Book Excerpt: Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament

In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.

THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD PARLIAMENT

An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.

We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.

It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.

Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.

Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.

We stop along the path.

“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”

With a hop, “Now the North American.”

Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.

Here is the earth pulling itself apart

•••••

Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.

Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.

•••••

A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING

“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.

Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”

In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.

The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.

Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.

Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.

The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.

Site of the Þingvellir

History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.

At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.

Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.

Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”

Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.

Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.

Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.

What to do?

Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”

Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.

Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.

In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.

•••••

Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.

I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:

Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.

The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.

Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.

Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.

Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.

Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.

Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.

Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.

The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.

•••••

Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Book Excerpt: Forgotten History

Finland, a land to which I am related by marriage, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence yesterday, and that distracted me from noting another centenary on the same day, that of the largest man-made explosion in history prior to nuclear weapons. This article in Macleans quotes a local arborist who cut down a tree near the site of the explosion as finding that “the entire core of (the) trunk was a column of metal shards.”

Along those lines, from my book Out in the Cold,

“You can’t grow up in Halifax without knowing everything about the explosion. It simply can’t be done, A downtown furniture maker tells us. Not long ago he petitioned for and was granted rights to cut down a maple tree under the McKay bridge built across the narrows, just about where the blast occurred.

A 22-inch maple, with the growth rate at one inch equals five years, it would have been ten years old in 1917, the year of the disaster and, sure enough, it has a seared ring near its center. He will market it to the cognizant community.”

Here is another excerpt from Out in the Cold, about Halifax and the explosion:

FORGOTTEN HISTORY

Beautiful maidens and wildflowers fragrant o’er the moor grace few pages of Nova Scotia’s history. A town brought up on hard work, Halifax has a history of hard luck. Some of it is other peoples’ hard luck, it is true, but that only helps so much.

In September 1998 Swissair Flight 111 fell into Margaret’s Bay just outside town, about five miles out in the ocean. Private fishing boats, the Coast Guard and then the Halifax military bases responded, but the plane had broken up on impact and all 229 passengers were lost. There are two memorials out along the bay.

After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy’s Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw’s Landing to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.

Peggy’s Cove

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Deck Chair from the Titanic

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either.

Halifax is a mid-rise city, but if it aspires to more, it might not take kindly to my saying so. Pardon. An attractive, purposeful, working town with a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of Christmas trees and lobster, although Mirja makes a run at eating all the lobster in Halifax before it can be sold abroad.

It doesn’t look like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth across the water enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.

Because it has one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax prospered in wartime, providing men and materiel from the War of 1812 through to the onset of World War 1.

Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic rose to seventeen million tons a year from just two.

By 1917 businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas. Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.

The first regular, systematic convoy of war materiel from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on 24 June, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.

The Maritime Museum maps out a typical convoy: Two corvettes out front and one on each flank, trailed by five ships abreast, typically freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives, sailing alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.

Convoy traffic moved from Sydney to Halifax during winter, owing to Halifax’s back bay. The basin, with a surface area of six and a half square miles, jammed up with ships in winter.

•••••

By autumn 1917, a jittery uncertainty hung over the twin cities Halifax and Dartmouth; it had for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night against U-boats.

Thursday, 6 December: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship in transit from Rotterdam bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies, was keen to sail at first light.

Coal for its boilers arrived too late the day before, trapping the ship in the Bedford Basin behind the submarine nets overnight. The Imo had to bide its time one more night. The Norwegian captain, Hakaan From, stormed about the ship, livid.

The submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, from sailing into the harbor to join up with an assembling convoy. Laden with war supplies, it stood at anchor outside the nets overnight.

There was a time just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty and they, considerably more detatched, allowed munitions ships in.

The Mont Blanc carried a fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of guncotton and 35 tons of benzol, a high-octane gasoline, stacked in drums across her decks.

Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.

So worried had been the New York port authority when loading the incendiary Mont Blanc that before putting the cargo aboard they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails, and stevedores wore cloth over their boots.

Now both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.

Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain From, having sailed twice through Halifax before, felt familiar enough with the harbor to drive the Imo to its limits.

The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. Scarcely two thousand feet wide, it is precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.

Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but every sailor realized it didn’t matter. All too aware of what was to come, they bailed frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch the flames engulf the ships.

Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront in their horse-drawn wagons and the fire chief arrived aboard the town’s only combustion-engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.

When the big blast came it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown into their inhabitants’ faces.

The Mont Blanc heaved into the air and rained fire back down on the town. Its big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town as deadly shrapnel.

So terrific was the blast that it created a tsunami. Water drained from the Narrows, then flooded back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a Mi’kmaq Indian settlement washed entirely away, just disappeared.

The town burned. Home heating in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were stoked and burning on a December day. The heaters overturned, setting further fires.

At nightfall a blizzard closed over the bay, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 or 15 degrees fahrenheit. People with no shelter who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.

Halifax reeled. Worry spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn’t). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off, stumbled through the storm like zombies.

Rumors. Halifax was being bombed by the Luftstreitkräfte, the World War 1 German air force. How did they get their Fokkers all the way over here!? No, it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.

Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, many horrendously, and 2,000 were dead.

•••••

Get yourself a copy of Out in the Cold, or give it as a Christmas gift. As Amazon has it,

An inspired tale of high adventure, Out in the Cold is Bill Murray’s vivid portrait of adventure across the vast Northern Atlantic from the Arctic north of Norway to Nova Scotia. Murray begins in pursuit of a total solar eclipse in Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. He tests the culinary appeal of wind-dried sheep in the tiny Faroe Islands, befriends Inuit bone carvers in Greenland and camps with an itinerant Italian musician who dreams of building Greenland’s first luxury resort. He stands naked and freezing on an Icelandic glacier and later (with his clothes on), on the wind-battered Canadian bog where the first European stood 500 years before Columbus.

With a light touch, wry analysis and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns evocative, astonishing and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today.

Get Out in the Cold at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk. Or get the audio version from Audible.

Getting to Greenland: Book Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, in which we arrive in Greenland and try to sort out what to do next. Enjoy it:

GETTING TO TASIILAQ

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk Airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on Earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze-dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik Island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty-minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow-capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and goodwill, that Christian is here on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard and Christian takes the backpacker, Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that one, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today, but overall they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

Sled Dog Greeting at Tasiilaq

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1,400 kilometers, on an 88-day journey. 

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two-by-two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

•••••

Order the whole book here in the U.S. or from Amazon in your country.

Tasiilaq town

The approach to Tasiilaq from Iceland in high summer

Eclipse Book Excerpt 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

HOW DID WE DO?

I go back to around to visit people I had seen before. Two of them tell me they felt they held a privileged position in that they didn’t have to get here, and maybe that was why they hadn’t thought about it much, but it turned out it was something they never expected.

A lady selling wool sweaters in a tourist shop says she thought it would be darker. I suggest the majesty, noting that the width of the moon’s shadow is usually only about 160 kilometers (267 km at most), so isn’t it incredible that across the whole of the Earth, you should happen to find yourself exactly underneath it? And she nods, but still, to her it should have got darker.

The lady at the Apotek calls it unbelievable and magical. “And more than the eclipse, the light on the ground, everything.”

The airport lady: “Amazing. I didn’t think so much about it before.”

Downtown Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is fast emptying out when I walk into the tourist office the day after, deserted but for two young women with expectant smiles. Might they help me?

I want to know if the tourist office feels we all behaved ourselves on their island and they think we did. The day before the eclipse there was a snowmobile accident. There had been some frostbite (but that was always). There was that one polar bear thing. It is illegal to shoot a polar bear. Shooting a polar bear who wants to eat your son is a better idea than obeying the law, obviously, but every incident requires “full … what? … research … investigation” as Sigrid, the snowmobile guide, put it.

Mark Sabbatini, editor of the local English language newspaper, tells me, “We had an arsonist which was the first time I’d ever seen that happen. I think it was last night or yesterday over on 222. All the streets here have numbers and 222 is a kinda busy residential area … there’s a whole bunch of homes, it’s kind of like suburban central … somebody went along there trying to start fires.”

In other European cities you can always try to stay warm in the train station. Maybe some didn’t think it through that there is no transport hub here to hide.

“We had a rash of people who came in Thursday night on the late flight, stayed up all night at pubs, didn’t have a place to stay. Pubs close down here about three or four at the latest, god knows what they did after that to stay warm until the sun came up, so they had folks going door to door basically knocking and begging to sleep on floors or hoping there was someone left their house unlocked and wasn’t home, just a bunch of folks came up here to prey upon the kindness of strangers. But nobody died….”

A lady from Greece tells me she paid $150 to sleep on a travel agency office floor the first night (“They threw down skins for us to sleep on”) and then $800 for a room without private bath on the night before the eclipse. We booked a year and a half out, but even then the Radisson SAS hotel (it’s a small Radisson) was bulk booked by a tour company. The rumor was that it had been booked in its entirety eight years out.

You mustn’t let the sunshine fool you. Days since our arrival have been sunny and if you can call -12 or -16C mild, then, mild, but the meteorological tide turns the day after the eclipse and with the sun obscured, in an Arctic, all blue way that makes the way people ambled up the main walkway the day before like leisure country rambles.

Today is all anonymity and purpose, heads wrapped, strides long and purposeful. Suddenly you see how, impossible as it seems, the last few days, with the hard frozen footpaths and the snowmobiles parked on the two-foot snowbank outside the window, were springtime for Svalbarders, a time to enjoy walking without mufflers wrapped up to their ear hats.

And it really must feel like some strange springtime, because at such a latitude as this, just in the time of our visit the length of the day increased from 11:54 to 13:10 – an extra hour and sixteen minutes of daylight in five days.

Which comports with the strangest single realization about this latitude, namely that scarcely five weeks since the first sunrise of the year (until 16 February the sun had been beneath the horizon, yet in the very first day that it rose, it didn’t just peep and retreat but stayed up for a full hour and forty minutes), already it never gets totally dark at night. Instead the sun skims a shallow enough path below the horizon to give the sky a twilight glow all night, ahead of – less than a month from now – 19 April, when the sun will stay up all day.

With the weather even better than way down in Oslo, we lull ourselves into believing Svalbard is just like home, it’s just way up north. Until the day after the eclipse. Snow falls all day long. Wind pounds the windows when they aren’t rattled by sleet. We wake with no agenda and ponder the standard inventory of kitchen utensils at the Svalbard Lodge, which includes among other things,

7 glasses

7 wine glasses

7 coffee cups (mugs from Ikea)

7 schnapps glasses

7 cognac glasses

Seven.

Svalbard Lodge doesn’t do coziness, the sense of well being expressed by the German gemütlich or the Danish hyggeligt, but it has one mighty heater, and today that goes a long way. We toast to eclipse success using two-sevenths of our supply of cognac glasses.

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