Old Bryggen is on the waterfront of Bergen, and it’s where the mediaeval German merchants and journeymen who ran the docks used to live and work in tall wooden warehouses, controlling the flow of grain coming in, and the tonnes of dried fish and fish oils going out. A peculiar, colonial existence, cut off from the Norwegians living around them and banned from marrying until they’d done their time in ship-like bunks with painted walls and tiny, stained windows and returned to Germany.
These days Bryggen is a world heritage site, and I was exploring its dark little back streets, full of poky artisan shops (including a pipemaker, which, to my disappointment, was closed), looking for a tiny museum of the Norwegian resistance in World War II. Appropriately enough I couldn’t find it. In one of the buildings was a tourist information office. As I walked into the hallway, a bell tinkled above the door. The door into the actual office was locked, but as I was turning to leave, a voice came from up the stairs.
‘Hello?’ It was a woman’s voice. I called back. ‘Come up and have a look’, said the voice.
So I climbed the stairs and came out in an artist’s studio, up in the loft of the old building. At one end a smiling, rounded lady in her fifties in a thick woollen cardigan was painting.
‘Just have a look around. You don’t need to buy anything. I’m Marianne. I have been painting up here for twenty-five years now, and I’ve been here longer than most of the others. I paint happiness up here.’
‘Are there other artists living round here too?’
‘Oh yes, but they don’t have discipline. It’s winter and it’s cold, so they don’t paint.’ I drifted down through the rows of canvases hanging on lines. They were bright, figurative pieces, part-painted, part-sewn, with patches of textiles, textured or metallic, stuck on. She was right, they were happy. Each one was signed in thread, Marianne L***. As I reached the far end of the room she came bustling down towards me.
‘Look, this is my favourite door. I have to close it in the winter, but in the summer it’s always open.’ She unbolted a small door, more like a window, at the end of the room, to reveal a sharp drop, and a pretty view down the slim, timbered street. I looked around a little longer, then went up the other end to see how she was putting her work together.
‘You see, sometimes I use a pen, but mostly I sketch the lines with my sewing machine.’ She gestured to an old Singer on the table.
‘And how do you start?’
‘With the material. The pieces of material. I have been making these works this way since I first left art school.’ Then she changed tack abruptly. ‘But now tell me something about you. Tell me what are you doing in your life?’
‘Well I left my job and I’m taking the boat North this evening to Kirkenes. Then I’ll see what I find when I get there and decide what to do next.’
‘It was boring, your job?’
‘No, not really. Just time for something new.’
‘I think that’s good. You’ve made a good choice. What are you looking for there?’
‘I don’t know. Whatever there is, I suppose.’
Marianne looked at her watch, then at her painting.
‘I’ve painted enough for today. Look, I’ve done this,’ she pointed to the painting of a lady that she was just finishing, ‘and this.’ She held up a still-damp picture of a clown. ‘Sit, please. Will you have a small glass of red wine?’ She pronounced it as if it was one word. I had an hour or so to kill before I needed to get my boat, so I sat down in a basket chair while Marianne found a clean glass and filled it from a foil bag.
‘I don’t often get people like you coming in. It’s always Japanese, with their cameras – click, click, click. Or the Germans, who still think they own this place. “Hanseatische” ha!’ It took me a moment to work out that she wasn’t talking about the war, but about the traders of the Hanseatic League, who built Bryggen, and who had ceased to exist, so the Lonely Planet informed me, some time in the 1700s.
I was still looking at the paintings. She gestured up at one of them.
‘My paintings always have lots of light, because I am painting for Bergen, and people in Bergen need light.’ She saw me smiling. ‘Seriously, they do. It rains almost every day here. People need to see some light.’
Marianne passed me a glass. She drank her own wine from a mug.
‘Cheers’, she said. ‘To Valentines day.’
‘To Valentines day.’
‘And are there no girls who are wanting to see you on Valentines day?’ she asked.
‘There might have been one, but I went away.’
‘You are young.’
We sat and chatted for a while. Marianne told me about her son, who was a psychologist in Sweden; her husband, a cartographer, out of work with the advent of the internet; her life trying to make a living as an artist and her teenage years spent growing up in Ethiopia, a time that had apparently instilled in her a deep hatred of missionaries, and fierce atheism.
‘I was never scared of flying until two weeks before I went home we started praying every morning that my plane wouldn’t fall out of the sky. By the time I flew I was terrified. Always religion makes no sense. Here in Norway at the moment everyone is angry because they want to let police wear the hijab. If you are police then you follow the rules of the police, not religion. Customs don’t mean anything. They make no sense.’
‘I watched a film last night’, announced Marianne, shifting direction again. ‘It was Apo… Capol… with Marlon Brando?’
‘Oh, Apocalypse Now?’ She nodded and made a face like she was about to spit a golf ball.
‘Wow. What a film. I looked down at my cat afterwards – I live just round the corner and have a beautiful black cat with yellow eyes – and she was staring at me, and I said “don’t you look at me like that”. I’ve never been to a jungle. I don’t want to if that’s what it does to you. It’s crazy.’
‘I went once.’ I told her about when Graham and I took a cargo boat down the Amazon to Iquitos, and about the place the rubber barons had built and the Casa de Fiero and Juan, the shaman we met. And the evangelist on the top deck who nurtured his cactus, hated his family because they swore and danced and looked at girls, and loved to fire off shotguns from the deck. And Belen, the floating shanty town. I couldn’t disagree with her.
‘I wonder’, said Marianne a little later, ‘What you think you will find in the North. I’ve been there. It’s dark and ice. And they drink a lot.’
‘I do too.’
‘A few weeks ago, I think, I was visited by two girls from the Ukraine. I remember one was a journalist, and the other one had trouble with men.’ I wondered if these two were the last to catch Marianne at the end of a day’s work and be invited to stay for a glass of wine. ‘These girls, it was whales they wanted to see. They were taking a boat right to the North, like you, then they were taking another one, and they were absolutely sure that they were going to see the whales. That was why they were going. What are you going to find? You must want something?’
‘Really I don’t know. Adventures, I don’t know what sort. I’ll see what there is when I get there.’
‘You really don’t know what you want!’ Marianne grinned with delight. ‘You know I think you are the strangest visitor I’ve had in a long time.’ She got up to fetch the wine and top me up. ‘I wonder if all you will find is yourself. You will think “Aha, this is me. I can see now I am somewhere different”.’
We talked a bit longer, then it was time for me to go and pick up my rucksack before I headed to the docks. Marianne ushered me over to a guest book.
‘People have written lots of nice things in here’, she said, turning back a leaf to reveal a couple of pages of insane scrawling. ‘Ah, apart from these. These were stupid drunk people’ – drunk at Marianne’s hand, I wondered? More small glasses of redwine? – ‘But further back people have written nice things.’ As I wrote, she sketched me a quick drawing on the back of one of her CVs, and folded it up. She wished me luck, and I descended tipsily from that strange little dreamland I’d stumbled into, up in the roofspace of an old wooden house.