In the beginning, when there were 7 farms...This is how many stories start on the island of Vänö. And when you look around, indeed, it is easy to see how stories have thrived on this imaginative landscape. Located on the southern part of Turku archipelago, Vänö is a unique mixture of grand Ice Age rocks, huddled together like old women, and lavish green fields that is a dream come true for the local population of sheep. Secret pathways, the salty and refreshing smell of sea in the air and the native juniper thicket is probably what made archipelago people hundreds of years ago create stories of magical trolls, sea serpents and beautiful forest nymphs. However, if you want to hear truly amazing stories, ask anyone about the famous smugglers of Vänö that went on dangerous adventures for more than three decades in 20th century.
Nowadays, while Vänö community mainly consists of 12 year-long residents, during the summer months it becomes clear that what defines this community is not the number of people who stay during the winter times but rather the number of people who call this place home. Vänö Vänner, the local organization founded by the initiative of the community, has been actively organizing events since 1994. However, since 2011 they have been participating in European Voluntary Service (EVS) projects which involved hosting volunteers from all over Europe and, therefore, exchanging cultural values, introducing sustainable agricultural and cultural practices and, most importantly, building friendships. This summer, Vänö is hosting three volunteers – two volunteers from Romania as part of a project “Culturescape Archipelago”, and me, an anthropology student hunting for answers to what exactly is Vänö community.
I first heard about Vänö from my classmate, Eelin, who is, so to say, paljasjalkainen1 of Vänö. Her stories of life in archipelago spawned curiosity and wonderment, and I had to see it for myself. However, Vlad who comes from Petrosani in Romania says he has been driven to do this since he started college; quite simply he wanted to “help someone that needed my help”. Ioana, from Cluj-Napoca, says that the project ‘spoke’ to her. After thorough search for applicable projects, she found “Culturescape Archipelago” to be specially created for her. “So I did not come here only because of the place but also because the program and activities,” she says. Their average work day here consists of outdoor tasks such as cutting and trimming the grass, maintaining nature paths for tourists, eradicating invasive plants, collecting recyclable waste material and other agriculture oriented activities.
Even though Vänö is not a very big island, I remember that when I first got here, it was hard to orient myself around. Coming from a town in Latvia that is hidden away in the forest, I felt very comfortable exploring the narrow paths throughout the forest, however, following the directions on the rocky terrain was quite hard at first. Even during small distances, like five minute walk to Ioana’s cottage, I had to stop several times and check if I am going the right direction. Meanwhile, my first impression of the community was very welcoming and positive and it didn’t take long to get used to unlocked doors, moonless nights and the constant whisper of sea. Ioana agrees and comments that upon her first arrival, she was very impressed by the landscape, people and their life stories. “The things I like best about this place,” adds Vlad, “are the climate, flora, wildlife and let us not forget about the bread.”2
This is our second month on Vänö and things are still surprising. Surrounded by sea and wonderful people, we have experienced not only the part of hard work but also community gatherings on Midsummer and Vänö day. “These people have created their own jobs and occupations, for example, selling sheep meat, opening a shop in the harbour, renting cottages to tourists, building sauna and having a business with it or online shop with handmade clothes. I am also fascinated by their attention to details, like how cute and lovely they make outside toilets, for example. Or how much attention they give to cleaning nature paths for tourists,” she says. And when it comes to learning, Ioana admits that she will have a lot of knowledge to take home with her – how to take care of landscape, boats and how to organize her life. Indeed, it only seems on the surface that the life on Vänö is a slow paced country side calm. Living here it becomes clear that it rather works like never-tiring mechanism where everyone can find their own way to contribute.
1 Direct translation „barefoot” (in Finnish) but is used to describe someone who has been born in a place, is native of it, and belongs there.
2 Pirjo Hoffström’s homemade bread is probably the best in archipelago!