Seated on my couch in late May, 2020, reading about the EU’s effort to give citizens the opportunity to travel in safety, I think back to how spring looked to me in 2019. This time last year I was in Norway.
On the train I sat back and surrendered to the view outside: it took my breath away a second time. In the distance houses appeared like wooden miniatures scattered in a giant’s forest. Trees that stood in lines covering the mountains with a thick fur of fragrant green, dense and impenetrable, branches that shook lightly in the wind, the breathing of the planet.
I peered out the window and admired the colors of Spring, green and ocher and cobalt, snow still carpeting large areas of the Norwegian landscape. The lakes lay still, plenty of them frozen, only the edges had become liquid, small pools where families of ducks drifted in peace.
It is mid April, the beginning of the Easter holiday, and I am bound for the West Coast of Norway, first to Bergen, city of Hanseatic League history, then an Express Boat that will take me north along the rugged coast and until Askvoll, a town in the county of Sogn og Fjordane. From there, a short ride to my final destination: Dale, in Fjaler Kommune.
On the train I took notes of the places we passed through: Hønefoss , Nesbyen, Gol, Ål, Geilo. But it was the high plateau between Finse and Myrdal that dazzled me, the snow blanketing the hills as far as the eye could see. It is known as Hardangervidda.
Far into the distance I saw minuscule figures one behind the other, I thought they were deer or some other animal in the wild. “Those are Norwegians cross-country skiing,” said the woman seated next to me. “They love to come here to ski.”
An hour before arriving in Bergen, the train stopped in Voss, well known for its convenient bus connections with the ski resorts of Bavallen and Myrkdalen, and with the town of Gudvangen where cruises leave on tours to the Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord, travelers returning in awe by the majestic and narrow views.
Hikers got off, others found their seats, and the train crept forward. Not far from the station, stood the Fleischer Hotel with its Swiss-style facade from the late 1800’s. In 1864, Fredrik Lyth Ørum Fleischer found the spot where he wanted to build his hotel, a high mound overlooking the Voss basin framed by the rippled body of the mountains.
At the Bergen train station I turned around and gazed at the mountains once more before walking into the city and towards Bryggen, the set of old colorful houses standing next to one another and facing the harbor.
The city was bustling with life in the streets. Groups of children seated on the steps of a monument licked ice creams, couples hand in hand strolled and took their time for window shopping. Others just sat on benches their heads tipped back, sunglasses on, and enjoying the warmth. I walked by the statue of Ole Bull, a violinist who was considered the Paganini of the north by Robert Schumann, and also that of XVII century humanist and philosopher, Ludvig Holberg, both of whom were born in Bergen. Standing in front of Holberg’s statue I flashed-back to my teenage years when I bought an old CD of Edvard Grieg, also from Bergen, at a flea market. On the CD, Grieg’s piano concerto -one of my favorites- came after the “Suite From Holberg’s Time”, and I never knew who that man Holberg had been.
The Norled Express Boat ride from Bergen to Askvoll was placid, almost no waves during the 3-hour trip. Outside the Nordic sky hung open like an kite and the afternoon sunlight poured into the cabin at an angle, oblique beams of April bliss lighting up the profiles of those who dug their nose into a Norwegian hotdog, or the parents who fought a chronic fatigue while their children napped in their prams.
The ferry stopped at several points along the coast of the Hordaland County: Knarvik, Lygra, Leirvåg, Mjømna, and some islands before reaching Askvoll, a town in the municipality of the same name. On the pier, I was greeted by Margrete Reisæter, from the Jakob Sande Association. The reason for my trip was to spend a few days in the house where one of Norway’s most beloved poets, Jakob Sande, and his family lived. The Jakob Sande Association hosts poets and novelists from Norway and abroad to come to the West Coast and get acquainted with the local culture, go on hikes and spend time close to nature.
The 20-minute car ride from Askvoll to Dale follows a scenic road that skirts along the last section of the Vilnesfjord and enters the Dalsfjord. By the time we arrived in Dale dusk was falling, the colors in the sky beginning to change.
I stepped out of the car and heard two seagulls brawling on a rooftop, their beaks pointing upwards as if complaining to the sky, their wings flapping. Beyond them stood the mountains of the Fjaler Municipality.
Fjaler, with a population of a little under 3,000 inhabitants, dons nonetheless a very international profile with The Red Cross Nordic United World College, one of the seventeen United World Colleges whose mission is to promote international understanding and peace, as well as the Nordic Artists’ Centre (NKD). The NKD is funded by the Norwegian Ministry Of Culture, and each year receives thousands of applications from visual artists, designers and architects living all over the world.
I dropped off my bags and tried to relax after the long trip, found a comfortable armchair in the living room. The house is just one of several constructions in a large domain known as the Klokkargarden, or The Farm of the Parish Clerk. Both, Jakob Sande’s grandfather and father, worked as teachers and parish clerks. A few meters to the south of the main living quarters, one can find the Bestefarsstaua, of the Grandfather’s Cabin, painted in ocher, where on December 1st 1906, Jakob Sande was born to Andreas and Ragna Margrethe Sande.
In the living room I found some of the letters he sent during his 1932 trip to America on a ship — the sea had always called him. In Seattle he describes standing at The Norway Hall and chatting with a handful of Norwegians who had immigrated to the US earlier in the XX century, and who missed their home country. In Peru he recounts enjoying a glass or two of Pisco. All of these letters were published in the newspaper Dagbladet.
One afternoon I went for a jog and only a few meters away from the house, I heard the sound of drums and a trumpet playing in syncopated rhythms. Across from Dale’s church, there’s the cabin where Jakob Sande’s father built a bath with a sauna, which now has been converted into a small music studio where bands from the area can come here to practice.
I headed south and took Nikka Vonen’s Veg. A few meters into my jog I stopped at a monument to learn that Nikka Vonen’s school was the first secondary school in Fjaler, opening in 1863 as a boarding school for girls. Nikka ran the school for 43 years until 1906. The school gain fame and students from all over Norway used to come here. They revered Nikka Vonen.
After a short tour southward following the Big River (Storelva) I returned to Klokkargarden and had to stop in the middle of an open field to admire the mountain across the fjord, which looked to me like a boxer who’s been beaten up and struggles to get up, his back arched in the effort.
I took a quick shower and sat in the living room with a small glass of wine. Each room on the second floor has been named after a poem by Jakob Sande. The living room’s name is “Etter Ein Rangel” or After A Booze. Sipping from my glass I sat where he must have sat and read his words:
I will never howl songs when I’m drunk on cheap wine,
but sing spiritual songs at the chapel of Zion,
No one will ever see me again as late night approaches,
sauntering on my way home without coat and hat,
I will go to bed when the pig goes to rest in his pigsty,
and get up when the cockerel flaps his wings and crows in the morning sun,