It was close to midnight but eerily light. I sat up in bed and pulled back the flimsy orange curtain to look out of the window. Thunder coughed above the terracotta roof tiles of Bergen. A seagull flashed white against dark clouds. It was the first night of our summer vacation in Norway.
“Why?” everyone had asked, “Are you Norwegian?” As my husband pointed out, if you tell someone you’re going to France, they don’t immediately ask if you are French. My only tenuous connection was a vague affiliation with Northern Europe and a Norwegian school friend with whom I once walked down the aisle. Sonja could ripple her tongue into shapes as frilly as a pie dish, something I assumed helped her pronounce the squashed and slashed vowels scattered about the comics she received postmarked ‘Norge’. At thirteen we shared a dorm room and took the confirmation lessons at our all-girls English boarding school to their inevitable conclusion. Sonja was in full Norwegian dress; a rough-hewn ivory tunic with billowing sleeves, an apron with embroidered scarlet blooms. I was beside her in something white my mother and I had picked out of a catalog.
To think too deeply about religion when I was thirteen would have made me appear more studious than I already was. I just wanted the whole thing done with so I could get on with the business of being a teenager. The Anglican faith was a landscape as familiar to me as the English countryside. I knew its contours and bluffs. It didn’t offend me enough to try walking without its map until, suddenly, years later, it did.
Luckily, this journey away from religious faith was one Dom and I took together, bidding farewell to something we had already lost. We moved from London to the Pacific West Coast and became parents with its slow blur of noise and conflict and love and raw mundanity. Dom’s work was the catalyst for the move and I quit my job as a journalist to be home with first one, then two, then three boys. Finger painting quickly became kindergarten homework, tiredness took a bite out of sibling harmony, squabbles fell on us like Tetris blocks; I couldn’t shift them fast enough to fit the matrix of the happy family I’d imagined. Emotion trebled and the long summer vacation loomed.
I wanted to stare up at vertiginous cliffs, tire our eyes with huge landscapes. We could have gone to Arizona but decided on a trip to Norway to see the fjords. They seemed to mirror the task of motherhood I had embarked upon. I wanted to sit with my own insignificance; an attempt, to balance the enormity of parenthood with its daily minutiae. I imagined the milky blue glacial water, striations, and boulders, lush green hills, mossy rooftops, and a terrain both barren and lush. If I am the thinker, Dom’s the doer and he liked the idea of a road trip. The kids, we reasoned, aged three, five, and seven were old enough. In the absence of transcendence, we’d take our messy imperfection to Norway.
That first night, as the gulls circled in the unsettled sky, Jack, our three-year-old, vomited over the quilted double bed he was sharing with his brothers. Our rental apartment had the feel of a cabin; floors and walls of rough-hewn timber. It was beautiful but it wasn’t the easy-wipe surfaces of home. In the long day-lit night, I did the math. One stomach bug multiplied by our three young kids was probably just enough to fell someone at every destination on our planned route through the Norwegian fjords.
The next day was bright and glistening after the night’s rain. Dom took the older boys to ride the gondola over Bergen. He bought them milkshakes and went to the fish market to see the King Crabs. I disinfected the bathroom and washed my hands with scalding water. Jack, who usually demanded only two things, to be fed or tickled, wanted neither. By late afternoon the sun was out and we managed a short walk to the end of Georgerns Verft where Max, seven and fearless, jumped off the pier into the velvet icy darkness of the North Sea. The next day we were due to fly north to Alesund and spend a week driving back to Bergen via the Flatbreen, Fjærland and the Sognefjord. It all depended on what the night would bring.
The boys were up early and even Jack was asking about breakfast. We could stick with the plan. The 40-minute flight, however, turned out to be the source of another drama that three days later found us tipping out our suitcases on a dirt track near Hellesylt. Oliver, five years old and lithe as a cat, had begun vomiting as soon as we left Alesund and continued to do so on the ferry ride through the Sognefjord and again as we pulled into the driveway of our Hellesylt Airbnb. That was when Dom asked me if I had the passports.
“You had them on the flight,” I said.
“But I gave them to you.” Dom threw back.
We tossed the grenade of blame between us as we rifled through suitcases, picked through bags, dug into backpacks, checked the car’s glove compartment and scrutinized the gap between the seats. As we tried to connect the dots it dawned on me that we’d switched seats on the plane three days before. Scandia Airlines had split us up and at the last minute Jack, healthy again but who we were keen to pacify, had wanted Daddy. I’d gone to the front of the plane, Dom to the back. The passports were in the seat pocket of Dom’s original seat.
So began 72 hours of phone calls to airport officials in Alesund, Trondheim and Tromso. We played with the idea of getting in the car and heading straight for Oslo to start the bureaucratic journey of getting new passports. On the bright side, two kids were through the vomit virus, and the other one had slept an uncharacteristic fifteen hours the night before which I hoped was his own version of fighting infection.
As alcohol in Norway is rationed and heavily taxed, it’s both hard to get your hands on and difficult to justify the cost. For ten days Dom and I were the model of abstinence. We discovered the bickering on the back seat could be immediately silenced with audio books. We learned about ‘allemannsretten’, the legal right to roam which allowed us to tip the kids out pretty much anywhere for an emergency hike – on the condition we didn’t eat cloudberries. It was a fairy tale trap we managed to avoid thanks to the abundance of wild raspberries. We discovered Norway has some of the world’s longest tunnels, and to reduce anxiety for drivers there are pull-outs where a bluish light gives the impression of a sub-glacial adventure. I mused on this as the perfect metaphor for religion, a fake light in the dark. On a practical level, I thoroughly appreciated Norwegian engineering.
On our last day in Fjærland we got a puncture. The town is famed for its bookshops. Without a spare, we were forced to call out a mechanic. We wandered down the only street in the town, browsing in the shops, looking across at the flat waters of the fjord, and circling back to the visitor center while we waited. When the mechanic finally arrived he told us he’d have to transport the car to the next town. With no room for us in the cab, we climbed onto the flatbed, buckled ourselves into our broken vehicle and hoped for the best as we barreled through the endless tunnels to Sogndal. At some point, between episodes of darkness and pockets of glowing false light, it became apparent that Jack had left his backpack and his namesake beagle stuffy, Jack the Dog, in Fjærland.
When we finally heard that the passports had been found in Tromso, well into the Arctic Circle, and would be flown back to Bergen before the end of the week, we celebrated with a gin so expensive it would have paid for a case of wine back home. Instead, we were at The Scandic in Skei. We drank to Northern European efficiency. The next day we made it out to the edge of a glacier. At the Glacier Museum, the curator talked of how these giant rivers of ice are regarded not as obstacles but opportunities. I saw that we had carried all our chaos into one of the most beautifully serene and vastly remote environments and it had given us a perfect sense of scale.
Several months after we returned home, a bulky package arrived postmarked ‘Norge’. I met Jack outside his preschool and gave it to him. Inside he found his backpack and a water bottle but no dog. Jack is in first grade now and has a vague memory of a stuffy he named Jack the Dog. I imagine a faded brown beagle with a red collar sitting in the window of the Fjærland Visitor Centre, hoping, like me, that we’ll be back.
Date of Trip: July 2014
BIO: EMILY MYERS is a writer and broadcaster. She began her radio career working for the BBC in London and after moving to San Francisco, wrote content for the arts education group, A Little Culture and their CreativeCity app. She has had articles published at Brain, Child and Parent.co and has performed her work at Listen To Your Mother in New York. She is happiest thrashing out life’s complexities with her three sons. She lives in Brooklyn.
Beautiful. I enjoyed envisioning the chaos Emily and Dom must have felt, and the relief in its resolution.
Poor Jack though… I think we all have our own version of Jack the Dog. Mine was taken from me in the night by my mother, like the dirty-smelly-old-stuffed-animal Gestapo. I never forgave her for that one.