By Jac Dowling
Funny how things just happen. Here’s me wondering what on earth I should write about this month – follow up on the river saga, hack on about He Who Must Fall? Then, voila, something totally different pops up. In the form of Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano cencerto and Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘. What have they in common? Nothing much as far as I know, except for the deep romance evoked by both music and plot. And what have I to do with either for goodness’ sake? More with Kundera than Rachmaninov as it turns out.
In 1960 something, five of us headed off to Swedish Lapland in a camper van for a chilly and extremely interesting voyage of discovery. The trip up the Arctic Highway, literally from London to the Russian border at Kirkenes was spectacular; fjords, icy glaciers, chugging ferries to cross the wide waters, and reindeer grazing in the snow around the van at night. We found a set of moulted antlers which we attached to the roof rack, with flag attached and felt well and truly Tundra’d.
The trip back down through flat Finland was peaceful, tranquil, no alarums or excursions; just vast lakes, birch and conifer forests and a feeling of well-being. We never really knew when to go to sleep because of the midnight sun and 24hr daylight, and the mozzies were colossal and really stung, even through track suits and thick socks. And so to Denmark, heading for the last few laps down through Germany, taking in Bayreuth (outside of opera house only!) and leaving out divided Berlin. I was in charge of map reading and managed, in my post Finland torpor, to land us up on a ferry which turned out to be heading for East Germany. Mistake. Big one.
We, the only passengers, disembarked and were immediately herded into a pen between two booms, by soldiers in full army dudes. They weren’t even amused by our be-flagged antlers. Took away our passports and left us sitting for two hours, in the van, while they made numerous phone calls, keeping an eye on us all the while. Funny it was not. Eventually we were released with a transit visa which didn’t allow stopping or shopping or talking to the locals. Since we’d run out of food it was even less funny but we put foot and headed off along the quickest route to Berlin. For two nights we slept behind large hay stacks, eating borrowed apples from nearby orchards. The countryside was interesting, communal farms, no traffic other than rust buckets and horse-drawn carts; the towns bleak and dreary.
And then, out of the blue came the tanks. Hundreds of them, some with young soldiers sitting on top, others rattling along belching out foul diesel smoke. There were trucks of soldiers, some on foot as well, all going in the same direction – Prague. From our safety net in haystack we watched for a couple of hours until they were well out of sight and went hell for leather to Berlin where we learned of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. It was definitely not funny!
What has this to do with Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being? When you read it all will be revealed. Better still, watch the old movie, it tells it all as it was.