My Scandinavia (V)

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. In part IV, he reached the edge of the Arctic Circle. But the North has a hypnotic effect, and in part five he now he presses on to Lake Inar and Christmas card heaven. Then it’s west into Norway and Sami territory… if only someone would tell him where the Sami are.

The journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi is not that exciting for those who enjoy staring out of train windows. The landscape is blocked by firs, pines, and birches. But moving north from the polar circle the view becomes more interesting. The north opens up like a huge flower, with its hills and hillocks, revealing fantastic spaces. Once in a while a northern elk crosses the road with a sad and lackadaisical look about him, totally unaware that his sudden arrival has caused the entire bus to shudder to a halt. The elk doesn’t even turn around and look. It just slowly crosses the road and returns to its forest, as though it’d come from a parallel universe. He’s on his own, so are you, it wasn’t even worth stopping for, meeting is impossible, you can only pass each other.

The north hypnotizes

Heading north, not only does the scenery change, but also the way people live. Now there are not only cars beside the houses, but snowmobiles as well. In some places you can even see dog sleighs. Each dog has its own personality and each barks, creating the impression of a dog metropolis. Outside larger towns, frozen rivers and lakes become roads. In some places there are even signs hammered into the ice, so that the police and insurance companies can see who was driving on the wrong side.

Occasionally, after passing through some town, expanses open up in front of you. You think that this is where civilization ends. But it doesn’t. A hundred kilometres later there’s another village, another town, or even a major tourist centre.

Northern Scandinavians have told me about how differently they understand distance. In the north, three hundred kilometres is “close”. A three-hundred-kilometre round-trip to have coffee with a friend is normal. You wouldn’t shock anyone if you asked for help or a place to stay the night. The severe climate has helped these people hold onto aspects of their humanity that in other parts of the world died out long ago. The familiar hurry doesn’t exist here. Things are done slowly but surely.

I remember the summer I spent as a student in Sweden’s north. I stayed at an international camp for ecological farmers not far from the town of Umeo. The objective was to allow us to get to know the landscape and to work with an ecological farmer, who turned out to be a real cheap skate and fed us expired and rotten food.

But that wasn’t important. When you’re twenty-one you can eat anything, even mud. Our international brigade worked at a variety of tasks: shepherding, building fences, and milking goats, sheep, and the only cow by hand. The farmer made organic cheese out of the milk. In a word, it was a farm in which everything was done by hand, without technology, without chemicals.

One day we loaded some of our sheep and goats into the horse trailer, attached it to the all-terrain vehicle, and left for the northwestern border with Norway. Our destination was a lake in the mountains near the town of Saxno. We arrived the following morning, having spent the night in a wooden hut in the mountains. The rest of the way we travelled by boat, which was full of the sheep and goats, the same ones we’d milked on the farm near Umeo. We brought them to an island in the middle of the lake and let them go. Then we travelled to the island next door and looked for the sheep and goats that had been released there half a year before in the early spring. At first we didn’t find them, but when we did we couldn’t get close. The animals had grown completely wild and were afraid of people.

And so, if you want to spend a quiet evening in the Scandinavian north on an island on a lake, don’t be surprised if you run into a goat, or a sheep, or even a cow or a horse. They are temporarily wild. They’ve been set free by an ecological farmer who lives three hundred miles away. That’s normal in the Scandinavian north.

At the time, the Umeo region was the true north for me, almost seven hundred kilometres north of Stockholm. But pushing further and further into Europe’s north, the very understanding of “north” changed for me. Whatever is behind you becomes south. The north hypnotizes you. You travel kilometre after kilometre, and it whispers to you: this isn’t the north yet, forward, the north is ahead, far away.

Eternal Christmas

A little before the northern Finnish town of Ival, where Christian Smeds plans to found Europe’s northernmost theatre, incredible sights begin. Big hills or small mountains, at the foot of which are cosy lakes. Snow-covered firs, in some places disturbed by herds of elk. As I travelled through I kept thinking to myself, “Where have I seen all this before?” And then I remembered: in Christmas cards. If I had a job shooting a Christmas card series, I could shoot without stopping. It’s Christmas card heaven.

A little beyond Ival is Lake Inar. The only larger lake in the world beyond Inar is the Taimyr Lake in the north of Siberia. And although the town of Inar, next to a lake of the same name, is in the Murmansk Plains, Europe still doesn’t end here. But my trip through the Finnish north ended here. I turned west, having decided to travel further north through Norway.

I entered Karasjok, a small town near the Finnish border, a little after dark. I was the only passenger on the bus. I was met in Karasjok by a young Dutch woman, Maike. The only question I asked her was what brought her here from the land of tulips and windmills. She answered, “Have you ever been to Holland? Have you seen how many people live there? There’s no room left.”

Maike arrived in the Norwegian north by accident. Her husband, a silversmith, found an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper, advertising that northern Norway needed people with his skills. Pretty soon Maike found a job as project manager for the Sami Centre for Arts in Karasjok. At the time of writing, the Dutch couple have no plans to move.

There really is enough space in Karasjok and its environs. This entire northern Norwegian region is called Finmark. At the Yalta Conference, the United States and Great Britain were ready to give Finmark to Stalin. Who knows what Finmark would have been called: FSSR – the Finmark Socialist Soviet Republic, or the Northern Norwegian Democratic Republic? However, at the last possible moment Stalin refused the gift. It seemed as though he’d remembered that the Soviet Union had plenty of northern territory. The battle-weary patriarch couldn’t be bothered with building more concentration camps and hunting down several million more political prisoners to fill up the sixteenth Soviet Republic.

Eighty percent of Karasjok’s population is Sami. The greater part of Sami territory is made up of Finnish Lapland, Swedish Lapland, and of course, Norwegian Finmark. The Sami refer to these three regions with one name: Sapmi. Sapmi has been around much longer than Scandinavian borders have. Yet today, strange as it may seem, the largest Sami populations are in Stockholm and Oslo.

Migrating people

In Karasjok I stayed at Randi’s house. Randi is a Norwegian teacher who also works at the local Sami Arts Centre. Of course, the first questions I asked her were about the Sami. Who are they, what are they like, and finally, where are they? Eighty percent of the population of Karasjok are Sami, but all I meet were Dutch and Norwegians. I was ready to ask for advice – where should I look for them? How do I approach them, and what sounds do I make to attract them?

Of course, I’m exaggerating. But I still felt a hidden need to meet this other culture. I spoke with Randi about the Sami; later our conversation was joined by Randi’s husband, Eilif. Some guests came over and they also had something to say about the Sami. They all talked about how the Sami did this or that and what they didn’t do. In a word, we discussed those mysterious Sami. Only, there weren’t any around. Not until I summoned my courage and asked Eilif, “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you a Sami?” As it turned out, not just Eilif, but all the guests were Sami. Out of five people who had been talking about the Sami using the third person plural, only Randi was a Norwegian, from the Lillehammer region.

The meeting between two civilizations never happened. I only found more Europeans, whose quality of life was far better than life in a Lithuanian province. Knowing that these people were Sami, I could say that their features were a little different than the average Norwegian – they looked more like a northern Russian tribe – and maybe they were a little shorter too. So that I could prove my point, I went to a pub in the town centre, ordered a pizza and a beer, and sat down and studied the faces of the young people around me. And I swear, I really couldn’t tell who was who in that bar. Who was Sami, who wasn’t? Sometimes it seemed that all without exception were Sami. Then I’d decide that none of them were Sami, and that the Sami gathered elsewhere.

It’s not surprising that in Lithuania no one knows anything about the Sami, or if they do, then just on the level of stereotypes. The Norwegians themselves, especially those from southern Norway, often know no better than the average Lithuanian what people it is that live in the far north of their long country. When Randi and her husband Eilif visited some of her relatives in the south, one of them asked Randi if her husband would like coffee with sugar and cream. Randi suggested that she ask him herself. The relative replied in disbelief, “He speaks Norwegian?”

The Sami speak Norwegian, but they’ve forgotten their own language. There’s a Sami actor in the Rovaniemi theatre. Pieta wanted to give him a part where he’d have to speak Sami. The actor apologized and said that he didn’t speak Sami. But he did promise to learn the necessary lines in Sami.

There are several Sami dialects, and they differ so much from each other that they’re almost like three separate languages. Often people who speak one Sami dialect can’t understand people speaking another Sami dialect. Then they have to speak either Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, or even English with each other.

The Sami rebirth took place only a few decades ago, when the Scandinavian governments began to pay more attention to this people. The Sami languages became the state languages in the north. Up until that point, life was not easy for the Sami. At one time they were persecuted and accused of shamanism and even threatened with the death penalty.

For a long time no one liked being a Sami. Many were ashamed of their nationalities. They became Norwegians, Finns, or Swedes. Many hide their ethnicity even today, making it almost impossible to tell how many Sami live in Scandinavia. However, their numbers are growing, it’s not a result of an increased birth rate, but because many are “returning to their roots”.

While I was herding goats on the organic farm, I ran into a type of music that hypnotized me. It was an old recording of Sami songs that we all rushed to tape for ourselves. While in Karasjoke I remembered one of the song’s melody and the refrain “gula, gula”. According to Eilif, these words mean, “listen, listen.” The songs are called “jojki”.

In reality, a “jojki” is not a song, but a musical portrait of a person, a tree, a mountain, or a river. For example, if I liked a girl I’d create a “jojki” for her; it would be the same as painting her portrait. Throughout history, the Sami were a peaceful people. The worst that you could expect from a Sami who you’d insulted was that he’d create a negative “jojki” about you. And that “jojki” would spread throughout Finmark and Lapland. All the Sapmi nations would be singing about what a bad person you were.

At a Swedish international theatre project I spent some time with a Sami named Osa. She’d been a “jojki” singer. Now Osa lives in Stockholm, but in the far north she has ten elks, which are cared for by one of her sons. She’d keep more of them, but the law won’t let her. Then it would be her main business. I asked, “Why keep only ten when you can’t live from that?” “You’re only a Sami as long as you have at least one elk,” Osa replied. If she didn’t have any elk, she’d automatically become a Swede. The bond between the Sami and the elk is very special and very deep. Well, Lithuanians are also very attached to their cows. But in this day and age, if every Lithuanian who didn’t have a cow was considered not to be a Lithuanian, our nation would be a wreck. The bond between the Lithuanian and his cow was and still is pragmatic; but the bond between the Sami and his elk is spiritual.

That’s why many of the residents of Karasjok still raise livestock. When the weather gets warm in Finmark, the majority of the Sami travel north to the Barents Sea. The trip takes a long time because they bring their elk with them. Along the way the Sami spend the night in their traditional tents. The next morning they’ll travel onwards. The reason for this annual migration is – mosquitoes. If they stayed in Karasjok together with their elks, they’d be plagued by the mosquitoes. That’s why a Sami always has two homes: a summer home and a winter home. The first is beside the sea; the second is at the very centre of the earth. It’s an interesting way of life, like that of migrating birds.

Published 31 October 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 29.05.2004 (Lithuanian version)

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


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