• Nadia Henderson

On Walking, And Missing The City As A Londoner In Rural North Sweden

Updated: Jan 3

Let me tell you about my favourite walk of my past life in London. It would start, like many walks do, at home; my sweet husband frothing the milk for my coffee while I worked hair putty into my unruly fringe and rubbed perfume onto wrists that would hold the scent for roughly twenty minutes once outside. A hop, skip, kiss, and grab of coffee flask later, and I’d be on my way, barrelling down the hills of Crystal Palace towards the bus stop. The walk would begin in earnest when I reached East Croydon station. Headphones in, I’d meander through the morning throng, pounding the pavement in time with the music, fully embodying my own private world. I’d pause only to pop into Greggs for a vegan sausage roll and, having rounded onto George Street, to jump on the tram for the last leg of my journey, before completing my walk on a smelly, litter-strewn stretch of road in the depths of the industrial estate. I’d savour those final moments, mouthing along to the upbeat songs blasting into my ear canals. It would be the last time I’d feel any sort of control and sanity for a good eight hours.

I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve walked alone since relocating to a small village in rural north Sweden, and still have fingers to spare. The walks, when they happen, are journeys of necessity: walking across a parking lot to where my husband has been waiting for me in the car while I do the weekly shop, for example. Most recently, it was after I received my first dose of Pfizer. I emerged from the culture-centre-turned-vaccinations-hub in our nearest city, June sun on my (masked) face. Checking my phone to be sure, I took the road to the cafe where my husband was sitting outside. In those few moments of unattended motion, I’d felt a little more at home in this place; a little more like the woman who once found joy and power in navigating the streets of South London.

Our village offers many beautiful directions to walk in, leading to lakes that glisten in summer and thicken with ice over winter. We pour coffee into plastic picnic cups and head out before eight, when the morning is at its most tranquil. Tiny birds flit across the path ahead and the flowers at the roadside buzz with bumblebees. Fireweed pollen drifts like cotton snowflakes, clinging to our fingers. The sun glows through the hanging branches of the birch trees, and I’m reminded why I wanted to live here.

I have been missing the city of late. I miss the people I left behind in it. I miss walking, alone, down familiar routes: turning out of Waterloo Station to meet friends on the Southbank, hot footing it from Camden to Kentish Town, stopping at every charity shop on the way. I miss browsing the aisles of book shops where the merchandise reads in a language I understand. I wonder how my perspectives of cities will have changed since living so remotely. Will I be more attuned to the nature inherent in urban spaces? Will I find myself newly sensitive to the speed at which the city moves, the sirens and noise that play as its background soundtrack?

This longing is both fed and deterred by the pandemic. I’m privileged enough to have, for the most part, always felt safe in cities. (They are, in fact, not safe at all for women or people of marginalised genders, but I have tried to never let that truth intimidate me). Now, though, I can’t imagine myself feeling comfortable navigating urban settings; not least in Sweden, where mask use has never been mandated and other restrictions barely scratch the surface of protecting the public from a deadly virus. I feel lucky to have ridden out the coronavirus pandemic in a safely secluded community (despite every one of our neighbours falling in at some point). Over time, the seclusion has festered into a desire to be among people; to be witnessed by strangers, who might see me as I move through the world and affirm, yes, she exists.

I’m devising ways to claw back the independence that walking alone once afforded me. I’m working up the courage to book an eye test and a hair appointment, errands I could be ferried to in the car and then left to attend to myself. My husband suggested we drive to his hometown, a charming city, and spend a few hours there, separately. Next year (and it really must be next year and no later) I’ll learn to drive, so I can take myself to our nearest town, twenty minutes’ away. It may not give me that same burst of confidence I once felt in London--perhaps I will always feel the shadow of being an outsider in this land--but hell, it’s a start, and I’ll take it.

Follow me on Instagram to keep up with my journey adjusting to small-town Swedish life.