Saturday, June 18, 2005

To Geiranger, On Vowels

Sunday, June 12

I’d seen the photos, heard the raves about Norway’s beauty. Photos aren’t adequate. They either fail to capture the scale or have been so “art-ified” as to be unbelievable. Words are even less satisfactory, but that’s what a blog has. What I write may not show you much, but it may tell you something: GO! See it — whatever or wherever “it” is for you — for yourself. Sooner is better.

My charming, strong, handsome and gentle cousin Mark David Stevermer died this week of liver cancer. The fact that he was in his 50’s is just numbers: he ran marathons. By Stevermer standards he should have had another 35 to 40 years. He was not long married, for the first time, and happy.

For the Marks of the world, see and do all you can while you can. The Study Travelers in Norway this month are ages 17 to 83. The St. Olaf musicians are 18 to 24. That’s the ticket! Start early; stay late.

Here’s my stab at words about Norwegian landscape:

Through two weeks of mostly grey days, when the sun appears, it’s mostly as a top light, illuminating high-mountain snow. Or it’s a spotlight turning to gold and green one distant farm or one swath of pine trees. If the sun is ever direct, it’s fleeting. sending a shaft of light down the mountainside and then letting it fade into green anonymity.

The sun is now golden, then pink or orange. It’s always present somewhere. Even when it briefly dips below the horizon, it sends enough light to make the darkest state just a dusky blue.

Blue and grey water in the fjords occasionally breaks out in sparkles when the sun quickly kisses it before promiscuously flitting away to another suitor.

I’d heard about the fjords and mountains, but the waterfalls took me by surprise. For once, “ubiquitous” fits. They pelt down mountains along any craggy pathway they find or create, then over sudden sheer drops into the fjord below or onto the road we travel.

Riding in a coach on perilous switchback roads, I’d expected gasps from people who looked too far out and down. Not so. The gasps were for the waterfalls around nearly every bend. They’ll be boring white slashes on my photos. In my memory’s eye, they are the unstoppable bringers of life from barren mountaintop to tree line and farm and fjord below.

Some waterfalls race into rocky rivers. Others lose their steam in what soil there is. As they slow, they turn dull grey slate to glistening black. The briefest bit of sunlight turns spray off the rocks into a momentary shower of diamonds.

The snow atop the mountains is often thick and smooth as royal icing, bright white shifting to grey and back as cloud shadows drift across. In other places, it looks like white paint spilled and spattered at random.

A wide, diffuse rainbow linked one mound of mountain to another across a wide valley. It was just the warm up. When we reached the ferry that would carry us, coach and all, to Geiranger, we had time to walk through the village and onto the ferry. But not before several of us spotted the half arch of a full-color rainbow that linked the side of the mountain to the surface of the fjord. Magic.

And we hadn’t even seen the best yet.

Geiranger Fjord
The boat trip through the Geiranger fjord is custom made for tourists. The taped spiel is in Norwegian, German, English and Japanese. Das macht nichts.

It was windy, sunny and cold on deck, and you couldn’t have dragged us off of it for anything.

From the largish ferry, we were dwarfs staring in awe as the towering scene changed with every turn through the fjord. Each revelation made jaws drop lower (Okay, some were kind of clenched in the cold…). But you must cast eyes on each scene again and again. Each looming giant, each sweep of forest, each capped peak changes as the light, shadow, clouds and sun shift constantly.

Norway taught me to look at every vista multiple times to see all its personalities, like a child calling, “Look at me, Mom!” “Look at me now, Mom!” “Look again, Mom…”

Norwegian Vowels and Baptisms
On a coach ride, we practiced Norwegian’s extra vowels: ø, å and æ. At the closing seminar, Mark Smith said he learned the real Norwegian vowels on the Geiranger fjord: ooh and ahh. Right you are, Mark!

Mark, claiming one quarter Norwegian heritage, “became a Viking” on this trip. He and others claim to have taken a midnight dip in the fjord/lake in Snåsa. They say they have the photos to prove it. Huff! Det var kaldt!