I’ve recently been setting Borders Writers’ Form’s third anthology, due for publication in late October/early November. With a theme of Scottish Borders and Beyond it has brought wonderful stories of journeys in amazing parts of the world dropping into my computer mailbox.
My own journeys have been the usual tourist travels in European and Scandinavian countries, though looking back on some of them perhaps a couple weren’t quite the norm. In Sweden one year we abandoned our accommodation in the south of the country and drove north to Lapland, to Jokkmokk in Sweden’s Norrbotten County, beyond the Arctic Circle.
In the dining area of our home hangs a certificate to prove we’ve crossed the Geografiska Polcirkeln into a land where the elements rule. On the drive up we marvelled at the trees. Trees everywhere, planted even on the smallest of islands in lakes. But the never-ending landscape of trees meant there were no vistas, no viewpoints where you could gawp at hills, lakes, grassland slithering towards a distant horizon. There were just trees, trees which changed subtly the further north we drove, which became more stunted, whose branches sloped more steeply to shed snow.
The area around Jokkmokk I remember as boggy, with few places to go unless you donned mountain survival gear and trekked for miles. Even in summer, the Arctic insists on lifestyles that fit with its own character. It was the end of June, just past midsummer and it was warm, the grasslands were bright with flowers and at two o’clock in the morning we were still dancing around outside, fascinated by the sun which had dipped for a few minutes below the horizon before rising again.
The Sami church was painted in reds, blues, greens and yellows; colour covered walls, ceiling, pews, every surface that could be enlivened to counter the unremitting dark and cold of long sunless winter months. Reindeer hogged the centre of roads, warm tarmac that made them lazy so they just stared reproachfully at those who wanted them to move so they could drive on. Eventually they shambled off, large hoofs swinging like ringing bells.
We visited an art exhibition by a painter renowned for the way he captured the Arctic light. We chatted with a woman who spoke English. She loved the Arctic winter, its cosiness inside by the blazing fire, the entertainment organised to boost spirits and encourage the continuance of traditional crafts, woodcarving, knitting, the making of belts and braids that decorated traditional dress and household furnishings. She had to admit, though, there were times when spirits plummeted and the dark smothered. Then, she said, you had to jump on a plane right away, and go to Stockholm to revel in bright lights and crowds.
What was possible in Lapland wasn’t possible in Albania when we visited in the 1960s. The country then was a far cry from what it is today, chosen as the No.1 destination in Lonely Planet‘s list of ten top countries to visit in 2011. We’d been staying in Budva when a country called Jugoslavia still existed. The border between Jugoslavia and Albania had just been opened and we were offered the opportunity of a bus trip to Shkodra, its second city. Our Jugoslav tour guide was clearly uncomfortable at crossing the border with its rutted roads, fearful even. ‘If you have something, anything that you should not take then please, please leave it in Jugoslavia. We do not mind. But if you take it into Albania I go to jail.’ Banned items were numerous and women had to wear respectable summer dresses.
Our Albanian tour guide on the other hand, was ebullient, a physics teacher directed to instructing tourists during this short border opening period. ‘You can photograph anything you like, my dears, anything you like.’ But as soon as cameras came out to snap bullet holes, or a clutch of new housing that had been bombarded, it was, ‘Time to go, time to go. All back on the bus, my dears.’ The streets we drove through were devoid of all but military vehicles, with a few ancient bicycles and farm carts. The food in their best hotel was dire, the place was black with bluebottles and flies and the staff were terrified out of their wits as they tried to hold back the envious glances at our Marks and Sparks cotton dresses and Instamatic cameras. Capitalists writ large!
A Chinese Wire factory was top of the list of tourist attractions, accompanied by red guards and various other security people who kept popping in and out of doors as we were shown round this ultra modern factory with its murals depicting workers with pitchforks and raised fists exhorting the masses to work even harder. Brandy was what we were told to bring back, Albanian brandy. It was bought from a shop with an earth floor, from the money we had been forced to change into Albanian Leks to buy drinks. At the border crossing zombie guards kept us baking on the bus in the midday sun for an hour whilst they searched inside and underneath. The brandy tasted of old fashioned varnish, looked like it too with its treacle brown colour, and we gifted it to a grateful hotel maid in Jugoslavia.
As we crossed the border back into Jugoslavia there was a palpable sense of tension draining away. The Jugoslav border guards were playing volleyball and waved and cheered as we drove past. Our Jugoslav tour guide obviously felt he had been reprieved from the gallows, and to celebrate took us to a former Partisan inn somewhere in the mountains where a wedding was in full swing and we were welcomed exuberantly as if our appearance guaranteed luck for the newly wed couple. There, sitting at long rustic tables, we ate and drank and were mesmerised by the merriment after the drawn Albanian faces.
That was some day!