On the joys of being lost in a new city

Albert Dock: just one of the many places I'm planning to get myself lost this week. Image: Pixabay.

It's Sunday lunchtime. As I write, I am at London's Euston station, awaiting my train to Liverpool for this year's Labour party conference. And I am really, really looking forward to it. 

I always look forward to party conference season, of course: I'm just that sort of nerd. (Whole rooms full of wonkish people, arguing about housing policy!) But I realised yesterday I was particularly looking forward to this one, because – in between the fringe meetings about HS2 or social housing or wine-fuelled rows about Jeremy Corbyn – I'm going to have two days to explore Liverpool. And there are few things that give me greater pleasure than being dropped in a city I don't know particularly well, and left to get myself lost.

Some people like walking in the country, and fair play to them, but I've never quite seen the point. It's not that the countryside can't be beautiful– it's sometimes stunning, though perhaps not quite as often as its propagandists would claim. No, it's simply that there isn't a whole lot of stuff there. One field of sheep with some dry stone wall round it looks much the same as another.

Cities can often be beautiful, too – but even when they're not they are at least, filled with stuff. There's a density of incident that means it always feels worth walking onwards, just because you don't know what you're going to stumble upon next. In the countryside, you can find yourself stuck with the same view for an hour, and in that time even the most stunning of views can start to wear thin. 

In a city, though, if you don't like what you see, just walk around the next corner. You may not like that either, but at least you'll not be liking something new. (This, by the way, is why such walks are best done in cities where you can, literally, get lost. If you're not lost, you probably know what's around the next corner, and where's the fun in that?)

Liverpool is a relatively easy city to get excited about visiting. It has a lot of fine Victorian architecture, from its days as second city of the British Empire, and all sorts of more modern glories from its associations with the Beatles and so on. All this combines to give it the feel of a much bigger city than it actually is: Liverpool feels like it is somewhere. 

Liverpool's skyline, as seen from the Mersey. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So in some ways it's a bad example to explain the joys of aimless urban wandering, precisely because it's the sort of place you might go to deliberately. But to get excited about visiting a new city, I don't need it to have anything like the myriad attractions of Liverpool. I find I can get excited about spending a day exploring all sorts of unpromising places.

Washington DC is loathed by most Americans, even – especially – some of those who live there. But I spent two days last spring wandering aimlessly between government office blocks and residential quarters, trying to get to grips with how the city's uniquely odd street grid functions, and I've rarely felt so contented.

I've had equally pleasant times wandering around Sheffield and Bradford and Wolverhampton, and they've been among the happiest days of my working life. It's not that these places are particularly beautiful or exciting or noteworthy. It's simply that they were unfamiliar, and even the most mundane of unfamiliar cities can keep me entertained for hours. Perhaps as a child I was bitten by a radioactive Bill Bryson or something. Who knows.

(There is a man in the Carlisle history museum, incidentally, who has spent a lot of time thinking about how their Roman centurion skeleton came to have a hole in his skull. I mean, a lot.)

There is a word for someone who engages in this sort of activity: the flâneur. The word has its origins in the more literary end of 19th century Parisian society, and means, literally, stroller or loafer. But it also implies a certain idleness, a rich man – always a man; a point of some contention – of leisure. Someone for whom wandering the streets of the city people-watching is somehow a radical act.

I hate that word. Partly because it implies a certain laziness – to my mind, if you're not clocking up the miles, you're wasting valuable time – but also because it turns wandering about into a branch of philosophy.

And all that feels a bit too grand. Walking is a form of exploration, I suppose, though even that sounds a bit pretentious, and anyway, it's the city I'm interested in exploring, not myself. When I walk, it's just because I want to know what this new place looks like. How people live here. Where they work, where they shop, how they move about. What this particularly slice of humanity has brought into being as a place to live their lives. And the reason I want to clock up the miles is because I want to see as much as I can, before I'm next required to be in a specific place at a particular time, which - as I get older - increasingly tends to be rather soon.

This slightly wonkish desire to understand how a city functions is a common phenomenon, I think, at least among the sort of people who read CityMetric. In its rawest form, it tends to show up as a love of maps, and especially metro or subway maps.

But think that's symptom, not cause, of something deeper – or perhaps a gateway drug, a way in. A metro map is simply the easiest way to understand how a city fits together. It's like reading the blurb on the back of a book – showing you things to explore, places you can go. The tube map is London represented in its simplest, most stripped down form. It's our easiest mental model for how something so big and complicated and full of people and history actually works.

(A thought. Perhaps that's why north Londoners have historically been so sniffy about the huge swathe of the the city that lies south of the river: its absence from the map means it's literally not in their London at all.)

At any rate, this is my first trip to Liverpool since July 2009 (another conference; that one involved nurses). And rather at lot has happened in those seven years – to me, to Liverpool, to the world.

So, for next two days, whenever I don't have a meeting to be in, I will be dedicating my time to wandering around the city and, gazing at bits of it. I'm going to check out the Ropewalks and the Baltic Triangle, which I've published articles on, but never actually seen. I'm going to wander around the private Liverpool One development, and see how it meshes with the older, real-er city around it. I may even, if I find the time, climb the hill at Everton Park, to help me see the whole city in one sweep.

And I am really, genuinely delighted about this prospect.

Do say hi if you spot me.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.

Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.