Sunday, December 30, 2007

In the shadow of the Sun

God hasn’t spoken to me yet, but this was the closest I’ve ever felt His presence. Looking skyward at a Nordic nightscape awakening to the gentle touch of summer, I was transfixed by the stunning magnificence of a quiet explosion of a river of translucent green, coursing across the night sky, shimmering and cascading in a divine dance of luminous ecstasy; and then just as suddenly, it stopped.

It was as if the heavens had parted for a magical moment, to reveal a glorious cosmic waltz, and just as one was about to surrender to its splendour, closed its doors on you, as if to say “more of it when you get here.” But if you happen to live at the end of the world (which is where I probably was), the gods have a way of compensating for all the loneliness and gloom with fairly regular display of auroral brilliance to make up for all the dark days spent in the shadow of a pole shy sun. But I’m getting ahead of my story…

I had entered Norwegian airspace in a tiny Air France plane that had dropped me off at Bergen Airport. From the moment I stepped out of the airport, I was like a voyeur at the beach, staring at the symmetry and balance of the city’s architecture, offset beautifully against the gorgeous fjords that surround it. It was all I could do to keep my jaw from scraping Bergen’s cobbled streets. The only dampener though was the weather, for it rains 360 days a year here and this day was no different. In spite of the steady drizzle though, it was fairly warm. So throwing caution and umbrella to the winds, I plunged in.

I started with Torget, the city’s fish market – a throwback to the markets of yore, where village merchants would gather at a town square and trade both goods and gossip. I’d never have known, if not for Torget, that fish aren’t just fish but they are either perch or pike, cod or mackerel, and so on…. One of the stalls had a huge fish, the size of a small man, and while I was staring at it in amazement, I heard a deep, muffled voice, “There’s a holy butt!” I turned around, half expecting to see a naked priest involved in some quasi Christian ritual, but couldn’t find anyone who could’ve seemed even remotely holy ‘anything’.

“Holy Butt?!” exclaimed a female voice this time. “Ja! Ja!”, said the man, “…Holy Butt!!” I looked around desperately for both voice and vision, before finally locating the rumour-mongers – a pretty blonde girl and right next to her was a grizzly bear, standing upright in a sailor’s cap. On closer examination, the bear seemed to become human, little by painful little. ‘Grizzly’ was pointing at the ‘giant fish’, and then he said it again, “Holy Butt!” and it was then that I spied a little plastic tag that read ‘H-A-L-I-B-U-T’.

With a smile, I walked over to the odd couple and introduced myself. “Hei! Goddag? (No, it isn’t American for disciplined canine behaviour, but Norwegian for how do you do?) Beautiful weather, or what?!” ‘Grizzly’ looked up at the rain, while ‘Goldilocks’ eyed me suspiciously, and then they both smiled. “Hei! I’m Arne”, said the bear, “...and this is my niece, Maria.” We got along like a herd of reindeer, walking and talking along the harbour, past stalls selling fish, reindeer antlers, seal skins, arctic fox-tails, and the disturbing sight of mountainous mounds of smoked Minke whale meat.

Incidentally, Norway, along with Iceland and Japan, has become a global pariah of sorts for stubbornly refusing to give up whale hunting. And the Norwegians are very sensitive to criticism on this count. Big Arne was far too big, Maria far too pretty, and I far too lonely, for what promised to be a messy argument so I held back with regret.

After that evening, I left for Oslo, the city that inspired and hosted Henrik Ibsen’s immortal plays. Then, I travelled north by road under the brilliant skies from the beginning of our story and there, all alone, I remembered Arne’s parting words “beyond the McDonald’s and the Mercedes on our streets, beyond these fjords and mountains, in remote villages, old-timers still fear evil trolls in our forests and still believe that we are at the centre of the universe and that the Sun does a very poor job of revolving around the Earth. We are a strange lot,” and then with a smile, “but a beautiful and great country!” And I realised that no matter where I go, I’ll always find a little bit of home everywhere. Step out.. and you’ll find out… Merry Christmas.

Norway all the way!

It’s not for nothing that Norway is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun. You can call it ‘Norway Shining’, and the moniker would be richly deserved this time. And Norway has been shining for a long time, ever since oil was discovered in the North Sea in late 1960’s and the first oil well came online in 1971. With a population of just over 4.7 million and currently third highest production of crude oil in the world (After Russia and Saudi Arabia) Norway is swimming (not drowning) in oil wealth. But admirably it has managed to avoid all the other ills associated with easy money supplied by oil. Corruption is almost non-existent, its people are amongst the most productive in the world and its one of the most equal (comparatively) societies in the world, and also one of the richest. No wonder then, that Norway had occupied the first position for five consecutive years (2001 to 2006) on the UNDP Human Development Index. Although it slipped to second place in 2007, it is an example of how a model society should be.


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