Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The first glimpse of Svalbard was a couple of mountaintops poking through the dense cloud cover. Snow-capped and not very sharp, they looked like little islands in a sea of foam. Then we cut through the clouds and there it was: the bay off of Isfjord, the little hardscrabble town of Longyearbyen, and finally the airport.

It looks like Wyoming on the ocean. Uh, but with glaciers and no trees.

The first day, we took an open boat up the fjord, packed into our survival suits and looking through our goggles, the sea not terribly rough, the sky grey and low and looming, the cliffs beside us jagged and with a colony of murres diving and fishing all around. Abandoned mines and villages line the fjord, melancholy, beautiful in their ugliness. Then at last we came out from under the clouds, and the sea was suddenly deep blue, the sun intense, and we could at last see the tops of the mountains. The guide took us all the way out to the end of the fjord, to the old radio station, which has been converted into a lonely hotel, at the tip of nowhere.

"The problem is that during the spring and summer, the only way to get there is by boat," the guide, Klas, told us. "One time, I had to take people back to the airport in the middle of the night and the sea was so choppy, they threw up the whole way and had to get right on the plane soaking wet and exhausted."

(For some reason, there's only one flight a day in the afternoon, and the rest of the flights are at 3 and 4 and 4:30 a.m., depending on the day of the week.)

The next day - although it all seemed like one long day of course, with the sun rolling around the sky instead of rising and setting - we climbed up a high ridge overlooking the town. The clouds rolled in and rolled out, all ghostly and magical, and we drank water racing down from somewhere far above us. When we reached the top, with Longyearbyen spread out below us, and beyond that the bay and more mountains, I could barely look down.

"The reason we have to have guns," said our hiking guide, Marthe, with her rifle casually slung over her shoulder, "is because in 1996, two girls were climbing up over there- " she gestured to a high ridge on the other side of the town, "and they ran into a polar bear. One of the girls jumped over the side."

We - the husband and I, and the sea captain and the children's book author - gave a collective gasp.

"But she was the one who survived," Marthe said. "Just a few scratches. And now we always have to have guns outside the town."

"So the lesson is that if you run into a polar bear, jump over the cliff," the children's book author said.

Unfortunately, I would be the girl who got eaten by the polar bear. Jumping over a cliff is not something I could do.

We walked down the other side of the ridge, onto a glacier, avoiding the really wet spots, hopping over streams of icy water, picking our way through occasional piles of rocks and looking for fossils of leaf marks, and eventually making our way back to the car and the town of Longyearbyen.

The Swedish word for the day is ishavet. It means the arctic ocean.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The husband has been gone for over a week, and I'm getting punchy. I've distracted myself by going out to the country house of the children's book author and the sea captain, dinner with A. the TV producer and C. the fashion photographer, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, bad TV, work, Wikipedia (have you ever heard of silent film star Sessue Hayakawa, who was a kind of pre-Rudolf Valentino, making $5,000 a week playing heartthrobs? It seems early Hollywood was both more and less conventional in its tastes and portrayals than I ever imagined) and Youtube (how come no one ever told me before about Helen Kane?).

But enough is enough.

The husband comes back late tonight, and none too soon.

The Swedish word for the day is älskling. It means sweetie.

- by Francis S.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

When we arrived at the bus stop with the cat doctor and his boyfriend in tow, a group of fellow party-goers were already there. We were on our way out to the countryside for a Fifth of July party given by the children’s book writer and the sea captain, and everyone was thankful that the bus strike had ended that morning, just in time.

But then the bus never arrived. So we ordered three cabs to take us to land’s end, over three bridges and as far out in the Stockholm archipelago as one can drive, with Stockholm’s public transportation system footing the bill (how great is that?).

Things were well underway once we arrived, the hosts pressing drinks in our hands, the guests a wild mix of folk from lands near and far, the food vaguely or not-so-vaguely American, hamburgers and hotdogs and chocolate cupcakes with coconut frosting, everyone wiping their mouths with the American flag napkins.

Sometime late in the evening, hundreds of beers later, as I sat talking to a woman who is an agent for a bunch of small clothing labels in Stockholm, another woman who is one of the designers of the clothing labels came in and sat down next to us.

“My boyfriend just peed on 49 trees,” she said. “In one pee. He won.”

The clothing agent looked at me and gulped. We looked at the boyfriend in his long grey sweater and bangs hanging in his eyes.

“Ew! Didn’t you get pee all over your shoes?” she asked the boyfriend.

“Only half over them!” he said, laughing. “No, no, just joking.” Then he looked down at his shoes. “Well, half joking.”

In the morning, it turned out that something like 23 people slept over, including three roommates – two men and one woman – who had slept, wearing matching flannel pajamas, under a canopy set up outside.

We took the ferry back into town, everyone silent and worn out, the cat doctor and his boyfriend jet-lagged still and the husband terribly hung over from an excess of single-malt scotch.

Did you like it, I asked the cat doctor.

“Fun was had by all,” he said.

The Swedish phrase for the day is femte juli. It means Fifth of July.

by Francis S.