My Scandinavia (II)

Lithuanian novelist and playwright Marius Ivaskevicius is highly rated in the Baltic States, Poland, and Hungary for his humorous observations of contemporary life. Now Eurozine publishes, in English translation, his seven-part Scandinavian travelogue. Here, he remembers his first trip to Sweden, where he learned the meaning of an honest day’s work and fell in love with a blonde in an Opel. And how different Sweden seemed when he returned ten years later as a writer.

The first Scandinavians came over to the Baltic to taste the local vodka and the local women. Meanwhile, the Lithuanians, as befits the traditional opinion of us, headed over to try their luck on Scandinavian soil. I was among the first who went over to earn money on Swedish farms. Now I can boast that I am familiar with two cultural levels in Sweden: that of culture and that of agriculture. I’ll talk about culture later, but agriculture gave me, a student at the time, the opportunity to get to know Swedish farmers and to get to know myself. The experience provided me with a good lesson in life.

Lithuanian passion in a Swedish tractor

That was ten years ago, and at the time there was a real shortage of Swedish work visas. I ended up working in Oland, a narrow, flat island, on Sweden’s eastern coast. Now I can say that working conditions were slave-like. After a few months I lost ten or more kilograms. But it wasn’t the Swedish farmers who worked us like that. We did it to ourselves. We jumped at the opportunity and were determined to work twenty-four hours a day. You were paid according to how fast you were able to work. Since I wasn’t that fast, I earned about a thousand dollars a month. Then, even this amount of money was huge for the average Lithuanian. By the time I entered the humanities department, my hands were ready to spend the rest of their lives handling paper. And if they got dirty, then only from ink. That’s why the sudden change of lifestyle that occurred for me at the end of each June threw me for a loop. I’d leave for Sweden right after my last exams were finished, so that I could get there in high time for strawberry season. The heavy physical work was a huge relief for my brain, exhausted from scholarly work; however, at the same time, my body wasn’t used to the hard physical work.

Our work was varied: we picked strawberries, weeded, then the cucumbers would start, then the onions, then we’d pick cabbages, and then we’d get the strawberry seedlings ready. I drove brand new American tractors and I even started to daydream about how many tractors I could buy if I won the Nobel Prize. I’d picked out the girl of my dreams – a young, blonde Swedish girl that I’d noticed out of the corner of my eye. I overheard someone say that she studied humanities at Gothenburg University. I noticed that an Opel Tiger stood next to her summerhouse each day. Seven o’clock in the morning, driving the tractor past her house, I turned on the CD player full blast and slammed on the gas, making the tractor lurch forward, rattling my fellow countrymen who were sitting in the trailer, catching a ride out to the cucumber fields.

All in all, at the time Sweden seemed to me like another world, a world that had nothing whatsoever to do with my world. It was a world from which I could extract a couple of thousand Swedish crowns, exchange them into dollars, and go home rich. At the time, the Swedish farmers, or even the Swedish villages, appeared conceited to me; they seemed to look down on us. But how else could they look at cheap labour that came to them from the East? We demanded that our farmer give us work. When the work ended at his farm, we’d go and demand work from the rest of the village. The softhearted among them would walk around their orchard and search for some little job that would make a poor Lithuanian happy. Most of the people in the village were summer people from the cities who had vacation cottages. For them, painting the house, cutting the grass, or building a stone fence seemed like entertainment. But sometimes they’d hand over that entertainment to us and pay us a few hundred crowns to do it. We had post-Soviet consciences and were used to stealing from our workplaces whatever wasn’t put away securely. These hourly jobs posed the biggest temptations for us. You’d go out into a field of strawberries or beetroot, and you couldn’t see the end of it. All alone out there, with no one telling you what to do, you’d establish your own break time and your own quitting time. Later in the day, you’d tell the farmer how many hours you’d worked. And the farmer, without even questioning you, would pay you for the hours you told him you’d worked. We all felt an incredible temptation to add on a few hours that we hadn’t actually worked, or even to add on a day or two. And every time we resisted the temptation to add on those few hours, we moved a little bit further away from being that Soviet person, and moved a little closer towards Scandinavia.

Shooting geese from the balcony

Only now do I start to wonder how that Swedish village on the island of Oland saw us. Of course, the one large farm in the village got the opportunity to profit and enlarge its business. But what about the others? Especially the summer people who came from the city? Every morning before six we’d go out to the field, pulling our wagons behind us; later, we’d return with those wagons stacked with crates of strawberries. After half a day’s work, dragging our feet behind us, we’d return, barely able to pull along our loaded wagons, which made a tremendous racket. And all that took place on neat asphalt streets in a cosy village between beautiful wooden houses, decorated with blue flags with yellow crosses. We probably looked desperate. Like prisoners of war. Although, not to everyone. One man would wait impatiently through the long dark winter night, waiting for strawberry season to begin again. Josta had tragically lost his wife and two children. Sometimes in the morning we’d awaken suddenly from the sound of far-off gunfire. I’d go outside my cottage and I’d see Josta standing on the balcony with a cup of coffee and a gun. When he’d see me, he’d smile, drink a gulp of coffee, and, setting his sights for the sky, shoot again. And wild geese would fall directly into his garden. As though it wasn’t Josta, but a Swedish Miunhausen. He was the first one to introduce me to the Swedish delicacy of surstrioming. When he first opened the can, the smell of shit wafted out. I had no intention of eating it. But he dared me for twenty crowns to eat it and I did. I picked up that bit of rotten fish by the tail and thought to myself that for twenty crowns I’d have to weed for a good forty-five minutes in the burning sun with an aching back. That helped me shove it into my mouth and swallow it.

Later, when other Swedes introduced me to the entire ritual of eating surstrioming, complete with griddle cake, onions, and vodka, I really acquired a taste for this rot. And even now, every time I visit Sweden, I make an effort to bring home this expensive rotten food. But at the time, I was just a common strawberry picker, who’d agreed to eat rotten food for money. And we wondered why they didn’t respect us and why they looked down on us! What was there to respect? We were animals. Circus animals who’d do any trick for twenty crowns. For that amount we’d eat a rotten fish or catch a goose falling from the sky and pluck it on the spot. Of course, it was all a game and nothing more. But we played the game for money. My worst moment was when one afternoon, the farmer’s son, Christian, was spraying his father’s workers – the Poles and Lithuanians – with water. He was playing, but all day long grown men and women shrieked and dodged his hose, not daring to say anything to anyone. Finally, one Pole caught hold of Christian and gave him a good spanking. I was overcome with horror. Christian ran sobbing to his parents. And I had already figured out our entire sad fate. They’ll punish us – that was my preoccupation. They’ll punish us for it. In other words, I’d already become a slave in a country that had a reputation for being the most sensitive in the world towards human rights and just social conditions. But I’d forced myself into this slavery. It was my own spiritual and personal slavery, and it had nothing to do with Swedish reality.

But now, when I remember those four summers spent on that farm in Oland, I smile nostalgically. All of us, the Poles and the Lithuanians, dreamed that after ten years we’d return to Oland driving white Mercedes. We’d all come back, just to say hello to Ulf, our farmer, and to Josta, our friend. And we’d settle in at the beach a kilometre away, where our Catholic gazes would fall on the Swedish girls’ naked breasts. We’d rent wooden houses. We’d race sailboats in the bay. And we’d go over to the village in the evenings to buy strawberries. We all dreamed that one day we’d come back, proud of ourselves, we dreamed, that our lives would reach the standard of an average Swedish villager. But I’ve never been back. I intend to, just in another ten years maybe.

If only the seas had capitals

It so happened that a few years later I traded my agricultural Sweden in Oland for a cultural Sweden in Gotland. Now, I visited Sweden as a writer, not a migrant farm worker, and so I felt more confident and saw the Swedes differently; Sweden seemed more hospitable. Lithuanian writers have a beaten path to Visby, Gotland’s capital. Barely ten years ago, the Baltic Writers and Translators Centre opened here, and it’s rare if a month goes by without one of us being in residence. Although there are several of these types of writers’ retreats in every Scandinavian country, this one has earned our love, respect, and literary attention. The first time I came to Visby, I could not shake off the thought that I was living in a film set. The film set to an animated film.

It was a film set with tiny, story-like wooden and brick cottages that had been standing since the seventeenth or sixteenth centuries, cottages whose windows and doors were sinking in to the ground; narrow streets, an almost entirely complete stone fortification wall; a seventeenth-century cathedral; and a dozen or so stone churches, some in good condition, some in ruins. Add to that an amazing view of the ocean through your cottage window and the music of the Visby Cathedral bells ringing, and all there was left to do was to ask yourself: can this be real? It seemed to me that people only pretended to live here; that they only made it appear as though they had worries and lives, that they drove cars. All of it seemed like a carefully directed counterfeit. Then I got used to it.

I’d walk through those miniature streets and no longer notice them; I’d pass by the city wall as though it weren’t there; I’d get annoyed with the tourists, especially with the ones from Stockholm, who made so much noise at night. In a word, I stopped seeing this fairy tale city as a decoration and began living in it. In general, Visby and all of Gotland at one time was a very important meeting place for all cultures living on the Baltic Sea. You only need to look at a map to see how conveniently Gotland is situated in the very centre of the Baltic Sea. Then no question can remain who had plans of ruling it and why. The Danes, and the crusaders, and the pirates all wanted to rule Gotland, but in the end the Swedes got it. In the Middle Ages, Visby was the main trading centre in the Baltic Sea, and for western Lithuanians, “Visbyans” meant not just the people who lived in Visby, but all traders in general. And even though today the sea wind hasn’t blown the island and Gotland away, and it remains the Scandinavian land closest to Lithuania, the route from Lithuania is rather complicated. Those for whom the flight to Visby, with a stop over in Stockholm, is still too expensive must travel in a huge circle until arriving with the ferry from Nynesham. That trip takes two days. When you finally get to the island, you find it hard to believe that the distance between Gotland and Lithuania is just a few hundred kilometres. On the other hand, the island seems so fragile and vulnerable, that you begin to think that if massive numbers of us started to visit there, we’d destroy it completely. Gotland is like a toy for older children, and not recommended for preschoolers – they’d break it. It’s not likely that this land could ever become the Baltic Sea’s central marketplace again. Today, Gotland has ambitions of culturally uniting the Baltic countries with Scandinavian culture. If seas had presidents, then the president of the Baltic Sea would have to be situated in Visby. And all of us would travel there in the boats we don’t yet have, to settle all our watery affairs. In reality, there are two different Gotlands: one “in season” and one “out of season.” In the winter, people are scarce and in the summer too many. In the winter, Visby seems to belong only to you and a few others, but in the summer it belongs to everyone – the entire Swedish-speaking world. Gotland has changed from a central trading city to the most popular Swedish tourist destination. Most people try to buy a summerhouse here, and if they can’t, they rent one. Although Sweden has impressively long beaches, it doesn’t have very many sandy beaches. There aren’t that many sandy beaches in Gotland either. Tourists who are looking for sand need to travel further north. If you take the ferry to Far� Island, just next to Gotland, you’d find cliffs of impressive shapes and sizes that ended in the water and sandy beaches and miniature pines that remind you of Neringa or Ingmar Bergman. Bergman went to Far� Island to get away from people, looking for peace and quiet; however, since he is Bergman, it’s difficult for him to find quiet, even on this sparsely populated island. When a tourist arrives on Far� Island, he is interested in visiting three places: the beach, the cliffs, and Bergman. That’s the nature of tourists. In the north, they stare hard at the horizon line, so that they could see the pride of the Swedish forest – a moose. On Far� Island, they look for the Swedish film legend. And when you return from Far�, people are sure to ask you, “Did you see Bergman?” I’ve seen a moose in the north, but I’ve not seen Bergman on Far� Island. Fame has many advantages, but also a few disadvantages. One of those is when tourists add you to the list of local attractions.

Published 10 October 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 01.05.2004 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Marius Ivaskevicius/Siaures Atenai Eurozine


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