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Land Of The Midnight Sun

On the wharf at Narvik, Norway.

On the wharf at Narvik, Norway.

If I was at home, I probably would have opened a bottle of wine, collapsed on the coach, and then later on, surfed the net for a while. Needless to say, my life’s not like that in Narvik. First of all, I’m not arriving home stressed, a bottle of wine is too expensive to contemplate, and I’ve yet to find a wifi connection here. So last night after dinner, I was content with some reading and watching some television.

You know how I mentioned “Allsang pa Skansen”, the community singing program on Swedish television? Well, there’s an equivalent program in Norway called “Allsang pa Grensen”. The setting isn’t as glamorous as Skansen, though it obviously has some local importance and relevance. Unfortunately, I tuned in too late to see legendary country singer, Lynn Anderson who was a guest on the program. “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” was her biggest hit, and a childhood favourite of mine.

There was also a Freddie Mercury impersonator who kept urging the audience to “rock it”. He was quite good. In Australia, of course, the usual response to “We Will Rock You”, is the refrain “fuck you, fuck you, stick it right up you”. I was a little disappointed the Norwegian audience failed to respond in the same way. Now that would have been a Youtube moment…

And then after that, there was the nine o’clock news on TV2. Oddly enough, it didn’t appear to actually contain any “real news” until about seven minutes into the bulletin. The first part of the bulletin seemed to be stories about ordinary people, and their reactions to news and life. It wasn’t until about eight minutes into the bulletin before Condoleeze Rice popped her head up. Quite refreshing, I thought.

I’ve also noticed there’s a lot of American programming on Scandinavian television. Lots of CSI. Lots of Cold Case. Lots of “Funniest Home Videos”. All of the American programs seems to be confined to just one channel in both Norway and Sweden. It’s kinda good to know that when I want some English language programming I know exactly where to find it. There’s not a lot of television from elsewhere, including the UK and Europe, aside from a few home makeover programs. I have to say, though, in both countries, I haven’t been able to find much “quality programming” on free to air. Maybe it’s just the non-ratings period?

Over breakfast this morning, I met a Swedish woman who comes from a small town near Eskilstuna (not far from Stockholm). She told me she had only planned this holiday last week, “Because life is so well planned, that sometimes you just need to be spontaneous”. The town she is from is, apparently very beautiful.

We were later joined by a Norwegian couple. As the conversation continued in English, I suggested that since I spoke a little Swedish there was no need to speak in English. They seemed relieved! I think I understood about twenty-five percent of what was going on.

I was completely lost when a funny story was told. It was just too complex and too fast. Anyway, the Norwegian couple told a story about the nearby Lofoten Islands. Apparently, several years ago the local authorities had built a bridge from the mainland to the islands at enormous expense. They didn’t, however, build a tunnel through the mountain at the other end. Thus, the bridge sat there completely unused for about fifteen years. “A typical Norwegian story”, the Swedish woman said laughingly.

I set out on my own little adventure today, determined to see a little more of the area beyond Narvik itself. I was determined, however, that it should remain relaxing. Nothing too strenuous, and nothing too rushed for this part of my holiday.

So I packed my bag with a couple of oranges, some water, and my camera and started walking towards the nearby village of Beisfjord, which is about ten kilometres away. I chose there because I knew there was a regular bus route, and that if I get exhausted, bored, or the weather turned, I could always catch the bus.

As it turned out, the weather has been spectacular. It’s like one of those great winter days in Sydney where the sun gently warms your bones. It’s warm enough for me to wear shorts and a shirt, though I packed my jumper just in case.

Along the way I had a chance to really have a close look at the local vegetation and rock forms. Sorry if you find this kinda stuff boring, because I find it quite interesting. I don’t remember enough about high school geology to remember if quartz is often found near iron ore, but there’s a hell of a lot of quartz in the area, nonetheless.

There’s also a lot of very small plants, with those tiny flowers you often associate with alpine regions. Everything on the roadside is also growing wild and lush. Also in people’s backyards, they just seem to have let everything grow wild. I’ve yet to hear a lawn mower. I guess it’s because summer is so short, that they just let everything grow wild.

When I finally made it to Beisfjord, I sat there for an hour or so eating my oranges and looking at the mountains and the water. It’s truly wonderful landscape. Moments of wonderful contemplation.

Not having the desire to walk all the way back, I sat for a while at the bus stop, waiting for the bus which I knew arrived at about three o’clock.

Sitting just metres away from me was a teenage boy of about fifteen. You could see from the look on his face he seemed quite confused by me. After a few minutes he came over and asked me what time the bus was due to arrive (as if I’d know!) and then asked me where I was from. We chatted until the bus arrived.

I got the sense from him of excitement in meeting someone from outside his small village in the far north of Norway. I know, because I was the same teenage kid growing up in country

Australia.

Because Narvik is really very remote, you can imagine the kids here would have same kind of issues faced by kids in many remote towns all over the world. The isolation. Concerns about jobs after high school. You know the stuff I mean.

Anyway, I’ve just arrived home after a quite exhausting day. I mean, it’s only four o’clock in the afternoon, and so there’s still plenty of the day left. It’s Friday night and I’d like to “do” something with my Friday night. But what do people in Narvik do on a Friday night? Is there a pub with a meat tray somewhere?

Narvik in Literature in War Museum

Don’t Mention The War

War Museum in Narvik, Norway.

War Museum in Narvik, Norway.

“The king of Norway once sat at this table”, our host Tor told us proudly over breakfast this morning. “This is the most photographed chair in all of Norway”, he added, and then told us about how the guest-house in which I’m staying was once a building for German soldiers during the Second World War.

“When we bought this place thirty eight years ago, we found an inventory for the cellar”, he continued, and then brought out a bottle of Pepsi Cola. Showing us the fine print on the bottle, we were informed Pepsi continued to be manufactured during the war in Hamburg under licence, which surprised me.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the story, since I was sitting at a table of mostly German (and one Spanish) tourists. How did they feel about being reminded of the history of Nazi occupation? Did it matter all those years later, or is it still something Germans carry with them, passed on by their parents and grandparents? I didn’t have the courage, nor the interest to ask, remembering all too well the famous episode of “Fawlty Towers”.

And on top of that, right in the middle of Narvik there’s a terrific museum about the town’s wartime history. Walking around the museum today, though, I felt a sight discomfort. With all of the evidence of weaponry (there’s guns, tanks, bullets etc), you can imagine how a real “war nut” would just love the place for all the wrong reasons. It worried me for a moment that some would see this as a place to relive some of those war-time battles and fantasies.

I was more interested in the many photographs hanging on the walls. I wanted to look closely at the faces of the people in them, to get an insight into who they were (on both sides), and how they lived during this period. The most startling image, for me, was that of a prisoner of war. I was really very moved by the image of a young man, barely twenty years old, and almost skin and bones.

Photographs in the museum also demonstrate just how badly damaged the town was due to bombing, which also surprised me.

The museum is well worth a visit, by the way.

I’m less convinced about the merits of the one-hour LKAB sight-seeing tour I went on. LKAB is the big mining company which operates out of Kiruna and Narvik. At the moment, they supply about 3% of the world’s iron ore, and the mine at Kiruna is, apparently, the world’s largest iron ore mine. Yes, I see your eyes are glazing over already.

It was interesting if only because we got a behind-the-scenes look at what is obviously the most important employer in town. It was great to have a close look at the men working the mines.

The tour also took us around much of the town, which was great, as it helped to explain what a few of the monuments stood for. Most of the monuments in some way seem to recognise the miners and the workers of the community. Some of the statues are almost Soviet-like in some respects, as they celebrate strength and hard work.

Narvik is clearly and largely working class community. You can see it in the imagery and you can also see it in the faces of the people as you walk down the street. The people here look different to those I encountered in Sweden. I don’t think I’ve seen a single person with that typical bleach blonde Swedish look. Instead, I’ve seen a lot of mousy brown hair and a fair amount of red hair. The faces are also either quite pale or deeply tanned, with nothing much in between.

This was also evident when I went into the supermarket today and a bought a few things for lunch and dinner tonight. Although the owner of the guest house indicated all Norwegians spoke English very well, I found that I had to speak reasonably slowly and deliberately when I went looking for a couple of things.

“Are you English?”, I was asked by Irene our tour leader, replying in the negative. I don’t think many Australians make it this far north (not that far from the north pole), though I did notice the name of someone from Maryborough in Queensland above mine in the war museum guest book.

The weather was pretty spectacular today and is likely to improve tomorrow. My plans for tomorrow include further relaxation and maybe the fjord tour, depending on how the weather pans out.

Unlike the early part of my holiday, this is all about relaxation. You just know you’re on holiday when you can’t figure out what day it is, and that’s how I’m feeling at the moment. Totally relaxed.

Taken from the train between Kiruna and Narvik in Norway.

Polar Circle

It’s about one o’clock in the morning and it’s light outside. Although I know the sun is out there somewhere, I can’t actually see it, due to the fog which has enveloped Narvik.

I’m staying in the top floor room of a guest house. “You’re in the old maid’s room”, the bloke who owns the house told me when I arrived. And as I look out of my window, I can see some a couple of houses (one of them has a light on out the front) against a grey sky background.

I haven’t seen too much of Narvik yet, retiring to bed soon after I arrived at seven o’clock tonight. After the activities of the last few days, and today’s intense day of travelling I was exhausted. And, in stark contrast to the communal living of the youth hostel, I’ve found myself in a single room with an extremely comfortable bed which proved far too enticing.

As I walked around Stockholm last night it was just beautiful. Even at about 10 o’clock the sun was shining, adding a wonderful gentle yellow glow to the city’s buildings. And when I left Stockholm early this morning, it was definitely “shorts weather”. Actually, it was even a little bit hot. “So this is the famous Swedish summer I’ve heard about”, I thought to myself as I caught the suburban trains to Arlanda Airport.

“Personally I’d take the Arlanda Express”, the young bloke at the counter told me at Stockholm Central when I asked him about catching the suburban trains this morning. “Does it take too long and is it too hideous for words?”, I asked him in return, to which he replied in the negative. He smiled in a friendly way when I told him I came in via the express and was just looking for another, different adventure.

Although I’d read previously the Swedes can be a little stand-offish, I haven’t found this to be the case so far. In fact, I’ve found them to be incredibly welcoming and helpful most of the time. Thus, when I asked (in Swedish) a nearby woman on Platform 16 to confirm that I was on the right platform for Upplands Visby (the connecting route for Arlanda Airport) she replied with a smile and some helpful information.

I suspect I was a bit of an oddity on the train also, as most non-Swedes would probably catch the express. Subsequently, I found people quite warm and helpful, giving me instructions along the way.

There was a woman of about 60 opposite me who looked at me, though, in an odd kind of way. Not negative, just confused about why a non-Swedish tourist who wasn’t an eighteen year old backpacker would be catching the suburban route. After a moment or so of looking me up and down you could see she has convinced herself I wasn’t a serial killer and gave me a smile.

At about this time, a middle-aged man with a Middle Eastern complexion (maybe Turkish) came walking through the cabin and dropped a brochure on neighbouring seats. The flyer explained that he had two children who both had leukemia and that he was in need of financial assistance. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people begging, and I’ve wondered how these people have slipped through the Swedish welfare net. I’ve seen no obvious evidence, so far, of on the street homelessness related to either mental illness or drug addiction, as we have in Sydney.

The Swedish woman looked at the brochure with a sneer and further caught my eye with a smile when the bloke said something to me (which I couldn’t understand), and I replied with a “I don’t speak English very well” response.

As you go further and further out of central Stockholm, it gets more and more like Sydney’s Western Suburbs. More like any outer suburban area really, as you see more and more working class and non-caucasian faces getting on and off the train. You also hit the factory-belt and the countryside pretty quickly.

And it was also then that I really started to feel the warmth of the Swedish sunlight coming through the windows of the train. I could also feel it through the window on the aircraft on the flight from Stockholm to Kiruna.

Aside from spilling some milk on the young woman sitting next to me (“Inte problema”, she said to me when I apologised), the plain trip was without incident.

I noticed, however, that I was welcomed onto the plane with “wilkommen”. It’s not the first time I’ve been assumed to be German and I guess it won’t be the last. Clearly, I don’t look Swedish in the typical kind of way, and clearly I look like a bit of a tourist, but I never assumed I looked German.

As we made our way towards Kiruna, it occurred to me that, in an Australian context, I was flying to “Western Australia” and that Kiruna was probably Sweden’s answer to “Karratha”. As you fly from Stockholm you see the landscape change dramatically, and as you fly into Kiruna you see what is essentially a mining town in the middle of an extremely attractive landscape.

The contrast between Kiruna – organised, industrial – and the nearby landscape is dramatic. With the melting of the snow, the landscape was lush and green. But even now in the middle of summer, you still see mountain tops covered in snow. Even the Swedes on the plane, who must have seen it a thousand times, were in awe at some of the sights.

That, however, was not the case for two nearby women as we travelled by train from Kiruna to Narvik. While I was “oohing” and “ahhing” at every minor change in the landscape, they were looking at trash magazines, and were reading out every bit of minor trivia contained therein. Not being able to understand everything they said though, I listened more for tone and intonation. In Australia, they would have been Cheryl and Sharon, here they seemed a little more exotic. :)

I personally found the train journey quite remarkable. You start off with a fairly flat green landscape, progress into a spectacular lakes district, and climb the mountains to true alpine country, before finding yourself on the Norwegian coastline. I spent most of the trip with my head stuck out the window taking as many photographs as I possibly could.

It was really great to watch the vegetation change also. At the beginning, it’s all flat and Savannah like, where the trees are all about the same height. Then, in the lakes district, you start to see some of the typical alpine vegetation of conifers. And by the time you’ve reached the top of the mountain, the vegetation has largely disappeared and it’s mostly just rock. You see the occasional white flower, though, in the midst of it all. “Is that eidelweiss?, I thought to myself at one point.

Oh and I loved how they did the border change. As you cross from Sweden to Norway you go into a tunnell, and, quite simply you see two flags next to each other. Voila! You’re in another country. Bloody EU – where’s my passport stamp?

In contrast to everyone else on the train, I was still wearing shorts when we arrived in Narvik. They were all rugged up for the winter and maybe some skiing, while I was here on a summer holiday. Peer pressure got to me, though, and I put a jumper on just minutes before arriving at the station.

I had a great feeling of elation in arriving in Narvik. “Wow”, I’m here”, I thought to myself, on the top of the world, on the opposite side of the world. The train station is fairly simple, almost run down, and the first payphone I found didn’t work. But, like all train stations and airports, there was a real sense of joy in the air, as people met their friends and relatives.

“Are you from Narvik?”, I asked the bloke who owns the guest house. “No, but I’ve been here 50 years”, he told me, adding that his wife was from Narvik. On the way to the guest house he pointed out the shops where I could buy food. And when I asked him if there was a simple, polite local greeting I could use in shops, he told me I should just speak English. “All Norwegians speak English. It’s just the English, the Amercians and the Australians who speak only one language”, he smilingly said.

Anyway, it’s now 1.40am, and the fog has lifted. I think it’s time to go back to sleep for a while.