26th June: The Rural and the Terribly Urban

Standing at the threshold of a pandemic – if it was as early as in January I cannot remember at this point –, what I do remember, vividly, is the sense of hope and anticipation that I had to suppress, being simultaneously aware of the collective and individual suffering waiting around the corner. It is not unfair to call this sense of hope and anticipation perverse, hence the need to suppress it, but I know for a fact that my feeling was shared by many who, like myself, have struggle for a while already to feel optimistic about the future. There was a possibility of change, sadly painful, sudden and chaotic, presenting itself as a Great Flood, to which, I hoped, in the privacy of my thought, the corrupt and inhumane aspects of modern life would succumb – the oh-so-famous trope of catharsis.

Now, obviously, I didn’t believe this. My cynicism, or rather, my grasp of reality, is more firmly grounded than that. Nevertheless, I was taken in by the sweet air of optimism oozing out from the Guardian opinion pieces I read, and the discussions with friends that I was having, at that immature stage of the pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, would this turmoil bring about substantial change.

The culmination of the springtime wave of infections and deaths hitting the UK did indeed bring about sudden, albeit temporary, change; for its population at large, and also, in a different way, for me. In the first days of April, the British embassy in Stockholm, Sweden – my hometown and current location – announced that flights between the two countries would be indefinitely suspended in a matter of days. Fearing that I would end up stranded on the British Isles over the summer, I booked one of a handful remaining tickets and escaped back to the motherland.

It might sound distastefully dramatic but in my personal case, I think “escape” describes it well, because my destination was not Stockholm (a Covid hotspot), but a (very!) remote part of Sweden, northern Dalsland. There lay my pastoral hideout, two compact cabins built by my parents during the ‘90s and ‘00s, overlooking a pasture and a lake. I was greeted from afar by my dear mother, who had made a similar escape from Sarajevo in Bosnia roughly a month earlier. I subsequently installed myself in one of the cabins, my mother residing in the other. So began my fourteen days of self-imposed quarantine, as well as my hundred days of Covid isolation.

It did actually last a hundred days, exactly, on the day. This was a pure coincidence, but we calculated it at the end of my stay, a bit more than a week ago. For a hundred days, I lived in close quarters with my mother, later joined, in turn, by my brother and father. I finished my university degree, I worked on a freelance copyediting project, and I spent countless hours building a wooden fence around the plot (against wild boar and other game destroying our crops), doing the dishes, building a stone wall and a terraced farm plot, cleaning, cooking, scything, clearing a grove, grocery shopping and draining a swamp. My days were regimented – by my mom –, and I had little time for my own projects and leisure activities.

A few times, I managed to squeeze in a video call with friends. On every such occasion, without fail, I was asked a pressing question: Are you (not) experiencing cabin fever?!

Truth be told, I did, at the very end of my rural retreat, become more and more frustrated with my situation. That is, for the last two weeks, give or take, of my fourteen-week residency. The reasons for my frustration were complex: the family peace was eroding, and I felt unappreciated for the free labour I had contributed to the improvement of the place and the enjoyment of my family when my mother’s response was that of disappointment with achieving “too little” and with “too little” enthusiasm. I also longed for more autonomy (ngl). My mom is ambitious and demanding, let’s leave it at that.

Family life is, for many of us, and to different extents, difficult. It is obvious to me that the cohesion within other families may be far worse, and that consequently, it is simply an impossible, terrifying prospect for some to spend fourteen weeks with one’s family, and with one’s family only. But I am ultimately not concerned here with family psychology, although it has proven a hot topic in Covid times. What I want to relate is an experience of a drastic change in behaviour, in routine and setting, and the impact it had on my experience of the city upon my return to the capital.

As I said, my time in the country was strictly regimented. I woke up at the same time every day, except for a few instances when my mother granted me an extra hour or two of sleep (yes, granted). Lunch was served at a set time, 12.30, and before that I did my exercise routine and had a quick swim in the lake. During the first two months, I was still working with the exam-substituting course work of my finals, but after lunch there was some manual labour to be done, for two hours daily. (Amidst the course work, the work shifts were a blessing.) Dinner at 6 pm; evening snack and familial socialising (at a distance at first) from 8.30 to 10 pm; Day ends. When my degree ended, the manual labour was ramped up, alongside the aforementioned copyediting. The days went by.

That was my reality, and I shall not dwell on unnecessary details, but the gist of it all is: I did not suffer from cabin fever. The quarrels within the family were not manifestations of cabin fever – we have had similar episodes of hostility and hurt feelings under much more normal circumstances. I was looking forward to meeting a handful of friends and acquaintances, yes, but I wasn’t dying to see them, to be perfectly honest. And I was surprised. Surprised at my own resilience to cabin fever. Is cabin fever a myth?

Of course it isn’t. But what I have come to realise, in contemplating my recent past, is that the notion of cabin fever is a simplified trope, a misunderstood notion. Cabin fever is not “rural restlessness”. In fact, it is nothing at all unique to rural life. I talk to my friends in London, I hear how they suffer from the feeling of confinement in their apartments and terraced houses, whereas I can roam freely and have a tepid lake at my exclusive disposal. I ask them what they have done, and they say, “not much, done some reading, facebook, messaged friends, watched some series. Went for a walk or a bike ride.” Ok. But it’s not like draining a swamp, is it?

The comparisons are mean and unfair. On the contrary, I have been impressed by the creativity of many friends in making something out of this awkward hiatus. The blame isn’t theirs. The city is the culprit. Because think about it: Adaption to Covid-19 where I was staying was easy. Some plastic screens here, some alcogel there, no restaurants needed shutting because nobody around there had time or need to crowd them nor the streets of that miniscule town, a thirty-minute drive from the cabins. On the radio, a lumberjack was interviewed about social distancing. His reply: “That’s just how we live.” (As a case in point, one can easily stand two – or five – metres apart and have a conversation where there’s no noise nor passers-by.)

On the 18th June, my brother and I travelled to Stockholm. I met up with some friends a few days later. They hugged me before asking if I was fine with it, and before I noticed. I thought of my pending trip back, to help mom with her move back to Sarajevo and felt uncomfortable. It was a lovely reunion nevertheless; we went to a coffeeshop, I bought an extremely overpriced sandwich and an expensive mediocre coffee, it was nice to hear about their past year, hear their voices and interact with them irl. The next day, I met another friend. We went to a bar. Had a couple of beers (I went with water on the second round; the beers cost almost £7). I looked around the venue at one point and became aware of how ugly it was, and how deafening the noise was (and how ridiculous the hipster clientele looked on average). The view from the porch of one of our cabins, over the lake and the grazing sheep at dusk, appeared to me. Instant coffee tastes great on that porch – filter coffee even better. Perhaps mint tea before bedtime. A friend of his came by and I listened to the friend relating his yesterday: Met a friend and hung out for hours. Had some beers; chatted shit. Cool. But it’s nothing like building a fence. Perfect verticality. Hand-cut angled planks. Functionality. Where’s the daily accomplishment? What’s the purpose? Where does the money come from? Why not just save it? Don’t you get bored? Don’t you feel like the days are passing by unnoticed? I’m struck by a sudden “distressing claustrophobic irritability or restlessness”[1], among friends! I want to tell them: let’s go build something, or repair something! Let’s find something heavy to move around till we get tired, let’s go home and brew a thermos full of practically free coffee. I need to change from sneakers to boots or wellies NOW!

The city holds a promise, yes. It’s a promise of unexpected encounters and rich and multifarious impressions. But that promise is an old one, and in my opinion – from my perspective – it is being broken. As the city grows more and more numbing, more and more homogenous and lifeless, only a myth can uphold its glorified status: the myth of the fever that’s spreading out in the cabins in the forest, the mountain cabins and the remote fishing huts, the cabins at the tops of hills and in the valley. The city is the place to be, we’re told. That’s where we can burn out (like too many of my friends) shaping our dream life and “unique” wardrobe – all the while drinking overpriced alcohol in an ugly environment.

I wish we could change. Mostly because I feel like we’re losing our humanity. – The people I meet on the streets of Stockholm avoid all eye contact, they look angry or scared, and after a week I still feel personally insulted by it. My friends laugh awkwardly when I ask about their approach to Covid. “I don’t know. That feels like it’s no longer a thing.” Foodora is apparently a move in the direction of social harmony. Sustainability is becoming yesterday’s news and we are solving the climate crisis with a race for rare minerals. – But frankly, I wish we could change also because I’m bored. And I see it in so many other eyes that I meet (or am actively denied meeting): They are bored too.

Tor Svenungsson

[1] Wikipedia: ‘Cabin fever’