My mother never went on holiday outside Norway. Why on earth should she? Norway is the most beautiful country in the world. It was not a question open for debate. It was a simple fact.
If my mother had not been to every single place in the country, she at least knew the names by heart, and everyone of them was pure magic to her. She has been dead for many years, but I can still hear her say them aloud as if it were a prayer: Kvænangen, Gudvangen, Gudbrandsdalen, Geiranger, Olderdalen, Rombaksfjorden, Sunndalsøra, Lyngsalpene. She was a fisherman’s daughter, and her favorite dish was fish. But she feared the sea. And since I was her son, her feelings of awe became engraved in my world’s fact book.
I remember how surprised I was when, in my early twenties, a friend spoke about beauty in a comparative way. Which to my ears was close to blasphemy. He agreed that Norway was beautiful, but was not sure if it was the most beautiful country he had ever been to. I assumed of course that he said so only because he was Swedish.
Contrary to popular conception, Scandinavians try to be as different from one another as possible. To be a Scandinavian is not to be a Scandinavian. Because every time we have tried to be, it has failed. Sometimes bloodily. It wouldn’t surprise me if we have been at war with one another for most of our common history.
Who do you think the Vikings were killing when they were not killing English monks? Quite right: other Vikings, and the closer the better. And when we were not pestering one another, or strolling along the waterfront like the peaceful Christians we became, we stared at the sea. The sea is the hope that surrounds us.
We throw our fishing net into the waves without knowing if it will give us anything in return. When it does, we are one of the world’s largest exporters of seafood. When it doesn’t, we are hungry. We never know what’s beneath the surface. We drill a hole in the seabed and Norway becomes the world’s 15th largest oil producer and the 7th largest producer of natural gas. But the sea is more than food on the table. It’s the fuel that runs our dreams.
Our fjords are deep and often narrow. You can feel trapped in them. And when you do, you go down to the water’s edge. Because somewhere out there, where all the blue ends, a new world begins, and that creates a longing in us. Without the sea there would have been no Vikings.
When my father was 15, he embarked on a ship for the Horn of Africa and beyond. When I was his age, I was sitting on the tip of the island we were living on, looking at the ocean. The only thing I wanted as a fast boat. I wouldn’t even have to go to the end of the world. Just across the North Sea and into the first weird and wonderful port appearing out of the mist. But I never got that far.
For the last 30 years I have lived across the border in Sweden, and for the most part in its capital. In 2013 my family and I decided to leave Stockholm and settle down in the south of the country. And here I am, on the second floor of an old barn. Occasionally a swallow enters through the open French balcony and circles once or twice over my desk before it disappears into our neglected rose garden.
If I look above my computer screen, I can see the cornfields, and beyond the golden sea, the blue one. Only one hour’s drive from the border of Denmark, this part of Sweden is as far from Norway’s wild, rugged coast as it is possible to go. And every time I visit my old country nowadays, I’m stunned by the brutality of its majestic scenery. Everything seems totally out of proportion.
The mountains are enormous, and they have to be! Because they are under constant attack from this violent, gray-blue-green dragon that beats its tail against our coastline and tries to tear away big chunks of our landmass. If it hadn’t been for the sea, there would have been no fjords—and no rainfall.
After I left southern Norway, where I grew up, I lived a couple of years on its western coast, more precisely in Bergen, a city famous for its rain. Here, the rain starts falling in the autumn and turns to snow in the winter before it turns back to rain again in the spring. But when it stops, when the mass of clouds that have been covering the sky for so many months starts breaking up and the clear, blue wonder appears in between them, people leave their shops, their offices, their homes, their classrooms, and run out into the streets, into the sun. The sun that changes the color of everything.
From one minute to the next, the feeling of a never-ending gray wetness is replaced with the feeling of eternal life. The ocean is no longer covered with ice and snow, not a big, threatening, roaring prehistoric monster, not even a cold one,
but a soft baby-blue meadow, warm and welcoming. Sail along the coast of Norway in the midnight sun, when the sea is sparkling and the faces of your fellow passengers are glowing in red and orange, and it’s like being drunk on rubies.
Scandinavia is contrast. We are thrown from one extreme to the next. We are waiting for the ferry in a snowstorm, and a couple of weeks later diving from the pier. In one moment we are living in the darkest of times, and in the next in an endless bright and sunny night.
I’m writing this in the middle of June, and all the department stores in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway want us to prepare for the big celebration ahead, or as the slogan goes: “Sun, rain, hail, snow or lightning? Dress up for a classic Scandinavian Midsummer’s Eve with shorts, rain jacket, sandals, long underwear, sunscreen, wool sweater, swimsuit, scarf, bathing trunk, fur hat, and rubber boots.” And this is the way it’s always been. There’s no such thing as bad weather.
We are a seafaring people. We originate from the Norsemen. We have built longships with dragon heads on both ends and looted the world. We have plowed the seaways. We have sailed on the thin blue line between the darkness beneath and the empty heaven above. We are the seabirds. We have been steered by the stars.
We have survived on what the ocean has given us, or what we have managed to drag out of it, or pick up along its shoreline. And in between the fishing, whaling, killing, drilling, and looting we have discovered new continents—like North America—even though people still nag about Columbus. That unites us.
Anyway, this is how we like to be remembered. And who knows, maybe it’s even true. Be that as it may, the ocean is a two-faced mistress. She gives and she takes everything. My grandfather was a fisherman. He died on the Arctic Ocean, just outside the northern tip of Europe, off the North Cape. My mother was only 19 when it happened. She taught me three things: Eat fish, fear the ocean, and Norway is the most beautiful country in the world.