It would be a pretence to say I know anything about this Swedish town that I’ve arrived in, other that it’s the location from where I am getting the Stockholm train. I am anxious about taking the overnight train – my first alone – and acutely aware that outside the temperature is well below freezing.
I arrive onboard a double decker bus, stocked with coffee, tea and bottled water for a price. The lady who comes around offering to sell me these things looks at me with a comforting motherly air. I’ve wrapped myself in my scarfs, kicked off my boots and had my e-book reader, cross-stitch and notebook lying on the seat beside me. There are other passengers today, which adds a little distraction, but also brings a sense of security. I was a whole lot less comfortable when I was riding across cold rural Finland in a bus as the driver’s only passenger. Especially with us having no common language.
From the border to Luleå the journey took us through small towns, tall forests of snow laden firs and along the edges of flat white lakes, whose cover of snow looked untouched by man. I had hoped to see the sea, but the route took us too far inland.
There’s a brand of bus here called ‘Busgods’.
Other than dragging my suitcase through the snowy streets, and the gorgeous sunset that I witnessed chasing me over the hill to the railways station, my experience of Luleä is decidedly French.
Café Metropol has a warm inviting look to it, with its old-fashioned lamps glowing in the window, and although it was rather late for lunch but early for tea, I went inside to warm myself and eat a meal. There would be no evening meal for me, just a muffin, yogurt, bread roll and an apple picked up from a corner shop, which would have to last me the thirteen-hour overnight journey into Stockholm.
Normally I would feel disappointment at a café for using fake flowers on the tables, but since nothing seems to be growing outside, it’s much too cold, I’m surprisingly cheered by the colour. Five fake yellow sunflowers stand in the window, alongside a box of fake pink and purple tulips. Inside I do spot an orchid, not in flower, the rare authentic plant.
Tiny portraits look out of ornate frames, alongside old peculiar instruments which I cannot name made in an elegant pale wood. They are part of a collection of paintings, which represent a multitude of times and styles. No wall is left bare. Behind a metal bull (maybe there’s a Spanish influence too?) are stacked bottles of wine. Each wooden table top balances on a central, wrought iron leg. Wood is the material of choice, the bar is wooden, as are the floor and ceiling, although there’s a diversity of varnish which makes it look like it’s all been put together over time.
After serving me, it’s the post lunch sit down for the two chefs. They’re joined by two, dark-haired young girls who have been contentedly playing in their corner by the window and all four of them eat burgers. There’s a definite family comfort about the way they listen to one another and the way the girls loll against one of the men. I imagine their father.
I find my nerves softening.
I’m still there, still drinking my post-lunch coffee when a smartly dressed, and well wrapped up, teenage boy arrives for an interview. Of course, I don’t understand a word that’s said, they’re speaking Swedish, but they’re seated at the table in front of me, the boy with his back to me, and I see the nervousness in his posture and smile at his willingness to please. I imagine this as his first ever interview. One his mother has made him rehearse for. The chef is relaxed, patient, listening, and I develop the feeling that if the boy does get the job, he’s going to be in safe hands working here.
One of the challenges with yoga (other than the obvious physical challenge) is that it sometimes comes a bit too close to sounding like nonsense. It’s mostly the terminology that is used. Sometimes it’s not very western, and it’s not that of a scientific nature and so I become a little bit unnerved. I do have my reputation as a physics graduate consider. I am, I guess, sceptical of a lot of the phrases used, although I feel that this has as much to do with my lack of biology knowledge as much as my lack of Buddhist or Hindi terminology. I had to ask the mother where my kidneys were, and had no idea what a session of activating my kidney meridians was supposed to achieve. I still don’t.
Anyway, I was contemplating this as I sat on the sofa arm, balancing in that self-assured way that one does after hours of yoga, reading the peculiar titles of the books on the bookshelf. At this point I was wearing my third-eye chakra infused oil between my eyebrows because I’d been gifted it and had no idea what else I was supposed to do with it. I’ve got a multitude of chakras apparently, although I’ve no idea what or why they are. How the oil helps them, or me, I’ve no idea either. It smells like the upstairs of my nanna and grandad’s house did when I was a child.
Most of the rest of the group, there were sixteen of us participants, slowly made their way into the living room, placed themselves three to a sofa, found a beanbag, stood propped against the wall, or sat with upright-spines, cross-legged on the carpet. By this point everyone was hungry waiting for breakfast and in a cheerful chatty mood. The awkward silences of the first day had been replaced with an eagerness to speak and be heard.
The conversation paid a moment’s attention to the retreat owner, Edward. I hadn’t seen him and imagined him to be an older chap, small and bendy who looked like he’d live forever. The fifty-something year old women therefore surprised me with their enthusiasm for learning everything about him, little was known other than he would be willing to deal with spiders as 3am if anyone had a problem. Someone claimed to have a magazine article in their bedroom about him, and everyone wanted to see it. They also wanted to know more about the place itself, how it had come to be a sought-after retreat location, and what else went on there.
Our yoga teacher suggested Edward was a very dedicated man, going so far as to even leading silent retreats. Julie can still give you a massage, but she does so silently as not to break the practice. And then of course, all these women were discussing what would be difficult about a silent retreat and asking how silent exactly silent was. At this point, the chap (remember there were fifteen of us women and one chap) launched into sharing his knowledge. He’d shared a room once with someone who’d completed a ten-day silent meditation retreat somewhere down south. You can imagine the voices of the women, still wearing their patterned leggings and all in bare feet or socks, because shoes weren’t allowed in the house, trying to advertise themselves as the least capable of staying silent for ten days.
What is it with people saying that they can’t do things they’ve never actively tried?
Anyway, I turned around from the bookshelf. The Mother looked at me from across the room with one of those all-knowing looks and I looked back at her. I waited for a sensible pause in the conversation feeling that sitting smugly knowing the answers to their questions but not saying anything, especially when they were so curious, would not be fair.
“I’ve done it,” I said.
The chap wanted to check that my silent retreat was the same super serious silent retreat that he was talking about. Initially I think he was sceptical. It was. How exactly, everyone seemed to want to know, do you stay silent? Can you write notes?
“You can’t write,” I said. “Or read.”
Their faces looked pained. I tried to explain that the peer pressure of being with so many other non-talking people really did help make the silence easy. Plus, you went in having agreed to the silence, including silence of eye contact.
“But,” I said, “The silence is easy, compared to sitting still.”
Luckily, a few minutes later, the gong sounded, summoning us to breakfast. We didn’t need much summoning. Gracefully and graciously everyone was on their feet and racing towards the dining-room. I was left worrying that everyone was now going to think of me as the weird one, wearing potpourri-scented third-eye chakra oil and doing strange, gender-segregated, vegan-eating, silent retreat.
Just before lunch I finally laid my eyes on the mysterious Edward. He came to give us a gong bath. Don’t worry, we were all fully dressed and most of us were wrapped in blankets too. I realised that he couldn’t have spent 20 years in Indian monasteries and couldn’t have spent time in a cave in Nepal, because he simply was not old enough.
And I suddenly realised why exactly the fifty-something year old women were so enamoured with him. In his shorts and t-shirt, I heard him described as ‘a bit of alright’.
I had this grand illusion that on returning from a yoga retreat I would feel all relaxed and at ease. I don’t. I feel like I’ve been to the gym, except for that the muscles that ache seem to be super deep inside of me. Maybe it wasn’t the yoga at all, maybe it was the wonderful Julie and her wonderful hands massaging my body. I don’t know.
It was the Mother’s idea, this yoga retreat experience. She, unlike me, can just drop down to the ground and touch her toes (without bending her legs) at 7 o’clock in the morning. Which was a good thing for her as pre-breakfast yoga started at half seven, in the chapel. The chapel, with its bright white walls and spacious arched windows being the yoga studio for The Tree relaxation centre in the North Yorkshire Moors where we happened to be. Whilst it’s cupboards might now be stacked with yoga mats, meditation poofs and big comfy cushions – do not use if you’re trying to maintain a sense of awareness – it still does play a role within the Methodist community. They borrow it back occasionally for events like their harvest festival.
Due to the Mother, I was awake at half seven and in the chapel. She’d done her first session of yoga, that’s yoga even before the pre-breakfast yoga, in our twin bedroom whilst I slept. When I awoke and pulled back the curtains I was met with a view across the green valley and up to the delicate colours of the moors.
Ten minutes early to the chapel, we were the last to arrive. I tried to look awake and feel as energised and ready to go as my floral legging might have suggested, but their bright colours blended in with everyone else. My yoga companions were eager looking women who looked like half-seven was, for them, a lie in. We did a little breathing and for a moment I imagined I might be able to semi-sleep through the yoga – a bit like I sometimes do with the mother’s ‘over 50s DVD’, but it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case. We were on a mission to warm up and build an appetite before breakfast.
After breakfast – porridge, fruit, toast – was, as you might guess from a yoga retreat, more yoga. This was followed by a much-needed deep relaxation. It was one of those relaxations where you start by relaxing the crown of your head, your forehead, your face, your neck, shoulders and then fall asleep, waking up just in time for ankles and toes. I blame the big comfy cushion. If I snored, I wasn’t the only one.
Lunch followed – soup, salads and cheese and biscuits – and another round of camomile tea, decaf green tea, decaf coffee, caffeinated coffee, decaf tea, caffeinated tea, etc. etc. Then there came the afternoon. It started with a short walk for the Mother and me. Then followed the dip in the hot tub, which was in a little cabin, with wide windows overlooking the moors, fairy lights twinkling in the ceiling. The clock on the wall which instead of numbers simply said ‘now’. As you might expect the retreat centre was one of those places with cute lines about happiness being more than just a destination, or there only being the present moment, hanging off nails and scribbled across walls in abundance.
Cake awaited us back inside the house. Homemade blueberry scones and a super light lemon cake which I may have had a second slice of (yes, we’ve picked up the recipe). I asked for a fork for my cake because it was one of those places where you felt comfortable sticking your head in through the kitchen door and speaking to one of the super friendly, highly talented chefs. Also, cake should be eaten with a fork. It’s proper.
Then came my appointment to visit Julie. She put me at ease within seconds, making me feel totally comfortable as I quickly briefed her on my tendency to have a panic attack if I’m uncomfortable with a touch, but she knew exactly what she was doing and made me feel safe. Quite a skill.
The next couple of hours I spent in an excessively relaxed daze, reading a few pages of my book and testing out the variety of herbal teas. Then it was dinner time. The kitchen produced a hearty vegetarian shepherd’s pie (we have the recipe for this too). I concentrated on staying upright and awake. The rest of the table chattered along merrily, comparing notes about their professions (either teaching or nursing) and, if they had them, their children. The children mentioned all appeared to be aged twenty-seven. Nurses and teachers, mothers of twenty-seven-year-old children obviously were the retreat’s target audience. I was the only twenty-seven-year-old daughter. There was one chap, but he knew a thing or two about yoga and was obviously used to going on retreats dominated by women.
These jolly ladies, peacefully stretched and thoroughly massaged, debated the merits of 80’s fashion and food and tried to convince me that I had missed out. I pointed out that there was something beneficial about not having to record your music off the radio onto a cassette tape, but they shook their heads and smiled. They bounced into discussing the wonders of angel delight. I stared at them in horror.
The evening finished with candle gazing. This involved us returning to the chapel, sitting on our mats and staring at a tealight whilst trying not to blink too much. Your eyes are supposed to water lots. The teacher had tissues at the ready. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be good for calming hay fever, but I couldn’t really say as I spent most of my time failing not to blink and therefore my eyes barely watered at all.
We walked back from chapel to retreat house, staring up at the stars that hung brightly above the open moors, before climbing into bed.
And all that was only Saturday.
I’m on a train, the sort that’s likely to be modernised out of existence. The sort with a soothing chug, windows that don’t quite close and heaters that blow out warm air like my little travel hair-dryer used to before it went bang. It’s February. All around me people are layered up in thick winter coats and woollen scarves. The women are in heeled boots and have a classy, well-dressed look about them that reminds me of Northern Italy, but this is Latvia and outside it’s minus seven degrees celsius.
I strip off my coats and scarves and jumpers, feeling the odd one in the carriage because everyone else seems to be able to bear the heat. But maybe I’m the only one whose dragged their suitcase through the fine snow with a rucksack on her back. It’s a long journey ahead. I remove my boots and wiggle my toes in their multiple layers of sock. I’m over-dressed, but understandably so as yesterday the temperature was ten degrees lower. The colder-than-ice air, whipping through the crack at the edge of the window is a relief.
We arrive at a station and a sound reverberates through the train like that of an old-fashioned doorbell. Outside the fields are covered with an icy frost, that in places becomes a clean carpet of virgin snow. By the stations, across rows of abandoned track, the snow is trampled with heavy boots, their blue shadows are the only sure way of knowing where the roads begin. From the bank at the side of the railway they disappear between the trees.
The forest is everywhere around me. On both sides of the track for hour after hour it remains a constant companion. Trees with rich brown and orange bark stand straight and tall. Many are bare but for a crown of dark, evergreen needles. Occasionally spindly silver birches cluster between them. There are animal tracks in the snow.
When we pass a lone house, I spot what’s unmistakeably an outside toilet and a few outbuildings. At a small town, Sigulda, many of the train’s passengers drop down from the carriage to the platform. The platform reminds me of travelling through Slovakia with my sister and being amazed and bewildered to see the platforms only little higher than the track. Like the Slovakians, and unlike my sister and I, the Latvians disembark gracefully.
The docile towns appear in a state of semi-hibernation. But maybe that the illusion of quiet created by snow. The buildings are spaciously arranged. They’re steep rooved a bit like German houses, but naturally coloured. The more isolated houses are made of wood. The hours pass, but I don’t put in my earphones because there’s something precious about the moment that stops me.
We chug on. Losing passengers as we go further and further away from the capital and towards the Estonian border. And then, I glance around the carriage and realise that there are only two of us remaining. The woman a few rows down, faces me, but she can’t see me, she’s crying.
Her dark hair hangs loose, I know by the way her hair falls that she’s raked her hands through it many times this morning. I’ve seen that look in my mirror. She’s a mess, but she’s got style about her. Heeled boots accompany a tan winter coat which comes down to her knees. I suspect she knows her cheeks show mascara tears. She cared enough to put her make-up on this morning. She glares at her phone with tight drawn lips, a mixture of fear and fight. Her body is rigid. Then she is gone.
I stare out at the snow, looking through the trees for signs of deer, grateful.