When I saw the sign saying “Sweden”, I cheered. I was alone in the car, but still I cheered. It was my brother’s car, a white Nissan Note I had managed to dent at a petrol station within an hour of driving off Le Shuttle. Nine hundred miles on, the Nissan and I had survived the deluge that had made the windscreen wipers squeak, the thundering trucks on the Autobahn and the stern young policeman at the Danish border who had made me feel sure I had a car full of hash. I was alive, intact and two hours away from the red wooden cabin where I spent every summer holiday of my childhood.
As I cruised over the Swedish half of the Oresund Bridge, the car filled with the sound of Lisa Stansfield singing Someday (I’m Coming Back). I gasped and found my eyes pricking with tears. It took me a moment to realise I’d knocked a switch that flicked the sound from Swedish pop to the last CD my brother ever played in his car. It made me feel he was there in the car with me, and so were my parents and my sister, willing and cheering me along.
My brother, Tom, died suddenly of a heart attack in July 2019. My mother died in 2016, my father died in 2002 and my sister, Caroline, died in 2000. Neither of my siblings had children and nor do I, so the bloodline stops with me. After clearing out Tom’s house, and going through the family albums, I felt a deep urge to go back to the place that featured in so many of those photos, the country where my mother was born. And so last summer, for the whole of June, I did.
My mother left Sweden to marry my British father when she was 21. My parents could have tossed a coin to pick which country they’d live in, but in the 1950s women followed men. I was brought up in Surrey, but always felt that my mother’s country was a kind of lost domain. It was the country of golden summer holidays, of picking blueberries in the forest, swimming in lakes and racing down sand dunes to the sea. It was a country of nostalgic fantasies – and I almost didn’t want it to be real.
When I was a child, none of my friends understood why we had straw decorations on our Christmas tree, white lights instead of coloured ones and ham and pickled herring on Christmas Eve. Then Abba won the Eurovision song contest, Björn Borg won Wimbledon and Sweden finally hit the map. And then there was Ikea and meatballs and Scandi noir and Spotify and H&M and lagom and Acne clothes and fika. Sweden morphed from semi-hidden treasure to the height of fashion.
My last visit had been in 2008, with my mother. We stayed in the tiny cottage (in Fammarp on the west coast) that used to belong to our extended family and is now shared by my cousins. I had never been there on my own. This time, I didn’t recognise the narrow track through the forest that seemed to lead to a dead end. I pushed on through the mass of vegetation and suddenly found myself in a clearing. I passed the mail boxes where our cousins used to wait for us and wave as we approached. I passed the pink house and the yellow house and there it was: the red wooden building that was my mother’s favourite place in the world.
When I opened the front door, I felt something that was a mix of euphoria and a sorrow so fierce I thought it might knock me down. Inside, the cottage felt calmer and much more stylish than when I was a child. The yellow sofa and curtains had been swapped for a white sofa and white blinds. The red armchairs had been replaced by midcentury-style chairs in a Gustavian blue. But on the wall there were still the framed silhouettes of my mother and her sister as teenagers, and on the bookshelf there were the board games we used to play on rainy days. There were some of the old children’s books, too, but I couldn’t read them since what Swedish I once had has long disappeared.
I spent six days and six nights at the cottage. I wandered through the forest where I used to make camps with my nextdoor neighbour, Cecilia. I breathed in the earthy tang of the moss and pine cones as if it would send fresh blood pumping through my heart. I drove to the lake we used to swim in and to the beach where we rescued blue jellyfish from the sea. I had forgotten the smell of the long grass in the dunes and the soft pink of the wild roses scattered at the beach’s edge.
I went to Halmstad, my mother’s home town, and stood outside the flat where she grew up. A week later, in Stockholm’s Nordic museum, I would see an almost exact replica of its interior. My mother grew up in the age of mass housebuilding and the folkhemmet, the “people’s home” that turned Sweden into what many saw as a model welfare state. To my British eyes, it looked as if most things were still working pretty well. The streets are clean. The houses and blocks of flats are largely well kept. The big difference now is the diversity. At a National Day celebration, with music and dancing in the open-air museum in Halmstad, there were almost as many Iraqis, Syrians, Eritreans and Somalis as Swedes waving Swedish flags. It’s a very big shift for a country that has been famous for its homogeneity. I was sad, but not surprised when, three and a half months later, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats became the largest member of Sweden’s governing bloc. But I’m not at all surprised that people want to live there. When I asked a 17-year-old Swede at that National Day celebration what she liked about Sweden, she smiled. “It is,” she said, “a lovely country.”
And it is, it is. After six days drinking in childhood memories, I set off in the white Nissan to explore. I went to Lund, the beautiful university town where my mother and aunt both studied. I went to Malmö, to its castle and museum and squares full of half-timbered buildings and revelled in the buzz of a city that seems to mix old and new with swagger and panache. I went to Kristianstad, an elegant town full of pastel-coloured 18th-century buildings and cobbled streets, and looked at the school where my mother first taught. That night I stayed in a wooden cabin full of reindeer skulls, overlooking a lake.
I went to the first ever Ikea, the one we went to every summer, which is now a museum. I stayed with my aunt in Växjö and went to the House of Emigrants, the museum that tells the story of the fifth of the Swedish population that, between 1830 and 1930, fled poverty and hunger in hope of a better life in the US. In my aunt’s kitchen, I saw the wooden chest my great-grandmother took on the boat to America. She changed her mind and came back.
I spent six days in Stockholm, in an apartment in a 19th-century house on the island of Lovön, just across the road from Drottningholm, the palace where King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia live. Late at night, I gazed out at forest, water, rocks and a tinge of orange in a light-blue sky. During the day, I went to museums and galleries, wandered along the waterside, drank coffee and ate prawn rolls and cinnamon buns. One day I visited friends of friends on their island hideaway. They gave me filmjölk, a kind of sour yoghurt, with cloudberry jam. It shot me right back to early childhood and being sent off, with a few coins, to buy filmjölk from the woman in the cabin near the mill.
In Falun, a three-hour drive to the north, I saw the vast copper mine that operated for 1,000 years and supplied two-thirds of Europe’s copper. An hour away in Sundborn, I went to the house of Carl and Karin Larsson, widely seen as the founders of the Swedish style. On the shore of Lake Siljan in Rättvik, I joined the midsummer celebration and watched men, women and children with flower garlands in their hair dance around a maypole. I’m sorry to say that my mother never taught us the famous frog dance. Or perhaps I am not.
I loved it all: the forests, the lakes, the open road, the red wooden houses dotted around the fields, the elegant 18th-century architecture, the wheat fields bathed in the golden, early-evening light. I loved the cities and the small towns, the industrial landscape of Norrköping and the Neolithic stones at the top of a cliff in Skåne, just down the road from where my grandfather was born. I stood on that cliff and looked out to the ocean and thought: this land is in my blood and I’m coming back.
Christina Patterson’s memoir, Outside, the Sky is Blue (Tinder Press, £10.99) is now out in paperback. Buy it for £9.67 from guardianbookshop.com