DESCRIBING HAMMERFEST as the lonliest town on the planet, in Neither here nor There, Bill Bryson goes on to say he spent most of a fortnight in a hotel room reading books 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. I once saw them from Ekeberg camping site in August.
The suspension bridge leading to the island of Kvaløya on which Hammerfest stands was heavily shrouded in mists, the day our bus crossed it. We could’ve be mounting Robert Plant’s Stairway to Heaven (see Planting Roots in Hammerfest – Part One).
Apart from Kvaløya, Sørøya, and Seiland form the municipality of Hammerfest. Hammerfest, the name tattooed on thousands of white supremicist skinheads’ torsos throughout the US and beyond, has also become associated with neo-nazi heavy rock hate festivals in America. The followers probably have no idea the most northern town in Europe, carrying the name, even 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 abondoned it, purportedly to impede a Russian advance. My great grandfather helped build a lot of those houses.
A young, skinny, teenage newspaper delivery boy at the beginning of the war, his grandson, my uncle, was living in Oslo at the time. Remi Planting, was the young son of Remi Anton Julius Planting of Hammerfest. Despite his youth he helped the Norwegian underground 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?
By the year I reach the centre, all signs of the occupation and subsequent destruction had vanished over the decades, as if they had never been. Brightly-painted wooden houses hug the low mountainside sloping 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.
The bus dropped us off in the town centre at half past six. It felt like a wet, winter Sunday afternoon in Llanelli in Wales. But I soon learn, every day can feel a bit like Sunday afternoon in Hammerfest. The town appears closed most of the time.
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.
I had got it into my head everybody 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 had pictured them clasping me in a bear hug and insisting on having a beer with me. But I might have as well have said I’d come 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 chidhood had promised it would be.
And it’s not cheap. Five hundred and fifty kroner for a single room. 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, it seemed. Most of the match she flipped through a magazine while he wasn’t watching her. The Dutch outplayed the Italians completely, but they couldn’t get the ball in the net. The game went into extra time. The Dutch forged into the Italian half, again and again, but each attack was frustrated. Finally the match was decided on a penalty shoot-out. I could see the match was lost when the Dutch captain failed to get the first ball past the Italian goalkeeper. That’s soccer for you, and why it disapponts so often.
I walked into town to get something to eat. There didn’t appear to be many 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 suddenly imagined Plantings from all over the world coming in search of our family. Perhaps the Plantings of Hammerfest were fed up with entertaining hordes of foreigners turning up on their doorsteps unannounced, expecting to be treated like Prodigal sons and daughters.
I stayed for a few more beers. As the Kaikanten gradually began to fill, I took to observing my fellow drinkers. 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 of the Englishmen was 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 without noticing it for an hour. His companions howled so much I surmised he must be the 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 split their sides laughing so much, he must’ve been the CEO for all of Europe. I couldn’t be sure whether they thought his stories were actually funny, or if they were hysterical for fear of losing their jobs.
A small party Frenchmen came in next to hail another Frenchman sitting at a table. They looked like fishermen. It was time for me to leave. A liitle 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. Or perhaps 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. Upon turning back 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’s like going back to childhood summers 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. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to meet any of them anymore. 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 trying to arrange any meeting I went to the library to see if I could find anything on the Planting 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 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 fetches him. We exchanged a few words of Norwegian, before he invited me to go round to their house after dinner. It was very near. Though dinner in Norway is traditionally eaten around five in the afternoon, I still had quite a few hours to fill.
I walked 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 that 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 was 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.
Still there was time on my hands, so I decided to fortify myself with some Dutch courage and had a beer. It was just after 6-30 when I arrived at the house, opposite the post office. Upon ringing 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, and wondered if I had an ulterior motive for making the long journey from England. 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 US, which I already knew. He appeared to have forgotten he had a cousin in England. 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, was the one who remembered all the details of the family, but he was on holiday in his cabin some miles out of town. Still, it didn’ t really seem to click that I was his cousin Aasta’s son.
As he relaxed a little, he said I looked like 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 walking through a recently ploughed field after a heavy shower. There I was, a complete stranger to them, 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 who 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 mention it anyway.
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.
An old fashioned telephone rang. I almost jumped out of my skin. It looked like one of those phones in black and white films from the 1950s. The ones that only ring when people 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 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 →