My Scandinavia (IV)

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 journeys to the north of Finland, stopping off at Kajaani, where a play reminds him of his father’s childhood in Lithuania. Pressing on, he reaches Rovaniemi on the edge of the Arctic Circle. But Lapland is showing signs of the times: climate change and fresh-air tourism.

At the “Nets” film festival in Vilnius in 2004, one Swedish documentary made a big impression on me. A film crew travelled through northern Swedish towns, jokingly asking people if they thought Sweden needed more people. Then they asked how they would feel if their small towns one day grew into cities with populations of over a million. People were unenthusiastic about the idea, but did admit that more people would make life less boring.

Scandinavia is the least densely populated area in Europe. Most Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes live in the south of their countries. These three countries are so vast that most people living in the south have never even tried to get to know the north. “Oslo is cold enough,” one young Norwegian said to me, “there’s no need to go further. I try to travel south.”

The northern territories are these countries’ wealth, but also a matter of great concern. Why build motorways and railways to places where the population is so small they would never pay for themselves? How do you help a farmer in the north fight his competitors when his crop is sown in poor soil and ripens shortly before the first snowfall? There are only two possibilities: to abandon the entire northern territory, or to allocate it lots of funding. The governments have chosen the latter course, because otherwise the north would become unliveable.

A small town with a big theatre

My first stop on my trip to the north was in Kajaani, a medium-sized Finnish city the size of Ukmerge. I chose it because of Christian Smeds, a young, well-known Finnish film director. After working a few years in Helsinki, he’d been made a challenging offer – to become the director of Kajaani City Theatre. The year before, I’d seen his production of Woyzeck in Vilnius – and was shocked. Nudity, violence – all the ingredients of a modern classic. I’d become curious as to what kind of a city this Kajaani was that it could produce a director able to shock Europe, which after all isn’t easy.

Almost six hundred kilometres north of Helsinki, Kajaani seemed like a peaceful town with a wooden theatre, a few bars, and the largest unemployment rate in Finland. The town boasts of two historical personages: Elija Lanrot and Daniel the Great. The first collected and assembled the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. During the nineteenth century, the Kalevala was the Bible for a reawakening nation just learning to have faith in itself. The strangest thing is that, even today, the Kalevala is still read and staged. Some interpret it traditionally, others experimentally. Either way, the Kalevala lives on for Lithuanians, who have nothing like it, and can only dream about creating their own Kalevala some time in the future.

The interesting thing is that Elija Lanrot collected his material for the Kalevala in Karelia, which already in those times was much more archaic than the rest of Finland. Finland and Karelia are strange neighbours. The first is an aggressive, modern nation hurrying forwards, while the other is a cautious, provincial place that tends to Finland’s collective memory. If the first were to burn out, then the second could light the way for both of them.

Elija Landrot collected the stories and legends that he put into the Kalevala during trips to Karelia. But in Kajaani he worked for twenty years as a local doctor. Those nineteenth-century doctors, living on the edges of the Russian empire, were really something. Lanrot is to Finland what Vincas Kudirka and Jonas Basanavicius are to Lithuania. They earned their licences so that they could heal people, but as it turned out, they healed entire nations.

The second attraction in Kajaani is Daniel the Great, who stands his great height in wax in a pub named in his honour. The locals say that Daniel, at two and a half meters, was one of the tallest men ever to have lived in Finland. At eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning I counted thirty of Kajaani’s unemployed drinking to his immortal health.

Right in the middle of nowhere

Nothing by Christian Smeds was on at the Kajaani City Theatre that weekend. Another director’s production was running: “Where the Rainbow Ends”, based on the well-known Finnish writer Harri Tapperi’s autobiographical novel. It’s the story of four brothers, famous in their respective fields, starting in the inter-war period and continuing to the present day. The theatre was sold out for what at first glance was a rather traditional play. While not understanding a word of Finnish, I took strange pleasure in watching. It seemed to me that the Finnish actors were playing pre-war Lithuanians. A traditional Lithuanian pre-war village with traditional conservative parents, then war, and then life again. While the characters in the play watched the solar eclipse through tiny bits of foggy glass, I remembered the same scene the way my father had described it to me. That same solar eclipse, the same tiny bits of foggy glass, and almost the same people with their heads thrown back, staring up at the sky. Finland, Lithuania, what’s the difference? We’re all the same when the sky darkens.

Only the sauna scene reminded me I was in the middle of Finland and not in a scene from Vienuolis or Katiliskis. Only Finns can create a sauna scene so quickly and organically. The actors undressed, picked up birch brooms and there it was – a Finnish sauna. Nothing shocking. Five nude men up on stage seemed very brave, but five nude men in a sauna – that was very Finnish.

Smeds himself was rehearsing Chekhov’s Three Sisters. That was to be his last piece in Kajaani. Where he would go from there he didn’t know. Maybe to Ivalo, an even smaller town almost nine hundred kilometres to the north. It’s as if he wanted to challenge the entire civilized world and create theatre in empty space. After Ivalo, the only thing left for him to do would be to stage plays on a drifting iceberg at the North Pole. The north has a powerful allure. Travellers and explorers crawl to it just so they can plant a flag. Smeds is marking his journey north with theatres.

Because he’s not only a director, but also a playwright, he has a loose approach to world classics. He rewrites plays, making himself the play’s co-author. That’s how Buchner-Smed’s Woyzeck came into existence, with characters that speak in northern Finnish accents. The same fate probably awaits Chekhov. The three sisters won’t say “Moscow” once, though will often refer to Helsinki. In Lithuania, that kind of interpretation would look odd. Three sisters daydreaming about travelling to Vilnius? No, we don’t have the distances that would turn Vilnius into a daydream. But in this sense, Finland is like Russia. It has huge expanses of forests, and somewhere, far away in the south, throbs Helsinki.

Smeds found part of his company when he arrived in Kajaani; the other part he brought with him from Helsinki. One of them was the blonde Eva. In Woyzeck, she played Maria. In The Three Sisters, she was to be one of the sisters – Irina. For Eva, the imminent departure of Smeds was sad, but it meant something else too – now she could return to Helsinki. It wasn’t going to be hard for her to play Irina. “Kajaani is boring,” she complained to me, “we’re right in the middle of nowhere. I want to get to Helsinki as fast as I can.”

On the edge of the Arctic Circle

Pieta is much older than Smeds and can’t boast of the same kind of recognition in Finland or Europe. However, her fate is similar. Pieta comes from Rovaniemi and for many years put on plays in southern Finnish towns. Now she’s decided to return to the north and start a revolution. She likes to experiment and will try to accustom the locals to her style of theatre.

About five hundred miles lie between Rovaniemi and Kajaani. Rovaniemi is a little bigger and better known. When the Finns severed their union with the Nazis, the retreating invaders turned Rovaniemi into a pile of ashes. That’s why in this city, with its modern architecture, the theatre is very different from in Kajaani. But those are only outward differences. In terms of content, they are opposites.

Tourists are told that Rovaniemi is Lapland’s capital, but in reality Lapland only starts here. However, Rovaniemi has a few items of interest for tourists: the Arctic Circle and the Santa Claus park. It’s true that you won’t see the Arctic Circle, or touch it, the only thing you can really do with it is take a photo of yourself next to the sign announcing where it is. But Santa Claus works all year long.

Pieta’s parents live in Rovaniemi. For the time being, she’s living in a summer cottage on a lake, sixty miles outside the city. When Pieta crashed her Japanese car, her father advised her to buy a Russian Lada. He felt that the Lada was more suitable for the north, and that if it broke down, he could fix it himself. So now Pieta has an old Lada. While driving me to her parents’ house, she got stuck at junctions once or twice because she couldn’t change gear. I had to help her, and was able to draw on my experience with another Russian car, the Zigulys. I used force and the gearbox rattled back into place. It would seem that Soviet technology recognizes its former owner.

Pieta’s parents, who are retired, insisted I was the first Lithuanian they’d ever met, but then they remembered a Lithuanian who’d been brought to their town by the Nazis to work. And so in their world I was the second, though the first to have come of his own accord. The elderly couple live in a small house they own on the very edge of Rovaniemi. During the winter they look after their neighbour’s house, because the elderly couple spend their winters in Spain. They’d been to visit. They returned home after two weeks, not at all impressed with the warm Spanish winter. “You can’t ski there and you can’t go ice-fishing, so there’s nothing to do”, Pieta’s father complained.

In general, Pieta’s father thinks that only summer and winter are left in Europe. Between the two there’s nothing but bad weather. In Rovaniemi, the seasons are “concrete”. When the temperature falls below zero, he knows that winter has arrived and that it’s time to dress accordingly. When the temperature rises above zero, then it’s spring. In Rovaniemi there’s no polar night, but on the shortest days the sun appears for just a few hours. Many people suffer from the lack of light; they use lamps because otherwise they fall into depression or put on too much weight. When a person doesn’t get enough light from the sun, he tries to get energy from food and becomes insatiable. Although, incidentally, neither Pieta nor her parents suffer from this condition.

But they do notice differences in nature that worry them much more than the lack of sun. For few summers now there haven’t been mosquitoes in Lapland’s forests. Pieta can’t stand mosquitoes, but she understands that without them there can be no berries, birds, and that the entire food chain will collapse. Earlier, the winters in Rovaniemi were mostly clear, but now there are many more cloudy days. Pieta bought herself a huge box and asked me to carry it to the Lada. I thought it was dog food, but it turned out to be for the birds. Feeding wild birds in the north, apparently, is as natural as putting out food for your cat. If you don’t feed them for a day, they disappear. They’ll fly off somewhere else looking for food, grow weak, freeze, and die. That’s the reality of things living on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Fresh-air tourism

In Helsinki, I’d heard that in Rovaniemi you can taste the most deliciously prepared elk meat. It’s a small world. Pieta’s cousin, Kreta, is the owner of a restaurant. Ninety per cent of her clientele are tourists. When I asked her why they came here, she couldn’t quite answer me. Maybe the idea that this is the symbol of the Arctic Circle, she thought, or maybe it’s the Santa Claus park, or maybe the aurora borealis, or maybe the skiing. Most of them come in the winter. However, some, especially Japanese from Tokyo and other big cities, come in the summer. They like the peace and quiet. They walk around, breath in the fresh air, drink water straight out of the streams. The north can offer what the cities lost long ago. You take a deep breath, drink from the river, and you feel dizzy with delight. It’s likely that in the future Rovaniemi will become even more popular. That’s when a new type of tourism comes into fashion – fresh-air tourism.

The restaurant was enough for Kreta to make a living, but her teenage daughter’s love of horse riding forced her to change her business plans. Her daughter became such a good rider that her coach started to talk about medals and a bright future as a rider. But there was one condition: in order to improve, the girl had to have her own horse, and it had to be a good one. Although Kreta could offer the best elk in Finland, she couldn’t even dream about being able to afford a thoroughbred. Then she came up with a solution. She took out a loan and bought a horse ranch.

So now she has two businesses. One is preparing clean, delicious elk meat, and setting it out on tables covered with white tablecloths; the other has to do with the smell of horse manure. Her investment has paid off. Tourists and locals love to ride Kreta’s horses. She has twenty-five of them in her stables. Seventeen are hers, and the others she cares for. And each of the horses has a different nationality – the whole of the EU is represented there.

And the one for whom she bought the entire ranch grazes peacefully in a snowy pasture, snorting steam, with no idea how important he is. Even his name suits the Rovaniemi spirit: Polar.

Published 24 October 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 22.05.2004 (Lithuanian version); Eurozine (English version)

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


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