The best hostel in the world – part three


Click onto map for map of Lofotens

SEASIDE DRIZZLE IS A FEATURE of Britain you get used to from early childhood. No holiday by the sea would be quite complete without it. “Didn’t rain the whole fortnight we were there,” is often said with an air of slight disappointment by many a returning holidaymaker. Being forced to play knockout whist in sopping tents for days on end, and to swim through freezing, choppy, waves in driving rain, may sound like sadism and child abuse to most people, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Strengthens your character, beastly British parents inform their snivelling and shivering offspring. Norwegian parents may be kinder, but weatherwise, summers in Norway aren’t so different.

The drizzly morning Eva and Datian set of home left me a day to laze round the best hostel in the world doing absolutely nothing. Raining outside, so what could be better than hanging about dry as a bone? A chance to get to know more people. A chance to lounge, to sprawl, to linger at ease. A leisurely breakfast followed by a quick peek outside to see how damp things were getting. With no parents around to make sure I got a good soaking I could wallow in the luxury of dryness without guilt, despite knowing it showed a lack of backbone, and was morally wrong.

Most of the other residents seemed to be of a similar mind. I can’t recall anyone tearing off all their clothes and rushing out to dive off the quay. The Germans definitely didn’t seem anxious to venture beyond the front door. They hung around joking they’d travelled all the way to the far north of Norway to get away from Germans, only to find it full of Germans with the same idea. They were a pleasant bunch and laughed a lot. One spoke particularly good English.

Edgar told me he wouldn’t be going anywhere else for three weeks. He loved the place as somewhere he could fish, sit around and meet travellers from the world over without having to travel over the world. A postman from a town near Essen, he goes to Stamsund each summer to relax in the clean fresh air, weather permitting. His hobbies were sketching and chewing the fat with other visitors he met from time to time. His favourite spot was the bench by a table where he could lean his back against the wall of the hostel. He told me he was trying to get his flight changed so that he could spend another week of doing just that.

Relaxing is an art form I pefected as a schoolboy by staring blanky out of windows streaming rain, breathing steamy breath on them when I should’ve been doing my homework, so I’m a bit of an expert on the subject. Yet, In need of at least some physical exercise by afternoon, I played dice with a couple of Germans, a young American and a Frenchman. Needless to say, I lost.

But even I can suffer from an over-abundance of indolence. My limit reached by evening, I cooked pasta and a vegetarian sauce for Mark, the Australian and I, as a change from the fish I was up to the gills with. He’d braved the drizzle to go across to the other house, talking to group of Norwegians who’d come up from Bergen for a wedding the day previously. They had a Coca-Cola bottle filled with home-brewed mead, which they let him sample. Due to prohibitive prices, for those in the know, Illicit hooch is available all over Norway.

Rashida, Corrine and Ann-Sophie, the three young French women who’d arrived the night before, returned a little later to brighten our day. Having spent the day driving round the islands they’d a lot to talk about. They’d hired a car as soon as they arrived in Norway with the intention of travelling the entire length of the country. At 1,752 km (1,089 miles) it’s the longest nation in Europe. Sort of nice being longest at something. I used to be the longest at parties; the first to arrive and the last to leave.

We sat at the refectory table, Mark and I listening to them bubble away excitedly with their tales of their journey so far. They’d known each other a few years having studied chemistry at university together.

Rashida spoke the best English. Her family were Gujaratis from Madagascar. Ann-Sophie had been brought up on a farm. Corrine was the quieter of the trio.

On the way north they’d become fans of Knut Hamsun by amusing themselves reading to one another from a volume of his poems. They hadn’t realised he was a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, born and raised not so far away from where we were at that moment, and were excited to learn he may have worked at a store in Svolvær, the port where they’d arrived  on the islands.

For them, Hamsun’s descriptions of the ever-changing Norwegian landscapes were perfect. Before coming to Norway, they’d never heard of him, but having discovered him they wanted to know more. I told them about some of the books he’d written, and a little bit about his life. Soon, we were joined by a French-speaking Canadian from Quebec, Isabel, and the conversation became sort of Frenglish.

Mark and I were sheltering from the drizzle on the porch having a smoke when Ann-Sophie came out to join us. Stubbing out his cigarette, Mark went back inside.

As we chatted, she told me she worked in a pharmacy in Paris, her green-blue eyes sparkling, as she laughed at my stupid jokes.

By the time we got back Mark had offered to take the four of them out fishing next morning. Ann-Sophie asked me if I’d be going, I nodded I would, and we arranged to start at nine.

An early riser, and even earlier with the light northern nights, I was out of my bunk at six-thirty. Careful not to wake all those snoring around me, I crept outside where I could watch the rest of my little world rise. The weather had changed again. A beautiful morning with no wind, perfect for fishing with the inexperienced.

Sitting alone, watching the seagulls swoop and scream, gave me time to mull over my options. The best hostel in the world might be fine for those wanting to meet people and mix, and I’d enjoyed my stay, but I wanted to write and needed somewhere away from distractions. Mark had told me about an abandoned fishing village called Nyksund, on Langøyna. He was going up to take a look at it the next day. I’d ask if he minded me tagging along. Though he was only going for a couple of days, I was hoping to stay a lot longer. It sounded exactly the place I’d been looking for.

By the time the rest of the fishing party was up it was half past eight. Mark told me he and the girls had slept in the same dormitory. Just before they were going to bed, they started to take photos of one another. Mark had tried to sneak a couple of shots for himself, but Rashida caught him and objected. I wasn’t at all surprised. He apologised, and told her it didn’t matter as his camera had run out of film. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but said nothing. If he wasn’t careful, things would start to sour with the girls. They were still quite young in many ways.

It was after ten by the time we got some fishing gear from Roar and boarded a boat. Soon I was rowing us out of the harbour. The weather changed yet again. By the time we were in Vestfjord, it’d begun spotting rain.

Lively company, a bit of rain wasn’t going to put the girls off, and they laughed and joked all along the way. Travelling so far cooped up in a car together, they’d have to get on well. Nevertheless, they were probably glad of bit of fresh company from time to time.

After a while of watching me, Ann-Sophie wanted to try her hand at rowing, as she’d never done it before. She was a fast learner, and soon managed the art of ploughing through the small waves reasonably well.

Even though it had yielded so many fish, Mark and I decided to try a different spot to the one we’d been to with Eva and Datian a couple of days previously.

Most amateur fishing done in this part of the world is done simply by dangling hook, sinker and line over the side of the boat. Usually the fish start to bite quite quckly. Ann-Sophie and I disentangled a line the previous thoughtless user couldn’t be bothered with. It’s not the way to do things when sharing, you untangle your own messes. She was very patient even though it took quite some time.

The first spot wasn’t at all fruitful. Rashida an Ann-Sophie did catch two fish but they were too small, so we threw them back.

I was plain we should row to the point near a rocky outcrop where we’d caught so many fish a couple of days earlier. Mark and I let the girls do all the fishing, as they’d never done it before. In no time at all Rashida had caught her first fish worth keeping. Isabel and Ann-Sophie soon followed. Corrine didn’t have any luck at all. It obviously wasn’t her thing. Most of the time she was in her own world, and probably didn’t want to catch anything. It might’ve had something to do with me telling them if they wanted to catch fish they’d also have to remove the hooks from their mouths and kill them. Ann-Sophie was a natural. Having been brought up on a farm she must’ve learned early not to be squeamish. Not only was she catching more fish then anyone else, but had quickly mastered the art of working the hook out of the fishes mouths without tearing them. The other girls quickly followed her lead.

There was fun and laughter all along the way. I tried to practice my school French, only to find flattery can get get some people somewhere. Ann-Sophie said she loved my English accent, calling it “trés chic”. Of course, that was enough to get me going, with Mark trying his limited French too. But he didn’t get the same reaction. Though not openly hostile, I got the impression they hadn’t completely forgotten the incident with the camera. Obviously, Mark remained completely unaware of his little mistake.

Soon, we had more than enough fish and it was time to row back. Rashida, Ann-Sophie, Corrine and Mark took an oar each with me acting as coxswain. It was a funny experience. None of them could row in rhythm, so we snaked our way very slowly back to the harbour, first this way, and then that, almost going in complete circles a couple of times. Mark complained the girls weren’t keeping up with him. In truth, he was just as bad as the rest, too busy watching the others and telling them what to do to concentrate on what he should be doing himself. I didn’t mind, far from giving instructions, I was laughing so much I almost fell out of the boat.

The closer we got to the harbour, the more hostellers gathered on the quay to watch our eccentric progress. They were obviously keen to see if we could manouvre the boat without hitting anything. Probably even willing we would. Just to make sure we didn’t, I took over for the last few yards.

As soon as we unloaded the fish, the girls set to, learning to gut and fillet them after Mark and I showed them how. I was really impressed with their keenness. Especially when considering how big some of the fish were and how much blood and guts they contained. Mark began to display a little irritation at the way the girls couldn’t understand him some of the time. He was speaking too fast, and seemed to forget they had to pay attention to what they were doing, as fish knives are very sharp.

Isabel got a pan of fat warming, while I fetched my eggs from the fridge to make batter with the flour someone produced. Finally, after the rice was cooked, and the fish were fried, the feast was ready. Being French, the girls suggested all that was missing was a bottle of wine. But with Norway’s strict policy on alcohol that proved impossible. The nearest Vinmonoplet, as the government alcohol outlets are called, was an hour’s drive away in Svolvær. Still, with wine or without, they served up a very tasty meal.

Having had such an enjoyable day, Rashida, Ann-Sophie and Corrine considered staying another night. Originally, they’d planned to take the late afternoon ferry to Bodø. In the end they decided to leave. It was a shame to see yet another group of new friends depart, especially as we’d had such a great time together. But that’s what travelling is about. Ann-Sophie gave me her email address, and I gave her mine. Deep down we knew it was just a formality and very unlikely we’d keep in contact. Sad, but true, the best of memories can often be spoiled by meeting up again.

Next morning, Mark and I took the nine o’clock bus from Stamsund. We changed buses at Leknes and then again at Svolvær, where we had over an hour to wait for our connection to Storland. The abandoned fishing village of Nyksund being our final destination.

Copright © 2013 Bryan Hemming  Click here for the next episode: Murder in a Ghost Town – part one  →

I spent some time looking for the book of Knut Hamsun’s poems Ann-Sophie, Rashida and Corrine had told me about. I assume they must’ve had a French translation.

Det vilde Kor (The Wild Chorus) was published in 1904. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any translations of the poems into English. But I did come across Norwegian band Lumsk’s version of Diset Kvæld

Mit Sind er saa tungt, jeg ser intet Lys
i hele det skumrende, vide Rum.
Jeg bøjer mig sammen of ber om et Raad:
men Himlen er stum.

Jeg stirrer forknyt ud i Kvælden haard
– da sprætter der Stjærne paa Stjærne ud.
Jeg synes de vinker mig en efter en
som smaa Svar fra Gud.

Jeg bøjer mig ned med Tak for ikvæld
og tror paa en Morgen saa klar og høj.
Men da har de Stjærner skjult af Skam,
o Gud hvor de løj!

A rough translation by my sister (with a few changes by me) produced this in English. I welcome any Norwegian speaker familiar with this older Norwegian – which might be dialect – to correct me.

The Evening

My vision is so heavy, I see not light
in the dusky, wide room
I prostrate myself, and pray for advice
but the heavens are dumb

I gaze out faintheartedly, into the hard night,
– star twinkles out after star,
I feel they are waving to me, one after the other,
as an answer from God

I prostrate myself giving thanks for the night,
and think towards a morning so clear and high,
but then the stars hide themselves away for shame
and God knows how they lied!


2 thoughts on “The best hostel in the world – part three

  1. Yes swimming in icy choppy rainy waters is child abuse! OMG that’s not a holiday!!

    I loved the image of you staring out of the windows as a schoolboy. & the hostellers gathering to watch your “eccentric progress”. Could so imagine it.

    A wonderful tale, Bryan. & I’m impressed the girls handled the fish so well. Did government outlets sell alcohol yesteryear, or these days? Never knew of these strict alcohol laws.

    Great music clip too!


  2. Though they appear like modern supermarkets, if you want wine
    or spirits in Norway – and believe in Sweden still – you have to go to government stores. You can buy them in bars a restaurants though, as the laws have been relaxed. Beer can be bought in most supermarkets.


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