I was listening to a podcast about Lithuanian history and food culture just days before my relatively impromptu trip to Vilnius, the capital. The hosts devoted two episodes to the country. I remember thinking to myself in between sets at the gym (yeah, I go to the gym, no big deal), “I’m not really absorbing any of this.” There were lots of mentions about potatoes, potatoes, and some more potatoes. But the list of dishes in the Lithuanian language stumbled incoherently past my ears.
Of course as soon as I had that thought, one of the hosts mentioned something that did stick with me––a fellow by the name of Ragutis.
It’s the first sunny morning of my trip to Swedish Lapland. This time I’m with Inger, who’s driving me back to the Tornio River that etches out the border between Sweden and Finland. Her English is so-so, the kind where sometimes I ask “either or” type questions and she responds, “Yes, mhmm” without elaborating. Having struggled with languages myself, I know that move.
But she’s sweet, pulling over on the highway at one point to show me Instagram photos taken by, I want to say, a local photographer. As we near the Finnish border, she asks me if I’ve ever been to Finland. When I say that I have not, she makes the executive decision to drive me over the border and back around the next roundabout where you can see IKEA welcoming travelers into Sweden.
By all accounts in Liehittäjä, Sweden, sauna is as Finnish as it gets. But we were just 12 kilometers from the Tornio river border between Sweden and Finland––a border that’s relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Plus my sauna boss, Henry Huuva, grew up with a Finnish mother, though he more outwardly seems to embrace his Sámi heritage through his father. Sámi, too, have a sauna cultural tradition.
Perhaps that explains why Henry loves him some sauna––it’s embedded in him from two cultural touch points.
Roland picks me up outside of the Lapland View Lodge for the hour-long drive south to the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. All I know is we’re spending the day out on the water. But Roland enlightens me on his spiel during the ride.
Like most of us, Roland has a day job to pay the bills. But he’s building a side business––Storöns Fisk––where he takes tourists out to his childhood (and adult) stomping grounds along the archipelago islands he partly owns, which I did not know was a thing someone could do.
Arriving at the docks, there’s a small cabin that dates back to his great-grandfather. We head inside for a snack. It’s flat bread with butter, onions, and the local delicacy of Kalix Löjrom––roe from the Kalix river. It’s once-upon-a-time poor man’s food that now goes for 50-some euros for a small container, and it can only be called “Kalix Löjrom” if it’s truly from here, much like champagne needs to come from the Champagne region of France.
I try a few bites. It’s slightly salty with a bubbly texture. It feels like a million microscopic air bubbles are rolling against my tongue. Quite the contrast from the smoked reindeer meat of the Sámi I had a day earlier.
Roland is also selling herring out of publicly accessible fridge. It’s on the honor system. Just roll on by, open the fridge, take what you want, and pay through an app.
When you read “autonomous anarchist neighborhood,” you might imagine a place full of politically active individuals doing what they can to escape the claws of unfettered capitalism. You might also picture drums. Lots and lots of drums and circles.
I can’t tell you if you’re right or wrong. Because roughly 99 percent of visitors, based on my presumptuous calculations, don’t visit Freetown Christiana to stick it to the man or to slap some tightly pulled animal hide. They visit for the drugs, specifically pot and edibles.
Morally reputable man that I am, I of course am among the one percent who visited out of cultural curiosity. Melanie visited years earlier and had her own experience. It frankly didn’t occur to me to even visit until I awoke on Saturday morning and remembered that Freetown Christiana is a thing to do in Copenhagen.
A tram to a regional train to a plane to an intercity train to a regional train to an alpine train to a train replacement bus, and a cable car. So was our nearly 12-hour journey from Berlin to the Swiss alpine resort town of Verbier.
Back in Athens, our first time since just a week or so before the first COVID lockdown began in Germany. We spent about a week between the city, where we waddled our gluttonous selves across an Athens food tour, and Hydra. Now we’re back to take care of some unfinished business.
Athens is both a wake-up call and a shot of adrenaline. Cars and crotch rockets whip around skinny streets before the road suddenly turns into a pedestrianized zone. Not that I––a pedestrian with bones that don’t hold up well to getting bulldozed by metal––am complaining.