SI Vault
William Johnson
November 16, 1970
The silence is supernatural. The days are dark and bitter cold, with an eerie twilight at noon. A relentless wind screams off the Norwegian Sea, inducing the melancholies of March. It is too frosty to fish, the drinks are overpowering and the food is weird. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.
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November 16, 1970

Icy Adventures Of A Viking Grandson

The silence is supernatural. The days are dark and bitter cold, with an eerie twilight at noon. A relentless wind screams off the Norwegian Sea, inducing the melancholies of March. It is too frosty to fish, the drinks are overpowering and the food is weird. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.

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I might have slipped under some 11th-century spell then. In this rorbu, sipping wine cooled in snow and chewing the succulent torsk tongues, I felt the spirits of fishermen past closing in. But then Yoody, ever the effervescent hostess, knocked and announced that I could come and watch television with the Dahls if I wished. Perhaps, she said, Gunsmoke or the cartoon family Flint (The Flint-stones) would be on. They were the No. 1 shows in the Lofotens.

That night, the padded board bunks felt like goosedown. I slept as if dead until 5 a.m. when the first cod-fishing boat started its engine, then fell asleep again until 8:30 when the slip was empty.

Young Hans Dahl took over now. In an ancient wooden dory, with hand-hewn oars and two whittled pegs stuck in the gunwales for oarlocks, the 10-year-old took me out to sea to fish for torsk. It was gray and snowing. The flakes felt sharp when they hit the skin. There was a stiff icy wind. The waves rose to six-foot crests, especially in the narrow, choppy channel that lay between two black mountain slopes marking the line between the open Norwegian Sea and the snug cove at Nusfjord. But Hans was a doughty lad, apple-cheeked and perhaps a trifle large for his age. He gave me a hand-reel of heavy line with a large and lethally hooked spoon at the end and rowed out into the teeth of the wind. For an hour, while the dory tossed and broached in the waves, I held the line overboard, pumping it occasionally. Nothing happened. Young Hans spoke no English and seemed to understand it only spasmodically. The conversation was reduced generally to the Viking Grandson smiling stiffly and saying, "Torsk?" and Hans replying with a shrug. At last, I said quite firmly, "No torsk!" and pointed commandingly over a mile of dark water and blowing snow to shore. Hans shrugged, said, "No torsk" and rowed home in a gallant struggle with the elements that took slightly more than an hour.

Later, Hans and the Viking Grandson tried skiing in the grand silence behind Nusfjord. There was quite excruciating exertion involved in climbing the low slopes to get above an idyllic valley flanked by ragged alpine crags. Huffing and puffing, I herring-boned up for all I was worth, and finally perched upon a sort of hummock. I had borrowed skis of the narrow, long, wooden cross-country variety and if they were waxed at all it was with library paste. Fine for climbing. However, for the pleasant schuss I anticipated down the hummock they were quite hopeless. So in a Chaplinesque burlesque of a skier I was forced to make a clumsy clopping walk in order to get down a fairly steep incline.

Throughout the trek, young Hans kept stopping short in the snow, rasping out in a loud hoarse whisper, "Sporer! Sporer!," which means he had seen a spoor—or track—upon the snow. Then, holding a chubby finger to his lips to keep the Viking Grandson silent, he would step out of his skis and spring ahead in a flailing charge through the snow and suddenly begin digging beneath a black boulder or a stunted evergreen. Twice a startling flurry of wings sounded as a black and white quail-like bird—a rype—flashed low across the snow. And once a huge hare went desperately clambering from beneath a tree down through the valley. Each time he flushed something, young Hans would rise, hold a rigid statuesque pose as if he were aiming a rifle and make the shooting sound that is used by all children in the world: "Kkkhhhh! Kkkhh! Kkkkhhhh!"

Bernhard Dahl charged $2.80 for the rorbu and a really exorbitant $10 for "taxi service" to the bus stop by the ferry. He refused to take money for the guide-work of his son, so I slipped a 10-kroner note ($1.40) into the pocket of Hans' jacket. I did not know it if would end up in Bernhard Dahl's big fireproofed safe or not.

In Sweden, people talked quite casually to the Viking Grandson about March as being a time to grubbla—to "push out lower lips," as it were. Which means a sort of seasonal mood of grim depression sets in, a wallowing in the exquisite melancholy of the north, a time to meditate on the futility of a life spent in ice and snow and night. I did not take it too seriously, since I did not expect to be in Scandinavia long enough to grubbla.

One Sunday afternoon I was strolling in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, a determinedly up-to-date town filled with glass-walled hotels and boxlike insurance offices set amid black-green pines. I walked into the dining room of one of the more sumptuous hotels and ordered lunch. The colors in the room were cheery; the crystal gleamed; the waitress smiled, and the plates were heaped with thick slabs of cheese and cold reindeer steaks. There was crisp Finnish beer on hand and there were many people in the room, dressed in their Sunday clothes. Outside, the sky was gray as stone and it was snowing over the plain behind the hotel, but then a man and a little boy glided by the window on skis and they were laughing.

Soon the hotel musicians, four men dressed in gaudy vests and rich blue breeches, assembled on the bandstand, tuned up quite jauntily and then swung without warning into a song that was so morose that I simply stopped eating and listened. The clarinet wailed and the chords of the piano were deep sobs. The violin wept openly and an electronic zither sounded hysterical with grief. Visions of deep snow and broken hearts, intimations of mortality lay heavy on the room. It was music to grubbla by, and spirits of the diners were visibly lowered. Yet the tune, some kind of Finnish lament, went on and on and on. The Viking Grandson soon discovered himself dwelling on thoughts of empty rooms, foggy nights, endless roads. The depressing music lasted for many minutes and when the band finally switched to something light and swift, a shroud lay over all of Sunday. Slowly the people recovered. Eventually, as the happier music went on (it was, I noticed, an unlikely '40ish American medley of To Each His Own, That Lucky Old Sun and Zip-a-dee-do-dah), beer glasses were raised again. Somewhere a voice said, "kippis," which is a traditional Finnish toast, and somewhere, someone said "holkyn kolkyn," which is the traditional Finnish reply to kippis. Soon people were laughing, and the Viking Grandson, feeling for no real reason at all that some deadly heavy stone had lifted from his heart, not only ate all of the cheese and reindeer steaks on the platter before him and drank all of the beer, he even ordered more of everything.

Later when I asked a Finn I had gotten to know about the doomed way I had felt amid the music in Rovaniemi, the Finn, a cynical fellow, laughed and said, "You felt better when the sad music stopped than you had before it started, did you not? And you ordered more food and drink, did you not? Do not underrate Finnish hotelkeepers. They know what is good for business and what is not."

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