After warzones, Reno Scandinavian shop a new start for owner
RENO, Nev. (AP) — It was a cold morning in Kabul 11 years ago, almost to the day, when Annika Caldwell was getting ready for an armored vehicle to pick her up for work.
She was getting dressed, wrapping her light brown hair in a silk scarf with colorful flowers.
For Caldwell, who’d been a humanitarian aid worker since the 1990s, chaos was routine. She’d pulled trucks from rivers, killed venomous snakes with fire and negotiated with military leaders who believed a woman’s only place was a kitchen. She’d worked in war-torn Guatemala, post-earthquake Pakistan and in South Sudan’s refugee crisis.
“I lived in 25 countries over 20 years. I’ve seen the good, the bad,” said Caldwell, who was born in Sweden and raised on a grain farm in Finland.
Caldwell’s specialty was civilian-military operations, advising top military leaders on how to de-escalate situations.
She’d been in Afghanistan about a year, each day seeing the snow-covered mountains on her way to headquarters for NATO. Covering her head each morning was a relatively mundane task, but one that helped her blend in as much as a tall, Scandinavian woman could in a hazy, Middle Eastern metropolis.
The violence in Kabul, however, was mounting. Seven Americans were killed that month alone, but she had only a week left before relocating to NATO’s headquarters in the Netherlands.
It was about 20 minutes to 8 a.m. when her world shattered.
“The colors -- I remember very vividly the orange color,” Caldwell said. “But it happened very fast.”
It was that day, that flash of orange, that indirectly landed her in her cozy shop in the basement of downtown Reno’s old post office, where she sells fair trade, sustainable design goods.
“I may not be going back to the war zone, but I want to give back still,” said Caldwell, owner of Nordik Design.
The brilliant flash outside her window on Nov. 27, 2007 was the explosion of a suicide bomber. Both the bomber and a passerby were killed in the blast.
“Nothing prepares you for something like that,” she told the Reno Gazette Journal .
Standing in a mess of glass shattered across the floor and wafts of smoke, she didn’t cry. She immediately thought of the staff who usually escorted her to the vehicle outside.
“My first thought was that they were all dead,” Caldwell said.
To her surprise, they were unscathed. Caldwell went to work, talked to her boss and came back that night to sleep in the same room.
“I felt very shaken, but I was so used to just carrying on,” she said.
Caldwell lost partial hearing and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but would not address it for some time after she transferred to NATO headquarters in the Netherlands.
“We had a lot of rocket attacks, car bombs in the city, I was always worried for her,” said her now-husband, Lt. Col. Scott Caldwell, who met his wife in Afghanistan. “In the past, the non-governmental organization (staff), they always had an invisible shield. But since 9/11, they started to go away.”
″(The car bomb), that was the bullet to her that said I don’t have that shield anymore. It was later, when we left, that’s when it sank in.”
Annika Caldwell had suffered trauma before. She lost a colleague in Iraq, she broke bones when a stray dog caused her to crash a motorcycle in a village in East Timor, and her spine was damaged from years of riding in rickety military caravans.
She knew, however, that the effects of the car bombing were different when she realized how unsettled she was.
“I wasn’t sleeping, I got rattled by someone even closing the door, by bright lights,” Caldwell said.
She was experiencing the same nightmare over and over: that someone was walking toward an explosive and she was always too late to warn them before it went off. She finally went to counseling and realized life had to change.
The Caldwells married not long after they left Afghanistan, and, though they both continued consulting work internationally, they simultaneously looked for their “forever” place. They’ve moved seven times in the past decade.
In February, Scott Caldwell got a job directing the Washoe County School District Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and they left their previous home in Florida, swiftly deciding that Reno was it.
“When we came over Donner Pass and into the valley, we discovered we’re not as much beach people, we’re more mountain and forest people. We haven’t been part of a community in forever. People have been so welcoming,” he said.
While Annika Caldwell now sells tea towels, glass plates, silver pendants and elvish figurines instead of deflating frontline conflicts, her mission still is the same: to give back to the world.
“I feel like it’s really important for all of us to know how things are made, where they were made,” Caldwell said. “We need to make sure that those that are making these items are making them in safe conditions, and those that are buying them need to know that the products they’re buying are safe.”
Caldwell painstakingly researches the production of the products she sells. The Finnish tote bags she sells, for instance, are made from natural, chemical-free cotton and linen and the patterns are those of young artists who pair up with the brand name company.
The glass dishes she sells, she ensures that they are 100 percent lead-free and manufactured using sustainable practices. Although the products are mostly from overseas, almost entirely Scandinavian, she pays extra “green” fees to counteract the carbon footprint of shipping long distances.
“If you haven’t been to Scandinavia, it’s a little bit of a culture shock. It’s a small place, they live very simply. They preserve, protect their environment religiously. They don’t have a throwaway society,” said Scott Caldwell of his wife’s business. “People come to the store and they don’t want to spend $20 on a towel, but that linen will last you 20 years.”
Although Annika Caldwell said running a business has its own challenges, she’s glad to finally be living a slower-paced life.
Watching her jump-start this business has only grown Scott Caldwell’s love for his wife, whom he knew he’d marry that first day he met her in Afghanistan. They worked closely together trying to quell the violence and predict the next challenges.
“You never thought you’d meet your dream girl in a place like that,” he said.
The move, the new lifestyle has been healthy for them both.
She still works 15-hour days, though, and forgoes her own salary, but they find joy in doing good together. They both carry care packages in their vehicles -- boxes packed with toothbrushes, food, socks and such -- that they give to homeless people that they come across.
Still, there are days when Caldwell feels like she is not doing enough.
“To do the right thing is to do the hard thing,” said Caldwell.
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com