A land of purity, nature and fjords – or so the Norwegian tourist propaganda would have it. Here is the Nordic heart, as it both once was and should be again. Here still are relics of the pre-Christian myths that used to be common across Aryan lands. Here are the blond and strapping men and women with their blue eyes and clear skins. Here is the real origin of humanity, above the Arctic Circle.
I wanted to find out for myself, to see whether the myths measured up to reality. I was in Norway for a few months and planned to ride a Norwegian section of the North Sea Bicycle Route, a 4000 km circuit that hugs the coastline of the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Scotland and England (with the odd ferry thrown in to make the necessary crossings). I had already ridden the whole Dutch and German sections, along with a stretch in Denmark, so now it was Norway’s turn. I would begin at Arendal, and make my way back to Oslo.
Within a few hours of setting out, I learned a number of very important lessons. First, the season for bicycle touring in Norway is short, perhaps a couple of months. By September, the rains, winds and chills begin sweeping through, harbingers of the long winter to come. I happened to be out pedalling towards the end of that month. Second, Norwegian rain is cold and wind-driven. Rather cleverly, it has learned the knack of getting through and underneath the toughest wet weather gear.
Third, the ferries crossing fjords cease operating at the end of August. On the first couple of occasions, I dutifully cycled to a ferry wharf, only to find the ferry securely tied up for the icy winter to come – and this was on what they call, in a moment of sheer utopian dreaming, the ‘Norwegian Riviera’ (on the south coast). Each time I took a break, perused the map, and realised I had tens of kilometres extra to ride around the fjord.
Fourth, the terms ‘flat’ and road’ do not go together in Norway. ‘Precipitous climb’, ‘twisting’, ‘ear-popping drop’ are the common epithets. My eight-speed internal-hub bicycle from the flats of Denmark required a good deal of upright dancing as I climbed yet another peak. Within a day or two, my old mountain climbing skills returned, and my legs began to bulge like a steroid-abusing rider on the Tour de France.
Fifth, Norwegians have a curious approach to signs. Given that I was on an international bicycle route, and given that the agreement between the countries includes something approaching a uniform standard of signage, I expected roughly the same approach to signs as I had experienced elsewhere on the route. On the parts that I had ridden thus far (the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark) this was indeed the case. But Norwegians have their own idiosyncratic ways of interpreting such agreements. Sometimes I would go for half a day without seeing a sign. Was it because they assumed the twisting, tortuous road, over precipitous mountains and by snaking fjords, was obvious to all? Was it because people had acquired them as useful pieces of steel for the sake of, say, target practice? Or was it because they could hang them on the wall of home, get drunk with friends, and laugh themselves silly over foreigners trying to find their way?
While I was pondering such matters, a plethora of signs would suddenly appear. This made matters only worse, for on one intersection, signs would send me to all directions of the compass – all of them part of the North Sea Bicycle Route. Or, two signs would face one another, directional arrows almost touching, pointing to one another.
The only viable conclusion is that these are the modern equivalents of ancient runes, an esoteric code only for the initiated.
People: Caught in Between
The sixth lesson concerned the people I met. The tourism propaganda may be one thing; the political myths of national identity may be another – digging into a reconstructed past to provide an authentic feel to a relatively new nation-state; but the people themselves are strangely caught in-between.
It first struck me after a long, long day of riding. Perhaps it was the rain, which had given up flirting with me and simply went full throttle. Perhaps it was the hundred kilometres or so that I had ridden, the last of it on a steep goat track that seriously made me wonder whether I had lost my way in the dusk. Perhaps it was the two women, who appeared mysteriously on the track just after I had managed a covert crap, and pointed me towards Langesund. By this time, I was well and truly past the ‘wall’, for I had entered a liminal zone, between exhaustion and untapped energy. All of this set the scene for my arrival in town.
I loaded up with beer and food at the only shop and set out to find Victoria Gjestgiveri. It had disappeared. Or rather, it reappeared after I had pedalled in circles for quite some time, in the dark and the rain. Needless to say, it was in the centre of the village, hard by the wharf.
The proprietor pointed me up some rickety stairs, in the vague direction of my room, and said:
‘We have a band playing tonight. I hope you don’t mind’.
‘Of course not’, I said.
The band turned out to be a Norwegian death metal band, and the stage was immediately below my room. After some two hours of viscerally absorbing the music, I drifted into sleep with images of goat tracks, mysterious women and death metal music.
At breakfast the next morning, I met two of the rockers. Both were black-clad, heavily pierced, with long black hair and festooned with anarchist and Satanic symbols. They also had a six month-old baby with them. The father pulled his black hair into a pony tail and picked the baby up out of very conventional new pram with all of the latest gear – nappies, blankets, bottles clothes, towels, lotions, and what have you. To make sure that the baby was safe, it was cocooned in its own snug capsule. The father cooed and poked and doted all over the baby, smiling broadly.
Rather than the facile conservative point that human beings seek the comforts of life, even if they posture and protest for a while, it seemed to me that the near-surreal night at the guesthouse in Langesund picked up the in-betweenness of life in Norway. The death metal band, which is part of a complex metal subculture, invoking all manner of pagan and pre-Christian motifs, sits side by side with an overdeveloped welfare state that cares for one from cradle to grave and even beyond.
At a subtler and deeper level, this curious liminal state made some more sense when I had called into a small shop later on the ride, seeking a map to make sense of the puzzle of roads and fjords and signs. Three women were inside, with quick smiles and inquisitive eyes. Only one spoke a language I knew, to the slight and passing embarrassment of the other two. We chatted for quite some time, about home and what in the world I was doing here, cycling in late September. Yet they seemed uncomfortable. Not with the situation, not with chatting to me, but with their bodies. The clothes they wore were quite new, but they sat awkwardly.
Seeking an answer, I looked out over the village. It was neat, white, well-maintained, wealthy even, with the odd expensive car passing by. Not a poor fishing village, that was clear, but also not a vast disparity between rich and less rich. Surely, the quiet wealth of the place didn’t come from fishing. I looked out over the small harbor, with its fishing boats and small transport vessels. And there it was: hard up against the fishing boats was a sleek ice-breaker with a massive helicopter landing-pad at one end. That’s not for checking on fish, I thought to myself. I asked the solid woman in the shop:
‘What’s that ship?’
‘Oh, that’s for patrolling the oil rigs’, she said.
It should have been obvious: here was the source of the new wealth, but here also was the source of discomfort, the feeling of being in-between. On bodies that had grown up with making-do with little, expensive clothes sit oddly. In a culture where frugality in an unforgiving climate had been the norm, sudden wealth is disconcerting.