Son ran back telling me that subway was closed. We decided to walk to the train station, but expected it to be closed, too.
“We may have to walk home,” I said, “but we can do it. Only a couple of hours.”
“No problem,” Son said.
And we walked for a while, wondering what was going on, looking at the bewildered people on the streets, while we were getting updates from Wife, and giving updates back to her. Meanwhile, Son and I kept on walking and talking about what had happened, and what to think of it, based on the little that we knew. I told him about how I was in London in 1992, during an IRA campaign, and how impressed I was with the way Londoners just kept on living their lives.
“Pay attention to your surroundings!” Wife texted us.
Just outside the city, we saw a bus pull out of a stop, so we knew that buses were still running. Son sat down, I checked my Facebook app and saw I had a dozen notifications. I decided to check them later.
“Maybe we should just walk home together,” Son said just as the bus pulled in.
“You’ll be fine on the bus, you’ll be home before me. Call me if there’s anything,” I said, determined to keep things as usual. He got on the bus, I got on my bike and roden as fast as I could until I got a text from Wife, telling me Son was home.
I eased up, rode up one hill, down another, and then up the last one before arriving at our yellow Sollentuna house. I saw the door open. Daughter greeted me.
“There you are,” she said. Then we hugged.
Later, I did log onto Facebook and as I told my friends we were all right, I noticed that a friend had posted a short note about Sweden having lost its innocence.
I remembered that they had always said that Sweden lost its innocence with the Palme assassination, that it had changed Sweden, and that they said the same thing about the Lindh murder, too. Then I heard Wife’s voice from downstairs.
She was busy keeping things normal.