Andy Meyer, Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

Month: January 2016

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.

Klima og Vær

Some time’s been spent since my last post—an apology for that lapse is probably appropriate. But I’m not terribly sorry, in the end; I’ve been uptaken by an unexpected surfeit of things to do with other humans in, y’know, Norway.

In the middletime, though, some things happened: jul happened, the Paris Climate Agreement happened, the deflating, heart-grinding (and sadly unsurprising) Tamir Rice decision happened, the turn of the year happened, and vinterbading, winter-swimming, with it, the state of the union (or the address of the same name) happened, the Iran Deal happened, the national embarrassment on display in the American GOP primary race continued to happen, and the ceaseless becoming of seven billion odd lives the world over continued to happen forth. Among other happenings too numerous to list. (I’m no Whitman, after all.)

And snow, at last, in Oslo (and elsewhere hereabouts) happened, which gave rise to my first skiing here in the heart of this ski-going land, amongst this ski-going people.

I decided, when I left the US to live here this year, that I would not, barring emergency, return for the whole calendar. I’m gonna be there, I said; no pond-hopping for the holidays & such (unless we’re talking about real ponds on sidewalks or mountainsides in Norway). And so I stayed over the holidays, that most family-y time of year. But I’m fortunate to have friend & folk here, and so I had an ordentlig norsk jul, first and foremost—a “proper Norwegian yule.” In some ways this wasn’t so different from a proper American Christmas in my family, but with some substitutions: my (little more distant) Norwegian family for my American family; ribbe and pinnekøtt for the lutefisk and empanadas I’m accustomed to in the Midwest; Norwegian for English; among a few other things. But because I offered a lot of words to julestemning in advance of jul itself, I won’t dwell long on the topic (and indeed, in Norway, it seems the anticipation of juletida is as exciting as the day—or run of days—itself. It’s a very fine time, at any rate. Or, rather, not at just any rate, but at just that rate, just that unhurried, rounded, pine-scented rate at which it transpires, bathed all in that particular amber light only such an angle to the sun offers. The 60° solstice of the north. As my fellow Rover John Hanson likewise observed, the winterdark wasn’t so challenging as I had expected. That rare quality of light was more than enough compensation (and notably, the sun doesn’t entirely forsake Oslo as it does the Arctic parts).

Despite the latitude, though, and the expectations that it encourages, no snow fell on this Norwegian jul. A “brown” Christmas, with Charlie or without. This, it turns out, isn’t entirely unusual in these parts. Iowa’s like that too. But winter is coming, they kept telling me; just wait for January and February. All but guaranteed. Yet, I was skeptical, as a witness to last year’s absurdities in Washington state—snowless Cascades and bare Olympics the winter long (a gravelly run in February was all Mt. Baker, with its world-record-for-snowfall, had to show for it). But winter has come, generally speaking, to the north, and in some places (as in Bergen where I write this), moreso than usual. Bergen, as I think I’ve said before, is a sister-city to Seattle, and for good reason: same famous fish market, same-ish landscape, same sort of just-off-kilter counter-cultural attitude (combined with a secret hyper-participation in mainstream consumerism, let’s be clear), and same climate. Not a lot of winter snow in either town; rather, a lot of winter rain. But Bergen has been below freezing for a couple weeks now, and I arrived here to a winter wonderland, which Bergen isn’t wont to witness. A whiteout hike up to the highest of Bergen’s seven peaks, Ulriken, proved a rare treat (see below). Only one slip, though, despite the preponderance of ice (and a little knee-blood for proof).

And Bergen isn’t the only coastal city offering a season’s special: I paid a visit to Kristiansand, where snow tends to fall, but not in the quantities this year’s provided. I took my skis along and had my first go of the year, which was also my first ever ski with that special feeling, half-invented, that comes with skiing in Norway, heightened, surely, by the sense of being among people whose ancestors, some of which are mine, too, are partly credited with the invention of the modern ski. Even in Kristiansand, a place hardly known for skiing, the park was chock full of folk & families out on the trails. Toddlers, too, trying their feet with startling skill (I gladly confess I was passed more than once by a little guy skating gracefully along while I labored, unpracticed, in the classic traces). But in Østlandet—the eastern, snow-covered part of Norway—the prevalence of skiing is almost joke-high. I’ve been gently tormenting a ski-going friend in Seattle with images of all the people I see carrying skis on the Oslo subway on my way home from a this or that, all hours of the day (and on Saturdays and Sundays, on the 1-line out to Frognerseteren or the 6-line out to Sognsvann, you’d think you’d the “skiers-only” sign). To boot (pun intended?), Oslo kommune maintains a network of lysløype, lighted trails, that skiers can enjoy well beyond the few hours of winterdaylight. I put in my first go in Oslo the other night, before this two-week stint away—14 km, entirely after dark. And though I wasn’t alone by any means, I evaded the thick crowds that jam the trails on weekend middays. Instead, I skied at my own pace, from Holmenkollen to Ullevålseteren and down to Sognsvann, amid pine and spruce, laden with snow, with only the occasional hei hei to skiers-by and the squeak of the well-below-zero snow (°C, that is), along with the sweep of easy wind, av og til, and (I’m can’t resist) downy flake. You might say I stopped by woods on a snowy evening, with frost (literally) in on my mind—and in my beard. But whose woods are these? I didn’t have to think; I knew. No villager in some distant house owns these trees. These are the people’s woods, farmhouse near or no. All this but a ten-minute train away from the heart of the Viking capital. A lovely way, I think, to winterize.

Meanwhile, “outside,” the world rages on. The Paris Climate Conference culminated in a (supposedly) landmark international agreement, necessitating a welcome update to my environmentalism presentation. President Obama gave his final State of the Union address (surprise!, it’s “strong”), as well as a pretty interesting interview, in some ways, with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, despite the latter’s indecipherable cause (by which I mean his series of very strange facial expressions), and the expected-but-nevertheless-dispiriting decision not to indict the officers responsible for the shooting death of Tamir Rice. I have comments on all of these, but I’ll spare most of them for other times; I will say something about the Tamir Rice case, though. And it’s this: I can’t understand it. The Grand Jury, at the (unfathomable) recommendation of the county prosecutor, decided not to indict. I guess I’m not entirely certain, really, what the fundamental task of a Grand Jury is, but it seems to me that theirs is not the same as that of a trial jury; theirs is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to determine if the shadow of doubt is long enough to warrant a formal trial, in which guilt or innocence can then be named. I am absolutely baffled by the conclusion that there is insufficient tension between the statements of the Cleveland officers and what’s visible on the security videos. Not even a handful of seconds transpire between the aggressive arrival the police car and the end of a twelve-year old life. Nobody else nearby. Nobody under direct threat. What is it that motivated the police response that drove a cruiser up over the curb, onto the grass, but feet from the “potential” threat, rather than a slower, more spacious approach, even a half-hearted attempt at discerning the reality of the situation from some distance safer for everybody? It appears to my untrained eye that the conditions of a perceptible threat (mistaken or genuine, but let’s grant that the officer really did feel threatened) was precisely generated by the arrival and push of the officers themselves. I recognize we have an incomplete, choppy, uncertain video as evidence; I realize that in the moment of duty, with deadly weapons potentially at play, the decisions that police make are pressurized and difficult. But I’m running the scenarios through my head in which the officers may have attempted a humane approach to the situation, grasping for some imagined version of the timeline in which what the officers say somehow holds together. But I come up empty. I can’t understand it. I can’t get my head around it. And in reading about the case again, I was reminded of John Crawford III, whose name gets lost amid the Garners, Rices, Browns, and Grays. Similarly “armed” with a toy gun, similarly escalated by a highly aggressive, unquestioning arrival of deadly police force. It seems like we’re long beyond the time when we ought to have reassessed what we mean by “police,” reevaluated the power we give such people with so much less consequence or comeuppance than we give civilians, reconsidered the supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards that seem to fall out of their blue sleeves in droves (not to mention the embarrassment of put-others-in-jail cards that are more numerous still). I’m not in any way anti-police. A just and well-trained police is absolutely important for a modern democratic and, if we’re gonna have it, capitalist state. But I’m certainly not convinced that what we have, on average (there are, of course, serious and meaningful exceptions) is the police culture befitting a democratic republic such as ours. Even so, I tell Norwegian students that I have hope, that the conversation about police reform, about racial profiling, about becoming aware of our implicit biases, about retraining our forces toward de-escalation rather than reaffirming the knee-jerk lapse into aggression and intimidation (i.e., escalation) that we’re used to, and that we not-accidentally celebrate in film and fiction (I write this as a big fan of The Wire)—these conversations are happening in ways and at levels we’ve not seen in some time, thanks in part to #BlackLivesMatter. Still, I wonder what, say, fifty years will show. What sort of police culture (and, by extension, community culture) will we have built? What will we have affirmed?

All this in the context of a political primary season that defies the understanding. My routine message to Norwegian students (and teachers, moreover) who wonder has changed over these three, four months. In September, even into mid-October, I kept chuckling as I confidently asserted the imminent disappearance of that monster who leads the GOP pack. A clown, said I; a side-show. Not long now and he’s gone. Then November. Still (though a finger in my collar now), I held the same tack. So December. Then that embarrassing, despicable call to ban all Muslims from entering the country (nevermind those millions who live here already?). That’s the line, thought I. No one will stand for this who has a mind to think, or, at the very least, a heart to care—or half a heart, even a sputter of empathy in one’s bloodstream. And yet, if you’ll pardon the glib Princess Bride reference, he gains. Nothing for it now but to remind ourselves that this is still the primaries. That man is not running for president. He’s running to run, I tell them. The people responsible for this moment are a sliver of the manifold population, the mangfoldig befolkning in Norwegian (a rather poetic term). The whole, ungainly, irreducible population will never elect such a monster.

But my skin still crawls a little, and some days more than others. I had written a longer, drawn out reaction to this deepening embarrassment, but I’ll hold it back for other times and places. I was getting too worked up, a little too acidic for my purposes in these writings to comfortably ask you, dear readers, to keep reading. It defies description, in any case, and I tire somewhat quickly of the smell of a fire that rages on that sort of fuel. Better to build a birch fire, or toss in a pine-knot to scent the air. Evasion? Subterfuge? Perhaps. I’ll live with that for now. So, like Inigo Montoya, I won’t explain; there is too much. Let me sum up: I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how the American populace has become so permeated with anti-intellectualism, with an excruciatingly high tolerance for ignorance (almost a celebration of it in some quarters). One theory I have is that Americans, in startling numbers, walk the country with an insufficient understanding of their own government, of its (necessary) complexity, much less the complexity of the world beyond our borders. We could say it’s the result of inadequate education. And it likely is, though I’d like to believe that even the most basic high school education ought to be sufficient to loosen the calcified deposits of fear in the veins. I had a decent enough education in my rural Iowa town, all things considered. Yet, at the same time, I graduated with zero sense of the politics of our time. I didn’t develop any thoroughgoing understanding of government or the political parties and apparatuses that help shape the lives of people until well into my college life. So certainly more can be done in many isolated places (like the one where I grew up) to encourage engagement. But then, my teaching philosophy has long been based on a belief that effective education requires willingness, and willingness (to learn, to ask, to apply, to wonder, etc.) may flow from another source, something more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and so forth. (Pardon that Romantic intrusion.) But I do mean that it’s as hard to locate, much less name, the source of the rampant anti-intellectualism that has gripped such broad swaths of the nation as it was for Wordsworth to name that feeling, or that form of knowledge, that he felt in memory and landscape. And in the case of the US, the grip of this almost (or fully?) willful form of ignorance is showing itself to have profoundly dangerous strength. I really don’t know. I had scratched out a lot of thoughts about the utter failure (in my opinion), in many parts of the nation, of churches and religious leaders to root out the almost open-faced bigotry that has gripped that mysterious and large group of voters who take the name “evangelicals,” but my strong feelings on that matter didn’t feel appropriate in this container. There are deeper, uglier reasons, I think, for what’s happening. They are tentacles of fear, especially fear of difference. Fear, frankly, of facing the reality of life outside of the halls of white-supremacy, whose walls are crumbling, however slowly. In my presentations I use a couple of quotations from writers who’ve helped me think through the depth of our struggle in the US. In one of them, Claudia Rankine reminds us that the “American imagination,” which is to say the American society, began in white-supremacy. “We” Americans don’t like to think that way about our own glorious history of equality and liberty and bravery and pluckiness. But it’s absolutely true: white-supremacy was in the original fabric, the raw materials, as it were, and it needs, I think, to be remembered so that we can recognize its legacies today and dismantle them. The other is by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who commented in The New York Times a couple years ago that “We,” by which he means African-Americans, “were never meant to be part of the American story.” It was a story written by white people for white people. Though from the beginning, Africans were there. So we need a new story. We know we need to re-write the American story (and we need to, and do, do it daily). The old story, false as it ever was, is slipping away, and with that slippage come the desperate gasps of the class that has inordinately benefited from the exclusivity of that story—an exclusivity bestowed only by birth, and the maintenance of a profoundly unjust system that favored that class of births, for no self-evident reason. Birth, that obvious mystery, unintelligible.

There are, to be sure, real threats at large, no matter what cross-section your slice of America reveals. There are. But without willingness to encounter difference (turns out, it takes a ton of work), we’re lost, we’re distracted, we strip ourselves of the ability to witness, and so to adjust. No one to drive the car. The pure products of America do indeed go crazy. It’s dangerous to live in a padded room.

And here I am, in Svolvær now, midway along the Lofoten archipelago, well north of the Arctic Circle, in January. (I’ve roved in the run of this writing.) I was up “early” to see the sun crawl up over the distant island peaks to the south . . . at about 10:30. It set around 2:00pm, and climbed, in its transit, only far enough over the horizon to lose its orange and gain a golden glow; no offer of that full spectrum of naked light in the noons we know to the south. I walked out to the end of the road (I’m drawn to the ends of roads), where a sculpture stands on an islanded pedestal some meters out into the water from where I stood. Fiskarkone, she’s called: the fisherman’s wife. She looks away from where you stand, raising her hand in a gesture of either farewell or longing. Or, if we were to glimpse the reality in the minds and hearts of the women of Lofoten over the ages, long and long, I suspect we’d see gestures far more complex than either farewell or longing can communicate. And far more powerful. And how marvelous that the statue looks away from the viewer—from the fast-land, one cannot see her face. Something to that, there is. Meanwhile, as I look over her shoulder to the ice cold Norwegian Sea, codfish dries behind me in droves, even in the sharpness of January, on long A-frame racks called fiskehesje, scattered throughout Svolvær. And into my mind wanders Elizabeth Bishop, who also once plied her trail toward the fisherfolk and knew something, almost, by dipping her hand in the ice cold seawater, something elusive that I think is helpful to consider:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

And so, some images of these winterdays as they pass:

After a whiteout on the way up Bergen's Ulriken, the sky opened up on the way down.

After a whiteout on the way up Bergen’s Ulriken, the sky opened up on the way down.

Bergen wears winter well.

Bergen wears winter well.

Svolvær i januar. Ubeskrivelig.

Svolvær i januar. Ubeskrivelig.

Fiskarkona, seaward.

Fiskarkona, seaward.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén