[Editor’s Note: clocking in at over 17,000 words, we had no choice but to edit this piece for the print edition of Hex Issue 6 (down to about 10,000). Online, however, you can exclusively check out the remainder of G. Peterson’s account of his adventures through a Scandinavian summer ~ although for the full experience you still need your copy of Issue 6 in order to enjoy his incredible Norse photography. Now read on…]
May 24, 2009
After only four days in Iceland, four days out of the five weeks that I will spend in Scandinavia, I can already tell you that I have seen too much. Rob, my traveling mate, and I have just returned from a three day road trip around Iceland’s Highway 1, affectionately nicknamed the “ring road” by locals and tourists alike, which lines the circumference of the country.
In these three days I have seen things most will only read of. I have walked the grounds of Reykholt and dipped my hand into the pool used by Snorri Sturluson; I have stood at the edge of Goðafoss and peered into the waterfall of the gods; I have wandered the paths of Dimmuborgir and stood inside the church of stone, or perhaps even looked into the entrance to Hel; I have seen Bergþórshvoll, the site of Njal’s burning; and I have climbed upon the law rock at Þingvellir and looked over its fields. I feel an excitement at this that is no longer characteristic of my personal bearing. I feel as I used to on Christmas Eve, when I could sleep for no longer than a few hours before waking up and running to the Christmas tree to see what Santa Claus might have left for me. Many Icelanders will do what I have just done without so much as a thought; they have come of age in these parts, and their history is still very much located in their backyard. Others, however, will not. Their heritage is worth no more to them than the ink and paper used to teach them the sagas in school. Maybe someday soon those of the second group will learn the error of their ways…or maybe not. Either way, this is the beginning of my own exploration into my heritage – a rediscovery of the lands that were once my ancestors’ home. And so it all begins here, as has so much already, in Iceland.
Our rental car pulled away from Reykjavik around noon on Friday, the 22nd of May. After a brief exchange of words, forms, and credit information, Rob and I were handed the keys to a new Volkswagen Polo hatchback, complete with a whopping 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. Fuel economy aside, there was some concern as to whether or not this car, which we affectionately termed a “city car,” would be adequate in traversing everything we were prepared to encounter – and without significant damage no less! Everything I had read about driving in Iceland emphasized the fact that a tour around the countryside would be no joke. Large sections of the main highway, I was told, were totally unpaved, and other conditions – such as severe inclines, drop-offs, stream crossings, and sheep – abounded. Nevertheless, we climbed aboard and within minutes left Reykjavik and the city behind.
Our first stop was at a small café just before the town of Borgarnes. Its appearance looking more like a trailer, or a job-shack at a construction site, we walked into the café as complete amateur tourists who had just arrived in Iceland with little idea as what to expect.
“Tall-ur too Een-skoo?” Rob asked, exactly as we had rehearsed, but far too slow and deliberate to ever pass as natural.
“Uh… Why, yes, I do speak a little bit of English I guess…” replied the attractive young woman with dark hair and glasses from behind the counter.
We asked her what she thought would be a good breakfast choice, and minutes later were eating waffles with jam, and thin slices of lamb on rye bread. Business was slow and our server, naturally interested in these two travelers from halfway across the world, granted us the pleasure of her conversation. We talked about the small café, and how it was once a slaughterhouse for sheep before having been converted into its present day incarnation along with a few motel rooms. We also talked about the use of traditional “Heathen” symbols in Iceland for souvenirs found in literally every small shop and gas station. Such symbols, she told us, were half way a tourist gimmick, but were, on the other hand, also expressions of Iceland’s unwillingness to let the images of the past fade from national consciousness.
After our meal, and much needed directions to Reykholt, the one-time dwelling place of Snorri Sturluson, we left a tip and said our good-byes. With little trouble, we arrived at our destination and parked our car in front of a large church. I got out and compared our current location with that of the map in my travel guide. Confused at where to begin, I asked a woman in her early 50s smoking a cigarette if she knew where Snorri’s Pool, Snorralaug, was located.
“You’re here,” she said in a dry, low voice. “Follow me.”
She stamped out her cigarette and led us into a museum dedicated to Snorri and his works. All around us hung images taken from the manuscripts of Snorri’s Edda, the Heimskringla, Egil’s Saga and the like.
“So you want to learn about Snorri Sturluson?” she asked. “Well this is part of the church he helped build in the 13th century, you know? Here, follow me!”
She led us to an image depicting the Gylfaginning, or the Tricking of Gylfi, which is contained in the first part of Snorri’s Edda.
“Here Gylfi, a king from Sweden, must ask each of three men, known as High, Just-As-High, and Third, questions concerning the creation of the worlds. We think that Snorri did this so as to not appear heretical to the church, which considered pagan myths heresy at that time,” she said before pausing. “You know, most Icelandic school children can read these manuscripts? That’s how little our language has changed since Snorri’s time!”
I made a comment as to how I was unable to speak enough Icelandic to read them myself.
“Yet you mean! You cannot speak it yet! But soon you will – it’s very similar to Old English.”
She related a few more stories of Snorri’s and led us around the remaining portions of the church, before finally giving us the OK to examine Snorri’s pool for ourselves. We exited through large glass double doors and found ourselves on a paved path next to the church cemetery. Soon after, the walkway bent around a small hill at the very edge of the churchyard and led us to the secluded geothermal pool. I stared at its green waters and stone lined rim for some time, imagining Snorri and his closest friends discussing politics and poetry while sitting in its warm waters. It was here, the woman had told us, that Snorri rehearsed and shared many of his stories before finally writing them down in large manuscripts – some of the most important literary works of the Norse world were, therefore, inspired in this very spot. Despite all criticisms of Christian nonsense lurking in the pages of Snorri’s writings, his contribution to Scandinavian literature is immense and wholly valuable. He is, quite possibly, the most important figure in literature to have emerged from the medieval Nordic world.
Lurking directly behind the pool is a small wooden door leading to the cellar where Snorri was killed by a group of 70 men led by Gissur Þorvaldsson. Snorri, who was once on close terms with Norway’s King Haakon IV, found himself on the opposing side of the Norwegian royal state during the Sturlung Era, and his long-time political enemy, Gissur, was more than willing to dispatch the poet in service to the Norwegian crown. Aside from its significance to medieval history, the cellar door also has its own interesting bit of history in the modern age. Apparently, at some point the door was actually engulfed by the hill in which it is carved into. The groundskeepers at Snorralaug, having no knowledge of its presence for many years, only caught on after seeing pictures from ages past. They began digging at the approximate location of the door as shown in the pictures, and eventually uncovered a piece of lost history.
I kept a contemplative air about me for some time while standing at the pool. I bent down and dipped my hand into its warm waters. I watched as the wind made ripples along its surface. I’ve always had a problem leaving places like this; here, a place that has seen so many centuries pass before it and still remain standing – how could even as short a period as 30 minutes spent here do this place justice? It wouldn’t, and couldn’t even come close. I opted for snapping a few quick pictures instead. After this was done, we headed back into the museum and bought small golden statues of Thor from the gift shop before returning to our car and leaving.
We drove half way across the country that night, only stopping for lunch at a gas station, and dinner and walk through a cemetery in Akureyri. Then we kept driving. We drove until we saw a large plume of what appeared to be steam rising up over the hills in the distance. Geothermal pools, we thought, similar to those off of the Clackamas River back home in Oregon. We drove toward this mass of condensation in the air until coming upon a small roadside sign pointing us toward Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. Realizing that this plume of steam was in fact spray from the falls, and that we nearly passed a landmark we were eagerly awaiting to see, we followed the sign and pulled into a park parking lot.
Walking from the car to the falls, I encountered a sign explaining the significance of Goðafoss, and how exactly it had come to be known as the waterfall of the gods. In the year 1000, as Iceland was debating the prospect of replacing the indigenous Heathen religion with that of Christianity at the Alþing, law-speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, once a Heathen priest, decided to meditate on the matter in his booth under a series of fur blankets. After a day and a night, he returned and offered his verdict. The official religion of Iceland would be Christianity, but Heathens could still practice in private without persecution. Þorgeir himself accepted Christianity and traveled to Goðafoss, where he proceeded to throw his idols of the Nordic gods into the falls. And so it was that there, in the very spot where I stood, that a thousand years ago the act symbolic of Iceland’s acceptance of the Church was carried out.
The feeling of being there was, of course, wholly bitter sweet. Yes, this place was historically important as witnessing an act that would change the course of Icelandic intellectual and artistic pursuits, but it also held within it a certain spiritual element, as if the old Heathen gods were somehow resigned to living in that exact spot. Indeed, even the large rock piles built into monuments attest to the mysterious presence of beings possibly from another world lurking there. Out of instinct Rob and I also built a monument – at the time we were unsure as to the meaning of the large rock piles we had seen dotting the countryside – which we were determined to make the largest of the monuments we had yet seen. We explored all that we could of the landscape there, every path and every nook, and left our boot prints in the sand and snow. It was 12 in the morning, but we were as two wide-awake children playing in the twilight before bed. Something was spurring us on, and there was no way we would get to sleep just yet. We returned to the car and kept driving.
At around 3 AM, ironically the “devil’s hour,” we rounded the east side of Lake Mývatn and found ourselves at the entrance to the lava fields of Dimmuborgir. Geologically, Dimmuborgir was once a vast field of molten lava that dried over 2,000 years ago. As air and steam spewed from the drying molten lake, large fissures and lava rock formations were created that have since become known as the “dark castles” of Dimmuborgir. In Icelandic folklore, though, there are a few other stories concerning the origins of Dimmuborgir. One has it that the uncanny rock formations were the result of trolls who were hardened there by the dawn. Another states that Dimmuborgir was where Satan landed after being cast out of heaven, and that the “dark castles” were actually the entrance to his infernal region on Earth. Still yet another, as depicted by one of the signs outside, has it that Dimmuborgir is actually the dwelling place of Santa Claus – it seems to me that I’ve always known that Santa and Satan were in fact the same person; Santa Claus was always far too enjoyable to be of a Christian origin!
We parked the car and headed through the (surprisingly unlocked!) gate. We walked down steep embankments, marveling at the surroundings the entire way. We followed a path leading to what is known as the “church” of Dimmuborgir. As I marched on, I noticed a large hole present in one of the craggy peaks up ahead. Thinking as to how impressive the scenery must look from this hole, and how I wanted to be up there, I walked on, somewhat disappointed at the fact that this was seemingly more or less impossible. My disappointment soon abated as the path led me up a winding hill and to the mouth of the church, when suddenly I noticed that what I was staring at was in fact the backside of Dimmuborgir’s church. The church itself is nearly indescribable, like something out of a fairy tale. At its front is a large opening that looks like a mouth jutting out of the ground. Once inside this mouth, the cavern of rock opens up to reveal an area that is the size of a large living room, with sloping walls on either side leading to an equally sloped ceiling. On the opposite wall of the mouth-like entrance is the smaller hole that I noticed a few meters back. With some effort, Rob and I made our way up to this hole and out the other side, surveying the landscape from a higher elevation.
For some time, we inspected the church and its surrounding features and decided, once and for all, that if ever there were an entrance to Hel or the Other World then this surely must be it. The site was so uncanny that it was difficult to fully take in. We spent a few minutes there before exiting and continuing on the path for an early morning hike. We walked those damned paths for nearly two hours, marveling at the pitch-black caves whose entrances beckoned us to enter. With every corner rounded, we halfway expected to see elves fleeing from our path and playing tricks on us. As the sun began to further its ascent, we departed the infernal fields and returned to the car.
We attempted to find a place to sleep somewhere off the road, but gave up instead and made for a designated campground. This we soon found; we set up our tents for the first time and fell asleep in the blowing wind for a few hours. Later, once we awoke and began packing away our things, a minivan drove up and the driver explained to us that the campgrounds were actually “on the other side.” I told her that we were just leaving, to which she replied in a friendly confusion, “oh…well…be safe tonight!”
And so we drove on, through the boiling muddy fields of Namascarð, to a small, out of the way, sheep farm for breakfast, up an unpaved highland road that gave us a glimpse of smaller, yet still amazing waterfalls, through the fields of Lón, to Höfn and the banks of Hornafjörður, before finally traveling up a large switchback road and camping for a few hours on dense mattresses of moss near the Vatnajökull glacier. We awoke three hours later and continued on, traveling over vast ice floes and hiking near the edge of Vatnajökull itself. We continued on to Skaftafell, where our noses were filled with such a sweet smell that words cannot describe it, and after that continued on the ring road until our next stop, Bergþórshvoll, was in our sights.
Bergþórshvoll, the site of one of the most important scenes in Icelandic literature, is definitely no tourist destination. Mere minutes from our destination, our car was greeted by an unpaved roadway in what looked any other rural area of Iceland. Fenced-off farm properties with driveways and mail boxes surrounded us; farmers drove down the roads in large trucks suspiciously eyeing our strange car, yet gave us nods of approval when prompted. We soon rounded a corner and saw a small “saga trail” sign pointing us down a long driveway. Upon reaching the end, we were greeted by nothing more than a signpost detailing the climactic events of Njal’s Saga.
Njal, an Icelandic farmer who once lived at Bergþórshvoll, through one way or another, found himself and his family locked in a bloody clan struggle. In the autumn of 1011, at the climax of Njal’s tale, Flosi, a family rival, led a hundred men to Bergþórshvoll to execute Njal and his sons. A bloody battle ensued, and Njal’s home was set ablaze. Njal, refusing to flee his burning home, simply lay down with his wife and grandson in bed and died. Only one man, Kári, escaped, and proceeded to hunt down Flosi and Njal’s other murderers one by one.
At one point in the past, there was question as to whether Bergþórshvoll the farm was the same as the Bergþórshvoll from the saga. A family is currently living at the site, as is evident from the modern house, and it is likely that people have been living there for some time. Recent excavations, though, have found charred remains carbon dated back to the saga period here, and have even found remnants of a pot of thousand year old burnt porridge. I stood there in contemplation for some time, pondering how it is possible for a family to actually live on such a historical piece of property. I then realized that this is the beauty of Iceland – history exists all around you here. These people have not forgotten their history, and one can actually go to every place told about in the sagas if one so wishes. To live in a place where your heritage lies in your backyard is something entirely amazing to me. It’s a shame that not every Icelander is a scholar of the sagas. I wonder if the people living in the house there have actually even read Njal’s Saga, or if it’s simply an interesting tale they tell their friends while sitting around and drinking coffee – something simply to brag about. I’d like to think that this is not the case, but pessimism sometimes gets the best of me.
Our car pulled away from Bergþórshvoll and we continued on the road again, headed now for Þingvellir. We stopped on the side of the road to catch up on the sleep we had so sorely missed before continuing on our way again. This would be our last day of driving in Iceland. How fitting that Þingvellir should provide the last image of this country that I had grown to love in such little time!
Þingvellir, for those who do not know, is an important landmark for two reasons: one, being the immense cultural and historical role that Þingvellir has played in Icelandic history since the founding of the country; and two, being its geographical placement, literally straddling the North American and Eurasian plates. The drifting of these plates has created a series of fissures and fault lines in the area, the smallest of which appear as foot wide cracks in the earth, the largest, such as Almannagjá, creating near canyon-like features with large, sheer rock walls jutting up on either side. These natural spectacles, along with Þingvellir’s history as the seat of the Icelandic parliament from 930 to 1789 CE, made Þingvellir quite possibly the most important natural and historical landmark on our itinerary in Iceland.
We arrived in pouring rain. As we drove north toward Þingvellir, around the parameter of Lake Þingvallavatn, we frequently stopped to marvel at the multitude of fissures in the earth, the likes of which we had never seen. The large, seemingly bottomless, cracks lining the ground, literally splitting the land in two, seemed more like something out of an apocalyptic sci-fi film than a constant geological presence. I halfway expected the ground beneath me to fall apart and swallow me up, hurling me toward the Earth’s center where gravitational forces would ultimately rip me limb from limb and cause my untimely death. I was, of course, pleased when I was allowed to go on my way without this happening.
Within minutes of driving we were greeted by the sight of an Icelandic flag proudly waving in the distance atop the ever famed Lögberg, or Law Rock, which was once the centerpiece of all meetings of Iceland’s parliament. I got out of the car and began eagerly walking along the age-old path that led to the Law Rock, and to the booths lying just beyond it. I took a detour by following a path toward my right, and suddenly found myself literally inside the canyon-like expanse of Almannagjá, staring into the rushing, clear blue falls of Öxarárfoss. I watched as Rob eagerly traversed the rocks lining the pool which the waterfall immediately fell into, and made his way up to a plateau just underneath the falls.
“Take a picture!” he yelled back toward me, to which I naturally obliged.
We wandered the expanse of Almannagjá for a bit before returning to the path leading up to the Law Rock. I silently meditated as I walked, attempting to channel whatever ancient energy existed in the rock of this place. I imagined myself existing in a time a thousand years earlier, as a lawspeaker making his way to the rock, prepared to speak a third of the laws in Iceland’s law book. We soon walked across the bridged path leading us over the somber sight of Drekkingarhylur, the drowning pool. A deep pond created by the river Öxará, Drekkingarhylur was, until 1838, the site of capital punishment by drowning at Þingvellir. Women accused of adultery, incest, or witchcraft, upon being found guilty at the Þing, or assembly, were placed in large gunnysacks weighed down by stones, and thrown into the pool of Drekkingarhylur. It is thought that hundreds of women have lost their lives in this fashion over the centuries. Oddly enough, and perhaps as a sign of modern day Icelanders regret at such practices, a large lifebuoy has been affixed to the bridge that passes over Drekkingarhylur. The feeling of staring into this pool was, as anyone could imagine, quite grim, and was similar to what I imagine staring at an electric chair must be like.
The images of a bygone era make for an overwhelming sight at Þingvellir. Once we passed Drekkingarhylur, we were greeted with the presence of a small number of overgrown booth foundations. Booths were sort of like camping huts, meant to provide much needed protection from the elements to the most prominent parties in attendance at the Þing. They existed year round as rock foundations, and were covered with makeshift roofs during the assembly. Now, centuries later, they are evidenced by no more than a particular pattern of rock clusters lying at the side of the path.
We continued on our way until we finally arrived at the centerpiece of Þingvellir: the Law Rock. The entire assembly at Þingvellir was centered on the actions that occurred every year at the Law Rock. The lawspeaker would open the meeting from atop it, and would then recite a third of Iceland’s laws and give all procedural information necessary for the assembly to take place. From there, all issues regarding the mediation of the court, from family squabbles to murders, would proceed from its rocky height. Speeches were given there, new laws were introduced, and those looking to make a scene at the proceedings always found themselves making some demand or accusation from the Law Rock.
I jumped over the railing of the wooden deck intended to keep visitors from slipping and falling, and made my way up the grassy incline that once was the rock’s stony expanse. I wanted to stare down on Þingvellir from the same spot where so many had stood in an age now past. I looked down over the plain and watched the river Öxará flow as far as my eye could see. I imagined the throngs of people who would have been drawn here once – I imagined them drinking from the river, playing games, and chatting excitedly with each other. I imagined the ever-famed battles that once raged on this land, and the fallen that perished when the democratic process broke down. Once they would have gathered and eagerly awaited the words of one standing in this spot. Perhaps their ghosts are still somewhere down there, hidden from the world of mortals like so much in Iceland.
We wandered around the age old paths for what felt like hours, up Almannagjá and past more booths, until we could go no farther. Then, with some longing in my heart, I returned to the parking lot and got back in the car. I was cold and fairly soaked by the rain, but this wasn’t what I was thinking about. As the car pulled ever onwards toward Reykjavik, my mind wandered over the events of the previous few days. How had I seen these things that most only read about? From now until the end of time I will always have these images in my mind whenever I read of the Þing in the sagas. I’ll think back to when I myself stood on the Law Rock and looked down over the water filled plain, the fog obscuring the mountains in the distance. I promised to return here soon. Damned will be the year that I don’t find myself wandering along these same paths.
We creep ever closer and closer to the city. We’ll lie our heads down on pillows tonight, in real beds. Tomorrow we will give the car and the keys back and finish the rest of our week in Iceland traversing the streets of Reykjavik. We then set off for Norway and finish the rest of our travels on Europe’s mainland. I’m not even a half a week into this yet. After having seen so much already, I wonder what other adventures could be waiting for me, lurking somewhere in Scandinavia? I suppose then, really, there is only one way to find out…
June 1, 2009
A small forest path beckoned us to leave the asphalt of modern society and step into another world. The sun was warm but the surrounding air felt crisp on my lungs; my legs ached and my feet were blistered; my bag felt like an unbearable force of gravity; my back was wet with sweat. We trudged on, all discomforts becoming but small costs traded in our sheer avidity. I hung back as Rob went on ahead. The path split and twisted on before me, tangling toward a horizon obscured by fir trees and a rapidly declining hill.
“Here it is!” Rob shouted back toward me.
My heart skipped and the speed of my step increased; I hopped over the snarled roots and down the hill. Suddenly what I had journeyed so long to behold appeared before me – its stark wooden supports erect in the clearing, the surrounding canopy opened to reveal the moon shining perfectly above its highest point. We had finally arrived at Fantoft.
The day began in a rush as we awoke 30 minutes before checkout in our overpriced downtown Bergen youth hostel. We made small talk with our German roommates about the previous night of uninspired drinking and bar hopping before packing and leaving the shabby establishment for good. The city was abuzz on that Sunday afternoon, with crowds lazily examining the goods offered at the local fish market or sitting outside in the rare sunshine drinking coffee and chatting with friends. I paid a hefty price for a shrimp sandwich that was more bread than seafood and headed over to the town square to eat.
“So, we want to see the Edvard Grieg museum at Troldhaugen and Fantoft today, right?” I confirmed with Rob before pulling out my travel guide and looking up bus routes. “Well, it looks like we can take a number of busses from the city center to Troldhaugen and then just walk to Fantoft. It looks like about five miles or so, but that’s why we’re here aren’t we? To see Norway?”
We boarded the bus and within 15 minutes arrived at the stop closest to Troldhaugen. After a short walk that took us down a quaint wooded path we arrived at the Grieg museum with a mere 40 minutes to spare before the attraction’s 6 o’ clock closing.
“Well it is a real shame you two didn’t get here earlier so you could take your time in the museum, but since we are so close to closing you’ll want to make sure you leave enough time to see Grieg’s home, which is, after all, the real attraction at Troldhaugen!” the woman at the ticket stand states, nearly scolding us.
After quickly perusing the artifacts collected from the composer’s life, we headed down the hill to the quaint cottage once used as Edvard Grieg’s summer home. Troldhaugen, meaning literally “trolls’ knoll,” and so named after the nearby valley said to be the haunt of the forest trolls themselves, was built in 1885 and was inhabited by Grieg and his wife Nina for the last 22 years of the composer’s life. We took a tour of the cottage that was given to us by a girl in her early 20s. She seemed over-rehearsed, albeit with a genuine interest in her subject matter, and eager to finish the day and close the doors for the night.
The museum was surprisingly busy so close to closing on a Sunday evening. It was difficult to absorb the tranquility of the “hut” used by Grieg to compose his music with the lazily perusing tourists aiming to investigate every nook and cranny – as soon as one group would leave the scene another would poke their groping heads around the corner, trading indiscernible phrases with one another in excited voices. After snapping a few photos, we followed the signposts pointing to the tomb of Grieg and his wife. In true poetic fashion, the couple’s ashes were encased in a tomb carved out of a mountainside overlooking Lake Nordås. As the legend goes, Grieg was making his way down to the lake when he saw a ray of light shine upon the rock face. Amazed at beholding such a sight he exclaimed, “There I shall rest forever.” And so there his ashes rest, mingled with the dirt and soot of these stark Norwegian rock walls, with the light shining upon the door of his tomb perhaps in much the same way it did in his own time. I stood in contemplation of what it is to live and die, drifting my gaze between Grieg’s tomb and Lake Nordås lurking just behind us, until my concentration was eventually shattered by the other onlookers and we picked up and left Troldhaugen.
We found ourselves walking on a path leading through Bergen’s surrounding suburbs for what seemed like forever.
“I think we need to start making our way over here, to the right, eventually…” I stated doubtfully to my traveling companion. I might have been completely lost, but even in my most clueless of moments it has never been in my nature to admit to such.
We stopped briefly to drink from the hose of a car dealership before continuing our blind march toward Fantoft. Turning toward a man in glasses and a windbreaker walking behind us I made what I thought would be a useless attempt at asking directions.
“Undskyld,” I managed to choke out in my less-than-perfect Danish accent, “snakker de Engelsk?”
“English,” said the man, amazed to be addressed in something reminiscent of Norwegian, “yes, I do speak a bit of that.”
“Can you tell us how to get to Fantoft?” I asked.
“Fantoft? Well yes, it’s right this way – you can walk with me, I’m headed near there myself,” he says in further amazement.
We began walking and I could smell a strange scent coming from the man, something like mouthwash or perhaps liquor.
“So where are you from?” he casually asked.
“Portland, Oregon, in the Northwest part of America,” we told him.
“Portland, Oregon?” he asked, “and you come all this way to look at some old Norwegian churches?”
“Yeah, well, really we’ve been looking at quite a few cultural areas in Norway. The other day we saw the Viking ship museum in Oslo, along with the folk museum near there, and the Oslo cemetery. And actually, we just came from Troldhaugen,” I said.
“Jo jo jo jo! Well that’s great! That’s amazing! Two young guys from Portland, Oregon come to Norway to look at churches and Viking ships! That’s amazing! I’ll have to tell my wife this, she’ll be so impressed!”
He told us that his own personal idea of Americans was slightly jaded, as all Americans have roots in Europe – “come from somewhere else” he said – yet have absolutely no interest in their heritage beyond the North American continent. This is true, we agreed, but there exists a small portion of Americans interested in reconnecting with their ancestral heritage. Seeing Norway was, for us, as much a spiritual journey as it was a physical one.
We continued to walk and chat with the man, discussing topics as varied as Norwegian literature, the burning of Fantoft, Norwegian camping laws, and the art of knocking on doors and asking for food (which, he told us, is perfectly alright in Norway!). Our chat was invigorating, the best we’d had in days, yet Rob and I were both in silent agreement that certain things must not be told in order to keep with good tastes. For instance, when discussing Ibsen and Munch we didn’t let onto the fact that we actually spent the night with the ghosts of such men in Oslo’s cemetery – nor did we let on that we knew much more about the burning of Fantoft than even our Norwegian guide did!
“Well, I must leave you here. I am sorry to say that I have an appointment to make, otherwise I would walk you all the way there myself,” he said in genuine disappointment. “So now what will you do when you get to Fantoft? Pitch your tents and kick up your feet?”
We agreed that this was the most likely scenario, bid each other goodbye, and set off in opposite directions. We walked down a hill and into an area occupied by apartments and student housing nestled in the surrounding hills. Throughout our entire walk my mind simply could not accept the fact that a cultural monument originally from the 12th century would be there, nestled amongst the suburban populace and just minutes from the bustling city’s downtown. I felt as if I was literally looking for a street leading up to it, as if it would be placed at the end of some quaint cul de sac. Then I saw it: a small sign pointing to a path winding between the trees. I had reached the threshold, a magical point where asphalt ended and rocks and dirt began.
The history of Fantoft is simultaneously colorful and pedestrian. Originally built some time in the early 12th century in Fortun, a village near Sognefjord, Fantoft was moved to its present location in Bergen in 1883 to save it from demolition. And there it stood for over a century until June 6th, 1992, when the church fell victim to a well-constructed fire that brought it down. Thoughts of accidental doings were abandoned when a photograph of the charred remains appeared on the cover of the mini-LP Aske (Ashes) from the local black metal act Burzum in 1993. From then on the burning of Fantoft would become synonymous in the minds of Norwegians with satanic terrorism – whether rightly or wrongly assumed. Reconstruction of the church began immediately and was finished in 1997. The end result is a replica that looks, as I am told, exactly the same as the original.
What one immediately notices about Fantoft, in contrast to most other things in Norway, and the exact opposite of nearly everything in Iceland, is the painfully obvious presence of security systems. The church is surrounded with an 8-foot cyclone fence, topped with imposing razor wire, and four high tech security cameras pointing toward the church from every corner. A large sign can be seen from within the enforced walls, warning any trespassers who have not already been scared off from such a gratuitous display. Even the on-site bathrooms are locked after hours. The populace of Bergen will be damned if they have to construct Fantoft yet again.
I laid on the grass watching passersby as they looked briefly at the church and then walked off again. I stayed there until I could no longer fight off the gnawing feeling of hunger in my stomach. We left and returned shortly with a pizza – from the only restaurant or store that happened to be open on a Sunday evening. After our meal I pulled out my travel guitar and played a few bars from various Burzum songs. As the sun began its descent, we marched up the hillside and set our tents up on a small cliff that perfectly overlooked the church. I took one last breath, attempting to absorb everything I was seeing, had seen, and had yet to see, zipped up my tent, and fell asleep.
We awoke around ten the next morning. My tent felt hot and stuffy and I wanted to leave before any meandering wanderers stumbled upon our camp. I exited my tent and stood erect, gazing at the church in the morning light. Then I noticed someone on the ground staring back at me. He was wearing sunglasses, a white T-shirt, and blue jeans. He cocked his hand over his eyes as if he was struggling to see us clearly on the hillside. He then walked off. I continued tearing down my things and reorganizing my bag when the man suddenly appeared before me.
“You can’t stay here!” he barked in English.
I silently glanced back in the direction of his obscured eyes for a moment, until finally I replied “We were just packing up.” Triumph saturated my voice.
We stared at each other suspiciously for a moment until he turned and left. As we made our way toward the ground level of Fantoft, passing through throngs of German tourists the entire way, Rob remembered a small plaque near the stone cross lying just outside of the church. He had wanted to read the plaque the night before but was unable to because of the fencing and other security measures in place.
“I’m going to read it,” he said, his voice stout and determined.
I watched as he pushed through the crowd and met the same man who told us to leave at the entrance. They exchanged a few words; Rob violently pointed at the plaque as the man simply stood there looking unamused. Rob walked back defeated.
“That guy told me I had to pay to read the plaque! Are you kidding me?!” he yelled upon his return.
As we made our way toward the bus, my mind contemplated the situation we had just experienced. How radically different the man at Fantoft seemed from the man who walked us there. The one asked us to leave and told us to pay to see a small parcel of Norwegian culture; the other led us there, physically walking with us as far as he could, virtually telling us to make ourselves at home in his country. Perhaps this is yet again the shadow cast by modernity – the expressionless face of those who would seal off culture and charge a price to experience it.
I contemplated these things the rest of the day. We boarded a train for Oslo, then transferred to a night train headed for Trondheim. I now sit here on this train busily writing down my thoughts. We should arrive in Trondheim around 8 in the morning. We’ll spend two nights there and then head to Sweden, most likely Uppsala. These will be our last nights in Norway.
June 17, 2009
It is such days as today, such mornings as these, that I live for when traveling. The night before last was a disaster; I had slept as no more than a common transient at a train station. It had been raining enough to make even the staunchest of native Pacific Northwesterners go absolutely insane. But this morning! This morning I awoke refreshed and clean, took a sauna (how Finnish!), drank my fill of coffee, and ate a decent amount of food. What I now head into, of course no one knows, but I will accept my lot with a stout heart and hardy bearing.
This particular episode in my saga began on the night before last, Monday the 15th of June to be exact. My comrade, Robert, and I were as down and out as one could be in Helsinki. Our gear was soaked through and through from the night before; our morale had withered. Apparently Finland’s national train service had exacted its first full-on operator strike in decades. All train traffic was suspended on Monday, with the promise of resuming the next morning. This was particularly unfortunate because it forced us to stay one day longer in Finland’s largest city than we had wanted. As the day became the nightly twilight, the stress of our situation gnawed at us. Like two animals deprived of an essential prerequisite for existence, namely that of shelter, we engaged in a battle of alpha male dominance over the uncertainty of our situation. I was a proponent of simply getting on a random bus, hoping that it passed by a secluded wooded area, and setting up camp for the night.
“No, no, no!” vied my colleague; “such an excursion leaves far too much to chance! Rather, it would be far more opportune to simply make our beds here and wait for train service to resume operations in the morning!”
“Hah! You wish me to appear as a common transient?!” I touted back. “My good sir, I will never do such a thing as long as adequate shelter is here on my back!”
“And yet,” replied my traveling companion, “the skies appear to promise rain! It would seem to me that to have a tent rained on twice would be far more disheartening than to sleep here as the future passengers we are!”
“Not so, you knave!” I shouted back, blood filling my face.
“We have nowhere to go! WE ARE HOMELESS!” barked my compatriot.
Of course, the exchange was only slightly more vicious than detailed here, but the idea was clear. In the end, Robert won out. I was at a fundamental disadvantage: how does one move he who won’t move? I could have left on my own that night, but two strong personalities are sometimes better than one. Besides, we arrived together, therefore it only seemed proper to leave together as well. I folded. I grabbed my bag, walked under the cover of the train station, and prepared for a sleepless, down and out night.
I fell asleep and then awoke sometime around 3 am. I was perhaps colder than I had ever been in my life. My knees felt like snapping from the chill and my jaw would not stop chattering. I hid such weakness as best I could, getting up and walking to wherever an early morning cup of coffee was available. I soon found what I was looking for and unthawed myself with the steaming liquid. The next few hours were then spent wandering here and there, idly passing the time until the train station opened.
I remember watching the clock from a deli across the street; at 6 am. Rob and I carried ourselves to the station’s doors. A weight was lifted; we could now leave. Karelia was waiting.
We figured out a quick route that would take us to Lappeenranta, the capitol of South Karelia, before finding coffee and breakfast, and sitting in a small café to wait. Soon after we sat down to finish our small meal, a haggard older man with stark white hair and a mustache sat in the seat next to me. At first he was completely silent, relatively typical of the overall Finnish demeanor, but soon his interest in my companion and I overtook him. He turned to me, wide-eyed like a child, and made an over-exaggerated expression of laughter, shoulders heaving up and down with each push of air emanating from his chest. I quickly turned toward Rob, who had likewise turned his head toward me, as if to ask “who could this character be?” The man then began conversing with us, but his English was so broken, and his overall bearing so bizarre, that I couldn’t make out what he was attempting to explain. Suddenly, a companion of the man’s, a younger man with a shaved head, came out of the restroom and assumed his seat next to his friend.
“Say!” spoke the strange old man, placing his hand gently on my shoulder. “Do you like music?” he asked, holding the vowels of his last word for much longer than necessary.
“Music?” I asked back with surprise. “Yeah, music…of course I like music. And how about you? Do you like music?”
“Music,” he enunciated once more. “I like country music!” He began to laugh in the same manner as before.
“Yeah, we like country music,” chimed in the younger man. “It really tells of a hard, working class American life where nothing goes right. My dog died, my wife left me, and my truck got stolen…we can relate to that!”
“Country music, eh?” I asked back. “Well, that’s never really been my cup of tea…” I began.
“Country music tells about life!” interrupted the older man, placing his hand on my shoulder again. His eyes resumed the resonance of a child’s as he began to laugh once more. “Life…” he contemplated, “is life!”
I turned toward Rob, who must have thought of the exact same Laibach inside joke as I did.
“Yeah, country music tells of life,” began the younger man, “…a hard life. Like us right now, we’re extremely hung over, on vacation, and heading for Kotka. We could go somewhere warm and far away, like Hawaii – except for a lot more money. Instead, we settle on drinking by the lake in Kotka.”
I nodded my head in response.
“We all,” began the older man, again placing his hand on my shoulder, “take the long way. Life…is life!”
“Yes, life is life!” agreed the younger man. “But now we must go! We’re going to miss our train! You boys enjoy your stay!” And with that the two departed.
Rob and I soon found our own long way aboard a full train with no spare seats. We sat on the steps between cars and I soon fell into a deep, and much needed, sleep.
At some point in that space between waking and sleeping, our train arrived in Lappeenranta. We acquired a map almost instantly after stepping off the train. Walking from the station, which lies in the southernmost part of town, to the fortifications in Linnoitus (or the Fortress), Rob and I began to marvel at the fact that we were almost as far away from home as we could ever be. We walked past buildings with text written in Cyrillic, and under a road sign directing cars to St. Petersburg. Russia, the nation that was the enemy par excellence of my own during the first four years of my life was right next door – we were at the threshold of east and west!
We made our way north, taking a small detour through a cemetery lying just off the side of the main road. We toyed with the idea of possibly camping there if in dire straits, but ultimately decided against it, as the sparsely placed trees would have offered little cover for two tents. After quickly stopping for a real breakfast meal, and lightly perusing the local record store, we walked up a steep hill that led us to the gates of Lappeenranta’s fortress. The fortress, completed in the 18th century, is physical proof of the city’s one time status as a frontier garrison town – a status that would eventually change with the completion of the Lake Saimaa canal in the 19th century, effectively linking Lappeenranta with Vyborg and subsequently ushering in an age of commerce. The fortresses’ former fortifications have since been turned into a series of three museums, and a walking path can be found passing by an array of older buildings.
After making our way up the uneven cobblestone street, we entered the South Karelia Museum. The museum, being housed in the fortresses’ former artillery building, contains relics from all over the Southern Karelian area, including the former Finnish Karelian areas lost to Russia during the Second World War. The main exhibit details the urban transformations experienced in the area since the city’s inception, and contains a large area dedicated to Finland’s former city of Vyborg before its process of Russification.
Everywhere in Finland one can feel, and visibly see, the regret with which the loss of over half of Finnish Karelia is held. The lands of Kaleva that Elias Lönnrot helped present as Finland’s identity in the Kalevala – the lands of a purer Finnish folk culture, the lands of Väinämöinen and kantele poetry – were after World War Two and the Continuation War contorted into areas of ecological and cultural ruin by the then reigning Soviet government. Although most Finns have ostensibly admitted to forgiving Russia for such irreparable losses, it is unlikely that they will ever forget the destruction that was served to their most cherished swatch of country. Indeed, even the documentary showing in the nearby South Karelia Art Museum explored Lappeenranta’s newfound status as a “border town” at the end of World War Two and the displacement and cultural alienation that resulted. A wall was put up and, for the Karelians on either side of the border, it was as if this once traditionally rooted community was instantly transformed into two completely alien races of fairies. Even for those who could not directly understand the words of the documentary save from its subtitles, the profound sorrow inherent in every voice speaking in the film was unmistakable.
After exploring Lappeenranta’s museums – including the Calvary Museum, which offered military anecdotes and artifacts from the South Karelia area and the Second World War – we ventured to the northernmost point of the city, toward the banks of Lake Saimaa. Here we were treated to one of Karelia’s strangest modern attractions: a professionally sculpted sandcastle utilizing nearly three million kilograms of sand. The theme, which I was told changes every year, followed a rather “Knights of the Round Table” approach, with king, queen, and gallant knight seated within the castle’s interior, which was accessible from a large tunnel bored through the center. Visitors could walk in on one side, marvel at the fact that this sandcastle actually had a well-constructed interior, and walk out the other. The attraction, which was admittedly met with not just a few scoffs from both my companion and I, was actually an impressive sight to see in a town whose historical consciousness was so focused on the grim reality of war, conquest, and cultural loss. We grabbed a couple of cups of coffee and sat pondering the craftsmanship of the castle along with the tumultuous history of Finnish Karelia. Perhaps it was a bit of humorous irony that a castle built of sand was here: the symbols of empire may still have a lasting impact on Finnish and Karelian consciousness, but they will soon wash away, leaving Karelia and its heritage to remain standing once again as it did before.
After a quick debate on our next course of action, it was decided that it would not be a wise idea to waste a 24 hour train pass on simply staying in Lappeenranta,, so we decided instead make our way further north in Finnish Karelia to Joensuu. Joensuu, lying off Lake Pyhäselkä and bisected by the Pielisjoki River, is a quaint college town that is usually used in the summer as a means of gaining further access to the surrounding Karelian wilderness. This was the use that we intended to make of the town, but such an idea was of course squashed by the copious amounts of rain that spilled forth the minute we stepped off the train. No, tonight it would be best if we tried, I thought, though most likely in vain, to find ourselves a room in a hostel or some other such form of budget boarding. After standing under a covered area for some time, and cursing Finland for all of its late spring rain, we grabbed a tourist guide from the train station and set off, hoping that the gods would soon take pity on us.
The first course of action was to secure a room or otherwise dry location for us to retire for the evening. It was unlikely that either of us could mentally handle another night of near homelessness, and we were willing to pay nearly any price so long as someone would take us in. Following the few leads presented in our tourist guide, we walked up and down Joensuu’s perfectly grid-like streets, knocking on doors where we could. In one instance, we disturbed a man who was actually living in what we thought was a hostel of some sort. “No!” he said completely annoyed, “if you want a room you’ll just have to call and set it up!” Thinking a telephone perhaps a good idea in this case, we set off, in vain, to find a street side pay phone lingering somewhere on the streets. After about 40 minutes of hunting we gave up, relegating ourselves to an inexpensive, all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.
“So where exactly are all of your pay phones?” I asked the employee behind the counter after I finished paying for my meal.
“Pay phones?” he asked with some surprise. “Well, we got rid of those years ago! Now we all have mobile phones, so we don’t really need those…”
Of course! I thought to myself. Hidden behind Finland’s rustic and folkish demeanor was a culture very dedicated to the development of technology. A singular example of this is Nokia, the telecommunications company based out of Espoo, which was not only at the forefront of the cell phone revolution of the early 2000s, but also played a role in the technology’s early development in the 60s. Unfortunately for Rob and me, and our apparently “behind the times” cell phones, our service provider did not extend coverage to areas outside of North America. In sort, there was no simple way for us to contact any hostels save knocking on their doors in person.
“Do you think that guy would let us use the restaurant’s phone?” asked Rob in a half-irritated tone.
“Maybe it’s worth a shot…” I replied with not just a little hesitation.
I walked with Rob up to the counter and listened to him explain our predicament and propose our question. Surprisingly, our newly acquired acquaintance had little qualms with the idea and allowed us the use of the restaurant’s phone. I listened as Rob called on a cheap two-man cabin at a camping facility near Lake Pyhäselkä, a mere mile or so from our location at the pizza restaurant. I could hear the excitement slowly begin to creep into his voice.
“They have a cabin for us!” he exclaimed while hanging up the phone. “Not only that, but the guy said he would even wait for us if we didn’t make it in before closing time!”
Enthralled at the prospect of cheap shelter in Finnish Karelia – a cabin no less! – we thanked the employee working at the pizza buffet and set out on our way toward our quarters for the night. As we walked down the homey urban streets, it seemed unlikely that anything even resembling camping could be lying in wait for us. We marched until finally we arrived at the edge of a wooded area just off the shore of Lake Pyhäselkä. This was to be our cabin site – a thick swatch of nature mere minutes away from the small metropolitan center we had just come from. Without much ado we waltzed in, paid our money for a two-man cabin, and accepted a key to a larger four-man cabin. I inquired as to towels for showering and the complementary morning sauna; good nights and pleasant stays were wished all around; the entire experience was far more than delightful.
We dropped our bags off at the cabin and followed a sign leading us along a small path toward the lake. After passing through a small fence, we saw stretched out before us a sandy bank, complete with a volleyball net, that ran to meet the waves of a lake that rolled lazily back and forth. On either side was a tall, rugged expanse of fir trees that gave the impression of looming wilderness just beyond the sands of the lake. This is what we came to see, I thought to myself. We may not have exactly been out of the city, but Joensuu surely gave the impression that we were. This is perhaps why the small towns in Finland are more comfortable than the cities – the best of both worlds exists within walking distance. Following our most primal of instincts, we made for the thick of the woods, relegating ourselves to the exploration of this swatch of earth. We came upon a few houses, and a decrepit amphitheater with wooden bleachers and a stage. We loitered around these parts for a bit, carrying on with our characteristic slew of unintelligent inside jokes, before finally returning to our camp to shower and retire for the night.
Suddenly, the two comrades who were at each other’s throats the night before were now jovial, light hearted, and care free in their mutual company. Odd how a full stomach, a roof over one’s head, and a hot shower can change the entire atmosphere of certain situations in mere minutes. We were given the gift of resolve.
As I lay in bed that night listening to Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, a peculiar restlessness overtook me. Was now really the hour to rest? I asked myself. I thought of all the things that could possibly be occurring in those woods. Perhaps some maiden fancied a walk at this hour as well? Perhaps there was an entire other world to see after the sun had descended as far as it would for the night? Maybe it had been far too long since I had been completely alone? For one reason or another, I grabbed my clothes and camera and headed back out into the twilight, leaving Rob asleep in his bed. I walked to where my companion and I had just left from, to the lake, through the forest once more, and around its side to a boat harbor. I followed whatever path I could find, and walked into a clearing where large trucks were parked. They looked like they were loaded with the remains of amusement park rides from a bygone fair that had just ended. I kept walking; I finally reached the main road and decided to walk the mile back into town. I’ll get a soda, is what I told myself – an easily played excuse for a late night walk. I walked up Joensuu’s nearly empty streets, soaking up the night and searching for something to drink with minimal effort. Everything was closed. Occasionally I would pass by a lively bar and overhear groups busily chatting with each other; in one instance I could even observe English being spoken. That was no matter though. I wasn’t looking for those kinds of friends that night. No, that night I chose to follow my own long road – to see things for myself alone. I walked around some more, aimlessly really, until the feeling of restlessness abated and sleepiness took its place. I bought a soda from a small food cart and began my journey back to the cabin. Upon my return, I got into bed and instantly fell asleep.
I awoke the next day 30 minutes later than I originally intended to. I tossed and turned, adamant on fighting the coming morning, until I remembered the complementary sauna that would soon stop running. I suddenly jumped out of bed, grabbed my towel and boots, and stumbled out the door, making a beeline for the sauna room. Saunas have been used in Finland for over a thousand years, the earliest examples having been dug into hillsides with fireplaces covered in stone. For most Finns, the sauna is not simply a recreational relaxation tool, but rather a space for serious meditation with sacred qualities.
Once inside the sauna building, I followed the advice of my travel guide and stripped totally nude, rinsing myself off in the shower located in a room just before the actual sauna. Once this was done, I wrapped myself in a towel and entered the sauna proper. I began throwing water onto the stove, forcing it to produce its characteristic steam. Then I sat and relaxed. The feeling was somewhat odd. This having been my first sauna, I was surprised at how hot it actually got! Of course this was somewhat naive, but I would not have trusted the burning sensation in my feet under any other circumstances. Instead, in this situation I simply resigned myself to the heat, letting it take over and finding solace in it. I sat there for a few minutes until sweat was beading off my face and chest, thinking about where I had come and where I was heading. Before long I got up, rinsed off in the shower, and repeated the process once more. I finally exited the building feeling far more refreshed and alert than any cup of coffee could make me.
Once we had gathered up our things, we headed back into town for a bite to eat. Luckily for us a decent sized street-side market was going on in Joensuu’s main square. The entire time we had been in Karelia, I had been reading of a certain pastry called Karelian Pies – a traditional snack with a rye crust and rice filling that is covered with butter. Being a lover of all baked goods, I decided that today was the day in which I would attempt to find one. After being turned down at a local bakery, I believed my task to be somewhat more difficult than initially thought. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I found a small cart selling them. I walked up to the cart, examining the window advertising, before finally deciding on a particular course of action.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll take this 5 Euro deal on your Karelian Pies…” I said to a boy of about 14 or 15 with black hair working in the cart. He looked at me with eyes wide and mouth agape – a face of sheer extremity that I will never forget.
“You want ten Karelian Pies?! They’re 5 for 10! ” he asked back in amazement.
“Oh, woah!” I said back almost embarrassed at his reaction. “No, I guess I’ll just have two…”
The pies themselves had much more of a bland rice flavor than I had initially expected. This wasn’t exactly what I was used to with my pastries of choice, but under the right circumstances they would have been delicious. Rob and I ate many other traditionally Finnish and Karelian foods that day, including a kind of small fish that is deep-fried and eaten whole (albeit headless), and ham and hard-boiled egg sandwiches. While we were sitting at a table consuming the last of these, a large man walked up to us and asked if he could sit down.
“I’m waiting for my wife to finish shopping,” he said in a thick Finnish accent. “I’m living here in Joensuu for the next six months, visiting my son who goes to university here.”
We both nodded in agreement, not exactly sure what to think of the situation or this strangely outgoing man yet.
“I see you have some packs here?” he continued. “They look to be about 35 to 40 kilos, is that right? Can I feel them to see?”
He picked up our bags to confirm his suspicion before continuing.
“So you’re traveling I take it? I used to do that quite a bit myself. I’ve traveled all over Lapland, in northern Finland. I have an exact map to that place in my mind. I even hiked into Russia, one of the only Finns to do so, before the borders became so strict.” He paused before taking a breath and asking, “so, where are you from?”
“The Northwest part of America, just a little south of Canada.” Rob replied.
“Ah, America!” he exclaimed, becoming suddenly meditative. “Let me tell you a story about an American friend of mine. He’s a geologist, and when he came up here once he, my comrade and fellow man, and I all went with our packs into Lapland. Our American friend kept finding these rocks he couldn’t live without and putting them into his backpack. It eventually became so heavy that he couldn’t carry it any longer! HA HA HA!”
Our new-found Finnish friend told us many more things while he waited for his wife. He told us of how in his younger years he used to be a power lifter, and that the difference between weight lifting and power lifting was that men did power lifting while women simply lifted weights! He went to America once, he told us, as part of a Finnish power lifting team – the first Finnish power lifting team, mind you – to participate in a competition in Texas. He was in charge of organizing the awards ceremony, and every placing contestant was awarded with a reindeer pelt. It was in June of 1969, he told us, and he seemed to remember the exact dates of every key event in his life. Since his stint as a power lifter, he has retired to a life of fly-fishing at various locations in the Finnish country side.
“You should really see Lapland!” he told us. “That is what remains of true Finland. You don’t know Finland unless you visit Lapland!”
And with a final word he was suddenly off, headed into the distance to meet with his wife. We followed his lead and made for the train station.
I sit here now at the station quickly jotting all of this down. It amazes me at how the simple addition of a backpack can make complete strangers open up. It seems that for some the sight of heavily laden gear is an instant sign of affinity, almost as if saying, “I’m on an adventure to somewhere.” We hear many comparisons to Elias Lönnrot and his adventure through Karelia while compiling the Kalevala. Even yet, it seems that everyone, though, has his own adventure to tell. Whether it’s journeying through Lapland looking for rocks, making a break for the beach at Kotka, or fighting for your home in the face of empire, everyone has a story to tell. When you carry the badge on your back they will tell you of their stories – you will make a friend and get the nod of approval. And so, as an old Finn once told me, we all take the long road… life is life.
June 20, 2009
I’m alone in a single-roomed house made of oak. It’s dark; I can see absolutely nothing save an envelope of blackness around me. I realize suddenly that I’m not safe here. I hear a loud bang; the wall begins to split. Something is gnashing at the outer expanse of the house. A light flashes, just long enough for me to see the head of a large creature biting and making his way through the walls. His head creeps in farther and farther, from one wall to the next, and continues out the other side. I bolt out of the house, making my way for the town lying just over the hillside. I run into the first building I see, immediately blurting out:
“Nidhogg is continually gnawing holes through the walls of my house!”
“Oh?” says a man sitting at a table, “Well in that case, you’ll have to travel to the mountains and search for the Goði. Only he can teach you the spell required to rid yourself of the dragon.”
My eyes opened. Amazed and slightly confused, I looked around. Was this my tent? Yes, it was. Was I still in Gamle Uppsala? Yes, I was. It’s Midsummer, I told myself, how strange that I would have one of the most blatantly mythological dreams I’ve ever had on midsummer while camping here, on one of the many unmarked burial mounds at Gamle Uppsala.
“Hey, we gotta get up!” I yelled to Rob, still asleep in his tent. “We need to see what’s happening here today.”
We arrived back in Uppsala yesterday afternoon. The boat from Helsinki had dropped us off around 8 am in Stockholm, and, searching for adequate places to spend Midsummer, decided to return to Uppsala for one last night sleeping atop the burial mounds. And how fitting would it all be in the end? A classically Scandinavian and Heathen holiday spent at one of Scandinavia’s most important pre-Christian cultural sites.
I recalled what a girl on the train from Uppsala to Gothenburg had said to me about Midsummer in Sweden. “You should really try to be here,” she had said. “It’s a great time for younger people like us. We all get together, share some drinks, and just celebrate the changing of the seasons! It’s an amazing time! One of my favorites, actually.” What she didn’t tell me was that in order to actually experience these festivities, it was nearly a pre-requisite to be on very personal terms with a local and their family. For two friendless wayward travelers backpacking across the peninsula, the evening would naturally be very different.
We wandered through the museum entrance to Gamle Uppsala sometime yesterday around 4 o’ clock in the afternoon. The sun shone brightly, yet the air was still cool enough for me to comfortably wear a thin long sleeve shirt. The three mounds glowed in the sun, although somehow not without a fleeting air of desolation. The museum was closed; and not a soul to be seen in the general area. Making our way toward Gamle Uppsala’s resident tourist restaurant Odinsborg with the hopes of finding a meal, we passed by three occupied tables on the restaurant’s patio before entering. I bought my dinner of a sandwich and coffee, as well as a bottle of Odinsborg’s famous mead; Rob bought the same, only adding a small, carved head of a Viking berserker as a souvenir to his order.
“I might give this to my dad,” he muttered lazily.
We sat and ate our meal in the sunshine, chatting about our projected anticipation of the year’s midsummer festivities, before finally walking next door to the Disagården open-air folk museum. Upon entering, we passed by an unoccupied table with a locked cash box sitting on top of it, along with a small yellow Disagården midsummer program flyer that informed us that all scheduled festivities were over for the night. We made our way past the brightly painted antique Swedish farm buildings to Disagården’s main square, where small children were dancing arm-in-arm around the maypole as their families chatted jovially with each other on the sidelines. Staring at the maypole, I cracked open my bottle of mead and soaked in the surroundings before beginning to wander around the museum. We poked our heads into every corner, searching for whatever friendly faces we could find, for someone who would want to listen to the tales of two American wayfarers for the night. No such luck; we were left only to entertain ourselves.
“Let’s go back into town and see if anything is happening,” Rob suggested. “I mean, if there isn’t anything going on we can always stop at that gas station near here, buy a couple beers, and then just camp out for the night. That wouldn’t be too bad, really….”
Before I knew it, Rob and I were on and off the bus, back in the empty streets of Uppsala proper, searching for the familiar sights we once knew in a town we were only vaguely familiar with. Were these streets really the first that I had seen of Sweden? The same that were filled with screaming students, celebrating their graduation in a parade held every year for each new class, complete with plastic nautical hats and noise makers of every variety? I had not expected to return here so soon and on such different conditions. The city of Uppsala was now practically closed! Looking around, the hustle and bustle of a lone open fast food restaurant caught my eye. Suddenly I had a hankering for dessert.
I marched up to the counter, ordered the cheapest strawberry sundae on the menu, paid my dues, and sat down across from a young couple about my age. I couldn’t help but overhear them hushedly talking in gushing voices, staring into each other’s eyes as if neither had ever seen a more immaculate image of love. The cynic in me smiled as I devised a plan that would either win me over a new friend or create a slightly annoyed acquaintance.
“Snakker de Engelsk?” I asked, leaning over to the couple.
“Uh… Yes, I do, just a little,” replied the male sounding slightly nervous.
“Can I ask you a question?” I began. “So, this weekend as I understand is a holiday. I met a girl on a train who said that midsummer was one of the best times to be in Sweden. So… where is everyone?”
“Why, they’re all on their farms spending time with their families,” he told me with a matter-of-fact expression and a sly grin.
“So, all of the towns are just going to remain dead the entire weekend?” I asked.
“Yes, pretty much,” he replied. “It shouldn’t get much more exciting than what you see now.”
I nodded and smiled, telling him that I understood. I finished eating and sat there awhile. The couple soon finished what they were doing and got up and left without a word. It seemed my plan had failed to produce any significant fruit.
“Well,” I began to Rob, my comrade in boredom, “what now?”
“Let’s walk around a little,” he said. “We should try to find that bar we went to last time we were here – William’s I think it was called. And if that fails then we’ll just go with our other plan.”
I agreed; we left the restaurant bound for Uppsala’s center, slowly pacing ourselves up the vacant cobble stone streets. One of Uppsala’s most distinctive features is the Fyris River, which nearly splits the city into two equal halves. The center of the city seems to be perfectly bisected by the running body of water, complete with a series of bridges beckoning pedestrians over and across to whichever side their day may take them. My companion and I lazily inched ever closer to the Fyris, step after step carrying us in its direction, before finally crossing the threshold and making our way up one of the many small arched bridges. I stopped and stood, alternating my gaze between the running water, the expanse of blue sky and white clouds, and the architecture of Uppsala itself. I stood there in silent contemplation for a bit until Rob broke my train of thought. He pulled out the carved head he bought in Gamle Uppsala and sat it on the railing overlooking the water, laughing a little bit as he stared at the figure. I attempted to return to my silent meditation when suddenly his hand whipped up and flung the head into the Fyris.
“Woah,” I said with surprise. “I guess you didn’t really want that then?”
He laughed reflectively. “A sacrifice to Sweden on Midsummer,” he said, his voice beginning to trail off a little. “I wonder how long that will be there for? What if someone finds it in a few years and thinks they found an actual Viking relic?” he asked laughing.
We stood there chuckling at the thought of such nonsense until finally we continued on our way, past the river, past Uppsala’s cathedral, and on to William’s. We arrived after some deliberation as to the actual location of the bar to discover, much to our dismay, that William’s was not only practically empty, but reverted to being a bland Indian restaurant on off-nights. Downtrodden and defeated, I grabbed a beer and placed myself at a table, making a half-hearted attempt at joking with our bartender as she handed me my drink. She didn’t seem to understand my humor and only feigned a smile. Rob and I sat there drinking our drinks and making light-hearted conversation about our night and the other tourists in the establishment. Taking one last swig, I realized that the only recourse left to us was our Plan B of making company with each other over a can of gas station beer in the presence of ancient burial mounds before finally retiring for the night. We bid the bartenders at William’s ado, boarded a bus, bought our six pack of watered-down Swedish light beer, and headed for the mounds.
Our plot was near an ancient sacrificial grove just beyond the mounds. Perhaps a thousand years ago around this very spot the skins of sacrificial offerings, animal skins and perhaps even human, were hung from trees lying just behind us during the midsummer celebrations of old. Even yet, as Erik, a curator at Gamle Uppsala’s museum, told us during our last excursion on the mounds, archeological digs have only yielded a large pile of ancient excrement lying in the center of this proposed sacrificial grove. This didn’t preclude the possibility of a sacrificial site, he had said, but perhaps suggested that the ancients had their own reasons for mingling sacrifices and droppings. As we sat and talked, I pondered these thoughts over a canned pint of nearly unbearable beer. The thought was in me that tomorrow we would experience a tourist’s midsummer at Disagården before finally saying goodbye to Uppsala for the summer, boarding a train, and heading to Denmark for the last few days of our journey. I drank what I could, then set off for a suitable site for my tent. I laid out my things in the exact same spot I did the first time I slept there – atop the lumpy ground of an unmarked burial mound.
It was here that I had my vivid dream of dark wooden houses and dragons with gashing teeth. I awoke later than I had wanted, confused and somewhat out of my mind. I gathered my bearings, packed up my things, and sat watching joggers go by as Rob finished adjusting his pack. Once finished, we headed to Disagården. This time we were asked to pay a small donation before entering, and were given a yellow program detailing the events of the day for our troubles. Once inside, we watched the traditional dances of both children and adults around the maypole, as they spun, arm in arm, in a circle around the pole’s circumference, singing the entire way. A tall man in traditional clothing announced each new song and dance in Swedish – presumably explaining the dance moves, chorus, and their significance to local folklore as well. Backing him was a three-piece band, also dressed in traditional garb, who played each song with unparalleled enthusiasm. Rob joined in on a few dances and told me to snap a couple pictures of him in participation, which I happily did.
Before long the band packed up and we were left with an interval of silence, which we filled by eating Våfflor, a Swedish take on waffles, usually served during the spring and summer months, and served with whipped cream and strawberry jam. During the time it took to eat our afternoon snack, another band had set up on a small wooden stage just beyond a cedar planked dance floor. The band took its place, and numerous older couples dressed in traditional garb joined hands for a dance. They whirled and twirled on the stage as the band played a lively jig, only stopping for mere moments when the song ended. At one point two of the men poured each other an imaginary shot of alcohol, grabbed hands, and engaged in a ritualized form of tug-of-war, swinging their free arms ever lower until finally grabbing their glasses and coming together for the drink. The audience cheered and applauded as the empty glasses were tipped up and thrown back.
We stayed and watched the festivities until about noon before deciding it was best we return to the weary road of travel. I bid Disagården and Midsummer goodbye in my heart; although somewhat disappointed with the less than ideal circumstances with which I experienced Midsummer, I felt a sense of longing, knowing that soon this place and this festival would be so far from me. As the walk began back toward Gamle Uppsala, nearing the cemetery and church, Rob and I encountered a familiar face – Erik, the museum curator who kindly walked us to the top of the mounds during our last visit, was just heading to Disagården himself to take pictures.
“Hello lads!” he yelled with the excitement of a surprised friend. “I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon!”
“We weren’t expecting to be back so soon,” Rob replied. “We came back for Midsummer.”
“Ah, I see,” he said, his voice slightly trailing off. “Say, could I snap a couple pictures of you two with your big packs? They want me to go around and take pictures for our tourist site, and you two look perfect!”
We agreed to getting our picture taken, and soon after bid Erik goodbye.
“I’ll see you next summer!” he yelled back toward us as he continues on his way.
In what seemed like just a few short moments, Uppsala was left behind. We transfered trains in Stockholm, bound for Denmark, then Germany, then home. I now sit on a packed train, in the café car, speeding across Sweden and headed for Copenhagen. My mood is of a bittersweet disposition. Although I miss the comforts and stability of home, a life of freedom and travel in this land that seems so new, yet so familiar, has grown on me, indeed, has almost become a part of me. If only I had a roof over my head to retire to for some days, so that I could recollect myself and reflect on this truly over-stimulating journey before returning again to my tent and the rails, to a life of a wayfaring vagrant… Then I would truly be at home.
June 22, 2009
I awoke in perhaps the strangest way yet this morning. To be sure, my traveling companion and I went to sleep in a strange manner, but that, of course, has been a common theme along our journey. We may now add a small wooden camping hut near Mosegården beach, just outside of Århus, to our list. Unlike other Scandinavian countries, camping outside of designated areas is forbidden in Denmark, so my own personal inclination was to be hesistant about setting a tent up in most wooded areas along the beach. It was a stroke of luck that we stumbled upon a secluded wooden hut that would fit two sleeping bags perfectly. It even had a fire pit just outside, complete with a bottle of kerosine. Despite this seemingly impeccable setup, my sleep was broken all night long, being disturbed by even the slightest of noises, and for fear of being asked to leave by Danish authorities.
Around 8:00 I awoke, for the final time, to a full-blown family of early rising Danes sitting around the pit building a fire. They were talking loudly and laughing jovialy, cooking breakfast and already drinking liquor. They didn’t seem annoyed at our presence; on the contrary, they seemed to welcome it. A woman said something to us in Danish, to which I reflexively replied “Snakker de Engelsk?” They gazed at each other with slight amusement.
“She asked if you slept well?” repeated a young man in his twenties.
“Slept well?” I replied, disoriented. “Yeah, we slept great.”
Suddenly two teenage girls sat down at the edge of our hut and began talking to us excitedly as we, albeit with some embarrassment, began packing our things.
“So,” began one. “Where are you from?”
“America,” I replied.
“Ah, America!” she exclaimed. Sticking her finger in her mouth and pushing out on her cheek she yelled “howdy pat’ner!” apparently attempting to feign a southern accent.
“Uh… We’re not those kinds of Americans,” began Rob. His correction went unheard, as the two girls began busily chatting to each other in a mix of Danish and faux southern American English.
“So,” said the same girl suddenly. “What kind of music do you listen to in America?”
“Uh…” I replied, admittedly confused. “Probably the same kind you listen to in Denmark.”
“Oh wait, I know!” said Rob with excitement. “You spin me right round baby, right round, like a record baby, spin me right round!”
They continued laughing amongst themselves. One of them mentioned Hannah Montana and the conversation finally begins to die down. We finished packing and began to make our exit.
“Would you like some coffee, boys? Or perhaps some food?” the young man asked us. We kindly turned him down. “So where will you go now? I bet far away from those girls, eh?” he asked laughing.
We told him we were going to explore the museum and then leave Århus for Ribe before finally heading home. We thanked him once more for the offer and departed.
We retraced our footsteps along a dirt road that led through a forest of beech trees and away from the beach along the Oldtidsstien, a 4 kilometer route that runs eventually to Mosegården’s museum. As we walked my mind wandered in contemplation of the previous day. Were these the same woods that looked so grim and foreboding the night before? The woods that nearly swallowed us in the darkness, that almost sucked us down toward the earth below? Were we actually walking blindly along these paths? I remembered how sweet the gentle rolling of waves sounded to my ears once we had traversed these woods. Of course we weren’t lost – head in any one direction long enough in Denmark and you’re likely to find the ocean. The sky had been a deep blue, with a dash of deep, fiery orange lining the horizon – an illusion of water and flame becoming as one. We took our boots off and walked along the sand and into the water. We followed the light of burning bonfires into the twilight until we reached them and could go no farther. I was at home in that moment. Was I standing in the sands of Denmark or Oregon? Did it even matter?
And yet, as we walked along this path my mind reached still further back in the previous day, to Jelling. I remembered standing in that small cemetery, amidst those two empty burial mounds, staring at the stones carved by king Gorm and his son, Harald Bluetooth, over a millennium ago. I had traced with my fingers the same runes Harald had inscribed; I outlined the image of the beast on the opposite side of the inscription and laughed at yet another image of Christ – the oldest image of Christ in the north – that seemed so forged and out of place. Harald’s role in aiding the spread of this faith is well documented not only in the stone’s inscription, but also in Jelling’s vacant burial mounds. Taking the teachings of his newly acquired faith to extremes, Harald ordained his father be exhumed from his pagan burial spot and placed underneath the church he had erected between the two mounds. As I climbed to the peak of Gorm’s former resting-place, I couldn’t help but feel the site’s vacancy somehow well up within me. Should not a proud pagan king, the oldest recorded in Danish history, rest in the grand mound erected in his honor, rather than below the feet of those coming to worship at the altar of a religion that has little to do with him? Perhaps it is historical irony, or maybe even the attitude of an entire age, but in the best known tale of Gorm it is stated that the king had not thought quite as highly of Harald as he had of his brother. I descended the mound and sat down behind the church, fiddling with a rock I had snatched from the floor. I watched as a family, a father, mother, and son, came to take the Danish flags blowing high above the mounds. I thought of my own family and how this son’s life couldn’t have been much different from my own. He came with his parents on a sunny Sunday evening in summer to collect the flags in the churchyard. Maybe they had just finished eating dinner together; maybe he was looking forward to playing a game with his friends from this small town before going to bed; maybe he would go home and read a book with his mother and father. For him this wasn’t one of the most important historical sites in Denmark. For him it was simply home.
Returning from my memories of Jelling, I reached back into my pocket and felt for the smooth stone taken from the churchyard there. My fingers wandered over the surface, feeling the oddly featureless front before running along the tightly catered backside. And we walked, past a stall filled with hay for passing horses, watching as the mud was flung from our boots. I was hungry and tired, wishing that I had accepted the young fellow’s offer for at least some coffee, but my overall bearing wasn’t affected by such slight discomforts. For there we were, two dirty wanderers adorned with heavy packs, making their way to gods know where, who awoke from their hut near the beach mere minutes ago, and who came from every folk and fairy tale known to the Germanic peoples. Thus we walked.
Without much conversation we eventually arrived at the Moesgård Museum. Similar to other museums encountered on our journey, the museum itself is a part of a large manor, in which the main building was built in the late 18th century. Adorned with pink brickwork and typical Danish red tile roofing, the museum’s entire presence seemed slightly out of place in comparison to the forest we had just traversed. It was almost as if, upon walking though the steel gates of the manor, there was a sharp demarcation between the world inside and outside of the manor’s walls. Before such a mild distaste could grow, though, I remembered suddenly what it was exactly that drew me here: the Grauballe Man was somewhere within those walls.
We paid our dues and entered the museum’s main exhibit hall. By now we already knew the entire presentation’s format: Denmark is explained from the earliest times, from a hunter-gatherer society migrating in pursuit of game animals, to the introduction of metallurgy and the subsequent Iron Age, and the great shifts in social and spiritual consciousness that occurred in between. What had finally become apparent to me in my tour of historical museums is just how important the notions of both sacrifice and death were to my ancestors living centuries ago. Without sacrifice and death, and without the surrounding rites that ensured the depositing of artifacts or the dead in Denmark’s peat bogs, there would not have been nearly as much to see of the past today. We are only capable of knowing and experiencing the past through these notions of death and sacrifice; in the dead enshrined in monumental burial mounds, in the sacrifices of vanquished opponents’ weapons into the bogs, in the vessels intended to carry the dead to the Other World, in the invaluable artifacts cast into the water for better luck. Indeed, it almost seems as if our only knowledge of our prehistoric ancestors is through their attempts to reach another world; to reach the well of wyrd or the land of the dead. They attempted to reach another time and place just as we do when we look at their tokens left behind, when we attempt to reach into the past through them and stare into a familiar yet wholly unknown face – into eyes glazed over by death but still possessing a depth of ages.
Rob and I discussed this idea as he snapped a few pictures. We were pushed on by a group of school children out on a field trip. My eyes got easily fatigued at reading the small paragraphs of text explaining each artifact. I rounded a corner and stared at a two storied exhibit meticulously trimmed with a dark stained wood. A droning soundtrack played over a speaker situated somewhere behind me. It seemed obvious that the museum’s introduction was over and we were now on to the main exhibit. Without thinking, I descended the ramp and entered a room lined with benches facing a large glass case situated in the room’s center. Inside the case lay the black and twisted body of the Grauballe Man. Found in 1952, the Grauballe Man is one of Denmark’s best preserved bog bodies, complete with hair, nails, and stomach contents. A slit can be seen across his throat, stretching from ear to ear, while scientists have also gleaned that both his leg and cranium suffered fractures. Carbon dating has estimated his brutal death as occurring sometime around the year 290 BC. It is thought that his murder was either the result of a criminal execution or a ritualized human sacrifice. As I scanned the man’s body, attempting to create a mental stamp of every visible detail, I began wondering what this man could have seen in the days leading up to his death. If he was a criminal, then his final days must not have been too dissimilar from a death-row inmate. Were he a sacrifice, on the other hand, then his final experience must have been much more interesting. I imagined his reaction to having been selected for such a rite, whether he accepted his lot with stout resolve or was ultimately unwilling – whether he envisioned himself as some sort of otherworldly traveler seeking the answer to his people’s suffering, or merely a poor sap sent to Hel before his time. It was difficult to tell if his twisted expression spoke more of pride or of pain.
I stared in silence until my concentration was broken by an onslaught of school children entering the room. They looked excited and awestruck, and naturally enough expressed the mischievous attitudes of children who did not have to sit in a boring classroom all day. Their instructor, a young, tall man with dark hair who remained standing, made his rounds around the Grauballe Man’s encasement, explaining the latter’s significance in Danish that I could not understand. After a brief lecture he opened it up to a question and answer section, to which the children nervously raised their hands.
I left the room and walked along the exhibit’s upper level. It detailed the excavation and history of the Grauballe Man, and ended with a 3D reconstruction of the man’s face. After briefly touring the exhibit, I walked on to Moesgård Museum’s display of runic artifacts taken from all over Scandinavia. The exhibit, entitled Runes – from graffiti to gravestones, emphasized the similarities between early runic inscriptions, such as those found on small pieces of drift wood, and modern text messages. The messages themselves ranged from the profound to the lewd, from early examples of philosophy to men bragging about how they finally got various women into bed. Such inscriptions were intended to be short expressions of ideas written on easily carried objects, eventually delivered to recipients who were not immediately available. Or they were, in the case of rune stones, monuments erected in a particular place explaining a particular event. In other words, the messages on the rune stones themselves almost always went hand-in-hand with where they were located – a notion that of course casts some doubt on the rightfulness of Denmark’s willingness to relocate various stones to museums.
Within the exhibit is displayed Moesgård Museum’s collection of rune stones relocated from around the Århus area. The most impressive of these is Danish Runic Inscription 66, or the Mask Stone, which bears the image of a large bearded mask and an inscription in Old Norse describing a battle between two kings. The iconic image adorned on the stone has since become the logo for Moesgård Museum itself, and one can buy souvenirs of all sorts in the gift shop bearing this image. The exact meaning of the mask itself is unknown, but the museum holds that it was probably used as some sort of protection against evil spirits. Other than such brief facts, little more information concerning the stone is offered. In fact, the original location of the stone itself is nearly unknown to those who have studied it. Is it worth it to protect the stone from the modern evils of pollution by removing it forever from its original context? The Mask Stone is yet another point added to the firestorm of debate surrounding the relocation of runic monuments.
I then carried myself on to the next exhibit, a fantastic display of the massive findings of enemy weapons from Illerup Ådal near Skanderborg, Denmark. The story of the recovered weapons is brilliantly told in the exhibit, with a gratuitous amount of sacrificed artifacts displayed in an atmosphere that is both exciting and meditative. Uncovered in 1950, the artifacts on display once belonged to an unknown army of warriors from elsewhere in Scandinavia who attempted to overcome the Danes in 200 AD. The invaders were duly routed and overcome by the Danes, who then proceeded to capture and destroy all weapons and articles of clothing belonging the enemy combatants, and, in paying their respects to the gods for such a victory, cast it all into the lake. Why the battle was fought, or where exactly the enemy troops sailed from, is unknown. All that remains are the massive findings of destroyed swords, shields, spears, clothing, belts, and equestrian equipment. The feeling of staring at a wall of spears all held by vanquished and nameless warriors from nearly 2,000 years ago is indescribable. How can we know so little about what we can see so much of? I imagine what it would be like to die and have personal objects from my own life on display to people thousands of years in the future. What sort of picture would they be capable of gleaning about my own life and times? Perhaps I would be just another faceless and nameless man from a bygone age.
The feeling of hunger then gripped my innards. I suddenly remembered that I had yet to eat anything at all so far that day. My comrade and I stepped outside and grabbed a quick, overpriced breakfast of muffins, coffee, and beer. We sat and talked about nothing, watching as the school children played on the jungle gym just behind us. Before boarding the bus and heading back to Århus, I suggested we make a small journey to see the reconstructed stave church just outside of the manor’s walls. With some directional assistance we arrived at a small, wooden building with brightly painted knot-work trim and rope cords hanging over the entrance. The small church is apparently based on archeological finds from Hørning, Denmark, in which the first stave church of its kind is estimated to have appeared around 1060 AD. Included at the site are reconstructed versions of a Viking Age pit house and town house. I walked past the cords and into the church, snapped a few pictures from its dark interior, then exited and took a few of its profile. The church was exciting to me only as an example of what typical Scandinavian architecture may have looked like before the advent of Christianity. Buildings of this type were soon outmoded, replaced by the stone churches that can still be seen in Denmark today. Perhaps these were the last buildings used by pagans to worship their gods before they were eventually perverted into temples dedicated to Christ by the Church. With this thought resonating, I grabbed my bag and headed for the bus stop, intending to leave Moesgård behind.
The bus was packed with school children. Apparently their sojourn to the museum took about as long ours did. They chatted with each other noisily on the bus before finally getting off and leaving the vehicle barren. We stopped in Århus for lunch, then boarded a series of trains that would eventually take us to Ribe, our last stop in Scandinavia before returning home.
Tonight will be our last night here. I’m hungry and dirty, but the prospect of going home after tonight is met with some disdain in my mind. In exactly one week I will be sleeping in my bed again. I’ll see the people I left behind and have practically nothing to say for myself when they begin to ask their questions. There’s simply too much to say. So, instead of telling them everything, I simply write, and hope that someone will take the time to read my words. I’m going home, and all this will soon become text on a page – simply a trace of a memory, like bones in a grave or plunder in a bog.
December 21, 2009
As I began reviewing the scraps of notes I had amassed along my journey, I was once more struck by the uncanny nature of my dream at Gamle Uppsala on Midsummer. What could it possibly mean? Why would Níðhöggr, the Malice Striker, leave his post sucking corpses and gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasill in order to destroy my home? And what advice would the Goði have given me if I had actually sought him out? It was not until much later that I discovered in
Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies some discussion on the act of sleeping atop graves and funeral
mounds. Apparently, as Lecouteux explains, there is a long-standing tradition in both the Celtic and Germanic
worlds concerning visionary dreams and sleep in places where the dead are lain to rest. This was completely unknown to me at the time, and, as I was simply looking for a good place to set up my tent, I was not prepared to have any dreams that would be otherwise out of the ordinary. In fact, when I actually had this dream it was my second time sleeping in that particular location. Perhaps the fact that it was Midsummer also provided some help in securing the blatantly mythological substance of the dream?
Further more, perhaps this dream is in some fashion actually connected to another series of reoccurring dreams
that I had while traveling. It seemed that whenever Iwould find myself sleeping under the roof of an actual home, one filled with an actual family, I would somehow dream that I had returned to my own home. I would be talking with my mother when I would suddenly realize that somehow I had left Europe early. Where was Finland? Where was Denmark? Why didn’t I see such-and-such? I would ask myself.
Perhaps this means that I do not as yet really know myself. The home, in one fashion or another, is a symbol of one’s self. One sort of grows and becomes there, in that place where his roots have been cast into the earth. Níðhöggr disturbs the home, just as he disturbs the world and the dead. This is similar to my own disturbance at finding myself home before I wished to return. Furthermore, the Goði could be a symbol of some guiding force in my life. The Goði will teach me how to refrain from having a broken home, from becoming a corpse to be molested by the dragon.
Could such dreams have possibly been a warning alerting me to what awaited me on my return? I stepped from the airplane in Portland an adventurer and soon fell into the menial life of a 9 to 5 laborer. I feel more corpselike than ever before. Maybe the Goði is the secret guide to my happiness. Could it be that I must break this mold and begin my search before I too find a tent somewhere on top of my grave? My soul wishes to wander…
Story by G. Peterson.