Perceptive Travel - Notes Towards a True Historie of the Vikings

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Notes Towards a True Historie of the Vikings
By Edward Readicker–Henderson



Or, conquering the world through the extremely clever use of herring.


For about an hour, Ax and I quietly do nothing but ruin people's vacation photos.

Fifteen feet below us, a woman so beautiful that most men would crawl across the bodies of burning orphans just to drink her bathwater, herds three children towards the ladder. Nearby, her husband holds the camera and looks stunned that he had ever been lucky enough for this to be his life.

The kids, latest in a parade, clank up to the flying bridge, see me and Ax, and quickly get as far away from us as possible. Down on the main deck, Dad waves them towards the life preserver where we sit, the photo requisite: kids and orange ring with the ship's name, Fram, painted on it. They edge inches closer, but no more.

"Imagine three years aboard, surrounded by ice," Ax finally says. That's what Fridtjof Nansen did: in 1893, he left Norway on this boat, heading ever north, and waited to get frozen in, hoping drift and deep currents would take him to all the way to the pole. He got closer than anyone else ever had to the empty spot at the top of maps––although still a couple hundred miles away––before popping back into liquid after more than a thousand days on board. "You would have memorized every nailhead, every harmonic of every line in every wind."

We sit, listening to the heavily weathered boards creak under the steps of tourists. Listening to our own breathing, this urge to move we share never better expressed than right now, in this urge not to move at all.

Next month, the dazzling woman, the tidy kids, the husband who really needs to go buy lottery tickets, will be home showing pictures to friends and co–workers. "This was in Oslo, Norway," they'll say. "The Fram is the ship that's covered more latitude than any other in history. It's dry–docked in a big barn now."

Then, apologetically, they'll say, "No, we don't know who those two people are. They just wouldn't get out of the picture."

***

I want snow and ice and the howl of sled dogs. I want suffering. I want my cornea scratched out by the glare of midnight sun on glacier, a landscape where the only color is the blood of seals. I want pure, faultless arctic, and then I want more snow and ice and suffering. I want to have to carry a gun for fear of polar bears.

And what better place to come to terms with all that than Norway? The Vikings set sail from here to kick the world's ass. They rowed wooden ships across the North Atlantic, wore woolen clothes in pouring rain, ate whale meat they were too hardcore to bother thawing, let ice grow on their beards because they were too busy raping and pillaging to bother breaking it off.

But the sons and daughters of Vikings, it turns out, wait politely at traffic lights. The people whose ancestors terrified Europe, traveled as far as the coast of Canada, queue neatly and absolutely do not litter. Looking like models from the end of the gene pool I've always dreamed of splashing around in, they slide in and out of a half dozen languages. They pay $30 for a small pizza, and in return for a tax rate that looks like a typo, get free college, health care, and every other social perk imaginable. They live in plain, square houses that have the kind of restrained elegance Walter Gropius only dreamed of.

Norwegians, proud of their world–conquering heritage, do not take kindly to being blamed for Ikea or Abba, both the fault of the Swedes next door.

And they do not sell hats with horns, not even in gift shops.

"Vikings with handrails," Ax grumbles, aboard a small ship that works the Sognefjord, a geological freakshow complete with swirly rocks, waterfalls parapenting off cliffs, and the occasional feathery dot of a sea eagle, an endangered bird with a wingspan that can hit eight feet.

fjord

The ship slows, and over the loudspeaker, our captain proudly directs our attention to a mussel farm.

In the past three hours of pissing rain, we've slowed for salmon farms, for villages no bigger than convenience stores. We've gone back to ports because people slept through their stop. This was supposed to be a straightforward, point to point boat trip, faster than a bus.

And now we are stopping to gawk at mussels. Mussels. Mussels which are, of course, underwater and quite still, as mussels tend to be.

Mussels not being exactly famous for leaping and playing.

And that's when a man next to us goes into full berserker rage. Leaping, water splashing from his head, he points towards a bright patch of sunshine lighting the open sea beyond. He screams. "Fuck the mussels!"

Ax and I look at each other. "Okay, Viking," she says.

"Viking," I agree.

***

Bergen

We come into Bergen, where the seafront buildings are the color of lollipops and are either a UNESCO World Heritage site or the props for a Merchant–Ivory movie. Tomorrow we'll leave here on the Nordnorge, a coastal ferry that heads into the heart of the arctic, twirls around the northern edge of Europe, the northernmost ferry run in the world.

In a few months, I'll be on this same ship in Antarctica, discovering that the rougher the seas are, the better I sleep––in 50–foot waves, I'm out like a light––but the Norwegian ocean has all the turbulence of mercury.

And watching puddle waves lap Bergen, we learn what happened to the Vikings. Having raped and pillaged the known world, they parked the ships and found a particularly modern way to strike fear.

Bergen was once a major city for the Hanseatic League, which spread out over the North Atlantic in one of the richest trading networks the world has ever seen. The league controlled herring and cod throughout the known world. They came up with 23 different levels of quality, packed anywhere from 250–400 fish into a barrel, and sent out as much as 5,500 tons of it a year, just from this port. Using this as leverage, they cornered the commodities market, most importantly, salt––necessary for food preservation and the fuel oil of its day. And the money rolled in.

Ax and I work our way through the Hanseatic Museum's dark townhouse, her vegetarian soul cringing at each fake dried fish. "And so they––"

"Conquered the world through the extremely clever use of herring," I say.

"Sneaky Vikings."

"Very sneaky Vikings."

***

The ship slips the moorings and we slide into the ocean that was once the Viking playground. I have spent much time in high latitudes. I've eaten undercooked squirrels in the Yukon, been stared down by musk oxen in Alaska, and just two weeks ago, I was standing on the Greelandic ice cap, nothing in sight but rippling white, an endless expanse of freeze.

Bergen

The Norwegian arctic, though, is a little different. Instead of moving into the heart of brightness, the ship links together twee villages hidden in trees made possible by the warming waters of the Gulf Stream. Instead of expeditions, the boat hauls tourists and oddly large boxes that only seem to get unloaded in the middle of the night.

In ports, we buy cola flavored licorice that tastes like sand that's been rolled around in a Coke bottle. Belly jewelry glints on college kids pretending they aren't a hundred miles above the arctic circle. Still further north, reindeer stand on porches as if there were no other place for a reindeer to be.

And I think again about this lifetime I've spent going north, looking for a landscape with no trees, no horizon but the edge of the earth. My need for the empty spaces where I can still hope for dragons. No wonder the Vikings headed out, ready to take on the world: their homeland was not the land of imagination's end. They had to go force the world into the shape of their dreams. But then, maybe more importantly, they could come home to this softness like slipping between sheets warmed by a lover.

Another perfect village, nicely hidden in trees, slips by. Passengers read books about trolls, and when the bar opens, somehow too many people seem to end up in the lounge with underwear between their teeth.

Some Viking rites, I just want to know nothing about.

***

We do not sleep. Ax and I rarely do. Instead, we go out on deck watch the northern lights, which are actually south of us. They ripple, a faded blue and green, dancing only for us.

Around 2 AM, just above the mountain peaks, a gold light streaks by, level and bright, straight out of Valhalla, hissing and bigger than anything I've ever seen move through the spheres of heaven.

The sonic boom is followed closely by the sound of the thing itself exploding.

And the afterglow stays on my eyes for minutes, like I'd been staring straight into a campfire.

Not until the next day, pulling into port, am I able to check and make sure that it hadn't been an airplane exploding.

Of course, even if I'd absolutely known it was a shooting star, what else could I have wished for but to see something like that?

***

Except maybe this.

On the Fram, we are entirely happy. We did not know this is what we came for. I did not know that I'd find the arctic I had dreamed of, had searched for across the north, in this giant shed in an Oslo suburb.

The Fram

The ship's hull is smooth, so ice has nowhere to grab; under pressure, the Fram simply rises like toothpaste out of a smashed tube. Cabins are tiny as closets, but organized so there would be no lack: an entire life within reach. Doctor's tools, a library, a Victrola ready to play music to hold back the dark. "No channel between the floes so winding and awkward," Nansen, a true son of the Vikings, wrote in his logbook, while almost the entire world lay south of him, at his back. Three years. Three years learning the language of ice–– sastrugi and hummocky floes, drift, brash, pancake. The improbable courage of exploration through three years of moving by not moving at all, having no choice but to learn every inch of territory along the way.

Ax and I sit very still. We ruin photos. We imagine the impulse that would take you to the edge of the world and make you want to go a little bit further yet. The two of us run around the globe for a living, but I think in this hour we travel more than we ever have before.

At the inevitable gift shop, we buy each other mugs, replicas of what the crew used. We also buy a tin bowl for a friend, a baby present for the daughter just drawing her first week of breath.

Later, we'll send the bowl with this note: "This is from the Fram, the ship that has been further north and south than any other ship in history. The word 'fram' means 'go forward.' We take that to mean that the entire world is a huge playground, and all you have to do is go out and play, be attentive, and it will reward you endlessly."

"Fram it," Ax says. "Teach that kid to be a Viking."

"Fram it," I agree contentedly, as we walk back under the Norwegian sky and line up with the sons and daughters of Vikings at a traffic light.





Edward Readicker-Henderson specializes in cold, damp places. He's currently writing a book about quiet. He previously wrote for Perceptive Travel with Uses for Dirty Underwear (in New Zealand).






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