September 20, 2015 Most people come to Europe for the high culture, or the art museums, or the ancient buildings, or the cuisine. My parents, on the other hand, come to Europe for the sake of a tiny, wind-swept island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Or, more specifically, for one particular breed of sheep on that island. Gotlands–small and hardy, with a lustrous silver fleece prized for both pelts and yarn–are inseparable from the natural landscape of the island, a beloved part of Sweden’s national heritage. Everyone, it seems, raises sheep.
Gotlands are incredibly rare in America, and my family owns one of the only farms with the breed on the East coast. My parents, and my mother in particular, were thrilled for the chance to travel to the island itself–a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and look behind the scenes and ask questions that only Gotland farmers know the answers to.
And so we spent a long weekend on Gotland traveling from farm to farm, visiting shops and talking to people. I am, I admit, usually the fine-cuisine-and-art-museum type, but I surprised myself by loving the entire trip–not, as in the case of my parents, because of all the technical sheep-talk that went on, but because of the way we travelled. This was no superficial tourist trip: stay three nights in a youth hostel, hit the big sights, and never speak with a local. Instead, the four days on Gotland were gritty, real, in-your-face–dialogue after dialogue with the people who make their living there, raising sheep in thatched-roofed barns on 1,200-year-old farmsteads. This is how I want to travel.
Thanks to local advice, we strayed pretty far from the beaten path. We attended, for instance, the island’s annual ram auction–dozens of Gotland’s most gorgeous animals selling to buyers from across Sweden, prices up to 8,000 dollars. I mean, how many of your average summer visitors can boast of that?! “It’s like Christmas for sheep people!!” one shepherd told us with utmost enthusiasm, wrist-deep in the fleece of one particularly handsome ram. You don’t get that every day.
In the end, the best part of the trip were the people themselves: the farmers, the hand workers, the proud owners of small businesses that, ultimately, weren’t all that different from those in Vermont. It seems that farmers all over the world speak the same language–a language that I find myself eternally drawn back to, even after falling in love with the European metropolis. Farming people are somehow real, connected to land and tradition in a way that makes city life seem sometimes overblown and overcomplicated.
The hospitality of the Gotlanders we met was staggering. It began at the tiny airport in Visby, where an online knitter-friend of my mother’s surprised us with a home-cooked lunch, a map of the island, and thirty minutes of helpful advice. On every farm we visited, the shepherds opened their barns, stores, and studios to us, overcoming sometimes-limited English to answer hundreds of our questions and to ask their own. Family secrets were spilled and tall tales were told, and a whole lot of very technical sheep discussion took place that went right over my head.
Most of the farms we visited were run by a husband-wife team, usually entirely without outside help. Everyone we talked to loved what they were doing, despite the work and the dirt and the isolation of living on a tiny island in the Balticum. “Gotland sheeps are fantastic animals,” we heard again and again. And because we also had Gotland sheeps, and because we were speaking the language, we were automatically a part of their inner sanctum, welcomed with open arms by people we had never seen before in our lives.
In the end, Curre put it best. “You know, we have the big problem today with the refugees–many Swedes say, they come in here, they take our jobs, they are so different. But I say, you have the cultures, religions–but underneath, the people are all the same. You just have to find something, some–what is the word?–connection, and you are all the same. The connection bring people together. Just like having sheeps,” he concluded, looking out into the pasture, squinting into the sun, real pride in his voice. “Sheeps bring people together, too. And that’s a real gud thing. Real gud.”