On the Fjords


Our Daily Correspondent

Fritz Grebe, Blick in den sommerlichen Hardanger Fjord, 1881.

About an hour into the boat ride, I went below deck to buy two cups of hot chocolate. It was chilly and I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, but I didn’t want to miss anything.

The fjord was unearthly beautiful. It felt counterproductive in every way to try to capture anything with a camera—scale, color, grandeur—or impose yourself on the landscape, although admittedly, no one else on the deck seemed to feel this way. There was a view from the cabin, too, of course, but it wasn’t quite the same. 

When I tried to pay for my cocoa, we found—the steward and I—that the system had gone offline, which sometimes happens. The steward was a tall man with a very thin face and wire-rimmed spectacles. I told him I would fetch some cash, but he said, “There is no rush. Take your drink now, and then pay me before the end of the trip.” I thanked him and carried the paper cups of hot chocolate to the upper deck, where I gave one to my new husband.

I was eager not to forget the payment, though. Once, my new husband tried to go down and pay him, but the steward wasn’t there. We went down again some time later, together, and gave him the 170 kroner we owed. We asked him: How deep is the fjord? What are these stone walls for? Grazing? No—the animals grazed in the mountains; the grass had provided their winter feed, back when people lived along the fjords year-round.

We would have gone right back on the deck, but the steward came out from behind the counter to talk to us some more. He told us about the hardscrabble lives of the people who had lived in these small towns: harsh terrain, rough soil, the occasional root vegetable. No roads or trains—although there had been far more boat traffic. He pointed to a small gathering of buildings—the remains of a village, he said, where people had lived to be very old—over a hundred—maybe due to the quality of their drinking water.

He told us about a village that had been made a UNESCO heritage site. The inhabitants wanted the protection status revoked so they could renovate their homes as they pleased. But still, it had been good for tourism and some younger people were coming back.

We could see the sublime landscape sliding past outside the window. We sat down; the steward sank to his haunches beside us.

Now, of course, he continued, it was mostly summer people here, if they came at all. But here—and he pointed again at the far-off edge of land—here one couple still lived, the last holdouts from a onetime community.

“They are what you would call … special people,” he said, tapping his head. Did that mean they were intellectually disabled? No, he said, that was not what he meant. “They are just very simple,” he said. “They can only live this life. They have always been there, and they married when they were seventeen. If you put them in a city, or even a bigger town, they could not live.”

The couple acted as caretakers for summer peoples’ homes. They fished. And once a week, this boat dropped off mail, and the crew checked on them. Once, the steward said, the man had not come down as usual to meet them. They blew the horn, and still he didn’t come. They disembarked, he and the captain, and climbed the slope up to the couples’ house. And the man was there, very caught up in a football match.

“How old are they?” we asked.

“Forty, perhaps,” he said.

Outside, our fellow passengers were clustering together under red fleece blankets. Some had proper cameras, although most of them were using iPads or phones.

And what about him? Was he from nearby? No, from farther north. His village, he said, was small, too. “Forty-six, when the captain and I are not there,” he said. The youngest resident is six; the eldest, ninety-five. The ninety-five-year-old has a ninety-one-year-old wife. She has dementia, but her husband insists on caring for her himself. The problem is that she’s quick and limber, and when she gets out, she is hard to catch. “Even for younger people,” he said. “Because she was a farmer’s wife, she is fast and she knows the trails. I could not catch her. She runs up to the pasture of the farm where they lived; she thinks it is always summer.”

This town, he said, was near the North Pole. “I like to tell children that I can see the hairs of Santa Claus’s butt,” he said. He made this crossing four times a day. “And now we are here,” he said, as we pulled in.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.