northern lights

Winter skipped New York City altogether that year, so I flew north to see snow and the Aurora Borealis somewhere in the Norwegian part of the Arctic Circle.  Cold weather reminds me of childhood days in Poland, and the trip was brought on by nostalgia as much as a craving to feel winter. I flew to Oslo from JFK, and the next morning boarded a northbound train to Trondheim; from there, an overnight train to the Arctic Circle–an old clunker with dusty, worn out chairs that creaked whenever I adjusted my body weight, and the same staccato rhythm that the old trains in Poland—the trains of my childhood—used to make as they rolled through the countryside.  

I fell asleep soon after we pulled out of the station, and woke up ten hours later, just as we were arriving at the final stop.  I expected to feel a bite of brutal Arctic air on my skin when I walked out on the platform, but the breeze was mild, and the fine snow too delicate to have a noticeable temperature.  I didn’t have a hat or gloves, but it didn’t much matter.

I took two buses that sped through narrow countryside roads, then a slow ferry that crossed a choppy fjord, and, finally, another bus to Bogen, one of the many small towns I saw on the map of northern Norway. 

By the time I arrived, it was 4PM, and the sun had already set into an inky darkness.  I asked the bus driver for directions to a hotel I had found online.  He pointed to one side of the road and said, “it could be there”; then to the other, and said, “or it could be there”; then he shrugged with regret, and, as if it weren’t obvious already, said, “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”  Then he drove off, leaving me standing next to a heap of snow.  Two eagles circled above me, a reminder of just how far from New York I’d come.

I was the only person at the bus stop, and I was the only person in sight. To my left, a curve in the road disappeared into the night; to my right, I saw a closed gas station and some houses; across from me, on the other side of the road, I saw a dark outline of a massive lake. For a moment, I felt uncertain whether I would find my hotel—or any hotel—and the dark lake transformed from serene curiosity to a foreboding and unwelcoming mass.

I turned in the direction of the lights, and walked on, pulling my luggage behind me like a kid dragging a sled through the snow.  About a kilometer later, I reached a small hotel just off the main road.  The soft yellow light shimmering in the windows would have been a mundane detail in other circumstances, but in that moment became a poetic whisper about the warmth of home.

I walked in, and an olive-skinned woman greeted me in broken Norwegian.

“An?” she asked.
“An?” I repeated, not sure what she meant. Then it clicked. “Oh, yes. Ein.”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Vent?”
“OK,” I said. “Please sit,” she pointed to a couch in the common area.
She made a phone call. A quick, “man kommt”, and she hung up.
“Coffee?” she then asked.
“Yes, thanks.”
She fiddled with some settings on the coffee machine.
“Spansk?” she asked.
“Spansk?” I repeated.
“You—Spansk?” she asked again. This time, I understood.
“Oh. No. Polish. American. Polish-American,” I responded.
“Speak Spansk?”
“Nein,” I responded.
“Ah, nein,” she repeated, disappointed.

I sensed she spent a lot of time trapped in the deep isolation of someone who doesn’t speak the native language. There was a photograph of the northern lights on the wall. I pointed at the picture and asked if the lights were visible.

“In the morning,” she said. “Big. Beautiful.” But now it was starting to snow, I saw through the window. If visibility didn’t improve by morning, I decided, I would simply keep going. She handed me a hot cup of coffee.

“Gracias,” I told her.
“Oh, gracias!” she laughed with sudden alertness. “De nada.”

I sat in my chair, and she sat next to me, neither of us saying anything. When our eyes met, we smiled at each other. I complimented the coffee, though I didn’t mean it. My eyes gradually drifted to the windows, and the darkness beyond them. I made out a silhouette of the distant landscape—the other side of the lake, which seemed a lot less foreboding in the comfort of the hotel—and tried to imagine the northern lights flickering in the sky, and a vague sense of dread came over me: for all their magic, I realized, the northern lights—their size, their proximity, the darkness that surrounds them, and their cosmic origin—frighten me, too.

I finished my coffee and retreated to my basic hotel room. I’d made it to the Arctic Circle, I’d found a bed to sleep in, and the rest would be left to chance, like the northern lights themselves. I lay down, closed my eyes, and immediately fell asleep.

Snow fell overnight and well into the morning, and by the time I woke up there was no chance of seeing the lights—or any part of the sky.  Instead of lingering in Bogen, I decided to plot a new course.  I called the credit card company to update my route.

“Sweden, then Finland, too,” I told her.
“While I have you on hold, could I ask you why you’re traveling so much?”
I’d been on the road for so long now that two more countries didn’t seem like much.
“I’m not sure,” I told her.
“Is it work or pleasure?” she asked.
“A little bit of both.”
“Well, I’ve always wanted to visit Europe.”
“It’s a nice place,” I offered a platitude, if only to avoid saying nothing.
“As for your credit card, you’re all set and good to go,” she announced.
“Have I helped you have a wonderful day?”

I packed my bags in haste, and caught a bus to the station, just in time to make the train. A green-blue light from the locomotive flickered whenever we accelerated, and blanketed the snow-covered trees in a surreal neon glow.  We arrived in Lulea at midnight.  I’d crossed nearly the entire width of Sweden without having touched the ground.

I left Lulea early the next morning, after eating breakfast in the hotel room restaurant, near a table of two Polish women, who, possibly because they had assumed their native language insulated them from local ears, loudly and openly complained about their husbands. I made it out of town on a double decker bus that cut through heavy snow and crossed narrow icy bridges with expert indifference. By the time I reached Finland, the sun, having spent a mere 6 hours in the sky, had already disappeared under the horizon.

The streets were empty, and most places were closed—Kemi felt abandoned, as if the heavy snowfall had made it inhabitable.  I passed small patches of public life: an Indian restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant, a bingo hall. I stepped in and watched. The patrons, most of them in their 70s, sat in front of dated bingo machines.  People moved slowly and spoke slowly, when they spoke at all. Periodically, a blonde girl in her twenties appeared from behind a large desk tucked in the corner of the room and announced “Bingo”. No one seemed to notice me, but the sight of local, mindless, comfortable routine reminded me that I was an outsider.

I found a Finnish restaurant a few blocks later. There was reindeer on the menu, which I’d seen on the menu on the train through Sweden, too. I sat down at an empty table and ordered something without meat. After dinner, I returned to the hotel, and entered through the bar. It was empty, save for one guy chatting enthusiastically with the bartender. He noticed me, and, with a mixture of friendliness and curiosity, invited me to join him.

“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Poland and the US,” I told him.
“Oh. I’m part American”, he said.
“Oh?” I was surprised. He spoke English with a heavy Finnish accent.
“Yes. I lived in New York state for 4 year,” he said.
I suppose that sort of math made me very American, I thought.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Just visiting,” I told him.
“Really? You’re just visiting Kemi?” He was incredulous. “I’m from Helsinki,” he explained, with a hint of pride. “I’m here just for work,” he added, as if to justify his presence in this small little town.

The bar was closing, and he suggested that we go somewhere else. We walked through the snowy streets, and found a place a few blocks later. I looked at the sky, but the snowfall blocked all visibility. There was no chance of seeing the lights tonight.

He ordered us a couple of drinks, a hideous mix of hard liquor and liquid sugar that I drank solely out of politeness.

“Warsaw is my favorite city in Europe,” he told me.
“Really?” I responded. That was precisely the opposite of what some Warsaw residents had told me, but I didn’t relay the sentiment. “Have you ever visited New York City?”
“Yes, after my girlfriend had dumped me,” he said, then told me about the time he ventured into Harlem during a 24 hour layover in New York City because he drunkenly got off on an unintended bus stop.  “A tall blond Finnish man in Harlem, in a bar!” he yelled, and acted out the details as he outlined them. “I am in the bar.  A large man walk in,” he mimicked large biceps, then got close to me for effect. “Black, black, black. And his eyes brown. And he, black, black, black. He walk in, and he walk over, and he is looking at me, and he say, ‘Who are you?’” He paused for effect. Then he extended his arm in a mock introduction and said, “And I say, ‘My name is ____,’ and I just broke up with my girlfriend. And he look at me. And then he says, ‘You’re OK. Because you are with me.’” He paused. “That was my visit to New York,” he repeated.
“New York is a friendly town,” I said, thinking of the Weegee photograph.
“Yes,” he said. “People here in Finland are very trustful. It’s a boring country. People are nice.”
We finished our drinks, and he ordered gin. His eyes were slower to focus now.
“Are you smart?” he asked me and looked at me. “You’re smart,” he concluded, slightly slurring his words. “I can see it in your eyes.  I saw it from the start.” He finished his drink. “Did you ever take an IQ test?” he asked.
“No. I think they’re dangerous,” I told him.
He nodded. “I took an IQ test when I was younger,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. But I scored a 168.” He shrugged. He was simultaneously proud of himself and unimpressed with himself: the things he told me about himself were just an inventory, and he didn’t know how much self-worth he should attach to any of them. And now that he was drunk, he knew even less.
“Yea,” he said to himself, and paused again. His eyes were no longer focusing on anything around us, and his mind was far away, too. Then he said, “My mother did suicide.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said.
“I’m sorry to be telling you this,” he apologized, mistaking my silence for discomfort.
“No, no, it’s all right,” I reassured him. He lingered, and leaned against the bar counter to keep his balance. “And my father,” he went on. “I don’t know, he disappeared for 18 months. I don’t know where. He was not there. 18 months.”
“That’s a long time,” I said.
He waited a moment, then added, “my mother lives here.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “So it was a suicide attempt?”
“A failed attempt,” I said, to make sure there was nothing lost translation. “She didn’t succeed?”

We promised to stay in touch, then parted ways.  Instead of my hotel, I walked to the edge of town, right to the edge of the water, right to the edge of the Baltic Sea, whose shores I used to play on when I was a kid.  It was still snowing, and the snow was everywhere, in the air and in the ground, and it seemed to absorb all sound, so that being in Kemi was an experience without sound or shape. I walked straight ahead, overcome by a sudden sense of lightness and liberation, until I reached the water.  Or what I thought was water—all I could really see was an endless stretch of snow, underneath an even bigger, endless stretch of darkness.  It was the end of the world, the point where water and heaven met, and if I took another step, I would walk into the water, or into the sky, where the lights, the invisible lights, are.