away from home
ahead of your axe and sword.
You can't feel a battle
in your bones
or foresee a fight.
-- from The Sayings of the Vikings
Day 1: Northern Norway
Americans who have traveled in Europe know what it's like to be spoken to in a language they do not understand. Millions of times, perhaps, we have waited politely while pudgy men with mustaches hollered at us, incomprehensibly. "Ommpalloahhhahhraggg!" some stranger will say, and we'll think knowingly, "Ah, yes: French."
But today in Alta, on the fringes of Europe, I find myself facing a fresh linguistic challenge: I am being shouted at in a language I cannot identify. It might be Sami, the native tongue of the Laplanders who herd reindeer in these parts. More likely it is Norwegian-- there are more than 4 million Norwegians in Norway, next to 35,000 Sami. But it could also be Finnish or even Swedish, or so I'm told by my traveling companion-- a lovely woman whose role in this trip is to be impressed by me for having arranged it. She is now, for the first time, busy reading the guidebooks. Skeptically.
At length, with hand signals, the man at the desk makes his point: there are no rental cars left in Alta. It does not seem to matter that I hold printed proof of my reservation. It does not matter that the airline has lost my luggage. When I ask when the next car will arrive, the man can only gaze nervously through the rain-streaked window toward the outskirts of the city.
Outside, a moonscape of asphalt is punctuated by nothing but broad glassy lakes, prefab houses, and suicides. Cars don't come to Alta, he explains somehow. Cars leave Alta. We stare through each other and out the window for maybe two minutes, though it seems longer. Finally the man sighs: for $200 a day ($73,000 a year), I might rent his last vehicle.
Alas, that vehicle is not a car. He points uneasily to the parking lot. Marooned on the wet asphalt stands an enormous gray van with three-foot-high pink letters painted across the side. hi class, it says.
It is nearing seven in the evening, but the sky is not showing its age. It's still the same depression gray as when we arrived six hours ago. I check the photos in my guidebooks: not a cloud in any of their skies. The midnight sun glows as it's supposed to, a lovely orange motionless ball.
"The sky is always like this, gray, gray, gray," says the car-rental man in newly discovered English, as he hands over the keys to hi class. "For the midnight sun you must go to Sweden." In Norway, apparently, the midnight sun doesn't shine, or rise, or set-- the three things one has come to expect of the sun.
After a brief stop at the finest hotel in Alta, a nearly perfect replica of one of those former Soviet government buildings now being blown up to make way for accommodations fit for humans, we leave. Quickly. From Alta we drive to Karasjok, which is among the few places in Norway where anything is left of the original Sami culture. For an hour we motor along in the silence reserved for people coming to terms with a dramatic reversal in life. We do not see so much as a single other car; hi class has the road to herself. Except for occasional flickers of life in tiny remote villages, there is no company for our misery. All the while, it rains-- a cold, mean rain, the sort of rain that inspires a sudden desire to return to the womb.
Thus we wend our way slowly, like a pair of old folks on a Sunday drive, 90 miles through rolling tundra creased by swollen rivers and pocked by crystal lakes. And then something good happens: the sheer beauty of it all mellows my companion. We could be in northern Montana, but then we'd be surrounded by a thousand Winnebagos. We are alone. And she is soothed by the clubbable pine forests; she is charmed by the chattering rock creeks whispering sweet nothings into her ear. She ceases to remind me that Norway was my idea and begins to remark on the landscape.
In the small town of Karasjok, we find our hotel, called the North Cape. The hotel itself is more 1970's Ramada than 970's Norwegian, but it is attached to what we are told is an authentic Sami restaurant. The dining room is in an underground hut shaped like a beehive, puffing smoke through its roof. We enter by way of the mud doorway and take a seat on a reindeer pelt in front of a campfire, between a pair of Norwegian tour groups. The waitress, dressed up like something out of Hans Christian Andersen, hands us a menu with the word finnebiff on every line.
It reads, in translation:
Reindeer Blood Soup
"The Sami have always been clever enough to utilize everything they hunted or caught," explains the guidebook. They "used everything: meat, blood, offal, intestines, belly." Connoisseurs of this sort of thing will no doubt cry out in protest. They will say that until you have visited the nine-star restaurant in Oslo that knows precisely how to prepare reindeer, you have no right to speak ill of the beast. But I must report it as I see it; and at the moment, I see it as greasy and tough and disgustingly gamy. The meal concludes with a bowl of tart and tasty cloudberries. They strike us as not so much a dessert as a reward.
After dinner the pleasant woman behind the register laughs when I ask if any of our dinner was road kill. In summer, she explains, the reindeer are driven south and toward the coast. No tourist in summer ever sees a live reindeer in the wild. Dead reindeer are abundant-- fried, stewed, baked, broiled. To find smoked fish we will have to venture south or perhaps west. In the center of northernmost Norway, there is nothing but reindeer.
Day 2: Leaving Northernmost Norway
This part of Norway, it is already clear, is a good place for people who feel alienated from modern life. We do not. We drive back toward Alta, intending to head south from there to the fjords and, we hope, sunshine. The rain continues to pound down on the tin roof of hi class. Once again it is the only vehicle on the road, and we are soon resuffused in our own peculiar silence. At a gas station we find a man who speaks English and offers directions.
He has a long white beard like Santa Claus's and chuckles at odd moments in the conversation. "It always rains," he says. "That is why no Americans come here."