“We drank each other’s health and exchanged invitations to visit each other in our countries. After a time I went out from the brightly lighted cabin to the dark boat-deck. For the moment the night was clear and starry. I was carrying my champagne glass in my hand, and for no good reason that I can now think of, I threw it out over the side, watched it hover for a moment in the air as it lost momentum and was caught by the wind, then saw it flutter and tumble into the swirl of water. This gesture, partly, I suppose, because it was of its own moment, spontaneous and made quite alone, in the dark, has become oddly important to me, and bound up with the turgid, indefinite feelings of homecoming.” Evelyn Waugh, Labels
We waited in the hotel for the rain to stop or our ship to come in. An Englishwoman began talking to me. She was waiting on friends and for her tour of Norway to start. She was old and seemed lonely, too quick to talk to strangers, but she was excited, too. A communicable excitement. The kind that every traveler knows, at the beginning of a trip, no matter how old. Her name was Margaret and she was very English. She quoted Kipling to me, “And what should they know of England who only England know?”
We boarded the ship, which was bigger than I expected, looming large above us as we entered its belly. Our cabin had a small circular window above one of the beds; immediately the view was like a photograph. Open water forever, islands, skerries, lighthouses out where no one would venture.
Certain things feel strange on a ship. Taking a shower. Drinking a glass of water. Stopping and going are indistinguishable, the way you don’t feel an airplane move when you’re on it. The motion of the water stays with you on land. Passing under a bridge, seen from the portal window, feels like driving on a highway. We waved at passing ships, feeling like a great Cunarder.
Our first stop was Geirangerfjord, fog low on the water, troll paraphernalia everywhere we went. We stopped in Trondheim where more of our family joined us. It’s the town where my grandmother was born and raised, but it feels so remote to me, so unconnected to me, this watershed of my past. I feel the same about Düsseldorf, where my mother is from. It seems an unlikely place for my parents to have met, removed from my life and theirs too at this point. And yet it is central to my personal history. Visiting these places reminds me how unlikely and lucky my, or any, life is.
We celebrated midsummer and my mother’s birthday by staying up with the sun that never set. A sky to end the astronomer’s night, as Salter wrote. All of it, the sky and clouds and mountains and water, dazzling, lambent, midnight as if midday, directionless and open.
We moved from the bar to the upper deck, met a salty dog named Rune, swigging from a bottle of cognac; drank gin, jägermeister, schnapps, Gammel Dansk, tossed shot glasses overboard; passed under a bridge sitting in the hot tub, close enough almost to touch.
We crossed into the Arctic Circle and my mom dreamt I went overboard. Several of our party left the ship in Tromsø. The weariness of those who leave too soon; the melancholy of those who stay too long. Family is not parceled out evenly, but a few days on a boat can feel much longer in memory.
We stopped in Hammerfest for one hour early in the morning, the captain’s scratchy voice calling it the northernmost town in the world. There was an oil refinery and a polar bear statue, and a hill we climbed to look down at our ship from.
In the afternoon, we stopped at Honningsvåg, a crewmember calling it again the northernmost town in the world. We saw a regional theater with a poster for a play called Our Northernmost Life: “The show on top of the world. Where the world ends…there starts our life! How on earth can you settle down and enjoy life on 71° north on a desolate windy island, the North Pole as your closest neighbor?” Good question.
A Sami woman stood outside a bank selling wares made from her reindeer: pocket knives, buttons, pelts, hats. She told us they live between Norway and Russia, moving freely between countries, following their herd, the reindeer swimming between islands. Their wealth is based on how many heads they have, though the number in the bank doesn’t necessarily correspond to reality. An improvisation, an adaption of a tradition to a modern reality.
The trip ended in Kirkenes, at the border with Russia, a knuckle on the crooked finger of Norway that wraps around the top of Finland, where time moves from west to east. Signs in Cyrillic made me even more confused about where we were. We walked out on the tarmac to a small puddle jumper and retraced a week’s route in a of couple hours.