Cornelius

Our Norwegian Saga: The North Cape

September 19, 2018

The MS Spitsbergen continued its voyage, cruising steadily to the north: our destination for the day was The North Cape (Nordkapp) on the island of Magerøya. We were taken on a comfortable modern bus from the dock at Honningsvåg, the northernmost city in Norway we were told, along route E69 to a visitor center, The North Cape Hall.

On the way to the visitor center the landscape began to change. Trees disappeared as we made a steep ascent up the mountainous terrain. Free-ranging reindeer appeared every so often, to the left and right, grazing the increasingly arctic vegetation. Every turn opened a vista, calling for digital snapshots through the bus windows of this exotic view and that one. As if we could hope to capture, and never lose, the evanescent experiences literally passing us by.

We stopped about half-way there, to visit a gift shop. These stops—ten minutes or so in length—are a feature of most every organized tour we’ve ever taken. We don’t mind them; they are no doubt negotiated with local businesses and municipalities as an integral part of the local economy. They keep the roads open and the infrastructure healthy; if we visit, we buy. If we buy; it makes it more probable that we, and others like us, can continue to visit. Tourist economies have their own dynamic, and we must take these inauthentic experiences as part of a larger package with the more authentic and memorable.

Off to the side, a Sámi man stood with a reindeer, feeding the animal hay from a sack. He accepted the odd coin from enthralled tourists, who viewed him like an exotic specimen from some ethnographic zoo. Even we, more skeptical than most of these sorts of exhibitions, captured a few images. He seemed to be camped near the gift shop, drawn to the location by access to tourists. His lavvu, or Sámi tipi, looked well used and long inhabited.

Sámi Lavvu at the North Cape, 2018

Perhaps his reindeer herd was no longer profitable and herding another kind of domestic animal was more sustainable. He looked a little the worse for wear—teetering on the edge of a life he knew well but could barely sustain. So, we used him, and he used us. We continued on, leaving him behind, as we traveled on by coach to North Cape Hall.

Sámi Man on the Way to the North Cape, 2018

Nordkaphallen, as it is called in Norwegian, sits in virtual isolation on a barren plateau whose northern edge is sheared off by a giant one thousand and seven foot cliff dropping dizzily down into the conjoined waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. The cliff top is a popular spot for viewing the Northern Lights, but we were there in September, in the afternoon, and, sadly, would not be seeing any lights today. Perhaps, on another trip to Norway, only now germinating in our travel ambitions, we could gaze at the aurora from the rocky, lichen-covered edge of the world. For now, the view is spectacular, desolate, bleak, and wild. The world feels so large, and we so small in it.

This clifftop, marked by a massive steel globe, is promoted as the northernmost point of Europe, although this is a bit of an exaggeration. It is simply the northernmost point that tourists typically get to visit. A nearby point, Knivskjellodden, is actually four thousand, seven hundred and eighty feet further north. Still, it is as far north as we have ever been—or ever expected to be. Can we imagine ourselves traveling to the Svalbard Islands another five hundred miles North, or to the North Pole six hundred and fifty miles further still? In our late sixties, we doubt it; but such imaginings cost us nothing.

There was a running joke on the bus, as we travel to, and return from the Cape. We are traveling the northernmost road, we will have the northernmost coffee, see the northernmost souvenirs, rocks (and reindeer droppings) in all of Europe. We will use the northernmost toilets. These claims might not have all been strictly quite true, but they were true enough for most of our fellow travelers.

The Hall was built in 1988 and is a thoroughly modern building with theatre, restaurant, and gift shop, the latter a ubiquitous constant of modern tourist Norway. Before the modern amenities appeared, there had been a succession of wooden buildings to greet hardy adventurists.  Tourist travel dates back only to 1875, when Thomas Cook organized the first brave group of twenty-four to make the visit. After this, the first wooden buildings began to appear, including Stoppenbrink’s Champagne Pavilion, an octagonal wooden structure built between 1891 and 1892. This building played host to the North Cape tradition of commemorating the arctic visit with a flute of champagne, a tradition that seems to be the oldest ritual, dating to the 1840s, associated with the Cape.

We could see no trace of this or any earlier buildings, the Pavilion having been blown away by the wind in 1914, to be replaced by a post office and washrooms in 1928. In 1933 another building was added, and the washrooms moved there, while the existing space became a waiting room. We were offered no champagne, in any case.

Nordkapp, too, was on Casper and Gjertine’s itinerary. In his journal Casper wrote about their precarious journey to the cape. The E69, the road we took to Nordkapp in relative comfort, was built in 1956. Before that, the usual landing site for tourist ships was at Hornviken, the Horn of the North Cape. Visitors climbed up a trail on the side of the North Cape Plateau using a set of steps, one thousand and eight to be exact, to gain access to the plateau and the few amenities located there in those days.

From Casper’s translated journal entry, dated Saturday July 16, 1932: “We… got to North Cape at 5 PM. The weather was fine but the waves were still in motion. We went ashore at 8 PM and climbed on top of the hill. The path was narrow and steep in some places. Ropes were fastened to posts for to hold onto. It took about an hour to get to the top to the first house and then 15 minutes to walk across the top to the Post Office.”

Those one thousand and eight steps remain visible today, although, alas, we did not get a chance to see them. After their ascent to the plateau using the steps, Casper and Gjertine lingered a while at the Post Office to purchase postcards and stamps. They most likely peered out over the cliff northward, towards distant Svalbard.

The Steps to the North Cape Plateau at Hornviken

From reading his journal we know that Casper and Gjertine then sought out the King Oscar monument. “There was a monument of granite with King Oscar’s name on it and the flag was waving on both places. It gave us a pleasant feeling to stand on the northernmost part of the world.”

The King Oscar monument, a modest stone erected in 1873, commemorated Oscar the II’s visit to Nordkapp on July 2, 1873. Our first attempt to locate the monument failed. Did it still exist? Had it been moved? While making our own purchases at the North Cape gift shop, we asked the two women at checkout about the monument. Yes, they said, the monument still stands but has moved, and they directed us to its new location.

Joan at the King Oscar Monument at the North Cape, 2018

We found the small stone obelisk honoring King Oscar II in a spot overlooking the Barents Sea, and Greg snapped a photo while Joan stood in front of the old memorial. Perhaps Casper had photographed Gjertine in front of this monument some eighty-six years earlier. Perhaps it was one of the many photographs documenting that visit that have been lost.

The modern metal globe—the modern, contemporary symbol of the North Cape—displaced the Oscar Monument in 1974. The old monument, maybe not quite large enough, quite impressive enough, not quite meaningful enough for the throngs of non-Norwegian tourists, was shunted off to the side of North Cape Hall, to the West, no longer occupying pride of place on the north-facing promontory.

The Iron Globe at the North Cape, 2018

Today tourists thronged the large iron globe. Posing, posturing, speaking the body language of the tourist—look at me, I am here. Only we, and Andrea and Justin, and a few others, located the older monument, and stood there thoughtfully for a few brief moments, contemplating the past and the swift passage of time, before our bus driver herded us like two-legged reindeer back onto our bus.

Past and present. One does not proceed as directly from the other as we might imagine. Joan had stood, and, simultaneously, not stood, in her great-grandparents’ footsteps. The Oscar monument was at once the same, and yet not the same. It had been displaced, in both place and time. Members of an extended family, removed by four generations, had all voyaged to the North Cape and spent a few memorable hours upon the same plateau.

Joan had never met two of her fellow travelers to the North, great grandparents Casper and Gjertine. The relative brevity of the human life span usually prevents such meetings.  Yet here, with the obelisk behind her, she has, nevertheless, joined with them somehow. She, and son Justin, have built, and then crossed, a bridge of common experience and shared emotion to greet them. They stand together and look, as one, out over the gray waters of the endless sea to the uttermost North.

 

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Our Norwegian Saga: Trondheim, Rørvik and Leka at Midnight

September 16, 2018

There was sun and blue sky in Sør-Trondelag this morning, a welcome respite from the wet and windy weather we had left behind in Bergen. In fact, the further north we voyaged, the better the weather became. Joan had become convinced that the Norse god Njörd was pleased that his children had returned to voyage upon his waters and was rewarding us with good weather. Njörd was, no doubt, the god invoked by her ancient ancestors before they embarked on fishing and hunting expeditions along the coast centuries ago.

Haltdalen Stavkirke, 2003

We had risen early, to eat breakfast and prepare for our morning excursion into Trondheim. This was not our first visit to the city; we had been here once before, for three days some fifteen years ago in 2003. We had already crossed the Gamle Bybro (the Old Bridge) into the Bakklandet “old town.” We had been feted at the Erkebispegården (The Archbishop’s Palace) and stayed at the magnificent Hotel Britannia. One long afternoon we tried, and almost failed, to find the Sverresborg open air folk museum. There, in the old Haltdalen stavkirke, we listened to our tour guide, a young woman, unexpectedly sing an old Norwegian hymn in an ethereal soprano. Her angelic voice carried away the years, and in that moment we stood, transported back in time, assembled with the original congregants of the old wooden chapel.

This time we had less than three hours, not three days. Such is the lot of the Hurtigruten traveler. The timetable rules. One embarks and disembarks on time, or not at all. Stragglers are left behind and must find their own way to the next port of call to rejoin the ship.

Casper and Gjertine must have had a bit more time in 1932. Casper’s travelogue mentions a day spent in Trondheim visiting the Nidaros cathedral: “…at 12 noon went into the cathedral and saw the beautiful church. Walked up 173 winding steps (50 meters) to top of church—then walked around it on outside and then back again and all through and saw the beauty of it.”

In 2003 we had not been able to do more than wander the grounds of the Nidaros Cathedral, a magnificent gothic edifice whose foundations, reportedly the burial place of Olav II Haraldsson, better known as Saint Olaf, date to 1077.

This time we were able to enter, on a Sunday, just before the regular congregants would assemble for services. Inside, at the entrance to the old Johanneskapellet, Joan lit a small taper in memory of her emigrant Norwegian ancestors, who had embarked from this city at the end of the nineteenth century. Here they had given up their old lives and walked, with hope for a better future, onto a ship bound for America. They had left their old homes and hearths, but not their history, behind them.

Now, reflecting on that history, we are amazed at how entwined this city has been in the history of Joan’s family, a history whose true depth and detail we had not grasped the last time we were here. During that trip to Trondheim in 2003 Joan had spoken of the uncanny sense of belonging and familiarity the city held for her. Now we know that Trondheim was not just the point of embarkation for her more recent ancestors, Casper and Gjertine and young baby Martin, but the geographic hub of a family history that dates back to November 20, 1449, to the ennoblement of her distant ancestor, Örjan Karlsson Skanke, by King Karl Knutsson on the stone steps of the old altar at Nidaros itself.

Now, walking back along the cobbled streets, with our son and his lovely wife, we cross the Old Bridge again. We wished, as legend has it, for good fortune and prosperity.  We wished, particularly, to impart some sense of this deep and personal history to them—and any future descendants.

The Gamle Bybro (the Old Bridge), 2018

At noon we left Trondheim behind, for a long, but endlessly interesting transit to our next port of call in Rørvik on the island of Vikna. We passed by, in, and through the endless peninsulas, islands, inlets, and straits. Sometimes the open sea on one side, and on the other rocky cliffs, villages clinging to coves at the feet of rugged mountains, and hills dropping precipitously to the water. At Harsvika we passed under a bridge, the locals waving at our ship from its span as the MS Spitsbergen sounded its horn. On deck, sun in our eyes, wind in our hair, we counted down the hours until we could sight the ancestral islands of Vikna and, especially, Leka. After returning home to America Justin and Andrea would give a fitting name to our upcoming evening’s vigil, “The Leka Watch.”

We had been to Rørvik once before as well. In 2003 we made a long day’s journey by bus and local ferry. We spent a long afternoon visiting the little museum and spying the old white church at Garstad, where Joan’s grandfather had been baptized, in the distance. Tonight, we docked there for less than half an hour. It was hardly enough time then, and certainly not nearly enough time now. We didn’t even set foot on shore, and it was dark, after nine in the evening. From the deck of our ship we could see the lights of the town spread out like a blanket over the low hills. But it is enough, and we promise ourselves another trip, another visit. And when we return, we will go inside the old church and will visit the old farm at Lysøen, where Grandfather Martin was born.

Rørvik at Night, 2018

In a little under two hours later, we bustled up to the open upper deck, Justin and Andrea having retrieved us from our cabin. Leka was approaching on the port side, westward, more quickly than we had expected. It was dark, and very windy at the bow, probably much colder, but maybe not much darker, than when Gjertine had stood on another deck in 1932, gazing out at the distant lights sliding by, waiting for a fleeting glimpse of home, long awaited, but quickly over.

We, too, watched the distant lights all too quickly pass by. It was just a few brief moments for Joan, scarf wrapped tightly around her face and chin against the frigid breeze. There was a faint hint of northern lights above the island, in the darkness there, off the point of Skeisneset. In those moments Great-Grandmother felt exceedingly close. Eighty-six years is not so very long ago after all, not to a woman who would herself turn sixty-eight on her next birthday.

Leka, off the point of Skeisneset to the West, 2018

Casper and Gjertine’s ship had passed Rørvik at 1:00 a.m. on that older journey. Gjertine had determined to remain on deck, waiting, peering expectantly into the northern darkness, looking for her lost, but not forgotten, home. Gjertine’s family had lived on Leka since at least the late eighteenth century, and likely centuries before that. Here were her roots. For hours, as Gjertine waited, watching the ship move through the waters, she, like Joan, must have reflected on the passage of time.

When she left Norway in 1887, Gjertine had been a young woman, just married, with a small infant son in tow. And now, as she stood on deck in the black Norwegian night, a seventy-six-year-old woman, she must have realized that this homecoming would be her last.

A memory had been made in 1932 and, now, tonight, remade on the dark waters surrounding Leka. Tonight, a link had been forged between great-grandmother and great-granddaughter, and between a mother and her son. Gjertine, Joan, and Justin, sharing the same timeless space, upon the same cold waters, peering out into the same deep darkness. They inhabit a single entangled moment and are, impossibly, both together and apart; both far and near; both estranged by time and intimate in memory.

Casper, Gjertine & Martin before they left Norway in 1887

Our Norwegian Saga: Leaving Bergen

September 14, 2018

 When we first made plans to book our Hurtigruten cruise, it had dawned on Joan that our itinerary reminded her of a trip up the Norwegian coast that had been taken by her great-grandparents. In 1932 Casper and Gjertine Cornelius, who had emigrated from Norway in 1887, returned to their native home for a three-month visit after a forty-five-year absence. Joan had heard about this trip as a child. It was an event that held some significance for the family and was discussed long after her great-grandparents themselves had passed away in the 1940’s. Casper and Gjertine had returned to a homeland they had left behind with great sadness and regret. They had been forced by economic circumstances to try their luck in a strange, foreign land. This belated homecoming must have been bittersweet. Joan actually never knew (or remembered) that a travelogue from this 1932 trip existed and came across the treasure only a few years ago in a box of old photos and papers inherited from her parents. She discovered a twenty-seven-page journal entitled Norges Reise i 1932 [Norwegian Journey, 1932]. Great-Grandfather Casper’s original travelogue was in Norwegian, the language he was most comfortable speaking and writing, even after forty-five years in America. What Joan had actually found was not Casper’s original, but a translation into English by her grandfather Martin. If the Norwegian original still exists, we do not know where it is or who may have it. Among the many activities Joan’s great-grandparents undertook during their three-month stay in Norway was a trip on the SS Stavangerfjord that took them up the Norwegian coast to the North Cape. For some reason she remembered a small detail from the journal, that her great-grandparents had left Bergen at 8 p.m. to journey up the coast to the Nordkapp. Our itinerary on the MS Spitsbergen had us scheduled to leave Bergen at 8 p.m. as well. Could her great-grandparents have, coincidentally, also taken a Hurtigruten cruise?

S.S. Stavangerfjord Cruise Brochure, Norwegian American Line

Ebay solved the mystery for us quickly when we located and subsequently purchased a 1930’s brochure for a “Midnight Sun Cruise”:

Visit Spitzbergen, Its Arctic Fjords, North Cape, and the Glorious Fjords of Norway on SS ‘Stavangerfjord’ of the Norwegian American Line.

The brochure promised tourists a journey “with Norsemen, the Pioneers of the North”—as if further enticement were needed! So, no, it was not a Hurtigruten voyage, but a similar journey with many of the same ports of call. And so, it was today, September 14th, that we began tracing the northern part of the coastal voyage that Joan’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother had embarked upon in 1932. Today’s voyage was both a gift to our traveling companions, son Justin and daughter-in-law Andrea, but also, for us, a memento mori, a reflection on mortality and the passage of time. Eighty-six years had passed since Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa completed their voyage, but it will be remembered still in the voyage we embarked upon today.

Bergen didn’t seem to want to let us go. After we left the Hanseatic Museum in Bergen, it was still raining katter og hunder. We were soon soaked to the bone during our walk from the Bryggen waterfront to the Hurtigruten terminal, fighting the wind and driving rain with our umbrellas and weather gear, none of which seemed up to the daunting task.

We arrived, eventually, at our destination dripping and squelching. We camped out at the Hurtigruten terminal lounge for a short while, meeting up with our companions, who had, wisely, remained warm and dry in a café. Boarding at 4 p.m., we quickly arranged ourselves in the aft lounge—locating hot coffee and tea and finding out, much to our delight, that we had been upgraded to “select” status. We struck up a conversation with a pair of couples from Minnesota, all with Scandinavian heritage, and compared ancestral notes. Joan of course, as always, was the most Scandinavian in this transient group of adventurers. These were ephemeral travel friends, easily made, often soon forgotten, a phenomenon not uncommon on any trip. Sadly, we have already misplaced their names.

“Left Bergen 8 PM—(No rain).” Photograph by Casper Cornelius, 1932

When we went to our cabin at 6 p.m., a pleasant surprise awaited us. It was roomy, with a queen size bed, fluffy duvet, and two gigantic pillows fit for storm giants. There was more room in the cabin than in some hotels we’ve occupied recently (Birger Jarl in Stockholm, we’re talking about you). Rested and refreshed, we headed to the ship’s dining room. At the huge buffet there was more seafood than one could imagine. But this, on further thought, should have been of no surprise on this most quintessential of Norwegian coastal cruises. Our small family group found a viewing lounge and watched the MS Spitsbergen, our home for the next week, pull out of the Bergen harbor and begin its voyage up the Norwegian coast. It was 8 p.m., the same hour that Joan’s great-grandparents, Casper and Gjertine, had left Bergen on July 10, 1932, to begin their coastal adventure. Only unlike us, Bergen had favored them with good weather. From reading Casper’s journal, we were pretty sure he took lots of photographs, and yet only three survived among the ephemera that Joan had inherited. One was of their departure from Bergen. The first of our own coastal adventure photographs was snapped. A sliver of bright Norwegian moon appeared low in the sky. Gray storm clouds lowered. The sun played a brief game of hide and seek with them. The tangible quality of the light—the intense emotion of this indescribable experience—washed over us.

Leaving Bergen, 2018

Afterwards we ventured onto the open upper deck as night descended, peering into the dark ahead, facing into the wind, leaning into tomorrow as eagerly as we could. Finally, a long day of waiting, walking, and wetness had worn us down. A deep, but satisfying weariness descended quickly. We barely made it through our showers and bedtime rituals before throwing ourselves into starched white comfort—while the MS Spitsbergen sailed steadily northward toward tomorrow’s waiting adventure.