Though winter is sliding away from us, here’s one last blast of cold from the Land of the Midnight Sun.
By Jenni Quilter
It is a word which I have learnt—a solitary word in a foreign language.
—E. M. Forster
In Bergen, at the market on the wharf, fox pelts hang from a corner of a tent like scarves. The pelts of the other animals are draped over racks and set out in front in order of size: reindeer, seal, sea lion. No one can resist stroking them as they walk by.
I had always thought reindeer imaginary creatures, like Santa Claus and unicorns, but here they are, in the tens, hundreds—dead, but oh so gentle and mild, I cannot stop stroking them as if they were alive, soothing them and me. Dad has to call to me, pull me out of reverie.
You can buy so many things made of reindeer here: reindeer boots, and coats, knife handles made from their bone, sheaths made from their hide. You can also buy woolen socks, cushions and sweatshirts, all embroidered with reindeer on them (often walking in a line). You can buy spirit hoops. You can buy hot-blue and -pink T-shirts screen-printed with a howling wolf, which is obviously howling all the way from the 1980s. There is a stall that sells crystals. Another sells cloudberry jam. There are small pyramids of whale sausage. There is tray after tray of scallops and crayfish and tuna brochettes, shrimp, crab legs, smoked salmon, caviar (black, green and orange), smoked fish and fish soup.
The smell of the hot sea—warm salt, fish breath—gusts past. A man stands in front of several shallow plastic bins overflowing with stuffed cats: white cats, black cats, tabbies and gingers, standing, sitting, curled up, stretching, mid-lick. Kittens. Their eyes are made of glass. It’s only after I touch them and feel how not soft they are that I realize they literally are stuffed cats.
We are going to try to reach the northernmost point of Norway, a place called Nordkapp.
The Norwegians love to hunt, Dad says. A few of them recently incurred great wrath in New Zealand when they posted videos online of themselves holding aloft a number of our endangered birds. They’d shot them while on holiday.
Tomorrow, my father and I will begin cycling north. We are going to try to reach the northernmost point of Norway, a place called Nordkapp, which is approximately three thousand kilometers away. We have six weeks. Today, though, we are all about supplies. We have bought our gas and food. Our bikes are back at the hostel, locked to the tubular steel of the bunk beds, and we worry about them as you would a moored yacht or a child at a sleepover.
Bergen is the biggest city we’ll visit in Norway, and so we try to take in the sights. We take photographs of the houses along the harbor’s edge, which are old and orange and sag against each other. We stride up the hill, away from the harbor, through winding streets and past old houses, aiming for the greenbelt that stretches across the tops of the hills. The parks are crisscrossed with walking trails, well populated even on a weekday morning. We choose one path after another without much deliberation, ascending until we can go no further and our worry about the bikes becomes too conscious to ignore. We listen to the Norwegians talk to each other. We’ve been in the country less than twenty-four hours, and so we have the fascination of babies; our eyes will follow anything.
What does one know about Norway? Crime fiction. Oil. They pride themselves on making things from creatures I never thought to kill. We are sentimental about different animals—that, or I don’t know if their sentimentality extends to protection.
The next day, we leave Bergen. The arterial roads that get you in and out of a city are rarely designed with bikes in mind, and so we have to pick our way out, tacking this way and that. These parts are never very pretty—auto-repair stores, car dealerships, pet stores and garden centers—so we put our heads down and pedal. All we have to do that afternoon is find our campground, our patch of grass.
I can’t remember anything about that first night: not what the place looks like, if we find it easily or if, as has happened before, the campground does not accept tents, is closed or has simply disappeared.
The next moment I remember is the following day. We are cycling along the internal coast of a fjord, passing through small holiday communities. The houses here have turf roofs, and they sit low in the landscape. Here, wealth is in direct proportion to discretion—an architecture my father can get behind, and he keeps on murmuring approvingly, frequently stopping to take photos of particularly attractive turf.
I’m not fit enough, my back is aching, and he pedals ahead with slow ease. I keep falling off my bike, too; I’m unused to the clip-on pedals, and if I’m concentrating on something else—a waterfall, a car, the water next to me—and suddenly have to slow, I forget to decisively twist my heels outward and inward like Dorothy and—rather gracefully, he says—I fall over. Crash. And again. And again.
Even as the two men spoke, the priest pulled a fish from his back pocket and began gnawing on it.
By mid-afternoon we have begun to climb, occasionally passing through alpine towns that have a very slight out-of-season scruffiness. It’s a stretch to imagine this place in winter: all that snow, the smell of hanging wood smoke, a night that never passes. One hour turns into two, and the road doesn’t really change. We are still climbing, occasionally reaching a plateau and then climbing again. There are no stores, no car parks, barely any houses. In a car, this would register as a downbeat between attractions. It’s all very beautiful, but in Norwegian terms, we are puffing our way through the uneventful. This is what we came for. The patience of pedaling helps with living in general, and no one knows this better than my father. We stop for water, for a muesli bar. Our thighs pump away mindlessly. This is going to be like tunneling out of prison using a spoon. I don’t remember the campground that night either.
It rains most of the second day—a soft, persistent rain, the kind you don’t notice after a while. We are always damp, always on the verge of drying. We are cycling through green farmland. Dad can’t get over how all of the barns seem to be painted the same red—not the red of fire trucks or ski clothing, but red that has a touch of blue in it, dark russet: the color of old blood. Dad calls it a pleasing contrast, that red set against the green fields and forest. He says he doesn’t know why it is pleasing, but I know he does. We both enjoy puzzling over something we already know.
Later in the morning there is a horse in a field with a Mohawk mane, and bus shelters with their own turf roofs, and silent, mistrustful-looking Norwegians in supermarkets, mostly elderly men. I am hypnotized by the regular whoosh of cars passing and their micro-hesitations, which I am learning to sense with ever-increasing exactitude. My dad and I talk about stray dogs, and comfort, about Peter and the degeneration of the body. We talk about hills, about polypropylene and side mirrors. We talk about E. M. Forster. At lunch, I read him a bit from one of Forster’s essays about paintings and art galleries, about how difficult it is to actually see a picture for what it is. Forster says the only thing he feels confident in finding in a painting is the diagonal line implied by the composition, the arrangement of form and color that draws the eye up and through the visual plane. Now, he says, he looks for diagonals everywhere. That’s how he knows to enjoy art. My dad grunts in agreement. I knew he would.
One of Forster’s last lines is dangerously exact. “It is so unenterprising,” he writes, “to annihilate everything that’s made to a green thought, even when the thought is an exquisite one.” He can’t recommend the habit, and he can’t kick it, either. My dad grunts at that, too. We are sitting at the water’s edge. I can look across the fjord to a waterfall on the other side, a kilometer or so away, twenty stories tall. I can see the spray driven upward, but at this distance, it is soundless. My father is real. The bike is real. The road is real. But the views aren’t yet real. I have no faith in my perception of distance; I can see what I can touch, and nothing else.
My father and I know how to be happy. We know it as a doctor strikes the patella tendon below the knee with his mallet—how the leg jerks up cheerfully, automatically. Cycle touring is a means to a rhythm we both love: the form of function, of eating and moving and sleeping, of life whittled down to its economical, portable sense. Cycling is our diagonal.
The campground that night has Wi-Fi, so I sit on the dock while Dad cooks dinner, checking my email and the BBC. The rain clouds have gone, and it is a beautiful evening: soft, warm, clear.
The news: earlier that day, there was an explosion in central Oslo, probably from a bomb. At least four people have been killed. There has also been a shooting at a summer camp on Utøya Island, which is close to Oslo. There are reports that a large number of teenagers have been killed.
Next to us, a young couple sits in front of their tent, mashing raspberries and sugar together in a bowl. I can hear the tink of the fork. Farther along, two elderly couples toast each other, sitting in deckchairs in front of their camper vans. Someone spots a pod of dolphins out in the sound, and everyone stands up to take a look. Their black fins rise up and retract from view as neatly as an eye opening and closing.
In the front yards of a few of the houses we passed that day, I had noticed flags hung at half-mast—Norwegians love their flagpoles and trampolines, and at least a third of the houses have one or the other—but I didn’t think anything of it. The cashier in the supermarket said nothing. The elderly men, sitting on the bench outside, who had watched us put our reflective vests back on, said nothing. The campground owner said nothing.
Sitting on the dock, I refresh the screen over and over again, jumping from one news website to another. Numbers and names and stories form like condensation. Dad goes to bed. By 10 p.m. or so, the basic story is clear. The camp on Utøya was an annual event organized by the Labour Party for young, socially conscious, politicized teens. It had been going on for decades. Some of the kids had parents who had attended when they were kids themselves. That morning—this morning—there were close to a thousand teenagers.
Just before lunch, a man dressed as a policeman arrived by boat on the island’s shore. By then, news of the explosion at a government building in Oslo had begun to trickle through, and the students were worried. Many of them lived in the city, and Utøya was only a forty minutes’ drive away. Some of them probably wanted to go home.
The policeman was a right-wing supremacist called Anders Breivik. He and I are the same age. He was dressed in dark official fatigues, told the kids to gather around for an announcement—and then opened fire.
Breivik had ninety minutes on the island before the police arrived—ninety minutes to move from the beach to various campground buildings, stalking those hiding from him in classrooms and under beds, in boat houses and the forest. The length of a film. Some tried to swim away, and a few were rescued by other boats in the sound.
That evening, the death toll keeps jumping around online. It could be sixty-five, maybe ninety. It’s probably seventy. Two days before, Breivik uploaded a video on YouTube and posted a lengthy manifesto. It has already been removed. He was surprised, apparently, that the police didn’t shoot him. He expected to become a martyr today.
There are islands out in the sound in front of me. They are still, silent. I keep waiting for night to come, but it won’t come, of course; we are already too far north.
Read the rest of Jenni’s journey in N14…