Sunday, 23 June 2013

Borderlands II - Kirkenes

Kirkenes as a town doesn't have all that much to recommend it. In many ways it's a simple industrial town in the far North. But because it is placed at the point where Northern Norway touches Russia, it has an interesting history. Up on the hill nearby you can find the Borderland Museum, which deals mostly with the situation of Kirkenes during the Second World War and the Cold War. The museum building was constructed around a WWII aircraft, which sits in the centre of an impressionistic exhibition on the ground floor. The writing for the exhibition has been done in verse and includes the texts of poems and hymns. On one wall there is a swastika made from Nazi propaganda posters, selling the Reich to the Norwegian people and denigrating the USSR and the allies. Many are still quite effective today, especially one showing a monstrous figure representing US cultural imperialism; its head is a Klu Klux Klan hood, its Kali-like arms carry vinyl records, a monkey in a cage and a Miss America contest winner. One of the monster's legs is made of bolted metal and has a ribbon wrapped around it which reads, "World's Greatest Leg." At the bottom of the frame is a small sign with the message, "The USA wants to rescue Europe from cultural apocalypse." Of course, if the Nazis hadn't been racial supremacists who destroyed literature they disapproved of it would have strengthened their case somewhat.

It must have been weird for the people of Kirkenes and the surrounding area. The Nazis left, but the Soviet Union remained on their doorstep. There was a short-term agreement for a time that locals could travel across the border to the nearest Russian town for trade and a party once a month, but when the Russians offered to extend the agreement, the Norwegian government declined, concerned about the fostering of Soviet sympathies and the opportunities for spying and recruitment. Today the people of Kirkenes have a special visa agreement with Russia and you hear a lot of Russian being spoken in the town centre.

We stayed a little out of town in a cabin on a husky farm right by the border. The hotel is called Sollia Gjestegård, and I can recommend it to any visitors. From there we walked up into the hills to the place where the border between Russia and Norway is marked. We followed little white wooden markers through the undergrowth and up the mountainside. There was still some snow lying on the ground, but it was spring, and though it was almost midnight the sun was in the sky, reflecting in the small bodies of water on the hilltops. First we saw the horizontally striped sticks which mark the border between countries. Then we climbed higher up and came to one of the border-stones. 


"You can go right up to the border-stone, but you can't go past it or you'll get arrested," the manager of our hotel had told us. "You don't need to wonder whether you'll get arrested, because you will." So we stood on the top of the hill and looked over into Russia, and back into Norway, and down at the place where the river turns Russian. There didn't seem to be anyone around to arrest us, but we didn't risk it. Marthe was convinced that there was a Russian border officer crouching behind the stone, just waiting for us to take one step too many towards his homeland.

Saturday, 22 June 2013


The first thing to say is that I think this blog has been moving, like all things, slowly but inexorably towards its natural end. I started writing here to record observations about my life in the Arctic, to give myself a forum and so that my friends could follow my progress (that way they needn't imagine me freezing in grim darkness beside an igloo). But Marthe and I have now entered our last days of Arctic life. We left our jobs for good yesterday. We are packing all we own into cardboard boxes. This is not because we don't love it here, but simply because we are moving on. In a few days we'll start the journey south to Trondheim and from there to elsewhere. Some weeks from now we'll be starting a new life all over again, this time in Bergen.

Like many people who read too much fiction, I tend to view my life in chapters. This new move should signal some kind of ending, moving as we are from the country to the city. All being well, I'll also be moving from full time work into full time education. It would be strange to carry on this same site after such a complete upheaval so I think I'll soon stop posting here. Even the name of this page is tied up with discussion of Nordreisa and the surrounding area. Though I haven't always written as much as I'd like, I hope I've succeeded in communicating something of this incredible place. I encourage anyone who hasn't been to the north of Norway to come and experience it for themselves. Maybe I'll feel compelled to write about Bergen once we're settled there, but if so I think it would be better to start a new page than to do so here. Either way, I'll leave this diary up as a souvenir, and for anyone who might happen by and find themselves interested to hear about the time we have spent here.

The story is not quite over yet though. The spring came here with an incredible heatwave that saw us swimming in the sea a few weekends ago. Now the beginning of summer is upon us, and like last year that has meant that the area we live in has been characterised by low-lying cloud and legions of free range sheep, as well as the migration of the reindeer. We've gone to places and seen things I haven't had chance to write about or share pictures of here. So, over the next few days and weeks I'll be posting a series of final updates, starting with the post about Kirkenes and the Russian border that I originally intended to put up some weeks back before I got caught up in work and exams. I also want to write a little about the witch trials in North Norway, amongst other things. I'll probably also want to share something of the trip from here southwards. The chances are that I'll still be looking back at the time Marthe and I have spent here in the far North while we're settling into our small flat in the west country.

So, I hope those people who read this blog will enjoy these final posts, and I'd be happy to hear from anyone who's been reading regularly here over these last 20 months (there are not hundreds of you, but I know there are a few). I'm looking forward to putting these coming posts together, and I'm looking forward to the future beyond that too. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Coincidences - Two

Last Saturday I was talking about Stockholm with Marthe and her friend Frøydis. We were standing in the kitchen, making coffee and discussing the Swedish capital. Of the three of us, I was the only one who had never been there, but I was saying that for a long time it had been a city I'd wanted to visit. 

I've actually wanted to visit Stockholm since long before I ever really thought about Norway, ever since hearing the album Dynamite by Stina Nordenstam in the late 90s. (She made the record in her flat there). I thought aloud that I might travel to Stockholm alone when Marthe and Frøydis are on their planned road trip across America next year. 

At the same time as we were having this conversation, someone I had never met was sitting in Stockholm and writing me an email. I sat down with my coffee, opened up my computer and got a message from Jonas Alexander David, telling me that he was going to play one of my songs on his radio show at 6pm that day.

The show, which is called Explorations, goes out every week on Stockholm College Radio. Each broadcast focuses on a different area of the world. It's a kind of journey through music. Last week's Explorations was about North Norway. I became the UK's unoffical musical representative in the far North!

You can listen to all Jonas' shows after broadcast on his blog. The North Norway show you can hear below. It's in Swedish, obviously, but if you don't understand the language you could still enjoy the music. It's a selection of pop, modern folk and electronic music from Bodø, Tromsø, Nordreisa and beyond. My song appears around the 20 minute mark.

Sometimes the internet seems like a tyrannical force in my life—some kind of time-sucking black hole that I can't escape. But then something like this happens: Just when I'm thinking of a city I'd love to visit, someone in that city is thinking of me.


Sunday, 26 May 2013

Coincidences - One

We spotted Todd and Gerry in their garden, taking advantage of the sunshine to plant flowers and dig the soil, so we pulled in for a cup of coffee. First we went out on their veranda, but the view across the fjord to mountains opposite Djupvik was so gorgeous, and the water so still, that Todd soon suggested we go out on their boat. 

The boat is old and noisy, but reliable and comfy. It has room inside for two people to sleep. We sat out on the back deck and Todd killed the engine. We floated in the fjord and watched the light on the water. Behind the boat floated a group of translucent blue jellyfish. Each of them was a dimly perceptible blue outline with what looked to be a kind of nervous system in the centre. Todd told me they were made of of groups of cells which come together and coexist in a single organism, but which can be separated and continue to live. The light refracted inside them so that it looked like sparks of electricity. 

From whence we came

Todd asked if we wanted to have some chicken soup later, and I reminded him that I haven't eaten meat in 16 years. I do eat fish though, so he ducked inside and got me a fishing rod. 

I'd never been fishing before, but ever since I started eating fish some six or seven years ago, I've been thinking that I really need to kill a fish in order to justify the whole thing to myself. In North Norway, even more than in some other places, vegetarianism is something you are often called on to explain. I had a lot of very thorough moral reasons when I became a vegetarian, but for me today it's mostly intuitive. I can argue a case about the lack of higher consciousness in fish as opposed to mammals, but in truth I think my eating habits are all caught up with the way I feel about death and suffering. I want to be connected to as little of it as possible. I don't really have a defence for singling out fish over birds as the exception to the rule, but I do believe it's best not to eat something you couldn't comfortably kill.

Todd put the bate on the line. It was just a green metal fish with four hooks at the base. He showed me how you lower it to the bottom (about 30m in this case), then pull it up just a little and jiggle it about to make it look like a distressed fish. "Then along comes a bigger fish and says, 'I'll put him out of his misery.' And that's when you use this here to wind them in." I did as I was instructed.

For quite some time I didn't have a great deal of luck—though since I was not entirely eager to catch anything, the truth of that statement might be a little questionable. In any case, my line stayed empty while Gerry got another rod, sank her line into the water and immediately caught a small haddock. I lent my line to Marthe and ended up using an old wooden rod so thin that it bent just under the weight of the bait. When my line eventually hooked something, the rod bent over into a u-shape.

I couldn't reel it in. Todd was driving the boat again by this time and I focused mainly on holding on to the rod. Every now and again I forced the reel around. Even as I thought about The Old Man and The Sea, I worried that when the fish finally appeared it would be humiliatingly small. I might be battling a minnow. I carried on the fight and eventually saw a flash of sliver down in the darkness. It looked pretty large. And then I got the fish up to the surface. It was a cod about the length of my inner arm.

Marthe got a net and helped me get the fish into the boat, where it thrashed around in a plastic container while Gerry hunted for a hammer. Then she gave it to me—a ball-peen hammer—and Todd told me to hit the creature behind the eye. So I did. Twice. Three times. I really wanted to make sure it was dead. 

I stood there and thought about what I had just done while Marthe caught more fish. I didn't feel much triumph, but I didn't feel like I'd done anything terrible. One minute the fish had been there, the next minute I had dispatched it elsewhere. Or snuffed it out like a flame. Marthe caught a haddock and I had to kill that too. "Sorry," I said while I hit it in the head with the pliers we used to get the hook out of its lip. Then Marthe caught a smaller cod, so small we put it back. We fought to unhook it and then dropped it into the water. It seemed to freeze for a moment in shock, but then flicked itself calmly down into the darkness. I felt a little better. I know that many Inuit tribes believe that whenever you take a catch from nature you must give a small piece back.

We sailed back in towards the harbour and Todd started gutting the fish into the water. I though it was around 4.30 because the sun was still hanging above the mountains, but it was actually gone 10pm. When Todd disemboweled my cod and dropped the head and guts into the water, a dolphin broke the surface on the port side of the boat. Then another came up on the starboard. Gerry was pointing to where the first one had appeared, all of us were laughing and looking wildly around, and two more dolphins surfaced further out in the fjord. I saw another swim underneath us. Who knows how it is that dolphins bring so much joy with them? We decided in the end there were between eight and ten of them in the pod, glittering as they broke the surface, gliding by.

Gerry and Todd said that in all the years they've been going out on their boat, this was only the third time they had seen dolphins. Marthe and I had just happened by one day and gone fishing on a whim, and suddenly there they were. Up to ten of them. Gerry and Todd are both members of the Baha'i faith. Their lives are characterised by symbols and signs. For them, this was no coincidence. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Once you get past the borderlands, Arctic Finland is how you might expect. Unlike North Norway, the lanscape is flat, and it's covered in forest which stretches on endlessly, interrupted only by expanses of water, all minor relations of a great lake called Inari.  

You can drive for miles without seeing anyone, perhaps only two white reindeer in the middle of the road, who will watch you approach at speed, as if they would welcome their own death. 

My friend who used to live in this area tells me that, despite appearances, there are people living in the forest. The population is made up mostly of Sami people who moved a little south when Russia annexed their previous region. You can tell they are there from the large wooden boxes which stand on stilts at intervals along the roadside. These are their post boxes, and they need to be so large because there is no post office from which you can collect your parcels. The nearest shop is hours away, but if you live in the region you can call them with an order and they'll deliver to your post box. 

At the Eastern tip of the nation we crossed back into Noway and headed towards Kirkenes and the Russian border.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Sound of Ice Melting in the Arctic

The snow and the ice are melting. Blue skies have come to the arctic, the days are crisp and bright, and there is no real darkness anymore, only a navy-blue submarine midnight.

Last week I walked along the edge of the fjord with an audio recorder, to capture some of the sounds of the thaw.

I stood between two small streams of water flowing over rocks and pebbles into the fjord.

I lay on a flat slate-like rock, so smooth it almost felt soft, and recorded the melting of a large slab of ice. The sound is very musical. There was some water dripping into the cavity between the ice and the rock, but most of these sounds were coming from inside the ice itself: an invisible polyphonic thawing process.

Saturday, 20 April 2013


On the road to Tromsø it is possible to take a left and drive instead to Finland. That's what we did last Monday. On the way, I bought two CDs from a petrol station: A Rock n Roll box-set and the second album by Norwegian band Harrys Gym. I had never before noticed how unbelievably middle aged and straight Bill Haley sounds on Rock Around the Clock. You can virtually hear the cardigan the man is wearing. Harrys Gym on the other hand, I recommend for any time you might be crossing a Nordic border. 

Driving into Finland really demonstrates the essential weirdness of national boarders. The road is long, the landscape doesn't change, but you drive past a large sign and a small cabin and suddenly the language on the signs is totally unintelligible and the notes and coins in your wallet are of no use to you. The speed limit suddenly goes up to 100, which is exciting for those of us who live in Norway and are usually supposed to drive at 80kmph. I put my foot down immediately.

To the right of the road there is a large, frozen lake and a flat expanse of snow. People ski across it to get to the point where three countries, Sweden, Norway and Finland, all meet. This meeting point is marked by a raised concrete circle which has been photographed many times for use on postcards.

A little way into Finland there is a tourist centre where they sell burgers, souvenirs and postcards. No such thing on the Norwegian side, I noticed. I think they make their money partly from the fact that snow-scooter regulation is much less strict on that side of the border, so people travel there to ride around in the mountains. It's also a good area for skiing and snowboarding. The man behind the counter spoke Finnish and English, but not Norwegian.

Outside, people took off in hang gliders from the frozen surface of the lake and flew off into the distance. We travelled further up the road to where there is a supermarket which is much cheaper than the ones in Norway, though I'm reliably informed that it is way more expensive than anywhere else in the country. We stocked up on a lot of frozen food and I bought Finnish chocolate and some mustard, which I hope is hotter than the stuff we get here. I also bought a Led Zeppelin CD for the journey home.

And then that was it. There was nothing more to do in Finland that day. We got back in the car and drove a few minutes until the ice, snow, rocks and trees around us were once again Norwegian ice, snow, rocks and trees, and the signs said we had to slow our speed right down to 50kmph.

All this just brings home to me the imaginary status of countries. How is it that I walk or drive past this little roadside house, and suddenly I'm in a completely different place? What about a fox crossing through the snow, or a bird flying overhead? Does this madness apply to them too? 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Arctic Safari

Last Thursday some friends arrived on the Hurtigruten from Trondheim. We met them when the boat came into the harbour in Skjervøy at about 11pm. Skjervøy is an island town, and connecting it to the mainland is a bridge with a long single-lane road across it. I remember being in the passenger seat across that bridge in high winds on the day we first set out to find our new home in North Norway. That day it seemed we were driving insanely high up. This time I was driving, and though the bridge isn't quite as altitudinous as I recalled, you certainly wouldn't want to fall from it.

The weather is getting warmer now. The road surface is turning from a layer of ice to a blanket of slush, so careful driving is required. The sun sets late, but by the time we left Skjervøy it was dark out. A little after the bridge, I was rounding a corner when I sensed some movement out of the corner of my eye. To the right of the road, on a snow-covered slope, some dark shape was heading downwards. I slowed the car as a massive animal loped into the road just metres ahead of us. It's difficult to be objective, but this thing seemed bigger than the car (and we drive a Chrysler). Its head was enormous. Where antlers would normally be it had a pair of stumpy horns.

This was the first moose I've seen since I moved here a year and a half ago. Marthe reckons it was a young male. I've been waiting impatiently to see a moose for some time now, so any shock I might have felt evaporated with gladness. There are loads of them up here. 16 have died in car accidents on one local stretch of road alone since the start of this year. Yet somehow, until last week, they had always avoided me among the trees and out in the darkness.

The moose turned away from us and looked around. It seemed confused to be in the middle of a road. It was perhaps a little lost. Then, clumsily, it clambered off the other side of the road and disappeared into the night. I drove on, unsure if the moose's mother, brother or friend might suddenly throw itself in front of the car.

Another 20 minutes down the road and we saw two more! One moose was waiting for the other to climb out of the road and join it in someone's garden. Then the northern lights grew visible in a patch of sky beyond us, and the closer we got to home, the larger they grew. On the long road to our house, I pulled the car over and we got out. Two shifting pools of green light were visible above us.

On the final stretch of road, a bright white arctic hare jumped out and ran through the light cast by the car. It was close enough to clearly see, but far enough away that we were in no danger of hitting it. I have been wondering recently when the hare would come back. He used to visit our garden last spring, and turned from white to brown to suit the summer when the snow was gone.

If I hadn't been there to experience it with them, I could almost have been jealous of our two visiting friends. It was as if this whole place woke that night to welcome them.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

From Sun-up to White-out

People in the arctic spend a lot of time looking forward to the midnight sun, so it can be tough when for half the summer it is obscured by clouds. The end of the dark time was an eagerly anticipated event this year. But when the sun first returned, back in February, it did so under cover of a snowstorm, and it stayed there for several days. When the weekend came, Marthe and I went out for a walk on the mountainside and finally saw the light return. I got my shadow back and the world went technicolour once more. Now the days are only a little shorter than the nights. It's incredible, how fast it turns around.

The weather has been serious of late. Whole weeks of near constant snowfall, broken up by wonderfully clear, cloudless days. Sometimes the wind and the snow together contrive to blot out the whole world. Last weekend we were driving home and the road disappeared completely. You were lucky if you could see as far ahead as the next roadside visibility marker. We drove into a couple of snow banks, but managed to make it home, unlike one unfortunate soul who had abandoned a car at the edge of the road. When we passed it, it was already half buried. 

The road on a good day.
One side of our house is now mostly hidden. The view from our kitchen window is a wall of snow that reaches up to meet the stuff sliding down from the roof. From above the porch hang icicles the length of swords. When the wind gets up it sometimes throws things at our metal roof, and they clatter across into the trees behind us.

Note: Since these images were taken, it has snowed a lot more.

My friend Bill came to visit recently, and I was hoping he would get to see the aurora borealis, but he mostly saw vast amounts of sleet, rain and snow. I haven't seen so much of the Northern Lights this year in general. This is partly because our house doesn't look out into an expanse of sky like the old one did. I've recently realised that on clear nights they are often directly above our house, so I need to go out and check more often. 

Bill Kenny and me cooking lunch with petrol.

I just finished a long Norwegian project on Knut Hamsun. Everyone has to do some self-directed coursework in the third year and I chose to write about three of Hamsun's early books: Hunger, Pan and Victoria. Although Hunger is the most famous one with English speaking audiences, and is an excellent book, I really recommend Pan. It's quite unlike any other book I've read, especially from that period. It was interesting writing at length about literature in another language. I'm hoping now that I've got that out of the way, I can update here more than once a month.

In other news, young goats are being born! Marthe doesn't work in the barn in the winter, but she went to visit the little ones. I suppose this means that spring is close at hand.