Life on a small Arctic Island – part one

Ann Ulrika WP

Ann-Ulrika on Værøy

FOR THE FIRST time since starting my epic northern journey, I managed to write the whole day with hardly an interruption. The other hostel guests had either checked out, or gone sightseeing shortly after getting up. That left the table in the kitchen-cum-dayroom all to myself. Well, not quite; Ann-Ulrika was about. The Swedish photographer and artist popped back from time to time for a cup of herbal tea. I’d join her and we’d natter. It made a break from the task of bringing my diaries up to date with life on a small Arctic island.

Over the years, I’ve learned to keep two diaries, especially when travelling. One handwritten, the other on my laptop. Some things need recording as they happen. By the time I’ve got my laptop out it’s often too late; half a sentence I had in my head can have slipped away. And life is so full of tiny details. Though seemingly irrelevant at the time, the importance of some of the smallest observations only become apparent much later. I also keep a couple of notebooks handy for my wanderings of all sorts. My laptop diary is normally brought up to date in more relaxed moments. But there had been too much travelling and too little writing.

To start myself off, I wrote about my visit to the island pub the night before. The barman had seemed as unfriendly as usual, but I was getting used to that. Anita, the Norwegian girl on working holiday from Sweden was also behind the bar. She made up for his attitude by being her friendly self. Then in waltzed the hungover woman I met on the ferry from Bodø to Røst again. Looking fully recovered from her extended bender, this time she recognised me, and came over to my table for a beer.

From her I learned the man at the bar, who I’d had down as the owner, just ran the place for her musician boyfriend, who had a lot of other business interests on the island. Her name was Line. As Line and she were friends, Anita took a break to sit with us for a short while and join in on the gossip.

At that very moment, Lynn, the temporary tenant of my Notting Hill flat, started sending me text messages from London. A bit of a social junkie, she obviously had little else to do. With everything suddenly seeming to happen all at once I began to feel popular for the first time in ages.

On writing that, the annoying episode with the young Japanese man, who’d arrived a couple of evenings ago, came back to me. Late getting up, he headed straight for my teabags, as soon as he came downstairs. Plucking one out, and popping it into a mug, he boiled some water. Perhaps he was unaware of my presence. I observed him brew a cup without saying a word, just to get his measure. My gaze followed him over to the fridge to watch him open the door. Casing the joint to see how the food situation was, as far as I could make out. A pro.

That was enough. I had to let him know I’d clocked what he was up to. Clearing my throat to catch his attention, I pointed out food and drinks weren’t covered in the price of a bed. The teabag he’d just used had been mine. Next time he should ask.

You don’t get north of the Arctic Circle without learning you need to pack something to drink and a bite to eat, just in case. The region isn’t exactly bristling with fast food outlets and convenience stores. He was a petty thief. Without so much as an apology he sat down with the tea. By the look of his defiant expression, he knew I knew what his game was, but was pretending not to care. What a pain. It meant I’d have to keep a careful eye on my things, as long as he was about, and maybe warn the others. The odd teabag, a slice of bread, or a chunk of cheese, don’t matter, but travellers have cameras, cash and other valuables. I had my laptop. I hoped he wasn’t going to hang around too long. Then again, a small island is a small island. Like an Agatha Christie novel, should anything go missing, there weren’t too many likely suspects to choose from, and only one means of escape. The ferries call just two times a day. As I didn’t see him again, he must’ve been on the next one.

The way things turned out, even had he stayed, it wouldn’t have mattered to me. The problem was solved shortly after our encounter when Agnar, the hostel’s landlord, told me was hosting a large party at the weekend. He was expecting 111 members of his family to attend. They were coming from all over Norway and Sweden. He asked Ann-Ulrika and I if we’d mind moving into the rorbua, or fishing huts, nearer the quayside, so some of his guests could take over the main house.

Though the Lofotens are the world centre for dried cod not much fishing takes place in the summer. The main fishing fleets go out during winter, when the cod are more plentiful. That’s when the rows of dark red rorbua throng with fishermen and the island’s population explodes. For the rest of the year they mostly lie empty.

As he showed me my new quarters, Agnar explained, despite the two double bunks, I could have the room to myself.  The small kitchen and bathroom I’d have to share with two Norwegian couples in an adjoining bedroom.

When he learned I was a writer planning to stay on the island much longer than a few days, he promised me self-contained quarters of my own as soon as his family and friends had departed. There would be no extra charge. It was just the news I’d been hoping for.

On arriving, I’d thought the hostel didn’t get too many guests. And there weren’t so many. But the fact they stayed only a day or two actually made their presence more noticeable. It was difficult to get into the routine I needed for serious writing.  There were too many new arrivals with rucksacks and bags, too many hellos, too many introductions, too many stories to listen to, and too many goodbyes. A place of my own would do away with most of that. The news was enough for me to make the decision to settle on the island for the next couple of months and maybe longer.

Ann-Ulrika showed off the prettier little hut, with its lovely view, she’d been allotted. But then she was a privileged guest, returning year after year. We sat at the kitchen table while she got out her still life photographs and watercolours for me to look at.  She told me the fishing trip she’d invited me to go on a couple of days before, was to be that night. But first she was taking the late morning ferry to Røst to visit her German friends for a few hours; the judge and his family. She’d return on the evening ferry.

I walked up the the lighthouse beyond the empty cod drying frames to sit on the rocks in the sun. On the way back, Lynn sent me another text message saying that I should text Marcella, a young half-Chilean Swedish MC I’d met in a club on Notting Hill Gate some months before. Remembering what a good dancer she was, and how pretty, I tapped out a short message.

Ersari WP detail

No sooner was I back in my new room, happy to have a place more or less to myself, than there was a knock at the door. Agnar told me a couple from Germany had arrived. He asked if I minded letting them have the spare double bunk just for one night. At least he asked. I said they could. Had I known what I was letting myself in for, I might’ve answered differently.

Detlef was a talkative lecturer in marine biology at Potsdam University in the former GDR, while his chatty wife taught in a kindergarten. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, communist travel restrictions had prevented them travelling beyond Soviet bloc countries. Nevertheless, it still was a massive area covering much of Asia. They’d visited the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand on the old Silk road that runs through Uzbekistan in Central Asia to China. Though I’d never visited, I’d some knowledge of the region from my days dealing in antique rugs and textiles. The finest Turkoman tribal weavings used to be known under the generic term Bokhara, as were Suzani embroideries and ikats. It was the city where most of the trade in them took place.

Since the fall of the wall, in 1989, Detlef and his wife had been able to go where they pleased. Though nearing retirement age, they were still keen travellers. Detlef told me of the couple’s excitement at finally being able to visit Scandinavia. Their touring holiday was to last five and a half weeks. As the professor’s enthusiasm grew he insisted on going into every tiny detail of the trip they planned. From Værøy they were catching the ferry to to Moskenes, part of the main Lofoten Isles, where they wanted to see Å, the tiny hamlet with the shortest name in the world. Then they were returning to the mainland at Narvik. From Narvik they planned to travel across Norway into Sweden and on to Finland. They’d booked an eight-day luxury Baltic cruise from Finland, that would take them to Lithuania calling in at St Petersburg and the Baltic states’ capitals. His tanned face smiled as he told me. Written across it was middle class success. It was as if he felt the journey was something to be very proud of. Leaving me no chance to slip in a word, to all appearances, he had not the slightest interest in other people. He never even thought to ask what I was doing on the island, just for the sake of politeness. Whenever he wasn’t talking to me, his wife took up the thread. The fact she didn’t speak any English, and I speak no German posed no barrier. The main thing was to fill the irresistibly tempting vaccuum created once her husband had stopped talking. Now the wall had come down, she could speak to whomever she wanted, whenever she wanted, without fear of the Stasi listening in. Mind you, it did cross my mind university lecturers and teachers at kindergartens were exactly the sort of jobs you probably needed Stasi approval to get.

By early evening I returned from a walk to find the German couple had ventured out. As hardly a moment had passed for me to enjoy my new solitude, before they’d been thrust upon me, I took the opportunity to stretch out on my bunk and relax in preparation for my late night fishing expedition with Ann-Ulrika. But it wasn’t to be. No sooner had I slotted a soothing CD into my laptop, and almost nodded off, than Detlef and his wife came back from wherever they’d been.

For a small couple they certainly managed to make a big racket. As soon as they entered the room I’d turned off the CD thinking they might want to rest and meditate on the the peace and silence that is one of the greatest joys of Værøy. Alas no, they continued prattling non-stop. Most surprising was the way they began ferrying the entire contents of their car into the room, which seemed to be getting smaller by the moment. Obviously, it wasn’t the done thing to leave a packed car unattended overnight on the streets of Potsdam. The mountain of bags and suitcases they had with them was astounding, and they seemed to be bringing them in one at a time. Eventually, their possessions took over the room completely.

That’s when they started on the kitchen, which they appeared to have requisitioned as their own. Throughout all the toing and froing they bickered and wrangled in what they probably regarded as hushed tones. I supposed it was only to be expected from those who’d lived in a country where walls had had ears for decades. But though the loud whispers may not have travelled beyond the walls of their Potsdam dwelling, they filled every nook and cranny within my shrinking room.

Eventually, I gave up trying to snooze and I got up to retreat into a tiny alcove by the front door to write. Bent double. By that time, they’d started to cook dinner. A quick peek revealed they’d taken over all the work surfaces, and the kitchen table, which was filled with papers and video cassettes. The journey of their lifetime would have to be committed to endless hours of tape, and every route marked out on maps for posterity. At least they invited me to join them for dinner, but I’d eaten just an hour before.

Ann-Ulrika popped round to tell me that the fishing trip had been postponed as the weather had changed and a strong breeze had blown up. She looked very disappointed. Her train ticket back to Sweden was for the coming weekend, and there might not be another chance. On Friday, she was catching the ferry to Bodø.

I decided that there was nothing for it but to leave the professor and his wife to it, and taking one of the bikes, headed off to the bar.

It was one of those nights. Maybe it was the wind. Even the good-natured Anita seemed unfriendly. Looking as though she’d overdone one of the midnight drinking sessions she’d once told me she enjoyed, she didn’t even take the time to say ‘hei’. That she was working alone in a bar, which was almost full, couldn’t have helped. A lot of the customers wanted food, and she was having to cook much of the time. No matter, I only had money for two beers. Just enough to relieve the tension of the day.

Thankfully, there was nobody around when I got back to the rorbu. I watched a bit of TV in the kitchen before creeping into my bunk at around midnight.

No sooner had my head hit the pillow, when the German couple returned. It must’ve taken them more than an hour to get ready for bed. They acted as though they’d forgotten how to do it, and had to discuss every move in loud whispers to remind each other of the next step. Zips zipped, then unzipped, before zipping up again, while plastic bags rustled and crackled. Every tiny manoeuvre merited debate. It was almost like listening to a couple of rattlesnakes having a tiff in a pair of punk’s PVC trousers.

When Detlef’s wife chose to sleep on the sofa in the kitchen, instead of the upper bunk, I concluded was either from vertigo, or the fear I might rape her in the night. It was a wonder how such a paranoid pair went beyond their own front door, let alone to Samarkand in deepest Central Asia.

If getting to bed took so much planning, I should’ve guessed a day trip round the tiny island would need the entire kitchen table again and take up most of the morning.

I’d woken quite early, as is my habit, and started working in the kitchen, as soon as the professor’s wife vacated it. She returned a little later for breakfast with Detlef in tow. No sooner I moved my laptop away from the table to make room for them, than they took it as a sign of complete surrender. Once they’d finished eating, they staked out their claim with maps, guidebooks, notebooks and pens. I’d lost my place to work once again. They were unbelievable, even prepared to let the two Norwegian couples, occupying the other room, eat their breakfast standing, until I pointed it out to them.

As soon as the Norwegians had cleared the table Detlef and his wife immediately laid claim to it again.

It wasn’t worth arguing, as they seemed completely unaware of hostel protocol, and I wasn’t going to waste any more of my time trying to teach them. Unable to work on my laptop, as there wasn’t another table, I went back to the little alcove by the door and started a letter to a friend. But as their presence insinuated itself everywhere, there was no other solution than to go out. Anyhow, I needed to change money, and they’d made me desperate for a cigarette. The walk to the bank was calming. On the way back I stopped for a coffee at the supermarket.

A meeting-place for mothers with a bit of time on their hands after shopping, a few working men and women also drop by the cafeteria during work breaks. Bored children spend their pocket money on sweets when they’re not playing. Clearly the place where all the local news and gossip gets exchanged, without being too obvious, I tried listening in. But had no luck. On the way back I ran into Ann-Ulrika. The fisherman was taking us out that evening. We would be setting out around ten o’clock.

By the time I got to the rorbu the professor and his wife had gone out to mount their assault on Værøy. It was my turn to lay claim to the kitchen table. Seizing the chance, I continued the letter I’d started, completely unaware the Germans might return for refuelling.

Having positioned myself badly with my back to the door, they were able to advance from the rear, and had overrun the kitchen before I’d any idea what had happened. They were clever all right. Within seconds, the wife had retaken the cooker, while Detlef commandeered all the work surfaces. That must be the sort of thing all the maps, papers and pens were intended to plan for. It was all over in the blink of an eye. I folded my letter, and scuttled off to the post office with my tail between my legs.

They’d packed and left by the time I returned. Without so much as an auf Wiedersehen. I can’t say I was sorry. They’d looked so frail and innocent in the beginning, how could anyone suspect them of anything but good intentions? I just pitied the victims lined up for the next stage of their Scandinavian summer campaign. By that time, I didn’t feel much like writing, they’d taken so much out of me. So I made myself some dinner before taking a nap to recharge my batteries for the fishing trip later that evening.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming

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4 thoughts on “Life on a small Arctic Island – part one

  1. Exhausting just reading about the activites here. oh dear Bryan – all that peace and quiet invaded by so many comings and goings, and the tip toeing on egg shells of social mores. Piccadilly Circus seems to offer more sanctuary for a writer.

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  2. Well, it gets better Laura, if you have the stamina to go on. In some ways, though travelling can be extremely wearing and frustrating, it´s worth it. Besides, what would I have to write about, if it weren’t for my travels?

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  3. I felt as annoyed by this couple as you had been because your writing is vivid and funny.
    Islands and hostels are attractive but attract also strange people. So often in these locations we bump into odd men and women.
    But the journey is still worth of it, right?

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    • Even though I’ve travelled quite a bit, this journey was a terrific experience, and something I intended to do since I was a small boy, as my grandfather came from Hammerfest in the very far north of Norway.

      Like most writers, I tend to concentrate on the funniest, most interesting, or most annoying parts of the journey, as the rest can make quite boring reading. But, yes, islands and hostels do attract a lot of oddballs, and I think I am probably one.

      Thanks for your regular comments, Evelyn, they really help me believe my work is worthwhile.

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