TO THE CASUAL OBSERVER, it might seem all Norwegians, north of the Arctic Circle, spend entire weekends drinking. Having spent some months in the region I can assure them it’s not all, just the vast majority.
Friday night and the Kaikanten. where Gerner Planting’s grandson had dropped me, started filling up early. A hen party was doing the rounds. The bride-to-be was dressed as an old crone, carrying a bucket for donations for drinks. She and her entourage were knocking cocktails back like crazy. The girl ordering rounds every few minutes, chatted to me each time she came to the bar. She was very friendly. It seems Hammerfest only really wakes up at night in midsummer.
Then the same party with the loud Englishman from the previous night returned, as did the party of French fishermen. They started on the whisky. It seemed it was going to be a long night for everyone.
One Norwegian woman in her 20s seemed determined to get most drunk the quickest. She sat at the bar with an assortment of beers, spirits and cocktails lined up in front her, sipping from each in turn.
A young student started talking to me. He had been studying in Poland. He thought he might go to England to study next, but said that the English girls weren’t very good looking. Obviously not studying to be a diplomat.
As he talked to me, a large, long-haired man joined us. A bit drunk, on discovering I was English, he felt a great need to tell me about the time he spent in Brighton in the 1970s at a language school. It was the first time he heard punk rock. As the student left, the long-haired man’s wife joined us. When she heard I was in Norway to finish a novel I was writing, she invited me to go and live with them and write, adding that she wasn’t just saying it because she was drunk.
I soon realised Solveig and Geggen were exactly like the family I had expected to find in Hammerfest. They were friendly and hospitable. It didn’t matter that they weren’t my real family, they were adopting me. They were better than a real family. They invited me to go with them to another bar when Kaikanten closed. The second bar was just around the corner. Her brother, Øyvind, came with us. and a couple of others. Everybody wanted to talk to me. I spoke to a man who’d been to Australia for a few months, and then to a woman. We danced and drank some more until three in the morning, when it was time for the bar to close.
As we were walking up the street, a drunken German doctor invited us all to his flat with some friends of his. But when we got there, Solveig heard that he had to go to work at the hospital next morning, and thought it best that we didn’t stay. She was right, but then again, in the few hours he had left to sober up, he might as well carry on drinking and forget it. Even then, though we left, most of the others stayed. If only for the sake of his patients, I hope he didn’t make it to the hospital that day.
Solveig insisted that I go back to their house, even though I had my hotel room. We took a taxi. They lived a short distance from the small airport, at the edge of town, on land that used to be part of a farm known as ‘Prairien’, ‘The Prairie’. We talked even further into the morning. Geggen went to bed at around five, while Solveig and I stayed up chatting till after six. Then she showed me a bed in the children’s room, as they were away with her sister. I drifted away under Mickey Mouse sheets, on a Donald Duck pillowcase with my feet sicking out of the end of the bed.
Miraculously, I woke just a couple of hours later, worrying about the hotel room. If I didn’t want to be billed for another night, I had to collect my rucksack and check out before midday. Solveig got up to go to the toilet, as I was about to leave. She gave me their address and telephone number, asking me if I’d made any other plans before repeating her invitation to stay with them.
I walked back into town. It was a grey morning. The sky was grey, the rocks and mountains were grey, the fjord was grey, and I was grey. On the way I photographed a few reindeer chewing up somebody’s garden. Solveig had told me that they are a bit of a pest, as they eat all the flowers. The Samis let them roam free during summer, and it’s against the law for the Norwegians to disturb them.
Getting back to hotel after threequarter of an hour’s walk, I asked what time I had to check out. The girl at reception, obviously noting my state, said that it was normally twelve, but I could stay on for an extra hour or so. I ate breakfast in the restaurant before collapsing into bed.
There followed one of those restless sleeps where I felt I hadn’t had any sleep at all, but must have. Three hours had passed all too swiftly, before someone tried the door. Twenty to one in the afternoon. Time to get up and leave. I showered and shaved. After packing my rucksack, and paying my bill I walked back down into town, having decided not to take advantage Solveig’s kind offer made under the influence. I didn’t want to impose by keeping her to a promise she might think twice about on waking. My trip of a lifetime had turned out to be a bit of a disappointment and I went to catch the next bus out of town.
The weather had changed. Though the sun had come out, a biting Arctic wind blew from the north. Added to that, I’d missed the bus and I’d either have to return to the hotel or phone Solveig to take up her offer of place to sleep for the night. It seemed I’d have to call Solveig. She was still hungover from the night before, and told me she had a headache. She asked me to ring back later. Again there were a few hours to spend in town with little to do but wait.
I sat around the square for much of the afternoon, the chill wind blowing about my ears. Despite the wind, a party of drinkers were already at it in an open-air bar nearby. Some of them were recognisable from the previous evening. Yet another hen party was also on the loose. It was after five when I called Solveig again, and she said she would pick me up from the centre of town at six. There followed one of those interludes that seem a small lifetime. I went to the Kaikanten bar for a beer. Not wanting to repeat the previous night, I spent the rest of the time trying to shelter from the freezing wind behind a bronze statue of a woman and her children in the middle of a fountain surrounded by bushes.
Thankfully, Solveig came to collect me on the dot of six. When we arrived at their house Geggen had just returned from a local football match. He’d had a couple of beers to straighten himself out and was in fine form. Hammerfest were top of the third division that year. The season was halfway through. Having only drawn, Geggen said it had been a bad match. It was the last one for the few weeks the team takes a short summer break.
They asked me if I’d ever tried whale meat, facing me with a difficult decision. Though it’s available in many parts of Norway, I’d never eaten it on principle. Nevertheless, the opportunity to try some proved too great. The whale was dead anyway, and a few steaks were due to be barbecued that evening, whether I ate it or not.
Geggen is a musician. He has recorded a couple of CDs and even played semi-professionally, he was still playing the occasional gig. But it is hard to make money in the music business so far north. The distances between venues are too great, and the audiences too small.
They had two young daughters to support, so he had taken a job with the council repairing roads. The work was very tough in winter. When keeping the roads clear of snow became a twenty-four hour job. The previous winter had been particularly hard, with shifts of up to fourteen hours.
Solveig barbecued the whalemeat on the porch, along with some salmon and other meats. Swallowing my guilt along withe the whalemeat, it tasted like beef. The fresh, wild sea salmon was delicious.
After dinner, we drove out of town to see their little boat, Crazy Horse, moored on Akkerfjord south on the other side of the town. A little, wooden fishing boat built around the 70s, there was a small galley in the wheelhouse, and a cabin big enough for a couple to sleep in. We sat there for a while listening to the radio and chatting. Before we left, Geggen got me to write something in his log book, as was his custom for everyone invited on board.
On the way back, I got my first view of the midnight sun as it slowly rolled across the tops of the hills that overlook Hammerfest.
Before retiring for the night, Geggen said we could go on a fishing trip the next day if the weather was good enough. So they wanted me to stay for yet another day. I had found a real Hammerfest family.
It was midday by the time I woke having slept like a bear. Solveig and Geggen hadn’t been up long. Solveig’s father dropped round. A cheery man in his late 60s, he told us stories about the war, and the fun he and his friends had tricking the Germans as boys.
The wind was still quite strong, so Geggen decided we should wait until evening, when it might drop, before attempting to take the boat out.
We went to the museum in town. It was opened 1998. They were holding a photographic exhibition of the rebuilding of Hammerfest after the war. The Germans had evacuated the whole population of the town and burnt it to the ground in 1944, as they retreated, fearing an imminent invasion by the Russians that never came.
They didn’t want to leave anything. But, for some reason, perhaps out of superstition, the tiny chapel was left standing. Some families managed to bury their belongings underground before the fire. There was even a pair of plush velvet Victorian armchairs on display. But they may have been kept elsewhere, as many townsfolk fled to the mountains and lived in caves for much of the duration. Geggen was particularly taken by a photograph of his father playing in a football match in the early 1950s. He played for Hammerfest. Geggen hadn’t known the photo existed.
On the way back we called into Solveig’s father’s house to pick up some potatoes. They lived right by the fjord in the town. We drank coffee and had some homemade biscuits Solveig’s mother had just baked.
You can see Geggen and Solveig’s house in this video:
After a dinner of reindeer meat back the house, we watched the Euro 2000 final between France and Italy. Øyvind came over. Italy scored, and it looked as though they were going to win until France equalised in the closing minute. The match went into extra time, when France scored and won to become European Champions.
Afterwards, we went back to the boat again. As a cold, blustery wind blew, Geggen didn’t want to risk taking it out. The mooring he has is too narrow to manouvre around comfortably. When the wind comes from the wrong direction, it’s all too easy to get blown onto shore, or into boats moored nearby. It was plain he was eager to show how his little boat fared in the water, but we had to settle for driving us over to Fosøl, the small village, where they used to swim in the fjord when they were children.
With the cold, grey weather, the barren, treeless landscape looked extremely uninviting. It was hard to imagine anybody being so foolhardy as to enter the water from the tiny pebbly beach, but they assured me that on sunny days it was perfect.
Geggen was determined to take me fishing, saying we would try again tomorrow, after he came back from work. That meant another day in Hammerfest. We sat up chatting until one, talking, long after Solveig had gone to bed.
With Geggen off to work early, Solveig and I had breakfast, then chatted in the kitchen for a couple of hours. She has two sisters and two brothers. Her eldest sister lives in Denmark, and her youngest sister lives with their parents in Hammerfest. One of her brothers lives in Oslo, where he teaches in a primary school. Her father was married twice. He used to sail a small ship taking goods from port to port in the north until the trade ceased. Now, he fishes for a living.
Geggen came back from work at around two. We relaxed for a while before dinner, and then drove out to Akkerfjord again. There was hardly any wind this time, but it was spitting with rain. Added to that, Crazy Horse refused to start so he sent Solveig off to fetch her father, who is familiar with engines.
In the way these things work, the engine fired up, and the drizzle ceased, almost as soon as she’d gone, and continued idling away contentedly. We listened to the radio as we waited for her to return.
I heard Robert Plant’s distinctive voice coming over the airwaves. He was being interviewed about his Norwegian tour. He seemed pissed off when the interviewer kept asking about Led Zeppelin when he only wanted to plug his new band, The Brian Priory. He kept repeating he didn’t know why he was doing the interview. I almost felt the need to apologise to Geggen for the rude bastard.
Solveig returned, and we set out into the fjord. Pausing nearer the other side, she cast a line over the side. It wasn’t long before she had a bite. A codling. Normally, they are let free, but we kept this one, just in case we didn’t catch anything else. Next, Geggen landed a bigger one. Gulls began to draw closer to the boat in the hope of a few scraps. A third small fish was landed. Then I tried my hand. I got a bite almost immediately. This fish was also small. Solveig asked me if I wanted to keep it, I thought it best to throw it back. But when we saw it was already dead, it seemed even worse not to keep it.
The fjord was quiet and still, the only noise the thrum of the diesel engine. More gulls joined the one or two that had first arrived. Solveig gutted the fish and threw the entrails overboard. The gulls squabbled among themselves over the scraps while most sank beneath the waves.
It was getting late and Geggen had to go to work in the morning so we set course back to the mooring. A weak, yellow sun lit some far off, snowy mountain peaks. The wind had dropped completely, and the rain had ceased. A few porpoises ‘nisse’, played near the shore. Green mountains sloped into the fjord, and some gulls circled above; thin, grey clouds shifted slowly across the sky. All was beautiful and still.
It was almost midnight when we returned to the house. Solveig boiled up the fish we’d caught, which we ate with melted butter, bread and potatoes before going to bed. Geggen was pleased that he’d managed to take me fishing and we’d caught enough for a handsome supper.
Geggen was at a language school in Brighton in 1978 and 79. It was on a trip to London that he heard Sham ’69. It was to change his life. From then on he became interested in Punk. He listened to The Sex Pistols and The Clash. He bought a guitar and started his own punk band in Norway. It was the sheer rawness of punk that obsessed him, and the urban themes of the lyrics. Here was a form of expression he couldn’t hear in Norway, and even less in Hammerfest. But in this predominately rural part of Norway, so far away from the big cities, he found himself playing to mixed audiences that often included old ladies, complaining that he sounded nothing like Elvis Presley.
He still plays from time to time, but more in the style of Neil Young these days. He wasn’t prepared to make the usual compromise of writing songs in English, so his work had little appeal to those who craved C&W or cover versions of standards. Writing his own songs, he’d recorded a CD at a festival in the north of Norway earlier that year. Though his gravelly voice is more comparable to Joe Cocker, in his guitar and harmonica playing are echoes of the Neil Young who inspired him.
Solveig and I went to the library next day to meet Per Arnesen. Per Arnesen is one of those men, who seems to have grown a beard purely in order to let it muffle his voice. He spoke from somewhere deep in his chest without moving his lips. Add to this a heavy northern Norwegian accent, made it nearly impossible for me to understand him. He worked for the council, and in his spare time was a leading member of The Hammerfest Historical Society. They collect as much information about Hammerfest and Finnmark as they can. He was preparing an exhibition for the August Arctic Sail, when a small fleet of old sailing ships would sail to northern Norway and Hammerfest.
The society has a room on the third floor of the library. There were piles of paper and photographs everywhere as he prepared for the exhibition. He talked with long gaps between sentences when I was never quite sure whether his part of the conversation was finished or not. We met him shortly after midday. He spoke about the Plantings. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to bring the papers he’d promised, but said he would call into Solveig’s house in the evening.
Solveig and I went to Kaikanten for a coffee afterwards. There we ran into a friend of Solveig’s, who now lives in Oslo, but was up on a visit, and another friend who lives in Hammerfest.
I spoke to the friend from Hammerfest. A social worker working in a meeting house for people of the area, she told me there were many Tamils in the town, who moved from Sri Lanka to Norway as refugees from the civil war in the early 1970s . They ended up in Hammerfest in search of work. They have integrated well, she said.
The town was founded on immigration. During the 19thC immigrants came from Sweden, Russia, and Finland having been encouraged to move there. Nomadic Samis had lived in the area for thousands of years. Some began to settle in the town as it grew.
But all nationalities were finding it difficult to accept the newest wave of immigrants, particularly those from Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. They wanted the Kosovars to return to Kosovo, as their stay was supposed to be temporary. She told me the Norwegian government had given them 15,000 kroner apiece for their journey home to make a new start. Many spent the money on other things. It isn’t surprising they want to stay, as the Norwegian welfare system is extremely generous.
The locals saw them as being responsible for a rise in crime. Particularly surprising for me, was that the Tamils were just as eager to see them go home, as they felt they gave all immigrants a bad name.
As her boyfriend was a policeman, I asked her if there were any problems with drugs in Hammerfest. She told me there were many junkies in the town, far more than one might expect in such a small place. Her boyfriend said the former Yugoslavians were responsible for introducing heroin into the town.
Solveig and I left to meet Geggen at the council depot down by the fjord. Though he works all over town, he finishes up there. We went back to the house.
As it was my final night, Geggen insisted on taking me for a meal at Odd’s, the local Norwegian restaurant, where we ate fish soup. It was delicious. Afterwards, we went back to the house to wait for Per Arnesen to arrive.
Solveig had wanted to go to the cinema to see a film made in Svalbard, but Per didn’t arrive until we were just about to leave. He’d brought some papers with him outlining the history of the Plantings since they moved to Hammerfest in the middle of the 19C.
From them I learned my great grandfather was a carpenter in the town. I was pleased to discover he was a very active Socialist, who did a lot of work for the poor, and was much appreciated by the local population.
Apart from that, Per Arnesen had little information on the rest of the family. I was able to give him far more details about the Plantings, and their families in Oslo and England, which he noted down.
Then Geggen told him about his father’s collection of photographs dating from before the war. Per became much more animated. He was a keen supporter of the local football club and his son was one of the team’s players. He told us the historical society had already been bequested 40,000 photographs from one person alone.
Solveig had to go to the hospital shortly after he left, after getting a phone call that her father had been involved in a car accident. His car and trailer had spun out of control, and left the road, while on his way to their cabin. He’d injured his back quite severely. Luckily, a woman driving in the opposite direction had stopped to help. She managed to get him up to the cabin, and called an ambulance. He was taken to hospital. It looked as though he’d have to stay on his back for several months.
Geggen and I waited for her to return. He told me some amusing stories about when he was young, and about his work,, but then he had to go to bed as he was so tired. I went shortly afterwards. It was midnight and Solveig hadn’t returned.
After a night of strange and wonderful dreams, I woke at 7-30, just as Geggen was leaving for work. There was a rainy mist on the prairie. I got up, had a shower, and started to prepare to leave. I’d decided that the best way to get to the Lofoten Islands would be to take the Hurtigruten, the coastal ship. Taking into consideration the price of accommodation, it amounted to virtually the same. The Hurtigruten was just over 1,500 kroner including a cabin.
Solveig was up shortly after 9-30. As Geggen was working repairing fences just down the road, he came back to join us for breakfast. Solveig complained a doctor at the hospital had asked her 170 kroner last night. Although she paid him, she didn’t think it right. Apart from the fact he’d have be insured against such accidents, hospital treatment is supposed to be free in Norway. I felt a bit guilty leaving my new family at such a time, but couldn’t impose on their hospitality any longer.
After breakfast, it was time to go. I finished packing, and said goodbye to Geggen, who had to return to work. Both he and Solveig made my stay in Hammerfest one to remember.
So it hadn’t been my Hammerfest family taking me in, and looking after me, but two ordinary, working class people. I think my socialist great-grandfather would’ve been rather proud of that.
It was misty and raining outside, as Solveig drove me down to the quayside for the Hurtigruten. We took our farewells, and then she stood at the quayside for a final wave, before going to visit her father in hospital.
As I boarded it was hard to believe I’d visited the the last town between Norway and the North Pole at last. The place I’d wanted to visit for most of my life.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming click here for: From Hammerfest to the Lofoten Islands by sea →