Monday, September 3, 2012

NORWEGIAN WOOD and corrugated iron

The Viking loop of the Norrőna was to take us from Lerwick in Shetland to Bergen in Norway, then down the coast to Hanstholm in northwest Denmark, and back to Bergen to travel west through Yell Sound in the Shetland Islands, on to Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands and across to Seyðisfjörður in Iceland; and back again to Lerwick. It had always been a dream to experience just a small part of these Viking lines and to see Morris’s fabled Iceland. 


The shipping brochure had detailed this schedule for the trip. Seyðisfjörður? Where was this place? One wondered why Reykjavík was not the destination. Was there another main centre on Iceland that was the ferry link to Europe? The Lonely Planet travel guide was purchased and the map was searched. What was the spelling of this town? There, that looks like it. The English eye is not used to interpreting these combinations of symbols. Tucked away at the end of a deep fiord high on the fretted east coast were the letters that looked like Seyðisfjörður. Mmmm.  Hows does one pronounce this? The English eye gets no clues as to how the mouth should form the sounds. But, one wondered, what gave this eastern location its significance to become the terminus for the Norrőna? Flicking through the guide to the page referenced in the index, the section opened up with the depressing title: ‘The Empty East.’ Gosh, where were we going? Nowhere?

The wonder of seeing a landmass appearing from the spacious void of the ocean’s horizon is always astonishing, mesmerizing. Folk come onto the deck to experience this mystery, to just stand and watch this materialization from foggy haze into terra firma. The approach to Iceland was as icy as it was compelling; bewildering. Out of the freezing, dense fog, the haze intensified until one realized that it was solid, that it held weight: stability and mass. But the expectation that this apparent illusion would change into some familiar image of land as place, a habitation, kept being delayed. Just what was one looking at? White striated mountains banded with what finally came to be understood as ancient geological depositions eventually escaped the haze to become a dazzling white, massive massif that looked similar to, but more solid than the mist. Unbelievably, the white mass got more and more immense as the ship sailed on in. Where was this fiord? A tiny fold in the distant forms seemed to suggest the aim of the ship’s trajectory.

There was no indication of size or scale. There was only a flat wall of white with shaped tops to suggest mountains. One could admire the markings of these moulded monsters that made land, but where were the towns, the villages: anything? Where was the mythical Seyðisfjörður? Then the eye caught a darker speck that seemed oddly out of character with the remainder of the markings. A glimpse through the camera’s telephoto lens showed this spot to be a lighthouse with what one assumed to be the keeper’s residence nearby. What?! It can't be. No. It is so tiny. How big are these mountains?

A finer difference in scouring lines made the eye look closer as the ship maneuvered into what was once just a distant crevice in the white mass. A road. One could track the line along the contours and, yes, it was a road. It had an organization that made it different to that of the geological lines. It showed a purpose, a resolve, a determination that these other scores lacked. It joined things.

One could pick out another cottage; then another.   Oh! a moving cottage - no, a car. Then a few more specks: people? No, larger: houses - a tiny, oh so tiny, cluster than must have been a somewhat substantial settlement. Was this Seyðisfjörður? A glance down and along the fiord that we had entered gave no indication that we were close to any destination. We kept moving in and along. Where was this place? The twisting fiord narrowed as the jaws of the mountains gained their grip each side of the icy cold, dark depths. How close were we going to get to these rock faces? One could envisage the subterranean profiling by extrapolating the continuation of the steep slopes either side into the deep. It was indeed deep. Then a larger building appeared nearby; a factory? There are people. Boats: a fish factory? The final twist was accompanied by the sounding of the foghorn, joyously declaring our arrival to what looked like a Wild West sprawl of buildings scattered around the closed end of the fiord framed by an avalanche of mountains. Seyðisfjörður! Cripes! Yes, the empty east; and we have to spend two days here. Hell on earth; nothing: well, nothing but a substantial new concrete dock, all freshly lined like a runway with directional diagrams, and now speckled with workers waiting lazily to tie up, link, unload, check and organize the disembarkation. This weekly visit must provide the locals with a regular opportunity for employment in this bleak backwater. There seemed to be little else here. One could only try to make the best of what seemed to be a hopeless cause. Two days!

We left the Norrőna, a remarkable ‘box’ ship with a sweetly sculptured bow, wondering just how it managed to float. After passing through customs - a friendly man at a doorway - we walked over the curving lines of the dock towards the scattered houses. As one got closer to the homes, the colours caught the eye as well as the quaint details. Small windows with delicate hinges all carefully framed with oversized, decorative architraves and small, neatly detailed, water-shedding hoods, displayed pretty lace curtains, homely knickknacks and flowers, indicating the delicacies of home and a contented lifestyle. Frequently the surrounding mountains and other buildings were reflected in the glazing. The surprise was that most of the walls, like the roofs, were corrugated iron, with the corrugations positioned vertically. A few walls were slatted timbers, again positioned vertically. Doors were boldly surrounded in decoratively shaped, contrasting borders just like the windows. Blue and white, and red and white: the patterns reminded one of Norway. Then one noticed more variations of the same theme: windows turned into diamonds; circles; beautifully painted and well maintained timber details. A cat. Where were the people?

An old man stopped and looked, asking almost as a lament, “Do you speak English?” “Yes.” His eyes brightened. He wanted to chat. His daughter had moved here to teach some years ago, and he had followed her. It seemed that few regularly spoke English here, that he was lonely. This pretty little blue and white place was his home. He had learned a little Icelandic. “How does one pronounce Seyðisfjörður?” The English-trained ear struggles to capture the making of the sound with sufficient clarity so as to reproduce it with any accuracy. The tongue tried, but sounded tired. But he was happier using his native language. It must have reminded him of home, of homely, ‘old country’ comforts. He told of how these houses had thick insulation, and explained that they were Norwegian prefabs that had been shipped over by the fishermen in the early 1900’s. They were, apparently, wonderfully comfortable to live in, as was Seyðisfjörður. Here old folk were cared for with a weekly ration of fish. Folk cared for folk.

We moved on, even though the whole day could easily have passed listening to his continuous chatter. We passed more homes, then shops, all of the same ilk, most clad in painted corrugated iron. A hotel: a beautiful little place that had an almost shambles quality in its presence - a pleasant wonder in corrugated iron. Turning the corner one discovered a road that became an axis - a promenade - that led to a church. A closer inspection revealed this to be yet another beautifully detail corrugated iron cladding. This pale blue and white edifice stood proudly closing the vista, giving this random organization of settlement some precise organization, transforming this cheap, common shed-cladding material into something mystical - ephemeral but substantial.

The eye began to see sense in this ad hoc array of simple parts that made buildings gather into a village. In the same way, one warmed to the place and its wonderful structures: Norway, but Iceland; basic but not bland. The Lonely Planet was right. This is a very attractive place. It was described as the prettiest, most colourful village in Iceland. It was a real wonder. There were over fifty Norwegian prefabs in a variety of sorts and sizes, all in excellent condition. Far from being bored and wondering just what one might do in two days, it was discovered that this little gem of a village could keep one entranced for ages. We strolled around admiring: the buildings; the details; the juxtapositions. Wonder after wonder appeared. The community hall, the church; the manse; the homes; the government offices; the factory - they were all timber prefabs, with the majority clad in corrugated iron. The place entranced. The transformation of the ordinary was complete. Only the Norrőna, berthed in the center of the village appeared out of place - huge.


Later in the afternoon we organized a trip over the mountains to nearby Egilsstaðir. It was promoted in the Planet as the largest town in the east, its’ capital, lying beside a large waterway with its own airport. We were dropped off at the Caltex petrol station on the edge of town while the driver collected the mail. The petrol station just like those everywhere, complete with familiar international Caltex graphics; but this one was still carrying the old promotion: put a tiger in your tank! We arranged to be picked up in the hour, walked up the road along what truly looked and felt like a Wild West outpost, walked back and waited.

Seyðisfjörður was indeed more colourful and attractive. Its’ isolation semeed to protect it from the commercial quality that Egilsstaðir suffered from - the disease of the west. Seyðisfjörður was still innocent - nearly. Driving back one could see how this itny village tucked itself deep into the fold of dangerous slopes, ones that had indeed been problemmatical. A monument to those killed by an avalanche stood near the church. Looking up, one could see the barriers that had been installed to try to prevent this catastrophe from recurring. It seemed that Seyðisfjörður had something that must be worth fighting for, for folk to want to stay there. One could sense it, indeed, see it.

Shopping at the local store, the community centrepiece that was also the village petrol station, one engaged with locals. The middle-aged man clearly communicated the advantages of eating the dried fish that were being looked at, with his thrusting bent arm, bright, winking eyes and his grunts. Gestures can easily overcome the language barrier, as can humour. The surprise was that the faces of these people all looked familiar. One had the sense that one had seen these folk before, even though this was a first-time visit. Was this the Viking heritage? The pure genes of Iceland?

So our time at Seyðisfjörður was much enjoyed. Every minute was fruitful, truthful, nothing was wasted; nothing caused any of the expected frustration hypothesized when first seeing this place on arrival. We were never bored. Each turn revealed a new delight in the Norwegian wood detailing of the ‘Ikea,’ corrugated iron housing - the original flatpacks? The place was alive and busy in its own gentle, modest and quiet manner. It was like a living museum, but in no way apologetic or backwards-looking. It merely had the benefit of buildings that were beautifully designed, durable and comfortable, that could still shelter and accommodate all of this century’s delights with their own, and easily incorproate all of the little things that make life so rich. The windows were the public display of a pleasant and enjoyable village lifestyle that could admire this beautiful part of Iceland - even if the tourist guide consoiders it to be empty. It is full, full of the most beautiful buildings in the world, not only because they are pretty, colourful and unpretentious, but also because they are so much loved and are able to still efficiently shelter this love and life in this remote part of our world, generating a simple, homely contentment, an emotion that seems so elusive in the buzz of commerce that grips other busier and larger places that are always only pulsing, pushing for profits and competing for prestige.

NOTE: 29 October 2014

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