THE MORNING AFTER the morning before, when all feelings of fear and self-loathing had virtually dissipated into the thinness of the Arctic air, I felt almost alive again. Just a few dusty cobwebs of half-remembered doubt lingered at the frayed edges of my mind. Nothing a couple of beers couldn’t fix. But that wasn’t the path I’d chosen. Abstinence was the way to go from now on.
I rose early to tiptoe timidly about my hostel room in socked feet, collecting the clothes I’d strewn about the floor in my desperation to get between the sheets the previous evening. The ancient pine floorboards issued hardly a squeak or creak. I needed to reassure my fellow hostellers I was just as normal as everybody else, and that I only occasionally strayed from the path of good hostelling. And what better way of appearing perfectly normal than starting the day with a nice cup of tea in typical English fashion. Well, better than tumbling downstairs while slugging from a bottle of scotch, at any rate.
On reaching the communal dayroom-cum-kitchen below, I found I was alone. First up, this time. Beyond the hostel windows, the belfry of the white-painted, timber, church stood shrouded in the mist I would soon come to recognise as a regular feature of Værøy’s weather. Knowing what it was like to wake up with a belfry shrouded in mist, I empathised.
There are mornings being first out of bed and sober imbues a feeling of undeserved virtuousness in those accustomed to waking with a hangover. Due to it being the morning after the morning before this was one such. The feeling has its roots in the stern Anglican schooling I’d endured during last century, when bathing in hot water was almost regarded as a cardinal sin, and displaying the slightest degree of self-indulgence was severely frowned upon. Corporal punishment was dished out on a regular basis, needing only the slightest excuse. Guilt trailed me like an abandoned puppy. Though it wasn’t part of the history curriculum, I came to believe the British Empire had been founded on child abuse and sexual deviation.
My solitary sense of virtue was not to last long. Ann-Ulrika, the Swedish hosteller, rose soon after to share it. A Lutheran by the cut of her jib. My mother was a lapsed Lutheran. But then she believed in trolls. Not in worshipping them, I hasten to add.
As on our previous encounter, Ann-Ulrika immediately began chattering the morning away in Swedish. With her black hair cut in an efficiently short, boyish style, and her wire-rimmed glasses, she looked like a modern, loving grandmother some careless family had misplaced on a small island faraway from anywhere. The impression wasn’t so far from the truth. Somewhere in her mid-fifties, it was obvious she enjoyed company and spoke to me as if we’d known each other for years. Like my cup of tea she was just what I needed: reliable, safe and comforting. Some poor souls, somewhere, had to be missing her.
My Norwegian is far from fluent, and although Swedish is similar it isn’t the same. As a result there were times I had no idea what she was rattling on about. Nevertheless, I nodded my head at what I thought were the right places. To give myself credit I think I did a pretty good job of giving the impression I got the general gist of where she was going. And it seemed a pity to interrupt, seeing she was motoring along so nicely.
An interesting feature to hostelling is how complete strangers are prepared to pour out their life histories within a very short time of meeting, however reluctant you might be to listen. But Ann Ulrika’s life was interesting enough.
It turned out she had a sense of adventure. Having worked as a photographer for IKEA in the south of Sweden for many years, she finally succumbed to a sudden yearning for change. Once she discovered Værøy she could think of nowhere she’d rather spend her holidays. Apart from relaxing and meeting the constant trickle of backpackers, trekkers and tourists passing through on their way to other destinations, she spent much of her time painting watercolours and taking photos of the island. I learned she was wary of air travel, and made the long journey north by train.
Though not always possible, I love travelling long journeys by train. I once boarded the night train from Istanbul to buy some tribal rugs and kilims in the East Anatolian town of Malatya. Not far from where the rivers Euphrates and Tigris almost meet, Malatya lies at the north of the region that is known as the cradle of civilisation, as well as the point Turkey begins to give way to Kurdistan.
Probably the slowest train I’ve ever been on, not long after morning had broken I watched a huge Kurdish Kangal dog run so fast it almost caught up, as the train wound its way across an endless series of plateaux punctuated by mountain ranges. It is said the German engineers, who laid the railway, put unnecessary curves in to make more money, as they were paid by the length of track.
By morning the toilet cabins were awash with barely diluted urine and there was still a long way to go. Short stops were made at stations in the middle of nowhere. At each stop crowds would disembark to rush to small wooden kiosks selling food and drink. The train supplied nothing but small glasses of tea first thing in the morning. Some passengers took the opportunity to relieve themselves in platform toilets, presumably not swilling with quite so much urine. I remember at least one getting left behind as the train pulled out, because he couldn’t run as fast as a Kangal dog, some of which can reach speeds of up to 30mph, especially as his trousers began falling about his ankles.
The more Ann-Ulrika spoke the more I became accustomed to Swedish. So much, I began to worry I might end up speaking more Swedish than Norwegian, and emerge with a new tongue that was a mongrel combination of both. She told me her hometown of Älmhult lies in the province of Småland situated in a rocky, sparsely-populated region in the South of Sweden. On hearing of my fishing adventures in Stamsund while staying at the best hostel in the world, she told me she’d been trying to persuade one of the local fishermen to take her out fishing, and perhaps I’d like to join them. I nodded I would, at the same time as thinking I might not.
The following year, I spent a few weeks with Ann-Ulrika in Älmhult. As I’d surmised on Værøy she had been more or less abandoned. A couple of years before, her husband had just upped and left her for another woman. She hadn’t even known he was seeing anyone else. Tears welled in her eyes as she told me. They had a son and daughter with grandchildren living in Malmö. Both worried about her living alone. One day she showed me a black and white photo of a school trip to Scotland she went on many years before. She stood out as a beautiful, smiling teenager typical of the 1960s, the only one of her class with dark hair.
Everywhere has its oddities. Things scarcely believable but true. In an amazing coincidence of history, two of the municipality of Älmhult’s sons, who went on to have incredible impacts on the world, were born just a few miles from each other, though admittedly, separated by a couple of centuries.
Born into a peasant family, Carl Linnaeus arrived in this world on 23rd May 1707 in Råshult, a tiny village near Älmhult. The first child of Nils Ingemarsson Linnaeus and Christina Brodersonia, right from the start, the boy showed an interest in flowers. His parents used to pacify him with them whenever he became upset. Nils Ingemarsson Linnaeus, came from a long line of Lutheran ministers. Despite being taught Latin, history and geography from an early age by his father, the young Carl had an unpromising start in formal education. It wasn’t until he reached the age of fifteen, after he’d been sent to the Lower Grammar School at Växjö, things began to change. Though he showed little interest in attending classes, some days skipping school altogether, his headmaster Daniel Lannerus spotted the keen interest in botany they shared. So he set him to work in his garden.
Linnaeus was already 21 by the time he enrolled at Lund University in Skåne under the Latin form of his name, Carolus Linnæus. The following year, he started at Uppsala, Sweden’s oldest university founded in 1477. It was during the winter of 1730 Linnaeus, began to doubt French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort‘s system for plant classification and began work on his own.
Linnæus’ system went on to be recognised and adopted worldwide, resulting in him becoming the most famous botanist in history. Accolades for his work poured in with the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sending him the message: “Tell him I know no greater man on earth.”
Just over two hundred years later, on March 30th 1926 Ingvar Kamprad was born in Pjätteryd, hardly a stone’s throw away from Råshult, as the crow flies, to mix metaphors alarmingly. Not only was the village also in the in the municipality of Älmhult but, amazingly enough, his father also practised as a preacher.
Raised on the family farm called Älmtaryd near the hamlet of Agunnaryd, Ingvar developed an early nose for business by cycling round the neighbourhood selling matches. Within a few years he was taking orders for fish, Christmas decorations and seeds. A little later he began selling ballpoint pens and pencils from a market stall. By the time he was 17 he’d founded IKEA at his uncle Ernst’s kitchen table to mainly sell by mail order. The first IKEA store in the world was opened next to the railway station in Älmhult in 1958. Within a few decades Kamprad went on to become the richest shopkeeper the world has ever seen, with 349 stores carrying the IKEA name in 43 countries at the last count. Must be something in the air of the municipality. Or perhaps it’s the sermons. During WW2 Ingvar was a Nazi sympathiser, something he went on to say was the worst mistake of his life. The Swedish secret services already had a file listing him as a Nazi as early as 1943. Then again he was still an impressionable teenager at the time whose paternal grandfather was German.
The young Austrian couple to woke and made their way to the kitchen for coffee. Though they’d arrived just the day before the morning after, they were leaving on the evening ferry to Bodø.
In their 20s, the male half of the couple was studying to be a doctor. They spent most of the of the day in impatient waiting mode, as they were leaving on the evening ferry. Their continual going back and forth from the hostel to look round the tiny island made it difficult for me to work. After all, there wasn’t that much to see. They would pop in an out as regularly as a cuckoo clock on amphetamines. The young intern talked to me each time they returned to eat, or pack, or just to chat. He was interested in English attitudes towards the EU, and English attitudes to Austria. English attitudes to anything, for that matter, as though I could speak for the entire nation. I got the slight suspicion he didn’t really like the English so much. Or maybe he was just filling in time at my expense. The Brazilian, Roberto, was much more relaxed. He had been in marketing for Coca-Cola before he decided to take a year out travelling. He explained he was hoping for a job in the travel business on his return to Brazil.
After snatching a few minutes here, and a few minutes there, at my laptop, I gave up and walked to the only food shop on the island, the little supermarket. It was a chance to stretch my legs and get more of a look at the village while stocking up on a few supplies. A little caféteria inside tempted me to a leisurely coffee and another chance to observe the islanders. The few locals present displayed the indifference I was going to have to get used to if I wanted to stay for any length of time. I could see it might become a bit of a challenge. On the other hand, I’d come to Værøy to lead the solitary life of a writer. Meeting people and making friends would get in the way of that, as I was already discovering at the hostel. If I was to stay I would have to search out separate accommodation of my own.
As evening drew close, the sky began to clear, and the sun broke through. It was a beautiful night. A mist drifting slowly over the mountain tops appeared as a wide waterfall caught in slow motion, as it tumbled lazily towards the village, seeming to evaporate by the time it got halfway down.
Finally, fully packed and ready to go, the Austrian couple left early to ensure their car got a good place in the queue for the ferry. Despite being offered a lift, Roberto decided to walk. Too rare an evening to stay indoors, I accompanied him on one of the hostel bikes. We said our goodbyes as he boarded.
On the way back to the hostel, despite my morning vow, I couldn’t resist stopping off at the pub. It was the barmaid’s night off and the owner was serving at thebar. Most of his time was spent in the kitchen pre-cooking meals to be heated up later. The redhead with the hangover I’d met I met on the ferry to Røst was sitting at a table. She appeared not to recognise me, and may have been suffering from yet another hangover. After a couple of beers I left. Perhaps if I stayed on Værøy much longer I’d hardly recognise myself. Maybe that’s what was needed.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming