My Scandinavia (VI)

Lithuanian novelist and playwright Marius Ivaskevicius is highly rated in the Baltic States, Poland, and Hungary for his humorous observations of contemporary life. Now Eurozine publishes, in English translation, his seven-part Scandinavian travelogue. In part V, Ivaskevicius entered Christmas card heaven in northern Norway. But the journey north doesn’t end there. This week he finally becomes the northernmost European. Then it’s back to the charming port of Honningsvag, where he shares a birchless sauna with the socialist mayor and discovers that football is a spiritual matter.

In the north of Norway the Christmas scenery ends and the existential scenery begins. It’s like waking up after a great party with a very serious hangover. You look at those snow-covered mountains and what’s left of the greenery, and a single thought torments you: Why am I alive? Why do I strive to create something when this kind of majestic beauty has existed for centuries and its creator is unknown? In a word, you travel along those northern Norwegian roads, you stare at those mountains, and you think: What am I to them?

Bidding the trees farewell

Travelling here by bus, you need to change often. Four buses from four different corners of the earth arrive in one town. All four drivers sit down at one table, drink coffee, exchange a few words, and leave again for four different corners of the earth: the east, the west, the south, and the north. You gawk at the passengers who chose a direction other than north. When you’re so close to this giant mountain – the very tip of the European continent � how could anyone have anything else to do besides reach the summit? Driving reminds you of climbing a mountain. At first, you bid the trees farewell. They disappear. The birches remain longest. It’s a tenacious tree, if you can call it that here in the north. More like a low bush, which doesn’t even grow to half the size of the average Norwegian. Later, they disappear too. When you behold snow-covered cliffs with no vegetation at all, you understand that this scene is somehow more beautiful. Those few sparse, sad bushes had been spoiling the view. There’s no big difference between the earth and a man’s head. If a man goes bald, there’s no point to trying to cover the bald spot with the few remaining hairs. He’s better off shaving his head.

When you pass through a tunnel under the sea to the island of Mageria the world is even sunnier. Even clouds here are lazy, completely relaxed, almost dribbling. “Oh well,” they think, “No one will notice”.

And finally – Honningsvag – the world’s northernmost city. Almost everything here that is somehow tied to human life and activity is dubbed the world’s northernmost: the world’s northernmost church, the world’s northernmost school, the world’s northernmost bus stop, and so on. But though it’s further north than, let’s say, the north of Alaska, it’s still not the northernmost point in Europe.

To get to the European pole – to Nordkap – you need to empty your pockets completely. Before the tourist season no public transport goes there. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. For a few years now it’s been possible to reach Nordkap any day of the week. And so, at the very beginning of March, having paid almost six hundred crowns, I found myself standing beside three yellow buses, waiting for a boat. The boat arrived carrying a group of German tourists. Some of the tourists who transferred from the boat to the waiting buses where dressed like mountain climbers. Their layers of warm clothing and ski goggles made me nervous: Where was I going? But there were also others who didn’t even have gloves or a scarf. So that left two possibilities: either some of the people gathered here, including me, would be found when the snow melted, or some would sweat and suffer because they came just a little over-prepared.

The six-hundred-crown ticket to Nordkap was justified by the road that led to it. Our buses crawled through a white desert like three yellow camels; meanwhile, a snow-plow cleared the way in front of us. In order to bring tourists year-round to the northern-most tip of Europe, the way has to be constantly cleared, because the wind blows incessantly. The very last leg of the journey to Nordkap was especially worth the money. The scenery that you see through your window hypnotizes you. Having said this, Nordkap itself was a disappointment. It seems magnificent from the air, from the side, or from the water, but the view from Nordkap itself is not very interesting. Nordkap is like an incredibly beautiful woman who is admired by the entire world. But all you’d need to do would be to be that woman for a day, and you’d see that the world, without a mirror, is not so perfect.

How to become northernmost

As it turned out, there was something to do at Nordkap. First of all, because of its geographic position. To be honest, that’s the main reason people come here. Before I came to Nordkap, I spent about a month thinking about what it would be like. There won’t be any bus, I thought to myself, so I’ll walk, fighting off polar bears along the way. Or maybe I’ll meet a Sami along the way who’ll give me a ride on his snowmobile, or better yet, on his sledge. I really didn’t expect the experience to be so, well, tourist-oriented. But things are how they are. We stopped, got out, and walked towards the edge of the cliff.

But the cliff was fenced off. Perhaps because the pull to move even further north is practically uncontrollable. After all, there is nowhere further to go. Further is the ocean. Without the fence, that uncontrollable urge could send you off the edge of the cliff.

Unfortunately, my bus arrived last and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get past the three Italians and the one hundred Germans who’d got out before me. But I felt determined to somehow diplomatically position myself – or drastically position myself – so that I could be the first to become the northernmost European. When I reached the Nordkap fence, I tried to orient myself as fast as I could. Soon I’d figured out which part of the fence would allow me to attain the title of northernmost European. I had no problem with the Italians: they walked around on the opposite side and had no ambition towards the northernmost spot. However, one older German couple stood at exactly the spot I needed to be in. I went and stood beside them and the three of us became the northernmost Europeans. But it was not enough. I felt I was not just responsible for myself, but for my entire nation. I couldn’t ask the Germans to leave me alone here for a moment – they might have taken it the wrong way. So I went and climbed the fence. Sometimes, sprinters stick out their chests when they reach the finish line. My climbing the fence was something like that. I glanced at my watch. I’d attained the title of northernmost European at four minutes past one p.m. on the third of March 2004. And then, for another ten minutes, I made it appear as though I were staring at the horizon over the Arctic Ocean, although what I was really doing was maintaining my position.

Because it’s not everyday that you become the northernmost European, I decided that I needed to do something to earn it. I tried to take a look at Europe from above, from the viewpoint of someone standing on the edge, and to consider it awhile. I imagined that I was standing at the bow of this huge continent and that I was sailing it who knows where. Finally, I realized that it was cold being the northernmost European. Especially since it’d been quite a while since anyone had tried to compete with me for the title. Everyone had long ago gone inside the building that had been built on top of Nordkap. That’s when I decided, “Enough of this, Europe is amazing, gigantic, important, but if I catch a cold, my cough and runny nose will seem much more important.” And off I went to join the others.

After I’d sent home a few postcards marked with Nordkap’s postmark, I sat down with the others to watch a film about Nordkap. The film showed the cliff, which Russian sailors had once called “Norway’s nose,” during all four seasons and from different perspectives. Nordkap in winter. Nordkap in summer. Nordkap poking out of the water. The camera diving into the water. Nordkap from up high and from a little lower. There’s a helicopter flying over the heads of a group of tourists, enthusiastically waving at the cameraman, all of them for the moment northernmost. And now it’s flying a little lower, showing us the northern incline. And what do I see there? In the centre of the incline there is an observation deck. The people standing on that deck are clearly a few metres north of those standing on the cliff. That meant that during those minutes I’d spent on the opposite side of the fence, freezing, I hadn’t been the northernmost European after all. It was not unlikely that as I was standing there someone was standing above me on the observation deck, looking down at me and laughing at my foolishness.

Not even waiting for the end of the film, I ran from the small theatre and asked the first Nordkap employee I saw where that observation deck was. They pointed me in the right direction (the observation deck was at the end of a long corridor) but tried to dissuade me from visiting it, telling me it was still closed. But I didn’t listen. I felt there was far too much deception in this Nordkap set-up. I reached the observation deck. It was closed. The restaurant beside it was also closed. There wasn’t a single person around. For what it was worth, I pressed my entire body against the northern wall of the restaurant. For what it was worth. If someone tried to jump the fence and be more northernmost than me, I’d beat them, pressed as I was to the glass, just a little further north.

Frigid Europe

I spent the remainder of the day and the night in Honningsvag. This city, or rather, this town, which had probably no more than three thousand residents, differed from the rest of Norway in that it didn’t subsist from oil and fishing, but from fishing and from Nordkap. Beside the town there is a large hotel that operates only during the summer months and acts like a sort of conveyor belt, accommodating one-night tourists like myself. A person arrives, puts a foot on Nordkap, spends the night, and leaves. I’d planned my visit in Honningsvag exactly that way, but things turned out differently. Honningsvag left me with a deeper impression than Nordkap. And even now I can safely say that the two most beautiful Scandinavian cities I’d ever visited are on islands. Visby in Gotland and Honningsvag in Mageria.

Although I wouldn’t say that Honningsvag is cosy. It’s an attractive town, a very attractive town, but I’d never want to live in it. It’s much more convenient to hold onto Honningsvag as a memory. On a cold winter night in Vilnius, as it snows and as the wind blows, I can drink tea with raspberry jam and know that somewhere there is a Honingsvag, a port town made up of a multitude of variously coloured two-storey houses, built along a fjord that ends in the ocean. And that in this town, for almost a month in winter, the sun does not shine at all. But the people who live in Honningsvag fill up that month with a multitude of festivals and events. And when on the twenty-first of January the sun shows itself again for a few minutes, they celebrate all the more. Even school children are given the day off.

Birgit, whose house I stayed in, works at the school. In addition to that job, she teaches Norwegian to immigrants. The first non-European came to Honningsvag from Somalia four years ago. Now the town has about forty refugees from Africa and Asia. Some are waiting for Norway’s decision whether or not to allow them to stay. It’s hard to say whether these people knew that Europe was that cold when they escaped and sought refuge here. They can experience cold in Honningsvag like nowhere else.

Birgit’s husband, Ture, was born and raised in Bergen in Norway’s south. When I asked him why he moved to Honningsvag, Ture pointed out of his window to the fjord and to the snow-covered mountains beside the water. “Because of those two sights,” he answered, “and also because there’s a lot to do here.” Ture is Honningsvag’s deputy mayor. He belongs to the socialist party, which won the local elections. Ture believes that Norway’s social democrats have given in to the political right, and that the true left is represented by socialists. But politics are not Ture’s main occupation. He is the director of the Northern Norwegian Film Centre and allocates funding for this region’s documentary films.

A Pastor, birch brooms, and football

Birgit and Ture were holding a party at their house that day, so while Birgit was preparing the food, Ture and I, as is appropriate for northern European men, went to relax in the sauna. Only there were no birch brooms in the sauna. In northern Europe, men and women thrash themselves and others with birch brooms while bathing in the sauna. It is believed that this process helps unclog the pores. “Don’t you have this tradition?” I asked. Ture sighed sadly and said, “I’d love to have birch brooms, but there aren’t any trees here. And where there aren’t any trees, there can’t be any tradition.”

That evening, in Birgit and Ture’s home, there was to be a going-away party for Honningsvag’s pastor. Honningsvag, like most towns in Finnish Lapland and Norwegian Finmark, was burned down by the retreating Nazis in World War II. The only building that had remained was the church. The Norwegian government told the residents of Honningsvag not to return to the island, but to settle somewhere further south. Instead, they stubbornly began rebuilding their city. Now the pastor who lived in that church that hadn’t burned down was leaving for the Tronheim region, and people were coming to say good-bye. The good-bye party began, but I couldn’t work out who the pastor was. Finally, someone pointed him out. He was sitting at the corner of the table, wearing a sports shirt, and answering questions about his beloved Liverpool F.C. He knew every Englishman who’d played a season, how many goals he’d scored, and what had become of him. The pastor’s answers were so detailed that you got the impression that during sermons he simply reeled off the results of England’s premier league.

Every once in a while, Birgit’s and Ture’s son would enhance the conversation by shouting up from the basement: “Rosenborg Tronheim scored a goal against Benfico Lisbon, Rosenborg leads two nil.” When this child saw me the next morning, he asked me if they played football in Lithuania and if they did, was it good? That was the only thing he was curious about. I told him that a little less than six months ago, we’d won the European title in basketball. That left no impression on him. In fact, he gave me a strange look. He’d asked me about football and I’d answered him about God only knows what. And then I remembered that a few months ago, Suduva Marijampole beat Brana Bergen. From that moment on he looked at me with respect. He even tried to pronounce Suduva Marijampole a few times. I became for him a man from a strange land whose team with an even stranger name managed to beat the team from his father’s home town.

That’s how this strange thing happened. I travelled to Nordkap, to the very north of Europe, thinking that polar bears rule the place, only to find out that football rules. Maybe that’s how things are meant to be in a land where you can’t find a single tree.

Published 7 November 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 05.06.2004 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Marius Ivaskevicius/Siaures Atenai Eurozine


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