Out in the Cold: Audiobook Excerpt

Here is another excerpt from my latest book, Out in the Cold: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. This time I thought I’d share a bit of the audiobook version, which is still in production. This clip is from Part 1, Svalbard, in which we are poised to witness the 2015 total solar eclipse way up there, just some 800 miles from the North Pole. It’s me speaking; I narrate the book. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

I’m still recording this audiobook. It should be ready in a month or two. Meanwhile, you can buy the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, or you can get the audiobook versions of either of my other books here:

Common Sense and Whiskey on Audible.
Visiting Chernobyl on Audible.

And here are several more written excerpts from Out in the Cold.

Manifesto for Travel

This morning I sat down to begin the long process of narrating the audio version of my new travel adventure book Out in the Cold. As I reread the preface (it has been a little while since I wrote it), I thought it stands alone as a pretty good manifesto for travel. So I thought I’d share:

OUT IN THE COLD
PREFACE

I’m pretty sure the discovery of America started with a bar fight and I believe I can persuade you that it is so. The chain of events that brought Norse ships to Newfoundland began when a court in Norway found Thorvald Erickson guilty of murder and tossed him out of the country.

The Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorvald’s son, doesn’t say exactly what his old man got up to that night, just that he was exiled “because of some killings,” so Thorvald and the clan loaded up the truck and they moved to northwest Iceland.

Eirik grew up and married a local girl. When Thorvald died they moved south where before long the local sheriff found Eirik guilty of murder just like his old man, and Eirik was banished from Iceland. Thorvald’s bar fight led to Iceland, Greenland and the New World. We will visit the settlement his grandson built in Newfoundland.

But this is not about the Vikings, although they are here. This is a collection of northern tales from the frozen-tight Svalbard archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic-facing Canada.

•••••

A daiquiri on your cruise ship balcony may imply that you are on vacation, but it does not mean that you are traveling. Crowding people together on “fun ships” to share viruses for several days holds up as well as socks from Wal-Mart.

Once, in the Himalayas, in a place called Sikkim, whose very geography required vocational derringdo, a mad driver told me “Man didn’t evolve from apes to act like sheep.” He meant that you must engage.

Your free time is as surely an asset as your home or your car. I say, get out there and put some of it to good use. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates), get to examining. Compare and contrast your experiences to those of others.

In these pages we will meet an artisan carver of narwhal bones in Greenland. We’ll cruise the streets of Reykjavik with an ebullient Icelandic author, hike with a part-time tour guide in Labrador who cannot imagine why you’d want to be anywhere other than on the tundra, and spend time with others whose lives, objectively, are nothing like your own.

We will shake hands with the President of Iceland and stand naked and alone on the side of the glacier Vatnajokull (separately from the president). We will drop in on the last French outpost in North America, talk shop with a diplomat and eat wind dried sheep in the Faroe Islands, dine with strangers alongside icebergs at a lighthouse north of Newfoundland, and find Greenland so beguiling, we will visit twice.

•••••

Who ever thinks they are finally and fully grown up? Not me, not in my 20s, or 30s or even 40s. I still think people who wear adult clothes and enjoy it, skirt and blazer, suit and tie, selling investments or copiers or conjuring income from intangibles like air time or web space – those people are grown up, or at least grown up in a way I’m not, in the western businessy way.

I will never be a winning jockey in the Great American Corporate Advancement Derby. I don’t enjoy yard work or the NBA and I don’t know anything about grown-up stuff like the American Automobile Association or why you should be a member. Or what those ads for active traders are talking about, when you be honest.

I don’t buy clothing with the logo of its manufacturer or shop on Black Friday. That others do, that’s real nice. I just don’t have their motivation. But I think I’ve got one thing on them: I’m pretty sure the flame burns brighter in my magic adventure lamp.

Let us all think of a place that sounds exciting, take ourselves there and see what happens, minding Nelson Mandela’s words: May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.

•••••

Imagine a range of actions: At one extreme, you never leave your house, and at the other you drive into Somalia honking your horn and waving an American flag. I like it just inside the go-too-far side of that tent, poking on the fabric with a dull knife, trying not quite hard enough to cut through.

Within reason, mind you. Cut through the fabric and you end up kidnapped in Niamey, blasted in two in Helmand or beheaded in the new Caliphate. So let us stick with adventure reasonably achievable. In this case, starting 800 miles shy of the North Pole, chasing a total eclipse.

•••••

Preface from the book Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Buy it in paperback here. Read other excerpts here. Kindle version soon. The audiobook version, begun today, should hit in the fall.

Also published on Medium.

Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

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.

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….

Book Excerpt from Out in the Cold

Here is a bit of weekend reading for you from my new book, Out in the Cold. In this excerpt we visit the easternmost point in North America, closer to Galway, Ireland than to St. Louis. Welcome to St. John’s, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada.

ONLY ONE SUNNY DAY, NO EXCEPTIONS

Everybody has come out to bask on that first, sunshiny day.

The crusty, balding stalwarts of the Royal Canadian Legion fill the town from across the country to debate by-laws and elect officers, to show the wife a good time and test out that new hip replacement all in one go. Banners and berets, sashes with ribbons and medals fill the streets, even a marching band with someone still hardy enough to march inside a tuba.

They spill out of George Street, the locally famous concentration of debauchery, restaurants and bars, where touts invite you to get “Screeched In,” a transaction by which they’ll call you an honorary Newfie if you gulp their booze, then kiss a fish.

Traffic stands down in good-natured deference for the old guys. We fall in with two men in berets who have peeled off from their wives for a pint of locally-brewed Iceberg lager down at the Celtic Hearth pub. Men have come not just from across the land, they say, but from Germany and even New Zealand and one man from Australia.

They comport themselves with earned honor. One old soldier gives me a Prince Edward Island lapel pin he has a pocket full of and says it is the friendliest province in Canada. I’d like to believe it, I say, but it would be hard to top the hospitality right here in St. John’s. Just come and give us a try, he says.

These two old war horses must have just come from a remembrance, for, eyes misty and each embellishing the other’s words, they relive for our benefit the bloody battle and desperate fight for survival at Blaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme, its centennial imminent on July 1, when 801 Canadians of the Newfoundland Regiment went in and only 68 came out alive.

Older Newfoundlanders tend toward considering themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second. It was just in 1949 that a referendum bound Newfoundland to Canada, prior to which it had been a British colony after a brief period as an independent British dominion. At the height of the war some 100,000 Americans lived and worked in Newfoundland and many hoped the colony would become part of America.

And then, uh oh, the vets realize how long they’ve been away. Wide eyed, making haste, they flee to find the old ladies.

•••••

Fun while it lasts, the warmth and sunshine, but the next afternoon down at a used bookstore called Afterwords, the heater rumbles right here in mid-June and wet coats reinforce the natural musk of old books. Rain overfills the gutters, slaps against the pavement and slings itself at the plate glass.

The proprietor, upturned nose above a popped collar in some Victorian conceit, says he reads from the very poetry book Mirja buys for six dollars, prompting us to ask if he’d rather keep it. No, he’d rather sell it, he mumbles. How riveting could his marble-mouthed readings be?

Heaters chug inside restaurants up and down Duckworth and George Streets. Newfoundland cuisine is cod, cod, cod a hundred ways. Cod baked, battered, broiled and fried, cod en papillote, confit of cod, cod roasted and poached. Lapland does this with its reindeer.

A recent law, a thunderclap of sensible governance, will give cadres of regulatory officials in Ottawa palpitations. Restauranteurs may now buy what food they wish from whomever they want – meaning right off the boat. Your lobster claws may still be twitching.

Then there is fried bologna, “Newfie steak.” The local paper says that if the rest of Canada shared Newfoundlanders’ bologna fervor the country would consume 141.1 million kilograms of the stuff each year.

Poutine, dastardly poutine. “Shed Party,” made from Lamb’s spiced rum, bologna gravy, caramelized onions, pork sausage and green peas. You may plead for poutine as comfort food here in the cold and the fog and the wind, but you may not claim it promotes good health. Still, in a pub on the 13th of June, heater ablaze and rain pounding the roof, you can make a fine case for poutine’s home food attraction.

On the street in St. John’s, Newfoundland

SOME QUALITY TIME IN THE RAIN

“St. Johner” can’t be right. St. Johnsian? St. Johnite? What do you call a St. John’s resident? A Townie, it turns out. It means either native-born, or someone who has come from a Newfoundland village to the main town. In Rock-think, there is no one beyond the island.

Bullets of rain sling themselves into the door of the Ship Pub, away from the determined fun purveyors on George Street, entrance to the side, across the street from the Fog Off clothing store. The storm rumbles outside while we hear about the life of Beth Twillingate, not born a Townie. She started life as a fisherman’s daughter. St. John’s is a big city to her and a fine and comfortable home, she says as she serves up Iceberg beers.

She answers a cell phone on the bar.

“No. No, I’m a bartender. In. St. John’s.

In Newfoundland.”

A woman she’d never seen before was in here not twenty minutes ago and left the phone. We wonder if she has just caused a divorce. The chill makes that humor wry, not sardonic.

She plays music from the Halifax band Hillsburn, a song with the refrain, “I killed Billy but Billy wouldn’t die.” On the relative culinary merits of the local wildlife, caribou, says she, is more gamey than moose. And Newfie steak is just fine.

A retired railroadman in a red jacket, a regular named Melvin, recalls the good old days when he worked the stretch of line from Argentia to St. John’s. He remembers the days when the trains would leave Port aux Basques with five locomotives to carry 140 rail cars up the grades in the interior, but now there is no rail line in the province, and toward the end of his working days he helped to pull up the narrow gauge rail he worked all his life. They sold it to Chile for their coal mines.

If you visit St. John’s, chances are it will rain.

Rain pounds the pavement when the door opens. Here is Martin, a philosophy doctoral candidate, who helps us all handicap the prospects of the coming end of Western civilization, beginning with the then-imminent Brexit and followed by the elections of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and then the collapse of the EU. It sounds just possible.

The whales ought to be here in ten days, two weeks, and they will bring tourist dollars. Things are looking up. Hard to imagine how they couldn’t be after the howling wind and spitting showers of the night before. We won’t be here, but by Saturday they’re looking for nineteen degrees, proper basking weather again. Trouble is, it’s only Tuesday.

•••••

If you enjoy this excerpt from Out in the Cold, please go and get yourself a copy of the whole book. Here are a few other excerpty bits:

France in North America, Svalbard by Snowmobile, Naked and Freezing on Vatnajokull

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

Saksun, Faroe Islands

An excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold, exploring the tiny northern Atlantic archipelago called the Faroe Islands:

Five people live in Saksun now, way up at the end of Streymoy, 44 kilometers from Tórshavn on the far end of the island, at the end of the world. It’s one of a kind, a real find, but around here there’s one of a kind around every bend.

The air fills your chest so fresh it stings. The bay, the mists, the waterfalls that fill the hillsides, the pop-up rills after rain, everything in sight glittering, utterly pristine.

When Lars Gunnar Dehl Olsen was born in the 1990s, Saksun was home to 33. Tow-headed, lanky with a free range beard, Lars Gunnar stands in benevolent welcome at the end of the road. Which is also his farm.

For a time he rented a big white house from Johan Jogvonsson, a man in the “village.” There are more than enough houses in the village for five or 33, because some are summer cottages. Now, out here on the point Lars Gunnar and his wife will endeavor to raise sheep and to do their part to keep Saksun alive, having just bought their own freehold in paradise.

Lars Gunnar calculates that 600 sheep is the minimum to make a farm viable and he has 700. Would more be better? If he had more he would need many more, enough to hire a farmhand. Seven hundred is about all he can handle by himself.

It’s part of the old farm Dùvugarðar. Now a National Heritage Museum, its outbuildings – with turf roofs – recreate life in the old times. Today the museum stands tiny and deserted, locked tight, beside a hjallur, or curing house, those wooden, slatted buildings for air-curing skerpikjøt.

We can only peer through the museum windows at cooking pots and an iron tea kettle, a lambskin rug and a grandfather clock. There is bedding on bunks reminiscent of the tiny sleeping quarters at the Hanseatic League museum in Bergen, bunks much shorter than a grown man today.

Perhaps the Olsens’ role is as much cordial host as lonely farmer. In the space of our visit, ours and two other cars call at their farm, for here at the end of the road is a fine panorama.

One thing for sure, the Olsens are safe from Viking raids. Sand has made the mouth of the bay so shallow that these days it is navigable only by small boats at high tide.

People may be a bit sparse out this way but the Olsens can rest content in their surroundings. Saksun is just utterly gorgeous.

Saksun

The ground never dries. The sheep squish-step about and drink from pools surrounded by moss. (How do they not get hoof rot?)

Forests of pine, birch and aspen covered Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and even Iceland up to around 5,000 years ago, when the northern climate grew cooler and wetter. Land waterlogged and trees died off, replaced by peat-forming mosses that sealed in rainwater, furthering the wetness. I have read that peat accumulates at the rate of perhaps a meter a millennium.

There are not many trees in the Faroes so settlers burned peat for heat and cooking. Like their ancestors, villagers make roofs of sod. Early inhabitants did it because sod was ubiquitous – and free. They still do it today because it works.

Here is how they do it: The earth is cut to manageable one-foot squares three or four inches thick and applied two-ply, with the first square grass/moss-down and the second upright so that they grow together into one impermeable unit.

While there are boards underneath (or birch bark where there are birch trees), the weight of the sod, about 500 pounds per square yard, helps to compress the logs in log homes and that helps to reduce the draft inside.

•••••

Life was hard for settlers and it still isn’t easy, even here in gorgeous, glittering, scrubbed-clean Saksun. In his book Harvest, Jim Crace suggests the tenuousness of living on the edge of the world: “We do not press too closely to His bosom; rather we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just.”