by Vahur Afanasjev
This is part of the Walking Norwich series.
There are a few criteria a habitable city must meet for me. First, a river. Second, some hills. Third, at least one university. And last, easy access to less inhabited nature, or wilderness. The order can be reversed, though. Obviously, I am describing both my hometown Tartu in Estonia, and Norwich in the United Kingdom. I didn’t mention a busy literature scene, as this comes naturally, once the criteria are met.
One of the first things one should do in a foreign place is to get lost. Technology has complicated this a bit, as it’s hard to abstain from checking the inevitable smartphone. We carry a tiny device, which receives a signal from satellites. Amazing. The first evening I failed, finding Morrisons, and the Fat Cat and Canary pub far too easily. Even the way back, with only a slight twist. After that, getting reasonably lost got easier.
I have this thing. My mother used to hang out with Romas, or at least talked to them, living in an Estonian-Latvian border town. One thing her friends told her was never to return by the same route. The streets in Norwich are pretty winding, and there are large closed-off areas. So, following this advice is for those whose shoes are comfortably worn in.
Next evening, I managed to get lost. As WWII destroyed all the buildings along the River Emajõgi – the Mother River – in Tartu, leaving us nice parks, footpaths and alleys on both sides of the river, I expected that I could just follow the Wensum all the way. Not the case. Then again, an extra mile is more than welcome, as a writer spends too much time sitting behind a desk anyway.
There are formidable walks in Norwich, all the same. In my mind, I walked from Dragon Hall to Whitlingham Country Park. Google tells us there is the Redwell Brewing Co. Taproom on the way. And the River Yare, finally. In summer, maybe a friendly boat crew would take you back to the centre.
The other walk I did was to Hong Ye Chinese Supermarket on Earlham Road. A lovely walk indeed, from Unthank Road – why the name? – over the gentle hills, past the lovely English houses, admiring blossoming trees and bushes. As expected, the supermarket was a tiny place. The first time corona virus hit me. Not directly. The shelves were rather empty, just as back in my Soviet childhood. Deficit – the word my translator was struggling with. Well, the idea that you still have money but there is nothing to buy might just become reality in 2020.
As it turns out, I was walking with history in the making. Later that day I visited Norwich Playhouse to meet up with some local authors. They said the Playhouse bar had never been so empty, with the Norwich University of the Arts next door. By Thursday 12th March 2020, I was asking whether I could stay longer at the Dragon Hall residency if the flights were cancelled. And on Friday 13th I bought a ticket back to Estonia. On Saturday, I was back home, disinfecting my hands all the way, and loading up the car with doomsday supplies, to stay in my house by Lake Peipus for two weeks. To be honest, there were 20 cases of corona virus in Estonia by then, and none diagnosed in Norfolk.
The residency cut short, I still accomplished my main task – finishing the novel “On the Brink of Bloom”. The events in it are driven by an asteroid called Apophis, which may hit Earth in 2029. What it’s really about is individuals. Those who are just like everybody else, but who have a tad more courage, will, knowledge and hunger for success to guide humanity out of the mess. Or, who might also fake the mess to hit the grand slam.
There are a few more walks that everyone can enjoy in Norwich. First: walking the River Wensum. With all the global warming, we might be heading towards the next ice age. Mankind enjoyed the Little Ice Age from the 14th century to early in the 19th century. Our ancestors managed to build Dragon Hall, do business and make babies. Maybe they walked on the River Wensum in winter? In my hometown, the river freezes in cold winters. In 2016 I walked on it. No need to be a messiah to walk on water, even when it’s flowing.
The other walk: meeting with a youth literature club, I asked the youngsters to write down the names of as many fish and edible mushrooms as they know. I did the same in Estonian. They beat me with names of fish, but the wild mushrooms were their Achilles’ heel. So, the forest. Trees. Treetops. This is an easy walk. Just sit down in a park, or by Pulls Ferry, and let your mind wander over the treetops. Like a monkey. Like a flying squirrel. Have no fear. You cannot fall deeper in love with Norwich.
In March, we welcomed the Estonian writer, poet and musician Vahur Afanasjev as part of our residency exchange with Tartu UNESCO City of Literature. Vahur is the author of the award-winning Serafima and Bogdan, a bloody, funny and surreal family saga about the Russian Old Believer minority in Estonia.
While in Norwich, Vahur completed his novel On the Brink of Bloom, which is set in the near future and deals with social anxiety about progress. He also collaborated with local musicians and poets at open mic events held at Gonzo’s Tea Room and with Café Writers.