DESCRIBING HAMMERFEST as the loneliest town on the planet, in Neither here nor There, Bill Bryson writes he spent most of his time holed up in a hotel room reading books. He was waiting for the clouds to clear so he could see the Northen Lights.
Strangely enough, it’s not so very rare to see the Northern Lights on late summer nights in Norway. And even as far south as Oslo, when conditions are right. One August in 1966 I saw them from Ekeberg camping site that overlooks the city.
The suspension bridge leading to the island of Kvaløya, on which Hammerfest stands, was heavily shrouded in mists the day our bus crossed it.
Apart from Kvaløya, Sørøya and Seiland are the two other islands that make up, until relatively recently, was the world’s northernmost town. Hammerfest, the name tattooed on thousands of white supremicist skinheads’ torsos throughout the U.S. has become associated with neo-nazi, rock hate festivals in America. These fascists probably have no idea the city from where the name originate exists, let alone know where it is. Its inhabitants hated the Nazis for their WW2 occupation, and even more for burning it to the ground as they abandoned to impede a Russian advance. Several generations of my Norwegian family hails from Hammerfest. My great grandfather helped build it. There is a museum showing how the Nazis destroyed at after ordering the citizens to leave.
A young, skinny, teenage newspaper delivery boy at the beginning one of great grandson’s descendents, my uncle, was living in Oslo when war broke out. Remi Planting, was the young son of Remi Anton Julius Planting of Hammerfest, who had travelled south to seek his fortune. Despite his youth, my uncle played a role in the Norwegian resistance. Whatever the skinheads of San Quentin State Prison would like to believe, Hammerfest actually means a large rock or stone good for mooring boats. More stonehead than skinhead. Rather fitting really.
On the outskirts of the town I was intrigued by a sign advertising ‘Food souvenirs’.What on earth could food souvenirs consist of?, Bags of crumbs? A dollop of gravy splashed on your trousers for a couple of kroner?
At half past six, one dull, grey afternoon, bus dropped most of its passengers off at the town’s centre, including me. You can’t get much farther north in Europe, just Nordkapp (North Cape) a little over fifty miles away. After that, there’s nothing between mainland Europe and the North Pole.
All signs of the German occupation, and subsequent destruction, had evaporated over the following decades, as reconstruction took place. Brightly-painted wooden houses hugged a mountainside that sloped gently down into the winding fjord. The only thing the Germans had left standing was the small Hauen Chapel, and that is still there, as much a monument as anything.
It felt like a wet, winter Sunday afternoon in England. I soon learned, every day can feel a bit like Sunday afternoon in Hammerfest. To someone used to London, the town can appear closed most of the time. But appearances can be deceptive
A few Middle Eastern refugees were hanging around a takeaway kebab shop in the market place by the quay. I asked a Norwegian woman if she knew of a cheap bed and breakfast or hostel. She advised me to ask at a nearby cab office.
A taxi driver stung me for fifty-three kroner to drive me acouple of kilometres to a hotel. I asked if he had heard of the Planting family. He said he had, but nothing more. As we pulled up to the hotel a coach was disgorging a party of Germans. Another, more friendly, invasion.
Somehow, I’d got it into my head everyone would know the Plantings in Hammerfest. After all, it’s exactly not a common name in Norway, and the town has no more than ten thousand inhabitants. I’d pictured them clasping me in a bear hug before insisting we had a beer together. If I’d expected a welcoming party, I might as well have been sent to set up an Arctic branch of the mafia, for the reception I was receiving.
Never mind, at last I was in the town I tried so hard to imagine as a child. Literally on top the world. But not metaphorically. I was tired and needed to fnd somewhere to stay for a few days that wasn’t an expensive hotel. Though its wasn’t the boring, isolated outpost Bill Bryson describes, neither was it the welcoming little town my childhood dream had promised it would be.
And it’s not cheap. Five hundred and fifty kroner for a single room at the hotel I was dropped off at. But they were nice enough in reception, and I was too travel weary to look further. Besides, it didn’t look as if there were too many places to stay. I asked the young man and woman at the desk whether they knew the Planting family. The man tells me he knew a woman of that name when he worked at the tourist office. He was very helpful, and brought out a telephone directory. There were eleven entries under the name Planting. He photocopied them, and showed me on a map the street where the woman he knew lived. I was now so close a shiver ran down my spine.
After dumping my rucksack in my room, I went into the hotel lounge to watch the second half of the European Cup match between Italy and Holland. There were three other people watching, two men and a woman. The woman was only pretending to watch. For her husband’s sake. Most of the match she flipped through a magazine aimlessly. He was too busy to notice. The Dutch outplayed the Italians completely, but they couldn’t get the ball in the net. It went into extra time. Again, the Dutch forged into the Italian half, and again, and again, each attack terminating in frustration. With no score when the final whistle blew, the result would depend on a penalty shoot-out. After so many disappointments, it was almost inevitable Netherlands would lose. The team’s fate was sealed the moment the Dutch captain failed to get the first ball past the Italian goalkeeper. That’s soccer for you, and that’s why it disappoints so often.
I walked into town to get something to eat. It wouldn’t be easy; there didn’t appear to be any bars or restaurants. I found one open that was virtually empty.
The Kaikanten had a very unexciting menu. Stuff with chips in the main. Hamburger and chips seem reasonably priced, so I ordered it with a beer. While waiting for my meal, I called my sister back in England on my mobile. I suddenly realised I wasn’t even sure of my grandfather’s full name. I’d never met him. She wasn’t quite sure either. We settled for Remi Anton Julius Planting. With a regal name like that it sounded like he should’ve owned the place
The hamburger was rather floury, but I was famished; the chips were fine. At the bar I asked the barmaid if she knew of the Planting family. She said that two Planting families were living in the town, delivering her answer as though she got asked the same question all the time. I pictured Plantings from all over the world coming in search of their roots. It goes with the name. Perhaps the Plantings of Hammerfest were fed up with entertaining hordes of foreign relatives turning up on their doorsteps unannounced, expecting to be treated like prodigal sons and daughters.
Hanging round for a few more beers. I took to observing my fellow drinkers as the place began to fill, A mixture of tourists, locals and foreign oil workers by the look of them, it seemed a popular haunt.
Things livened up around ten o’clock, as a mixed party of nine loud English, German and Norwegians came in. Three were women, the rest men.
One Englishmen turned out to be the loudest, regaling everyone with his public schoolboy sense of humour. It was difficult not to overhear the time a colleague put a G-string over his shoulder in some hotel without him knowing, and how he walked around for an hour without noticing. His drinking companions howled so much I judged him to be their boss. He went on to tell them about poor man who’d finished his drink just as his ferry was about to leave, when his colleagues forced him to have another just so he’d miss it. They laughed so much at that one, he had to be the CEO for the whole of Europe. It was hard to know whether they thought his stories were actually funny, or if they were in fear of losing their jobs.
A small party Frenchmen came in next. They hailed another Frenchman sitting at a table. To me, they looked like fishermen. By that time I knew I should leave. A little the worse for wear, I wobbled my way back to the hotel, which seemed to have been moved in my absence, along with some of the houses. The beer in Hammerfest was stronger than I’d thought. I wasn’t quite lost, but neither did I know quite where I was. A raging stream appeared where there was no stream before. Eventually, I realised I’d missed the turning. Retracing my tracks, I soon found the right street. Hammerfest isn’t really big enough to get lost in. By the time I reached the hotel it was midnight but light as day. It was those frustrating childhood midsummer evenings, when bedtime comes while it’s still light outside .
Next day, I woke brave enough to meet the Plantings. Well, just a couple of them, to start off with. I wasn’t going to do the whole tribe in one sitting. Despite achieving a trip I’d looked forward to since learning of my ancestry since boyhood, I was no longer sure wanted to meet even one of them. Yet, having waited a lifetime, and coming so far, I knew I’d have to go through with it.
On the way down to town, a small boy with a crewcut attacked t me with a water pistol almost a big as he was. I could hardly stop him from drenching me.
Before attempting to arrange a meeting I went to the library to see if I could find any information on the family. The librarian brought me a couple of volumes on the town’s history. My grandfather was mentioned in one of them as being head boy of the local school. He even worked there as an apprentice teacher.
It was enough to spur me on to taking the plunge. In a phone booth near the library I dialled the first number from the list of eleven I’d been given at the hotel. It was busy. I tried the second. No answer. The third belonged to a Gerner Planting. A woman picked up the phone. After explaining who I was in faltering Norwegian, she told me her husband was the son of my mother’s Uncle Lorentz. She fetched him. We exchanged a few words, before he invited to their house after dinner, which was virtually just round the corner. Everything is in Hammerfest. Though dinner in Norway is traditionally eaten around five in the afternoon, I still had quite a few hours to fill.
I took a path leading up the small mountain behind the town. According to a sign the path was laid by the citizens of Hammerfest in 1893. My grandfather would’ve been born somewhere about that time. He probably walked the same way many times. From the summit, the distinctive hump-backed mountain, which appears in many postcards, dominates the centre of the fjord stretching out to distant mountains. A large cruise ship was anchored a little way from the harbour. A pair of lighters ferried passengers to and fro. Another cruise ship was moored at a quay, The Adriana. The same ship had been moored in Tromsø a couple of days before.
The familiar buzzing and clicking, and flashing of cameras reminded me I was not alone. I climb back down and go into the famed ‘Isbjørnklubben’, ‘The Polar Bear Club’. It’s a small museum of stuffed animals and photographs of Hammerfest from the 19th century. I looked for photographs of members of the Planting family, among those of sea captains, and leaders of expeditions to the Arctic, but there weren’t any. Obviously they weren’t fond of the salty life.
With plenty of time still on my hands I went back to the hotel for a shower. The little boy who had squirted me earlier was being wheeled about in a pushchair by his friends. Upon seeing me he shouted, ‘I squirted him! I squirted him!’
On my return, he and a friend were lying in ambush. I managed to persuade them not to give me another soaking.
With still more time on my hands, I decided to fortify myself with Dutch courage and had a beer. It was just after 6-30 when I arrived at the house, opposite the post office. I rang the doorbell, a young man poked his head from an upstairs window before coming downstairs to open the door. He was a grandson of my mother’s cousin, Harley.
Gerner Planting was eighty-one years old. He apologised for not getting up from his chair, as he suffered a bad back. His wife sat on a sofa. Though they greeted me like I was a long-lost cousin, I got the impression they were a little suspicious, which set me wondering if they suspected I might have an ulterior motive for making the long journey north. Gerner seemed unable to get his head round the fact we were related. When I told him my mother’s name was Aasta Planting, he told me there was an Aasta Planting in the U.S., which I already knew. He appeared to have forgotten he had a cousin in England. Though they’d never met, his father was my mother’s uncle. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected.
Gradually, he began to realise that I was one of the ‘other Plantings’, the grandson of Remi Anton Planting, brother to his father, Karl. His wife seemed to know more about the family than he did. He told me that his brother Harley, another uncle of my mother, knew all the details of the family. Harley was on holiday in his cabin some miles out of town. Still, it didn’ t really seem to click with Gerner that I was his cousin Aasta’s son.
As he relaxed a little, he said I looked a typical Planting. His grandson also relaxed and they both began chatting more freely. Remi was a common family name. One had been an alcoholic, whose drinking rotted his brain so much that it became like a seven year old child’s. He was buried in the local churchyard. They had thought I might be a grandson of his that nobody knew about. That might’ve been the reason for their suspicions. They could’ve suspected I was there to collect my share of whatever had been going at the time of his demise. And, by the look of their humble home, if anything had ever been going, it was long gone. But I wanted them to think I was one of the good Plantings, Admittedly, a couple of bottles of pilsener chased down with akvavit might’ve helped. But, if they did have any on the premises, it was obvious they didn’t trust me enough to give me even a tiny glass. Just in case.
Keeping the conversation going became like wading through a freshly ploughed field following a heavy shower. I was a complete stranger, a foreigner from somewhere across the sea, claiming to be a member of the family. We were supposed to be kin, but had none of the feelings for each other we felt families should have. We were trying to talk ourselves into a relationship that didn’t exist, except on paper. Gerner Planting had never met my mother, or any of his other cousins in Oslo. He’d heard of them, and heard of the untimely death of my Aunt Else in 1937, only he thought that it was Aunt Gerd that had died. To liven things up a bit, the grandson dropped in that he’d been to Calgary the year before, and had thought of settling there, the people were so friendly. He’d probably been waiting to find a point in the conversation to tell me for ages, but as one didn’t come, thought he’d drop it before I left.
After that, it proved impossible to keep the conversation from dying completely. I could no longer keep up the pretence that these people meant anything to me at all. This old man looked like any old man you don’t know from anywhere you haven’t been before. I’m sure he wanted to feel something for me, as I did for him, but it wasn’t there. He told me there would’ve been a party if I’d come when more of the family were in town. But I think we both knew that it wasn’t true. He’d already let slip the only partying member of the family had died years ago with the brain of a seven year old.
A loud bell started ringing. I almost jumped out of my skin. It came from one of those old bakelite telephones phones you see in old, private eye, black and white films. The ones that only ring when people are dead or about to die. A relation who’d moved down south was calling from Oslo, Tore Planting. Gerner’s wife spoke to him. She told me that he’d like me to look him up when I was next in Oslo. I nodded and made a mental note not to. I wasn’t provided with an address or phone number, and didn’t ask for a pen and paper.
It was beginning to seem like I’d been in the room almost a week, when I took my goodbyes, saying I might be back. But we all knew it was unlikely. The grandson left at the same time I did. Though it was a short walk, he gave me a lift to the Kaikanten bar around the corner. I needed drink. Out of the apartment he loosened up more and seemed excited to find he had relations in England. Over twenty years living in Hammerfest and nobody had thought to tell him.My mother had always told me the family were very rich and looked up to in the town. The older I got, the less I believed her stories. Now the truth was definitely out. He told me he worked as a bus and lorry mechanic in a local depot. They were just ordinary people like we were.
My mother had always told me the family were very rich and looked up to in the town. The older I got, the less I believed her stories. Now the truth was definitely out. He told me he worked as a bus and lorry mechanic in a local depot. They were just ordinary people like we were. We took our goodbyes from each other without even exchanging details. We knew we’d never see each other ever again.
My pilgrimage of a lifetime had achieved little or nothing. The dream I’d harboured for half a century, of being welcomed back into the bosom of the family with open arms was just that, a dream. And a dream it would remain. It wasn’t that they, or I, didn’t want to feel like family, we just didn’t feel like family.
From the bar I tried to ring my ageing mother to tell her I’d seen her cousin. At least she would be excited. She, and all her stories, were half the reason I had travelled to the northeren edge of the world. The answerphone was on. After a couple of beers I tried again. This time she picked up, probably expecting the call by then. She asked me a couple of questions about the family, admitting she didn’t actually know who was alive and who was dead. Her sister, Gerd, had told her they’d all passed away years ago. You could’ve told me before I set off, Mum. She didn’t seem very impressed to hear I was speaking to her all the way from beyond the Arctic Circle. I could’ve been phoning from the local supermarket, wondering if she wanted me to bring anything back for her.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming click for next installment: Solveig, Geggen and Crazy Horse →