Where the Swedes Go to Be (Really) Alone


I ARRIVED ON GOTLAND, an island 200 kilometers south of Stockholm in the Baltic Sea, late in the afternoon at the end of March. From the airplane window I saw tall pine trees, mist. Toy cars chugged through brown farmlands along black ribbons of road. I picked up my car, a red Volvo, from a local retailer specializing in used cars — not used in the sense that all rental cars are, but in the more pedestrian sense of “old” — and drove up Route 149, a shady, gently curving road that took me to the manor where I would be staying that night. There were ponies at the manor. These were not the wild ponies that roam the south of Gotland, but they were ponies nonetheless. I petted them in the company of Ulrika, who runs the property with her partner, Berra.

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Swedes love Gotland for its modesty and steadfast lack of pretense, qualities epitomized by Ljugarn, a former fishing village and the island’s oldest seaside resort.

Credit
Domingo Milella

Gotland is about the size of Long Island. Forty percent of its nearly 60,000 inhabitants live around Visby, the old port city that has preserved its medieval walls. Berra was going into town to pick up dinner, and I went with him. We wound through corkscrew cobblestone streets, and he pointed out Visby’s smallest and most expensive piece of real estate, a cottage the size of a billionaire’s dog house. Early the next morning I left, and for the remainder of my stay sequestered myself in the island’s most rural regions: Valleviken, where a maritime-themed hotel rose up out of sheer nothingness on a lapping inlet; the Furillen peninsula, the site of an old limestone quarry; Ekstakusten, a jagged curl of nature preserve. The idea was to find solitude.

Outside of Visby, there is nothing to do in March on Gotland. Nothing is open: no bakeries, no cafes, no restaurants. Those in the hospitality business close up and travel to Thailand; others stay behind and work their everyday jobs. The quiet is even more pronounced on tiny Faro, Gotland’s sister island, a seven-minute ferry ride to the north, which has an official population of 540. Both Gotland and Faro are very flat, ringed by rocky shorelines and, more rarely, sand beaches. The coastal landscape is pretty in a wild, incommodious way, rather like Maine.


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Where to Find Solitude in Sweden

CreditDomingo Milella


Tourists descend in the high season, masses of them, joining the summer people — politicians, media types, writers. This rhythm exaggerates a typical Swedish dilemma: how to live in a place of extreme seasons and limited light. In the relentlessly sunny summer months, the fields explode in wood anemones, and the water has, I was told, a tropical hue. Nightclubs and festivals draw crowds, and people stay out late. It’s one of those classic summer idylls, like Martha’s Vineyard or a cooler Corsica, perfect for hiking or lazing around cafes, frying fish, sitting on docks. One person described the blooming fields of Gotland in summertime as “bloody” with red flowers. In the summer, there is nothing much to do but look around and store up enough sunlight to last you for the rest of the year.

But that is summer, and that is Gotland at its easiest and most popular. In the long months of deep winter, the mood freezes, and, like the sky, turns forbidding. People hurry home to cocoon themselves indoors. To live year-round in a place like this you must be very good at being with others and then very good at being alone.

IF YOU ARE A CITY PERSON, as I am, it can feel dangerous to be alone in the country for long. Being alone is a sign that something is about to go wrong, perhaps catastrophically so. During my stay on Gotland and Faro I did not make it a habit to stray far from the Volvo. I did not want to get lost and be unable to find my way back, or be brutally murdered — I know about “Wallander” — let alone break an ankle clambering over boulders, etc. I took brief, hunched rambles to stretch my legs, and kept driving. I spent hours reading, inside, where it was warm.

But being alone can also be a sign that something has already gone wrong — that a disaster has occurred, or a mistake. In the city if you are alone it is often because you are somewhere you are not supposed to be, somewhere no one is supposed to be. That feeling of being in error was one I had repeatedly on Gotland. It was enhanced by the fact that many roads on the islands have no names — a charming rural feature, although less so when residents call emergency services and are unable to state their address, giving instead some variant of “across the way from Andersson’s barn.” Attempting to follow directions to a disused cement factory one day, I found the road disintegrating beneath my wheels, demoting itself to field status. I pressed on stupidly for a while, until I could no longer deny that I was in the mud. A drove of hairy cows looked on impassively while I pulled a K-turn, all the while waiting for a landowner to emerge and scold me for trespassing.

No one came.

Americans expect pretty vistas to be private property. This is not the case in Sweden, where land is open to public access unless marked otherwise, and you are often permitted to walk on private grounds. Sweden is protected by the cultural heritage of allemansratten, which guarantees that anyone can swim, walk, hike or camp, as well as pick anything edible, pretty much anywhere they choose except where prohibited by law. There are a few exceptions for nature preserves and private gardens and so forth, but in general, the Swedes are welcome to roam widely and enjoy the land freely. The Swedish constitution began protecting this tradition in 1994, but it dates back centuries. More than half the country is forested, and there is a bounty available to be gathered for those who know where to look — chanterelles, nettles, lingonberries and wild strawberries. In recent years, however, companies have been criticized for flying in workers from abroad to forage for profit on a mass scale, and some farmers have complained about city dwellers who come in for Saturday hikes and leave behind trash. Ideally a forager is resourceful and independent but considerate; he picks with the common good in mind, taking only what he needs, acting like a neighbor rather than a hog.

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A dense copse of old conifer trees on Faro.

Credit
Domingo Milella

Foraging is a leisure activity that is also useful, well in line with the key principle of Scandinavian design: functionalism. Functionalist design seeks to create products that meet needs, that are practical rather than merely decorative. In the early 20th century, functionalist design was incorporated into Swedish social movements, so that instead of creating products that were steroidically rational or machinelike, Scandinavian designers focused on creating interiors that were sunny, warm, human. The environment had a great deal to do with the rise of this outlook: Geographically isolated and drawing on limited resources, Scandinavian designers have a minimalist approach that emphasizes meeting needs elegantly and simply.

But a local knows where to find what they need — for a tourist, it can be more difficult. Unlike in the city, where anonymity is found in the crowd and desires can be gratified with a minimum of friction, in the country one winds up depending on others. During my trip I was repeatedly thrown into intimacies with proprietors who opened their hotels or restaurants just for me. The people I met were exceptionally generous and accommodating. The owner of one hotel gave birth to her second child a few hours after leaving me by the fireside.

Traveling alone grants a kind of freedom, a feeling of independence. There is no one to consult before pulling off the road at a thatched-roof village, or a graveyard. On Gotland you might drive for 5 or 10 kilometers without seeing any motorist, and I had every nature preserve I visited all to myself. Still, you’ll pass someone eventually — even if only an elderly pole-walker. And when traveling alone you find yourself in interesting experiences that are not of your own design, such as being served a three-course candelit dinner in the stuffed company of life-size dolls and a lunging toy tiger, as I was, at the Slow Train Bed & Breakfast. This is a good thing. The thrill of doing as one likes wears off so quickly, curdling into boredom, even despair.

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Ancient rock formations on the island of Faro, off the southeastern coast of Sweden.

Credit
Domingo Milella

BOTH GOTLAND AND Faro are home to geological formations known as “rauks,” or “sea stacks,” hulking vertical columns that eroded from reef cliffs during the last glacial period. On my final morning, I visited the rauks at Langhammars, a preserve on the northern finger of Faro. Tucked under a ridge of windswept scrub, the rauk faces are chewed with small holes and spotted with white and green lichen. Some extend 15 meters high and have the appearance of sculpted profiles. Others are squat and lumpen. One rauk would be frightening, like a hanging boulder by Michael Heizer. In scattered installations, however, they are imposing and austere, yet lovely in an impersonal, abstract way. They cast long shadows on the white-rocked shore. Above me, sea birds were honking.

Ingmar Bergman moved to Faro in 1967. A photo of him was taken at Langhammars in 1976. Behind him, the sea stacks appear funereal and grim, far gloomier than they do in person. You may have seen the rauks in his films: they are the backdrop to Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s mutually infecting madness in “Persona.” Bergman is said to have enjoyed the solitude of living on Faro, but his films — for all their existential torment — are not really about solitude, or even loneliness. They are about the intense pressures and power struggles that are borne in extreme intimacies. His characters may desperately desire to get away from each other, but are not able to do so, any more than any of us can get away from ourselves.

The rauks are very nice, and I enjoyed them for a spell. But they have nothing to do with us — literally dumb rocks, they were formed by the persistent thoughtless beating of waves, the most absolute rebuke to humanity that nature provides — and for that reason are ultimately less interesting than another rock formation found on Gotland, the stone ships. Some think these were laid out by late Bronze Age people to mark burial grounds. There is a spiral of stones tucked in a grove behind the Faro lighthouse, and though it may not have counted as a stone ship, I liked to think that it did.

Solitude is ultimately an illusion, a fantasy that can be enjoyed for a while but must always end in acknowledging others — how they make us who we are, in the world we share with our dolls and tigers and all the ghosts of past, present and yet to come. I passed no cars on the nine-kilometer road to Langhammars, and none on the way back. But there were three picnic tables at the site — evidence of the others who had been there and would be back again. At another constellation of rauks, in Lergrav, overlooking a string of shuttered fishing stacks stretched along the bay, I had the company of four men in neon vests. They were cutting and clearing dead branches, readying the hillside for the summer people, who would soon be on their way.

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