Echoes of the Balkans

In a Swedish forest bursting with berries, a chance encounter brings back sobering memories.

A country road in Smaland province, southern Sweden.

Imagine a forest filled with candy, gumdrops glittering in sunlight falling between the tall pine trees.

This is Sweden in the summer, at least for me. For under the (almost) midnight sun, across vast expanses of this empty, wooded land, blueberries are the ground cover and raspberries the weeds, with wild strawberries tucked into corners like buried treasure.

My wife, two children, and I walk through forests of pine and birch and fill buckets with blueberries just two hours north of Stockholm. We decorate birthday cakes with fresh raspberries and cover our vintage wood stoves with lovingly cleaned chanterelle mushrooms. I have no special berry recipes because I love them too much. I simply eat them by the handful, maybe drop a few on my oatmeal.

In Sweden you can walk across almost any forest and pick almost any blueberry. The expansive right of public access, or allemansrätten, runs back to the Middle Ages and deep into the Swedish soul. It gives everyone the right to roam, common courtesy keeping you away from fence lines and houses. When I moved to Sweden, the lack of barbed wire and "No Trespassing" signs was revolutionary, the forest free in a subtle way I'd never known before.

Then a chance encounter last summer reminded me of my Balkan past. And now I hesitate before I enter the woods.

One afternoon, pushing a stroller packed with a toddler, a baby, and some recycling, I wandered into the woods on an exquisite summer day – with the cool breeze, the filtered crystalline light and, above all, the berries on the ground. As we neared the main road, we came upon about 12 men and women eating sardines near two beat-up white cars.

I hesitated for a moment, remembering those wounded looks from the dense rural depths of the former Yugoslavia, where I spent three years in the mid-1990s working first in grass-roots peace projects and then for an American nonprofit.

People in Sweden do not have this wary look. I had forgotten it, and now – reminded of its complexities – was prepared to respect it and move on, when a woman stepped out from behind one car and flashed the other side of the Balkans: the "I just met you but welcome to my house and let us dance on the tables for three days" side. I like this side. This side is why I often mope around solid, stable Stockholm longing for the spirit of Sarajevo.

She started speaking some southern Slavic tongue I could not place. My mind raced to catch the words, clicking through Swedish, French, a little Hungarian, all these languages that I have known but never mastered. It was a blur, then my brain finally caught on my Serbo-Croatian. Close enough. "Zlatko," she said. Yes, I knew that. Sweet. She was saying the blueberries were sweet.

Oh, yes, I said in Swedish and nodded vigorously.

Then her face turned dark and her arm undulated. There are snakes in the woods, she said. One of her colleagues had to go to the hospital. Be careful with the child, she said.

I nodded gravely, touched by the concern. My mind could not quite come up with any Serbo-Croatian of my own, but I wanted to stop and talk, sit and eat, pick blueberries with these people.

After a pause, the woman and I waved goodbye, and I pushed the stroller out of the woods and across the old highway into what passes for town.

On the way back, the blueberry pickers had moved on, but not the Balkan memories they stirred inside me. I saw the woods of eastern Croatia, dark, dense, and deciduous, made all the more so by the fact that I had never set foot in them. For while the trees brooded close over the deserted roads I had wandered in western and eastern Slavonia, the forests were littered with land mines.

After I came home to the United States, it took me years to walk off a forest path, or even a sidewalk. Then I ended up in fortunate, out-of-the-way Sweden and its forests of peace and freedom.

By the time I met the Balkan blueberry pickers, I had forgotten about the Slavonian woods. Now a shadow has descended over my Swedish forest, and that makes me sad.

But, in the end, it is good. It helps me appreciate the Swedish miracle of 200 years of peace, of the right of all-access, of all those blueberries. And as much as I love the Balkans, I now appreciate that my kids are growing up in the Swedish forest, not the Slavonian one, their faces smeared with blueberries and falling asleep as we walk home, safely, in the (almost) midnight sun.

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