At 13, I was a pretty ordinary child. I was a bookworm and loved reading. I went to school during the day and did my homework when I got home. I was in my first year of secondary school and I still hated the Norwegian educational system.
Having been brought up abroad means your parents can choose the schools at which you start your academic career. For me, it was a private girls’ school in Sanderstead, Surrey, and a private mixed school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We wore uniforms and there was discipline and respect for one’s elders.
Moving to Norway was a huge culture shock (and I was rather pleased to learn – at a much later time – that this is normal. The shock of moving to Norwegian schools from a more civilized education system in the Western hemisphere is just as bad as moving from a third-world country – where one also has respect for one’s elders) from which I never really recovered. I was certainly the freak in my class and was never allowed to forget it. Not only had I lived ABROAD but my parents were DIVORCED – TWICE, even – and I enjoyed READING BOOKS!!! No wonder no-one really liked me. You don’t get Brownie points for enjoying the company of Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Shakespeare and other classics if you live in Norway.
My interest in current affairs was also considered weird. The fact that I was interested in current affairs made me weird. Having survived racial rioting in Miami in the late 70s, civil war in Guatemala, the Brixton riots, the beginning of Thatcherism and the death of my beloved guinea pig Ginger I was rather more interested in what happened outside my window than my fellow pupils. In Norway, there is a saying – as if it was the most important thing to happen in the 20th century – where were you when Oddvar Brå broke his ski pole? To be perfectly honest I have no idea where I was, or which decade he broke his ski pole; I do, however, vividly remember where I was when the Falklands war ended, when president Reagan was shot, when Lennon was shot. I would say those happenings were more important for the world but not sure my fellow Norwegians agree.
In 1986 I was a member of Amnesty (as one was) and read their newsletters and pamphlets. I read Aftenposten and watched NRK news every evening (at the time we only had one Norwegian TV channel). I much preferred staying in London and watching the BBC news as it was always much more exciting and interesting – I had already guessed that NRK probably had its own political agenda. In my spare time I played the piano, played tennis, went horse-back riding and collected stamps. Oh yes, I was a geek. I didn’t have the glasses but the rest was all there.
In April 1986, the premiere of Top Gun was still a few months off. Spring was slowly replacing a bitterly cold winter (of that I am certain – winters were always bitterly cold when I was younger). I don’t think I was consciously aware of the political meaning of May 1st although I had a vague idea.
On the night of April 25th, I probably went to bed as usual and woke up on the 26th as usual. I got up, brushed my teeth and ate breakfast. I can’t remember it but it was a Saturday and that’s what I usually did on Saturdays. I was probably doing the same thing as the 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat, SSR of Ukraine. Main difference being that there had not been a nuclear meltdown a mere mile away from me.
Truth be told, there were many differences. I was not looking forward to the May Day celebrations and certainly not anticipating the opening of the brand new amusement park. I probably would never have been allowed to live there – it was built for the Soviet elite, Ukrainian scientists with high educations, the future of the USSR. But there were many similarities also. They had amazing swimming pools (I was a good swimmer), excellent libraries and culture halls (as mentioned – I love books and pianos) and science labs in the schools.
При́п’ять (Pripyat) was founded in 1970, built up as a Sim City and proclaimed a city in 1979. It had apartment buildings, schools, cinemas, supermarkets, sports stadiums and every single amenity one could want for in a decent city. It didn’t even look very Soviet (if you ignored the communist propaganda). It was meant to be complete, the perfect town for the perfect citizens. The average age in 1986 was 18 (meaning that the experiment was succeeding – the smart, intelligent, intellectual parents were producing many smart, bright, sweet children with a promising future). This was not Stepford – these people were smart, beautiful and well accomplished.
But during those days, in April 1986, I had never heard of Pripyat. Or Chernobyl. I had probably heard of Ukraine but I doubt if I would have been able to pinpoint the country on a map. I was fully aware of the Cold War and was absolutely terrified of nuclear weapons. I knew how many times the Earth could be demolished with the amount of weapons that were currently all set to be fired at targets all over the planet. I was quite certain that Nuclear War would erupt tonight, or tomorrow, or certainly next month. I’d been to Cape Canaveral and seen a launch, though for some reason that didn’t scare me.
Electricity I did not worry about the origins of. Did I know what a nuclear power plant was? Or that there were several in Sweden? I don’t think so. Maybe I didn’t want to know.
But the meltdown of Reaktor 4 in Chernobyl, I don’t think I was scared by it. It probably wasn’t a big issue in school. I certainly can’t remember hearing scary propaganda about how we were all going to die from the radiation. I think I would have remembered that, as I do remember the Challenger accident which happened only three months earlier.
Very strange to think that something that probably made just a small impact on my life at the time, has become such an important element of my life now. I’ve only been there twice yet look forward to my next visit. I am fascinated by the fungi that live and thrive in the radioactivity in the reactor. The chemist in me is greatly impressed by the elephant’s foot and it always reminds me of the classic scene in T2. The herd of Przewalski’s horses that were released there because they were so sickly they were expected to die – but have instead thrived and become a vigorous flock.
Life is a long, winding and mysterious pathway, and the stepping stones might only make sense in hindsight. If I hadn’t been a mycophile – and taken that course in Radiochemistry – or met my fiancée – and he hadn’t mentioned visiting Chernobyl – I would never have gone to Ukraine and been a part of one of the most important revolutions – the Ukrainolution, Euromaidan – in this century.
And I would have been a pretty boring person. Even if I still love books.