Day 0 – 7:30 a.m.
It has been raining for two months. The sun has barely made an appearance since February, despite the fact that there is light for almost 24 hours now—the hazy grey sky lasts through the night, with no real sunrise or sunset, but only a dimming for about an hour.
I am heading north again—this time by train—to an area recommended in most guidebooks, known for its exceptional beauty of mountains, beaches, and quaint villages. A friend from grad school—“Ess” we’ll call her—will meet me in Bodø, just north of the arctic circle. From there will we travel together to a small fishing village across the water in the Lofoten Archipelago.
The ride is peaceful, and allows views of the Norwegian landscape as the train creeps north over the ten-hour ride. Norway is, in a word, breathtaking. Its lesser landscapes merely spectacular.
Day 0 – 17:30
Bodø is rainy, and cold. I have five hours to kill before Ess arrives by plane, so I tighten up my backpack straps and close up my rain-gear, heading out to walk around the town, and find something warm to eat. Not much is open. “City” in Norway is always a relative term; if it attracts tourists, it will have restaurants and small museums, and plenty of outdoor activities for the adventurous. It otherwise will have little in terms of Things To Do. No matter: I settle on Thai food, knowing the spice will help with the damp.
Panang curry it is. The dish comes with red curry and chicken in a bowl, and a heart-shaped rice mold with a heart-shaped carrot slice on top. Ten years ago I spent six months in Thailand, eating curry and rice the entire time. Never once did my dishes come with heart-shaped vegetables, but they make an appearance in Thai restaurants worldwide.
It is delicious. Curry and coconut milk; chicken and lemongrass; chili and rice: it is warm and creamy. After eating I reluctantly leave the cozy establishment for the blustery 5 ºC wind and rain. I stop by the grocery store to pick up food supplies for the weekend. Grocery stores and restaurants are limited where we’re headed. I stock up on ibuprofen and anti-motion sickness pills, popping a few as I walk to the ferry terminal.
Day 0.5 – Midnight
Ess arrives at the ferry terminal at midnight. We went to grad school together, learned about theory and method together, felt the highs and lows of funding disappointments and graduate-student life together. Ess—now the winner of a prestigious internationally recognized award for her important research—is in Europe for a brief study period. I—the winner of a somewhat less recognized award for my nefarious research—am delighted to travel with a friend for a change.
We compare spoils. Between the two of us we have two bottles of wine, a block of cheese, mandarin oranges, crackers, chocolate, tomatoes, salami, and bread. The budget traveler cuts costs by supplementing eating out with eating in. The budget traveler also buys their wine at the duty-free when flying in from other countries.
We head out to the dock. The ferry has arrived.
Last summer Ess and I attended the wedding of friends and colleagues in Greece. We had stood on a similar dock in Athens, waiting to be taken to the Island of Milos. The groom described the light as so bright that you think you forgot to wear your sunglasses before realizing they are already on your nose. The heat made me feel like I was breathing through wet wool, my lungs relieved only by an ocean breeze.
It is five minutes past twelve.
The rain cold, the sky grey like an afternoon storm. There is no sunset here in the arctic circle. It is the land of the midnight sun. I stare down at the grate underfoot, the bridge between dock and ferry, waiting in line to pay our fare. Water drips off my hood and tippity-taps on the metal grid. The polar water beneath us surges a little, jostles the bridge, and brings salty freezing mist into our nostrils.
“Definitely not Greece,” I observe.
“Definitely not,” Ess confirms.
We sit at the front of the ferry, inside, watching the sea as the ship takes soft rolling rises and falls. The window marked with droplets as the boat pushes through a wall of rain.
Oh, the seasickness. I lay my head back, try to focus on not throwing up. This never works. After an hour or so of trying to keep down my food, I stumble to the bathroom, almost tripping. Pushing open the door I immediately bend my head to the garbage can and vomit. Orange curry and chicken. A few seconds of relief. I stand up and head into the bathroom stall, then vomit again in the toilet. Lemongrass and rice. Finally it is over. I go to the sink and bend to wash out my mouth, spitting and rinsing. Another surge of the ship and I vomit a third time into the sink. Coconut milk and chili.
Shit. That’s $38.00 worth of vomit, right there.
As we are slowly docking, an attendant comes to inform us that there has been a rock slide along the main highway—the only access north to our hotel in Reine. She has no idea when it will be cleared, but they will begin working on it immediately. No big deal, we tell each other, we’ll wait in the terminal until people wake up, and see if we can get more information then.
Except, when we debark there is no ferry terminal. The other passengers drive out or get picked up. We search the dock for an open refuge, to no avail. There is no town to speak of, but instead a cluster of small houses tucked into the base of the mountains. There is only one road. Since we cannot head north as originally planned, we walk south, hoping to find something—anything—that will provide either information or shelter. What if it takes a week to clear? What if it takes just a few hours? Where do we go until something opens up?
It is 4:00 a.m.
Walking through stillness. The town is comatose in the midnight sun. Nothing moves but us and the sporadic rain. Finally a shelter.
It is actually just a shed for mailboxes, but it has three walls and a roof, with two benches inside. The reprieve from the rain helps to focus on our immediate problem. We have a small snack, and add layers of clothing. Decision time. I take out my phone and—data fees be damned!—look on my travel app for hotels near the area. Eureka! There’s a cabin available just 3 km south from here. I book it online, send a cancellation email to our planned reservation (of all the excuses, “rockslide” is a pretty legitimate one) hoping they won’t charge us, and then we head towards Rorbuer & Brygga Restaurant, in the fishing village of Å.
Å is quite literally the end of the road. The winding highway that begins in the north of the archipelago stops in a neat little loop just past this village. After the final twist of street, our destination is within sight.
We find our rorbuer, which is the term for most hotels in the area. It designates the type of building—a basic cabin on stilts over the pier—which were built to house migrant fishermen in high season. We try all the doors, wondering about shelter for the next four or five hours (Please, please, please open at six and not eight or nine, we pray to the deities of fireside warmth.). On the dock, wet, chilled, and pitiful. The momentary glee from Having a Plan has turned to weary despair from our Dreadful Conditions.
They opened at eight. We had been crouching in a doorway, dozing with the deep arctic cold creeping up through the ground into our flesh, when the reception attendant came to unlock the doors. They do not open until nine, she says, but invites us in for coffee after we explain the rockslide roadblock.
“Oh, that explains what all the people are doing outside,” she says, from her perfectly beautiful Norwegian face.
We weren’t the only ones with nowhere to go but south. But they had cars.
It takes a few hours, but they do let us check in early, around noon. By now we are chilled to shivering, and desperate to feel warm. Ess blasts the heat from the one small heater, as we each take hot showers. We lock the door, shut the curtain, and climb into our respective bunk beds.
“There are no demonstrable stains on the underside of your mattress,” I tell her, from below.
“That’s a good sign,” she mumbles, before we both fall into deep slumbers.
Wine. That is all.
Sunshine! We walk to the “town” of Reine, a downright cosmopolitan city by comparison to Å. The road was cleared last night, but how were we to know? Our cancelled reservation was answered with a tone that can best be described as “snippy”—by and large the exception in Norway—and a request to send my credit card information by email, so that they can bill me for the first day.
Ess gushes at Norway’s beauty, and even though I have grown accustomed to it, there is no denying the exceptional landscape.
“Am I…? Is that…? I have a sunburn!”
“You do!” Says Ess. Her skin hasn’t been as affected, but she also has a preexisting tan because she lives in a sunny state. I won’t name it, but it rhymes with “alifornia.”
The sun was not that strong, and never gets high in the sky; it simply continually circles the horizon, dipping and rising in a small undular wave. My sunburn doesn’t seem warranted. But then I realize: my skin has not felt a full day of sunshine since December, in Montreal. And it was minus 20 ºC at the time.
This time it’s beer, hamburgers, and playing cards until the ripe hour of 9:00 p.m. We’re wiped out, sunburnt, a little drunk, and perfectly happy.
Read Midnight Sun—Part 2