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07.12.2010

Mission: Burfjord

On my fourth day in a remote cabin up in Norway my host Ivar asks me if I would like to come along on a day trip to Burfjord, a little town on the mainland about forty minutes away.

I don't have to think twice. Going to the mainland means a chance to charge my camera battery, use a flush toilet, and buy some groceries without having to carry them home on my back. And I know for a fact that Burfjord has TWO grocery stores - I can, if I wish, shop around. Ivar warns me that the weather is worsening and we may end up windbound for many hours in town, but I am not easily deterred. "Well," he says, "I suppose anywhere is interesting the first time. Even Burfjord."

The day is a little breezy, but it's warm enough to be out without a jacket. Still, I put on a pair of special insulating overalls for the boat ride. They feel insufferably hot on land but are a grateful presence after five minutes on the water. They are also buoyant, so that if the boat capsizes we can have the satisfaction of dying of hypothermia rather than drowning.

The sea is already quite choppy as we pass the shelter of the main breakwater. Even in the larger boat, motoring along at twenty knots feels like falling down a flight of stairs while holding a bucket of seawater. The distance between waves is almost equal to the length of our keel, and so every ten seconds or so the boat falls into a resonance and starts leaping higher and higher in the air, forcing us to slow down for a few seconds in order to break the spell.

Some five minutes after leaving port, Ivar swerves the boat very suddenly to avoid hitting a whale that he sees at the last second. "It's too bad we missed," he says, "the meat is excellent". The whales are invisible to me, but every few minutes we get passed by a puffin, crusing low above the water with a dignity completely unbefitting its little clown beak. If you can imagine a cross between a penguin and a toucan, then you have gone a long way towards imagining a puffin. They are numerous over the open water but I never manage to spot one on land.

The only other boats out today are trawlers fishing for prawns. Each trawler is followed by a swirling cloud of gulls, looking for an easy meal. The gulls steal food from fishermen in any way they can, and the fishermen even the score by stealing eggs from the gulls during the spring laying season. Gull eggs are large, bigger than a goose egg, and come in a mottled camouflage pattern. The cooked egg white is translucent and somehow contrives to have less flavor than the white of a chicken egg, but the extremely rich yolk makes the meal worth it. It's legal to pick these eggs without restriction, I learn later, but if you steal too many from a single bird it will finish the season by laying a final miniature, yolkless egg, and you may feel quite guilty indeed.

Seagulls are so tightly linked in my mind to urban garbage dumps and dirty beaches that I have quite a hard time accepting them as regular animals, making their living here amid postcard scenery. It's like seeing pigeons or sewer rats out in the wild. But of course this is the kind of place gulls come from; a landfill is a sumptuous feast rather than a necessity of life.

Those gull eggs that don't make it to a Norwegian table soon hatch into a surprisingly large ball of fluff very adept at hiding among the rocks while its parents are out stealing more prawns. If you get too close to its hiding place, the fluff ball waddles away from you in a panic, then freezes motionless and nearly invisible on the nearest patch of grey stone.

Justifying all the gull chick's anxieties is the elegant and lazy sea eagle, who every day makes his rounds above the island doing his very best never to have to flap his wings. The gulls know what he is up to and harrass him by diving at him and trying to stall his wing. The sea eagle bears this with fortitude, sometimes finding an upcurrent that lets him soar to high altitude, where the gulls (who have to flap as hard as they can to match his speed) don't have the strength to follow. The sea eagle is basically just a bald eagle in different livery, repackaged to meet the demands of the European market. Here his head is the same brown color as his body, though he retains the pretty white tail of his American cousin.

On the water there are many grey geese and eider ducks. Many of the geese trail a flotilla of a half dozen tiny goslings, surprisingly seaworthy. The eider ducks don't look like much, but a duvet cover made from their down sells for as much as a new car. Their tiny bits of fluff, which have amazing thermal properties, have to be painstakingly gathered by hand from cliffside duck nests by fully unionized Scandinavian workers who are required by statute to receive 25 vacation days a year, massive amounts of parental leave, and a living wage in a country that considers $30 to be the right price for a pizza. So the cost of an eiderdown anything is astronomical.

Before synthetic fills were invented, the eider was the Cadillac of sleeping bags, especially for Polar exploration, because of the combination of light weight and unparalleled insulating power. Now it's the material of choice for rich people in all climates. If you can afford the luxury of a cozy eiderdown bedspread, you can likely also afford the cost of air conditioning your house to the low temperature required to sleep under it. Someday someone will figure out how to put this stuff through a civet cat and throw an Apple logo onto it, and then we will have the ultimate luxury.

As we round a cape and turn towards the base of the fjord, the waves calm down a bit and human settlement picks up. Soon there are power lines, phone lines, and then the very backbone of civilization itself, the paved coastal road that runs all the way from Oslo to Kirkenes. A typical farm in northern Norway consists of a main house, a boathouse, and some outbuildings. Everything is new. When the Germans retreated in 1944, they burned this entire province to the ground with legendary Teutonic thoroughness, and the Norwegians have rebuilt with legendary Scandinavian uniformity of design. The result is identical buildings of different colors at a very, very low density, like a scattered Levittown.

Burfjord, population 397, rises out of the mist in the form of an empty pier and a service station. We lash the boat to the pier in anticipation of rough weather and penetrate inland, where Ivar gives me a tour d'horizon. Two grocery stores face off across a small street, each a cube of corrugated sheet metal, containing miracles of transportation like the five-dollar mango. Later on I will stand in one of these stores in front of a pyramid of Coke Zero bottles and consider the fact that a whole infrastructure exists for bringing this substance of no nutritional value from wherever it's bottled in Europe up to a place like this. I happen to love Coke Zero and whatever cyclopyrimidines or butylated phenols give it its weird fake sweetness, but seeing it stacked in quantity after coming off an island where everything has to be carried in by hand gives me pause. I feel like the Burfjord grocery store will someday form part of a sanctimonious diorama about the folly of late-period humanity in someone's well-meaning, sustainably-built museum or alien terrarium, and the thought fills me with irritation in advance. I buy a large bottle of the stuff as my way of shaking a fist at the future.

The social center of Burfjord is the small service station with attendant cafe. All the rest of the buildings in Burfjord seem to be owned by the government. There is a school, hospital, nursing home, administrative center, and some kind of cultural meeting hall. Like in a lot of remote outposts of the first world, pretty much everyone in Burfjord is employed in bringing social services to other people in Burfjord. One way to see this is as a hideous waste of taxpayer dollars in support of unsustainably fragmented communities; a different way to see this is as an acknowledgement that the only way to preserve a way of life that makes the region so attractive to visitors is to make it feasible for people to continue to live there without turning it into a tourist theme park.

Norway, as a rich country, has the luxury of pursuing this policy quite directly. There are strict limits on food imports, for example. If by Herculean effort a crop manages to grow in Norway, then by God you will have to pay if you want to buy its non-Norwegian equivalent. If you come down with an exotic disease in Burfjord, then the government will make sure you can videoconference in with a specialist in Oslo, and if you don't speak Norwegian they'll throw a translator in the mix at no charge. The point is to prevent the country from draining into its two or three main urban centers, and losing a distinctive tradition of stoic small farming under ridiculous climactic conditions. Otherwise Norway would just be another Canada, with fjords.

My haven in Burfjord is the local public library, a cheerful little space full of comfortable chairs that seems to share space with the waiting room to a local clinic. One of the first things I see on the magazine rack is a glossy thick booklet, in Polish, called "Welcome! Things to Know About Living in Norway". Norway is extremely popular with Polish workers, who as EU members are allowed to work here with minimal formalities. There are over 120,000 Poles in Norway doing construction, driving trucks, performing seasonal and domestic labor, and working as nurses and caretakers. The appeal to Poles is obvious. Compared to back home, the salaries are princely and you get the full protection of the mighty hammer of Thor that is Norwegian labor law, which it takes half the booklet just to summarize.

By the time Ivar's meeting is over, I have learned all about my rights and obligations as a Norwegian guest worker, the several types of personal identification numbers, and how car ownership would require an expensive series of annual rituals and sacrifices that would give pause to some of the world's major religions.

My ride back to Spildra is the scrappy little commuter ferry that connects the various communities in Kvænangen. Ivar has decided to stay the night in Burfjord and wait for the weather to clear a little bit, so I am condemned to lug my groceries home on foot after all. Compared to the boat, the ferry is a luxuriously smooth ride. It's a small twin-hulled catamaran with room for about fifty people that zips along at something like thirty miles an hour. The boat is clearly designed for rough weather and for the needs of locals who have a lot of stuff to lug. If you have a pallet of furniture and a large ATV you need brought with you, you just tow it to the dock and make sure things are tied down tight. One of the young ferry operators hooks it with the ferry's miniature crane, lowers it into the hold, and reverses the operation when you get to your stop.

Half an hour after we depart the ferry drops me at Dunvik pier to start the walk back to my cabin. Burfjord is now mercifully hidden by a long spit of land to the southwest. Within ten minutes I am out of sight of all the houses and all I see are comic book mountains and open water. But all around me are the invisible tendrils of Scandinavian socialism, just watching and waiting for a single moment of weakness in order to strike, and provide me with skilful medical attention, or rescue me from the sea, or show me that despite my efforts to hide from the world entirely I am standing on a spot with five bars of cell phone coverage.

I can see the sea eagle circling high above me, but a cold voice in my heart whispers that he has already been banded. I have left my illusions in Burfjord.

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