Our Norwegian Saga: Departures and Arrivals

September 24, 2018

We had to be out of our apartment by 11 a.m. Our morning was full of making sure that nothing of value was going to be left behind, straightening up, running the dishwasher, packing the last of our belongings in our luggage, luggage that seemed slightly bulkier and heavier than two weeks ago. We looked up one last time at the spire of the Grønland church. Then we reversed the trip we had made only a few days earlier on the 20th: walk to the Grønland station, take the T-bahn to Oslo-S, buy extensions to our NSB travel pass, and then navigate to the correct platform for the train ride to the airport. It is easy to get confused at this last part, as Flytorget Airport Express and the NSB both run trains to the airport—but they are mutually exclusive and a ticket for one will not get you on the other.

The Church in Grønland, 2018

We managed all of that and made it to the airport ahead of time to gratefully release our suitcases into the care of Icelandair. There was little to do but find some coffee and wait to board.

There is always something disorienting about these travel days, apart from the jet lag that will inevitably set in, especially at our age, afterwards. You spend a long day eighteen, twenty, maybe twenty-four in transition. You transit from the door of your hotel or apartment, through a turnstile, or two or three, from one station to another, from one gate to another, from one city to another, from one country to another.

There is a gauntlet to be run: identify yourself, present your pass, take off your shoes, your belt, your jacket, your dignity, and throw it in a bin for inspection. Then find your seat, stow your carry-on, buckle your seat belt, and wait for the person in the seat in front of you to recline their seat fully into your already cramped space. Small mercies, this trip there were no delays. We had extra leg room, gratis, on the first leg from Oslo to Keflavik Airport in Iceland. On the next leg from Keflavik to Cleveland, both pairs of us had a row of three seats to ourselves. It has been our experience that this is a rare occurrence, a luxury not to be taken lightly.

We were late getting into Keflavik. Our one-and-a-half-hour layover turned into a mad sprint through the airport trying to clear passport control and get to the gate in what had suddenly turned into forty-five minutes or less. Greg’s mind flashed back to a long night in Keflavik twenty years earlier when, traveling alone, he couldn’t get out of the airport and had to spend the night. Fortunately, none of the worst-case scenarios unfolded, and we settled into a relatively comfortable six-and-a-half-hour flight to Cleveland.

What is there to say about such flights? Usually there is nothing remarkable about them. You watch a movie or two. Drink a free drink or two. If you are lucky, they feed you something, and that’s not a given any more (neither are the free drinks).  There is little to think back upon or remember. But, about halfway or more through the trip we flew in daylight, with no cloud cover, over Greenland. That glimpse out the cabin window was memorable: snow and mountains, and what looked like glaciers. We had been to the North Cape. But this was truly arctic and snow-covered. And, seen from the air, it seemed a vast almost alien expanse.

Greenland, 2018

Then, back to tedium and bathroom breaks and waiting for arrival. At Cleveland we had to pass through customs. In almost thirty years of flying out of Cleveland-Hopkins Airport this was the first time we had ever cleared customs there. Usually it is the chaos at Newark. What a tangled and inefficient mess entry into our country is. Passport control, and customs, and the taking of baggage off of one belt and placing it onto another. Then, unbelievably, we had to pass through TSA to get out of the airport to baggage claim. This was a first for us, since it is usually our pleasure to undergo TSA screening to get into the airport’s guarded gates. A process that should take twenty minutes took fifty minutes instead. But, as one of us said, it could have been worse. It could have been Newark.

We rode home, reunited with our baggage, in the dark with a friendly limousine driver. After a long day in transit, this last transition, the fifty-minute drive home, seemed interminably long. It was hard to keep up conversation, to resist the urge to doze off. It felt like every other return home from a long trip. Uncomfortable and anti-climactic.

We turned up our driveway. It was raining. We unloaded our luggage in the drizzle and said goodbye to our travel partners of two weeks, Justin and Andrea. Andrea’s mother Lisa, who had been a house-sitter, was there to pick them up. They had another twenty-five minutes to go: their trip just a bit longer than ours, not quite yet over.

We went inside. Greeted a relieved and happy cat, who had been fostered at my daughter’s house for the duration. No ceilings had fallen in. No pipes had burst. No trees had broken through the roof. The mail was piled up. We were hungry and tired; but we were home. It felt, in that moment, like every other trip’s end. Both welcome and unwelcome; both familiar and strange; the last arrival to bring closure to the first departure.

We had taken a journey to a distant land. We had seen the Northern Lights and the Barents Sea. We had visited a dead queen and paid homage to a long-completed journey. We had seen and spoken of things that the four of us would share forever. And, maybe, it is that last that is the most important end, and consequence, of any journey.

Final Entry of Norges Reise i 1932, Translation by Martin Cornelius

For more on Casper & Gjertine’s 1932 journey back to Norway see:

Kvaløy, Ørjan, “Casper Cornelius’ dagbok fra norgesreisen sommeren 1932’’, in Ytri Halfa 2017. Ottersøy, Nærøy: Nærøy Historielag, 2017, pp. 17-26.

Rørvik, John, “Smaatræk fra Casper Cornelius’s Norges-Reise’’, in Viknaværinger hjemme i Norge og i Amerika. Minneapolis, MN: Viknalaget, 1933, pp. 174-177.


Our Norwegian Saga: Last Day in Oslo

September 23, 2018

 On our last day in Oslo we wanted to tick off a last few items on our journey’s wish list. We hadn’t yet visited the Historical Museum (Historisk Museum) operated by the University of Oslo on the Frederiks gate in the central city. The main purpose of the visit was, oddly, to visit the Egyptian exhibits, not the Norwegian ones! Egypt had long fascinated one of our members, Andrea, and we decided to mix a little Near East into the Far North. The Museum, in addition to the Egyptian exhibition, also had a gallery devoted to different arctic and sub-arctic cultures—the Saami exhibit was especially interesting. The “Coin Cabinet” had a display of coins, but most fascinating was a display of Norwegian Orders and Medals whose design, a museum display label informed us, was “superior to those of Sweden.”

Medals and Orders—Superior to those of Sweden, 2108

During Casper and Gjertine’s 1932 trip to Norway, they made several trips to Oslo. Each visit to Oslo included time spent with a Professor O. B. Grimley, someone, it appears, with whom Casper had some more than passing acquaintance.

Grimley was born in the United States of Norwegian parents, but in an unusual reversal of the typical immigration pattern, immigrated to Norway from America. He was born in North Dakota, attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and became professor of Norwegian language and history at the Norwegian College in Outlook, Saskatchewan, Canada. He had also served as a colonization representative for the Canadian National Railway’s colonization and immigration department. A 1926 Canadian article reported his role in bringing the first Norwegian-American settlers from North Dakota to Saskatchewan to establish farms purchased by the CNR. Around 1926 he took up residence in Oslo, having accepted a position with the Norwegian-American Line to promote travel between Norway and America.  He was active in Norwegian-American history circles as both an author and lecturer and likely that way became acquainted with Joan’s great-grandfather.  Both men were heavily involved with the fostering of ties between Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans; they were fellow historians of the Norwegian-American experience, as it were.

The Oslo Domkirke, 2018

On one of their visits to Oslo, Casper mentioned attending services at the “Our Savior’s Church” (Vår Frelsers kirke). This, we soon determined, was now referred to as the Oslo Cathedral (Oslo domkirke). One of Joan’s final objectives was to visit the cathedral and spend some small time inside—not just to see the interior, but to sit and meditate a moment on the significance, if any, of yet another intersection between her great-grandparents’ journey and her own. As we approached the cathedral, services were in session, and casual tourists such as ourselves were warned away until sometime after the noon hour.

We then decided to visit Frogner Park (Frognerparken), also prominently mentioned in Casper’s 1932 chronicle. After riding the subway for some stops, and a bit of a walk, Justin successfully navigated us to our destination; the navigation skills of his ancestors have obviously not washed out of his genome.

The park is quite extensive and contains the Vigeland sculpture installation (Vigelandsanlegget), created by Gustav Vigeland between 1924 and 1943. The first part of the installation, the Bridge with its fifty-eight sculptures, first opened to the public in 1940.  This was followed by three other features: the Fountain, the Monolith, and the Wheel of Life. The Monolith, at the highest point of Frogner Park, was not completed until 1944. Carved out of a single piece of granite, it depicts one hundred and twenty-one entwined human figures reaching to the sky. In 1932 Joan’s great-grandparents would not have seen any of this marvelous array of sculptures—all created by Vigeland himself.

A View of Frogner Park, 2018

What would Casper and Gjertine have seen? Well, possibly, Frogner Manor built in 1750 by Major Hans Jacob Scheel, and mayhaps the Pavilion located on the small Utsikten Hill. Perhaps they had also seen the Frogner baths, or the buildings remaining from the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition. We do know, because Casper mentions it, that he and Gjertine viewed a statue of Abraham Lincoln located in the park, first unveiled there on July 4, 1914, during the period of the Jubilee, which ran from May through October. Casper wrote that the statue was “given by the Norwegian people of North Dakota.”

Since its unveiling in 1914, Norwegians have gathered at the Abraham Lincoln memorial every 4th of July to pay tribute to the man and reaffirm their bonds with Norwegian-Americans.

We didn’t—couldn’t—see everything in the massive one hundred and eleven-acre park. It was too large, and we needed to get back to the Cathedral before it closed. The day, like our journey itself, was running out like the sand in an hourglass. We never located the Lincoln statue and, hurrying out the wrought iron main gate of the Park onto the Kirkeveien, we rushed back to the City Center. We promised sincerely to return someday and, like Casper and Gjertine, visit Lincoln—a tangible icon of America’s relationship with Norway.

On every journey there are sights seen, and many more not seen. Towns visited, and a multitude more bypassed. We can always only sample a smattering of what any country offers. For every landscape or monument or architectural marvel, there is another too difficult or far away to reach. And, always, there is too little time.  Every journey is a physical narrative of all that has been visited and experienced, but there is a shadow narrative, the umbral reflection of that journey, of all that has not.

As Justin and Andrea went back to our temporary home in Grønland, we ran out the clock at the Oslo Cathedral. Just a half hour or so before it closed for the day we entered. As Greg took the obligatory pictures to complete the chronicle of our visit, Joan just found a pew and sat down. The church was quiet, nearly empty. That Sunday morning on September 11, 1932, Casper and Gjertine sat in a church filled with worshippers.

Was she sitting in the same pew that her great-grandparents had sat in? Was she seeing the altar nearly as they had seen it? This was our last full day in Norway, the end of our journey, again standing in the footsteps of Joan’s great-grandparents. Such an odd confluence of events has allowed us to parallel so well the eighty-six-year-old journey of her ancestors. Will someday another ancestor, perhaps in another eighty-six years, retrace Casper and Gjertine’s path, or even our own rapidly concluding journey?

In the Oslo Cathedral, 2018

Our Norwegian Saga: Bygdøy and the Museums

September 22, 2018

Today dawned clear and bright, a welcome contrast to yesterday’s alternating drizzles and downpours. A clear blue sky replaced the looming gray cloud cover; it was just the perfect day for us to journey out to Bygdøy and visit the museums we had penciled into our Nordic itinerary over a year before. We were going to visit the Vikingskipshuset (the Viking Ship Museum), the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History), and the Norsk Maritimt Museum (Norwegian Maritime Museum).

These three museums, and two others we did not visit, are on the Bygdøy peninsula. The peninsula, once a true island, as one can tell by the distinctive ending on its name, is filled with parks and forests and several small, but upscale, residential areas. In addition to five national museums, it also houses the summer residence of the King of Norway. The peninsula is most easily reached by taking the ferry from downtown Oslo—the harbor only a few steps from the Nobel Peace Center, the former Oslo West Railway Station.

The ferry ride was short and uneventful; most of the transit involved the checking or purchasing of ferry tickets. Soon we were on the peninsula navigating to our first stop, the Viking Ship museum, where, among other recovered Viking-era ships, the Osebergskipet (Oseberg ship) is on display.  The Oseberg ship is an extremely well-preserved clinker-built longship of a type called a karve. The longship was, by all accounts, a seaworthy, working vessel that was later promoted to use as a funerary ship for an important personage. The karve was recovered from a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway, complete with grave goods and the skeletons of two women.

The Oseberg Ship, 2018

This ship held a particular fascination for our little group of adventurers because of the possibility that one of the two women found in the burial was Queen Åsa of the Yngling clan, mother of Halfdan the Black and grandmother of Harald Fairhair. Why our particular interest? As it turns out, Joan had been able to trace her Norwegian ancestry back some twenty-six generations, using a combination of Norwegian church records, historical sources, and Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, directly to Queen Åsa. This connection, even if only possibly true, and mayhap only an exotic family story, added a particular thrill to the visit. Justin and Andrea had fully prepared for the visit, by reading William L. Sullivan’s The Ship in the Hill, a partly fictional recounting of the ship’s background story and 1904 excavation. Justin had finished the book, in fact, just hours before we stepped into the Vikingskipshuset and gazed up at the ship, with its elaborate, mesmerizing carvings at bow and stern. These carvings, in the so-called “gripping beast” style, featured fantastic creatures that intertwined as they grappled and snapped at one another.

One exhibit, amongst the displays of grave goods and carvings, had a disquieting effect on Joan and Justin. It showed the skeletal remains of two women, one older, and by the evidence, once important. The other, quite possibly a sacrifice, a handmaiden sent to accompany her companion across the last threshold. A set of skeletal teeth on one of them was starkly visible and a bit jarring. Joan felt a chill, eerily unsettled; she seemed momentarily distant.

Only later did she articulate her emotions, “it didn’t seem like the right place for them…it seemed inappropriate somehow. When I look at remains like these, I always imagine real people. I see them in my mind’s eye. I relate to them as what they once were, not the relicts that lie under the glass, under the gaze of thousands of strangers.”

Justin, terse and serious as he sometimes is, seemed similarly affected, but uttered only a single sentence, albeit one that said it all, “I read that they were buried….”

While he was referencing the book he had just hours before finished reading, his words expressed the essence of what he and Joan were feeling. The remains seemed displaced, in the wrong place, certainly not where this ancient pair had expected to be, on public view. The burial had been magnificent and intended by kin and community to bestow honor upon the deceased. Was this public display an honor?

It has to be said it was clear that, for both Joan and Justin, and maybe to some extent for Andrea and Greg, as affines to these Norwegians, there was something old and primeval unearthed in the presence of the longship. The curving prow, the fighting beasts, the swell and curve of the belly of the ship, brought up and to the surface, from somewhere deep within, a sense of great heritage, of a timeless legacy, and, yes, of kinship. There was an ineffable, inexorable feeling of attraction where past and present met, and we were balanced, if merely for moments, in a time between, when a long dead Queen reached out her hand and laid it proudly upon the brows of her children.

Humbled—yet stirred—by the great antiquity of what we had seen, we headed to the Norsk Folkemuseum to pick up the thread of Norway’s cultural history and follow it for just some centuries further. The Folk Museum is actually a fairly large complex consisting of indoor exhibit galleries and an “open air” museum similar to the one we had visited in Trondheim in 2003. The gallery exhibits focus on Norwegian folk art traditions, Norwegian folk dress, Saami culture, and even the history of Norwegian knitting!

The traditional carvings, regional folk painting styles, and complex textile patterns we saw in the exhibits brought home to us the significance of the traditional and decorative arts in Norwegian life—arts that are even to this day honored, preserved, and practiced. Our small collection of Swedish and Norwegian crafts at home certainly seemed unimportant and miniscule in the context of the museum. But both collections, the large and the small, signify a reverence for Norwegian folk tradition, in Norway today and among Norway’s scattered descendants in America.

Folk Arts of Norway, 2018

The outdoor exhibition was extensive, with relocated and restored farm buildings of all types: homes, granaries, outbuildings, and barns. There was a reconstructed “old town” with a collection of shops and dwellings from the cities and towns of bygone times in Oslo. There was a striking stavkirke (stave church), and also some examples of buildings from summer dairy farms called seters.  Many of Joan and Justin’s female ancestors from the Sogn og Fjordane region had been summer dairy milkmaids, or seterbudeia, residing the entire season temporarily in cottages on the seter. Our cameras were busy, recording rooflines, steeples, lintels and doorways, chronicling the everyday constructions that must have been home and hearth and neighborhood to generations of Joan and Justin’s ancestors.

Justin and Greg at the outdoor museum on Bygdøy, 2018

We could have spent longer on these extensive grounds, but a tourist’s day is finite, and there was one museum left on our itinerary. A little bit of a walk took us to the Maritime Museum. While Joan’s maternal grandmother’s ancestors had emigrated from the small farms along the Nordjord, her maternal grandfather’s people had come from islands off the Western coast, Vikna and Leka—the islands we had passed earlier in the week. They had farmed, but also extensively fished, living as they did, in constant contact with the sea. They had been skippers, mates, and crewmen on a myriad ships and pursued the Norwegian cod in the Lofoten Islands for generations. Many of her ancestors paid for their unspoken contract with the Norwegian sea using the only currency that mattered, their lives.

The Maritime Museum captured quite effectively the long and entangled history of Norway and the sea. A history of fjord sailing, coastal navigation, and transatlantic crossing. A history of fighting, fishing, and freight; a history of the transportation of a great portion of an entire people to America via emigration, and, now, lately, of luxury cruises and tourist amenities. One exhibit, quite striking, allowed visitors to imagine themselves on a vintage cruise ship, perhaps an early iteration of the vessels that first began to take passengers on tours along the Western coast to the North Cape. We could climb the wooden staircase up and down from panoramic lounge to dining room, and to the first- and second-class cabins. We had a clearer visual sense of how Casper and Gjertine’s 1932 journey must have been. Later, we stumbled upon a large-scale replica of the MS Stavangerfjord, the very ship that had transported her great-grandparents from Oslo, to Bergen, to Trondheim and finally up the coast to the northernmost tip of Norway, the eighty-six-year-old journey that we had, to some great degree, just replicated a few days before.

A Scale Model of the SS Stavangerfjord, 2018

However, as exciting as our discovery of the Stavangerfjord was, one of the most affecting exhibits was not this large model, but a very small painting by Christian Krohg in the maritime art gallery, entitled, simply, “The Herring Are In” [Silda kommer]. It depicts Norwegian fishermen in the street of a small town, putting on slickers and running for their boats. Two women are leaning out of windows, watching them hurry away to the sea. Their postures express a mix of hope for a bountiful catch and of unspoken fear. Joan and Greg remember the fiskerbondekona statue in the Rørvik town square we saw fifteen years ago—a fisherman’s wife looking out to sea with an expression of both expectancy and dread. The Norwegian sea is the source of life and health and wealth, but also of unexpected violence, death, and sorrow.

Silda kommer by Christian Krohg, Oslo Maritime Museum

Thoughtful, we returned to the ferry, navigating our own way back home by water and then by land. We turned in, after a cobbled together dinner of sandwiches, thinking already of our last full day in Oslo tomorrow.

Our Norwegian Saga: A Rainy Day in Oslo

September 21, 2018

We had the benefit of good weather during most of our trip. Since the deluge in Bergen on the 14th, we had experienced only a little drizzle at Urke a day later. From Ålesund onwards we had unexpectedly clear skies. However, our luck didn’t hold. Or, perhaps, having left our ship, we were no longer under Njord’s protection. In any case, it was going to be a very wet day in Oslo today. Fortunately, knowing the forecast, we postponed our planned visit to the “Museum Island” at Bygdøy and opted to make this our “shopping day.”

Justin wanted to visit a men’s clothing store called Dressman. Joan and Andrea wanted to complete their list of gifts, a mix of “sorry you weren’t with us travel consolation gifts,” a Shreve Family tradition, and presents to save for Christmas.  We had started on this list in Bergen; but it is harder than one would think to buy items that are suited to the recipient and might be valued as a token of love, affection and, sometimes humor. It often takes the whole trip to complete the list if one puts any real thought into it at all. Greg has often tried to quash this tradition but has, so far, been overruled.

We wandered the streets, looking into store windows, entering whatever shop took our fancy. We ended up, at one point, in front of the University of Oslo buildings on Karl Johans gate where there was a small outdoor exhibition going on, a science education fair of sorts called forskningsdagen (research days) in Norwegian. From there we wandered up the street, across the Frederiks gate to the Slottsparken to view the Royal Palace at the end of a broad promenade. Casper, who with Gjertine had visited Oslo several times during the three-month 1932 trip to Norway, mentioned seeing all these same sites. In fact, they also visited a fair, the Norges Varemesse (Norwegian trade fair), while visiting the city.

The Royal Palace in Oslo, 2018

After that, we tried to find a café for a coffee and a bit to eat but, given the steady rain and frequent gusts of wind, everyone else seemed to have the same idea. We had to search, a bit damp and hungry for a café with some seats. Finally, traipsing down Rosenkrantz gate, we found the Kaffistova, a roomy café with plenty of seating. We had, quite by chance, wandered into an old Oslo fixture. The Kaffistova was built in 1901, and the back wall was covered in a variety of photographs depicting its earlier days. Greg had Norwegian apple cake, Justin and Andrea some sort of lemon cake, and Joan, of course, something chocolate—a decadent tort. Paired with café mochas, we soon replenished body and spirit. The Kaffistova is in a block with the Hotell Bondeheimen, built in 1913, and the Heimenes Husflid, a shop where you can buy authentic Norwegian handicrafts.

The name bondeheimen triggered a memory in Joan—her great-grandparents Casper and Gjertine had stayed in a hotel Casper called a bondeheimen in Trondheim in 1932. It seemed unlikely that there were hotel chains operating back then—but as it turns out there was a relationship. The Kaffistova and the Hotell Bondeheimen in Oslo and the hotel her great-grandparents had stayed at in Trondheim were facilities initially constructed and maintained by the bondeungdomslag movement, often translated as the “Peasant Youth Association.” The movement was a response to the rapid urbanization of Norway in the late nineteenth century. Bondeungdomslag affiliates established hostels, special cafés, organized social activities, and played an important role in the preservation of traditional culture under pressure from a rapidly modernizing society. There would have been bondeungdomslag hostels and coffee shops in many cities, although Oslo’s bondeheim and kaffistova appear to have been the first. Trondheim’s bondeungdomslag organization acquired a property called Gildevangen in 1911 and began to operate a hotel on part of it in 1928—the hotel still operates today. This is, without a doubt, where Casper and Gjertine stayed.

Once we understood the history behind the bondeungdomslag movement, some other puzzling entries in Casper’s journal became clear. During their three months in Norway, Casper and Gjertine attended what Grandpa Martin had translated as “Young People’s meetings.” Clearly the original Norwegian must have referred to meetings of the bondeungdomslag.

This organization served as the template for the Norwegian American bygdelag societies formed in the United States by Norwegian immigrants to create immigrant community networks, preserve ties to the past, and maintain cultural and linguistic connections to Norway. In 1924 Casper himself was instrumental in helping form the first bygdelag (Viknalaget) for natives and descendants of Vikna; he served as its first vice-president and later in other official capacities. It would make sense that he would have wanted to connect to those involved in the bondeungdomslag movement while in Norway.

We finished our city excursion by dropping into the nearby Husfliden shop. Husfliden-butikker are retail stores owned by an association of Norwegian artisans to sell a wide variety of handicrafts, including textiles, knitwear, carvings, jewelry and, in some places, the Norwegian ethnic costume called a bunad. Joan and Greg have found these stores endlessly fascinating, not the least reason being that the craft items are of greater quality and authenticity than the inventory of most souvenir shops—although the prices reflect that higher tier of craftsmanship.

We have a special interest in bunader, because of family photographs showing a member of Joan’s family—Great-Aunt Olga—wearing one. Norwegian bunader are an exotic complicated subject—due in part to the great regional variation in pattern, color, motif, jewelry style, and accessories.  Our visit to the Husfliden store, with its stunning display of brooches, earrings, and even bridal crowns, as well as embroidered, highly decorated bodices, skirts, caps, and purses reminded us of how beautiful a complete bunad ensemble is.

Great Aunt Olga Monseth (L) and friend. Minneapolis ca. 1915

When we left it was still raining, and the streets and sidewalks were littered with standing water. The walk to the subway and then from the subway to our apartment was at least partially a game of “dodge the puddle.” Still, we made it, got dry, and finished off the day with take-out from the nearby “Golden Dragon” restaurant.

It was not lost on us that we had moved in the space of an afternoon from the premises of a historical Norwegian kaffistova to a nondescript contemporary Chinese eatery. We had in one day both acknowledged Oslo’s past and embraced its present. Such shifts, such juxtapositions of new and old, of traditional and modern, perhaps these are, in great part, the very essence of a city like Oslo.

Our Norwegian Saga: Kirkenes and Arrival in Oslo

September 20, 2018

Today we were to dock at Kirkenes, the final stop on our journey up the west coast of Norway. It had been a busy night of packing up the luggage and ensuring that nothing essential had rolled under the bed or been lost in a closet. As on many cruises, suitcases had to be out in front of the cabin before midnight. Luggage sprouted like overnight mushrooms in the passageway, a tangible reminder that the trip was over.

We ate our last breakfast on the MS Spitsbergen, looking out the dining room window at the wake, the waters of the Barents Sea roiling behind us. The coastline scrolled by—as if we were watching a movie that we knew was soon to roll its final credits.

Final Port of Call at Kirkenes, 2018

Kirkenes is in Sør-Varanger Municipality in Finnmark, near the Russian border. We could pretend to cite some facts about the town, as if our visit there had been more substantial. But, truth be told, we have only vague impressions. We were loaded onto an airport transfer bus fifteen minutes after docking, and the only memories we have are recorded in some images taken from the bus window on the way to the airport at Høybuktmoen, some nine miles west of town. A two-hour wait for our flight to Oslo did not leave any particular imprint upon us.

On the other hand, once on the flight, there were intermittent views of the landscape below—the flight path taking us over parts of Norway we had not seen before. Through the cloud cover, every so often, we could see tantalizing glimpses of forests, rivers, lakes, and towns. As we approached the Oslo Airport at Gardermoen, about twenty-two miles from the city, we dipped down over the pastoral landscape of Romerike in Akershus county, spying farms and small towns out the window. There seemed to be evidence of lumbering in the wooded region, an artifact of human occupation more visible from the air.

Approaching Oslo Airport, 2018

The Oslo Airport was a sprawling beast compared to the airport at Kirkenes. We had to take some time to negotiate it, looking for a way to purchase travel passes for the NSB transportation system, the Norges Statsbaner or Norwegian State Railway. These passes would provide us with a way into town—a forty-five minute ride—and access to buses and the T-Bahn subway. There, with the help of a courteous NSB employee, we managed to get four passes and be on our way to Oslo-S, the Oslo Central Station. From there, after picking up our Oslo Passes (having calculated the benefit of doing so in light of our museum itinerary), we journeyed exactly one subway stop to the neighborhood of Grønland where we would stay in a spacious apartment just across from the Grønland church.

It was a bit of a slog to the apartment; it was beginning to rain. We were carrying backpacks and negotiating wheeled luggage through the teeming streets. Grønland is a multi-ethnic, vibrant area with produce shops, cafés, ethnic restaurants, and a mix of the usual Joker and REMA 1000 convenience and grocery stores. Nevertheless, we eventually found the apartment by dint of Justin’s GPS and settled in. Justin and Andrea forayed out to the nearby REMA and brought back some food and beverage. We fell into an early sleep, after discussing how to spend our upcoming long weekend in Oslo.

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.


Our Norwegian Saga: Tromsø and Northern Lights

September 18, 2018

Today, while Justin and Andrea went to visit Norwegian huskies, we went for a walkabout in downtown Tromsø. Unlike Bødo and, indeed, much of Finnmark, this vibrant Arctic city seemed to have preserved some of its historic wooden architecture. There were nineteenth century wooden houses all along the main thoroughfare, the Storgata, that flanked the waterfront.

Wooden Houses along the Storgata in Tromsø, 2018

We could have taken an excursion, or visited a museum or two today, but instead we visited a small selection of antique, vintage, and thrift stores. For some reason Tromsø seemed to have quite a few. In Norway the Salvation Army, especially, seems to have locations in every city or town of any size. These “Fretex” shops, hold the same kind of objects that Goodwill and Salvation Army stores hold at home: clothes, housewares, used books, and the usual suspects. Of course, for us, the difference is that here is always a chance that someone’s old cast-off will be an exotic treasure. Value truly is in the eye of the beholder. Someone’s familiar and unwanted becomes another’s object of desire.

Shopping in Tromsø, 2018

We purchased a colorful handmade woolen tapestry, a hand-knitted ethnic ensemble for a young girl, and a pair of klokkestrenge (Norwegian bell pulls). These textiles were wonderful mementoes and suited to our luggage and weight restrictions. For us there is a certain thrill generated by this modern-day hunting and gathering. We are no longer tracking down the forage and game needed to survive, certainly. But there is a faint echo of the daily hunt our long-ago ancestors pursued.

Satisfied and laden with treasure from an afternoon’s excursion, we returned to our ship, the MS Spitsbergen. Except, for a short uncertain moment, we couldn’t, much to our surprise, find it. We know we were in the right general location, but the ship was nowhere to be seen. Then, we saw a sliver of the bow peeking out—the ship almost entirely hidden by the embarkation hall. We walked gratefully up the gangplank. Tromsø was a thrill, but we weren’t prepared to spend the night.

That very evening, in fact, a treat lay in store for us. Just around the time we had finished dinner, about a quarter to nine in the evening, the ship’s tour coordinator announced the long-awaited appearance of the Northern Lights. Everyone, it seemed, rose at once from their tables and rushed for coats and scarves to escape to the open upper deck. Only to be disappointed. Everyone wondered aloud. Where are they?  What Northern Lights? False alarm?

Then there was a small emergency with the automatic doors controlling access to the deck, and for a time, the two of us were stuck in a small vestibule, unable to access the deck or return below. The crew appeared with screwdrivers, access keys, and worried expressions but succeeded in freeing us from our temporary prison. We rejoined our fellow travel companions, Justin and Andrea, who had gone topside before us, when the doors were still operational. But the anticipated display of colorful lights had not appeared, and we began to notice discouraged passengers returning to their rooms below.

We decided to wait. The weather conditions have to be just right for the elusive Northern Lights to show themselves. Travelers have gone to Iceland, Norway, Finland, and other destinations just to see them, only to be disappointed when they don’t appear. Yet, for an experience said to be so beautiful, so magical and other-worldly, surely we could wait a little longer, for we may never have this chance again.

Justin, meanwhile, had met a seasoned traveler who told him the lights would be better viewed with a good camera. Apparently, our iPhones wouldn’t be able to capture the lights, should they choose to appear. Greg ran downstairs, retrieved his Nikon, googled the appropriate camera settings, and then ran back upstairs (through the now fixed doors).

And then we were rewarded for our patience, perhaps by the Norse gods themselves. The Northern Lights were beginning to be visible to the naked eye. But, through the camera lens, they were even more distinct, brilliant, and ethereal. Greg captured a half-dozen or so pieces of evidence on his camera. Not professional pictures, by any stretch, but, nevertheless, proof that we were here—that we four had stood together on this deck, on this very special night, and had seen magnificence in the heavens.

Andrea remarked that we four had been fortunate to witness two extraordinary celestial events together: first, a total solar eclipse in Oregon on August 21st, 2017, and now the transcendent and mystical experience of the aurora borealis.

The Northern Lights, 2018

Had Casper and Gjertine stood on the deck of the SS Stavangerfjord on just such a night? There is no mention in their 1932 journal about the Northern Lights, dancing green and blue in the sky. But Casper had described, eloquently, climbing to the top of Sankthanshaugen in Vikna at midnight to view sixteen bonfires burning for Midsummer’s Eve (Sankthansaften)—an ancient celebration when fires are lit to ward away the evil spirits most active at the summer solstice.  Had great-grandparent, great-granddaughter and great-great grandson all gazed out into the distance, across the span of eighty-six years, sharing a brief moment of the sublime, gazing at lights in the darkness?

Our Norwegian Saga: The Arctic Circle, Bødo and the Lofotens

September 17, 2018

Nestled in our cabin bed, we woke at 6:48 a.m., startled by an announcement that we would cross the Arctic Circle at 7:09. Before Greg had even swung his bare feet onto the floor, Joan had sprung out of bed and begun to put on her cold weather clothes. By the time Greg had his socks on, she was almost ready to go out the door. Ready to cross over into the Arctic where her ancestors had once plied their trade as fishermen? One would say so. We stood, transfixed, as we passed a large metal marker in the shape of a globe, erected, almost easy to miss, on a small unnamed island off of the port bow. There was a small ceremony, attended by the god Njord, on the deck of the ship. In order to become a follower of this cold god, a sacrifice had to be made. Greg accepted a ladle full of ice down his back and was given cloudberry wine for his pains.

Passing the Arctic Circle, 2018

Long ago, ancestors from the islands of Vikna and Leka would depart in their working boats, perhaps in a typical square-rigged nordlandsjekt, and fare to the Lofoten Islands, northern Norway’s ancient fishing grounds. Maybe they once sailed by this same little island, nets ready, anticipating their catch.

Fishing in northern Norway was always a dangerous trade, and Joan can easily recount the ancestors who died in the effort to harvest the teeming fisheries of the archipelago. On this day Joan, descendant of hardy fishermen and their patient and fearful spouses, crossed a line so many had crossed before her. Some would not cross back over that line.

One of them, Great-great Grandfather Ole Hagerup Bårdsen, a native of Hortavær, Leka, died on the island of Austvågøya in Lofoten and is buried at the churchyard in Kabelvåg. This, too, we had hoped to visit one day, in remembrance of ships full-laden with Norway’s “white gold” cod, or torsk, but also in memory of widows looking to the north, waiting for sails on the horizon, fearful they might not appear, anxious that a berth occupied on the voyage out would be unexpectedly empty upon its return.

A noon port of call at Bødo took us to a rainy dockside. A short walk into town, guided by Justin and his GPS, brought us to a museum where we learned about the devastation of the central part of the city in 1940 as a result of German bombing. The little Nordlands Museet, small by any standards, nevertheless meticulously preserved the memory of a small city and a great devastation. The memory of war and of occupation is ubiquitous in Norway, a caution to the younger generations that freedom is precious, fragile, and often fleeting.

Tonight, we participated in a “Viking Feast” in the tiny hamlet of Borg near the village of Bøstad in Vestvågøy, Lofoten. We traversed the landscape of the rugged island in the evening, traveling by bus over a spine of hills from Stamsund to Borg. The landscape was striking, with mountains reflected in lakes and pond and clouds and mist cloaking the hillsides. There were meadows and pastures, a rich land now, and in the past, when Viking chieftains ruled here.

The Lofotr Longhouse at Borg, 2018

As evening fell we entered the Lofotr longhouse at Borg. The structure is a stunningly authentic reconstruction of a Viking chieftain’s residence. There we ate a substantial meal of potatoes and vegetables and delicious pork—a feast for we latter-day Vikings. Our hosts in Viking dress, did not stint the food and honey wine. Our Andrea volunteered to accept a challenge, one she most successfully accomplished. The chieftain of the feast announced then that henceforth in Viking lore she would be known as “Andrea the Mighty,” a nickname our family readily adopted for her as well.

Inside the Viking Longhouse at Borg, 2018

We listened to the prophetic, eerie words of a wise woman to the beat of a shaman’s drum.  The lady of the house lifted her voice in song while the chieftain boasted of his coming adventures to Frankia and beyond. We were invited to dance around the fire and celebrate our good fortune and easy passage through these waters. We congratulated ourselves for our adventurous spirit, our queen beds and buffet lunches on the cruise notwithstanding. Still, mayhap, we deserve a little credit for abandoning the familiar and seeking out the novel and exotic. Maybe true adventure is beyond most of us, but the attempt counts for something.

As it turned out, we passed momentarily through Kabelvåg on the bus ride home to meet the MS Spitsbergen in Svolvær. Joan had never thought to be here in her lifetime; indeed, as we later reflected, she may have been the only one of her family to pass this way in one hundred and fifty-eight years. We tried to spy the churchyard in the gloom, across from the apt-named Lofotkatedralen (the Lofoten Cathedral) and thought silently of Grandfather Ole as we passed him by in the dark—our voyage continuing where his had ended.

Let us think a moment of all those who went before, when the passage up this coast was a hundred-fold more perilous. Let us think upon a thousand or more years of sailors and fishermen in the Lofotens and drink a parting glass of honey wine to those who came home and those who did not.

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: Geirangerfjord, Urke and Ålesund

September 15, 2018

Morning seemed to come too soon. It was an awkward night. Maybe we had pushed ourselves too far the previous day. There was the unfamiliar motion of the ship, and the distracting irritation of what turned out to be a tube of lip balm rolling back and forth on the nightstand during the night, click-clack, click-clack, over and over again. We were both too tired to reach over and investigate the source. Still, we managed some few hours of oblivion before rising to search out coffee.

While we slept, our vessel made scheduled stops, for people, cargo, and mail, overnight at Florø, Måløy, and Torvik. The first stop at Ålesund, at the mouth of the Geirangerfjord, was while we were still at breakfast. Such was the working rhythm of the MS Spitsbergen, a unique combination of practical boat and cruise ship.  In the early afternoon, after watching the western coast of Norway slip by, we moored in the Norangsfjord (an arm of the Hjørundfjord) and took a tender to the dock at the small village of Urke in Møre og Romsdal. We spent a pleasant hour in the light misty rain wandering past the rustic houses, snapping pictures of the grazing sheep, collecting quartz from the rocky strand, and listening to a mountain stream spilling into the fjord with a great and turbulent rush of sound.

Rushing Down to the Fjord in Urke, 2018

Later, we returned for a second stop at Ålesund. We disembarked and wandered the town for an hour, capturing image after image of the striking Jugendstil (art nouveau) architecture, almost the whole of the town rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1904. This is what we enjoy the most, wandering on our own down cobbled streets, peering at decorated doorways and facades, looking into shop windows and, in Ålesund, admiring an exotic and fanciful variety of rooftops: gables, towers and spires. We posed—an obligatory moment—in front of the MS Spitsbergen before embarking again, the huge letters on the black and red-painted bow announcing its presence to the gathering travelers.

The MS Spitsbergen in Ålesund, 2018

We met for dinner, our little group of wanderers. During a wonderful repast of Norwegian specialties, we recounted our day to one another. We reminisced about trips taken and dreamed about the journey ahead. We recounted misadventures we had experienced on previous travels, perhaps to ward off the mishaps that sometimes befall even the most seasoned of travelers.

Tomorrow brings Trondheim, the Nidaros Cathedral, and Rørvik in Vikna—Vikna, where Martin Cornelius, Joan’s grandfather, was born. Sometime before midnight we will pass by Leka and look for it in the velvet dark just as Great-grandmother Cornelius had done one night eighty-six years ago.