View from Rue Saint-Georges

A Summer Retreat

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | August 2, 2017


One of the more replenishing habits that my family and I have cultivated during our last six summers living in Europe is an annual late-July trip to visit a couple of friends in the Stockholm Archipelago. (The Swedes, unlike the French, are back to work in August.) There are about 20,000 islands in the Baltic below the city, only a fraction of which are inhabited, and even there development is typically kept to a minimum. But some people have their own islands, and our friend’s mother, C, is one of them. Her land is rocky, covered in green forests draped in turquoise and violet moss, and tall grass rises from the rippling shoreline.

To get there, we take a two-hour ferry from Stockholm to a slightly larger island that is connected to the power grid and equipped with a gas station, garbage dump, and small grocery store. C meets us there in her boat, and just 10 minutes later, we are walking down the long jetty to her property, an unmolested paradise where you can forage for blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms outside your door.

It is by no means roughing it. C is an artist and an architect and has designed or carefully selected every non-natural aspect of the setting you come in contact with. But there is limited electricity and no running water. A hand pump delivers the ice-cold brackish well water that freezes your hands and clots the soap on the dishes. One’s morning ablutions are conducted in an outhouse. There is a sauna next to the frigid (or revivifying, depending on the amount of sunlight) Baltic, as well as saltwater shampoo for bathing. Finally, there is no TV and, above all, no Internet. That disconnect, I’m realizing now, is part of what always makes the experience so absolute and special. Although there is cell phone reception, coming from France, neither my wife nor I would ever turn on international roaming. But this summer, European Union regulations changed, and on arrival in Sweden I got a text message from my provider alerting me that I can now use my phone anywhere in Europe without incurring extra charges. Creature of habit that I am, I switched on my roaming—a Faustian bargain. Just like that, the mundane, the mindless, and even the necessary and useful crept into this heretofore pristine summer idyll.

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