The Guardian Angel (part 2 of Shock and Awe)

Once I was discharged from St. Eriks Sjukhus, I continued my journey through the Swedish women’s movement. Karin Westman Berg, who might be called the Mother of Women’s Studies in Scandinavia, welcomed me into her labyrinthine Uppsala apartment, where I would stay many times throughout the 1970s, and invited me to a symposium on the novelist Fredrika Bremer attended by literary scholars from around the world. In Örebro, I slept on silk sheets for the only time in my life–at the home of a Swedish communist. In Göteborg (aka Gothenburg), I read documents at the Women’s History Archives and stayed in a commune where two guys waiting to ship out as crew on a cruise popped popcorn every night–a rare delicacy in Sweden. My favorite memory from that time is waking up to the clomp-clomp of wooden clogs as little kids hurried off to school. I ate blood pudding in Lund, smothered in lingonberry sauce to make it palatable. There I was hosted by the Radical Women’s Group, several of whom were named Birgitta–the Swedish equivalent of the Kathy and Linda and Judy of my generation.

Although it was an exciting, productive, stimulating trip, the fear that I might get sick again at any time never left me. It turned into a stomach-churning anxiety the day I boarded the Malmö to Copenhagen ferry to begin the trip home. In those days, there was one clear option for a graduate student living on a fellowship to afford a trip to Europe: the 21- to 45-day excursion fare on Loftlei∂ir, the Icelandic airline, from New York to Luxembourg. After the ferry crossing, my trip home would include a 19-hour train trip from Copenhagen to Luxembourg, with transfers or layovers in Hamburg, Köln (Cologne), Koblenz, and Trier, followed by an 8-hour flight from Luxembourg to New York, and a 3- or 4-hour flight to Minneapolis. There was simply no allowance for pain, fatigue, or worse, systemic infection.

I sketched out my travel schedule in a letter home, so I know that I bought a sleeping car ticket for the 11:40 p.m. departure from Hamburg–a luxury I generally avoided. Next to my anticipated arrival in Koblenz at 7:48 a.m. I had written “breakfast.” I would board the train again by 8:29. After a restless, breathless night in the sleeping car, that breakfast in Koblenz became one of my most vivid memories, one I like to revisit.

The restaurant at Koblenz was not an intimate room tucked in a corner. It consisted of tables placed out in the open, under the high dome of the railway station. Even though it was prime breakfast time for the passengers on my train, few of them claimed the tables. I took a seat at one toward the center while the tables around me remained empty. I ordered a Tee Komplett, uncertain whether my stomach could handle the bread and pastry that accompanied the tea. I knew I needed to eat in order to have enough energy to lug my suitcases from place to place, but I had grown afraid of my own digestive system.

And then . . . I don’t know how else to say this . . . a middle-aged woman in a neat blue suit appeared at my table. She simply smiled at me and sat down in the chair across from me without a word. The other tables were still empty, yet she chose mine. When the waitress came by, she ordered a Kaffee Komplett. We sat there together, in silence, eating our breakfasts. Whenever I looked up, she was watching me intently, with a kindly smile and a gentle look of concern in her eyes. I could only smile back.

When it was time to board my train, I stood up, smiled a farewell, and walked away. All that quivering anxiety that had troubled me through the night had miraculously washed out the ends of my fingers and toes. I felt calm and confident for the rest of the trip. So who was she? Where did she come from? What did she know or perceive about me? It doesn’t really matter. For those 41 minutes, she served as my guardian angel. And she’s been with me since, not in the flesh, but recalled in memory when I think I can use her help.

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