Island

Stockholm archipelago 2017. Photo by Jenny Zarins
Stockholm archipelago 2017. Photo by Jenny Zarins

Neverland is always more or less an island. On it beasts, mermaids, Red Indians, pirates and Lost Boys live next to each other but not together. The leader of the island is the boy who wouldn’t grow up, who no one is allowed to touch. Isolated in time and connection, Peter Pan is the Neverland.

Gotland is Sweden’s largest island, and Latvia’s closest non-land border foreign neighbour. When my grandparents fled Latvia in 1944, it was to Gotland they steered their prow. They were initiated to Swedishness through island life; cut off but self-sufficient. In a country where economic independence and social isolation are the norm, this was a valuable life skill. Gotland was also the filming location for the 1960’s TV series of Pippi Longstocking.

When I was little, my parents had a small sailing boat we would spend spring weekends and summer weeks on. We went between the islands and the mainland, and spent as many nights as supplies would allow in empty bays, moored up to rock faces and trees in natural harbours. My sister’s and my lips were blue from swimming in the cold sea and from eating wild blueberries in the forests. In the evenings, we played cards and our parents read aloud from Pippi Longstocking and the Moomin books. I loved the uninhabited islands that I could run around the entirety of without stopping to catch my breath. Or the ones with a hill as its heart and I could see the whole archipelago around me; the sky, the water, and the other islands dotted here and there. There were islands under the water as well: shallows and rocks that cannot be seen, and are potentially dangerous to passing boats, are islands that haven’t yet risen above the waterline. They’re all connected under the surface.

Jessi and Cissi, sailing holiday 1994. Photo by Peter Zarins
Jessi and Cissi, sailing holiday 1994. Photo by Peter Zarins

We often met other people and families, chatted to them, maybe played with the children or exchanged weather reports. But a boat is a good way to ensure your privacy and keep disturbances and other people at bay. It is easy, even necessary, not to stay too long in the same spot, and not become too attached to one place. Maybe that’s why many Swedish people like it.

The culture of independence is strong there, and isolation is common in different forms. Individuality is encouraged within families, and each family unit or friend group tends to be important, and difficult for newcomers to penetrate. At least this is what I found growing up there. I became really good at being on my own. Not having many friends at school helped. The young me wanted to be like Pippi Longstocking, the girl with a trunk full of gold, supernaturally strong, lives alone, and refuses to grow up (but if she has to she wants to be a pirate). I did my best to not be like the other kids, and felt strengthened by the fact that I wasn’t. Like Pippi, I was different. I was half Latvian, and had no intention of staying in strangers’ country.

As soon as I finished school I left for Britain, the island kingdom. I began in a wealthy suburb southwest of London, before exchanging it for something more urban. I had always felt drawn to the UK, with its rolling hills, cliff-edged coast, metropolitan cities and historic culture and heritage. My admiration for Pippi was taken over by a fascination for Peter Pan, the ultimate solo eternal child. For almost ten years I lived in London, never wanting to leave. But a referendum on the country’s future, on whether to remain amongst friends or leave to be on its own, created an atmosphere where I didn’t feel very welcome anymore. The island attitude I had always admired became uncomfortable.

Hoping to strengthen the bond that had meant so much to me in my teenage years, I spent two weeks before the vote in Latvia. I wanted to see the place where my ancestors had lived, and write about the journey they undertook to Sweden. I spent almost the whole time by myself. It felt sad not to share it with someone, but empowering to know I didn’t have to. As I walked and pondered, and took pictures of the buildings in Riga, the coast of Kurzeme and the vast forests of Vidzeme, I wondered about this aloneness. One of the reasons I had gone was to feel connected to this place and with these people. Instead I isolated, and travelled as deep within myself as I did around the country. The sense of home and belonging I had searched for remained to be found.

Lacanian child’s psychology tells us that growing up is to realise that you are alone. A baby’s understanding that they are autonomous from their mother is the first step to consciousness, personality and ultimately adulthood. Peter Pan also experiences this. As a baby, he left his mother and flew to Kensington Gardens to be with the fairies. When he returned he found the window to the nursery closed and that another little boy had taken his place in the cot, and in his mother’s heart. This is when Peter went to Neverland. To grow up, then, is to be an island.

In J. M. Barrie’s original play, there is a stage direction that says that none of the other characters ever touches Peter Pan. And although he is very much at the centre of the island, he is also always on the perimeter of what everyone else is doing. He is the leader of but not part of the Lost Boys; he is an honorary member of the Piccaninny tribe; he is the enemy of the pirates; and although he flies and speaks with the fairies and birds, he is not one of them. Similarly, after all the Lost Boys are adopted by the Darlings and grow up, when the fairies have lived out their short lives, and the pirates have sailed on, Peter remains alone on Neverland. So contrary to Jacques Lacan, James Barrie shows us that to never grow up is to be alone, to be an island.

Peter Pan outside the nursery window. Illustration from 1921 edition of 'Peter and Wendy' by Mabel Lucie Atwell
Peter Pan outside the nursery window. Illustration from 1921 edition of ‘Peter and Wendy’ by Mabel Lucie Atwell

Many parts of Latvia felt untouched by the twenty-first century. In villages and towns I got a sense that people still live alongside the seasons and the daylight, and that Nature has an important presence.  I loved that the life of the landscape seemed to shape the lives of its inhabitants. The juxtaposition of the dry cold of winter white and abundant ripeness of summer green, resembles the protective politeness and proud generosity in Latvian people. It’s a generalisation of course, which are always unfair, but I do believe that climate and landscape influence the prevailing culture in a country or region. In the same way that the hot climate of Southern Europe comes out in peoples’ temperament, the grandeur of North America in its citizens, and the undramatic landscape and harsh wind and rain of the British isles can be noticed in people’s retentive toughness. Similarly, Peter Pan and Neverland are alike; extravagant, full of adventure and mischief, never to be trusted.

And the landscape that created me, was the island world I sailed in as a child. That was the strongest thing I learnt about myself that summer before the referendum, that Latvia might be where my roots are, Britain may be where I have branched out to, but what I grew out of is Sweden. My aloneness isn’t Peter Pan’s, one stemming from an inability to connect and grow up. It’s more like Pippi Longstocking’s; the self-sufficient, physically and emotionally strong girl who resists and questions authority, and reality itself with her compulsive lying and make-belief games. The girl who wants to and can look after herself, who we watch in the final scene of the TV series through a window: alone, staring into a candle, happily at peace in her own company. The culture and landscape of freedom that created Pippi, that also created me. That was also what brought my grandparents across the Baltic Sea from Latvia to Gotland one night in 1944: the will to be free.

It was John Donne wrote that no man is an island, entirely of themselves, and I think he was right. But I also think people become the landscapes that made them. Thus, I am like an island from Sweden’s eastern archipelago; seemingly alone in a cold sea, but connected under the water to islands similar to myself. Like Pippi Longstocking, rather than Peter Pan.

Jessi and Pappa, sailing holiday 1992. Photo by Peter Zarins
Jessi and Pappa, sailing holiday 1992. Photo by Peter Zarins

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