A Norwegian comedy of errors


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 Stew
Smoked Reindeer
Reindeer Steak
Barbecued Reindeer
Reindeer Blood Soup
Reindeer Fricassee
Reindeer Offal

"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."

We are maybe two miles out of Alta when we decide to review the soiled mental list of reasons why we have chosen Norway, of all places, to spend our summer vacation in. There are exactly six:

  • fjords;
  • the midnight sun;
  • the lack of any responsibility to visit three-star Michelin restaurants, since there are no three-star Michelin restaurants;
  • the absence of hordes of foreign tourists;
  • the feeling of getting away from it all;
  • absolution of foreign-language guilt, since no one could fairly expect an American tourist to speak Norwegian.

I see now that only two of these reasons can be construed as positive. Three are downright negative; one is ambiguous. In short, we have a problem common to tourists everywhere: insufficient purpose. We had allowed ourselves to become intoxicated by the quixotic idea of a Norwegian vacation. I had forced upon Norway my own idea of a wonderland without pausing to consider what the country has been for several millennia: cold and wet.

"The only person who ever thought of Norway as a place to get away from it all was Wittgenstein," I had said. "Norway was Wittgenstein's idea of a holiday." Only two types of people had ever come to northern Norway: invading Germans and Minnesotans who had seen Roots once too often. We were going to do something really different! (And I was going to get the credit for it.) But as we reminisce about the lovely times we had imagining Norway back home on the sofa, I sense that my companion is losing interest in the discussion. "The car is stopping all by itself," she says.

It is true. hi class is behaving strangely. Suddenly it is as if the front end intends to keep on going 100 kilometers an hour, but the back end is unable to keep up. Desperately, the machine farts its way into an alcove off the highway on the top of a treacherous cliff. There it dies, instantly.

My first impulse, naturally, is to think of someone to blame; and, of course, the car-rental man pops handily to mind. But then I have a hunch; the hunch becomes a thought; the thought, investigated, becomes a fact. I have put regular gasoline into a diesel engine. But since I cannot accept responsibility for the full horror of the situation-- not only have I dragged my companion to this frozen hellhole, I have stranded her miles from nowhere-- I blame hi class. I get out and kick the door three times. My companion tries to calm me down.

"Michael," she says, sharply. "You are behaving very badly."

Whatever I say next causes her to grab one of the two giant lemonade-type drinks we have just bought at the gas station and hurl it over the cliff.

The other one she keeps for herself.

Day 3: Tromsø
The plane makes several stops in rapid succession. We stay on until, in the port city of Tromsø, we are told it will fly no farther. It is unlikely that anyone actually would choose to vacation in Tromsø, but once you are there you have reason to be pleased. We check into the Grand Nordic Hotel, which with its deep cushions and dark antiques resembles a fancy New York hotel circa 1930, and fall into a shallow, restless sleep. I awaken at 2:30 in the morning and take a jog through the bright gray streets. It is light outside, and yet everyone is asleep. It feels like a trick.

In the morning we take one look at the industrial side of town and return to finding the quickest way out. The Midnight Sun Marathon is tonight, and as a result there are, once again, no rental cars. We spend the rest of the morning at a flea market, where we buy snazzy wool garments. Indeed, everywhere we turn there is a low-priced thick white sweater decorated with Norwegian iconography-- reindeer, polar bears, fish. Thus warmed and cheered we pass the afternoon at the Northern Lights Planetarium. After a stroll through the gardens below we are led into a round theater to watch a film about the midnight sun. It exists!

Days 4‚6: Kragerø, Stavanger, Bergen
The next day we fly to Oslo, where we are very efficiently provided with a car. We head south in a desperate dive for sunshine. Although we see no sand beaches, the small towns squished down in the rocky coves are picturesque. They are, in fact, indistinguishable from the sort of places where you often stumble across charming little inns or amusing water sports. But we do not.

We are beginning at last to understand. Norway is so touristically innocent that, even concerning its actual novelties, the country remains perfectly unselfconscious. The advertisement for one Norwegian hotel chain, for instance, features a series of photographs and a text that virtually shout: This is a dull place. There's a picture of an extremely bored-looking businessman sitting in his hotel room . . . fishing. Through a hole in the floor. The corpses of six cod lie stretched out near the desk, and another is being hauled up through the neat hole between the desk and the bed. Many people, I think, would enjoy fishing for cod through a hole in their hotel room floor. Even if this isn't a typically Norwegian activity, there's nothing stopping the Norwegians from pretending it is, and yet they don't.

Two days later we arrive in Bergen. Happy fountains spurt water high in the air in the middle of public squares surrounded by pretty pastel-colored buildings. Handsome old Norwegians putter around, as if on parade. Lovely young Norwegians sit at café tables sipping cappuccinos and holding hands. The sun lights up their faces and the pink and lavender buildings behind them. Had we started our trip in Bergen, I think, things might have turned out differently.

But every trip, like every story, has its theme. And the theme of our trip is: The Bad Vacation. We have forgotten why we came here; we cease to desire novelty. We find the biggest, grandest, and thus least Norwegian-looking hotel, and check in. Although we are no longer mentally in Norway, physically we still must cross the fjords to get to the airport and the plane to Spain. The fjords are our last hope of finding something worth bragging about. The best way to see one is to hop a boat in Bergen and cruise to Balestrand or Kirkenes. But when the temperature is 40 degrees and the clouds are so low you can touch them, the best way to see a fjord is in a PBS documentary.

The highway weaves fetchingly through the western archipelago; a ferry takes us and our car from island to island. Before long we are actually crossing fjords. I wish I could tell you what they look like, but all we see is water lapping against the hull. Foiled again, we gaze off the back of the fifth and final ferry and are greeted by gray haze. Through it we can dimly see the sign hanging over the back of the boat: no motorin under the overfarten. I don't know what it means, but it captures my sentiments exactly.

Day 7: Exit
The scene at the airport crushes any remaining illusions about our vacation and the guidebook that says, "The Norwegians are a patient people." There is no assigned seating on the airplanes. The people who board first get the exit rows; those who board last get the middle seats between the fat people. At the gate Norwegians pile on top of other Norwegians until in the end they form not so much a line as a rugby scrum.

Norway is of course famous for its intrepid Viking explorers. But in my opinion their bravery has been overrated. The various Olafs and Thors who floated small boats around the world are not nearly so admirable as explorers who come from places that are pleasant to live in. It is far more intrepid to travel to Norway than to leave it, I think.

If only I'd known how.