Omreisende

Andy Meyer, Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

Category: Travel

Opphold

Into June now, the final month of my opphold—residence—in Norway. I’ve just returned to Oslo from my final school visit of the year, at Flora Vidaregåande Skule1 in Florø, Norway’s westernmost town, in Sogn og Fjordane, which represents the nineteenth of Norway’s nineteen fylker (counties) that I’ve visited as part of the work for this most magical of years. Some up-summing numbers are in order, I think:

I visited:

61 schools (including
11 schools on islands) and
3 prisons in
19 Norwegian counties plus
1 Norwegian territory. Over
135 days of teaching, I gave
315 presentations to approximately
8582 students and approximately
598 teachers. I spent
50 days above the Arctic Circle, reached a northernmost point of
78° latitude, and landed at
11 Arctic airports. I took
32 flights,
3 boat trips (1 on a ferry and 2 on the Hurtigrute), and
2 overnight trains in the course of my official travels.

Here at the edge of June, I grasp wildly among the sea of experiences in vain attempt to capture something that will do justice. I feel a little like Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Hurricane force winds off the shoulder of Magerøy. I watched Auroras glitter in the twilight near Vesterålen. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears . . . in . . . rain.” Or, with a touch less melodrama, I feel like Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain. No, there is too much; let me sum up.” No matter which way you slice it, a year as a Roving Scholar is characterized by its too-muchness; it stands in excess of description. This is no surprise, of course. But the challenge communicating the experience will doubtless be exhausting as I re-enter an American pattern I once knew—the fair Pacific Northwest, among other mountains, other sounds. That will come soon enough. And nothing for it but to go in.

Meanwhile, in my braincase swirls an infusion of all the senses, reactions, perceptions, reflections, memories, &c. And throughout, there’s the special sense of having sunk partly into this furet, værbitt land, glacier-carved and wind-beaten. For one thing, when I arrived at the beginning of the year, I hesitated to say “I speak Norwegian” without some qualification. I had a good background in the language, to be sure. I could carry on in very basic conversations, though with a lot of guesswork and a limited capability to participate fluidly, especially among stronger dialects or in groups of friends. I took every chance I could to practice, even though it was at times exhausting to keep up. Today, though, I can say I speak Norwegian. I make lots of (sometimes really funny) mistakes. I have a long way to go (and I do long for a second, a third, hell, a twelfth year), but I know I’ve stepped fully into the woods—I feel like I see both the forest and the trees. That’s a really good feeling. And in a way, the language has helped me form relationships that have deepened my sense of the place, and have helped me move, so to speak, partly under the skin (or, maybe better, it’s helped Norway move partly under my skin). The peculiar magic of the place is its fantastic cocktail of people and landscape. They’re knitted into each other. It will not be easy to leave. I’ll soon have crawl out of the land itself, but I sure as the north wind won’t be able to crawl out from under its spell.

Still, much of the wonder of a year like this is predicated on the work itself. A Roving Scholar lives in the best of most worlds, practicing the most rewarding parts and avoiding the tiresome dimensions of teaching. Teachers throughout the country would ask me routinely, “Isn’t it exhausting to travel all the time, live out of a suitcase, constantly meet new people, give the same lecture after the same lecture, the same workshop after the same workshop, move, move, move?” Yes. The answer is yes, it absolutely can be. However (I would say), when the school day is finished, so am I. I have no essays to grade, no homework to track down, very little administrative paperwork, no after-school responsibilities. When the school day is finished, I ask a teacher about the best woods to wander or ski trail to , the best local mountain to hike or island to visit. On top of that, a Rover is, in one sense, an automatic freshness, something new for the students, simply by virtue of the fact that I’m not their usual teacher, whom they see every day. Even the finest teachers cannot thrill their students on the daily; they become normal, customary, comfortable. But a Rover rolls in and is new. That’s a luxury. For my part, that performative moment generates a lot of energy.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, however; the work was highly demanding. At our final meeting, we three Rovers joked about how you could never do this for more than a year. I was nervous before every single workshop. I was beat by every weekend. I packed and unpacked my backpack like it was my job (but then, it was my job!). And I missed one of the very best parts of teaching: enduring relationships with students and colleagues. The work of a teacher—working with students that you learn to know and in contexts you help to shape over a long run—is especially rewarding, and a year as a Rover, without those evolving relationships, is a palpable reminder of that.

It is, in the end, work that delineates so much of much of culture, so many dimensions of a given society. One of the reasons I became interested in applying for a Roving Scholarship was to try and see first-hand how a nation I had already loved went about shaping its social values, among them a strong sense of community, a sort of dugnad culture, and a thoroughgoing commitment to social welfare. As I’ve written elsewhere, Norway’s social celebration of labor is evident nationwide, but it’s also visible in the schools. Unlike American high schools, the Norwegian videregående education system is divided into several “tracks” or lines of study. Students who choose to attend high school select one of two directions: studiespesialisering or yrkesfag programs. Studiespesialisering (literally “study specialization”) is effectively the standard, generalized “academic” line of study, preparing students for post-secondary education. Students who choose yrkesfag, “vocational disciplines,” select one of many lines of vocational training, such as bygg og anlegg (building and construction), teknisk og industriell produksjon (technical and industrial production), restaurant- og matfag (restaurant and food service), or musikk, dans, og drama (music, dance, and drama), among others. Yrkesfag programs require basic general education (e.g., in history, language, social studies, etc.), but to a significantly lesser degree than studiespes. This division between academic and vocational lines is, to me, the greatest difference between American and Norwegian education, though American students finish high school one year earlier than Norwegians. Norwegian education, to my mind, is much more immediately practical: the yrkesfag lines that are available are, generally speaking, suited to what the Norwegian labor market demands. They change over the years as the labor market changes, and in a nation with a near guarantee of employment, it matters. One of my instinctive reactions is to read the Norwegian model as much more practical and efficient than the American model. There’s (ideally) not a lot of “heat loss,” so to speak, in the Norwegian education system; there’s less emphasis on individual desires, and more on the usefulness of the education system (and the educated citizens it produces) to the whole society. Students who graduate Norwegian high school are, in theory, employable and useful, both in filling society’s various roles and in contributing back (by way of, say, taxes) to the economic livelihood of the nation. In the US, the conventional wisdom of the system is “become what you want to be!” which carries with it some inherent risk of losing people (and potential workers) to the wayside, of creating less useful humans who don’t have a sense of responsibility to the system (and to all the “others” it contains) baked into their ethos as citizens. We create “citizens,” we say, but I’m not sure we really know what that means anymore, especially given the state of the political debate in the US and, needless to say, the current monstrosity of an election, an international embarrassment, a sham, a shame. An unclear, incoherent vision of “citizenship,” a somewhat false story of our national origin which generates what is, to my mind, a bizarre and misplaced “pride” in being American, combined with a relatively vague dictum to “be yourself,” whatever that means: this isn’t the recipe for a deeply effective national education system or a citizenry developed out of a shared sense of responsibility for each other’s well being, each other’s welfare.

Still, while I love Norway’s education system for what it is, I’m not an outright apologist for it, either. I’m not sure whether one system is better than the other; they’re simply different systems adjusted to the socio-cultural values out of which they emerged and which they are, almost by definition, designed to perpetuate. Americans seem to want free public education—or, at least, they expect it—while they refuse, at the political level (and far too often at the individual level as well), to pay for that system, because of a weird tradition of tax-hatred and a culture of consumerist self-interest, combined with a widespread distrust of government in general. The source of those problems is a whole other set of essays I’m totally unprepared to write. And yet, for my part, I love the somewhat inefficient value at the heart of American education: find your passion, and then feed it. Care for yourself. I’m suspicious, for lots of reasons, of too much efficiency (in part because I think there are so many dimensions of a human life that cannot be measured and whose “productivity” or “usefulness” or “output” cannot—and should not—be maximized). But if the value of self-care and “find-and-do-your-good-thing” could somehow be knitted into the pattern of a citizenship based on mutual, social welfare instead of knee-jerk individualism, we’d have something pretty special. But we don’t quite live there.

Norwegians, in many ways, live pretty close to that place. In conversations I’ve had in Norway, I’ve observed how deep the ethic of pragmatism runs, but there are wonderful “clefts and cones” that burst up through the map of the sea floor and reveal those immeasurables. Norwegians are aware of the high cost of their social welfare system and the humane values that come with it (their famous mandatory paid parental leave, for example, and their insane amounts of vacation time, with mandatory savings for vacation money!), and they don’t LOVE paying taxes. Of course not. But they seem, on average, to see it as a cost worth paying so that as close to everybody in the system as possible can ha det bra. That value drives both utilitarian and seemingly more humanitarian behaviors. For example, I visited three prisons this year, and in a conversation with one teacher who works in a prison school in Hordaland, I learned that the system is predicated on the notion that the economic contributions to society that a single rehabilitated prisoner will inevitably make when they get out of prison, largely by way of taxes and labor-value, are in total greater than the cost of paying the salary for a teacher’s hours teaching in prison during their entire career. So alongside the humanitarianism in Norway’s famously humane prison system lies a very practical, almost mechanical motivation for that rehabilitative work. I also saw the marriage between utility and humanity in the students I met and the way their lives are organized. (It’s not, I should say, always a happy marriage.) Because of the grouping of yrkesfag students, certain behavior patterns emerge. A bunch of bygg og anlegg boys (and, sadly, it’s usually mostly boys who choose that line) can become a little echo-chamber of typical boneheaded masculinity, the sort of which I’m not especially fond. And yet I had beautiful conversations with some of those boys. In one school in Nordland, I met with a big group of TIP (technical and industrial production) students. After my workshop, several curious guys stuck around to talk. One of them was going to be a plumber. He asked me, “do you know what the best job in the world is?” I said, “a teacher, of course!” He said, “Nope, it’s a plumber!” A plumber is a teacher, too, he reminded me, when they have an apprentice. And think about it, he insisted, you see those pipes under water across the strait there? Yes, I could. Those are for turbine systems for tidal current power generators. The future of energy. And you know what they need to fit and maintain and understand all those pipes? Plumbers. Here was a young person in a very practical education system who had a natural and genuine appreciation for, and moreover, a thoughtful pride in the work he chose to pursue, and for the usefulness of his work to the society of the future. I want to be clear, though: I don’t think that’s the norm in Norway, even though it’s there. You find the same kind of thinking in the US too, if you’re looking for it. But it’s that genus of thinking that builds so many of Norway’s systems.

What draws me to that student’s story is the kind of pride he expressed, one that emerged out of his clearly having thought about the value of his work, the work he had chosen—presumably after some thinking, or because of a family tradition, or what have you. It wasn’t the kind of knee-jerk pride in, say, “being American” that we see all over the states when people at, say, political rallies or country music festivals or large sports events. In another school in Troms, I met with a group of elektrofag students, studying to become electricians. I gave a talk on diversity and stereotypes in the US, in which I try to give a pretty complex version of some of the factors that inform some of the uglier stereotypes of Americans, followed by the realities of our manifold, multiethnic, multicultural, increasingly urban population. I tell students I’m not a cheerleader for the US. I have a healthy criticism of my native country, I say, and I’m not too shy to tell them what frustrates me or what I find compelling about the US. After my talk, a rather engaged student in the very back of the room asked me a question that surprised me, despite its simplicity: “Are you proud to be an American?” he asked. Uff. In a way, it’s an obvious question, but nobody had yet asked it with such clarity. I didn’t quite know how to respond right away. I thought for a while. And finally, I said, “No, no I’m not ‘proud’ to be an American. But I do love being an American,” I said, “and I feel very lucky to have been born into the situation I was, with the opportunities that have been available to me because of being an American of my particular kind and time and place. But I don’t think ‘pride’ has much to do with that. And I’m not proud of the fact that the same access to opportunity that I’ve enjoyed has never been shared by far too much of the population, despite the stories we love to tell ourselves; I’m not proud of many of the things my country has done around the world over the centuries and today, with the brute force of its oversized military; I’m not proud of what the current presidential election reveals about the state of political consciousness in my country; I’m not proud of the gun culture that seems to have swept the nation.” Ultimately, I said, “I’m fascinated by my country. I think it has some of the most beautiful lands and waters and ecosystems in the world; it is full of endlessly diverse, endlessly different people—a manifold of ideas and ethnicities and values; it is full of untold wonders and possibilities. So I love it. But ‘pride’ has nothing to do with it. I cannot say I’m proud. That’s something different, I think.” By almost any measure (other than various “sizes,” such as the size of our economy, the size of the national budget, the size of our military), we are not “number one.” Not in education. Not in voter participation. Not in “democracy.” Not in income equality. Not in the Human Development Index. Not in happiness. Not in freedom (especially, again, considering how many American citizens do not share in the “freedom” we talk so much about). We are, rather, one nation among numerous free-ish nations in the world. We just happen to be a really big one that has had trouble admitting that the world has changed and is constantly changing and the United States of America isn’t any longer so exceptional among developed, democratic nations. And that, dear readers, is OK! That’s a fine thing to be, especially if we can begin to spend a little less energy on chanting vacantly about our greatness and a little more on electing careful, caring, intelligent, sensitive officials, on developing programs and policies and practices that will serve people and nurture a value of mutual support and care and selflessness and curiosity, and craft a culture that we actually can celebrate, even after we really look at it.

William Carlos Williams took up a similar issue in Spring and All in 1923 that I’ve often used in my American Literature workshop this year. Williams begins one of the poems, today called “To Elsie,” by demanding that “The pure products of America / go crazy.” If you can locate a “product” of the United States that is purely American, whose cultural origins are not from elsewhere (and, based on his examples, not American Indian either), that product, that person or people, that cultural form, will exist in a crazed state, “[w]ith no peasant tradition to give [it] character.” With the important exception of American Indians, most Americans have no ethnicity in place, no long ethnic tradition to stand upon in order to imagine what it actually means to be American, what an American citizen does, what values shape the behaviors and systems that an American citizen enacts. Norway, on the other hand, is somewhat funny in this context. It is a very, very old ethnicity, but a very young nation. Under Denmark for 400 years, and united with Sweden for 110 years afterward, Norwegians have developed a unique sort of nationalism. I recently experienced my first Syttende mai—the 17th of May, Norway’s constitution day—in Norway. I was lucky to be invited to march in the parade alongside students and teachers from Oslo Katedralskole, the Cathedral School (among Oslo’s oldest schools, with a history that dates back to the year 1153). Afterward, I went to a barbecue with friends. Classic stuff. But on 17.mai, Norwegians dress up. All the way up. Those that have them wear a bunad, the traditional regional costumes developed the 1800s, associated with the cultural identities of each region. Those that don’t have a bunad simply put on their finest. There’s no question about it. I realized that on Seventeenth of May, Norwegians dress up, while on the Fourth of July, Americans dress down. Our national costume is jeans and a t-shirt. That’s not a bad thing, but it says something about the relationship we have (or don’t) with ethnicity, and with cultural history. Because of our relative national youth and our thoroughgoing multi-ethnicity, we don’t (and maybe shouldn’t) have a highly specific signal of our “belonging.” But with that comes the risk of not entirely knowing what, exactly, we belong to. That uncertainty can be productive; it ought to generate an openness to difference, to wildness, to the powers of improvisation and adaptation and care, but instead, because of the rotten core of our initial society, and the historical fallout that continues to shape the challenges we face, we’ve given a lot of space and energy to fear, foreclosure, and navel-gazing. That’s another thing that I’ve been struck by this year in Norway. There are problems, to be sure; there are plenty of Norwegians ([cough] Listhaug [cough]) here who are as cold, closed, and fearful as many Americans, when it comes to the question of belonging. There are also Norwegians who get a little smug about their belonging to Norway, who look down a bit at we backward Americans (without actually having been there, having met the millions of truly amazing people that call themselves “Americans”). But despite the strength of their ethnic identity, their traditionalism, their strong sense of Norwegianness, and the centuries-long luxury they’ve enjoyed of nurturing that identity in relative isolation, I’ve also seen and heard and experienced a remarkable willingness to share that sense of belonging with newcomers who have, at a cursory glance, very little natural “belonging” to the Norwegian society. Although it is imperfect, newcomers, immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, are, to a surprising degree, welcomed, protected, and, with a little integration (that’s another essay with many parts), become contributors to something new, even in the outermost places, the farthest reaches, the isolated villages far above the Arctic Circle. In other words, despite its apparent cultural stasis, I’ve been surprised by Norwegians’ general willingness to let the very idea of “Norwegianness” change. We could learn a few things from Norway. But damn, it’s hard. And it’s gonna get harder. What a moment to live in. What a set of possibilities to inhabit.

So, here, at the border between this year-long magical world and that other magic of my usual life, I have a lot to think about, a lot to wonder over. I’m going to be fascinated—and surprised—by my memories for years to come, as they percolate up and take new shapes, push into new corners of my brain, new kroker i skogen (“nooks in the woods,” a little Norwegian phrase I like to think I coined). As I’ve mentioned before, my aloneness on these travels has given a special dimension to these travels. Those that know me know I’m a very social fellow; I thrive on togetherness. But it has been a powerful experience to rove throughout this fantastical landscape alone with my sea of thoughts. I felt, at times, a little like the young sailors in my favorite chapter of Moby-Dick, “The Masthead.” Alone, having clambered up to the crow’s-nest (and, aye, isn’t Norway, or, say, Svalbard, a sort of crow’s-nest on the ship o’ the world?!), that unsuspecting sailor experiences a sort of wonderful vertigo of self:

[L]ulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like . . . sprinkled . . . ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.

Being alone here, with, on the other hand, a peculiar sort of familiarity with the country, having some drop of “viking blood” in my veins, after all, gave rise to thoughts and reflections in much the way that poor sailor seemed to glimpse all those elusive creatures of the deep and begin to diffuse his own identity amongst theirs, unknowable as they really were. That wildness of encounter. In my own diffusion, I fell most in love with Nord-Norge, Northern Norway. I’d always, as I’ve said, been drawn to the northernmosts, and I managed to spend over fifty days “near the bear.” I recently discovered that the word Arctic comes from the Greek arktos, meaning “the bear,” and arktikos, or “of the bear,” referring, of course, to the constellation, the Great Bear, which, to Greek eyes, stands in the northern skies. Thus, to be in the Arctic is to be “near the bear.” A pretty thought, that. And up there, one can easily take the nordlys for another image of those thoughts that continually flit through the mind, lending it an equally fleeting sense of identity, a place.

And so, as ever, images:

The view westward from Keiservarden on my last visit to Bodø. Landegode to the right and Lofoten in the distance beyond.

The view westward from Keiservarden on my last visit to Bodø. Landegode to the right and Lofoten in the distance beyond.

Saltstraumen. The world's most powerful tidal current. Near Bodø.

Saltstraumen. The world’s most powerful tidal current. Near Bodø.

Marching Karl Johans gate with Katta in the 17. mai parade . . .

Marching Karl Johans gate with Katta in the 17. mai parade . . .

. . . with Katta's russ in tow.

. . . with Katta’s russ in tow.

The iconic split peak of Kinnaklova on Øya Kinn, the Island of Kinn, Sogn og Fjordane. (The excellent Kinn Brewery takes its name from the island and its logo from Kinnaklova.)

The iconic split peak of Kinnaklova on Øya Kinn, the Island of Kinn, Sogn og Fjordane. (The excellent Kinn Brewery takes its name from the island and its logo from Kinnaklova.)

Not the world's worst spot to camp. Not the worst at all.

Not the world’s worst spot to camp. Not the worst at all.

Looking southward along the west coast from the windswept saddle east of Kinnaklova.

Looking southward along the west coast from the windswept saddle east of Kinnaklova.

Looking westward from the top of Søre Stauren, the southern peak of Kinnaklova (the point at center is the pointed peak to the right in the images above). Furet, værbitt over vannet.

Looking westward from the top of Søre Stauren, the southern peak of Kinnaklova (the point at center is the pointed peak to the right in the images above). Furet, værbitt over vannet.

1Sharp-eyed (or norskspråkelige) readers will notice the variant spelling: vidare for videre, gåande for gående, and skule for skole. That’s nynorsk, New Norwegian, Norway’s other official language. Flora was the only VGS and Sogn og Fjordane the only fylke I visited that uses nynorsk for all its official goings-on.

Ytterste

Outermost Finnmark is something else altogether. I’ve said that before, about (many?) other places in Norway. But the land has its poetics, and if Ezra Pound was right that poetry is “news that stays news,” I’d argue that the land is always newer yet. Our languages emerged in response to our experience of it, and our collective (or communal) need to navigate its threats to and demands upon our survival, and eventually, livelihood. But over time, language begins also to make the land, prefigure it, and, as the case may be (or, as the case is), unmake it. Landscape, the land-as-perceived, the image of land, the overlay, eventually comes prior to land itself. Language conditions our experience of land. It generates expectations, it delimits our imaginings of a place prior to our arrival. In a way, then, I think we relish in the surprises, the million little ways the land itself pushes up through the imaginative map the brain had already laid over everything. Maybe that’s one way to think about aesthetics: the experience of a sort of startle felt when the world itself emerges through our expectations of what the world is like. It’s no surprise, then, that these days I often run out of words; as I walk around, I’m sometimes in a constant state of startle; I catch myself laughing aloud to myself, vastly alone on mountaintops or at the outer edge of an outermost island, looking out toward the cold, gray-blue horizon of the Barents. The landscapes that have surrounded me—rather, the lands & waters themselves—have left me so often clambering over the unsatisfying sounds of words that won’t quite do. Even the three cameras I lug around fail to get at it. The eyes are greedy: Look! Look more! And the camera seduces them with its “Take! Take more!” and its “Keep it!” Sometimes I try to disobey those impulses and just stand there and see and listen. Å ta det imot. To refuse to make (and so take) an image. I’m not very good at it. I can resist anything but the shutter.

So I stand there in a flailing attempt to articulate a fitting description, to reproduce an experience, a sensation, a sight. But the thing I’m after lives in the little coves of silence in between the half-words and utterances, between the upheavals of inchoate thought, geologic, almost, as unfinished as the Arctic, with its scarp and stone and shale and snow and no trees at all. And what wind, relentlessly pushing through every nook, every narrow passage, every sound and fjord. Whistling.

In one of my favorite long poems, Tape for the Turn of the Year, A. R. Ammons thinks about how to represent the ocean’s floor by “sounding” it, how deep is it here, and here, and here. He writes:

soundings twenty miles
apart
will approximate reality:
           (tho you could miss
           a fabulous cleft
           or cone):
only infinite (impossible)
samplings could
produce a map symbolic
of the truth:

To my ear, Ammons celebrates the possibility of “missing” that fabulous cleft or cone, those realities that elude our representations, that don’t make it onto the map. There’s a wildness in it, and a strange, if disorienting, comfort in knowing we can’t know everything. In that sense I’m a Romantic. Can’t get away from it. I rove around a Norway half-created, half-perceived. It’s awful sweet.

Outer Finnmark is one of these ytterste places. I’ve spent the last full week in the ytterste steder (the outermost places) of Norway’s fastland. Two days in Kirkenes, the last town before the Russian land-border; two days in Vardø, the easternmost town in Norway, suspended in the Barents Sea, overhanging Russia, at 30°06’38″E; and three days in Honningsvåg, the northernmost town (with bystatus) in Norway at 70°58’33″N, situated on Magerøy (Meager Island), in Nordkapp kommune—the island municipality of North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe proper at 71°10’21″N. This year has thus brought me to both Europe’s westernmost (Látrabjarg in Iceland at 24°30’00″W) and northernmost (Nordkapp in Norway) points (not to mention Svalbard). I treasure these experiences. And how strange the experience of memory will be—already is—alongside the images and photographs, the shadows, duplicitous in the illusion of accuracy they present. How many cones and clefts have I seen? What things and places and people have I encountered that I cannot represent? How wonderful to imagine them, fullest in their lives.

Vardø, in particular, stands out. There’s a sort of magic surrounding that outermost of Norwegian places. I had a remarkably difficult time arranging housing in Vardø; as it turns out, I happened upon the weekend of Yukigassen, the annual Nordic Championship in snøballkasting! (You can guess what that is without translation, I suspect.) Teams from Russia, Finland, and Norway descend on the island each year for this Japanese snowball war. What luck to stumble upon it!

Amid the surprisingly lively stemning of Yukigassen (the Opening Ceremonies, for one, included a hell of a fireworks show), Vardø is permeated with a quietly startling magic. It began with the most shocking nordlys I’ve yet seen. I had taken a four-hour bus tour all the way around Varangerfjorden to get to Vardø from Kirkenes, and for half the way, as darkness fell, I saw the aurora shimmering through the bus’s tinted and winter-grit-spattered windows, pressing my face and hands against them to catch what glimpses I could. Frustrating. Those rare, clear skies, and all. But I got to Vardø, settled into my room, and, with recommendations from my host, found my way toward the water and the Witchhunt memorial (more on that in a moment). The northern lights had neither quit nor dimmed: I stood, in biting cold wind, with stinging fingertips inside my gloves, directly underneath a flush of banners moving as in a gale, motion and light the length of the sky, and wide. Along the horizon, I saw the lights as slowly fluttering flags; but looking straight upwards (the North Star, Polaris, directly above my head), the lights were swirling poles of green, with whorls of white and faint reds in erratic, but holistic motion. Not choreographed; not that. But contiguous, connected. The sweetness of disturbance, the unseen sun startling the darkness of the Arctic sky into a play of half-lights, not quite radiant, but luminous, looming. Very much alive.

I watched these lights some steps away from another set of lights, much smaller: the Steilneset Minnested is a memorial commemorating the hundreds of killings of suspected witches in the 1600s. I hadn’t realized before my visit that Vardø is Norway’s Salem. Despite its remoteness, the town is among Norway’s older places. Long has it had a church. As my host at school in Vardø there pointed out, in those days, when they built a church someplace, it meant serious business; establishing a church was a kind of flag-planting, a signal of dominance over a place, and of its (often strategic) importance to the development of the church’s expanding regional power. And so, out at—beyond, even—the edge of things, the old church hunted the practitioners of trolldom, witchery, dark magic. The monument consists of a “memorial hall” designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and Flammehuset, The Flame House, a moving installation by Louise Bourgeois, consisting of a flaming chair surrounded in a ring by giant, foreboding vanity mirrors. So much in it. Stunning works. These works are open and free twenty-four hours a day. I first visited the memorial hall at night, with the wind outside, its rush reduced to an eerie howl inside, where I read about those who had been accused and killed by the church, by their neighbors, for trolldom.

Vardø’s origins are in its strategic location as a trading post for Finnish, Russian, and Norwegian goods. Vardø fortress dates from the early 14th century. Predictably, the modern history of Vardø is (like all of coastal Norway) in fish. The Barents is, I’ve been told, among the healthiest fisheries in the world, especially for cod. Late modernity hasn’t, however, been entirely kind. Its population has come and gone in waves, dependent on the fisheries and the whimsical consequences of modernizing the craft of fishing (not unlike what’s happened to once-lively farm-towns in the Midwest). Nazi-occupied Vardø (much like Kirkenes to the south across Varangerfjorden) was bombed repeatedly by the Russians during WWII and was reconstructed. Among buildings in use are boarded up, vacant, dilapidated buildings. A fine house here, an empty clapboard shack nextdoor; here, a wharf, fishing boats overwintering; across the harbor, a rusted out fish warehouse, apparently long abandoned. But I marked quickly the enduring warmth of the people of Vardø. Among Norwegians, infamously reserved, vardøværinger (residents of Vardø) are openly curious and welcoming. I was “warned” I’d be asked about who I was, what I was doing there, etc., if vardøværinger didn’t recognize me. And sure enough, on my last morning, walking down a street, an older man with wizened, weathered features, approached me, and asked outright: “E du kjent?” (“Are you known around here)?” I laughed and replied, “Nei, jeg er ikke kjent her!” (“No, I’m not known around here!”), and so we had a lovely conversation about who I was, why I was there. He was a sjømann in the old days, a sailor, and had, back in the seventies, sailed to the ports of New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. He wished me “Lykke til videre”, with a little more verve than the usual. It means “Good luck further along,” and it’s a pretty standard Norwegian farewell that betrays, I think, a rather traveling spirit beneath the seeming homeboundedness of the people.

When I met him, I was looking some of for Vardø’s many works of gatekunst, street art. The island is home to a living collection truly beautiful works, some visible and demanding, open to all passers-by, whether attentive or casual, and others obscured along unwalked ways, in nooks and crannies, overhung and hidden, made to be sought out, almost as fabulous clefts or cones that overlookers overlook, that can’t (and shouldn’t) find their way onto the map. Many of the works are phrases in English—a sort of ambivalent testament to the very force that has pressed vardøværinger these last decades out of their traditional homes and works and crafts. COD IS GREAT. ETERNAL LIGHT / ETERNAL NIGHT. SEA FEVER. Whether word or image, the works comment and respond to a world-in-place that doesn’t want to go away, that refuses, even while the world’s distant markets push and push and push on its livelihood. In that resistance, I found a whole lot of life, a whole lot of human animal warmth in Vardø. A special place, uglemmelig.

From Vardø, I bought passage on Polarlys, one of the Hurtigrute ships, along the northeastern coast of Finnmark to Honningsvåg, on Magerøy. Both Hammerfest and Honningsvåg lay claim to “the world’s northernmost city” (verdens nordligste by). Although Honningsvåg lies further to the north than Hammerfest, it was granted bystatus in a period when the requirements for city-status were lighter (today, a town has to have 5000 or more citizens to count; Honningsvåg has fewer). But it is, in any case, the administrative center of Nordkapp, Norway’s northernmost kommune. I arrived off the boat early on a crystalline Sunday morning, with sun and polar-blue skies. I had the day to live in, so I stashed my backpack and hiked up to the town’s local mountain (something I’ve become accustomed to in my travels), where I stood and stood and stood. One of the special qualities of outer Finnmark is its missing trees: nothing grows there. Nordkapp’s island, Magerøy, means “meager island,” appropriately (though one could pun on “stomachs”—mager—as well). Treelessness makes for startling landscapes, especially, to my sensibilities, in winter. I splurged on a touristy trip to Nordkapp itself, slightly bloated in its cost (you have to pay to visit this northernmost point; to me, it’s among Norway’s few real tourist traps, flying in the face of allmennsrett). But I’ve been longing to stand there at the top of Norway since I was a child. It was worth it, in the end, to stand there, looking due north in (surprise!) the biting wind whips around the stark, barren, treeless, cliffsides. (Notably, the marker, and corresponding toursit chalet, at Nordkapp isn’t the true northernmost point; that lies on a less dramatic point across a small inlet to the west; one day I’d like to hike there. For free.)

Before leaving Honningsvåg, however, I was given the fullness of Finnmark: two days after that gorgeous Sunday, the town was transformed, whipped up into full storm, gale-force winds. The Barents Sea leapt over harbor and haven and salted the air (and the face). Though it wasn’t raining, your face was wetted by a walk in those winds, and once again in shelter, you felt the salt in the corners of your eyes and mouth. The sea was in the air. My flight out of Honnignsvåg was cancelled, so I was put up in a hotel and rerouted on a bus south to Lakselv with flight connections from there to Svolvær in Lofoten, my destination for visits the next day. At six the next morning, as I woke to make the bus, the airport called (a personal call from airport—that’s how small are these outermost airports!). The road out of town was closed. Yes, the road. Not only full storm, but orkan, hurricane-force winds, were measured in the run of the previous twenty-four hours. Wow. I’ll spare you more details, reader (assuming you’re still reading) but I opted to try the early flight out, so hopped a quick taxi to the Honningsvåg airport, where I flew to Hammerfest, hoping to make connections further to Tromsø, and so to Bodø and finally to Svolvær. Having had to cancel one day of a three-day visit to Svolvær (the teachers there were understanding; they, too, are Northern-Norwegians—they, too, live in the wind!), I arrived a little before 10pm. A fifteen hour trip in five airports to travel some 600 km (as the plane flies). That’s the north. And I’m thankful for it.

I’m in love with Northern Norway. How odd to be again in Oslo, with spring arriving, taking full steps on the solid ground with no fear of falling on the treacherous ice, the warmth of the sun suddenly palpable, after months, now, without it, and longing a little after those ytterste, outermost, winter-polished gems of the North.

And so, as ever, images.

Kirkenesfjorden.

Kirkenesfjorden.

The lights from underneath.

The lights.

Steilneset Minnested. Inside, a light burns now for each of the accused witches.

Steilneset Minnested. Inside, a light burns now for each of the accused witches.

Vardø. I can't keep Moby-Dick out of this blog: "Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are."

Vardø. I can’t keep Moby-Dick out of this blog: “Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

My host told me that when the artist interviewed the Vardø fishermen, he learned, "De tror på torsk"—They believe in cod.

My host told me that when the artist interviewed the Vardø fishermen, he learned, “De tror på torsk”—They believe in cod.

Carved into the painted stone.

Carved into the painted bricks.

Scraped into the painted wood.

Scraped into the painted wood.

This you have to hunt for. I stood long looking at it.

This you have to hunt for. I stood long looking at it.

Magerøy and Porsangerfjorden. This is treeless Finnmark in the farthest north.

Magerøy and Porsangerfjorden. This is treeless Finnmark in the farthest north.

Due north from Nordkapp into the Barents Sea.

Due north from Nordkapp into the Barents Sea. The true north is visible at the left of the frame.

Æ e i Å

I am in love with winter. Of course I have my limits—winter wears on us all. But I am in love with it, wild blizzard and what have you. I’d rather shiver than sweat. I’d rather ski than walk—though, as the Norwegian language would have it, the two, walking and skiing, are cut of the same stone. Unlike English, there’s no Norwegian verb “to ski.” In Norwegian, you “går på ski,” or “walk on skis” (unless you’re going downhill, in which case you “står på ski,” or “stand on skis”). Thus, in Norway, you walk all the year through—always a tur to , but sometimes you use shoes, sometimes skis, gå på sko or gå på ski, only a shift of medium. So I am in love with winter.

One of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” says that “Eternity is in love with the productions of time”—and something about winter, especially winter up here where I write this, some sixty-eight degrees above the equator, towards the outermost islands in the Lofoten archipelago, brings the productions of time into stark relief. Here is a winter tightly knitted to sky and sea, and to the darkness in both. Everything is slower, and somehow sweeter. Cold honey. And with the Norwegian Sea pressing in, ancient and forbidding, on all sides, it’s not the deep-frozen, stock-stillness of Østlandet, shielded as it is by the mountain-spine of the norðrvegr. Lofoten in winter is (based on my scant few-days-worth of impressions) a place suspended between freeze and fluid. And fesk overalt (in the northern dialects, fish are fesk rather than the fisk so many Americans recognize in words like lutefisk). And today, the hard, hard life of the fisherfolk has been transubstantiated into tourism. Fish is still the fulcrum on which Lofoten’s culture turns, the heart of Norway’s traditional fishing identity—like what Seattle is, perhaps, to contemporary American coffee culture. Indeed, visually, if you were to pluck up Norway like a fish from the map, you’d likely grab it by the Lofotens, jutting out as though they were the country’s gills, breathing seaward. But the reality of that old life, persistent, has been transformed into images—compelling images, to be sure. But in a sort of quantum-physical way, realities that develop in isolation are altered fundamentally by outsiders’ observation. Ferries packed with visitors disembark & stay in picturesque villages. In a conversation last night with my host here in Leknes—add him to the list of generous Norwegian hosts—we spoke of the tourism that now buoys up this string of fishing villages that grow increasingly isolated as one moves vestover. Each waterside Lofoten hamlet is nestled always between the sea and the toothy spires that fly up out of it like titanic whales, frozen mid-breach. In each, tourists can find lodging in these rorbuer, little networks of cabins, suspended on stilts over the water along the shore. Rorbu, my host suggested, is best translated as “fishing shed,” as these were the historical sheds that the pre-industrial fisherfolk slept in between long, long days out to fesk. These sleeping hours were raw and low, only enough space to host some precious few hours of sleep between attempts to carve some sparse living out of the hard, hard sea. But the term, he noted, really comes from “rowing”—the fishers rowed out for the daily catch. No industrial fishing boats. Not even a fifteen-horse Evinrude to drive the hunt for the torsk—cod—hiding below the merciless chop of the surface. Imagine it. Just imagine. Rowing sheds, they were. Bare, brawny boat-houses. What night-thoughts inhabited those huts? What had they seen, those days out to sea, in rowboats, on the whale-road, looking for cod?

For almost a year and a half I’ve been waiting to visit Lofoten. I looked at images of one such idyllic fishing village called Reine. Surreal, it seemed (and I saw it, mostly, in summer, they way it’s most often presented in that other ocean, the Internet). As with Ísafjörður in Iceland, Reine seemed to beckon me from its place on the map. But Reine’s winterclothes I’ll take any day. Snow gives to rock something special. Something summer, with its ease—its gab, even—and its loitering, can’t offer. Something rarer. But for all its uniqueness, Reine lies further inward than its neighbor, Å. When I came to Norway and began practicing Norwegian as often as I could, I learned from friends of a special Norwegian sentence, which serves as this post’s title: Æ e i Å, æ og, which, in the northern Norwegian dialects, means “I, too, am in Å” (literally, “I am in Å, I too”). If you’d like to try to say it, the Æ is like the ‘a’ in ‘bad’; the e is like like the Canadian “eh”; the i is ‘ee’; and the Å is a little like the ‘oa’ sound in the name ‘Roald.’ Æ e i Å. I said that sentence in Å i Lofoten, I did. It was good. Standing in Å, outermost of the Lofoten settlements (though Værøy and Røst lie out further yet), felt a little like Skálavík in Iceland. And like Skálavík, I had to fight myself to leave. I could stand and stand and stare seaward, listening to the roar of the Norwegian sea. But I pulled myself away (the darkness helps discourage looking after a certain hour). I spent that evening, then, at the home of my host. We walked on skis (my second evening skitur in Lofoten) on lysløyper, and under nordlys, shimmering faintly, but perceptibly, behind the thin layer of wintercloud, and bluer for that barrier. Something else, altogether. Something else.

And how lucky to have this strange, strange opportunity. How unsettling, at the same time, the luxury of travel. How unequally accessible. I’m glad in the work, at least. I’m glad it’s the work I love that brings me here.

Reine wearing winter

Reine wearing winter

Å i Lofoten, beyond the road's end. Værøy visible in the distance.

Å i Lofoten, beyond the road’s end. Værøy visible in the distance.

Nær til vannet

 

In many ways, adjusting to Oslo is a pretty natural transition for a Seattleite. It certainly helps that I have at least a foundation in Norwegian, and I’ve been swimming in the practice—even if, time to time, it leaves my head spinning (it’s a pleasant sort of dizzy exhaustion, at any rate). But beyond the language and the cultural practices and assumptions, which aren’t radically different from the ones I bring with me, there’re the geographical harmonies. Which is to say, proximity to fresh and salt water determine quite a lot of the public life. So two things occur to me: one, as cities go, Oslo is a particularly special one (and winter ain’t even come yit!); two, I feel continually lucky to be a Seattleite. Stillllllll, though, I spent the last week in absolute revelry (spoiled by a streak of perfect weather after weeks and weeks of an unseasonably poor summer, I’m told), exploring the city by foot, including its fabulous sjøbad (sea-baths or sea-pools; see below), its sleek & shiny T-bane (the subway—an area where Seattle falls flat on its evergreen nose), and, as fortune and friendship would have it, out on the Skagerrak.

Indeed, some days ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse (not quite true), and nothing particular (again, a lie; there’s an immeasurable plenty) to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Ok, forgive me—a little indulgent & sloppy, but I’d never been sailing (properly, anyway) before this past weekend, and in the throes of a little excitement, one has, y’know, one’s favorite patterns.

My friend Ane, whom I met years ago on the bus in Seattle after overhearing her speaking Norwegian (she was studying architecture at UW at the time), invited me on a weekend seiltur (sailing trip) to & from a Swedish island called Ursholmen in a thirty-four foot Hanse called Coquimbo. I’m bit now—it takes but one bite!—and I suspect I’ll be out again before long. After all, there’s nothing surprising in this; if they but knew it, all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. (Ok, I’ll stop. Apologies to Melville, but moreso to you, dear reader.)

Despite the look of things—and they do look luxurious—I’ve been carving out my presentations, and am itching to, well, rove! I have a slew of school visits in the works, ranging from Narvik to Nøtterøy (cf. my map and calendar nearby), and I’m looking out, as a sailor might (or might not) say, to meeting students & teachers, & there’s plenty of good work in the offing. Goodness, what am I doing here?!

Meanwhile, I’ll spare you a whole glut of images from these past couple weeks of “adjustment” & hold to a tender five . . .

 

Sørenga sjøbad, new to Oslo this June and just south of the Opera house. At this time of year, the water in Oslofjord is shockingly nice (much warmer than Puget Sound, I was surprised to discover).

 

IMG_0327

The sjøbad at Tjuvholmen.

 

Call me Ishmael. At the helm of Coquimbo for a spell.

 

Coquimbo heeling a bit.

 

Skagerrak sunset at Ursholmen.

 

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