Walking in Stockholm, at the mercy of drivers

epa05904497 People walk by floral tributes and greetings near the crime scene next to Ahlens department store in the pedestrian street Drottninggatan in central Stockholm, Sweden, 12 April 2017. A hijacked beer truck ploughed into pedestrians on Drottninggatan in the Swedish capital and crashed into a department store, killing four people, injuring 15 others late 07 April 2017. EPA/FREDRIK SANDBERG SWEDEN OUT
Floral tributes near the crime scene in the pedestrian street Drottninggatan in central Stockholm.

The lions are all over the city. Any place in Stockholm that is set aside for pedestrians — and there are quite a few of these places — is protected from cars by strategically placed concrete lions: stylized, benevolent. Last week, along Drottninggatan, the pedestrian street where a self-proclaimed terrorist driving a stolen truck had killed four people and injured 15 on the afternoon of Friday, April 7, the lions were blanketed with flowers.

I’ve been going to Stockholm a lot during the past few years, and I was there last week. When I walked along Drottninggatan early one evening, I was aware, as I’ve never been aware before, of being a pedestrian. The street is designed to make a walker feel safe. There are the lions, first of all — a pair of them stationed as roadblocks on either side of every crosswalk. The center of the street is lined with benches, heavy black trash bins, and huge stone flowerpots planted, right now in early spring, with thousands of miniature daffodils. It’s visually attractive, but it’s also an obstacle course. “You are not supposed to drive here; don’t,” the visual cues say, and the physical barriers say, emphatically, “You can’t.”

The driver of the truck literally smashed through all that. Walking down the street, I could see that it took skill to drive that truck. A kind of horrible, intent precision would have been necessary to mow people down in that narrow space while steering clear of planters and bolted-down benches and glass storefronts — I saw only one window that was shattered and boarded up, in addition to the boarded-up entrance to the department store where the truck finally crashed.


As I made my way along the street, I was aware, too, of the crosswalks — of the entire, generally unheeding, pedestrian ritual of crossing the street. Coming to an intersection; stopping; waiting for the “walk” light to turn green; waiting for an oncoming car to slow down; taking the car’s slowing as a signal that I could begin to cross, trusting that the driver’s foot would stay on the brake and not move over to the accelerator — it sounds melodramatic, but you couldn’t not think about it, walking down that street where candles were still burning around mounds of flowers at certain places, one at a corner, one near a doorway, one and then another and another in the middle of the pavement.

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Crossing at the crosswalks, I found I was conscious of being at the mercy of the drivers. Not afraid, just newly aware that mercy is one of the unremarked-upon foundations of civilization. It’s something we depend on, in both senses of the word: We need it, and we trust that we will get it. I took for granted — or rather, was aware that I was choosing to take for granted — that the drivers would be sane and obeying the rules, not just of traffic, but of civilized human interaction.

Drottninggatan is Stockholm’s Downtown Crossing. People walk along it to get to someplace else, or to buy shampoo or pantyhose. There’s an H&M, The Body Shop, a pancake house, a 7-Eleven. That night when I walked down the street, the flowers were piled on the pavement and on the lions. Flowers carpeted the steps leading down into Sergels torg, the big midcentury-modern plaza adjacent to the street.

When I came through again a few days later, the flowers had been taken away by city workers and people were sitting on the steps, and walking up and down. The city was neither healing nor broken; it was just going on, quietly asserting its civilized, graceful, pedestrian self.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’