Under the North Star


Taala Pohjan tahden alla, on nyt kotomaame.

Under the North Star is your homeland.
Not mine, but yours. Your homeland. Kotomaamme.
A rich word, a rich world you share:
granite and birch, heavy rye porridge and Jukka’s freshly-smoked whitefish,
oil on our fingers.
This homeland a rich dish,
bedrock rolling to the sea.
Marja-Leena and Tuula doing yoga, the long day stretching with them into gold-red evening,
Matti’s quiet sauna wisdom and Liisa’s raiki helping
set tables settled stomachs, well-fed for bed
heavy snacks, bone-tired to the bone,
16 CDs, say Anneli and Mirja.
But there must have been a hundred hugs:
old friends, neighbors, family coming from miles.
This land, a reunion, like the smiles,
dense as the egg on our Karjalan Piirakka.

Mo mo mi mo mi mo ma.
You Finns. You sing, you sauna, you laugh (more than Swedes!) you dance,
Summer’s chance, a precious balance,
Each bringing something: smile like Tuulikki, sing like Tanya,
Niilo listening with tears, Paul’s quiet humour, Helen tracing our journey,
Eila hugs, Kristiina quietly joining in, Dianne so happy to speak French,
Hans’s shoes. We lose inhibitions, learn our tunes.
Dominic, Suomi-fanni, plays spoons
while Erkki jumps from magnificent aria,
to tux-free, bare-bellied accordion prance.
And down the bus aisle Marja and I dance as Markku answers his phone,
finding our next home, the women tapping their sternums.

Times taught tight as the chords of Siipeni Murtuneet.
From the piano our director’s outstretched arm directing, resurrecting, confecting harmony,
the one “we” Terhi brings from so many individuals,
the details, schedules, worries forgotten.
Heal our broken wings, we sing.
And don’t forget, she adds, bending at the waist to show us,
fingers plucking her hair as she straightens: Sing from your heart.
And up from the top of your head.

In two months this bay will be ice all the way to Sweden.
But for now it’s the sea, and the rock, the lingon-berries Ismo and Eeva-Liisa, Seija and Marjatta
bend to pick.
Three miles to the Russian border, says Pirkko. This is my home.
And we, these late summer sunshine days, happy pilgrims under Leo’s care across the land of the north star.
Taala Pohjan tahden alla, on nyt kotomaame.
The same North Star, Vaasudbury, Alskat Hemmontreal, Turkkubellingham.
Our home both here and there. Split citizens. Homeward bound, but which direction?
Meren tuolla puolen toisen kodon saamme. This is also true.

Taala on kuin kukkasella
aika lyhyt meilla.
Then comes the day. The final chords, the binders closed, the last programs handed out.
No more dressing in washrooms. We make our way. Away.
But wasn’t it just yesterday
we shook hands in Vaasa?
Now hugs, hands held, a tear, a sigh.
Sometimes if you can’t say what you feel,
You can still sing it.
Sama taivas sama maa. The same north star, wherever you roam.
This is your land. Not mine.
But I almost felt at home.

with Liisa


The Phantom Bomber

starting out

Where the long, hot, dusty path finally drops out of the Cheviot Hills into the town of Wooler, Northumberland , every B&B and hotel room is booked. Eventually I manage to get hold of someone at the Youth Hostel. A voice on the other end of the phone answers my by-then desperate plea: “Sure, we have a place.” As if it were a silly question to ask. My room is spartan but fine, and there’s a shower at the end of the hall.

Being a youth hostel, I expected youth. But in the morning I find myself at table with an English man and a Scottish woman of at least my age. Although separated by the length of the table, they are already deep in conversation when I sit, perhaps not wisely, in the middle.

There is a small map on the table between them. The Pennine Way starts here, declares the man, pointing to it. I know; I’ve walked it. You’ve walked some path, corrects the woman. But it wasn’t the Pennine Way. That starts here. She jabs her finger on another spot. I try to find a place for my tea that is not on the disputed piece of paper. Well, I know what I walked says the Englishman. You’re wrong, answers the Scot, and they both lapse into what to me would be charged, but seems to them to be a comfortable, silence. I wonder if they’re a couple.

Edinburgh is a lovely city I volunteer. I was there in 2006. Loved the old town. The Scot answers back crisply. It’s nice to look at. But I grew up there and I’d never move back. They all ask what schools you’ve been to. As if that’s what’s important. First thing they want to know. It’s not a pretty place. She shakes her head as if to rid her mind of some memory. Dark local sandstone, pipes up the English man from his end of the table. That’s what makes Scottish buildings ugly. Northumberland too, he adds after a pause, with a nod to her.

When the Englishman finds out I’m walking the St. Cuthbert Way to study walking pilgrimages, a discussion ensues on the decline of long-distance trail-walking in England. Foot and mouth disease, he pronounces. That’s what killed it. Ever since then the trails are less busy. And the hostel movement has suffered too. The Scot nods. Yes, foot and mouth. It’s a pity. We need the social movement of hostels more than ever in this world.

This world, the Englishman repeats, with feeling. As if that says it all.

I tell them about the World War II vintage bomber that surprised me in the hills, coming up out of nowhere and then gone again as I struggled to pull out my camera. Was that the ghost bomber, asks the Scot? There’s silence for about 30 seconds while I try to digest the question. Umm. It was real enough, I say finally. Loud and low. Just not what I was expecting, you know, in a long day of walking by myself. Oh yes, those low flying fighters, says the Englishman, looking up from his book. They’re over you before you even hear the sound. Scares the hell out of the wildlife. No, I heard this one, I insist. The fighters – I’ve seen those too, the last couple days. RAF. This was different. Some hobby pilot I guess. It was an old prop plane. It came around the hill and banked right above me. By the time I got my camera it had flown over the next hill. It was beautiful.

The ghost bomber repeats the Scot. I was in the Cheviots, the summer before last, and I saw it then. Passed right over me, low. I never heard a thing. Just saw it. That’s when I knew it was a ghost.

The Englishman looks down at his tea and says nothing. I start thinking about the trail ahead. Can you pass the marmalade, I ask?

east hill


Speed Dating Riga


monumental monuments
Trying to see a city in four hours feels a bit like speed-dating: you’ll hear a story, you’ll get an impression, but it’s not enough on which to build a relationship. The cheapest ticket north from Frankfurt to Stockholm is an Air Baltic flight that sticks me in Latvia’s capital for a layover too long to sit and do nothing and too short for a real, proper visit. Where some might find that annoying, I’ve never been to Riga. A quick run in seems the least I can do.

Fortunately, the airport is small. The pretty woman in blue at the city information desk is incredibly friendly and helpful. Yes, I can take a taxi, it’s right over there. But why do that when the city bus is almost as fast and costs one-thirtieth the amount? I don’t want to change money for four hours, so I charge the equivalent of one euro for two bus tickets. It leaves over there, from the other side of the parking lot, she points, handing me a card. In two minutes. You’ll have to hurry. I run out the door and into cool straw-yellow Baltic sunshine, me and my backpack bouncing the 100 meters or so to the waiting bus.

I’m in my seat, still breathing heavy, when I hear someone calling me. “Sir? Sir?” Coming down the bus aisle is the same woman in the blue uniform. Sir, she says, smiling, I forgot to give you your second pass. Here it is. She has run the whole distance behind me, in stilettos, to give me a ticket worth 50 cents.

Bus #22 is half-full. Young men in sunglasses, clearly airport workers off-shift, polished leather shoes and pressed shirts, lean against the windows of the bus with their eyes closed and ear buds in. Small old men sit in suits that seemed as grey as their skin, while several elderly women in shapeless but colourful shift dresses peer into each other’s huge paper bags and chortle in a language impossible to understand. Hipster couples, the men in shorts with deck shoes, the women in red pants with v-necked sweaters, hold swaying baby-carriages in place. Beside me sits a pair that look for all the world like some younger, Baltic version of Brangelina. He a rougher Brad Pitt in a white tee-shirt, and behind her sunglasses, high heels and fur-lined vest, hers an adolescent Angelina smile. We pass by gaunt old concrete apartment buildings, interspersed with modern concrete homes. Occasionally there is an old framed cottage, the wood grey with age, fading paint and single-pane glass, old flowerboxes gone to colourful riot.

At the next stop three men who appear to be in their late twenties step on to my section. They move together, a unit of something that seems, from the reactions of the other passengers, foreign. One of them, bare-chested under an open Adidas jacket, turns on music as soon as they sit down. 60s style Russian, or maybe Ukrainian or one of the Republics, the singer’s voice floating over the seats. The old women stop talking and turn to stare. The three men seem oblivious, talking loudly, looking only at each other. When the Brangelina couple leave the bus, the woman gets caught in the doorway a second, her one high-heeled leg stuck for a second on the inside of the bus the occasion for great hilarity from the Russians.

Where the bus drops me it’s only a few steps to the old town. A group of pre-schoolers, all dressed in bright tee-shirts, straggle at the hip level of their monitor as they pass under a giant statue of two officers in greatcoats and caps, back to back, looking out over the river. The squares are full of people. A Mexican ship is in port: small clean-cut men, their skin olive against the bleached white of impeccable uniforms, carry cameras on their belts and examine the wares of the street sellers. The products are typically Baltic: carved wood, bright, intricate knitted goods, and amber in every possible shape and setting. I’m trapped at one of the tables in front of a statue of the Bremen town musicians. The woman managing the stall seems as excited for a chance to practice her English as to show off the wares, which are beautiful, but exactly the same as at the next table. Further down I notice traditional wooden Russian dolls painted with European soccer players. In one of the shops I come across unique and exquisite ceramic houses like some that I saw coming into town. I’d like one, but where would I put it?

The churches are quiet and simple. I take photos of some of the art deco ornamentation that graces the buildings. The statues and monumental reliefs are…. well, monumental. These are twentieth century work. Big-shouldered men in army uniforms and helmets, carrying rifles. Big shouldered, bare-breasted women, carrying heavy loads. There is another giant statue at the opposite edge of the old city, titled “Freedom”. On top of a granite column high above the street, the two-storey, stylized figure of a woman in a robe thrusts three golden stars up to the heavens. Perhaps it was called “Progress”, I think. Later on I walk by a small triangular shrine, quite different from the monuments, simply titled “1991 Barikades”. There are fresh flowers on it. Here and there I see testimonies of struggle, pocketed between coffee shops and western fast-food franchises. But I’m like a half-deaf man trying to hear a conversation about a subject I don’t recognize.

A tram passes. I think that its compact size, clean lines and wrap-around windows make it look retro, like something from the 1950s, and then realize that it probably is a piece of equipment still in use from then. On the street nearby, a group of women laugh and talk to each other in Latvian as they take turns releasing arrows at an archery range.

I’ve just enough time for something to eat before going back to the airport. There’s an old convent across from the street sellers, converted to a restaurant called “Domini Canes”. I take that as a sign and sit down. The waitress brings me a bowl of ginger-lamb-lentil soup. The presentation looks like something from a flight magazine: trickles of balsamic reduction on the four corners of a large white bowl, traced with herbs and flowers. For a second I could be in Paris or London, Toronto or New York or Hong Kong. Then I take a bite of the bread. It’s thick and brown and heavy, tasting of molasses, spread thick with butter and garlic, and says only one thing: there’s nowhere quite like Riga.




Going Nowhere Fast

Blake's pilgrim sketch

By about 2 pm on the first day of walking through the Scottish Borders it was becoming clear I’d been wrong imagining the dots on my map to be quant Scots villages full of local eccentrics, well-crafted beer and heavy, happy northern food. The two areas of settlement I’d passed were small clusters of squat and shuttered houses, grey sandstone window frames, darkened slate roofs and doorways offering no welcome. They were perhaps bedroom communities for Edinburgh. Whatever they were, they were barely inhabited: there would be no conversation of any sort, quaint or otherwise. Likewise no cafe or store to pick up lunch.

Long-distance walking into unknown or lesser-known territory means reaching a series of decisions without full information. You expect to make some mistakes, and hope they’re neither major nor cumulative. You trust to luck and the kindness of others, if others happen by. Going a bit hungry your first day isn’t the worst that can happen – by far – although in that moment my stomach didn’t necessarily agree.

What was worrying was that it was already the middle of the afternoon, and my guidebook told me I had 15 or so kilometers still to walk before arriving at a closed tourist centre from which I might, if everything worked, be able to contact a ride to come pick me up for my hostel. All of which probably meant a very late meal indeed, should there be anything to be purchased at all by the time I got there. In the bottom of my pack I found the broken remains of a two-day old baguette given to me in London, and some packaged cheese I had forgotten to throw out. The cheese was long past sweating, but my hunger convinced me it might still be okay despite hours in the heat.

Dryburgh Abbey was further off the route than I had expected, a set of foundation stones and half-walls all that remains of an important medieval structure. The detour had already cost me a couple of kilometers and an hour or so and my feet, unhappy with asphalt, needed liberation from the boots. So I took them off, set my socks in the sun and stretched out my toes.

Where we choose to sit and eat can say a lot about us. There was a bench on the grass beside a very low stone wall with a plaque that read “transept side altar”. Barefoot before the altar, feeling the grass between my toes, squinting at where the monks would have filed out from their dormitory to perform the first office of the day, I felt more at home than I had in days. The river Tweed flowing slowly by, the sweat-sweet wetness of my tee-shirt drying on my back in the yellow sun, my stomach happy for, literally, crumbs: part of the joy of walking pilgrimage is the re-sizing of what is needed in life. Even home is re-defined, a sacred flagstone to sit my plastic bag on, in that moment, was enough.

Maybe it has always been so, but it seems to me that the starting point for modern Euro-North American pilgrimage is almost never a sacred destination. The starting point is somewhere and everywhere along the unfamiliar trail, in the awkward freedom of being able to go left or right and not knowing exactly which is best or how long to tarry, in the slowness of footfalls in a motorized world, and in the unfamiliar Google-free uncertainty of a path where the next way-sign might be knocked down or misleading and the next person encountered might forever remain a stranger or perhaps become a dear companion. The world shrinks and expands at the same time: we smell the greenness in whole fields of clover, feel each raindrop in a translucent summer shower, and curse the nail clippers we forgot to put in the Velcro pouch under the flap of our bags, or the single black seed pod that, rolling beneath the sock, turns to a blister on our foot. I ate in a hurry, packed up and walked quickly back over the bridge, striding back onto the path.

One of Blake’s drawings shows a pilgrim striding purposefully forward, walking stick in hand, much as I was walking toward my unknown future. At Blake’s destination awaits a monster, Death, whose maw is the final destination of no escape.

What if he is right?

I was not bereft; anyone who has a Visa card and money in their wallet, a mobile phone and a road nearby is never truly in danger. But I’m more and more convinced from my own experience and from talking to others that there is something in the practice of smallness and absence that is part of the appeal of modern walking pilgrimage. Something very powerful happens in practicing the stripping off of the layers of who we are and what we own. Maybe it simply gives us the chance to see what might be there, in us, at the nub.

In the last pages of Tomas Espedal’s ode to a vagrant life, “Tramp”, after all the poetry and late nights, the alcohol and the sex, the solitude, the philosophy and the history, he writes these words: “the path takes off to the right, through a wood, you cross an electric fence and suddenly find yourself in a clearing, you have to stop; I am brought to a halt by the sudden, soft light and the stillness.”

Maybe, I hope, that is what it might be, at the nub. That would be a nowhere to walk to, fast.

walking to Holy Island