Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Summer of ’63 (T-13, Scandinavia)

My son, who works in Oslo, was on his company’s short-list for a free trip to Svalbard/Spitzbergen last year, and was disappointed to miss out on visiting the most northerly town in the world. I was offered a free trip there myself, back in 1963, but I let the opportunity pass without regret. Ross’s journey would have been by air, both ways: mine by a fifteen-foot fishing smack that stank of old engine oil.

After marking my 24th birthday with a very quick dip in the harbour at Narvik just inside the Arctic Circle, I was ready to take on my next adventure. I flagged down a filthy little boat just heading out for the Lofoten Islands a couple of hours to the west.

The stench of the oil persuaded me to stay on deck the whole time. The prospect of sleeping below for seven nights in a row in the Arctic Ocean persuaded me to turn down the offer of a ride to Svalbard, a thousand miles away up near the North Pole. He probably survived the journey; I don’t think I would have.

Hitch-hiking along the western coast of Norway was mostly hiking, back then. Cars were scarce among the fisherfolk and farmers, in the days before deep-sea oil made the nation rich. I crossed into Sweden and back a couple of times, just for the fun of it, and spent one night inside a secret military area in the middle of Sweden, courtesy of a young couple whose family had a forest cottage there.

(Access to a family hytte in some isolated spot is a sacred Scandinavian privilege that outranks any and all military rules – although as a precaution I was asked to keep my head down while passing the guardpost.)

The highlight of the evening was the angry reaction of my hosts’ toothless old grandmother to being introduced to me. On the evidence of a recent TV documentary she knew that Australians were black people, and she felt insulted by her family’s attempt to pass me off as one of them. She sulked for most of the evening, but at least she didn’t betray me to the Swedish FBI or whatever.

In Helsinki an Aussie carpenter invited me to come with him to a job he had lined up south of Stockholm, where I signed on as a carpenter’s mate in a farm-home for autistic children. The next evening, Dr Ritter asked me to take the place of one of the housefathers who had been called away suddenly. If I’d stayed, my whole life had been different; but I’ve never been spontaneous. Ross would have stayed, which is why his life has been more exciting than mine.

So after my agreed three weeks I was on my way back to London, to a promised job with an accountancy firm. A week in Oslo rounded off my first Scandinavian adventure, sleeping on the floor of an apartment rented by the Australian speed-skating team. They were the only four boys in Australia in 1963 who a) knew how to race on ice and b) were willing to drift around Europe for a year and try to win races. The Australian Association had just enough money to pay their entry-fees, but they had to find their own food and lodgings.

Their greatest – indeed, their only – success to date had been beating the Luxembourg team into last place, in some German event. The more beers we drank, the funnier the story became. They had taken on board the classic advice on cross-country skiing: it’s best to begin with a small country.

In Oslo they worked on the dock as casual labourers, as I did during my stay with them. No formalities. We turned up, signed on, helped the cranes move cargo around for a few hours, and collected our wages in cash at the end of each day. Better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, they reckoned.