Oh, look. More water. (One of the world’s most stunning water journeys, represented by the dullest portion of it.)
Pics from a drive through Western Norway some six months ago, forgotten until I got stung by a wasp yesterday (which in late September is kind of an off-season event. The off-season-ness is the key here. It’s not that arbitrary. Really).
Caution! Danger! Stop! Keep off! Do! Don’t! Warning: this blog post may contain words and pictures.
It’s the little things. Travelling the US, there are of course quite a few things that sets the country apart from the one you call home. Like the fondness for melted cheese, Jesus and fireworks, for example. Or that strange belief in guns.
But when asked what’s really different in the US, I think of the little things. Like why are all shower heads wall-mounted and not fitted with a hose? And how come it’s so hard to get a small coffee? (12oz is a third of a litre and in no reasonable understanding of the word a small portion.)
And then – of course – you have that tendency of micromanaging banalities – that overwhelming abundance of useless signs.
Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate a good sign. When my girlfriend and my GPS are having one of their usual arguments, I very much appreciate an easy-to-read sign telling me the directions to where we’re supposed to be going. Or a proper warning sign, warning me of dangers I’d otherwise be ignorant of. Yup, they’re good. So sure, a useful sign is useful, no surprise there.
But oh so many aren’t.
noun \ˈde-zərt\ a barren area of land with little precipitation, hostile living conditions and lots of casinos.
This was the second year in the row we spent one month in the US. Last year was sort of a trial run. We did the East coast. And the Midwest. The South. And, yes, a bit of Canada. One lesson learned: driving 5,000 miles on the Interstates in a big SUV is boring. Also: plans are bad. I started this piece of writing while we were waiting for our laundry in a laundromat in Fort Bragg, North California. Where we were going that evening, we didn’t know, except that we should probably end up somewhere in the Bay area. That was our modus operandi for over four weeks. We arrived in LA knowing we would pick up a rental car for a month, that we should avoid the Interstates at all cost and – that’s basically it. Chance, coincidences, would bring us on from that. And having spent no time in LA at all, we went straight for the desert.
“I can’t for the life of me understand what appeal the desert holds with you guys,” said a casino employee in Nevada. I don’t know exactly what group of people he was referring to with “you guys,” except that I somehow belonged to it. Then again, I can’t for the life of me understand what appeal a casino holds with anyone either, so I guess we were on much the same level in our not understanding each other. Well, each to his own. Some prefer
air-conditioned slot machines. I prefer a lonely heatstroke.* A breakfast cook in California thought she had an explanation for this: “It’s the topography,” she said. Whether she meant the actual topography of the desert, or the mental topography of the Nordic traveller, I am not entirely sure, but I suspect it was a bit of both. She was the sort of breakfast cook that had a special understanding of those things.
* Not really.
One bed, two towels, an empty fridge posing as a minibar and a view straight into the neighbouring office building where bored temps have seen it all before.
It’s the telephone area code for the eastern two- thirds of Washington, the year AD when King Sigobert The Lame was killed by his son Chlodoric, the Guinness World Record number of candles blown out simultaneously and the smallest Sophie Germain prime to start a 4-term Cunningham chain of the first kind (whatever that means). And it’s yet another hotel room. I’m sure that I’ve stayed at rooms numbered 509 that’s been a-okay. This was merely so-so.
Beyond the picture perfect beauty of Hardanger, the backside of the postcard is even more alluring.
The sound of Hardanger is very much the a cappella vocal approval of the visiting tourists, going “ooh” and “aah” and “sehr schön” and “ain’t that just lovely.” With hillsides clad in apple blossoms and snow-capped mountains diving into the blue-green waters of the fjord, Hardanger is the epitome of Norwegian romantic nationalism. I once took an English writer for a week long trip around these fjords in my old Ford Fiesta. That trip ended up as a nine page story in KLM’s inflight magazine – under the headline “Fjord Fiesta.” I’ve worked with other seasoned travel writers producing travel stories from this region as well, and more than once have heard them say: “I thought I was blasé, but this..!”
But this. This – as in the picture perfect postcard Hardanger – only exist between May and September. There are other sides to Hardanger as well. There is an end of the fjord. And Sørfjorden – the Southern Fjord – infamously known as the fjord that God forgot – ends in Odda.
Here, in this small industrial town built around a smelting plant now closed, two friends since childhood have spent most of the day in the kitchen. One of them – the hotel manager – is just off night watch and has chosen cooking over sleep. The other put on the roast even before going to bed from the party the night before (drunk slow roast – now that’s lovely). The table is set with white linens and the best dining wares. Several bottles of Amarone are breathing nicely, the fish soup starter has been simmering for hours and all is ready for one hell of a nice dinner. Oh, and I’m invited. Only that I don’t know. Not that it’s supposed to be a secret in any way, but my friend and colleague – the director of the fjordside mischief TV-series “Fjorden Cowboys” – just sort of forgot to mention it.
So there you have it. A short hour prior to the best meal I’ll have in quite a while, I’m sitting at a roadside tavern – under a confederate flag, no less – eating a roadside hamburger and spoiling my appetite. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. After all, the reason why I’m in Odda this March weekend, is to embrace the sudden and make a series of portraits based on chance meetings. I started the day talking to a guy feeding birds along the wharf. His name was Sigfred.
– So, Sigfred, how do you spend your days?
– From three minutes past two till five o’clock I listen to the radio. Other than that I feed the ducks.
Simple as that. Yet not simple at all. Sigfred told me he used to work at the zink plant, that’s the other giant smelting plant in the small town of Odda. And this goes for most of the people I meet this weekend. Most all of them are in some way connected to either the industry, the agriculture or both. Odda – the smelting plant town – and the fjords are in themselves a melting pot of both old farm culture and industrial identity, my friend Hildegunn Wærness tells me. And this blend of cultures has created some very tough and strong willed men and women – some of whom Hildegunn decided would make for great TV.
The result – the hit TV show “Fjorden Cowboys” – explores and celebrates Norwegian macho culture through the exploits of two entrepreneuring buddies who wear hats, love dynamite, talk trash and drink hard cider straight from the jerry can.
Last summer, I took a commision from the TV channel who was to air this show, to produce a set of promotional photos. This turned out to be one of the most fun jobs I did through all of 2013, but I was also left with a feeling that there were way more interesting people this end of the fjord than just the two main characters and their entourage.
For over half a year I had this urge to go back and make a portrait series from Odda and Sørfjorden, to explore the landscape beyond the picture perfect postcard. To meet with people that might have chosen to live a life slightly deviating from the norm of conformity – and make no mistake – I do mean that as a compliment.
So there we were – the director and me – on an adventure in the dark winter fjords – hoping to meet interesting people, to photograph them and maybe enjoy a drink in their company. And that we surely did. To such an extent that one of us incidentally failed to mention to the other that we had a dinner invitation.
For that I was mad for about five minutes. Then I remembered a quote from one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut: “Curious travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Not that I’m religious, even less than the man with the guitar who earlier that day had sung to us: “I’m not religious – but I believe when I have to” – but as a reminder to embrace the sudden and unexpected, these words of Vonnegut are themselves good travel companions.
So off to dinner we went, me not quite as hungry as I would’ve liked to be, still expecting it to be brilliant. It was.
Strangely, drunkenly, Twin Peaks-ishly brilliant. Just as the end of the fjord itself.
Ever had a staring contest with dinner?
When I photograph food for clients, we’re usually speaking of the gourmet stuff, prepared and styled to look its very best: let’s say scallops hand picked by the restaurant’s own divers, seared to perfection and carefully arranged in their shells on a sculpted mound of sea salt and… you get the picture. All at a price point that could probably get you a decent secondhand car in any former Soviet satellite state.
This is of course pretty far removed from what most of us consider everyday meals. But on the opposite end of the scale, and for many as equally removed from the everyday as a Michelin starred restaurant, you find the hardcore tradionalism. Food customs observed through nostalgia, mostly by the older generation. Such as Skull Sunday.
Let’s set the scene. I wake up in a tiny bedroom in my grandmother’s house on the island of Bremanger. My dad or perhaps one of his brothers must have slept here as a kid. Old music posters of Ian Anderson, Marc Bolan, Suzi Quatro and some local 70s bands unheard of even in Norway are still gracing the walls, or rather, covering holes in even older wallpaper. Fat, lazy winter flies are buzzing like small drunken helicopters. Gusts of wind reaching storm strength are shaking the entire house, having torn off the roof of a community house a few nights before. In a basement periodically flooded, on an old electrical stove top, sheep heads are boiling.
Skjeltesøndag – literally “skull sunday” – is traditionally a local variation on the old concept of the dirty Sunday, the last Sunday before Christmas when after cleaning the house one was allowed to wear everyday clothes to the dinner table, to save one’s formal attire for Christmas. In the same vein, one was also supposed to save the good foods for Christmas, on this day eating lesser foods such as the heads of sheep. Only that somewhere along the way sheep heads made the transition from a lesser food to something of a celebration in itself. A delicacy, actually.
Is it any good?
Actually, the meat is quite tasty, this is after all, just lamb meat. But I’ll willingly admit that I find the overall experience quite disturbing. There is something about food that stares back.
Speaking of which – do you eat the eye?
Hell no. But my great grandmother did. Lustily, I am told.
Is it even legal?
Lamb heads are. Adult head production is forbidden due to fear of scrapies.
Dynamite, dames and hard cider. Two buddies from the fjord that God forgot work hard to play even harder.
I had just returned from a month-long holiday that had taken me through the Southern, Northeastern and Midwestern United States. My first assignment back home took me to the heart of the Norwegian Midwest. There are some similarities between these places. But mostly differences.
There are no flat fields. Instead, fjords give way to mountains that rise to glaciers and plateaus. There are no cities and no highways but country roads and small towns. People here aren’t godfearing as much as God is afraid of them. Okay, that might be a bit much, but there are some tough folks in the Hardanger district. Yes, meet Joar and Lothepus.
They grew up in Sørfjorden, infamously known as the fjord that God forgot. They started operating excavators while still in elementary school. They love dynamite, they talk thrash and they drink hard cider straight from the jerry can. They call themselves fjord cowboys and from early next year they will be the stars of a TV-show exploring and celebrating Norwegian macho culture.
I spent a weekend in their company producing promotional pics for the show. This included travelling the fjord in a 90-year-old fishing vessel saluting weddings with dynamite and spending the rest of the day drinking and partaking in competitive spitting of sweet cherry stones (national record is 14.24 metres. We didn’t come close).
Come Sunday, I was still missing the crucial horseback cowboy shot, which left us with no choice but to chase down the good guys who’d gone into hiding in hope of dealing with their hangovers in solitude. No such luck of course, and soon enough we were traversing a ridiculously steep and narrow mountain road in search of horses. Horses and one hell of a rain shower, that is. You can’t expect it not to rain when you’re dealing with hung over bareback-riding of previously unridden horses, a film crew with expensive equipment and your only way down has the potential to turn into a mud slide.
These are views both plain and magnificent of alleys and courtyards, city streets and suburban wasteland, mountains and oceans and nothing in particular, hidden behind what I call curtains and you call drapes.
We spent a month on US roads, driving 7.000 kilometres through 18 states. Before leaving Norway back in June, I was adamant that I would produce one series of photographs, besides all the other pictures I took along the way, that would span the entire journey, while at the same time adhering to a set of limitations. Having never before been to the States, I still had this almost romantic fascination for motels of the cheaper variety. For a long time I thought about doing a series of motel exteriors. But we weren’t staying in cheap motels exclusively, some hotels were, well, not exactly fancy, but they wouldn’t lend themselves to such a series very well. And one of my self-imposed limitations – decided upon before even deciding the subject matter – was that I would be photographing all instances of whatever I finally chose, i.e. the façade of every place where we spent the night, in case I went for that idea. So I didn’t.
Instead I started thinking about doing it the other way around, photographing from the inside and out, shooting out the windows of whichever place we were staying at. But shooting through the windows didn’t work consistently either, for a variety of reasons. And going outside to photograph basically the same view meant losing the window frame as a frame of reference. Not to mention the trouble I’d have when the room was on the eighth floor. So I elected to stay inside. And closed the curtains.
Throughout the journey I would thus shoot the curtain of every room we stayed the night in, from shitty Super8 motels and cheap Howard Johnsons to upmarket hotels in Chicago and charming B & Bs in Louisiana. So much did I obsess with the damn curtains that we at one point accidentally tried to check into a curtain store in Boone, NC.
Well, here are the curtains. What’s outside is pretty much left to your imagination.
Suggested soundtrack: Low – The Curtain Hits The Cast. And remember: a curtain is just a superhero cape that has yet to fulfill its potential.
This is the tenth and final chapter of the American blog posts. Links to the other installments below.
America part nine: DC, Then Dave
America part eight: There Died A Myriad
America part seven point five: Beach And Moan
America part seven: Mountains (woo-hoo!)
America part six: The Place Where They Cried*
America part five: The Heroes of Gator-Aid
America part four: Some People. And Chicago
America part three: A Tale Of Three Cities
America part two: Viva Las Canada
America part one: New York Fact Sheet
DC / Cherokee / New York / Chattanooga: The penultimate blog post on the American journey in which the author-traveller does a National Mall stroll and reveals his dismal view on the future for an unlucky surveyor in NYC.
– To the White House, please.
– You got an appointment with President Obama, asks Mr. Abdul Khan, our friendly taxi driver.
– Yes, we’re his nine o’clock.
– Haha – you know I drove Obama once, back when he was a senator.
– Oh really? Was he a nice passenger?
– No, man, he paid the right money – right on the meter!
So there you have it. The President is a bad tipper. Also, the White House is way smaller than I imagined. Other than that, DC feels extremely familiar to someone who’s never been there before. Okay, the White House isn’t a marble fortress prone to exploding in the beginning of the third act, the Lincoln memorial statue doesn’t rise from his stone throne to run for re-election and the Washington monument (probably) isn’t a camouflaged above-ground missile silo – but other than that the capital handles the transition from pop culture to real life reasonably well.
PS – Disillusioning Dave
At some point during our travel I think I said jokingly that the US is a big and friendly country that is fond of melted cheese, Jesus and fireworks, in that order. We certainly had our shares of cheese and massive displays of fireworks, but were actually spared any real run-ins with folks preaching the gospel in our general direction. Yes, somewhere in the Midwest we did see a series of billboards proclaiming that adherence to the theory of evolution led to eternal damnation, but that’s so off the charts that it ain’t offensive in the slightest. Actually I think the 20-something hipsters folding hands for a mealtime prayer in a fancy NYC place is almost more shocking to my irreligious Northern European sensibilities. Anyway, my point is that no one had tried to proselytize me or even engage me in a religious conversation. Not until the very last day.
It’s the morning of our last day in the US. I’m having breakfast in Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan and have already had some more or less meaningful conversations with strangers on topics ranging from cilantro to organ donation, when a new guy approaches. He introduces himself as Dave and tells me that he is from some sort of ministry but seems like a nice enough fellow.
Dave: – We have some questions that we ask visitors here in Bryant Park – would you mind if we spoke for a few minutes?
Me: – Sure, I don’t mind.
Dave: – How do you think it all began?
Me: – Life, you mean? It originated from a beautiful bio-chemical coincidence – then evolved through a process of natural selection.
Dave: – Oh.
Me: – I gather you and I have quite different opinions on this?
Dave: – Yes. But that’s okay. Let’s continue. What do you believe went wrong for us humans?
Me: – Oh, that’s easy. Our single measure of success is progress, but you can’t have unlimited growth based on a system of limited resources. At the same time we lack the cognitive ability of thinking and planning long-term. Our brains are wired just the same way as when fight or flight were the only decisions of importance, making it very hard for us to actually fathom the consequences of problems such as overpopulation and climate change.
Dave: – Hmm. Is there any hope?
Me: – No, I don’t think so.
Dave: – So how will it end?
Me: – Horribly.
Ah yes. That was Dave’s encounter with the smiling happy and dreadfully pessimistic Norwegians in Bryant Park. And actually also my last really memorable interaction with anyone in the States. Well except for the staff of five at the Irish pub in Newark Airport, who deemed the question of whether or not Vin Diesel is gay as far more important than me having a steady supply of Guinness.
This is America part nine. Read also