northwhile

one-way ticket

Iceland, 25.04.2017, Tuesday, Reykjavik Roasters.

A blond girl at the table and me with both our macbooks. She’s an Online-Nutrition Coach from NY, enjoying to work wherever she can, a few days in Iceland right now, then jetting over to Oslo (“so close and cheap to relocate here, in Europe!”), afterwards a couple o’weeks in Ireland. Nice choice! We’re both tucking in on some fancy sourdough bread and delicious volcano-force (!) coffee. Cosily nestling inside, watching slow rain and quick people drizzle past, some cars tick-tick-tick by, spikes still mounted. To my right the grinding arm of the coffee roaster monster is continuously turning the beans, the sour smell lingering in the room, a stylish-haircut-girl behind the counter, two women in skirts and cool cardigans sticking labels onto freshly sealed coffee bags, the room filled with vinyl tunes and grinding machinery.

When heading down here, I passed that tall, slim basalt-column cathedral up the hill. When stumbling out of the rain and into the airy, clean design of Hallgrímskirkja I was met by sweet tunes in full blast by the morning session of the famous church’s organist. What a treat! So whilst watching Japanese big bunches and Spanish selfie hordes hurrying in and out, I leaned back and soaked in those soaring tunes.

It’s as if I’ve been here for a while already, everything feels so familiar. But I just arrived yesterday. On a glorious flight from Arlanda (Stockholm) to Keflavik (Reykjavik), marvelling at miles of snow-covered mountains and white glacial tongues licking the dark blue sea. When staring out of the window down on that massive island of fire and ice I had some time to dwell on that special encounter on the way to the airport. There was this guy, extremely good looking, btw, whom I already had noticed at the station. His luggage was small, his grin quite broad, his style relaxed. And so was his attitude. On the bus he was sitting behind me, next to a quite handsome other Swedish male and I happened to eavesdrop on their 40 minutes conversation. Well, actually, I HAD to listen. My Swedish is not very brilliant, beware, but I understood that he just got sacked, had his last day of work on friday, got rid of everything, just kept his spotify list and was going to throw away his Swedish Sim card at the airport. He was on his way to San Diego – on a one-way ticket. He needed to get away, got six months in the US, and had determined himself to hike (the entire!) Pacific Crest Trail. Puh! – “I just like friluftsliv a lot” he confided to his seat neighbour, and when he added that he also loved dogs a lot and might want to go and find a place in Canada to work with huskies in autumn, I constrained myself hard to not just swivel around and beg him to take me along. But also a fight of “keep quiet, it’s none of your business, and by the way: you’re much too shy to take up a conversation with two smart guys at the same time” and “I just MUST talk to him” went on in my head, until we had nearly reached the terminal. When he got ready to get out, I finally turned around and addressed the two men. “Sorry to interrupt you – I happened to overhear your conversation, and I just wanted to say: Good luck. What you’re gonna do sounds great, and it’s surely the right thing to do – I think it will be a brilliant experience.” (Ha, always easier to encourage a third party than believe it yourself.) Their astonished faces came to no surprise. When I told them then I didn’t really have a plan nor booked a return flight either, the other guy smiled in disbelief (he was the one with the office job, three kids, a wife and recently acquired house): “Two one-way tickets!”. Yes. – Just wonder, if one day it might be two tickets – one way.

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… and out

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Spitsbergen – flying in …

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Ja, jeg elsker dette landet *

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* Yes, I love this country. Like poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (the sound of that name!) probably did when back in the 1860ties writing the lyrics to a song that made it straight into the top10, eventually even moulding into THE Norwegian National Anthem:“Ja, vi elsker dette landet”. (Fancy getting into some real festive nordic mood, too? Then tune in here.)

And for sure, there are many people who love that country. Foremost Norwegians, maybe. Norwegians living abroad, feeling a strong sense of place, holding up their traditions and onto their roots even if they´ve emigrated years, or generations!, ago. But then there´s trillions of tourists, too, who, once having set foot on this extraordinary scenic rugged-coast scandinavian country, cannot but return year after year. And then there are people that come to stay. Or try to stay. Like refugees, in need of a safe country. Like nurses and care workers, in search of some decent salary. Like students and researchers, indulging into bountiful wildlife and rare meteorological phenomena. Like you and me, who feel an undeniably urge to live up north, by the sea, breath fresh air and dwell on the beauty of those superb natural surroundings.
It might not always be easy to reconcile everybody, as it may not always be easy for everybody non-norwegian to live up there in this at times cold and harshly location.
But then, it obviously works, too. Or at least: it runs very smoothly on Svalbard, the far flung utmost outpost of that long stretched northern country.
On those lonely islands, in 2016 there´s a population of around 2.600 people. 500 of those are Russians or Ukrainians working in the old mining town of Barentsburg. Then there´s quite a few Swedes and next come: Thai. (Yes, that´s quite a stretch, but: good for the cuisine! There´s nice curries and even sushi in town, and always plenty of rice with the fish. Oh, and then some real thorough Thai massage after a trip out in the wild is maybe not such a bad idea either). Then there´s Polish people, and Germans. Brits and folk from Iran, … you name it.
It´s a very mixed community and the great thing is: everybody´s got the same rights. Because there´s an international diplomatic agreement, that in 1920 conceded Norway sovereignty over the up til then no-mans-land ‘Spitsbergen’, but kept the Archipelago open to any other nationality that signs the ‘Svalbard Treaty’ (up til today over 40 nations did). The paper e.g. states that everybody from an associate country has to have access to Svalbard, may fish and hunt, live and work there. Norway has to take care of all environmental protection and military bases (of any kind, of any nation) are not allowed. Sounds like a very wise and nifty deal. – Wonder, why, or IF, for that matter, not more countries could follow suit?

So, despite bleakness, darkness and emptiness, this arctic abode can be a very colourful place indeed. Especially in Mid-May, when everybody puts on their elaborately embroidered national costume (Bunad, in Norwegian) and people gather together in joyous celebration of the biggest date in the Norwegian calendar: syttende mai. (17. May, Norwegian Constitution Day). And I? Called myself very lucky to happen to be up there on that very day! It was great to watch and join in – though I kinda quit in late-afternoon and went for a hike whilste the partying was still in full swing. Or shall we say: the whole festive action during the day was neatly carried out in the sober consciousness of preserving long-standing traditions – and obviously tends to end in not quite such a sober very late evening …
It all started with a solemn morning service, after which everybody filed up into a procession of fluttering flags – lead by the governor herself! A children´s parade was followed by a full-size marching band in orange overalls of STORE NORSKE (the local coal mining company), pursued by captain and crew of the MS Fram (the international Hurtigruten gang were thrilled to take part in the Longyearbyen celebrations and had especially painted a banner for the occasion), finally taillighted by the local inhabitant´s infantry blazoned in Red, Blue and White.

Next important item on the agenda: the home-bakes buffet at the local leisure centre, where everybody flocked right after the parade and patiently stood in queue to get their fair share of pølse (sausages), kake (cakes) and is (ice-cream). I bet most of the kids were seriously unwell that evening – even I had to struggle with that marzipan-covered norwegian-coloured cream-filled cake (I swear I only had ONE piece)…  ahem, and a pølse, allright. There were spring rolls, too, come to think of it – a little taste of Thai pimping up the traditional Norwegian buffet – and a gentle reminder that it´s actually SPRING out there now – despite the crisp air and chilly wind (sorry, no pun intended) in your face.

Talking temperature, I actually wondered how all those beautifully outfitted girls would survive in minus degrees in just a dress – a shivering sacrifice being made in favour of national spirit? – Talked to a Lady at the Ladies to investigate matters and she kindly not only explained to me some individual patterns and shapes of those mostly flowery ornamented bunads (each region, maybe even village, has their own design. The two girls on top of this post proudly wear their Svalbard bunad – here they even got icebergs embroidered on it – ICEBERGS!) but also the deeper secret beneath the festive outfit: a proper set of woolen undies! ‘Skiing underwear – that always does the trick for me’. – I quite like that seasonable Svalbard take on traditional national costume.

 

from white to green – from sparse to spruce

It´s not yet easy to grasp. And will probably still take a while to get used to.
It´s very green outside. The trees lush, boisterous blossoming all around. It must´ve all happened throughout those last 18 days, when I was up & away in The White, starting out from just a sparsely springy city at 53° into a frozen and barren landscape at 78°, 2.800 km further up North (Alaskas northernmost point sitting at ‘only’ 71° by the way – guessed completely wrong on that one …).
Travelling from spring into winter – and now straight on to summer. BOOM. Still confused and slightly struggling with those + 25 ° C difference in temperature (having just gotten used to the quite pleasant and crisp 0 ° C up there – and, bother, no chance to wear my lovely new woolen hat any longer!)

But even up in the Arctic, during last week, there were timid signs of spring to be seen. First snow melted, stretches of shore line slowly surfaced from under the ice and here and there half-frozen grass from last summer gingerly began to poke its antennae through the evermore crumbling white blanket.
So, yes, I´m back, and I have to confess that all those upcoming Spitsbergen posts still in queue (yes, there will be DOGS! and more Ice!(cream) …) will rather be written from the cramped confines of a noisy town than in a breezy spot of silent snowed upon solitude. Alas.
But, promise, I´ll try to keep up the spirit – quite literally, let´s hope.

IMG_1243IMG_2392IMG_1207The beach club´s open! / With plenty of deckchairs … / … and there´s still enough ice for drinks on the rocks!

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View towards Adventfjorden / Summer´s just around the corner!

IMG_1281IMG_2848IMG_2854Re-erected former hospital stairs (= ‘Sykehustrappa’) next to the church. When the first beam of sunlight hits those on 8. March (after gradually having made it over the mountains and into the valley) the sun is declared back after a long polar night and enthusiastically greeted with a week of frisky celebrations. (There´s no light between 27. October and 14. February – but behold, then there´s a quick turnaround of night and day, and the sun stays up a crazy 24 hours from 19. April til 23. August!) / One of the oldest buildings on Spitsbergen: the parcel-sized wooden post office (out of use today), in front of … / … very welcoming Svalbard Kirke (the worlds northernmost, of course!)

morning classes

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Can´t sleep. Still bright & BLUE outside. Well, rather not ‘still’, but: finally. NOW that I should really put my head onto that pillow, the sky, after a cloudy, snowy day, shamelessly clears up and presents its teaser: Come on, go play! Don´t even think of touching that blanket! You tired? – Don´t be ridiculous, GET OUT!

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P. S.

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When talking about taking stuff OUT of mountains, I totally missed out on mentioning that there is one very distinctive building on Svalbard, that was especially constructed to put stuff INTO a mountain. That being: the Global Seed Vault. An international seed bank that was opened in 2008, and until today already holds over 800.000 different seed samples (and there´s still being added to). What´s actually seen of it is just its entrance, the storage halls inside are hidden far into Platåberget and secured just like Fort Knox. On the outside, there´s merely some art above the door and a few reindeers on guard (though they do not seem to take their job all too seriously). You may even drive up there to enjoy the view.
But why is a globally invaluable institution like this out here in the cold nothingness? For obvious reasons. It´s safe. There´s no earthquakes, nor volcanoes spitting fire, no war-zone, no political confusion (well, just a tiny bit, locally, but that´s mostly regarding the buying and consumption of alcoholic beverages at certain times of the day). It´s just a mountain plateau sitting on permafrost ground. Which reliably will, if all technical refinements fail, still naturally freeze the contents to a stable -3° C.
And indeed, it´s good to have – the first call for help already arrived: Syria had to take out some samples due to the destruction of a local desert seed bank.
But then there´s hope, too: reportedly the US boxes and those of North Korea silently share a shelf.

… and inside out

… and then there´s dark and meandering tunnels which were driven into the mountains by men. Into those chocolately dark layers in the upper third of the ‘cake’mountains around Longyearbyen (and Pyramiden, the Russian mining town, too – but more about that later). When you think of mining, normally, you picture working and digging UNDER the earth, going deep inside, down. Here, the conditions are quite different, and it is (as far as I know) the only place, where you actually go UP to get something out of the earth (resp. mountain). Up on the slope and then dig a near horizontal tunnelsystem into them. On quite some mountain slopes you find old wooden baracks and tumbledown entrances to the back then handful of mines, all but one having closed down in the 90ties or earlier.
One mine, though, was re-opened to the public, and BASECAMP EXPLORER runs very informative tours there now.
So three days ago I went under (or rather: into) the earth again, and joined them venturing into the abandoned mine of “Gruve 3”. It was closed (or better: given up) in 1996, and from sugarcubes on coffee tables to computer panels, open paperwork, overalls and loaded coal waggons, it seems as if everybody just left 10 minutes ago. But why didn´t they take their stuff with them? Why was nothing properly closed down, but just left standing there? – Well, on a remote place like this (I keep forgetting that this actually is rather close to the North Pole and pretty far away from mainland Norway thus recycling units and the likes) it obviously was just easier to leave and ignore it, than try to disassemble and taking care of the remains.
To get a vague idea about what working life in here might have been like in those days, we donned some blue overalls, put on a helmet cum headtorch (the lighter, nowadays version, not those carried at your belt in former times, weighing a few kilos alone!), and went into the old tunnel system. Listening to the guide outlining the conditions back then, touching the black stuff with your own hands and breathing in the humid, cold air, I couldn’t but wonder how people could ever do that job voluntarily. Okay, mineworkers were (and still are) well-paid people in Norway, but then that very mine was worked in only manually, as the layer of coal was barely a 40 to 50 cm high, that meaning: one had to actually lie down and drill + shovel on one´s belly, without a mask, with very heavy equipment, and nearly no safety-system. And if your headlamp went off (it could only last for 8 hours back then), it was, literally, coal black. Pitch dark. Like COMPLETELY dark. Disorientatingly dark. – We wanted to know. Turned off our lamps, and tried to see – something. Like: our fingers right in front our eyes. We couldn´t. No difference at all, eyes shut or open: you didn’t see a thing. (Pressing the ‘on’-button to that headtorch felt quite good after a while).
And then, there were accidents, too. But what could do you, if, even if you got the men out of there, there was just a nurse in the village, and any other medical help only available on the mainland – which could be reached by ship in summer, but not winter, due to all the fjord ice.
It´s quite refreshing sometimes to (again and again) realize, what a very comfortably and well taken-care-of life we are granted to live nowadays … IF we don´t destroy it ourselves.
But that´s another subject, like climate change and the likes, which makes me rather sad – and angry, too.
Talking for example energy, the whole of Svalbard is heated with coal until today … They still didn´t set up any renewable energy systems, don´t use wind, sun, or waves (all of which they got plenty). So a very special arctic place that calls itself “the last unspoiled great wilderness of Europe” runs and relies on fossile energy solely – and guess who´s the biggest export partner? Germany. Apparently the car industry loves to use precisely THIS coal as it is of very high quality. They say: in every BMW there´s a piece of Svalbard Coal. Shame on us.

upside down …

So I´m back. Literally blown back into town, from the valleys and glaciers to the east.
But before I’m going to tell you ’bout our bit unfortunate dog-sledding-expedition (which kind of ended in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere instead of at a sunny snowy spot with some great marine life (seals! polar bears!), I’m taking you on a little excursion: we’re gonna take a look UNDER the snow, and INTO a mountain. Before and after I’ve been out in the wild with a pack of howling four-legged companions, I took a closer look at those two things Spitsbergen is mostly made of: stones and snow.
The white stuff course, forms the glaciers, and even in other places stays nearly 10 out of 12 months, and the islands bedrock often includes a thin layer of coal in some mountains (which, in winter/spring, look like a multi-layered chocolate cake with a lot of cream (or, as it were icing) generously slabbed on top).
Anyway. As I’m apparently better in talking cake than geology, I rather looked for some proper knowledge, and so got some expert guiding onto (and into!) one of the nearest glaciers to town (Larsbreen – ‘bre’ being ‘glacier’ in norwegian) by (no, not Lars) but Vladimir.
A well equipped local (well, Russian, originally) in muddy boots, sporting high-tech waterproofs, well used working gloves, fuzzy beard, broad grin, cool sunglasses, sturdy gun round his shoulders, head garnished by a knitted little strawberry hat (uh-oh, there’s that cake again…). So up we went, first towards Sarkofagen mountain in the far end of Nybyen, then over some rocky slopes, and finally onto the glacier. You actually hardly realize you´re on it, as there were no creavasses to be seen, nor blue ice, either. Just an enormous field of plain, white snow.
Turning around, there was Longyearbyen stretched out in the valley, framed by distinct Hjortfjellet just across the fjord, still dusted in white, and a lightly cloudly, blue sky above.
The view indeed was very nice – but the really amazing sights were not up here – but below us, Vladimir kept promising.
I here have to confess that I´m not particulary fond of being UNDER something (especially it being heavy, huge, or dark stuff), so: narrow caves, deep holes and tight tunnels are not for me. But then, I thought, what if he is right, and it really IS very special, and I´m being a whimp, and anyway: maybe you just have to deal with your fears, get over and done with it, and – why actually not just trust that guy with the funny strawberry hat? And so I did – jumping after the Russian into a narrow hole in the snow, not really knowing where this (or I, for that matter) was going to end up. Like Alice into the rabbit hole – and it sure was wonderland where my feet finally met the ground. We crept on for a little while, until 12-15 m under the ice, at a chilly -5˚, and a faced a glittering world of icicles in all directions, differently coloured layers of frozen water with bubbles, sand and stones inside, turned into solid waves along the walls of the cave, ice crystals radiating in the beams of our little head torches, bizarre formations of ice, that is, partly, several hundred years old. We stood and stared (I did, at least), in complete silence. Deep under daylight, deep into a glacier, under a material seemingly stable, but then very delicate, too. After a while we left the secretive underworld and climbed towards the light, the bright snow blinding our eyes. Storing away helmets, crampons and lamps, Vladimir put a wooden plank over the entrance, bidding farewell to that mysterious place. Next year, there will be a different cave. Maybe at a place close by. But never the same. And in a few weeks time, maybe even next week, if temperatures stay over zero, then, instead of glittering crystals and icicles, there will be a gurgling rush of meltwater tunneling under the ice, its fleeting beauty all gone.

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gone with the wind

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So this is what I’m gonna do for the next 6 days (which means: no internet for a week, no mobile connection, no reach into modern world life (well, I do hope that our guide will, just in case, carry some GPS-device or maybe even some sattelite telephone, you never know…). But, apart from that, I’m very much looking forward to this week of silence (except for a bunch of barking dogs and the scratchy sound of sleighs on snow), and, hopefully, beautiful light up on the glaciers. We’ll be heading over to the east coast – where there has been a lot of polar bear sightings lately (they like to munch on seals – seals like pack ice, and both are, apparently, to be found over there right now).

Well, I do really want to SEE such a magnificent animal, the ‘king of the arctic’, as they call him, but let’s just say: maybe rather from a distance, that would be nice. Thank you.
Oh, and it’s not that you couldn’t look at them from close quarters up here: there’s bears (stuffed, after having been shot in self-defence – otherwise they are, of course, very strictly protected) at the airport, the museum (of course), even in church, and: the local supermarket.

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Greetings from Santa (sorry, Rovaniemi!)