Trondheim

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

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