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In the Land of the Lapps

A short story by James Essinger written in 1982.

Between 1953 and 1959 I studied at the Institute of East Baltic Philology under the auspices of Dr Zoltan Turgidd, who can scarcely be unknown to you. He was my mentor and teacher, and I his sole pupil. The Lapp language constituted my main subject of study. Dr Turgidd also taught me to appreciate the great Lapp poet Olavi Wallalla. By 1959 I spoke Lappish fluently, and was familiar with all the important Lapp classics. Nor had I neglected to study the history of this fascinating peoples – I knew the story of the great Lapp migration of the ninth century and I also knew exact figures connected with the present distribution of the population.

After completing these arduous studies, I spent the following five years training as a doctor. My eventual intention was to go and live among the Lapps, and I was determined that, when I finally achieved this aim, I would be a useful member of Lapp society.

And so it was that in the winter of 1964 I prepared myself to make the long journey from my mother’s villa in Twickenham to the Lapp village of Rovalo, where a room had been booked for me in the local wimwaga (boarding-house). I packed my medical equipment and my treasured volumes of Wallalla, bought the necessary clothing, and obtained a passport. I took a sufficient, but not excessive, amount of money with me, for I had no intention of seeming ostentatious among the Lapps who, with reason, despise money and prefer to conduct business by bartering items such as reindeer skins and fish. I boarded my ship The Intrepid at Tilbury Docks. Dr Turgidd, now old and frail, was there to wave goodbye to me. As the boat steamed away he shouted ‘Lalaga!’ at the top of his failing voice. This is, of course, the Lappish for ‘Good luck!’ or, literally, ‘May the North Star shed a beneficial light upon you.’

I proceeded thus to Helsingfors where I disembarked with my trunk and caught a train north to Raggokka, the Lapp capital, with a population of 4,000. From there Rovalo, my chosen destination, lay a mere sleigh-ride distant. As I got off the train at Raggokka, I was scarcely able to conceal my excitement. Eleven years’ study, and the end in sight! I muttered a line from Wallalla’s poem ‘The Hunter’.

‘Lawala walaga gagaloll ek buko dom!’

(‘O darkness! Lead me to my quarry tonight!’)

I met no one at Taggokka except a young Englishman, clearly the worse for drink, who tried to tell me about a Lapp girl he had fallen in ‘love’ with. I have always disliked sentimentalists, and I left him well alone. I kept myself to myself during my two days at Taggokka which, being a capital, naturally bore no traces of the authentic Lapland that was waiting for me out there in the darkness.

The great morning came when I was to travel the last leg of my journey. I breakfasted early, and went to the road to meet the sleigh. I was somewhat perturbed to see that, instead of being drawn by a reindeer, a tractor was attached to the sleigh. I put this down to the fact that the Lapps consider reindeer to be sacred, and are loathe to let them near such decadent places as Raggokka.

There was little to see during the three-hour journey, since the tractor was spraying snow all around the windows of my small cab. The noise of the engine, moreover, was intolerable. I recited Wallalla to myself, in order to pass the time, but I have to admit that, in those circumstances, even the music of the great master failed to move me.

At last we reached Rovalo. The tractor drew to a halt, and I stepped out. All around was the darkness, the perpetual night of the Lapp winter. So here I was. Here in Rovalo, my journey was over. I dragged my trunk out of the cab, thanked the driver, and made for the first building I saw – a small wooden shack. There, I did not doubt, someone would be able to tell me the whereabouts of the wimwaga.

I pushed open the wooden door, finding myself in a low-ceilinged room that was completely unfurnished save for a long narrow table which stretched from one side of the room to the other. A young Lapp was standing by this table, drinking from a glass that I presumed contained berry juice. Happy to have such an opportunity of making contact with a local inhabitant, I went up to him and, in fluent Lappish, said: ‘How fare your reindeer at this snowy time?’

He turned to me, burped, and, in a mixture of Lappish and crude American English said, ‘What was that, man?’

Thinking I had made a grammatical error, I repeated my question slowly. The Lapp stared me in the face, puzzled, saying finally: ‘You sure talk real strange. Whaddya want – vodka or whisky?’

‘Neither,’ I said, decisively. (Clearly I had met a most untypical inhabitant of the village). I have travelled many a weary mile, and now I seen the wimwaga, and peace.’

At this the Lapp just laughed. ‘Whatya done – eaten a dictionary? But if it’s a hotel ya want, it’s on the other side of the street.’

‘Thank you’, I said hurriedly ‘I’ll be on my way’.

He stopped me, grabbing hold of my elbow. ‘Hey, any chance of lending me fifty marks? Been a bit down on my luck recently’.

I lent him the money, freed my elbow, and departed. The wimwaga was indeed close by. It was easily identifiable, there being a sign over the front door: HOTEL ROVALO. I went in.

The first thing I saw, after I passed through the door, was a young man prostrate on the carpet. My medical skills quickly told me that he was suffering from alcoholic poisoning. I succeeded in reviving him. When he was lying comfortably on one of the beds (there were no other guests in the hotel) he told me that he was the manager, and said: ‘So you’re from England?’

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘Woowee! Can you tell me about the Beatles?’

I informed him that I knew nothing of zoological matters.

Nobody in the village spoke Lappish properly, and no one had heard of Olavi Wallalla. Instead, the Lapps I met asked me questions about a young man called James Dean, and a young lady by the name of Marilyn Monroe. I was unable to help them with their enquiries.

Nowadays, however, such youthful illusions are no longer important to me. My mother died shortly after my return to Twickenham and I inherited the villa, with all that it contained. Here I have lived for the past eighteen years.

My only contact with the Lapps is in the letters I receive from Dr Turgidd’s son. We recently had a most interesting correspondence concerning the word ‘owall’. He maintains that I means ‘love’, but I am adamant that it is a term for a special kind of reindeer fat.

And so, on summer evenings, I order a dry Martini from my butler and stroll down to the river. My copy of Wallalla always accompanies me on these excursions. I read again my favourite poems, such as ‘The Traveller’ which ends with the lines:

‘Wammall llagakk bu kallakk,
Kakk ika lakakka?
Kakko lil llamal lik,
Grakka malaga mol mollokka’

(‘Why travel so far from your homeland, my boy,
Has the snow melted the sense in your mind?
Remain with your family, here by the lake,
Come fishing with us in the spring’)

And I sip my drink and look out over the Thames, flowing steadily, smoothly, devoid of illusion.