It’s a Shame I Don’t Drink Scotch

The Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle and a four-hour ferry trip from mainland Norway, are probably not the first place you would expect to inspire me to rap, but, well, it happened.

I’m going to blame jet lag.

But first, a brief summary of the past two days: my amazing friends the Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird, Shredded Cabin Boy and their heir, Admiral Smallpants, kindly drove me to the Intermodal Station (note to non-Milwaukee friends: that is what the city actually calls the bus and train station). I hopped on the bus to O’Hare and from there flew to Stockholm.

I haven’t been to Arlanda Airport in more than ten years, but I am pleased to report it was a stylish as ever, the coffee was still tear-your-teeth-out strong (uhm, in a good way) and a new design store tempted me to spend all my money on terribly clever kitchen gadgets, though I was able to resist only after remembering my weight allowance for baggage on my flight.

From Arlanda I flew to Oslo and then to Bodo in northern Norway. The word “Bodo” should have a slash through the second “o” but I can’t figure out how to do that on WordPress, so you’ll have to suffer the Americanized version.

The best thing I can say about Bodo is that its three-letter airport designator is BOO, which I found hilarious. In fact, I think I’ll call it BOO from now on, in part to avoid that spelling issue which is driving me nuts.

I wasn’t in BOO very long–just long enough to get off at the wrong stop on the bus from the airport and end up schlepping my bags about a kilometer to the ferry. Waiting an hour or so for the Moskenes ferry to show, I noticed everyone else was bundled up–jackets, hats, hoods. Are you serious? I was comfy in a long sleeve shirt, just thrilled to feel an ocean breeze in my hair and on my face. The temperature was in the 50s and it was generally overcast. When the sun did come out, it was a pale, distant orb the color of cream.

I remember thinking “Ah, the sun is weak. As it should be.”

The view leaving BOO…Bodo itself is hidden from view but it’s just as well. Not the most exciting place in the world, with or without the proper second-o-with-a-slash.

My sleepless plane travel caught up with me on the ferry and I found myself not so much napping as passing out here and there. When not drooling on myself, I was out on the deck, marveling over how calm both the sea and air was. I’ve never been on a boat on the open sea in what felt like still air. Then again, the boat was going about as fast as I swim.

Our ferry had instructions on how to put on the survival suit required to be worn in an emergency. I really wanted to try one on, but they were kept in a locked room. How safe is that? What if the person who has the key falls overboard or something? Humph.

The Lofoten Islands have been on my must-see list ever since I happened to see a photo of them in college. As is my idiom, I saw the image of impossibly rugged peaks jutting straight up from the sea and thought “I want that.”

So I got a tingly feeling in my spine as they emerged from the gloomy western horizon in shades of blue and gray.

Moskenesoya and Flakstadoya islands, Lofoten

There are thousands of skerries and islets among the Lofotens, but only a few are big enough to be inhabited by anything other than the millions of sea birds who call them home. As the larger islands took shape, my more romantic side swooned and thought up a series of terrible metaphors…”like the lower jawbone of a half-submerged beast!” was one. Cringe.

My cynical side, however, rolled her eyes and thought “Oh, great. More water and rocks. Like we haven’t seen enough of that recently.”

Which brings me to my inner rapper, wedged in my brain somewhere between Romantic Side and Cynical Side.

“It’s a shame I don’t drink scotch/Cuz I live my life among water and rocks.”

No, fortunately I did not rap that aloud.

The thought, such as it was (remember, at that point, I hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours aside from occasional drool-fits on the ferry), made me consider why none of my favorite places in the world are palm-fringed beaches, dense jungles or lush gardens. There is just something so appealing to me about landscapes others would dismiss as bleak or barren.

By the time I arrived in Moskenes, it was raining and black. I had booked two nights in a guesthouse in nearby Reine and Lilian, the guesthouse owner, was waiting for me at the dock. She drove me a couple miles to a lovely old home, with wood everywhere and a deep bathtub that I spent an hour soaking in.

Guesthouse in Reine

When I woke up this morning, after nine hours of much needed sleep, I looked out my window and saw this:

Reine, Moskenesoya, Lofoten

Not bad.

First item on the day’s agenda was to sort out what was still available as an activity. Early September is already low season for the Lofotens, and a lot of things were closed or on abbreviated schedules. Sadly, there was no boat running to the Moskstraumen,* one of the things on my “Hope To Do” list**.

*The Moskstraumen is one of the original lures for me to the Lofotens. It is one of the strongest areas of whirlpool activity in the world (I say “area” because there are several whirlpools and dangerous tidal currents in the stretch of sea between the isle of Moskenesoya and Vaeroy). Moskstraumen is a genuine “maelstrom,” and I went on that ride at the Norway pavilion at EPCOT! Okay, that’s beside the point, but it’s been a famous Area of Peril for thousands of years, even getting a shout-out from the likes of fourth century Greek explorer Pytheas, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe, who helped introduce the incorrect notion that the word “maelstrom” itself is a corruption of “Moskstraumen,” all long before Wikipedia came into being.

**It’s the low season on a remote archipelago above the Arctic Circle. I don’t have a To Do list. A Hope To Do list is more realistic.

Bus shelter in Reine

Anyway, the Moskstraumen doesn’t nearly live up to its hype (for hundreds of years it was marked on maps with the usual sea monster and other doomy illustrations). While it would have been nice to see it, I consoled myself instead with a cruise of sorts on the Reinefjord and a short bus ride to A.

The name of that town, yes, A, should technically be a capital “A” with a tiny circle over it, but if you think I can figure out how to do that when WordPress won’t even tell me how to make an “o” with a slash through it, well, surprise. Ain’t happenin’.

Say “A”!! A i Lofoten

A (also known as A i Lofoten because if people just kept typing “A,” with or without the little circle over it, most readers would be thinking “A what? Where’s the rest of the word? Is this town in witness protection or something?”) is the southernmost town on Moskensoya, and home to Norway’s Torrfisk museum. The Lofotens are, you see, the cod capital of the world.

Mr. Cod’s Terrible, Very Bad, No-Good Day…there are dried cod heads hanging all over the place around here, on clotheslines, on signs, on random poles. I can’t decide if it’s a local joke, local superstition or indication of local aesthetics.

Cod, drawn to the rich feeding grounds of the Lofotens and, I’m guessing, the swirly waters of the Moskstraumen, come to the area by the gazillions. From January through April, fishermen haul them up by the ton day after day, then hang them out to dry on wooden racks that seem to cover every open flat space on the islands. Most of the dried cod ends up getting exported as bacalao.

The Moskstraumen! (From quite a long distance away.) A trail at A led to this view of the maelstrom (but not “The Maelstrom”), basically the open water between a smaller island (Vaeroy) and the big cliff in the center of the photo.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a more detailed telling of the whole cod empire of the Lofotens, partly because I’m only on the first chapter of “Cod: A Biography,” but also because the Torrfiske museum in A was shuttered for the season.

Cod racks, A.

So I took a nice stroll around A and headed back to Reine on the bus, which doubles as a school bus and soon picked up a score of blond, blue-eyed, boisterous but surprisingly not obnoxious middle school kids.

More cod racks, Hamnoy (near Reine)

Back at Reine, I got on the daily boat that calls in at a couple tiny hamlets in Reinefjord, the multi-armed body of water that gives the town at its mouth its name.

Boat dock at Reine, looking toward Reinefjord

Also on the boat were a trio of French hikers who were rather pleased with themselves and a film crew comprised of two cameramen, a Norwegian clearly there to translate and facilitate, and what I can only imagine was a Minor Celebrity. When he heard me speaking English to the fare-taker after my minimal Norwegian was exhausted, Mr. Minor Celebrity turned and looked at me like “Oh! Hello there! I guess you’ll want an autograph!”

I had no idea who he was, but by the way he Norwegian minder and the camera dudes were treating him, I’m guessing he probably is someone of note. He looked like one of those Discovery Channel Survivorman/Man v. Wild/Extreme Adventure Dude types: about 5’8″, short silver hair (looked prematurely gray since his face was craggy but not really wrinkly) with a really annoying soul patch for facial hair.

I’m just going to come out and say it: soul patches are stupid and unattractive and I immediately judge a man who has one.

In addition to not recognizing Mr. Extreme Travel Dude and judging him for his poor choice of facial hair, I was kind of annoyed by his cameradudes, who took over the front deck and seemed to forget there were other people on the boat who might like a photo of the landscape without a wake.

Extreme cameradudes being extremely cameradudey

Their whole little entourage had a really irksome “don’t you know who we are?” vibe that made me want to scream “I lived in Antarctica for 20 months. You are as impressive to me as sand flies, and about as annoying” but I remained silent.

Because I was in awe.


The mountains were incredible in every sense of the word, shaped like fangs or waves frozen in rock, rearing up from the black waters of the fjord. It’s no coincidence the Lofotens are popular with rock climbers, but I was content to marvel at them from fjord level, thinking how much they looked like the mountains in my head when writing The War’s End, a fantasy novel I’m currently editing.

If you ever read The Guardian, the sequel to The War’s End, which I hope you’ll also read, there is a scene toward the end that takes place in a fjord. Though I hadn’t been to the Lofotens or had ever seen this fjord in a photo, basically, the scene takes place here. This is what I saw in my head. Reinefjord.

Yeah. Water and rocks.

Hey, how about another shot of some cod racks? Behind traditional rorbuer, used to house fishermen in the late 19th-20th century (and occasionally still today, though most rorbuer have been converted into hotels).

The “cruise” (actually a round-trip ride on the watery equivalent of a bus) was about an hour, after which I returned to the cozy guesthouse and eagerly opened the locally made gietost I’d bought in A.


Sorry. Couldn’t resist. But yes, this gietost was no Ski Queen. (Gietost is a Norwegian specialty cheese, made from goat’s milk that has been caramelized. Ski Queen, the brand you’re most likely to see in the States, and other gietost I’ve had in my previous Norway visit, have a smooth, sweet flavor.) The gietost I tucked into was pungent with heavy goaty overtones and undertones and in-between tones. I felt like I was not so much eating goat cheese as sitting in a goat pen, surrounded by goats. Usually I put a sliver of gietost on a crispbread and that works, but for this one I had to cut a sliver and then cut it in half and kind of spread it over a whole Wasa to avoid not so much getting my goat as getting goated.

Dinner and lunch…Dunch! Gietost with crispbread and tea.


4 thoughts on “It’s a Shame I Don’t Drink Scotch

  1. Thank you for the descriptions and photos, Gemma. I love knowing that those are what the mountains in “The War’s End” look like! Be sure to let me know if you see Tevi.

    • Ha! I wish I had Tevi with me on the boat yesterday. I restrained myself, but he would have made short work of the cameradudes!

  2. Gemmster, pardon me while I completely nerd out on you. I do love things like this! Danish and Norweigian share the same alphabet, that’s how I know about this.

    Å can be transcribed as Aa, or you can type alt 143 for Å and alt 134 for å.
    Ø can be transcribed as oe, or you can type alt 0216 for Ø and alt 0248 for ø.
    Æ is alt 0198 and æ is alt 0230.

    WordPress should allow you to save the text that way. But if you are super into getting these letters out there Wikipedia has the HTML version of each letter. I’m assuming you use Windows, if you have a Mac there are easier keyboard shortcuts.

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