When Hitler Came To Town

I don’t usually find reasons to grin in World War II museums. But then, I don’t usually see informational signage like this:

I spent several hours yesterday at the Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum, the Lofoten Wartime Museum, in non-bustling downtown Svolvaer. When the volunteer who was staffing it noticed I was actually reading the signage and not just cruising through like the five other tourists who came and went during my time there, he came over and started chatting and pointing out things I might have missed.

And believe me, it was easy to miss stuff.

Tons o’ stuff and enough informational signage to satisfy even me

The museum is actually the obsession of one man who has set about, over some 40 years, acquiring what is believed to be the largest private collection of World War II memorabilia, uniforms and everyday items in the world. It’s all crammed into half a dozen rooms in a 19th century building right next to the busy bus station lonely central bus stop.

Norwegian WWII Bunny Boots!

Now, when I hear things like “world’s largest private collection of mostly Nazi memorabilia,” I get a little nervous. I don’t want to be supporting, in any way, any sort of nutball yearning for the days of the Third Reich.

The Norwegian uniforms were worn by the prettiest mannequins

So I am pleased to report that I saw no sign of a pro-Nazi bent to the collection. If anything, it was tremendously even-handed, which is not something I can often say about museum collections tackling difficult issues (I’m still vexed with Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery for implying North American colonists were the only people ever who engaged in slavery anywhere anytime, completely skipping over, oh, I don’t know, Arabs, Vikings, Egyptians, Romans, and so on, and so on…).

The less attractive mannequins were stuck with the German uniforms. I did not know mannequins could have cystic acne.

Anyway, I loved the focus on ordinary items made and used in extraordinary circumstances, such as shoes made from paper or POW handicrafts like a guitar made of matches and decorative sword made from the leg of a chair and a soup bone procured from the kitchen.

Decorative sword made from a chair leg and soup bone by a Norwegian POW in a German camp in Poland. The belt is made from cigarette packet cellophane.

There were numerous uniforms from all sides as well, some with incredible stories. Divers retrieved a German sailor’s shirt from a wreck off the coast of Norway and the museum’s collector spent five years trying to track down its original owner, whose name was stitched inside the shirt. The man had spent time in Canada as a POW and then settled there after the war. When he was finally located and contacted, he replied with a Christmas card filled with a shaky old man’s hand, offering warm greetings and noting he had some photos he could send to supplement the display.

Salvaged German sailor shirt with card and photos from original owner

Yes, the museum had the cyanide capsule container that “may have been the very one Hitler carried!” and also some unexpected illustrations of Disney characters believed to be done by the failed-art-student-turned-Fuhrer himself (apparently, Adolf was a bit of a Disney maniac and particularly enjoyed the movie Snow White).

One of the illustrations found hidden in a frame purchased at auction and believed to be the work of Adolf Hitler.

But most of the collection was focused on how the people who lived through that era in northern Norway–local resistance fighters, innocent children, German soldiers, Russian and Serbian POWs, Croatian prison guards, hapless fishermen–endured.

In case: paper shoes “not for the wearing in rain” my guide helpfully noted. On top of case, jar of greenhouse-grown tobacco from the 1940s. The volunteer staffer opened it and it smelled fresh. Not sure I believe it was that old, but if it was, wow.

Aside from the overall focus of the collection, I loved the English translations on the signage. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not mocking the translator. Sure, there were errors, but no more than the average Facebook post from a native English speaker. But there was often a jauntiness to the wording that just tickled me.

All that and bad teeth too…what a guy.

And that was a good thing, to have a little levity, because reading for hours about the conditions endured, the savagery exhibited by some and the pain suffered by others, really could have been depressing otherwise. I found the line “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” from “Willie McBride” running through my head over and over, as well as imagery from the attacks on Western embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa.

We as a species never learn, do we?

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Water and Rocks: Now Featuring Eagles!

Yesterday was a day of false advertising. It worked out okay in the end–great, even–but more than once I stepped outside of the moment with a quizzically raised brow and asked the world “really?”

It began with a circuit of Svolvaer’s electrifying downtown…as dead at 9 am on a workday as it was at 5 pm the day before. Where are all the people in this place? It’s a neat town, with no sign of economic turmoil, mass heroin addiction or urban blight of any kind. Why is no one about?

Svolvaer’s downtown and port. Svolvaer is, I believe, Norwegian for “snoozeville.”

At least the tourist information office opened as scheduled at 10. Whew. After booking a boat trip to Trollfjord–the area’s “must-do” activity–with the lone remaining company running tours this late in the season, I asked the kindly older tourist information staffer if she could recommend a nice walk for the three and a half hours I had before the boat.

Without hesitation, she showed me on an area map how to get to Tjeldbergtinden, a “little bump” from which I would be afforded wonderful views, and it was such an easy walk! Well, sign me up. She told me it would take me 15 minutes to walk to the trailhead, and then perhaps another 45 minutes up and back.

“You will have plenty of time,” she added. “I did this in 30 minutes yesterday, and I was not running.”

Never believe little old ladies giving hiking information.

The way I see it, either I misunderstood, or her English was not as flawless as it seemed–or she neglected to mention that she has a jetpack.

At the trailhead

It took me almost half an hour to walk through the suburbs and find the trailhead, at least as she described it (I looked online at Wundermap later and saw there was another, easier route mostly on gravel road). The trail itself was obvious enough once I found it, but it was also all wet rock and mud on a consistently steep incline. This was my first actual hike since I was in Tasmania last November, so I wasn’t exactly physically ready for it.

Of course I slogged on, determined, I suppose, not to be outdone by a little old lady (a very trim, very fit-looking little old lady, now that I think of it…). And the views, once I got out of the forest, were fair enough.

Looking down at Svolvaer from the trail

And then the sky turned black. Weather rolled in faster than a little old lady racing up a mountain and all turned to mist and cloud and rain.

Another view. Note the dark clouds moving in from the east (right). Within five minutes the spot where I’d been standing was thick with fog.

I’m not sure how far up I was supposed to go. I’d reached a ridge that continued to lead upward a fair way to a rocky peak, much more to the south than the Tjeldbergtinden marked on the map. With the weather worsening and time ticking away (I’d spent an hour climbing), I decided to turn around and head back down.

By the time I got back to my converted fish warehouse hotel and wiped off at least some of the mud (up to my knees and all over my hands and jacket where I crab-walked down the more slippery bits), I had a scant ten minutes to get to my Trollfjord boat.

The boat motors were running, and once I was aboard, along with a German tourist and an elderly American couple, we were off, five minutes ahead of schedule and without a soul asking to see my ticket. Okay.

Abandoned fish warehouse just waiting to be turned into an affordable but slightly creepy unstaffed hotel, north end of Svolvaer harbor

The skies had cleared again, and the wind off the waves, though a bit chilly,  was welcome after my sweaty, rainy aborted Tjeldbergtinden excursion.

Water! Rocks!

We puttered between skerries and islets and larger islands with more formidable peaks for about an hour.

Something about the shape of this island made me think “Jurassic Park–the Arctic version” (yes, I am still well above the Arctic Circle. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the Lofoten Islands enjoy the “greatest positive average temperature anomaly in the world” compared with places at a similar latitude. Take that, Greenland and Alaska!)

Hey, how about some more rocks with a little water?

I just love the shapes of these mountains. Apparently they are a mere 10,000 years old. Awww, they’re just babies! No wonder they’re so cute!

Okay, just put up with a couple more photos…these mountains are seriously the stuff my dreams are made of, as well as my books. When imagining the mountain kingdom of Khankhadda, setting for The War’s End and its sequel The Guardian, this is what I saw.

Welcome to Khankhadda

This too:

I loved the way the light was playing across the mountains, which I tried to capture with my rinky-dink point-and-shoot.

Then the boat motors mysteriously cut out. Two deckhands emerged and began fishing, pulling up two or three coalfish for each cast (they had three hooks on each line).

Fishing for eagle bait, catching about two dozen coalfish in ten minutes or so

I asked what they were going to do with the fish.

Don’t let the comely deckhands distract you. There are still cool rocks and water to look at.

“Eagles!” One of them told me. “We feed to eagles! This is eagle safari, no?”

Uhm…is it? I don’t know. I signed up for a trip through the Trollfjord, allegedly the most beautiful in the Lofotens, and so narrow that the famous Hurtigruten ferry cannot enter it. Or so I had heard.

Did I get on the wrong boat?

No, it turned out I was on the right boat, all right, but that the Trollfjord excursion doubled as a sea eagle safari and was sold as a separate trip for tourists on the Hurtigruten coastal ferry, who would be joining us shortly.

Oh. Okay.

Hurtigruten! Dead ahead!

Minutes later, the monstrous Hurtigruten came bearing down on us, opening a side hatch and disgorging three dozen elderly German tourists who immediately began jostling and complaining and generally being group tourists.

If nothing else, the Hurtigruten (Norwegian for, I believe, “really big boat”) gives a sense of scale to the mountains dwarfing it. Note side hatch opening midships to disgorge the Turistgruppe.

(Note: my problem is not with other tourists–the lone German guy on the boat with me was fine, for example. But there is a terrible herd mentality that seems to take over groups of tourists, who never seem to be really enjoying themselves or taking in their surroundings because they’re too busy pushing and shoving and trying to get a better camera angle than the guy next to them.)

While the Turistgruppe was anschlussing the deck, the deckhands began throwing bread in the air and into the water, luring a multitude of gulls who began, well, acting like group tourists, pushing each other out of the way for a morsel.

Sometimes my cheap camera and half-assed skills with it come through. I like the way the light hits the gulls’ wings in this shot.

The gulls lure the sea eagles, one of the deckhands told me. The eagles don’t eat the gulls, but the smaller birds’ movements attract their interest, since they know it could mean there is food to be had.

Another unexpectedly clear shot of a Gull in Motion.

Sure enough, amid the cloud of white wings and yellow beaks, a larger, dark brown bird with massive wings appeared, spiralling down toward us.

Helloooooo, handsome. Total luck taking this shot.

And that was when the deckhand injected the fish.

She inserted a large, empty hypodermic needle into one of the fish she’d caught (the fist had all died a slow, sad, flopping-about death in a plastic bin while we waited for the Hurtigruten) and inflated it with air. Then she tossed the fish into the water, where it floated.

An ambitious gull saw it, grabbed it and tried, unsuccessfully, to take off again. It surrendered to gravity and dropped the fish–or maybe it realized what was heading toward it and just got the hell out of the way.

VrrrrrrroooooOOOOM!

The eagle swooped down, grabbed the fish and flew away with an amazing show of strength and precision.

Another eagle showed up. Another fish got puffed and tossed. Another Wildlife in Action moment. And another. And another.

I loved seeing the eagles with the mountainous backdrop. Permit me an indulgence, but one of the main characters in The War’s End is extremely fond of the mountain eagles, which are sacred to her people, and there are several scenes involving eagles soaring over rugged mountains so, yeah, I got a little swoony over this.

While it was fantastic to see all these sea eagles nabbing fish with, well, with the ease of shooting fish in a barrel, I couldn’t help but wonder how the eagles hunt when there is no one tossing them bloated dead fish. I mean, I don’t know of many fish who hang out motionless at the surface.

While I wondered and the eagles faux-hunted and more dead fish got injected, our boat was heading into the Trollfjord. And the Hurtigruten was following it.

Trollfjord

Now, I had read a few things about the Trollfjord: it’s jaw-dropping gorgeous, it’s incredibly narrow and dramatic and the Hurtigruten most definitely cannot squeeze into it.

Well.

Does this fjord make me look fat? Hurtigruten easily fitting into the Trollfjord

As fjords go, the Trollfjord is pretty. But all fjords are pretty. It was not particularly spectacular, nor did it seem as narrow as the Naeroyfjord I saw south of here several years ago. And the freakin’ Hurtigruten most definitely fits. The big ship came with us all the way to the end of the fjord, then had the cajones to show off by doing a 360 while our smaller boat circled it in a weird kind of boat tango performance.

How close did we get to the Hurtigruten? This close:

Sheesh.

After the boat shenanigans were over, the Hurtigruten continued on to Svolvaer and we stopped to feed more eagles.

The eagle has landed!

I actually managed to capture the moment of the strike on this short video. All the action happens pretty much in the first three seconds, so be ready.

Here’s another shot, moments after the eagle picked up the fish:

As we dawdled feeding eagles, the skies blackened again (it’s impressive how fast bad weather rolls in here…considerably faster than even Isla Navarina in sub-antarctic Chile or Iceland). White-capped swells smacked us about on the last leg back to Svolvaer, causing a frequent chorus of “OOOhhhhhoooOOOOOHhhhhh!” from the Turistgruppe.

You may recognize those rocks from an earlier photo in this post…just shows you how fast the weather changes here.

Back in my hotel room, as night fell I found myself frequently irked by what I thought was the club adjacent to the hotel, located in another converted fish warehouse.

“Man, that is some really bad techno they’re playing!” I hurumphed to myself.

At about midnight I realized it wasn’t the club. It was the howling wind and driving rain mingling with the percussive sounds of massive tires tied to the dock on which the hotel sits banging about.

Oh. It’s weathertechno. That’s cool.

Two quick notes: I’m moving on from Svolvaer tomorrow and am not sure what my internet access will be like, though I hope to have time to post about today’s visit to the fascinating Lofoten Wartime Museum before I get on the bus tomorrow. If I don’t get to post for a while, though, rest assured I’m fine and have not drowned/froze to death/been waylaid by trolls.

And also: seagulls poop the prettiest violet color. Just in case you ever wondered.

Vikings, Epiphanies, Lundehunds and Zombie Apocalypse

Chieftain’s Seat, Lofotr Viking Museum. Feeling at home.

As Helfdane the Fat* put it: “Today was a good day, a very good day!”

[*Helfdane the Fat is one of my favorite characters in my co-favorite movie (it’s tied with The Princess Bride), The 13th Warrior. What?! You haven’t seen The 13th Warrior?! Get thee to a Red Box or Netflix forthwith!]

Farewell to Reinefjord

I left Reine and the island of Moskenesoya behind with some regret–it was simply so beautiful and evocative it was hard to move on. Until I saw what was ahead of me.

Final shot of Reinefjord but not my final shot of cod racks

I do not know why the Lofotens are not more famous for their beauty (but I kinda hope they stay under the radar). I have been to some of the most beautiful places on planet Earth (New Zealand’s South Island, Iceland, the Faroes and, of course, my beloved Antarctica) and the Lofotens are at least as breath-takingly gorgeous.

The Road to Ramberg

Taking the bus from Reine to Borg, on the island of Vestvagoy, I was astounded at almost every turn by the clarity of light, the contrast of silken blue water with hardy yellow-green arctic grasses and, most of all, the impossibly photogenic mountains.

Water and Rocks. On the E10 near Ramberg.

Yes, all of these photos were taken from inside a moving bus. You may see a little window glare in some of them, but I couldn’t stop myself.

Isle of Flakstadoy

At first I was bummed that renting a car and driving myself wasn’t really an option. Then I realized it was a good thing I wasn’t behind the wheel–I never would have gotten anywhere! I’d be pulling off the side of the road every 20 meters to take another photo.

Considering I took this from inside a moving bus, I think it turned out pretty dang well! Somewhere near Ramberg on the E10.

Okay, just one more.

I like the totally unintentional way the mountain appears to be floating on the cod racks.

They’re like potato chips…you can’t stop at just one.

Near Leknes

Okay, okay, onward…after this one:

Outside Leknes on Vestvagoy

When I mentioned yesterday that I had a Hope To-Do list, I kind of lied. While I do have one, I also had an I Will Do This If It Involves Jumping A Fence list, which consisted of one item: visit the Lofotr Viking Museum.

Fortunately for all involved, there was no fence-jumping needed. The museum, in Borg, was in the last days of its summer season (as of Sunday they’ll be open only five hours a day for two days a week). Many of the live demonstrations, such as the smithy, were already closed, as was the lamb stew and mead-serving cafe, but I can’t complain. It was one of the most smartly-designed, entertaining museums I’ve been to, and that it was all about vikings made it even better.

Markers where the posts of the excavated site were found, with reconstructed house and another hellatastic mountain in background

The museum is built beside the excavated remains of the largest Viking house ever found. Not just in the Lofotens, not just in Norway. In the world.

The reconstructed house…that’s a lotta house!

Begun in the sixth century, it was rebuilt and expanded until, in the ninth century, it reached a length of 87 meters, more than 285 feet!

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the site was even found; a farmer using a new and deeper plow to work his field noticed the new plow was turning up more than just dirt.

Detail of door

The museum’s developers left the original remains of the house in place and did a full reconstruction immediately beside it. To get to it, you go through a new three-room exhibit hall where nifty mp3 player-like, remote synced audio tours guide you from one topic to the next. There’s also a 15 minute film that creates a slightly hokey but interesting narrative about the last Viking chieftain to live at the site, Olaf Tvennumbruni. A good deal is known about Olaf because he left Lofotr to settle in Iceland after running afoul of Harald Fair-Haired, and the Icelanders of that era were a bit obsessive-compulsive about recording who settled where in their young country.

All I know is, the actor who played Olaf in the short and rather well-made film was totally hot.

Best. Emergency. Exit. Sign. EVER.

Anyway, after the exhibit hall, I walked up the hill to both the original site and the reconstruction, passing a garden of onions and the muddy home of a wild pig that was supposed to represent the pigs kept by Olaf and friends.

Viking pig reenactor totally unimpressed.

The house commanded incredible views in every direction. I love standing at original sites like this, imagining what the people who lived there thought when they looked out at the same mountains I was seeing.

But, the reconstruction hall…well now. I haven’t had that much fun in a museum since Queen Laura and I ran amok at Warwick Castle.

When I entered, in the area set up to be living quarters, workspace and byre, a diminutive Viking reenactor cheerfully told me “you can touch anything here, don’t be afraid!” and I know that’s what she told me because she said it in English.

[Sidenote I meant to mention in an earlier post: when I wear my Tina Fey-esque glasses, people address me in Norwegian. When I don’t have them on, people address me in English. I find that fascinating. I’m pleased to say that whenever I start a conversation in my marginal Norwegian, the other person replies in Norwegian–as if they think I can actually speak their language! At that point, invariably, I sheepishly say, in Norwegian “excuse me, I’m sorry, do you speak English?” which just about exhausts my knowledge of their tongue and we continue in mine.]

I thought they did a great job showing all the different tasks–cooking, baking, weaving, shoe-making, and so on and so on–and the reenactor was very informative when I asked her my usual pesky questions (which included why the supports were unworked wood but the pillars had an even chipped pattern she called “fish bone” and claimed helped to reduce humidity in the building by channeling condensation down to the ground. I don’t know if I buy that, but I like it enough to repeat it).

I moved next into the meeting hall/throne room area. The one disappointing thing about this room was that it had no informational signage, but on the plus side it had a throne, or at least a really big, important-looking chair, which I promptly sat in. I put on a helmet with chain mail skirt, too, and unsheathed the sword left leaning casually against a table.

Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice that I “can touch anything.”

After my camera’s self-timer failed to take a photo I liked, I commandeered a couple elderly German tourists to take pictures of me in my regalia.

Ich schoene niemand!* Wrong language, right attitude when sitting on the chieftain’s seat.(*German for “I spare no one!” Shout-out to my friend Catherine for suggesting I needed a sword with that inscribed on it. My friends know me so well.)

And people say I’m bossy. Sheesh.

The Germans kind of got into it (my German blood understands, totally) and had me posing and even took pictures of me with their cameras. They said they’d email them to me. Stay tuned.

True story: the German granny egging me on and taking pictures told me immediately before this shot, in reaction to the shot she had just taken, “come on, now, you look like scared little rabbit!” I escalated my hamminess and this is the result. Ah, Germans.

After I set aside my helmet and sword (which felt good, really good, on my head/in my hand), I noticed other tourists taking photos standing next to the chair or beside the helmet.

That got me thinking. But more on that in a bit.

From the reconstructed house you follow a trail about a mile downhill, through meadow and forest, past the now-shuttered smithy and archery field, all the way to the fjord where there’s a reconstruction of a rather smart longboat. In summer you can join other tourists and actually row the boat around the fjord for what sounds like a really fun thing for someone else to do (I like rowing but not with a bunch of other people).

Awesome with awesome sauce on top.

The area around the boat was full of middle school children having lunch during a field trip, but the boat itself was empty, so I climbed aboard (well, no one said I couldn’t!) and set up my camera to take a photo of me steering.

After futzing a bit trying to get a good angle, I asked another German tourist (Germans! They’re everywhere!) to take a photo of me steering. He obliged, but then his Frau told him to pose so she could take a picture of him. And he stood there, hand barely brushing the steering thing (I used to know the term but it has slipped away from me, though thanks to the Vikings I always remember starboard is the right side of the ship and left is port).

I am the captain of my ship.

That’s when the thoughts teasing at the edges of my mind all day finally coalesced into an epiphany.

The reason I love the Vikings is not because they were badass (although…). My impression of them–which could be totally wrong, I know–is that they were intrepid and unafraid to hop in the longboat to move on to something better. Crops failed? Bummer, dude, let’s go raid a monastery in Northumbria. Killed a guy or stole his sheep and got caught? Hey, it happens, let’s sail over to Greenland and see if it’s as awesome as Erik the Red says on his informercial. Harald Fair-Haired getting in your face? Ah, screw him, get the pigs and the goats and the ducks and move to Iceland.

Again, that may be my completely historically inaccurate and romanticized ideal, but it’s the Viking as explorer rather than thug that appeals to me most. Although, as Dr. Virago and I learned when we toured a Viking exhibit on the Isle of Man, “a Viking is a pirate until he arrives someplace that he wants to be.”

True dat, homes.

And I realized too that, while the Vikings had rules and societal conventions, they were also probably the kind of guys who put the museum helmet on their heads and hammed it up for photos and grabbed the steering thingy and actually moved it around to see and feel how it worked rather than just rested their hands on it as if it might bite.

As I contemplated how some people seem so afraid to try something new, even if it’s grabbing the steering thingy of a replica long boat and giving it a turn, I noticed the sky had gone dark. I headed back up the hill as the rain hit, about ten minutes of sideways sheeting that felt wonderful.

On the way back to the museum proper, I met a guy walking his two dogs. I’m pretty sure he thought I was insane because I started staring at the dogs from quite a long distance away, thinking…can it be?

“Excuse me,” I said in Norwegian. “Are those Lundehunds?”

He nodded warily.

OMG LUNDEHUNDS! I asked him (in English, because I do not know how to be creepy in Norwegian. Yet.) if I could pet them and take their picture and ohmygawdLUNDEHUNDS!

LUNDEHUNDS! (Notice the polydactylism)

Okay, okay, so, let me explain. One of the many reasons I’ve been a little obsessed with coming to the Lofotens for more than 20 years is because I am fascinated by Lundehunds. They’re a breed that originated here in the islands and were used to climb cliffs to harvest sea bird eggs and hunt puffins.

Let me repeat. The dogs were bred to climb sea cliffs. There are a few around here.

Given their specialized use, the Lundehunds are some pretty freaky puppies. They are polydactyl, with two extra toes on each foot to give them better grip. They are extremely flexible (I’ve seen it sometimes described as being double-jointed) and can put their front legs out 90 degrees from their body in a way that, when demonstrated on YouTube, makes them look like oddly symbolic Christ figures. They can also bend their heads all the way back onto their spines. All of the flexibility helped them climb the sea cliffs and scramble in and out of tight places.

Have I mentioned the dogs were bred to climb sea cliffs???

The Lundehund (literally “puffin dog”) was on the verge of extinction after World War II but fanciers have brought them back from the brink. It was so exciting to finally see them and pet them, though the Lundehunds kept looking at their owner like “please make the crazy lady leave us now.”

They were smaller than I thought, about like a smallish Beagle, and alert but not at all yappy.

I want one more than ever.

If the pit bull I plan to adopt from the shelter gets out of line with him, my Lundehund can just seek shelter by climbing a bookcase or something till I get there to break up any trouble.

Still squeeing over my Lundehund encounter, I got out of the strengthening rain by ducking back into the reconstructed house, where a bespectacled and altogether unconvincing Viking reenactor was getting ready to do a bread demonstration for the field trip kids straggling up the hill behind me. I watched him get ready and tasted the dough (he didn’t know the words in English, but I definitely tasted rye and maybe barley) and then headed down to the bus stop, with only the briefest of detours through the gift shop.

Making bread the Viking way looks suspiciously like making tortillas. I’m jus’ sayin’.

No, really…I love me some museum gift shops, but Norway is so expensive that I knew there would be nothing in my budget. Then I found the coolest souvenir ever–a hand-forged fire starter, a piece of steel that you strike against a stone, holding it over tinder to get a spark.

Oddly enough, I’d been researching ways people started fires pre-Bic because I wanted to make a couple fire-starting scenes in The War’s End more realistic. At a mere $18 (a bargain in Norway, trust me), it had to come home with me.

On the road to Svolvaer, near Gimloy

Back on the bus, I took a few more photos during the hour-plus ride to Svolvaer, the biggest town in the Lofotens, with a population of–whoa!–nearly 5,000! Hold the phone! As the bus rumbled through the suburbs, the numbers aboard dwindled till it was just me and an old man. The driver parked in the middle of an industrial wasteland and opened the door. It was the end of the route. Time to get out.

I looked around and though hmm, I thought the bus took us into the Sentrum, the city’s downtown. I compared a street sign with my mental map of Svolvaer and realized…this was downtown.

Svolvaer’s bustling bus station. Actually not a station, just a sad and lonely bus stop marking the terminus of the route.

The bus drove off and the old man shuffled away and I was alone with my bag in a dead zone. That would be downtown Svolvaer at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

The city that never sleeps…because to sleep, you have to be alive in the first place! The heart of Svolvaer, 4:30 pm on a Wednesday. Yes, I am standing in the middle of the street. Why not?

Sidenote: if you’re ever interested in making a zombie apocalypse movie in a Nordic setting, might I suggest shooting it in downtown Svolvaer during the evening rush hour, when not a soul is stirring.

I had booked a hotel online the night before after realizing, sadly, all the budget places had closed for the season in August, and the rooms on offer this time of year catered to businessfolks, or at least people willing to pay $300 a night to sleep. I’d searched around and found what sounded like a great deal on Expedia of all places: my own room and bathroom, free wifi, breakfast included, $77 a night. That is a dirt-cheap bargain in Norway.

The hotel was on Fiskegata–Fish Street, I believe–and my mental map told me it would be down the street I was aleady on, which, standing there, I found difficult to believe, since the street seemed to lead between two abandoned warehouses to a dock.

Then I saw a sign for my hotel, promising it was 150 meters down the road–which would put it, strictly speaking, past the dock and in the water.

I set off, thinking maybe I could find a non-zombie to ask directions.

The road came up to the dock and veered right. I turned the corner and this is what I saw:

I am not kidding you.

Because, yes, it is perfectly reasonable to expect to see a Viking longboat at full sail, with a cluster of cod racks in the background. I love my crazy life.

I took the longboat as a good sign and continued on, turning another corner to find my hotel was a converted fish warehouse. Reception was only open 9 am-1 pm, rather odd hours, if you ask me, but another guest was arriving and already knew the door code and let me in, where I found an envelope with my name and a key inside waiting for me.

The hotel itself is basic but very clean and with all mod cons, as they say, including the much-valued free wifi. Oh, and you can’t beat the view out my window:

View from my hotel room, Svolvaer

After walking around Zombie Apocalypse Town and finding one grocery store still open, I bought some blueberries and skyr and settled in to watch the sun set.

No-effort sunset view from my room

Check out the cool cloud:

Okay, just one more:

Some more rocks, water and clouds, in case you feel there has not been enough elsewhere in this post

All in all, a good day. A very good day!

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.

Reinefjord

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.

AAAAAAAA!

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.

Undone By Puppies and Sunshine

Tonight I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

But more on that in a moment.

I’m hitting the road again. I’m leaving fleeing the States for northern Norway on Sunday.

It was the sun that did it.

Well, the heat and humidity also, to be fair.

I have an amazing opportunity to spend a little more than a month above the Arctic Circle. I’ll give you the full scoop once I’m there, but let’s just say for now that I’ve been watching the weather there for the past week: highs in the 50s, lows in the 40s, rain most of the time.

Heaven.

Which is great because, well, late summer in Wisconsin has kinda been hell for me. The last time I returned from the Ice, I spent a rainy, chilly month in Tasmania first (sort of like visiting  Endor while transiting from Hoth to Naboo) and arrived here in December, when the cold and limited sunlight were jussst riiiiiiight.

The temperature and dewpoint have sapped my energy and soured my stomach, while the sun burns my eyes and makes me feel a strange affinity for the Twilight gang that I never expected. I thought I’d acclimate, but when I didn’t and this Norway option presented itself, well, it was no contest.

Although I’m thrilled to be heading to one of my favorite countries and getting to see an area of it that I’ve always yearned to visit, I’m also looking even further ahead. Shortly after I return in mid-October, I’ll be doing a book launch, signing/reading event for my novel Plaguewalker at an indie bookseller. That’s going to be nerve-wracking for me, but it’s also kind of exciting.

Don’t worry, I’ll be posting more details as we get closer to the event. I’ve never done such a thing before, but, as I told some friends, I’m sure to be overcaffeinated, rambly and at least as entertaining as Clint Eastwood scolding a chair.

When I return from Norway, I’m also going to start on the most harrowing journey I’ve ever taken. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I laid the groundwork for it tonight by attending an orientation at the local animal control center.

Spending a lot of time in Antarctica does tend to clarify things, and one of the things I decided was that I wanted to do more to help animals than just clicking the “donate” button at BestFriends.org. I thought of volunteering at the no-kill humane society out in the ‘burbs, but then a friend told me about a concerted effort “the pound” is making to find forever homes, or at least foster families, for their animals.

Oh, one thing you should know about me: I don’t go to animal shelters. Haven’t been in more than 20 years, because the last time I went, driving a friend who was picking up a puppy for her dad as a birthday gift, I ended up a bawling, sobbing wreck, wailing in the car and waiting for her to come out already.

I get so verklempt because I hate it when people are irresponsible (two words, people: Spay. Neuter.). I hate it more when animals suffer at the hands of people. Hey, I know in the real world animals eat other animals every day, but it’s different. They’re animals. That’s how they eat, or defend their territory. Simple logic. We’re humans. There is absolutely no reason a cat should ever be swung by its tail, or a dog cattle-prodded into attacking another dog.

(If you’re wondering whether I’ve gone vegan, no…though I try hard to get my dairy from happy cows and goats and eggs from happy chickens. And I still wear leather and put gelatin in my panna cotta. But I don’t feel that puts me in the same class as Michael Vick.)

Anyway…

So it was a very big decision for me to get involved in volunteering like this, particularly at a place where the majority of animals they take in still end up getting euthanized. My motivation was to do at least a little good for a few, to make their days in that place, however they end up, a little better.

And I kept it together pretty well. At first.

The first part of the orientation was your standard meet and greet, here’s what we do, let’s review the handbook sort of thing.

The best part of that–of the whole evening–was when two cats walked into the conference room. Wow. They were the biggest cats I’ve ever seen. Both a little chubby, but just in terms of bone structure. Mammoths. Two enormous gray tabbies that didn’t so much walk as strut. You know that cliche scene in every action movie when the hero gets out of his car or walks into the room or saunters away from the exploding villain, always in slow motion, usually wearing sunglasses, while the soundtrack is pounding with epic metal bass? You know, the “Badass” moment?

Yeah. That’s how these cats walked. They both came right up to me of all people, and received my patented Kitty Skull Massage (cats love it) and well as copious amounts of chin rubbing and ear scratching.

Both Ultimate Badass cats are actually staff members.

Every dog considered for adoption or fostering has its temperament assessed with a series of exposures involving food, toys, and so on. That’s pretty standard in shelters across the country. To assess how a dog feels about the hand that feeds it, they stick a rubber fake hand in its face. To assess how a dog might do around a baby, they put a rubber doll near it and play recorded baby noises.

But when it’s time to assess how the dog might react to a cat, they don’t give it a rubber cat. They bring in one of these guys.

Yeah, the Ultimate Badass Cats earned their struts, going face-to-face with who knows how many dogs of all sizes and undetermined aggression.

No wonder they walked around the room with enough confidence to make a lion feel insecure.

The second half of the orientation was a tour of the facility. I was okay at first, rattled only slightly in the cat room and minimally misty-eyed in the kitten ward. But then we went into one of the dog rooms and yeah, I lost it. It’s the old dogs that always get me. And there were so many.

I started to feel ridiculous thinking I could do this. I have growled “we won the cold war!” to Russian gangsters in their mother tongue, I’ve hiked and camped through a hurricane alone on a reputedly haunted Icelandic moor, I had cancer, for crissakes, but give me a moment of eye contact with a scared, shivering mixed breed behind bars and I’m reduced to a weeping pile of boneless goo.

Then the orientation trainer mentioned that the first tier of volunteering is doing the dishes and laundry for a certain number of hours before you can advance to dog walking and cat socializing. She told us she knew everyone wanted to play with the animals, but the grunt work was just as important, because if volunteers don’t do it, the staff has to, which means less time they can spend temperament testing, arranging transfers to no-kill shelters and otherwise preparing the animals for adoption.

And that made me really happy. Because you can do the laundry and wash the feeding dishes without ever walking past any of the kennels or catteries. You can do good, in other words, without ever having to see those you’re doing the good for.

Upon return from Norway, I’ll be investing in a pair of heavy duty dishwashing gloves.

A Farewell To Ice

My final day at McMurdo, after finishing work (yes, I had to work), vacuuming my room a final time and packing a sandwich for the plane, I headed out to Hut Point. This was back on Thursday, Ice-time (Wednesday in the States), and the skies had finally cleared.

Antarctica gave me a final gift on that walk. As I turned the corner, I saw the sun, the actual sun, setting gloriously on the northwest horizon. I hadn’t seen the sun since sometime in early April, but aside from that novelty, the sky itself was another stunner, a beautiful expanse of color and light.

The sun from Hut Point, 23 August 2012

It moved me, knowing this was the last Antarctic sky I’d see. It moved me so much I began to compose some poetry in my head which, given that I generally despise poetry, is saying something.

Close-up of sun over Tent Island

After sitting out at Hut Point for a while, I headed back to catch transport–in the Ice-iconic Ivan the Terra Bus–out to the airfield. By the time we arrived, it was night, and bitterly cold but clear and more or less calm.

Me and Ivan, one of us wearing a less-than-flattering puffy parka. Every time I wore my Big Red I felt like I was in one of those padded sumo wrestler costumes.

After days of storms–with another big system moving in later that night–the C17 was able to land in a brief window of opportunity. Watching its lights materialize out of the ink of an Antarctic night, I admit I felt a little too tired to think big thoughts. By the time it touched down, I’d been up for about 18 hours and was not relishing the five-hour flight and early morning arrival in Christchurch.

We waited outside in what felt like minus 40 territory for several minutes as puffy red parkas emerged from the plane, more than a hundred of them. Then it was time to board. In the last hundred feet or so, I realized this was it, I really was leaving, and I pulled down my gaiter to take in a few last big lungfuls of Antarctic air, cold and dry but so wonderful.

And then we flew away, and it was over.

The flight was alarmingly bumpy for the first hour but otherwise uneventful. Two years ago getting on a C17 for the first time was a big deal to me, but now it’s just another plane. We got to our hotel in Christchurch around 2:30 am. I was up again four hours later to run some errands, mailing some things to myself so I wouldn’t have to carry them and picking up my travel itinerary for the long journey back to the States.

Due to the numerous weather delays getting out of McMurdo, I ended up having to stay an extra day in Christchurch before they could book a flight for me. But I’ve got no complaints. After feasting on fresh mango and passionfruit, I rented a car and drove to Hanmer Springs, about 100 miles outside of town. There, in the warm-but-not-too-warm alpine air, I sat for an hour in the spring-fed, mineral-infused “therapy pool.” In the shade, of course, my face half-hidden behind my enormous Posh Spice sunglasses.

Hanmer Springs

Curiously, I didn’t feel odd being in my swimsuit in the open air. It was earlier in the day that I’d had a couple re-entry freakouts.

The first happened when I took the stairs from my fourth-floor hotel room down to reception, then to the breakfast room on the third floor. I haven’t been in a building with more than two levels since February and it was kind of exciting: look! I can go up a flight, and then another flight, then down a flight and up two flights…hoo boy, I went wild on those stairs!

I am totally not making that up. For reals, yo.

The second freakout happened as I was driving to Hanmer. I was all cool and experienced world travelery about booking a car, picking it up, heading out on the left side of the road through a city I feel I know as well as any other. I love driving in New Zealand. I just find the roads very logical and pleasant, and there’s never an insane amount of traffic. Generally speaking, New Zealand drivers tend to be assertive and confident but not aggressive, illogical or prone to road rage. And, perhaps because I’m left-handed, I prefer driving on the left.

Typical New Zealand road view. Frog Rock at Weka Pass, halfway between Christchurch and Hanmer Springs.

In any case, things were going smoothly until my brain kind of shrieked and went “Aah! I’m on a road! I’m driving a car on a road! There’s grass and sheep on either side of me! Good God, what’s happened?”

I recovered before swerving off the road, but it was a shock.

After soaking at Hanmer, I had my face sandblasted. Okay, the spa there calls it a “Resurfacing Peel Facial” but we all know what’s going on. I drove back to Christchurch and got a Limbo, my favorite pizza from Hell (as in Hell Pizza, the most awesomest pizza chain ever. I wish they were in the States).

Sadly, I failed to stay awake long enough to see the All Blacks thump Australia in rugby, but the next morning I was up early and headed to the Red Zone.

Christchurch is still recovering from the series of big quakes that have struck the city over the past two years. The one in February 2011 was not the largest, seismically-speaking, but it was the most devastating. It was extremely shallow and, unfortunately, located not only close to the city’s center but in a spot that meant all of its energy was directed right at Christchurch.

Salvaged top of spire of Christchurch Cathedral, which fell more than a hundred feet to the ground during the February 2011 quake when the entire tower below it collapsed. The piece is on display at Canterbury Museum.

As I understood from a special exhibit at the Canterbury Museum, the quake happened south of the city with more quake-resistant, for want of a better term, volcanic rock to the south, east and west of its epicenter. The energy released took the path of least resistance and went rolling right into the city’s soft soils and sands and high water table. Liquefaction was rampant and, according to the exhibit, the actual shaking produced by the quake on the surface was the most violent ever recorded anywhere.

Quake damage, Red Zone, 25 August 2012

This was my fourth time in Christchurch since the February 2011 quake, and each time I’ve watched the Red Zone shrink. The Red Zone is basically what was the center of the city. It is where most of the 185 victims of the quake lost their lives as multi-story office buildings pancaked and caught fire and facades fell off shops and on top of people and vehicles.

Site of the CTV building, a parking garage converted into an office building, which pancaked and caught fire. More than half of those killed in the February 2011 quake, well over a hundred, died there.

The Red Zone includes many of the city’s most iconic and Heritage-listed buildings, including the Cathedral, which was almost completely destroyed in the February quake.

Remains of Christchurch Cathedral, 25 August 2012. Completely collapsed tower in foreground.

As buildings have been demolished, including the 22-story Grand Chancellor, Christchurch’s tallest building, the Red Zone has been reduced to something like a tenth of its size. Access to the zone is controlled by the military and casual traffic is prohibited.

The local bus company recently started offering “Beyond the Cordon” tours, however, and you bet I made sure I was on one. Unfortunately, the tour itself was just driving through the Red Zone, never getting out, and our tour guide was, well, she was not the best person for the job. (Other Icepeeps took the tour at another time and had a different tour guide, who was much more positive and informative, so it’s hit-or-miss and I’d still encourage you to take the tour if you have the chance.)

Another block of destruction. Left center of the photo is the former site of the Grand Chancellor Hotel. The building just to its right, with the multicolored blocks, is the former Hotel So.

The tour guide I had represented a curious phenomenon I’ve noticed during my post-quake visits to the city. I’m making a gross generalization here, of course, but this is what I’ve found, anecdotally: post-menopausal women are total downers.

Wait, let me explain.

I’ve talked to a number of people–shop owners, Kiwi employees of the US Antarctic Program, hotel workers, random folks on the bus–about the quake. I realize it was a horrible and largely unforeseen tragedy–although New Zealand is one of the world’s most seismically active countries, this particular fault was not known at the start of all this trouble and also, once they started studying it, was not expected to throw such a hissyfit. But most of the Kiwis I’ve talked to have taken a “well, what can ya do, mate, it’s a bit tough now but we’ll get back on our feet” attitude.

Shand’s Building, one of the oldest in Christchurch (built circa 1860) survived the quake but became unstable when buildings on either side of it had to be demolished. Its fate remains uncertain but our guide said it would likely be taken apart and reassembled at a nearby heritage park.

But…not the biddies. I have run into a number of older women who seem, for want of a better way to describe it, stuck in quakemode and, many of them, anyway, kind of relishing it. There’s the woman who no longer blow dries her hair because the power went out while she was doing that during the quake and she fears it will happen again. There was the woman who followed me from pool to pool when I was at Hanmer last year, telling me in tedious detail about how she was her husband’s caretaker since his stroke but couldn’t get him out of the house during the quake (he and the house survived, by the way, unscathed). Then there was the utterly insane bus driver who ignored people signalling for her to stop and floored it well over the speed limit as she regaled me, her only passenger, with tales of how many different sleeping pills and antidepressants she was on since the quake.

I mean, seriously.

It made me wonder if it was just by chance that I’ve run into the crazy quake ladies or if there is something about women of that age, either in general or from that particular generation, that makes them so, well, unable to cope with change or find the positive in bad situations. I dunno. But our tour guide was a member of Tribe Eeyore.

She was a bit mumbly and hard to hear and unrelentingly glum. She was constantly making asides such as “This street was where we would come for a nice meal. We can’t do that anymore.” At one point she said “there’s a tribute to the victims but I can’t bear to point it out.” I was one of seven people on the tour and the only one taking photos, and every time I did, she glared at me.

I’m pretty sure the tall building in the background is the old ASB building, for those familiar with CHC. It’s the one that was kittycorner across Cashel St. from the Grand Chancellor and Hotel So.

Look, lady, I’m truly sorry Christchurch, a rather nice city, has been devastated. I’m sorry people were killed and injured. I’m sorry for the massive economic losses suffered throughout the region. I’m sorry your flat was near two homes wiped out in the Port Hills. But…let’s face it. You are leading a tour. You are a representative of Christchurch and how the city is coping in the aftermath of the quake. As someone who has worked as a tour guide, I know damn well your job is to guide the tour, not to elict pity for your problems. The microphone is not a license to vent. I don’t expect you to be perky or to take any joy from what’s happened, but I do expect you to provide information in an engaging and elucidating manner.

I didn’t say anything–my experience with quake biddies has taught me it’s pointless, and the other six people on my tour were older couples who dutifully clucked their tongues in sympathy over her every grumble. In any case, it was a bit of a disappointment but I’m still glad I got to see the streets I know so well, and that the mighty and much loved Hotel So (officially the Christchurch-Cashel All Seasons Hotel since being sold in late 2010 but always the So in my heart) is still standing and unscathed, despite being right next to the Grand Chancellor.

Hotel So…still standing. And that makes me happy.

After touring the Red Zone and checking out the new earthquake exhibit at the musuem (fun fact: Christchurch has experienced more than 11,000 aftershocks from the initial September 2010 quake), I walked to the bus station and grabbed a ride out to the beach resort of Sumner, another spot hard hit by the quake.

Sumner Beach, 25 August 2012

It was low, low, low tide, the water a long walk out, but it felt fantastic to walk barefoot in the sand, splash in the surf, pet a curious pug (the many other dogs on the beach were too focused on fetching tennis balls, but he ran right over to me) and smell the briny air.

After getting back to my hotel, I took a deliciously long bath in bright violaceous, cassia-scented water courtesy of the Phoenix Rising bath ballistic I’d bought earlier in the day at Lush. I tried to finish the selection of New Zealand cheeses that I’d bought but failed and ended up leaving a good amount in my hotel room fridge. Oh well. The whole eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach thing.

Then I….thought about packing. Yup. Gave it a good long think and had another piece of cheese. Around midnight I finally started to try to organize myself. The shuttle to the airport came at 3:45 and I was just ready.

From there it was a long cycle of boarding and disembarking, with tight squeezes and leg cramps in between–every seat of every single flight I was on was full. Christchurch to Melbourne was unremarkable. Melbourne to Los Angeles, alas, was a miserably long flight, memorable mostly for a flight attendant foisting a mushroom and cheese pizza on me, claiming “it is refreshment!” (Okay, English was not her first language but still…pizza is many things, but “refreshing” really isn’t one of them).

Los Angeles was the usual nightmare, but at least I had free WiFi and a Starbucks before getting on the plane to Chicago. I had to dash from the far end of Concourse H to the far end of Concourse G at O’Hare with 15 minutes to catch my puddle-jumper to Milwaukee. My friends the Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird and her Cabin Boy and their boy-child, Admiral Smallpants, were waiting for me. After filing a claim for my lost luggage (finally delivered a couple hours ago), we were off, crusing past Lake Michigan over the Hoan Bridge.

So here I am. I have a long list of to-dos, most of which are of the no fun at all variety, and it feels like Antarctica was a dream, that it’s a place I’ve only imagined. Then I look at my photos and remember, oh yeah. I was there. I did that.

And, while I can’t bring myself to write down my “poem” (too embarrassing), here it is distilled into more palatable prose:

That is one big penguin. Sign outside the International Antarctic Centre tourist attraction in Christchurch.

The snow is new. It stretches before me, a smooth and pale periwinkle in winter twilight, when this world colors in shades of gray and blue and purple. In places the snow curves in tall drifts or lies rumpled over an outcropping of black volcanic rock, hidden until the wind decides to resculpt the landscape and reveal it.

Mount Discovery, 23 August 2012

My boots crunch and squeak on the dry powder, leaving a trail of perfect imprints behind me in the emptiness. Ahead of me, the sun hides behind a low cloud. As it emerges, I catch sight of it for the first time in months, and find that, like an old and true friend, I did not miss it while we were apart but am glad to see it again.

Tent Island in McMurdo Sound, 23 August 2012

The sun colors the sky in brilliant shades of flame, crimson and orange and yellow, but it is waging a losing battle against the darkness that seeps from the south with its own palette. The ice and snow turn lavender, cornflower, violet and lilac—at twilight this world blooms with colors named for flowers that will never grow here.

White Island, McMurdo Sound, 23 August 2012

As the light fades, the landscape loses a dimension, flattening like a canvas awaiting brushstrokes of the imagination.

I sit beside a hut built a century ago, where men patched sweaters with clumsy stitches by seal oil lamplight, not knowing if they would ever see the masts of a ship rising from the north horizon, promising rescue.

I do not need rescue, but it is coming for me anyway, a great metal brute of a bird determined to pluck me from this place like a skua stealing a sandwich out of your hands.

But not yet. So I sit and watch the sun as it slides down to rest beneath the pale sea ice. It is the same sun that sets over sand dunes and dark stretches of taiga, over skyscrapers and apple orchards, over places so far from here that they surely must be imagined.

When the sun at last is gone, I know it is time for me to go, too. So I start the long walk back, leaving another set of bootprints in the snow. In days, or hours, or minutes, the wind will sweep across my tracks like a determined old woman with a broom, scouring them down to the very rock, or hiding them beneath new snow, wiping all trace of me away and clearing the canvas for the next set of boots and dreams.

Soon, only the wind and I will know that I was here.

Royal Society Mountains, 23 August 2012

Creeping In This Petty Pace

So, I woke up this morning and got dressed for work and headed to the galley and, well, passed the weather condition scroll.

Good morning to me. That kinda says it all.

We’ve been vacillating betwixt Condition One and Two (the two most severe weather conditions) all morning as the second of two winter storms, the bruiser of the pair, parks itself over us.

Back door of Building 155

It’s actually fairly warm out now, a mere minus 4F with a windchill in the minus 30s. And that’s why it’s storming. It’s generally very clear out when it’s very cold (I realize calling minus 4F warm is a relative term, but trust me on this).

Unintentional artsy shot when my flash went off, in town, Con2.

After I finished with work, I shot this video standing just outside a back door of Building 155 when it was officially Con2. Not sure why there’s no sound till :13. The bright white light atop a particularly tall telephone pole in the middle of the video is our low-tech weather alert system. The bright white light tells everyone within sight that it’s Con2.

I came back in, started uploading the video above to YouTube and headed to the laundry room, where I was greeted with much excitement by a coworker (and first-time WinterOver) who was jubilant that Con1 had just been declared. I threw my clothes in, grabbed my camera and went back out, back to the same spot I’d shot the Con2 footage not ten minutes earlier, and this is what it looked like at Con1:

Yes, that is me screaming like a little girl toward the end of the video when the wind nearly knocks me off my feet. You’ll notice the Con2 light has gone out.

I am serene about the weather, though I do find the constant teasing from people leaving in October to be more than tedious at this point. (If one more person points out to me “hey, you’re still here! HAHAHAHAHA!” the station population of 153 may drop by one, and not because I’ve started walking north across the sea ice.)

I will say it’s kind of cute to see the rookie winter-overs so excited about finally getting to see a Con1 after six months of rather dull weather.

They cancelled today’s twice-delayed flight again this morning. They’re saying tomorrow is the day we’re leaving for sure.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…